And that’s about as far as many Christians go in their analysis of economics. Some will look for examples of their premises. They’ll find a corrupt businessman who schemed his way through insider trading into bankrupting his company to line his pockets*. They’ll find a CEO who makes fifty million dollars a year and call it greed and corruption. His employees don’t make that much! They’ll assume that profits are driven by greed, coming at the expense of someone else, so that non-profits must be preferred to corporations.
The argument is flawed. Not in its reasoning, but in the premises. Christianity indeed teaches that greed is evil and anyone who would contradict this would contradict Christianity. But, despite the popularity of the opinion that capitalism is based on greed or somehow rewards it, the opinion is false. Not only false, but dangerous.
In a world of scarce resources which have alternative uses (to quote Thomas Sowell), we must have some sort of economic system in place. Of the many questions that we could ask about economics, the most important one is: Which system is best allocates these scarce resources? And by “best”, we mean, which one moves them to where the demand for them is highest. That is, in which system do we least feel the fact of scarcity? We must answer all other questions by the light of the answer to that one.
Today, I want to start a series of posts on economics and their relationship to the Christian religion. These will be informal essays. I’m not trained in economics, though I read books about economics as others might read fiction: for fun.
Many Christians have strange beliefs about revelation. They’ll say that the Bible is the total sum of truth, that nothing outside of Scripture is true, or that the Bible is the ultimate source of knowledge on all topics.
These things are all clearly false. The Bible doesn’t contain the statement “the Bible is the total sum of truth”, and it would need to if that statement were true. Canada is north of the United States, yet the Bible doesn’t say so. The Bible doesn’t say anything about how to program a thermostat. If it were the ultimate source of knowledge on all topics, that would include the thermostat in your house.
All truth is God’s truth. That doesn’t mean all truth needs to be revealed by divine revelation. Some truth does, but we can learn a lot of things from observation and reason, both of which are given to us by God, who expects us to use them. The sort of divine revelation we have in Scripture is called “special revelation”. The sort of revelation we have access to by our senses and our reason is called “general revelation”. Scripture acknowledges general revelation throughout. In most passages, it even presumes it. Romans 1 is particularly clear about it.
The point is while we need to consult the Bible for what God says about economics, money, greed, and work, we also need to bring our knowledge about the world in as well, to understand what we should really believe. The Bible is not an economics textbook. The point of the Bible is not to tell people which system they should use to efficiently move scarce resources with alternative uses.
No one in history would have thought of the Bible as an economic textbook, either. Some books (Leviticus and Deuteronomy) may contain entire legal systems, but even they don’t read like textbooks, describing economics generally and then comparing competing systems. Beyond those books, no other portion of the Bible is given to the purpose of creating an entire civilization, and so economic ideas are mentioned incidentally everywhere else.
Good hermeneutics (interpretation) of Scripture begins by understanding the genre of each book, the intended audience of each book and how they would have understood it, and the meaning the author was attempting to convey. Every passage must be kept in context while attempting to figure these things out. The first task will be to find the passages that deal with economic principles (no matter how broadly). The second will be to apply a good interpretation to those passages.
So what does the Bible say?
Economics in the Bible
While the Bible isn’t a book about economics, it has a lot to say about money and economies. The passages which speak about money can be divided into a few groups.
Greed is Evil
Luke 12:15 says Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”
And 1st Corinthians 6:10 says “…nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”
It’s important to define greed, since the term can be ambiguous and is open to abuse. It is not greedy to want to acquire wealth to support a family. It is not greedy to think wealth is good or important.
In fact, greed is not a desire for wealth in the first place. Greed is intense, selfish, and unbalanced desire. It views the acquisition of wealth as an end in itself. Greed views wealth as more important than it really is. It’s the opposite of generous. Poor and rich people alike can be greedy, just as they can both be generous. This is a very important clarification, as will be seen.
Wealth is a Reward
For those who work diligently, wisely, and fairly, wealth comes as a natural reward. Proverbs 10:4 says “Lazy people are soon poor; hard workers get rich.”. Many other proverbs echo this: Proverbs 13:11, 14:23, and 20:13 for example. These passages and those like them show that wealth acquired dishonestly will usually disappear.
Proverbs 21:17 hints at a fundamental truth about wealth: that the actions and character which tend to make someone wealthy tend to be good things, while evil actions and bad character tend to make someone poor. These aren’t universal, but they are typical and reliable.
Money Must be Handled Justly
James 5:4 says “Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.”
When you owe people money for work they do for you, you are obligated to pay them. And if you have worked for someone else for a wage, they are obligated to pay you. Passages like this must be taken in proper context. The preceding verses, when used in isolation, appear to condemn wealth altogether, but verse four makes it clear that what is condemned is failure to pay wages, not wealth.
Generosity is good and stinginess is bad. To act justly with money, we need to be generous with what we have.
There are hundreds of verses about money in Scripture, but they broadly fit into the three groups above. Money must be handled justly and wisely, wealth is often a reward, and greed is always evil. But how do we bring these principles together? What kinds of conclusions can we draw from these raw materials?
First, wealth is good. Often given as a reward, it is used to alleviate suffering, feed hungry people, and free our time to pursue things beyond survival.
Second, wealth is dangerous. Those who are wealthy can be tempted by their wealth to do evil things. They can hide from the reality of their own mortality, they can trust in riches, and they can imagine their wealth to make them better than those who don’t have as much as they do. Importantly, this seems to be a universal human problem. There aren’t intrinsically “wealthy people” and intrinsically “poor people”, such that a poor man wouldn’t be tempted in the same way if he won the lottery. In fact…
Third, wealth is usually acquired as a result of doing good. Many of the wealthiest people we can read about in Scripture acquired their wealth by diligently working and they learned to handle the increases of wealth little by little. It’s not unlikely that if they acquired their wealth suddenly, they’d have squandered it. Wealth tends to come to those who are capable of handling.
There’s a problem here. It’s almost a contradiction. Most people hold it in the back of their minds and never resolve it:
- Wealth (often) comes to those who do good things
- Wealth (often) tempts those who have it to do evil things
How do we resolve this? If wealth is good and God gives it as a reward, doesn’t that mean He then tempts us? If wealth is good, why does it cause evil? Is it a cycle where good people work hard, are rewarded, and become evil people?
We can’t answer these questions or this apparent problem without understanding economics and the history of economic ideas. Why do I say that? Part 2 coming soon!
* One of the most well-known insider traders is the patriarch of the Kennedy family. One of the great ironies about economic corruption is that the party which bemoans free trade the most is the one most often involved in the corruption of free trade.