July 12, 2019
Faith and Business
The church historically, though unintentionally, has demonstrated a knack for depreciating the vocations of the laity. Well, perhaps not all vocations of the laity. The church has routinely blessed vocations like the helping professions, medicine, and education, especially if they are in the not-for-profit realm. But the church sometimes has appeared ambivalent, at best, toward the vocations of those folks whose business is, well, business. I find this troubling, since the overwhelming majority of Christians I know are working in the business world to make a living.
The problem the church has with business has as much to do with an ignorance of economics as a flawed theology of vocation. When pastors and theologians begin talking about economic matters, I often cringe, not only because of their lack of knowledge in the fields of financial and economic matters, but because of the thinness of their theological reflections. Usually such conversations reflect little more than the individual’s biases dressed up in theological language to dress down someone else’s interests.
As a theologian, I have found it enormously helpful to avail myself of good economic writing by people who know the field. There’s no better periodical in this regard than The Economist. It is the one magazine I read every week. The Wall Street Journal and the business section of The New York Times can help us see not only the trees, but also the forests of financial issues. In the past couple of years, friends also have funneled some useful books my way. I will mention just a few.
In a bookstore in Oban, Scotland (of all places!), Brent Slay, a friend and business leader from Grand Rapids, Michigan, recommended to me a book on economics: Ha-Joon Chang’s 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism (Penguin, 2010). This is a thoroughly readable “debunker’s guide” to a variety of economic subjects such as the free market and the connection between education and economic development. Chang is a professor at the University of Cambridge and, even if you don’t agree with all of his arguments, you will find your thinking stimulated by him. He starts by saying, “There is no such thing as a free market” and never lets up for a moment until he reaches his startling conclusion. (I don’t want to spoil it for you).
John C. Knapp’s book, How the Church Fails Businesspeople (and what can be done about it), published in 2011 by Eerdmans, helps outline the problem and provides what could be the basis for a valuable church school course: “On being a Christian in business.” Knapp’s book reminded me of a text I required for years in a seminary course on Stewardship and Church Finance, Peter Block’s excellent Stewardship: Choosing Service Over Self-Interest (Berrett-Koehler, 1993/1996). Interestingly Block’s book on stewardship is not a “religious” book at all, but a so-called “secular” book from and for the field of leadership and management. Of course, the division between “sacred” and “secular” is at the root of many of the problems the church historically has had with thinking theologically about business. Christians of every stripe (from Evangelical to Roman Catholic to Mainline Protestant) need resources to help them understand their work in terms of their faith. But as Edward Dayton observed: “Few churches appreciate their business people as windows on the world, and fewer still provide business people with opportunities to discuss in depth the integration of business and Christian values” (Knapp, 26).
Finally, I have to mention Peter Brown’s magisterial study, though it is a very different kind of resource from those just mentioned: Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD (Princeton University Press, 2012). And, “yes, Virginia,” this is an academic book and a very hefty one at that! But what a resource!
Dr. Brown’s study puts to rest simplistic arguments from history about “the way the church has always viewed money.” It complicates matters in the best way possible, by introducing us to the staggering variety of perspectives within the history of our faith. It reminds us of the bedeviling “unintended consequences” of virtually every idealistic scheme devised to short-circuit the complexities of being human and living in human society. And it utterly defeats the kinds of arguments we have all heard at one time or another in Sunday schools and sermons that would lead us to devalue the vocations not only of “they who go down to the sea in ships to ply their trade upon the great waters” (Psalm 107:23), but also those who muddle off to their offices and shops each day to do the same. The church should remember that those who go about the business of business have the opportunity to do what the Psalmist tells us the merchant seamen of the ancient world did: “These see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep” (Psalm 107:24).
Our theology of vocation, it seems to me, must take account of God’s calling every Christian “through the waters of baptism” to live as followers of Jesus in every aspect of our lives, including making a living by making and selling goods.