Pastors, seminary students, and economics

Pastors, seminary students, and economics December 20, 2013

By Scott Rae

This article was first printed in the Sept. 2013 Oikonomia Network Newsletter

Why do pastors need to know all that much about economics? My friend and writing partner, Austin Hill, tells the story of a conference he attended as a graduate student where the facilitator posed the provocative question, “Can somebody name for me one area of our lives that has nothing to do with economics?” The group was silent for more than a few moments, as many pondered this for the first time.

Then a student spoke up and said what I suspect many were thinking; “As a Christian, I believe that my eternal salvation has nothing to do with economics.” The group was taken aback by his forthrightness, and the facilitator then rephrased the question this way, “Ok, let’s assume you’re right about that, and let’s assume that one’s eternal destiny has nothing to do with economics (a debatable assumption) – can somebody name a second area of our lives that has nothing to do with economics? He went on to suggest that, “every facet of our earthly lives is impacted on some level by both economic activity and economic conditions.”

Think about how you would answer the facilitator’s question. Can you think of an area of our lives not impacted by economics? Including salvation, in fact, since the Bible actually describes the elements of our eternal salvation in economic terms. In Romans 4, when discussing the notion of justification by faith, salvation is described in terms of an accounting ledger. Our sin is cancelled on the debit side, and the righteousness of Christ is credited to our account as a result of his atoning death for sin. As a result of this transaction, we are declared justified, or acquitted from the guilt of our sin. In addition, the Greek term used in the New Testament when Jesus utters his last words on the cross (“it is finished”) is literally an accounting term, best translated as “paid in full.”

But a further response to the student would suggest that there is much more to a person’s spiritual life than simply the matter of his or her eternal destiny. Life on this side of eternity matters greatly, reflected by the fact that Jesus had much more to say about money and economics than he did about eternity. If we refuse to separate the sacred from the secular, and affirm that all of life is spiritual, then there are few, if any, areas of our spiritual lives that are not impacted by economics.

In my experience, however, this is not enough to convince pastors and seminary students of the importance of economics for their work in the local church. Neither is it enough to suggest that economics, far from being the “dismal science,” actually is permeated with moral issues. The intersection of morality and economics exists because, like politics, economics is fundamentally about how we order our lives together. Much of how we live together in community has significant moral overtones. How we think society’s benefits and burdens should be distributed has significant moral repercussions. But I have found that general statements like these do little to generate interest in economics among pastors and seminary students. So how do educators persuade the next generation of pastors to help people connect their lives with economics?

Connecting the dignity of daily work with pastoral ministry is an obvious starting point. Since most people in the church work for a living in some fashion, the need to connect Sunday and Monday seems self-evident. Unless pastors affirm work as ministry and as service to Christ with intrinsic value, there is not much hope for any other connection between economics and a pastoral ministry.

One of the clearest ways to connect economics and pastoral ministry comes out of the economic context of the Bible. The Bible directly addresses economic life in numerous places in both Old and New Testament. In addition, much of its teaching is set in the specific economic context of the ancient world. It is true that the fundamental issues of economics in the Bible concern the state of a person’s heart. It is also true that the condition of the heart has not changed since the Bible was written. However, it is naïve to teach and preach the Bible without taking into account the profound differences in economic life between the ancient world and a modern industrial/information age.

One of the most important reasons for pastors to be economically literate is so that they can preach and teach the Bible accurately. In particular, this is important so that they can apply the Bible’s teaching on economic life clearly. For example, it is not uncommon to hear teaching on subjects such as the Year of Jubilee (Lev. 25) as requiring wholesale redistribution of wealth. Or to hear the church’s sharing of goods “in common” as a reference to some sort of enforced redistribution of income. Some criticisms of the market system come from misreading the Bible, due to failure to take some of these differences into account. Some also reflect a misunderstanding of economics, such as the common statement, “the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.” Such statements are often read between the lines as “the rich getting richer are causing the poor to get poorer,” reflecting a zero-sum view of economic life that was characteristic of the ancient world, but not applicable to most of the global economy today.

Too many Christians share the view of the student at the conference; that we can live our lives with our faith in one box and our economic views in another. Changing this perspective is an important step to producing flourishing communities and spiritually whole churches.

Adapted from the Kern Pastors Network.  Scott Rae is professor of Philosophy of Religion and Ethics, Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.

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