No Free Lunch: Economics for A Fallen World

1 | Introduction to Economics

Biblical Economics

So which economic system most closely aligns with Biblical values? While space limits a full blown analysis, there are some overarching themes which suggest a free market system should be preferred. To introduce this section, watch the following video (note: there is a chapter question from this video)!

1. Private Stewardship Responsibilities

Our first consideration is that of the central economic question: who determines the allocation of scarce capital in a fallen world? This is answered by your view of property rights. From a Christian perspective, the question of private property vs. communal property is more properly thought of not as an ownership issue, but as a stewardship issue. God owns it all (Psalm 24:1), and demands that individuals exercise stewardship of His creation for His own glory.

We see stewardship responsibilities in the first chapter of Genesis, where God assigns man rule over all creation:

26Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” 27God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. 28God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

Note that this is before the Fall; therefore, a perfect Adam and Eve would rule over creation according to God’s will. We see explicitly in Genesis chapter 2 that Adam is given stewardship over the Garden—to work it and keep it with specific instructions:

15Then the LORD God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it.

The Fall was a pivotal moment in history, and while mankind’s hierarchical relationship to creation did not change (we are still intended to rule over creation; see Psalm 8), stewardship is much more difficult since all creation is cursed.

The Ten Commandments give us further understanding as both the eighth and tenth commandments refer to individual ownership; especially the tenth (Exodus 20:17):

You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife or his male servant or his female servant or his ox or his donkey or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

Not only does part of this commandment explicitly highlight private ownership since it applies to “anything that belongs to your neighbor,” but it also includes private ownership of capital equipment. An ox was a primary piece of capital equipment in the Old Testament, since, as noted in Proverbs 14:4b, “much revenue comes by the strength of the ox.”

While this verse highlights ownership responsibilities, it is important to note that to have stewardship responsibilities (which come from a vertical relationship with God) we must have ownership rights (which reflect a horizontal relationship with others in society). While the world only sees ownership rights, Christians see the spiritual dimension of stewardship responsibilities.

The parable of the talents (Matt 25:14-30) reveals that all of us as individuals will be judged for our stewardship of resources that rightfully belong to our Creator God, to include our time, treasures, and talents. A proper biblical perspective should preclude selfish action as we exercise stewardship. On the contrary, we are admonished in Philippians 2 to:

“not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.”

Rather than thinking in terms of private property rights, the Christian thinks in terms of individual stewardship responsibilities. But the exercise of these responsibilities is under an individual’s control, not under collective control.

2. Back to the Garden

As Genesis 1-3 outlines, mankind has two essential features that are opposite in nature. First, we were created in the very image and likeness of God. While there are many debates over what this precisely means, in the very first chapter of Genesis we see essential features of God:

Any economic system of man must allow for this understanding of man: created imago dei (in the image of God) and according to His likeness we also are social, creative workers who are capable of moral judgments, complex plans, and execution of delegated responsibilities. And when we act according to God’s plan, we should be a blessing to all of creation.

The unfortunate flip side of the nature of man is that we are also fallen and capable of monstrous evils that we inflict on one another. Chapters 4-6 of Genesis reveal murderous hearts whose only intent is “evil continually.”

Any economic system that does not allow for the full creativity and productivity of creatures made in the image and likeness of God will not see the blessings that God intends for people to give. Nonetheless, any system that does not recognize that man is desperately fallen will fail to restrain the evil that each one of us is fully capable of. As we will see in subsequent chapters, free markets provide the incentives for individuals to use their God-given talents to serve one another, while competition in free markets inhibits one’s ability to exploit others. Other systems may restrain the evil of the market by exercising collective choice, but those systems suffer from the ancient question of “who will watch the watchmen?” History is replete with examples of strong states purportedly preventing individual harms that result in monstrous collective harms (such as with Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union).

3. Choice

The Bible outlines God’s plan for choice from cover to cover. In the Garden, Adam and Eve were allowed the freedom to choose to follow God (symbolized by the Tree of Life) or to disobey God (eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil). Deuteronomy 28-30 outlines the blessings of following God for the nation of Israel, as well as the curses for disobedience—Israel is called to “choose life.” Joshua likewise admonished the Israelites to choose whom they would serve: the LORD , or the gods of the Egyptians (Joshua 24:14-17). Jesus calls us to choose to pick up our cross and follow after him (Luke 14:25-33). In the description of our eternal destiny, we are told to choose Heaven or Hell—streets of gold or a lake of fire. We will choose either the wide gate that leads to destruction or the narrow gate that leads to life (Matthew 7:13).

Choice is also essential to the biblical process of sanctification, as we are conformed to the image of Christ. We are constantly faced with choices: will we, by the Spirit, put to death the deeds of the body, or will we follow our flesh? The choice (and the consequences) is up to us, even though completely enabled by the power of the Holy Spirit. Our life in Christ is commonly referred to in the New Testament as our walk, where we moment by moment choose to walk by the Spirit or walk by our flesh. And, of course, the necessary condition of coming to and walking with Christ is repentance— acknowledging our sin and choosing to turn to God. The idea of sanctification by our choices is captured in a secular sense by Aristotle, who said “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act but a habit.”

God allows choice in the exercise of our stewardship; we are free to be poor stewards or good stewards. But we will be individually held accountable. A free market system allows individuals to either serve their flesh or serve God in their choices; other economic systems do not allow this choice (at least in the use of economic resources). Yet the freedom to do good or bad seems inextricably linked to our becoming conformed to the image of Christ—our sanctification (Romans 6:19). How does this look in application? Consider Ecclesiastes 11:1:

1Cast your bread on the surface of the waters, for you will find it after many days.

Or consider Proverbs 11:24:

24There is one who scatters, and yet increases all the more…

Both of these verses presuppose that we have material possessions to give—that we have stewardship responsibilities. But they also both hold out a promise: if you step out in faith, you will be rewarded. God promises to be generous with those who are generous. From a worldly perspective, we can’t see how giving up wealth can lead to prosperity; but God promises that it can when we are exercising stewardship according to his will. Do not interpret this as meaning God will always materially bless giving—His blessings may come in some other form, and as the passage states, any reward may not come immediately. Wisdom literature in the Bible informs us how the world routinely works, not necessarily how it works in every situation. As we cast our bread upon the waters, we are forced to take a giant leap of faith—faith that what God says is true, even though we can’t see how.

While there are obviously many areas of life where we need sanctification in the choices that we make (e.g., how we treat others, how we worship God in spirit and truth), the exercise of godly stewardship of our resources is often one of the most difficult. As many pastors will agree, the last thing most individuals will give up is control of his or her bank account! Hence, an economic system that allows us the option to willingly give up what we have the freedom to keep fits well with God’s plan for choice. It is often true that in order to do good in God’s economy, we must have the freedom to do bad.

4. Process vs. Outcome

Many critics of free markets note the inequality of results of the market process. Social gospel advocates support an economic system that leads to a more equitable distribution of wealth. One of the primary arguments of these advocates is that human dignity requires it. How can we endorse an economic system that results in vast wealth inequalities and leaves some extremely destitute? These advocates further note the scriptural admonitions to take care of the poor. A system that produces gross wealth inequalities seems condemned on its face.

Nevertheless, a review of the whole counsel of scripture can lead us to the opposite conclusion. First, we should not expect equal results when God has endowed people differently. It should not be too surprising that LeBron James commands a higher salary from playing basketball than you or I could. Likewise, Joseph, who was effectively CEO of Egypt, Inc., had more wealth under his control than his brothers or any of the Egyptians (except Pharaoh). His managerial skills were worthy of a premium.

Second, as noted above, God allows unequal outcomes to grow His people as they choose to do the right thing voluntarily. In 2 Corinthians 8-9, the apostle Paul encouraged the Corinthians to complete their planned gift to poorer Christians to benefit the body of Christ (both the giver and the receiver). One of the Apostle’s major points was that the gift be voluntary—not compulsory—since God loves a cheerful giver.

Third, one cannot conclude that income inequality in and of itself is necessarily inconsistent with God’s will. There are at least five reasons given in scripture for poverty (this list is not necessarily comprehensive):

  1. Slothful/lazy (Proverbs 6:6-11; 24:30-34; 26:13-16)
  2. Natural disaster/drought/famine (1 Kings 17)
  3. Exploitation by the powerful (James 2:6, 5:4)
  4. Vows of poverty (Mark 12:41-44; Philippians 4:10-12)
  5. God’s supernatural or providential action (Job 1; 1 Samuel 2:7)

Likewise, there are at least three reasons for some being rich:

  1. Hard work/diligence (Proverbs 10:4)
  2. God’s divine blessing (1 Samuel 2:7; Proverbs 10:22)
  3. Exploitation of the poor (James 5:4)

While it is incorrect to have the view that the poor are always poor because they are lazy, while the rich are rich because they are diligent and work hard, it is equally wrong to assume the poor are poor necessarily due to exploitation by the rich. There are a wide variety of reasons for inequality of outcomes, and they merit different responses. Few Christians would disagree that God calls His people to help the poor, yet it is by no means clear that the way we should help the poor is by taking from the rich, especially if the poor are in that situation through their rejection of biblical values (2 Thess. 3:10).

Indeed, a slothful man’s hunger may drive him to work for food, as his hunger works for him (Prov 16:26) as it does for all men.

As Christians, we really need to come to grips with why an omnipotent, sovereign God who is all loving would allow any children to starve to death when He could send not only manna from heaven, but any other item needed. In the end, we must conclude that there is a bigger purpose to the pain of this world; somehow that pain is an integral part of God’s plan. Maybe God wants us to voluntarily be His hands and feet to a hurting world? Maybe it has to be a voluntary choice to shape our hard hearts into the people He has called us to be? Maybe He wants to cultivate true mercy and compassion in our hearts (Hosea 6:6)?

This discussion suggests that the process of how we help the poor is equally as important as the outcome we are trying to achieve. The ends cannot justify any means. Once we consider that an all-powerful, sovereign God controls the ends, then the means chosen become crucially important. An economic system that allows people to exercise biblical stewardship and grow into the people He has called us to be (as we aid the poor) is to be preferred over a system that uses coercive collective choice to solve social problems. The latter system provides material support, but where is the spiritual growth that would occur as we develop compassionate hearts by the power of the Holy Spirit in the free exercise of our stewardship?

Free market capitalism most closely aligns with the biblical perspective of stewardship, so it is the system we will examine in this text. And while not one of our arguments, it is comforting to know that free markets have led to far more people escaping grinding poverty than any other system known to man.

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  1. Scruvy Scalliwagon | Nov 02, 2016 02:50 pm

    SKRRRRRRRRRT