They trudge into church weary and worried, having spent the majority of their weekday life grinding it out in the office, on the road making sales calls, or in the trenches. Some have stared at a computer screen in their home office and others have dealt with angry customers behind a service counter or in a restaurant. Still there are many of our church members who are making big decisions for their small businesses or large corporations.
What do pastors have to tell them about the activities that consume the majority of their waking hours? At times it seems we open the Scriptures and struggle to apply anything meaningful to work life. Thankfully, in recent years, the church has recovered the vital importance of upholding a doctrine of vocation and a doctrine of creation in affirming the God-created goodness of work. But beyond affirming work as good for creation reasons, what can we say about the workplace or the economic systems in which our people are located?
First we have to acknowledge the peril in applying the Scriptures to modern economic issues. Many things discussed in the public square — such as marginal tax rates, the size of a social safety net, or trade policies — are matters of prudence. While the Bible should inform the way we make policy, we should recognize that many Christians will often come to different conclusions on the finer points of economic policy.
Too often Christian leaders have carelessly implied that the Bible supports a particular piece of economic legislation as if to oppose it was to be unfaithful. This kind of unhelpful rhetoric from all sides of debates only alienates others who might disagree and is a misuse of Scripture. Pastors should avoid this. But there is also a way to ignore the broad themes of Scripture when it comes to labor, money, and economics. For instance, here are a few examples:
- The creation narrative in Genesis reminds us God gave work to humans as a gift, and when we create, in any way, we both image our creator and respond to his mandate to rule over creation. The Bible affirms that work is good and glorifies God.
- Proverbs includes many themes that extol the virtues of hard work, thrift, saving money, fair wages, the benefit of markets, private property, fair treatment of workers, and more. Proverbs also warns against laziness, foolish lending and borrowing, stealing, and the exploitation of labor.
- The minor prophets are replete with God’s condemnation of the nations for exploiting the poor, for unfair economic practice.
- Jesus spoke of a corrosive pursuit of money and material blessings that can take the heart away from a pursuit of God
These are just a few examples of broad themes. And then there are other times where there are specific injunctions against unjust economic practices:
- Exodus portrays a ruler who exploits an entire ethnic group (Hebrews) for economic gain, engaging in practices that make work more difficult, seeking to control the population by infanticide, and refusing to grant space for them to freely worship. Exodus also portrays a God who seeks and rescues people enslaved in this unjust system. Ultimately this narrative is about a God who fulfills his promise by calling out and rescuing his people, a picture of Christ who would ultimately rescue his people from bondage to sin at the cross.
- James features a rebuke to the wealthy landowners in the first century church who were exploiting the poor for financial gain. This implies that an authentic Christianity of more than mere words means a change in the practices for Christian business owners.
There are also many references to greed, sloth, envy, laziness, which can be applied to contemporary discussions about work and economics. And in a civil society like ours where we have a share of power through our vote, we have to consider Jesus’ admonition to love our neighbors as ourselves. This applies to the way we think about the economic flourishing of our neighbors. Of course, when it comes to the best approaches to policy, Christians might arrive at different conclusions as to what helps people flourish.
We need charity and grace in our disagreements. And yet as pastors we can help biblically inform our people on these broad ideas and help them think wisely and well about economics.