Work more; work harder; always be busy. Such seems to be the national mantra of America. But is life all about work? How can we live in a healthy way which glorifies God?
Christians and Society: Capitalism
Christianity was established during the days of the Roman Empire with the claim that God had made Jesus of Nazareth Lord and King, declaring Him the Son of God through His resurrection (Acts 2:36, 17:6-9, Romans 1:4). All Christians, therefore, recognized they were part of the great spiritual and trans-national Kingdom of God in Christ over whom Jesus rules as Lord (Philippians 3:20, Colossians 1:13, Revelation 1:12-20). Meanwhile they still lived within the Roman Empire, obeyed civil authority whenever possible, and strove to live by their faith while existing in Greco-Roman culture (Romans 13:1-7, 1 Corinthians 5:9-10, 1 Peter 2:11-15). The Roman Empire has come and gone as have many other successive states, powers, societies, and cultures, yet Christians continue to strive to live as citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven while existing within their societies and cultures on earth (Philippians 3:20-21, Colossians 3:1-11).
In the early modern era the Western world saw the end of feudalism and the rise of capitalism; today capitalism is the predominant economic model throughout the world. Capitalism is an umbrella term for economic systems featuring private ownership of business, industry, and material for the primary purpose of making a profit (thus, the obtaining of capital). In a capitalist system wage labor is the means by which most people make a living; some tend to become quite rich while the majority live at subsistence level. Capitalism is also known for market competition exemplified in the American stock market. Within capitalism many different theories of practice abound: laissez-faire and liberal theories of capitalism maintain strong confidence in the market and property rights and see less room for governmental interference, while Keynesian and neo-classical macro-economic theories emphasize the role of governmental regulation to reduce monopolies and reduce the effects of market volatility. Some countries maintain almost pure laissez-faire capitalism; others maintain almost purely state-controlled capitalism. Most, however, feature “mixed” capitalism, espousing elements of different theories of economic capitalism with different levels of fervor depending on market conditions, with certain markets controlled by the state and other markets controlled by private individuals. In light of the New Testament, what should be the relationship between Christians and capitalism?
Despite popular views to the contrary, capitalism (let alone market or laissez-faire capitalism) is not the default economic model for the world; before the modern era it did not even exist. The New Testament does not commend any particular economic theory or system; Christians are called to obey the government and to work and make their own living quietly no matter who is in charge or under what economic system they live (Romans 13:1-7, 2 Thessalonians 3:6-12, 1 Peter 2:11-15). In New Testament times the Roman economy was predominantly agrarian; trades were dominated by guilds; some would hire themselves out for labor, while many laborers were slaves (e.g. Matthew 20:1-16, Ephesians 6:5-8). Jesus and the Apostles maintain the same types of expectations of Christians in their economic dealings as can be seen in Israel: laborers and slaves are to work diligently and be worthy of their wages/keep; employers and masters are to treat their workers fairly and pay wages on time; economic transactions are to be handled fairly for both parties; special care should be given to the poor and marginalized (Matthew 25:31-46, Ephesians 6:5-9, James 1:26-27, 5:1-6).
While capitalism may not be specifically commended in Scripture, Christians can thrive and serve God while living within a capitalist economy. Christians today can live quietly, make a living by working for a wage or by owning a business or investments, and have the opportunity to provide for their families and give to those in need (Ephesians 4:28, 2 Thessalonians 3:6-12, 1 Timothy 5:8).
Among modern economic systems capitalism has proven most effective at incentivizing investment, labor, and productivity; capitalistic enterprise built America and other Western industrial nations. Nevertheless, a capitalistic economic system is not inherently good or evil: the system’s ethics are only as strong as the ethics of those who participate within it. Capitalism incentivizes greed and covetousness, condemned in Ephesians 5:3, 5 and Colossians 3:5. It is easy for those within capitalistic systems to begin exploiting people and resources; Christians do well to stand against such abuses and excesses, as James did in James 5:1-5. The “losers” in capitalistic competition are easily forgotten and fall through the system; Jesus expects Christians to help provide for such people (Matthew 25:31-46, Galatians 2:10, 6:10). Without ethical constraints capitalistic societies end up feeding on themselves and consuming themselves; as Christians, we must affirm what is commendable about capitalistic enterprise while remaining sober-minded and vigilant about its excesses and failings (Romans 12:9, Philippians 4:8).
Most Christians today live in capitalistic societies; many Christians are very actively engaged in capitalistic enterprise. Great blessings and opportunities can come to God’s people through such enterprise but we must always be on guard against covetousness, greed, selfishness, alienation, and a neglect of the poor. Let us serve God while living in our capitalistic society, standing firm for ethical and godly principles!
Ethan R. Longhenry
Solomon had the means to see the end of pleasure and labor: joy for a moment, but ultimately vanity and a striving after wind.
I said in my heart, Come now, I will prove thee with mirth; therefore enjoy pleasure: and, behold, this also was vanity. I said of laughter, It is mad; and of mirth, What doeth it? I searched in my heart how to cheer my flesh with wine, my heart yet guiding me with wisdom, and how to lay hold on folly, till I might see what it was good for the sons of men that they should do under heaven all the days of their life. I made me great works; I builded me houses; I planted me vineyards; I made me gardens and parks, and I planted trees in them of all kinds of fruit; I made me pools of water, to water therefrom the forest where trees were reared; I bought men-servants and maid-servants, and had servants born in my house; also I had great possessions of herds and flocks, above all that were before me in Jerusalem; I gathered me also silver and gold, and the treasure of kings and of the provinces; I gat me men-singers and women-singers, and the delights of the sons of men, musical instruments, and that of all sorts. So I was great, and increased more than all that were before me in Jerusalem: also my wisdom remained with me. And whatsoever mine eyes desired I kept not from them; I withheld not my heart from any joy; for my heart rejoiced because of all my labor; and this was my portion from all my labor. Then I looked on all the works that my hands had wrought, and on the labor that I had labored to do; and, behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was no profit under the sun.
And I turned myself to behold wisdom, and madness, and folly: for what can the man do that cometh after the king? even that which hath been done long ago. Then I saw that wisdom excelleth folly, as far as light excelleth darkness. The wise man’s eyes are in his head, and the fool walketh in darkness: and yet I perceived that one event happeneth to them all. Then said I in my heart, As it happeneth to the fool, so will it happen even to me; and why was I then more wise? Then said I in my heart, that this also is vanity. For of the wise man, even as of the fool, there is no remembrance for ever; seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. And how doth the wise man die even as the fool! So I hated life, because the work that is wrought under the sun was grievous unto me; for all is vanity and a striving after wind.
And I hated all my labor wherein I labored under the sun, seeing that I must leave it unto the man that shall be after me. And who knoweth whether he will be a wise man or a fool? yet will he have rule over all my labor wherein I have labored, and wherein I have showed myself wise under the sun. This also is vanity. Therefore I turned about to cause my heart to despair concerning all the labor wherein I had labored under the sun. For there is a man whose labor is with wisdom, and with knowledge, and with skilfulness; yet to a man that hath not labored therein shall he leave it for his portion. This also is vanity and a great evil.
For what hath a man of all his labor, and of the striving of his heart, wherein he laboreth under the sun? For all his days are but sorrows, and his travail is grief; yea, even in the night his heart taketh no rest. This also is vanity. There is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and make his soul enjoy good in his labor. This also I saw, that it is from the hand of God. For who can eat, or who can have enjoyment, more than I? For to the man that pleaseth him God giveth wisdom, and knowledge, and joy; but to the sinner he giveth travail, to gather and to heap up, that he may give to him that pleaseth God. This also is vanity and a striving after wind (Ecclesiastes 2:1-26).
Life and all that is within it is as a vapor, and we are soon forgotten. We may rail and protest and rather accept the delusions, but the reality remains as true as when the Preacher declared it: all is vain.
Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher; vanity of vanities, all is vanity. What profit hath man of all his labor wherein he laboreth under the sun?
One generation goeth, and another generation cometh; but the earth abideth for ever. The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to its place where it ariseth. The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it turneth about continually in its course, and the wind returneth again to its circuits. All the rivers run into the sea, yet the sea is not full; unto the place whither the rivers go, thither they go again. All things are full of weariness; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.
That which hath been is that which shall be; and that which hath been done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun. Is there a thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been long ago, in the ages which were before us. There is no remembrance of the former generations; neither shall there be any remembrance of the latter generations that are to come, among those that shall come after (Ecclesiastes 1:2-11).