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