Capitalism and the church: avoiding the caricatures

Caricatures are something the church should not trade in. Yet as both a businessman and a Christian I am too often amused and dissapointed at the caricatures of “business” and “capitalism” that are freely offered as easy targets for many evangelical and liberal churches. Almost always these caricatures are presented by the teacher or pastor and then they proceed to extol the virtues of Christ in contrast to these caricatures as if the way of Jesus is at odds with allowing us to engage in capitalism rather than doing something really “holy and useful” (like being a pastor…or social worker…or teacher…). Before we move forward, let’s understand that the word “capitalism” like the word “religion” can have pejorative overtones. In the context of this article I mean “capitalism” in the plain sense of a system of exchange of goods and services done in the context of a free or semi-free society.

My church, The Meeting House (Toronto), is like so many others in its perhaps unintended tendency to caricature “business” and “capitalism” unfairly. Our gifted pastors have indeed also traded in such caricatures. To be fully fair to both Bruxy and Tim, they do not spent much time railing against capitalism nor is is a pet issue of theirs. To their deep credit they are almost always focused elsewhere in their teaching and in trying to build the body of Christ to impact our world. God bless them for this and it is why I continue to be a fan of The Meeting House. I do not wish to imply that either of these men spend too much energy on this topic. However, when over the years they have taught on topics that touch on “capitalism” they trade in some pretty strange caricatures rather than truth. And even when not dealing with this topic explicitly there is a tinge of this “capitalism is bad so be really careful since it is opposed to the spirit of Jesus” stuff going on in their teaching. I recall Pastor Bruxy once saying something about how our economy is based on competition so it somehow cuts in contrast to the job of being a Christ-follower. He then implied that the less of this you involve yourself with the closer we move towards the unselfish ways of Jesus. Shame. This sort of “this must be the second best thing you can do with your life” thinking is based on a very limited and poor understanding of the topic of business and capitalism. However, it is too common with Pastors who have been fortunate enough (in some way, but not really) to be able to stand beside the capitalist economy and proffer easy criticism based on an incomplete understanding. I cannot imagine how Bruxy feels about Paul lowering himself to sell tents in the corrupt mercantile economy of his day just to pay the bills. How much closer to Christ Paul would have been if he took those hours and preached more and taught more? You will say that this is not what Bruxy is teaching and that my comments are unfair…but it is indeed at least implied and is a corollary to the philosophy he implicitly supports. And if he claims it is not, then he certainly does not do enough to warn against the dangers of assuming he believes this to be the case (if in fact he does not).

Is business/capitalism somehow “bad”? Most folks forget that although we speak about capitalism as a competitive enterprise what is really experienced by those engaged in it is that it is built on creativity, co-operation and teamwork and not on competition. No one says, “I want to compete” — rather they say, “I want to create and build something of value”. In short — there is nothing whatsoever about the work of imagining products and services, creating them, and then selling them that is wrong in any way. Such activity engages the capabilities and creativeness of human beings in a way that is clearly from our Lord. God created something. God saw goodness after he created. We cannot be faulted for following the example of our God and creating and admiring the goodness we create in time and space. At the core, this “creating” is what capitalism rests on — and so we should not paint capitalism with a brush that gives it such a dark and foreboding hue. There are indeed abuses and human greed present in capitalism that feed the pejorative senses that infuse the very word “capitalism “ today (as they are also present in pastoring and teaching), but these abuses do not make the art of creating and selling things some sort of anathema to those who attempt to follow Jesus. These abuses are not the principles on which the core enterprise of business is fashioned. Those of us fortunate enough to be engaged in this line of work clearly understand this…while also understanding that sin marks all human activities and so we must always be separating wheat from chaff whether we are business people or ministers. The existence of “chaff” does not imply that the enterprise of planting seeds is somehow misguided. The existence of “chaff” reminds us that anything we do in a fallen world is imperfect and needs redemption. But this is a very different thought than the one that implies that “business” is somehow build on a fallen philosophy at its very core and is a less-good way of spending your life until you are freed to do something really useful in this world like teach (more facts to Christians that do not even yet apply the simple ones they learned as a child — a topic for another article on teaching vs preaching/motivating).

When these caricatures are presented in my church, I have to imagine that since an overwhelming majority of the congregation is employed by a business, that after hearing these sorts of messages or comments the congregation concludes something like this — “Well, I guess Bruxy/Tim are making a good point, but I have to pay the bills so God will just have to understand or forgive me”. I am sure they must also think that perhaps one day (when they have paid off their mortgage) they can do something really pleasing to God. This is an awful shame. The end result of this teaching is to load guilt on the congregation who do not truly follow Jesus in a radical enough way to quit their crass and capitalist job, move into a smaller house with ten other people and wake up every day feeding the poor and homeless. Shame.

I do indeed want to be fully and thoroughly fair to these men (and many others) whom I deeply respect and fully appreciate. But I want to urge them to search their minds and hearts and make sure they are not being patently unfair to those of us employed in creating and doing things of value for financial exchange. There can be nothing wrong with this in and of itself and it should never be cast in the bad light that it is by churches such as The Meeting House. In fact this “creating” process funds all of the so-called more “pure” things that are required for a good and just society like law and order, social assistance, education, healthcare and dare I say also preaching and teaching about Jesus.

If you think that my observations are unfair or too harsh, I would posit the question another way and ask when did you last hear a sermon on the great privilege and value of creating a business that employs people and creates things that make the world a better place?

I would urge our church and others to be fully accurate and truthful and less lazy in caricaturing things they do not really understand.

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