Economics 101 & Public Square & Theology 101

Working Towards a Biblical View of Wealth Creation

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When Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century was published in English earlier this spring, the issue of inequality was brought again to the forefront of a very heated discussion.

Responses from all over the world, including a tweet from Pope Francis, have poured in. Income inequality, often a natural phenomenon in a market economy, has become a divisive term. This is because it is almost impossible to separate the discussion of inequality from the topic of poverty.

Piketty’s book has brought the discussion of inequality into more tangible terms, and venues that may never have otherwise considered the effects of economic policy on poverty have begun publishing pieces about it. Even during my family vacation to the beach this summer, my in-laws returned from a church they visited with a magazine addressing these issues that had been published by the denomination.

Unfortunately, many of these pieces, instead of focusing on the gift and potential of wealth, vilify those who have acquired it.

In one piece called “The Rich Get Richer,” the author quips, “To those whom much has been given…much more will accrue.” This language is sensational, and it’s not unique.

Wealth and Exploitation

Before diving into a biblical and economic examination of wealth, it’s important to point out that some people do gain wealth by exploitative means.

James warns those who gain wealth through exploitation that their wealth cries out against them. Instead of laying up treasure in heaven, these greedy individuals lay up treasure in the last days through their destructive actions.

In an unfettered economic system, harmful, exploitative actions cannot be condoned. Profit is designed to reward value creation. If an entrepreneur did not know that by taking on risk he would be rewarded, why would he act on his innovative idea? How could he fund a new project? Ultimately, these projects benefit the community as a whole because the end result is a product that prices reveal to be valuable.

Sadly, not everyone seeks profit in this way. Some do become rich through exploitation. This is not to be confused with the market process. Such exploitation occurs through theft and often political exploitation.

But, this should not be the norm, and we, as Christians, should not protect those who have unjustly gained.

Towards a Biblical View of Wealth Creation

Yet some wealth is gained through honest means. If the Bible condemned all wealth, what would we be doing to those who are rich?

In these discussions about inequality, a theme surfaces repeatedly. Often, a sense of shame is imposed on the rich, simply on account of their wealth. It’s easy to lash out at those in better circumstances when hard times loom, but whether this finger pointing is due to jealousy or a sense of guilt, it is neither biblical nor economically sound.

The Bible emphasizes repeatedly that where there is not idolatry, wealth creation is not a bad thing. In fact, God desires to bless his children.

As Hugh Whelchel quotes from Ken Eldred in a previous post, wealth is not only mentioned in scripture but thoroughly addressed:

  • Wealth is to be in all areas – physical, mental, material, and spiritual.
  • Wealth is not our source of trust – God is (Luke 12:34).

As this list suggests, the attitude of the heart is of greatest importance to God.

His family is made up of those who have submitted wholeheartedly to him. His choosing to bless one child with monetary wealth has no bearing on the merit of one over another. In God’s economy, grace is lavished, not measured, and all of his children will receive the ultimate, forever gift of fellowship with him in heaven.

As the discussion around inequality continues, let us check our own hearts before we critique those who have been blessed in ways different from us. We need to be advocates of that wealth that is biblically sanctioned and economically viable. Above all, let us not impose shame on others.

How can we constructively add to the inequality debate? Leave your comments here

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  • David B. Doty

    I would add that the creation of wealth is also a fulfillment of God’s covenant with the Hebrew fathers (Deut 8:18). The promise of the land, as the fundamental economic engine of ancient agrarian societies is not unlike the means of production today being pledged to whole societies (rather than closely held private ownership). This is not to malign private ownership but should serve as an encouragement for those who accumulate wealth to “run the risks” of investing in the poor, especially in their own communities, rather than simply buying into the “safe” investment schemes (mixes of blue chip stocks, precious metals, etc.) that the world devises to “protect” what has been accumulated. Blessings are given so that we might bless others as witness to the abundant grace of God. If we do not leverage wealth to lift up others (rather than building bigger barns for ourselves – Luke 12:15-21), we are contributing to (dare I say, even exacerbating) the issues of inequality.

  • Glenn Brooke

    Thank you for this. Clear, helpful. We need much more of this message — and I believe it will be considerably more appealing than divisive messages that feed “grievance groups.”

    • Anne Bradley

      Glenn,

      Thank you. I agree that we need to take a positive approach in dealing with such an animated concept. First and foremost we must seek the council of the gospel and learn what the scripture has to say about income, wealth and riches. Poverty alone does not make us righteous and riches alone don’t make us vicious. The condition of our heart is where we must start.

      Blessings to you!

  • Tim Weinhold

    This is an inadequate explication of Scripture’s teaching about the dynamics of wealth accumulation. Scripture teaches that wealth can be created — as a byproduct of value creation for others. But it also teaches that wealth can be appropriated, i.e., stolen or plundered. The market system accommodates both. When Countrywide Financial aggressively, irresponsibly, even at times fraudulently, peddled subprime mortgages with no concern about whether they would ‘blow up’ on borrowers, or on the investors who bought CDO’s comprised of these mortgages, they were engaging in plunder. When a strip-mining company devastates a wide swath of God’s creation, they also engage in plunder. The market accommodates these activities just as easily as it accommodates the value creation activity of a hard-working entrepreneur bringing a valuable product to humankind. Market-based business activity, and financial success, may come from the God-blessed dynamics of value creation for others, or they may result from value extraction (plunder) instead. Your column implies a greater sanctity to market dynamics, and to wealth accumulation, than does Scripture.

    • Anne Bradley

      Tim,

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I would agree with you that wealth is a by-product of value creation but I would go a step further and say that wealth is only created when we create value for others.

      When a mortgage company breaks the rule of law or lobbies for favorable regulations that favor them at the expense of others, this is not wealth-creation. It is cronyism which destroys wealth, it allows some to benefit at the expense of others. This is outright theft and political manipulation. It is not a product of the market or market exchange and it’s not part of wealth generation.

      To your other point, the earth and all that is in it is given to us with the explicit instruction within the cultural mandate. We are to take dominion which means that the minerals, natural resources and land are ours for value creation. When we use them in consideration of others and with respect for the earth we create wealth. These things are ours not to use recklessly but to serve others and make their lives better. Had we never discovered the many uses for crude oil, we would not have things like public
      transportation and trains which allow people across the country to have greater access to food and jobs. God gave us the earth and all that is in it to
      serve others and glorify him and in this we fulfill the job we are given—to
      subdue the earth, take dominion and engage in good stewardship.

      Blessings to you!

  • integrityco

    A true Democracy ends the debate, A Cass system will only enhance the failure of upward mobility. The lack of equality which is quantified by economist as upward mobility weakens the middle class which weakens the dollar internationally. It is really very simple. We should never be jealous of wealth. We should embrace and strive to always do better. Keep in mind the present “Cass” system is not conducive for upward mobility as proven several times as well as easily observed.

  • integrityco

    I like the article and think we need this debate to continue in christian circles.

  • Rob Zimmerman

    Love you article. I have been looking at another aspect with regard to how we look at the aspect of individual self worth in this rather complex equation. While I desire to raise the standard of living and promote the increase in ones living wages, I also constantly challenging our people to increase their creative contributions they bring to our companies. There is a time-lag between the prophetic decree of individual value and worth that comes from the Lord with how this develops. Many in our community want to be paid or compensated for poor performance and limited output. Some have difficulty shaking off the entitlement mentality that often is carried by people in poverty who receive welfare while doing absolutely nothing.

  • Lynne a

    My mom taught me if I had something and I thought that I was better then someone else that god would take away what I have been praying to become wealthy so I can help people in need and buy our church that our pastors are now renting. So I know better to be humble because I believe what was taught to me

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