At Work & Economics 101 & Public Square & Theology 101

How Should Christians Pursue the Common Good?

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The late theologian and Christianity Today editor Carl Henry once called on Christians not to restrict the Christian life to evangelism alone, but also to engage the culture in the public square.

We can think of that task in terms of pursuing the common good. This is the shalom God calls us to through the prophet Jeremiah. In Jeremiah 29:4-7, Jeremiah exhorts the exiles living in Babylon:

This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper”

But how do we pursue shalom? One way is through our vocations.

Pursuing the Common Good through Vocation

Hugh Whelchel once wrote that our vocations are the most powerful means at our disposal to influence culture and restore the common good.

Professor John Frame writes in his book, The Doctrine of the Christian Life,

As God’s Spirit penetrates people’s hearts through the gospel, those people become new creatures. They take their faith into every sphere of life, including the workplace, politics, economics, education, and the arts. And in all these realms, they seek to glorify God…their incipient obedience leads to significant changes in society.

Just because Christians should pursue the common good doesn’t mean we all have to do it the same way. The hand does not have to be the foot. The dentist doesn’t have to do the job of the high school counselor. 

In fact, one could still hold that the primary job of the Church at large is to make disciples of all nations (of which evangelism is a part). But this has to do with far more than just the eternal destiny of individual souls. Disciple-making has all sorts of positive moral, social, and economic effects on society as a whole.

Pursuing the Common Good through Economics

Depending on their calling, individual Christians, or groups of Christians—the “hands,” “feet,” and heart” of the Body of Christ on Earth—may spend some or all of their time pursuing the common good in the political or economic realm.

For Christians who seek to pursue the common good in the economic realm, I would describe the central task as this: Integrating the descriptive truths and theoretical insights of economics with the relevant truths of theology.

This involves distinguishing moral and theological principles from specific policies.

For example:

  • Principle: “We should care for the poor, widows and orphans.” 
  • Policy: Reducing personal income tax or increasing funding to HUD. 

All Christians affirm the principle, but they may disagree on the best policy for fulfilling it.

Of course, different policies have different outcomes —some good, some bad, some indifferent. So how do we determine the best policy to pursue?

This requires prudence, which is the virtue of “seeing the world as it actually is and acting accordingly.” Whatever our aspirations, actions in the economic realm interact with economic realities which we ought to take into account.

The best policies, then, will be those chosen through the “feedback” of combining economic knowledge with the relevant principles. This includes those that best anticipate the intended and unintended consequences of a policy. Such feedback is the proper outcome of the integration of moral and theological principles.

When we exercise prudence in this way, we are most likely to land on a policy that properly furthers the common good to which we are committed.

These are just a couple of ways Christians can pursue the common good through the realms of work and economics. I’d love to hear your thoughts on how else we can work towards shalom.

How do you think Christians should pursue the common good?

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  • Any *change* in policy will almost necessarily benefit one party at the expense of another. It is one thing to identify a best policy. It is quite another to demonstrate how to transition to that policy from the status quo in a just manner. I’ve found it challenging to identify any such strategy for some very difficult policy problems. However, it is precisely at these impasses where I believe the church can demonstrate its peculiar role as dispenser of special grace. Where the “best” policy is impossible due to obstacles, believers can sacrificially offer of themselves to make such transitions possible. Importantly, these sacrifices can include strategies that offer beneficiaries of unjust policies redemption. This is the way of Christ: rescuing the oppressed while transforming the oppressor.

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