Economics 101

Is Economic Thinking Relevant for the Church?

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When you have a master’s degree in economics, you get excited when you find economic concepts in unexpected places.

Not everyone shares your enthusiasm.

Case in point: the other day, I heard a sermon about leadership in the church, focusing on Acts 6. Hearing it I thought, “Look at that! The early church leaders were using comparative advantage!”

When I shared this insight with my husband, he half-laughed. Then he paused to see if I was being serious.

I was.

Here’s Acts 6:1-4:

Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”

Acts 6:2 seems odd at first: “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables.”

It seems as if the apostles believe preaching God’s word is a higher calling and serving tables is beneath them. Yet they follow Jesus, the foremost example of humility (Phil. 2:6-8).

What we find is not that the apostles have a higher calling, but rather that the early church was facing a problem—the apostles could not do everything by themselves.

So, they appointed elders to oversee particular churches (Acts 11:30, 14:23). And, in Acts 6, we see another division of labor—the role of deacon.

Apostles, Elders, and Deacons—Who Is More Holy?

Each group of church leaders had a role to play.

  • The apostles oversaw the whole of the early church, concentrating on prayer and teaching. Their focus was spreading God’s word to all peoples, which was commanded to them by Jesus in the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20).
  • The elders shepherded the local church, and also focused on prayer and teaching. 1 Timothy 3 presents the qualifications of elders and deacons, and they are markedly similar. However, one of the qualifications of an elder is that they “are able to teach.” Elders, thus, should have the God-given gift of being able to teach and use this gift to do their role well.
  • ‘Deacon’ is the Greek word for servant. The deacons, “being full of the Spirit and wisdom,” were chosen to fill a role of service to the church. They were chosen for this role because they were better equipped for it, not because they were less holy.

We see this further in the context around this passage. Acts 5 and Acts 7 describe two accounts of men being arrested for their faith in Christ—the apostles, and the deacon, Stephen. Both the apostles and Stephen boldly stand by their faith and are willing to die for Jesus. These men’s lives are marked by strong character and deep faith in Christ; neither group is more holy than the other.

Do What You Do Well

Appointing deacons allowed the apostles and elders to focus on their roles. Acts 6:4 says, “But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”

The deacons and apostles used their God-given gifts and talents to handle their respective duties. Without deacons, the apostles could not be as efficient in praying for God’s people and spreading God’s word.

This is the idea of comparative advantage in economics—when people focus on doing what they do well relative to other people, more is accomplished and more overall value is created because the costs of what we do are lower. Division of labor, as we see it here, occurs when people work according to their relative comparative advantages.

This concept is also highlighted by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12 when he talks of the church being like a body, equipped with different spiritual gifts. He stresses that every role is an important role, writing “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’” (1 Cor. 12:21)

The body only functions properly if each person is using their God-given gifts to do what God has designed them to do.

Benefits of Comparative Advantage for Spreading the Gospel

What is the impact of living out your comparative advantage? After the deacons were chosen, Luke writes in Acts 6:7,

And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.

Because the deacons, elders, and apostles worked in their comparative advantages, they were more efficient and effective in their work. God’s word spread as a result.

God ultimately is in control over the spread of his gospel. But, as we are called to partake in the restoration of his kingdom, we can use the economic way of thinking and our God-given talents to work efficiently and effectively for him.

This applies not just to work in the church, but also to work outside of the church. We are all called to fulfill our roles, using our gifts to work for the glory of God and to participate in the restoration of his kingdom.

Editor’s note: Read more about economic principles that help us to be good stewards in Be Fruitful and Multiply: Why Economics Is Necessary for Making God-Pleasing Decisions.

Is economics relevant for Christians? Let us know your thoughts below!

On “Flashback Friday,” we publish some of IFWE’s former posts that are worth revisiting. This post was first published on Jan 21, 2016.

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