Why do pastors need to know all that much about economics? My friend and writing partner, Austin Hill, tells the story of a conference he attended as a graduate student, when the facilitator posed the provocative question, “Can somebody name for me one area of our lives that has nothing to do with economics?” The group was silent for more than a few moments, as the students were pondering this, most for the first time. Then a student spoke up in a southern drawl, and said what I suspect many were thinking.  He said, “As a Christian, I believe that my eternal salvation has nothing to do with economics.” The group was taken aback by his forthrightness, and the facilitator then rephrased the question this way, “Ok, let’s assume you’re right about that, and let’s assume that one’s eternal destiny has nothing to do with economics (a debatable assumption), can somebody name a second area of our lives that has nothing to do with economics? He went on to suggest that “every facet of our earthly lives is impacted on some level by both economic activity and economic conditions.”

Think about how you would answer that question the facilitator posed to this group. Can you think of an area of our lives not impacted by economics?  I would debate that the notion of our eternal salvation has nothing to do with economics, since the Bible actually describes the elements of our eternal salvation in economic terms. In Romans 4, when discussing the notion of justification by faith, salvation is described in terms of an accounting ledger, in which our sin is cancelled on the debit side and the righteousness of Christ is credit to our account as a result of his atoning death for sin. As a result of this transaction, we are declared justified, or acquitted from the guilt of our sin. In fact, when Jesus declared “it is finished” on the cross, that is also an accounting term, literally translated “paid in full.”

But a further response to the student would suggest that there is much more to a person’s spiritual life than simply the matter of his or her eternal destiny. Life on this side of eternity matters greatly, reflected by the fact that Jesus had more to say about money and economics than he did about eternity. If we refuse to separate out the sacred from the secular, and thus affirm that all of life is spiritual, then there are few, if any, areas of our spiritual lives that are not impacted by economics.

Connecting the dignity of daily work with pastoral ministry is a common-sense starting point. Since most people in the church work for a living in some fashion, the need to connect Sunday and Monday seems self-evident. Unless pastors affirm work as ministry and service to Christ with intrinsic value, there is not much hope for any other connection between economics and a pastoral ministry. How we talk about “the ministry” communicates a great deal to the business person that what they are doing in the marketplace is either not ministry, or part time ministry, or something “less than” what goes on in the pastorate or mission field or non-profit world. But theologically, that’s not true. The term “ministry” (diakonia) is most commonly translated “service” and the Bible affirms that all believers are in full time service, having entered it as the moment they came to faith. And no one “leaves the ministry” when they step down from pastorate or parachurch position—they simply change arenas of service. Paul affirms that what goes on in the workplace as service to Christ (Col. 3:23-24).  To make sure we get this right, he’s affirming that the work itself is part of one’s service to Christ, or part of one’s ministry.

One of the most obvious ways specifically to connect economics and pastoral ministry comes out of the economic context of the Bible. The Bible directly addresses economic life in numerous places in both Old and New Testament. In addition, much of its teaching is set in the specific economic context of the ancient world.  Though it is true that the fundamental issues of economics in the Bible concern the state of a person’s heart, and it is also true that the condition of the heart has not changed since the Bible was written, it is naïve to teach and preach the Bible without taking into account the profound differences in economic life between the ancient world and a modern industrial/information age economy.  One of the most important reasons for pastors to be economically literate is so that they can preach/teach the Bible accurately.  In particular, this is important so that they can apply the Bible’s teaching on economic life clearly and without misunderstanding the Bible’s teaching.  For example, it is not uncommon to apply teaching on subjects such as the Year of Jubilee (Lev. 25) as requiring wholesale redistribution of wealth.  Or to hear the church’s sharing of goods “in common” as a reference to some sort of enforced redistribution of income.  Some of the criticisms of the market system are misreadings of the Bible due to failure to take some of these differences into account.  Some also reflect a misunderstanding of economics, such as the common statement, “the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.”  Such statements are often read between the lines as “the rich getting richer are causing the poor to get poorer,” reflecting a zero sum view of economic life that was characteristic of the ancient world but not applicable to most of the global economy today.


Part Two of this series was posted on Monday, December 23.  We recommend reading the second part of this posting.