The Holy Calling of Wealth Creation Isn't So Simple
Ron Sider is retiring from teaching at Eastern University and Palmer Theological Seminary! In his honor, we'll be running some of the "best of" by and about Ron here on ESA.
By Ron Sider
At a conference in March 2017, the Lausanne Movement and Business as Mission Global issued the important, helpful, and much-needed Wealth Creation Manifesto. While this manifesto is reflective of important biblical themes, it ignores others and ultimately fails to provide the balanced wisdom and guidance so urgently needed on this important topic.
Astonishing success in reducing global poverty has occurred in the last 40 years—especially the last 20. In that period, more evangelicals have come to understand the extensive biblical teaching about God's concern for the poor—with a corresponding explosion of evangelical programs working to overcome poverty. From the 1990 Oxford Declaration on Christian Faith and Economics to more recent books on economics and market economies, evangelicals have increasingly devoted attention to how biblical faith intersects with the world of business and economics.
Initially nurtured by Youth With A Mission, a global network of Christian business leaders, theologians and ethicists have come together in an important network, Business as Mission. In 2013, they produced an important document, Business as Mission and the End of Poverty, a document that emphasized the biblical concern for the poor and insisted that ending poverty be a central concern of every Christian in business. That 2013 document, followed by the 2014 consultation by the Lausanne Movement on Prosperity Theology, Poverty, and the Gospel helped prepare the way for this 2017 Wealth Creation Manifesto.
A Crucial Caveat
This manifesto rightly establishes wealth creation as a "holy calling," established by the Creator. He made persons in the divine image to be "co-creators," reshaping the material world to create an abundant sufficiency for all. It also rightly points out that "involuntary poverty" displeases God and that wealth creation has lifted many people (billions, in fact) out of poverty. These concepts are true and important.
It is true that, on balance, the creation of wealth by gifted entrepreneurs working in market economies has been a positive and historic development that biblical Christians should celebrate. The manifesto also has brief references to related problems: "Wealth creation must always be pursued with justice and a concern for the poor," and "creation care is not optional."
The Bible consistently acknowledges the tendency to gain wealth by oppressing others and assures us that God hates such action.
But there is nothing in the manifesto about other crucial, relevant biblical themes. The Bible consistently acknowledges the tendency to gain wealth by oppressing others and assures us that God hates such action: "It is you who have ruined my vineyard; the plunder from the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people and grinding the faces of the poor?" (Isaiah 3:14–15). While the Bible acknowledges that wealth is good, it also repeatedly warns of its dangers, particularly that it so often leads people to forget God: "How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God," (Luke 18:24–25).
The manifesto also overlooks the Old Testament's emphasis on the distribution of land (the basic "capital" in an agricultural society). Every family was to be given access to the productive resources so they could create wealth and care for themselves ("In the year of Jubilee, everyone is to return to their own property," says Leviticus 25:13). The manifesto also lacks reference to the prophets' sharp denunciation of Israel when a small group of elites concentrated their wealth among just a few: "Though you have built stone mansions, you will not live in them; though you have planted lush vineyards, you will not drink their wine. For I know how many are your offenses and how great your sins. There are those who oppress the innocent and take bribes and deprive the poor of justice in the courts." (Amos 5:11–12). Finally, there is no reference to the way economic and judicial structures create and reinforce poverty (Isaiah 10:1–4; Amos 2:6–7; 4:1–2; 5:10–15).
Nor does it say anything about the widespread environmental destruction, abuse of workers, and astonishing concentration of wealth in the hands of elites that has so often accompanied the creation of wealth as today's market economies have spread across the globe.
What's Risked by What's Missing
Any manifesto that celebrates wealth creation without also acknowledging the ways wealth creation can be unjust is an inadequate representation of central biblical themes and current realities. The Bible continually stresses God's special concern for the poor and the importance of just distribution. The manifesto does insist that "wealth hoarding is wrong, and wealth sharing should be encouraged," but this does not come close to dealing realistically with the astonishing, unjust concentration of wealth that exists today.
Any manifesto that celebrates wealth creation without also acknowledging the ways wealth creation can be unjust is an inadequate representation of central biblical themes and current realities.
Further, to say that "material simplicity is a personal choice" does not reflect the pledge of all those who signed the Lausanne Covenant with its clear promise to "develop a simple lifestyle." In a world where approximately a billion neighbors try to survive on $1.25 per person, and a billion plus have never even heard about Jesus, it is simply not adequate to say that "material simplicity is a personal choice." An issue this fraught requires a more robust and careful treatment, and the vast number of Christians who have great material abundance would benefit from a more full-throated call to "live more simply." Biblical teaching compels Christians living in material abundance to spend much less on themselves so they can share more for evangelism and economic empowerment of poor neighbors.
Yes, virtually all that this manifesto says is true and important, but the problem lies in what it fails to say. This subject requires further dialogue on these issues by a wider range of participants. What is at stake is more than a simple manifesto but a biblically balanced vision of the role of wealth creation in fashioning a just, sustainable world.
Ron Sider is the Founder and President Emeritus of Evangelicals for Social Action. This article originally appeared in Christianity Today.