You don’t have to get too far in your reading of the New Testament to find teaching from both Jesus and the apostles on the subject of money. Often, the teaching is in the form of an admonition where believers are warned of the hazards that attend wealth. In Matthew 6:19-26, for example, Jesus instructs his disciples to “not store up treasures on earth” because undue focus on wealth inhibits spiritual sight and clarity.
Later, in response to an encounter with a rich young man, Jesus explains to those around him that it’s difficult for a rich man to enter heaven (Matt 19:23). Luke records an episode where Jesus uses a story to rebuke those who have plans to store up great riches in order to enjoy an early and leisurely retirement without any reference to God (Luke 12:13-21). Paul reminds Christians avoid the desire to be rich (1 Tim 6:9), and makes the absence of greed a qualification for church elders (1 Tim 3:3).
It would seem that, given these warnings, the concern over economics would be, at best, a waste of a Christian’s time and, at worst, a serious impediment to one’s salvation and sanctification. But is this the conclusion we should draw from these sharp words about money and our relationship to it?
Like any biblical teaching, we must not be content with highlighting a few verses here and there and drawing our conclusions. In order to be biblical, we must take in all that Scripture says about the topic in question. Yes, there are many warnings in Scripture about the temporal and eternal dangers of greed, the love of money, and the aimless amassing of great wealth. But there is also much in Scripture that should positively influence our thinking about economics in general and our economy in particular. As we will see, it is possible to think carefully and fruitfully about economics and not be guilty of loving money.
Defining Our Terms: “Economics” and “Economy“
But before we turn to Scripture, let’s first define our terms. What do we mean by the words economics and economy? Merriam-Webster defines economics as “a social science concerned chiefly with description and analysis of the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services.” Lexico’s definition is similar: Economics is “the branch of knowledge concerned with the production, consumption, and transfer of wealth” An economy is “the wealth and resources of a country or region, especially in terms of the production and consumption of goods and services.”
Economics, therefore, has to do with the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services. It should become immediately apparent, then, that economics is an essential component of our lives. As one person has put it, “The economy is how people eat.”
Economic Activity in the Bible
Biblically speaking, the basic elements of economic activity are found in the first chapters of the Bible. God creates man in his own image and assigns him the task of multiplying and exercising dominion over all the earth (Gen 1:27). This exercising of dominion would include bringing forth food from the ground and creating useful resources from the earth. The moment that the man and woman were created, they would have had an interest in the “production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services” because it was part of their task as image bearers and, in God’s design, their lives depended on it.
As the man and the woman multiplied over the earth, the discovery, creation, and exchanging of resources would have also multiplied. People settled in cities and produced useful things according to their own skills and opportunities. In fact, you find this kind of specialization very soon in the biblical record. Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain was a worker of the ground. Jubal, a descendant of Cain, would be the father of “all those who play the lyre and pipe” (Gen 4:21). Tubal-Cain, another descendant of Cain, was “the forger of all instruments of bronze and iron” (Gen 4:22).
When God established Israel as a nation, he instituted several economic policies. For example, he instructed his people not to steal from each other, which implied that Israelites had personal property that they legitimately owned (Ex 20:15). He gave them laws concerning restitution for the destruction of personal property (Ex 21:33-22:15) and how to care for the poor in the land (Ex 22:25-27). He gave Israel laws about work (Ex 23:12) and the proper care of their resources (Ex 23:10-11). The building of the tabernacle required significant economic activity because Israel needed to produce many goods and provide many services in order to construct the tabernacle (Ex 35:30ff).
The nation was also given instructions on how to offer their sacrifices to the Lord—offerings which would have come from their own livestock management and the productivity of their fields (Lev 1-6). When God promised blessing for obedience, these blessings were in the form of economic prosperity (Deut 28) which were fulfilled in abundance during the reigns of David and especially Solomon.
Speaking of Israel’s kings, it would be Solomon who would pen multiple proverbs, many of them on economic themes. For example, Solomon taught God’s people that the diligent man would experience some measure of economic prosperity, where the sluggard would be overrun by poverty (Prov 13:4; 21:25). We are told that God delights in merchants who deal fairly with their customers (Prov 11:1), and that wealth should be built slowly over time, not all at once (Prov 13:11; 21:5).
Sadly, due to Solomon’s sin and the sin of subsequent kings, Israel’s economy struggled, eventually being overturned by foreign enemies. Even so, when his people are captured and brought into Babylon, God instructed them to seek the welfare of the city, which had clear economic implications: they were to build houses, plant gardens, get married, have children and seek the welfare of the city (Jer 29:5-7).
As we move to the New Testament, there is abundant economic activity. To start with, Jesus was the carpenter’s son who called fishermen to be his disciples, highlighting two common trades in Jesus’ day. Jesus spoke often about greed and the danger of a love of money which implied that economic activity was taking place and that his disciples needed to think hard about their relationship to this such activity (see above). Paul exhorted the Thessalonians to engage in the local economy and to earn their own living (1 Thess 4:12-13; 2 Thess 3:6-12). In Revelation, as Babylon is enduring judgment for her idolatry and persistent rebellion, her punishment consists in devastation to her economy (Rev 19:21-23).
The Theological Foundation for Economics
I offer this brief Bible overview simply to help us see that much of the biblical storyline relates directly to economics. Some of these elements are prescriptive, like the commands to Israel, while some of them are descriptive where we are not told directly whether what is happening is good or bad, right or wrong. And the New Testament contains many instructions on how we are to think about our own relationship to money and to the poor. But here’s the foundational point: all of this economic activity is built on the first chapters of the Bible where God creates man in his own image to exercise dominion on the earth, to subdue it, and bring forth from the earth goods useful to oneself and other humans.
So God created man in his own image in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”Genesis 1:27-28
In God’s design, he has formed his image-bearers to have a mutual inter-dependence on one another and to serve one another through their work and subduing the earth. At the most basic level, therefore, “economics” and “economies” exist because mankind is created in God’s image and tasked with working and exercising dominion on the earth. The primary reason Christians should care about the economy is because the economy relates directly to our calling to subdue and steward this earth. If an economy is structured in such a way that it inhibits our calling to exercise dominion, engage in productive labor, and steward the earth, then Christians should be the first to take notice, not because we are infatuated with money, but because we know how God has designed the world to function.
This concern over the economy and our freedom to exercise dominion not only relates to our own financial provision, it also relates to our care for the poor. It is God’s design that, for those who are able to work—they do not have a debilitating mental or physical injury—must work to earn their own living (1 Thess 4:11-12; 2 Thess 3:6-12). Ultimately, individuals and families are not brought out of poverty merely or even primarily through government intervention: people are brought out of poverty when they have access to good jobs. Of course, our concern over our local and national economy doesn’t exempt us from the call to care for individual poor people, particularly those in our midst (Gal 2:10), but our care for these individuals should include a desire that they would be able to locate, secure, and remain in a good job that affords them the opportunity to fulfill their calling to work, exercise dominion, and subdue the earth.
So, should Christians be concerned about the economy? While most Christians are not called to be professional economists, it should be apparent that, given our calling to exercise dominion on this earth, Christians should have some interest in this topic. But we can go even deeper.
As we will see in a subsequent article, the topic of economics actually intersects with a biblical worldview at multiple points. Economic models and policies are built on assumptions about the existence and providence of God, the purpose and goodness of creation, the nature and purpose of humankind, the reality of sin, the dignity of work and private property, the role of government, the direction of history, and how to effectively care for the poor. Each of these categories are deeply theological. Once we see this, the question isn’t, “Why should a Christian be interested in economics?” but, “How can a Christian not be interested in economics given its connection with a biblical worldview?” I hope to stoke your interest in our next article on this important topic.