In “Practicing the King’s Economy: Honoring Jesus in How We Work, Earn, Spend, Save, and Give,” authors Michael Rhodes, Robby Holt, and Brian Fikkert examine various aspects of “the King’s economy” through six “keys”: Worship, Community, Work, Equity, Creation Care, and Sabbath. Each key gets two chapters — the first laying out a biblical case for the key, the second exploring real-life examples and practical applications. The result is a challenging, compelling, and surprisingly joyful vision of how the good news of the Gospel penetrates every nook and cranny of our economic lives.
ByFaith writer Andrew Shaughnessy spoke with Rhodes and Holt about their book.
Why did you write this book?
Rhodes: I was working for a nonprofit called Advance Memphis and I would get asked to speak at these suburban churches that supported our nonprofit. And I realized that we had sailed right past the point where people didn’t know that God cared about the poor. To that message, they were like: “Yeah, we got it.” But nobody was living any differently, because they didn’t know what to do.
I started realizing that the typical church model of stewardship is: You make all your money using good stewardship principles that are basically good Americanism with a little bit of tithing sprinkled on top. And the rest of stewardship teaching is about how you should give more of what’s left over. In my work with Advance, we were trying to help people in one of the worst-performing economic ZIP codes in the city start small businesses and get hired, even though they had felony records. And we started realizing — man, people could give us a bajillion dollars, but if they’re not willing to advocate for a felon getting a job in their business, we don’t have a model. The church just wasn’t talking about that aspect of discipleship.
The goal is not to say: “Do all of this.” The goal is: “Come into Scripture, live in the world of God’s economy that we find in the Bible, and then begin — take your next step.”
Writing this book was about wanting to help myself and the church become the sorts of people today that God seems to really want us to become in our economic lives. That was the heartbeat behind the project for me.
Holt: Number one: We love the biblical story and how it centers on the kingdom of God. In the New Testament the kingdom of God is good news, so we wanted to tell that story over and over in different ways. Number two: I’m jealous for the Reformed tradition. If there’s something in our book that sounds radical, I’d bet you Calvin or the Westminster Divines said it before we did, and I’d bet you they cited the same passages we cite. And, third, I did this because Michael asked me to and he’s my friend.
There are plenty of books already out there about God’s heart for the poor and radical Christian generosity. How is this book any different?
Rhodes: I think there are a lot of distinctives. One is that we think that radical, sacrificial generosity that emerges from things like simpler lifestyles or living on less is a crucial part of Gospel faithfulness. But you can fit a lot of what’s said in that vein into Wesley’s quote: “Make all you can, save all you can, give all you can.” Now, I really love that quote. It’s just not what the Old Testament says. The gleaning laws literally say: Don’t make as much as you can, so that you can create opportunity on the production side of the economic equation.
We are economic agents when we have influence in our workplace, when our church hires someone to sweep the floors, when we decide where to eat lunch. In all these different opportunities, we are called to live under the lordship of Jesus. We wanted to inspire people to try and figure out how to bend their economic power toward the marginalized and toward this sort of “potluck economy” that we talk about throughout the book, where everyone is giving to everyone else and receiving from everyone else in community.
Holt: We love the whole story of the Bible, and we wanted the story of the Bible to impact how we encouraged people to do practical things.
Rhodes: There’s a definite emphasis on practice. It’s really, really practical. At different points while we were writing this, we asked ourselves: “Is there just too much Bible in this book? Does it need all this Bible?” And our answer [to the latter question] was “Yes.” What we’re after is a biblical vision and we think that the church ought to be skeptical of stuff that does not come out of deep immersion in the story and world of Scripture. In the introduction, we use an analogy of going through the wardrobe into Narnia. We want you to walk around in this strange new world of the Bible and really live in it.
Connected to that is a decision that we made early on — we explicitly avoided any discussion of what you vote for. Robby and Brian and I have strong opinions about what people should vote for as an act of faithful citizenship.
Holt: And they don’t necessarily line up!
Rhodes: Exactly! We don’t always agree. But on the right, you’ve got a lot of people basically saying: “Live a pious life and invest in the free market because that’s going to solve all the justice issues by creating more and more opportunity.” And on the left, you have all these people saying: “Live a pious life and invest in state intervention.” We think the truth is in between, and both options let Christians off the hook to not live God’s economy in their lives today.
We think [churches] lack the wisdom they need to contribute to those conversations because they’re not actually living out the solutions in their daily lives. What the heck do we know about how people with criminal records will or won’t flourish in the workplace if we’re not trying to figure that out where we have influence?
This book covers a lot of ground and a lot of practical applications. Do you worry that your readers will read the book, be overwhelmed, and say, “That’s too much,” and do nothing?
Rhodes: Yeah, I lose sleep about that. I think it’s a Catch-22. We could have published like 12 books and divided up each key, but we wanted people to be awed by the good news of God’s economy, to be overwhelmed by it, and then to be handed a “choose your own adventure” set of options.
There is no human that we know of who has done all the practices that we suggest, including ourselves. The goal is not to say: “Do all of this.” The goal is: “Come into Scripture, live in the world of God’s economy that we find in the Bible, and then begin — take your next step.” And we wanted to give enough ideas that people could gravitate toward the ones that make sense in their context.
In the “God, Not Mammon” chapter, you dive into 1 Timothy 6:9, where Paul says: “Those who desire to be rich fall into temptation … into many harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.” You write: “Do you believe that? That wanting to get rich inevitably causes such destruction?” Many Christians would take issue here, arguing that there is nothing wrong with wanting to get rich, as long as it doesn’t become an idol, and the richer Christians become, the more they can give. It seems like you’re taking a pretty direct stand against that.
Holt: The idols that rule us right now are very demanding. They promise us peace and comfort and rest and security, and they just take, take, take. Our idols say to us — your life for ours. Jesus has got a better message than that when He says my life for yours. He liberates us to live for God and love our neighbor by His death and resurrection.
I don’t have any doubt that if John Calvin or the Westminster Divines walked into one of our churches today, he would be shocked by how immoderate our lifestyles are and how beholden we are to them — the golden handcuffs. Same with Jesus, James, Paul. We flat-out don’t believe 1 Timothy 6.
Rhodes: I’m not sure I believe it three out of seven days. It is a ridiculous thing to say that wanting to be rich will plunge you into destruction. And this is where the community key is very important.
One of the reasons that the “earn as much as you can and give it all away” paradigm often falls short is that what most of us have in our heads is — I should make as much money as I can for me and my family, and then what I give away is outsourced to professional charities that actually serve to distance my life from the poor and the marginalized. Whereas, in the community key, what we say is that the persistent goal of biblical economic life is the feast where we are feasting together.
The wise creation of wealth is to be oriented toward delight, even indulgence. That’s an appropriate end to our work if we do it together. Material possessions are good things that God has given, but the criteria and the context within which they are good is primarily the community that is rejoicing in God’s blessing on our work together.
You talk about a “soup kitchens versus potluck” paradigm a lot in the book. Can you explain the potluck idea?
Rhodes: The “soup kitchen to potluck” metaphor became, in the process of writing the book, one of the central contributions. The idea of the soup kitchen is that some of us have resources and some of us don’t, so we need to try to get the people with resources to give to those that don’t. But we think that God’s vision in Scripture is not of a church of “haves” who give to “have-nots” out there, but rather of the family of God in and among those who are struggling, giving and receiving gifts in community. You can’t even have a potluck until everyone is giving gifts to everyone else and receiving gifts from everyone else. And if that’s the goal, then we can start to ask: “Why does my neighbor struggle to bring their best plate to the potluck?”
Material possessions are good things that God has given, but the criteria and the context within which they are good is primarily the community that is rejoicing in God’s blessing on our work together.
If your model is the soup kitchen, you need to make as much money as you can. If the business owner earns less because he takes a risk on a guy with a felony record, there’s less to give away at the soup kitchen. But if the goal is the potluck, then figuring out how to re-enfranchise the guy with the felony record in the workplace is essential to ensuring that everybody can sit at the table and bring their plate.
Holt: God calls us to give relief to the suffering. That’s what soup kitchens do. They give immediate relief to the hungry person. What they don’t do, or what they do very little of, is development. And development’s really important because now I’m acknowledging that the person I’m relieving is God’s image-bearer, with inherent gifts. What I’m aiming for is not keeping you in a relief line. What I’m aiming for is partnership. As I’m investing in you, I’m going to realize all these skills and insider knowledge and wisdom you have that I do not have. I actually need your partnership. “The potluck” is a way to talk about that.
You have two whole chapters on creation care. How does that fit into this picture of how we work, earn, spend, save and give?
Holt: It fits because we believe the story is creation, fall, redemption, consummation — which is the redemption of God’s good creation. It also fits because we believe our cost-benefit accounting is too thin. Our economic imagination is so reductionistic that we’re simply not accounting for ecological harm.
Another reason it matters is that God loves His creation, and as God’s vice regents, as image-bearers, we’re called to tend to spheres where others of God’s good creatures live, and we’re called to make sure they’re flourishing. None of that’s anti-business, anti-technology, or anti-wealth.
There’s really good, creative, imaginative, important work to be done right now where God’s people could be leaders. The irony is that, in our cultural context, it’s people that don’t believe in God that are saying: “Let’s love the earth and the forests and rivers and soil.” And God’s people are like: “No, let’s burn it down and go to the beach.” What in the world? That’s not a Christian ethic.
If God has an eschatological plan for His creation that isn’t annihilation or “beam me up, Scotty,” then obviously this fits. So we wanted to tackle it, but we didn’t want to politicize this chapter either. We wanted it to be as beautiful, as non-threatening, as invitational as possible.
If there’s one thing you hope individuals and churches take away from this book, what is it?
Rhodes: I would love to see a vast host of God’s people in their churches, in their businesses, business leaders and professionals, social innovators and social entrepreneurs who are all bending their lives toward actively re-enfranchising the marginalized into a just, flourishing way of life. I would love to see God’s people spending themselves in support of workplaces that work for people with disabilities, people with criminal records, refugees and immigrants. I would love to see God’s people spending themselves for a financial system that gets behind minority entrepreneurs who have a fraction of the household wealth of white entrepreneurs. The end result of that kind of movement, which I think flows right out of the Jubilee vision that this book presents, is that people in our lives get taken care of.
Holt: I hope people, families, and churches find deep, corporate soul rest. Jesus says — come to me, all you who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. We have a lot of high places in our culture. We’re bowing down to Baal and Ashura, and I think we’re sick and exhausted, and I hope we’ll come to Jesus and find rest.
What’s so encouraging to me is when I go read the Larger Catechism questions and answers on the eighth and Tenth Commandments, not only are they saying what we wrote in this book, but you can go to their proof texts and they’re the exact passages we’re talking about. The Westminster Divines were speaking into these same issues and quoting these same passages. We’re not trying to say: “Hey, go believe other stuff. Leave this crazy Reformed stuff behind.” No, in some sense, we’re calling God’s people back to our own traditions, to the Scriptures, and to the Lord Jesus Christ.
Rhodes: At the end of the day, what we’re trying to do is talk about economic discipleship as if the Gospel really is the good news that the generous King is making all things new, and the only way that we can participate in that kingdom is because the generous King has also allowed us to become citizens through his life, death, and resurrection. But what that means is that living under the lordship of Jesus in our economic life is not an implication of the Gospel, it is an integral aspect of the Gospel. And if we accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior and we don’t live out His lordship in our economic lives, we are settling for less than the good news in our lives and in the world.
Michael Rhodes is the director of community-development at the Memphis Center for Urban Theological Studies, where he heads up efforts to equip urban pastors and community development practitioners with theologically informed tools for community transformation.
Robby Holt is the senior pastor at North Shore Fellowship in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and a teacher and theological dean for the Chattanooga Institute for Faith and Work.
Andrew Shaughnessy is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. A graduate of Covenant College, he has lived and worked in England, South Sudan, and India, honing his craft with a focus on nonprofits, business, and international affairs.
Photography by John David Pittman and Ben Rollins