What does God think about the business world? Are pastors and missionaries the only ones doing kingdom work? Does being a Christian employee mean simply behaving ethically and evangelizing one’s co-workers? Is making money inherently greedy and sinful?
For years Hugh Whelchel asked these questions, but the answers others offered never satisfied him. As founder and executive director for the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics (IFWE), Whelchel now wants to help Christians see how much God cares about what happens during their workweeks.
A Biblical Advocacy Think Tank
In 2011 Whelchel began the IFWE — a nonpartisan, nonprofit group — to help Christians understand the connection between one’s vocational calling, faith, and resources.
The IFWE’s purpose is twofold. First, Whelchel wants to build a body of scholarly research on a biblical understanding of work and economics. To that end IFWE employs an impressive arsenal of theologians and economists who publish regularly on the IFWE website and other outlets. These scholars help create what Whelchel calls “a biblical advocacy think tank.”
Whelchel said few organizations give thought to work, faith, and economics, so there is a research void on these subjects. And though IFWE is based just a few miles outside Washington, D.C., in McLean, Va., the IFWE’s expressed purpose is to create a foundation of biblical truth, not create government policy.
The IFWE’s aim is to communicate the notion of calling to the average evangelical.
The IFWE’s other aim is to communicate the notion of calling to the average evangelical, of whom there are 75 million in America. IFWE staff members promote the message through radio talk show interviews, college lectures, op-eds, and the IFWE blog. Some of their most popular blog posts address finding joy and purpose in one’s job, understanding what the Bible has to say about income inequality, and recommending economic books for beginners.
One of the clearest expressions of IFWE’s principles is Whelchel’s 2012 book “How Then Shall We Work? Rediscovering the Biblical Doctrine of Work.” In it he lays the foundation for a biblical understanding of work using the four-part Gospel (creation, fall, redemption, and restoration), the Cultural Mandate, the concept of the Kingdom of God, common grace, and the biblical meaning of success.
Now that the IFWE is in its third year, Whelchel hopes to reach 5 million evangelicals this year alone. And the more IFWE staffers share the message about using one’s passions and gifts to serve God, the more they see the need to keep sharing it.
“People still don’t get it. Every time I speak, I see the need to spread this message,” Whelchel said.
An Incomplete Picture
What people don’t get is the notion that God has given them gifts that He wants them to use in all areas of life. This means that using one’s skills to work as a surgeon, an educator, a secretary, or a stay-at-home mother is doing God’s work.
For most of his business career, Whelchel was one Christian who did not understand this connection. As an IT industry executive, he was a successful businessman who did his job well and was compensated appropriately. Still, he always felt that because he did not work for a church, he was not serving God with his work.
When Whelchel sought counsel from the pastor of his Orlando church, his well-intentioned pastor explained that Whelchel could serve God just by giving money to the church. The church would in turn use it for good things like mission work.
Frustrated, Whelchel enrolled at Reformed Theological Seminary’s Orlando campus. His studies introduced him to Francis Schaeffer, then to earlier writers such as Abraham Kuyper and eventually Calvin and Luther. Whelchel was stunned to see how clearly these men saw that Christ rules over all areas of one’s life, including one’s work.
“In over 40 years in the church, I had never heard this,” he said.
Economics Reclaimed for Christ
If Christians struggle to connect their faith to their jobs, connecting faith to economics can feel especially abstract. But Jay Richards, an IFWE distinguished fellow and author, believes that economics, like physics, is governed by laws, and those laws have been instituted by God. Therefore, Christians have a duty to rightly understand how those laws work.
Jay Richards, an IFWE distinguished fellow and author, believes that economics, like physics, is governed by laws, and those laws have been instituted by God.
“To think biblically about economics is to integrate the perennial truths of the Christian faith articulated in Scripture with the most important discoveries and theoretical insights into the economic realm,” Richards said.
Not only does the average Christian fail to see how faith and economics work together, but Richards believes Christian economists sometimes get confused on this point, too. He hopes that his work at IFWE will encourage economists who are Christians to think biblically about their work.
He also wants to connect with non-Christians and share how economic truths can point to the gospel. There are economic principles, such as wealth creation, that Richards believes can be explained only in light of people being made in the image of a creative God.
“I’m convinced that a proper integration of theology and economics has apologetic value,” he said.
Poverty alleviation is one area where Richards sees a desperate need for biblically informed economic ideas. This seems especially true for young Christians, who understand the Bible’s calls to compassion but do not understand there are good and bad ways to show compassion.
“In my experience, most young Christians are rightly convinced that the gospel has something to say about our jobs and our economic circumstances. But that conviction is often wedded to bad economics,” he said.
Richards contributed a chapter to IFWE’s forthcoming book “For the Least of These: A Biblical Answer to Poverty.” This book contains chapters written by economists, theologians, and other thinkers who explore what the Bible has to say about poverty and real solutions to the problems.
Richards hopes that his work for IFWE can help Christians think beyond their good intentions and see that actions can have unintended bad consequences. When Christians accept trade-offs and try to distinguish their good intentions from the effects of their actions, they are reasoning economically.
“If we want to apply our moral principles to the real but fallen world that God has created, we simply can’t bypass these intellectual tools,” he said.
For Whelchel and the IFWE’s researchers, understanding the intersection of faith, work, and economics comes down to understanding stewardship. Stewardship is more than tithing and a church’s capital campaign, as Whelchel argues in one blog post. It’s about understanding that God really owns everything, and all people are responsible and accountable to Him for how they use the resources He gives them. God, in turn, will reward faithful stewards.
This concept is so key to IFWE that Whelchel is working on a book about faith and economics entitled “Stewardship with a Capital S.” This book is aimed at a more general audience and outlines the biblical principles of stewardship. In writing the book, Whelchel collaborated with IFWE resident economist Dr. Anne Rathbone Bradley.
The same ideas that IFWE staffers hope to help people embrace, Bill Fullilove strives to impress into members of McLean Presbyterian Church, where he was an assistant pastor before leaving in May 2013 to accept a position at Reformed Theological Seminary in Atlanta. Whelchel is an elder at McLean, and he and Fullilove have been discussing the faith and work connection for years.
In an effort to help its members better understand how God has called them to be Christian workers, McLean started the Capital Fellows Program (CFP) in 2007. Fullilove was the CFP director and though he’s moved on, he returns a couple of times a month to serve as the program’s Kingdom Seminar professor. Whelchel has served as executive director and board member for The Fellows Initiative, the umbrella organization for CFP.
Through CFP, college graduates spend nine months working three-day weeks and taking theology classes to understand the connection between their faith and the professions they hope to pursue. They also serve the community inside and outside the church.
“Most Christians’ knowledge of faith and works is about ethics and evangelism. Those are absolutely true, but it’s so much more than that. Most people don’t know how to make those connections, so we help them make those connections,” Fullilove said.
Because these ideas are so ingrained in Fullilove, who spent five years working in management consulting before attending seminary, they naturally spill over into his preaching.
“People feel the lack of understanding this, and they wish they could enroll in the Fellows Program. My job now is to figure out where we go next with this teaching,” he said. Primarily this teaching works itself out with CFP, but Fullilove hopes it will one day include curriculum for adult education, too.
In the meantime, Fullilove sees Whelchel as an encouraging example of a Christian faithfully living out these principles.
“We are thrilled when any of our members are engaging their vocations with the fullness of the Gospel as they should,” he said. “That includes [Whelchel].”
And Whelchel hopes to steward IFWE’s resources to help Christians see the roles they play in God’s kingdom, whether that means working as a missionary, being a surgeon, or leading a biblical advocacy think tank.
For more information on IFWE, visit its website, www.tifwe.org.