Illustrations by Christian Northeast
Several of the courses I teach at Covenant College involve careful study of the economies of various countries, and it doesn’t take long for students to discover economic realities that result in the suffering of sometimes large numbers of people. Economic suffering has become especially clear to students as they live through the pandemic and see its economic impacts. I assign prayer as homework to help students respond to the reality of broken economies, and my hope is that they are reminded that an economy that is strong in the fullest sense is not created through mere government policy or economic ideology, but depends on the redemptive grace of our Savior and King.
In their excellent book “Becoming Whole: Why the Opposite of Poverty Isn’t the American Dream,” Brian Fikkert and Kelly Kapic discuss our nature as beings created to bear God’s image. Fikkert and Kapic summarize their ideas about human beings this way: “People experience human flourishing when they serve as priest-kings, using their mind, affections, will, and body to enjoy loving relationships with God, self, others, and the rest of creation.” This definition focuses on two things: our calling to serve as royal priests and our bodies. When reflecting on the creation of human beings as royal priests, Fikkert and Kapic note:
“[T]he garden of Eden was far more than just a place where Adam and Eve watered plants. … It was a temple garden in which the first humans served as priests and kings … all of life — working, playing, resting, eating, and so on — was lived before the face of God, so all of life was to be an act of worshiping Him. … The goal of God’s story of change for all people … is to restore us as priest-kings, image bearers who extend God’s presence throughout the whole earth.”
Where does the economy fit into all of this? We could say that the economy is the stage upon which people and the rest of creation connect. When we talk about a community’s economy, we are talking about individuals, families, businesses, and all kinds of other institutions interacting with each other and the world God has created to accomplish a beautiful variety of different goals.
The economy is the sum of all the particular decisions being made as human beings live out this calling to serve as interdependent royal priests within creation. When we evaluate the economy, we are judging whether these interactions between people and creation are revealing God’s nature and carrying out His purpose for humanity. Are they ensuring that God’s royal priests have their needs met and are empowered to act as God’s image bearers in a way that recognizes and affirms the value of their God-given identity?
The calling of human beings to serve as royal priests before and after the Fall is carried out through interaction with the rest of creation. Further, our future is found in a new creation that doesn’t erase our creatureliness but renews it. As emphasized by Fikkert and Kapic, “When Christ returns, our bodies will be resurrected and … we will once again live as fully integrated persons — bodies and souls — in a renewed creation.” As a result, there is no age at which we fully accomplish our purpose apart from our connection to the rest of creation. Creation is the intended context within which we act as God’s royal priests.
Flourishing Through Connection
Earlier in their book, Fikkert and Kapic remind us that human beings are not made of a spiritual part and a material part but rather that “[t]he body and soul are highly interconnected. In fact, they aren’t really two different things, but refer to two aspects of one person. And together, these two aspects capture the fullness of the whole being.” Our bodies are a good and integral part of who we are and what we were created to do. Our embodiment results in our being intimately connected to the rest of creation. We are dependent on our planet for our survival, and as God’s royal priests we are called to glorify God through our interaction with the world around us.
Additionally, God shapes each person’s perspective, interests, and abilities through biology, history, geography, nationality, family systems, and an endless array of other factors that arise from our connection to the rest of creation. The particular way we go about fulfilling our calling as royal priests is shaped by our connection to the rest of creation.
The economy is the stage upon which people and the rest of creation connect.
It is also clear that we are not called to be royal priests individually in isolation, but to fulfill this function communally with universal participation. When discussing human nature in “Becoming Whole,” Fikkert and Kapic put it this way: “… humans are necessarily relational creatures. … As creatures who reflect the triune God, human beings are hardwired for relationship … . We are not created to live as autonomous individuals.”
If the context of our lives does not facilitate our connection to the community, we are not able to flourish. Additionally, in our practice as royal priests we are called to work in a cooperative, interdependent way. This is powerfully illustrated by the Apostle Paul in his discussion of the church as a body with many members. Particularly in 1 Corinthians 12-14 we see Paul’s concern that every member of the body be valued and participate. The picture Paul paints is of a community of people who worship together recognizing their dependence on all members for their worship to be complete.
While the context here emphasizes what we associate with Sunday worship, as royal priests we are called to offer all of creation to God in worship. All our activities fall under this vocation, and the inclusive interdependent community we look for on Sunday points toward how we ought to reflect the nature of the triune God every day of the week. We weren’t created to operate as a body on Sunday morning and autonomous individuals in our economic lives the rest of the week.
Building a Healthy Economy
How might we pray as we seek to build a healthy economy? One way to approach this would be to think about what economic goods are fundamentally important for empowering royal priests. First, as priests we are called to go out into God’s creation in such a way that our interactions with it become the raw material for joyful worship. The economy we pray for would be filled with opportunities for image bearers to experience creation in many ways. Opportunities such as this tend to be provided by what are often called common or public goods.
Examples of these things could be places where image bearers can encounter and learn about nature — parks, forests, lakes, aquariums, zoos, libraries, farmers markets, gardens, etc. I would also put in this category the access people have to basic resources that are necessary for life and participation as loved and welcomed members of the community. Exactly which economic goods you put on that list would depend on social context, but it would certainly include clean water, clean air, clothing, food, and shelter. In our context, you might include regular access to transportation and communication. The key is to identify the essentials needed by every community member to experience the goodness of creation and express that in worship, individually and communally.
Secondly, as royal agents, human beings are called not just to experience the goodness of creation but also to exercise their particular abilities, authority, and calling to creatively organize creation in a way that glorifies God. While there aren’t preconditions for people to be able to do this, there are things that can help make them more effective, encourage growth in the particular characteristics God has given each person, and create room for them to exercise these gifts in the wider community. Some economic goods are important to everyone, such as health, education, and employment. Individuals experiencing illness in body or mind will not be able to make use of their full potential for the glory of God and the good of the community. Access to good education and training is a powerful way to help people take the basic interests and talents God has given and develop them into something that can be used effectively for the good of others.
When people are healthy and trained, they also need opportunities to effectively express their particular callings as God’s royal agents through employment that provides good work, which is well-suited to them both now and as they continue to mature. In addition to these common goods there is an endless list of more particular goods that are important to facilitate the ordering of daily life (such as ovens or vacuum cleaners) or to express God-given diversity within the community (craft supplies, board games, movies, etc.).
When we look at it in this way, it becomes clear why economic growth and employment do not provide enough information to evaluate the economy. Economic growth basically means that we produced more goods and services than we did before. While growth is often what we expect to see in a healthy economy, growth alone does not mean the economy is healthy.
As priests we are called to go out into God’s creation in such a way that our interactions with it become the raw material for joyful worship.
First, growth measurements ignore moral considerations related to the things being produced. As long as the product isn’t illegal, it will count toward growth. It isn’t hard in our context to imagine economic growth that is driven by goods and services which we as Christians know to be harmful to individuals and communities.
Second, growth in an economy can take place unevenly. Growth in general can occur while certain groups of people or areas of a community are passed over or in decline. Similar points can be made about employment. While opportunities to work are a basic part of a healthy economy, just keeping track of the number of people with or without a job is not informative. There are jobs that we as Christians would say the nature of the work being done is not appropriate for God’s royal priests. Additionally, there are jobs that don’t provide the type and amount of work that would most fully empower people to serve as royal priests in ways that incorporate and develop their particular gifts. In some cases, the economy has developed in ways that make good employment consistently harder to find for significant groups of people. Growth and employment numbers don’t tell us if all God’s image bearers have access to the resources and opportunities they need to live as royal priests.
Economic Health As a Ministry of Reconciliation
We should care about the economy because Christians are embedded in the wider community, and the economy of the world is failing to empower many of our brothers and sisters in Christ to live out their particular callings as royal priests. We should also care because we are the people called to bear witness to our neighbors concerning the reality that Jesus is Lord — not just of Christians but of all things:
For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities — all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross (Colossians 1:16-20).
God seeks to reconcile all things, including the economy, to Himself, and He does it through His Spirit-empowered people. But we have a long way to go. This is clear from the fact that we so often give up on the challenge of creating a Christian community that worships and serves across the sort of ethnic and socioeconomic boundaries we see rejected in the ministry of the Apostle Paul.
If we don’t make the effort (and Paul’s Epistles give us a hint at how consistent and difficult that effort will be), then we will continue to fall into an economic life constrained by worldly boundaries and centered on our desire to be the lords of our own happiness. On the other hand, as we embark on this ministry of reconciliation we will find partners in churches that aren’t like ours, and we will learn to love people whom we otherwise wouldn’t have noticed. We might even find that our churches become entryways to the Kingdom for people who would otherwise never be able to imagine the fullness of what Jesus’ redemption means for the world.
Ultimately, the weakness in our economy isn’t that we don’t produce the goods needed by royal priests, but that the Fall has resulted in a world where access to these goods is unequal. The government can be more or less helpful in how it influences the economy, but as long as the economy develops according to the wisdom of the world, it will always produce distortions that deny access to economic goods to groups of God’s image bearers based on categories such as race, age, nationality, gender, and income, which the gospel clearly calls us to transcend.
Our prayers for the economy will be answered only as people find themselves called as God’s image bearers to pursue a healthy economy in their community. We will begin to experience the economy God desires only if His royal priests, empowered by the Holy Spirit, intentionally seek to create a different economic pattern through sacrificial acts of love for brothers, sisters, and neighbors. This will be a blessing to our fellow Christians; it will do our non-Christian neighbors good, and it will aid us in our proclamation of the gospel. Let us pray.
John Rush is assistant professor of economics at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Georgia.