Macroeconomics and the Bible

Posted by in Bible & Theology, News & Culture

Even though, way back when, I took college introductory courses on both micro- and macroeconomics, I freely confess that I have never had a very good understanding of either one. Since then, I have spent quite a bit of time studying other subjects, such as the Bible and theology, but I freely confess to having a whole lot to learn on all that as well. As far as I am able to tell, though, the Bible does not have a whole lot to say about macroeconomics—microeconomics, yes, but macroeconomics, not so much.

So why am I writing about macroeconomics and the Bible? Not to argue in favor of one theory of macroeconomics over another. My main beef is with those, from all sides of the spectrum, who talk and act as if the Bible had a lot more to say about macroeconomics than it really does. The ideologues, in this regard, are the advocates of dominion theology (on the right) and liberation theology (on the left), but there are a lot of folks in between these extremes who are swayed to one degree or another by their arguments.

The book of Proverbs has a lot to say about microeconomics. No argument from me here. It clearly teaches basic principles of financial integrity, frugality, sound investing, and strategic saving. In addition, the Bible, all through its pages, in both the Old and New Testaments, has a lot to say about honesty and generosity. Jesus himself talked a lot about personal finances, and the importance, as God’s children, of being good stewards of the resources He commends into our hands.

As far as I can tell, though, the closest thing to a particular theory of macroeconomics advocated in the Bible is found in the civil law given to the theocratic society of Old Testament Israel. With respect to the economic practices of kings and other civil magistrates, the main revelatory content has to do with general principles of justice in favor of the poor and underprivileged, and against corruption and vice on the part of the rich and powerful. All in all, though, in spite of the arguments of the dominionists and liberationists, there is extremely little that can be adduced to conclusively support contemporary theories of economics such as free-market capitalism, neo-liberalism, or socialism.

If anything, certain practices, such as the year of Jubilee, the third-year tithe for the poor, the law of gleaning, and the sharing of material resources in the Jerusalem church, appear to lend support to certain aspects of socialism. In both the OT and NT, however, there also seems to be an assumption of private ownership of property. But, as I understand it, reading support in the Bible for any one theory of macroeconomics as practiced in modern-day nation-states is anachronistic and intellectually inconsistent. Though it is true that in many modern contexts, socialism has been linked to atheism, and espoused by evil totalitarian regimes, as far as economic theory in and of itself is concerned, this is not inextricably so. From what I can tell, from a strictly biblical point of view, government-facilitated redistribution of wealth, in and of itself, is neither as inherently reprehensible as many dominionists and right-wing Christians make it out to be, nor as virtuous as many liberationists and left-wing Christians make it out to be.

In the New Testament, there are several obvious reasons why there is very little, if any, instruction given to Christians with regard to macroeconomics. Decisions made with regard to issues such as macroeconomics are normally made by those with the power to make them. And for the most part, New Testament Christians were not included among this group. For Christians, as well as for practically everyone else in the historical milieu of the New Testament, decisions on public policy regarding taxes, government spending, the coining and circulation of money, international trade, interest rates, ownership of property, hiring and firing of employees, etc. were totally out of their hands. In addition, it is unlikely that even those who did have the power to make such decisions thought through these issues in any way close to the manner that modern-day government officials do.

Fast-forward 2,000 years and a lot of things have changed. In modern democracies today, we as Christians (along with everyone else) have the opportunity to speak meaningfully into issues such as macroeconomics. We also have the possibility of speaking into questions of public ethics and morality. Even though we, as individual Christians, may not hold any public office, we have the opportunity—and many would argue, the responsibility—by way of our vote, to influence the establishment of public policy.

This is an eventuality that the Bible does not appear to take into account. A lot of times I find myself wishing the Lord had revealed more in his Word concerning these matters. In the end, however, I trust he knew perfectly well what he was doing. Nevertheless, there are some things that seem pretty clear to me. For instance, if I as a Christian can make a difference through my vote and participation in the political process to counteract the sacrifice of innocent human life through abortion, it seems pretty clear to me that I ought to do what I can. Exactly how I should go about it may not be so clear, but, at least, I think it is pretty clear I should do something. The principle of the sanctity of human life is sufficiently clear in the Bible. Many other matters debated in modern-day partisan politics, though, are not nearly so well defined in the Bible. Equally sincere and orthodox Christians may legitimately argue both sides of many issues.

Most today would agree that the questions of macroeconomics are among the most significant issues of contemporary politics. As that erstwhile and once-successful political candidate Bill Clinton poignantly summed it up, “It’s the economy, stupid.” My personal thinking on this is that, from a certain perspective, the economy is indeed really important. Politicians do well to major on these issues. It is good that we have people who spend time studying these issues and developing theories on how to best make the economy prosper on a macro level. In no way am I denigrating the important work of those who give their time and effort toward studying these subjects.

As Christians, though, I think it is very difficult to demonstrate a specifically biblical basis for the superiority (whether on moral or other grounds) of one economic theory over another. We can certainly make a sound case for good ethics and morality. We can generally argue from the Bible against greed and corruption, and in favor of justice and personal generosity. But what public policy decisions best serve to grease the wheels of the national economy and cause the nation (or the world) as a whole to prosper is a totally different matter. There may well be (and probably are) sound principles of economic theory that help to answer these questions, and those who study these matters scientifically (including Christians) can help us to find these answers, but I don’t believe the Bible itself purports to do so.

As such, I don’t have any problem with Christians espousing personal views of macroeconomics, nor participating in the political process that helps to set public policy influencing the national economy. What I do have a problem with is Christians insinuating that one particular economic theory is THE Christian view on macroeconomics, or claiming biblical support for their theories, when there is none.

Unfortunately, more and more, as of late, a lot of high-profile Christians in public media appear to have developed a special penchant for doing just this. As national elections draw closer, heated rhetoric on public media in general, but on many Christian media outlets as well, is escalating with regard to issues such as macroeconomics. In an effort to discredit one’s political opponents, certain views of macroeconomics are frequently held up as the Christian or biblical view, and opposing views as anti-Christian and immoral. This may happen from both the right as well as the left, though on the particular media outlets I happen to listen to, I hear it more often, as of late, from the right.

When I hear Christian media personalities launch into their tirades on these issues, my heart sinks. I believe this type of rhetoric, whether issued from the right or from the left, is divisive to the unity of the Body of Christ, counterproductive for our ultimate aim as Christians, and contrary to Jesus’ will for us as his disciples. Also, whenever we publicly mock and sarcastically denigrate the policies and economic theories, as well as impugn the motives, of politicians with whom we disagree (especially those currently in office), I believe we are violating the biblical injunction to “honor the king” (1 Peter 2:17). That is not to say we cannot ever voice our views on these topics, but we should watch our attitude and the language we use to do so.

Lest anyone misunderstand what I am saying: I am not personally opposed to right-wing views of macroeconomics. As far as I can remember, whenever I have voted in national elections, I have voted for Republican candidates. Certainly, my views on the sanctity of human life and other moral issues have a lot to do with this, and I am not ashamed or reticent of speaking out as a Christian on these issues. But I am careful to not put forward my personal views on macroeconomics as specifically religious convictions.

In the Church (and in our churches), we should be united by the gospel, not by our views on macroeconomics. It should not be perceived as in any way scandalous when a brother or sister in Christ espouses a theory of macroeconomics different than our own, or than that of the majority of the members of our church or denomination. And we should not use official church or denominational channels to advocate views of macroeconomics that do not have specific biblical support.

Also, though I am thankful for the freedom of press we have in the United States, and in no way would want to limit the right of broadcasters and publishers to advocate the political views they choose to advocate, it seems to me that, ideally, there should be a clear difference between the programming of Christian media outlets and that of secular politically-driven media outlets. If I want to hear someone give a defense for one theory of macroeconomics over another (unless they are citing clear biblical principles), I would prefer to hear them do so on a secular station, where the reputation and clear gospel witness of the Church is not at stake.

To paraphrase a well-known verse of Scripture, “The kingdom of God is not a matter of monetary policy, taxes, and government spending (or the lack thereof), but righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”