The debate pits Ron Sider’s socialist-Christian synthesis against Gary North’s capitalist-Christian synthesis.
Frustration. It plagues the pastor who is called upon to provide theological insight and interpretation to a wildly changing kaleidoscope of contemporary issues. He is asked to sound the vox dei on matters of human sexuality, medical ethics, and now, issues of economics. How many seminaries offer courses to prepare the parish minister for the onslaught of questions raised in these areas? So often we are left with a “seat-of-the-pants” mode of flying in these treacherous zones.
The warnings on economics have been around for a while, of course, but for the most part they have been concealed in the esoteric circles of academia. In the midsixties, a caveat was posted on the door of the Free University of Berlin when Helmut Gollwitzer published his book, Die Marxistische Religionskritiek und der christliche Glaube (The Marxist Critique of Religion and the Christian Faith). Gollwitzer provided a harbinger of things to come by spotlighting the growing sentiment in Europe for creating a new synthesis of Marxist social and economic principles with Christian doctrine. The thesis of the new wave was simple: it was Jesus who was really the first authentic Marxist, but somehow the church had missed that basic point.
With the advent of the eighties, economics became the new popular issue in America. Inflation, productivity decline, and rising unemployment pressed people. Higher interest rates and escalating prices made them aware that continued affluence could not be taken for granted. At the same time, a growing consciousness of the plight of the poor was providing new interest in the Christian concept of stewardship.
Two books that made it to the top of the bestseller lists in the past five years have shocked their publishers and authors. William Simon’s A Time for Truth, written with a limited audience in view, somehow struck a chord to which a wide readership responded. Now George Gilder’s Wealth and Poverty has reached the top of the charts. Both Simon and Gilder take a conservative approach to economics. Gilder ties his analysis of supply-side economics to a consideration of the broader social implications of welfarism.
Gilder hurls the issues of economics out of the abstract realm of finance theory and into the realm of morality. Government policies of redistributive planning are suddenly examined in the light of ethics; it becomes a matter of theology. Once the ethical issues of government-planned economics become clear, the church is called in as a prophetic critic. The pastor is asked, “What does God say about all this? Does the Bible have anything to say about redistribution of wealth, debasing currency, minimum wage laws and the like? Should the Christian defend the “invisible hand” of Adam Smith and leave the market free to work out its own problems, or does the Christian embrace the planned economy ideals of Lord Keynes? Or, in the final analysis, is the matter of economics one of ethical indifference?
In the evangelical world, the issue of economics is hardly one of indifference. The evangelical debate lines up with Ron Sider (Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger: A Biblical Study) on one side, tending toward a socialist-Christian synthesis, and Gary North (The Journal of Christian Reconstruction) on the other, tending toward a capitalist-Christian synthesis.
A North disciple, David Chilton, has recently published a scathing reply to Sider, entitled Productive Christians in an Age of Guilt Manipulators. The book is self-consciously polemical. Chilton writes in the introduction: “Some may be offended at certain rather playful observations I make about Sider’s position. On this point I stand firmly with the prophet Elijah: ‘that which is ridiculous deserves ridicule.’ Besides, it helps you keep reading. But despite the occasional humor, I have taken Sider seriously as well; he is deadly earnest, and his policies are just plain deadly.”
The appearance of Chilton’s book marks a point of fierce escalation in the debate about biblical economics. Perhaps the heat generated by the debate will produce refinement of an enlightened biblical economic view. Both camps are passionately seeking to implement a biblical economic. One accents the plight of the poor and oppressed, and the other the inviolability of private property.
Since the Bible gives a clarion call for the Christian to be actively compassionate to the poor and the oppressed, while at the same time prohibiting theft and covetousness vis à vis private property, the issue ultimately focuses on the role of government in using its power of coercion to effect the redistribution of wealth. Sider favors the use of government force to solve the problems of economics; North and Chilton abhor it. The goal for Sider is equality; for North and Chilton, it is equity.
A cursory study of the “poor” in Scripture reveals at least four main categories under this rubric:
1. The poor because of slothfulness. This group receives the judgment of God.
2. The poor because of disease, famine, or other catastrophe. This group receives the compassion of God (and the compassion of the people of God).
3. The poor because of exploitation. This group receives the protection of God via “justice in the gate.” Here is where the focus of prophetic criticism is found.
4. The poor for righteousness’ sake. This group endures a “voluntary” poverty owing to their free decision to choose less affluent endeavors of vocation.
These distinctions must be maintained lest we fall into a monomania that produces a new ethic exalting poverty as a virtue in itself. We need our consciences pricked; we need our minds informed. If the church is to be the church, we must press on in the debate for a thoroughgoing biblical understanding of our economic responsibilities. The evangelical world dare not duck the issues with which men like Sider and North are struggling.
Dr. Sproul is president of the Ligonier Valley Study Center, Stahlstown, Pennsylvania.
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