Values of Capitalism & the Church

Yesterday I wrote that one of the ways that capitalism hijacks the church’s imagination is by the introduction of values like efficiency into the life of the church.

I do not mean that the church should embrace inefficiency in its corporate life and ministries.  There’s nothing good about wasting resources or misusing time and money.

One of the ways that capitalism has succeeded in capturing our culture’s imagination, however, is that efficiency has achieved preeminent status, overpowering all other values.

In the rise of global capitalism, a dominant concern was how to move goods to market most efficiently.  Of much less concern were the considerable costs to the environment, to communities, and to workers and their families.

It seems to me that church leaders must be skeptical about efficiency as a value because one of the main tasks of the church is to cultivate fruitful community life.

That is, the mission of the church involves caring for people, nurturing relationships, fostering reconciliation, grieving with those who grieve, and rejoicing with those who rejoice.  Pastors must confront those who are divisive and help them find redemptive ways of contributing fruitfully to the life of the church.

The value of efficiency involves making sure that time and effort are rewarded when it comes to the bottom line.  But in the life of the church, much of what we do may be considered a “waste of time” when looked at through capitalist lenses.

Relationships are messy, reconciliation efforts take time and exhausting effort, and even these sometimes fail.  And time spent visiting the elderly, the sick, the lonely, and the grieving—vital tasks of the church—may not be measurable or show up on the church’s bottom line.

In a sense, then, much of what constitutes the life of the church may be considered inefficient.  Or, perhaps we should say that efficiency as a value must be disciplined by biblically-informed values for God’s people.

Again, it certainly is the case that churches must be faithful with their resources.  But it is worth considering the extent to which subtly destructive values can creep into how we envision the task of being God’s people in the world.


11 responses to “Values of Capitalism & the Church

  • michaelbare

    Thanks for this. You’re involved in a lot of life-giving toward me lately with this blog!

    ::M::

  • Brandon Gahman

    Dr. Gombis,
    I offer my probably biased view on the matter (disclaimer: I’m a Finance student and a Republican). Because capitalism (or more specifically, free-market enterprise) allows for the freedom to allocate funds as any individual or organization sees fit, churches are able to pour as much money/time/effort into its programs as it needs (as provided by donations) without fear of confiscation of funds via taxes. While you make great points about efficiency becoming the preeminent value in the business world (as I think it should be), I submit that it is understood that a church is not a business entity. How does one quantify love? How am I, as one that gives to the local church, supposed to quantify my “return on investment?” Capitalism allows the freedom for individuals/organizations to not only allocate resources, but to measure their success in whatever terms they like. If “living as Christ did” is the goal of the constituency, the congregation should be pleased at the efforts afforded by the money that they gave if it was done well. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, I always enjoy them.
    -Brandon

    • timgombis

      Hey Brandon,
      Good to hear from you! That churches are not business entities is precisely the point of confusion! Too often they operate as if they are and that’s the problem. Worldly mindsets subtly go to work on us so that we begin to think in corrupted ways . . . requires watchfulness and intentionality.

      • Brandon Gahman

        Indeed. The self-interest that capitalism demands is good (dare I say right) for markets, not so much for the church.

      • timgombis

        Eh, that’s where we may differ. I’m not sure that Christians ought to change how they behave when they leave church. It’s worth considering whether capitalism (not free markets, which are distinct from capitalism) has a dynamic that distorts the virtues we’re trying to cultivate as Christians. Check out Daniel Bell’s book, The Economy of Desire. Brilliant stuff!

      • Brandon Gahman

        That book looks interested, I’ll have to check it out! I don’t think there is a difference in a Christian capitalist’s attitudes or behavior. Say a small business owner lives honorably and practices his craft honestly so that his business can thrive; it may possibly grow bigger to employ others, and ultimately support his family along with his charitable giving. Furthermore, capitalism harnesses the “greed” that fallen humans have and creates spontaneous order because of it. Trade is a direct result of that self-interest. Because we live in a fallen world, our best choice, a world without sin where sinless people practice 100% honest vocations, is impossible. To my knowledge, there is only one economic system that accounts for our innately sinful nature.

      • timgombis

        That’s precisely the notion that Bell goes after. Capitalism accommodates sinfulness, accepts it. The Christian way, however, redeems fallenness. We believe in salvation, now and not yet, so Christian discipleship sees business practices, production, consumption, etc. as goods insofar as they serve our delighting in God and fellowship with others.

      • Brandon Gahman

        I would say I agree with both of your points, but my next thought is the “so what?” What does that mean for our current economic system. I guess I’m searching for a viable alternative to capitalism from your perspective. I may necessarily agree, but I appreciate the dialogue; something many Cedarvillians could learn from…

      • timgombis

        The “so what” is huge here, and I’d point directly back to the post. The global economic system is what it is, but the church must resist adopting the language, metaphors, and ideologies of the market to speak of its corporate life and of its members. The church has an alternative set of metaphors and alternative language that actually draws upon its own identity, enriches its corporate life, and dignifies its members. The practical payoff of this is just for the church’s watchfulness about destructive ideologies that subtly undermine it.

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