I have not said much about one economics up to this point in this series. I am using the term economics in its broadest sense, “The science that deals with the production, distribution and consumption of goods and services, or the material welfare of humankind.” (1) Many will agree that economics is important but will conclude that this topic applies mostly to business oriented people and public policy makers. It is not a topic of broad concern to the Church. After all, the Church’s mission is evangelism and social justice. Right?
The Greek word we translate as “mission” or “ministry” in the New Testament are forms of diakonos. It comes from the word diako which means “to run errands.” Diakonas literally means “attendant” or “one who waits on tables.” I wrote in an earlier post about Jesus’ use of the slave metaphor. Unlike the Greeks, the Roman’s believed slaves had capable minds and it was the duty of the slave to conform his mind to the patterns of thought and priorities exhibited by his master. In so doing, he would be able to anticipate what “service” (diakonos) was expected of him, even before his master requested it.
Here is the critical issue. Service (ministry) is not defined by a set of prescribed behaviors. The validity and quality of service is determined by the one being served. Anything that it is done in response to directives and wishes of another is service. Ministry and mission are not defined by what we do but rather by who we are doing for. Therefore, Christian ministry is anything that is done in response to God’s wishes and commands. Anything!
I wrote my description of visio Dei in my last post. I present it here again with a particular emphasis:
The triune God existing in prefect shalom with all creation, dwelling in perfect community with His animate eikons as they fill the earth and fulfill their call to be stewards of creation.
It is said of Adam and Eve in the Genesis 1 narrative:
God blessed them, and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth." (Genesis 1:28)
This call to have dominion and be stewards of the earth preceded humanity’s fall from grace. Furthermore, scripture refers to renewed creation as the “New Jerusalem,” a city. We don’t return to a garden. The symbolism is important.
Ancient cities were centers of commerce, art, government and religion. They were the ultimate symbols of the people and their culture. Cities in scripture began as human creations in defiance of God but by the end of the biblical story, God indwells and redeems the human habitat and makes it His home. It is not only the union of humanity with God but also the creative work of humanity united with God’s work. Salvation from sin and Spirit giftedness are essential to God’s mission but they are penultimate considerations when viewed through the lens of eternity. Human beings were made for work, creativity and stewardship in organic community with the triune God. This is our mission first and last from creation through all eternity.
“Economy” is from the Greek word oikonomia meaning “household management.” The household in mind here is the large rural villas of the Greco-Roman world. These were self-sufficient plantations owned by citizens known as paterfamilias in the Roman world. The household consisted of the paterfamilias, his family (including adult children and their families), free workers and their families, and slaves. While they lived as a community they were united by the common household business enterprise. In reality, most families in most cultures throughout time have lived and worked out of the same location. Only in the past century or two have large numbers of people worked away from their residence, thus reducing the home to a place for companionship and economic consumption.
Paul uses the idea of the church as the household of God with God as the paterfamilias. For Paul, “household” would not have meant companionship shared by a nuclear family away from places of business. It would have meant people united in common mission as given by the paterfamilias. As Robert Banks has pointed out, the Greek word we mistranslate “fellowship” is koinonia. Konionia always speaks of “having a share” in some common external activity in the New Testament. (2) What is the external activity that God the paterfamilias has given as our household mission? The triune call I wrote of in my previous post: creation stewardship (Father), kingdom service (Son) and employment of spiritual gifts (Spirit).
Creation Stewardship Ministry and Economy
The mission of God’s people from before the fall, to after the fall, to after the consummation of the Kingdom, is to be stewards of creation. Creation stewardship is not the work of a zoo keeper or a forest ranger. While we are charged with responsible use of the resources God has entrusted to us, we are not here merely here to protect the status quo. God created humanity with creative and innovative minds. God takes pleasure in our creativity as we use the material resources available to us to enhance our world. This is part of what it means to “fill the earth” as God’s eikons as creativity is central to “being in God’s image.”
Not so long ago we could see direct connections between the raw materials we accessed through our labors and how it benefited us. We grew food and we ate it. We wove cloth and made clothes. With labor specialization in our post industrial era all that has changed.
Today, a salesperson at computer retail store sells a computer to an architectural firm who designs a building that houses an insurance company that insures an international cargo transport company that delivered imported tires to an automobile manufacturer that places those tires on Hondas like the one that the computer salesperson drives to work to sell computers. We are many levels removed from the actual interaction with raw materials and final products.
The picture expands larger still and becomes more complex. Without government there would be none of the structures that safeguard activity in the marketplace. Education is essential to raising up citizens who can function in a complex post-industrial society. Work like preparing meals, washing clothes, childcare and housework are essential to having productive workers. All of this is part of creation stewardship as well.
The reality is that our lives are inextricably entwined with creation. God is eternal and all that exists belongs to God. Therefore, in the ultimate sense, we never own anything. Whether or not we are conscious of it or are willing to acknowledge it, all that we have is held in trust for God. We can choose to use less or more of the created world but we can not be anything but stewards. The only choices we have available to us are to use the resources God has entrusted to us according to God’s values or to use them according to our own standards. Using resources God has entrusted to us for his purposes is ministry. Central to that ministry is economics, “The science that deals with the production, distribution and consumption of goods and services, or the material welfare of humankind.”
God has given us a narrative of His acts in history and that narrative points us to sound stewardship of His creation. It gives us a vision of what the ultimate outcome should look like (the New Jerusalem) even though we know it will not be realized until Christ’s return. The bottom line is this: All work that it is done out of reverence for God and in response to his call and purposes in the world, whether at the office or in the home, whether for profit or for no pay, is ministry! Creation stewardship is in fact the first ministry God ordained and it is the only call that extends into eternity. Evangelism and social justice are indeed essential works of the Church and part of our call to Kingdom service in this age. Kingdom service is only one piece of the triune call
(1) Webster's Encylopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language. New York: Random House, 1996. 618.
(2) Robert Banks. Paul's Ides of Community. Revised Edition. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994. 57.