Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

An alternative to a self-regulating market? Inconceivable!

Written by: on October 23, 2023

In the 1987 film, The Princess Bride, the character Vizzini, repeatedly uses the word “inconceivable” when things don’t go as planned. Finally, Inigo Montoya responds: “You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means”.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog I titled “Words Matter”, admitting that I didn’t fully understand the context of the word evangelical. For a person who has identified as an evangelical all his life, that was a hard pill to swallow. And now I want to admit that the last few weeks of reading and blogging have seriously challenged my perspective about the definition, and history, of the word capitalism.

Because just like I thought that evangelicalism had been a part of the religious landscape for centuries longer than it had, I believed capitalism (more specifically a version of it with a lazes-fair, self-regulating market) had been a part of the fabric of economic history reaching far beyond its actual emergence.

In both cases, I failed to heed the warning of the Spanish Philosopher George Santayna who said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”[1] I think Polanyi and Weber were on a mission to help us not fall into that trap. Dr. Clark suggests that they “were acutely aware of the need for accounts of the history of things in order to understand concrete realities. They believed such accounts, if made, could help explain their own contexts, and serve as predictors of future situations.”[2]

That’s been true for me. As I wade more deeply into the secular history of capitalism with Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation[3], I have come to better understand the economic context in which I live, and I have a slightly less opaque view of where the world might be heading. And perhaps even more basic and important, I’ve come to realize that “I’m not sure that word (capitalism) means what I think it means.”

As a boy I was taught that capitalism was a broken system, but it was the lesser of two evils. And I use that word evil intentionally, as one of my earliest political memories was Ronald Regan decrying the “evil empire” of the Soviet Union, and my young brain connected the dots from Russia’s political enmity to the economic enemy of communism.

In my mind, there were two choices: Communism and capitalism (when I learned about socialism, I thought that was just a “kinder, gentler” communism). Because it seemed we—the USA—were “clearly” on the right side of freedom, it followed that Regan’s trickle-down economics and government philosophy of a hands-off approach to the market, must also have been right.

Or at least a bit less wrong.

Because even at a young age I struggled with the implications of capitalism. Though we had a strong protestant work ethic, my family was living off food stamps, and government cheese and peanut butter. I was living by a government safety net provided for individuals, and there probably needed to be some kind of government checks and balances for amoral corporations and greedy corporate leaders, too.

But even though I was personally benefiting from regulation, the self-regulating-market narrative had a strong pull. Though I knew neither name, I was educated more by Adam Smith than Karl Polanyi. Though I was an evangelical who didn’t accept Darwin when it came to his explanation of nature, I unknowingly embraced the survival of the fittest in our economic order.

But the problem with the survival of the fittest is that whoever is strongest, fastest, and most cunning is the one who comes out on top; everyone else dies. For evolutionary progress that might work, but it doesn’t reflect the way of Christ in our society or economics.

I turn to Christ here because while there is so much more to I’d like to wrestle with from Polanyi about things like the utopian myth of self-regulating-markets, and the false narratives of labor, land, and money, and the concerns of risk, deflation, and social degradation, (and more) my chief concern in this blog post is not to regurgitate Polanyi, but to ask how the church might respond to these market realities?

Last week in our cohort chat, Dr. Clark suggested that economists and theologians are often at odds because the theologians propose utopian economic systems that can never actually work. That helps me see as I navigate new learning about economic history and theory that my job isn’t so much to dream up a new system that might work (that could never be implemented), but to understand the system that is and work to help the church recapture a biblical imagination and implement a Christian counter-cultural response to it.

Quoting Clark again, “It is in recognising that the market is a society, and one that is religious in its nature and makeup, that we might discover the nature of a true and ongoing Christian countermovement.”[4]

In other words, if a self-regulating Darwinistic capitalism is just the unrecognized water we swim in, the church will never be able to live out an alternative to it. But the more we understand it as a different religious system, the better we can forge a different path.

Like the early Christians lived within the context of Roman law and culture and religion but instead of trying to change it offered an alternative to it, could it be that when our economic foundations have begun to self-implode, and the world recognizes that a SRM is not the secular salvation they thought it was, that the church might be standing by with a better way?


[1] George Santayna, The Life of Reason, 2nd Ed. (New York: Scribner and Sons, 1925).

[2] Jason Paul Clark, “Evangelicalism and Capitalism: A Reparative Account and Diagnosis of Pathogenesis in the relationship,” 122.

[3] Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1944).

[4] Clark, 139

About the Author


Tim Clark

I'm on a lifelong journey of discovering the person God has created me to be and aligning that with the purpose God has created me for. I've been pressing hard after Jesus for 40 years, and I currently serve Him as the lead pastor of vision and voice at The Church On The Way in Los Angeles. I live with my wife and 3 kids in Burbank California.

12 responses to “An alternative to a self-regulating market? Inconceivable!”

  1. Kally Elliott says:

    Great post! Much to consider here. First of all, thanks for your vulnerability and sharing of your experience as a child. You got me thinking about my own childhood and the messages I received that in turn shaped my perspectives of the world. I too, heard communism was evil – though I had no understanding of what communism was. It wasn’t until later in life that I began to (sort of) understand communism and (very sort-of) capitalism. But, to hear it as evil definitely shaped my perspectives!

    I also appreciated your discussion of Darwinism – and how unless you make it to the top, you’re dead. Yes, it might be the way of evolutionary progress, and yes, the United States seems to have adopted it in the way we live, our culture, etc, but it is so counter to the message of Christ! (And yet, we claim to be a “Christian nation” 😳)

    I appreciated your reminder that early Christians lived under Roman rule and yet, they found an alternative way to live and to offer the world. I’ve yet to write my blog post and you’ve given me much to consider as I try to slog my way through this!

  2. mm Tim Clark says:

    Thanks Kally. So much to process, right? And challenging so many unseen assumptions (which is so good for me).

    I feel like I barely scratched the surface with Polanyi and even what I did engage made a million synapses fire! (but it’s definitely a slog).

  3. Travis Vaughn says:

    First of all, I’m guessing The Princess Bride is quoted at least once or twice around our home each month, even if we haven’t seen the movie in a long time.

    Second, you raise the question of how the church might respond to these market realities. This leads me to ask another question…what could churches (and church leadership) do to help congregants have a better framework for how they live out their various callings (thinking of Luther and calling, here) to the glory of God and the good of their neighbors? Amy Sherman refers to this as “vocational discipleship.” Are you aware of any churches doing a decent job of helping people to make sense of their calling(s), whether they work in the public, private, or social spheres? Additionally, of those churches, who seems to be doing a decent job helping their congregants, not only with “calling,” but also as salt and light in the socio-economic waters around them…like where to be prophetic, where/how to listen, how to seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God…in a radically local/contextual way? (helping their churches to “recapture a biblical imagination and implement a Christian counter-cultural response to it”)

    • mm Tim Clark says:

      Travis, wow what a great question.

      I’m not aware of how other churches are doing it well… we are trying in some respects. We have groups of people in the entertainment industry, in business, education, etc. who challenge, equip and encourage one another to live out their calling in unique ways in their vocations. It’s something I’d like to increase and be even more intentional about as I really think that’s its a Kingdom dynamic to be ‘sent’ into your world and extend Jesus love and life wherever you are.

  4. mm Kim Sanford says:

    Such a great post and there’s so much I could comment on. But I’ll stick to just this one quote of yours.

    “But the problem with the survival of the fittest is that whoever is strongest, fastest, and most cunning is the one who comes out on top; everyone else dies. For evolutionary progress that might work, but it doesn’t reflect the way of Christ in our society or economics.”

    I really appreciate this insight. I mentioned (but avoided discussing) socialism in my post. Please hear me, I’m not here to be an evangelist for socialism, but I will say that I get frustrated when Christians dismiss socialism as evil all the while lauding capitalism as Biblical. Living in a socialist country, I see firsthand the advantages and the disadvantages. As you say, capitalism is pretty much about survival of the fittest, whereas socialism is at least attempting to ensure the survival of, well, everybody. Imperfect to be sure, but it’s at least a value I can get behind.

    • mm Tim Clark says:

      Even though I’m not, some of my best friends are socialists… of course, they live in Europe, though 🙂

      The strong advocation for capitalism as “God’s economy” and against Socialism as “an evil tool of the devil” bugs me, too.

      Most systems have advantages and disadvantages and can find some scriptural support. I suppose the thing is being aware of the drawbacks of the system we must support instead of throwing rocks at the systems we don’t.

  5. mm John Fehlen says:

    Tim, I resonated with this line in your post: “I have come to better understand the economic context in which I live, and I have a slightly less opaque view of where the world might be heading.”

    This is a product of both my education (our reading list) and my overall maturity (money no longer grows on trees, does it?).

    What earlier in my life I would have deemed “inconceivable,” I now realize is entirely CONCEIVABLE. Call me jaded and/or cynical, or just call me “more mature.” Regardless, any utopian thoughts I once had, have been beat out of me over the years and as a result of just living and breathing on this planet.

    Nice post, my friend.

    • mm Tim Clark says:

      Thanks John. Yes as the island of our knowledge grows so do the shores of our ignorance… as well as the shores of our disappointment, I suppose.

      I guess the trick is to learn more and mature more but keep that optimistic, joyful spirit alive, even when you know the world isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

  6. mm Jana Dluehosh says:

    Not inconceivable! We might need to change the platform we speak such changes from, huh. How does capitalism enter into your world in LA at a church such as yours?

    • mm Tim Clark says:

      OH wow, Jana. That’s quite a loaded question. 🙂

      LA is so incredibly materialistic. Hardly anybody would even recognize we are swimming in a thing called ‘water’.

      So what I’ve found as a pastor is to truly minister to people you can’t be bound by what they are bound with. So, I’ve learned, to truly serve an actor, you can’t be enamored with their fame, to honestly serve a multi-millionare, you can’t be a lover of money, to minister to a porn-star, you can’t be hooked on porn… etc.

      Because most here either have money or are chasing it at all costs, I try to teach the church a different way. I generally don’t try to get people to not make money but to understand what to do with it if and when they have it. .. Generosity. Self-sacrifice. Being unselfish with our resources. In other words, to steward something means it can’t have you.

      But like I said in Cathy’s thread, this is an issue where maybe we’ll never change anything, but if we live different we can offer an alternative.

  7. Jennifer Vernam says:

    Any Princess Bride quote will grab my attention!

    I had a history teacher as an undergraduate at Fox named Ralph Beebe. He was a wonderful teacher for a lot of reasons. A devoted Christian and the only person I ever knew who served as a conscientious objector in the Vietnam War. He exposed us to a lot of new thoughts including a quote he repeated with some frequency: “Communism was a page torn out of Christianity that was read wrong.” There is so much to that saying. In reflecting on your thoughts, I wonder if it could also be said of Capitalism.

    • mm Tim Clark says:

      Wow, Jennifer. That is profound. I think you are spot on that it’s a statement that could be said of both at some level.

      Seems when we take God’s right things and have different motives than God intended, that we end up getting them very wrong.

      Thanks for the thought. I’ll be taking about it for some time!

Leave a Reply