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

Haves and Have-Nots

Written by: on October 23, 2023

Many agree that in the realm of economic and social thought, Karl Polanyi’s seminal work, “The Great Transformation,” has left an indelible mark. Although awed by his incredible level of intellect, that mark for me will be, well, delible and unremarkable.

Published in 1944, this exhaustive (!) work explores the complex interplay between economic systems, society, and human nature. While Polanyi’s perspective is often seen as secular, it is fascinating to examine his ideas through the lens of evangelical Christianity, which has been a consistent theme for most of this doctoral semester. Evangelical Christianity holds a unique understanding of human dignity, community, and the divine.

Christians view the world through a spiritual lens, believing that God is the ultimate source of all creation, including the economic system developed by God’s created humanity. Polanyi’s idea of a “great transformation” somewhat aligns with the Christian belief in God’s sovereignty and His ability to transform individuals and societies. From this perspective, economic systems are not just human constructs but are also subject to a certain degree of divine guidance and intervention. Intellectually I believe this, and yet one can see where humanity (and sin) have messed up these systems and societies considerably and compoundedly.

Polanyi argued that the market economy, if left unchecked, can lead to the commodification of everything, including labor, land, and even human relationships. Biblical teaching echoes this with the concept of stewardship. In the Christian worldview, humans are called to be stewards of God’s creation, which includes caring for one another and the environment. In God’s “economy” we ought to prioritize the well-being of individuals and communities over maximizing profit.

Dr. Clark recognizes this in saying “Polanyi sees a move from a Christian society with a responsibility to others, which limited the effects of markets, ultimately replaced by a turn to the self that “renounces human solidarity” with the development of the “secular religion” of the market. Polanyi’s account can be seen as providing many implicit theological contours in its diagnosis and implications. It maps out where markets become the site of identity, belonging, and being for people, replacing previous religious affiliations and commitments” (Clark, 135).

The above observation from Dr. Clark’s dissertation is rooted in chapter 8 of “The Great Transformation” in which Polanyi says “The traditional unity of the Christian society was giving place to a denial of responsibility on the part of the well-to-do for the condition of their fellows” (Polanyi, 106). In other words:  The haves have forgotten the have-nots.

The Christian faith (when expressed correctly, that is) places a high value on each person’s inherent worth and dignity, as they are believed to be created in the image of God. Consequently, Christians are deeply concerned about economic structures that devalue or exploit individuals. In “The Great Transformation” Polanyi critiques the commodification of labor, where human beings are treated as mere factors of production. As such, Christians ought to advocate for dignified work conditions, just wages, and fair treatment of workers, because these principles are rooted in the biblical mandate to love one’s neighbor as oneself (Mark 12:30-31).

From a Christian perspective, economic systems should promote human flourishing within the context of loving, supportive communities. This aligns with Polanyi’s concerns about the destructive impact of unregulated markets on our social bonds, human dignity, and compassion – all values that are central to the teachings of Jesus Christ. Dr. Clark’s expansive work on evangelicalism and capitalism does much to move these important topics forward with thoughtfulness and intellectual prowess.

Christianity (again, if expressed correctly), has the power to promote a more just and compassionate society that reflects the teachings of Jesus, as well as advocate for policies that prioritize human dignity, community, and the common good. 

In Acts 10, Peter had an encounter with Cornelius, who, along with the Holy Spirit, helped correct Peters view of the “haves and have-nots.” After being challenged to expand his heart and the church to “the others” it says:

“Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right. You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, announcing the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. You know what has happened throughout the province of Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached— how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him” (Acts 10:34-38 NIV). 

God does not show favoritism. 

Jesus went around doing good and healing all.


Let that truth leave an indelible mark upon your life, and may it bring about Great Transformation in our time.

About the Author


John Fehlen

John Fehlen is currently the Lead Pastor of West Salem Foursquare Church. Prior to that he served at churches in Washington and California. A graduate of Life Pacific University in San Dimas, CA in Pastoral Ministry, and Vanguard University in Costa Mesa, CA with a Masters in Leadership and Spirituality. He and his wife Denise have four grown children and four grandchildren. John is the author of “Intentional Impressions," a book for fathers and their sons, "Don't Give Up: Encouragement for Weary Souls in Challenging Times," a book for pastoral leaders, and "The Way I See You," a children's book. You can connect with John on Instagram (@johnfehlen) as well as on his blog (johnfehlen.com).

11 responses to “Haves and Have-Nots”

  1. Kally Elliott says:

    Your post helped me sort through a lot of conversations I’ve had with a relative about unchecked capitalism. This relative was a big reason I went to church as a child, continued in church as a teen and am a now a pastor – and yet we argue (sometimes vehemently) about whether or not and how our “Christian” identity should influence our politics, especially political leanings towards money. I’ve left conversations with this person completely flabbergasted (love that word) at their ability to completely disregard their Christian faith when it comes to their ability to make more money.

    • mm John Fehlen says:

      YOU argue vehemently? No! I don’t believe it Kally. You are such a mild-mannered pushover. Ha!

      I think 1 Timothy 6:17-21 is a good text to draw from in this conversation. “Command those that are rich in this present world…”
      • Don’t be arrogant.
      • Don’t put your hope in your wealth.
      • Put your hope in God, who is our provision.
      • Do good and do good things with your wealth.
      • Be generous and sharing.

      I think this is saying to us that we can indeed have wealth, but must “steward” it in a Godly manner.

  2. Travis Vaughn says:

    As I read your post, I began thinking what it might look like to read and review (and then reflect on) Polanyi’s book through a creation-fall-redemption framework (probably at about the time I read your statement: “Biblical teaching echoes this with the concept of stewardship.”) Like, what is right about Polanyi’s perspective (and you nailed it with this echo)…what aspects of the image of God are reflected in Polanyi’s thesis?; What seems broken in his perspective?; What might a redemptive pathway forward look like, in Christ? What are the implications? Like, you highlight a pathway forward in light of Christ… “Christianity…has the power to promote a more just and compassionate society that reflects the teachings of Jesus, as well as advocate for policies that prioritize human dignity, community, and the common good.”

    • mm John Fehlen says:

      This is a really helpful observation and construct Travis: creation-fall-redemption. Appreciate you bringing that up in your response. So often we START with the fall, rather than with creation. Likewise, when addressing societal failures and shortcomings the collective “we” tends to START with the problems, the messes and the brokenness of it all, rather than looking for where it is working, alive, functional and helpful.

      It draws my mind to the serious homeless/mental illness problem we are facing in Salem, OR (and elsewhere). One can’t help but see the growing problems, but what if we set our gaze upon where the help is coming from? Mr. Rogers once said “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news.” Then he turned to his televise audience and said: “My mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”

      Look for the helpers.

  3. mm Kim Sanford says:

    Excellent post, John. I couldn’t agree more. As I read, “Christians ought to advocate for dignified work conditions, just wages, and fair treatment of workers, because these principles are rooted in the biblical mandate to love one’s neighbor as oneself” I’m thinking of our prayer, “May Your Kingdom come, on Earth as it is in Heaven.” I always imagine the church, and consequently my role, as incarnating God’s Kingdom in its own little neighborhood or city. May we all incarnate, “a more just and compassionate society that reflects the teachings of Jesus, as well as advocate for policies that prioritize human dignity, community, and the common good.”

    • mm John Fehlen says:

      Amen and Amen.

      I love how you expanded my mind to contextualize “The Lord’s Prayer” to my specific (yet albeit small) context: “Lord, my your Kingdom come and your will be done in Salem, Oregon, as in Heaven.”

      This prayer helps me not keep looking to the broader agencies and political entities to FIX stuff, but rather, it reminds me that I am in the center of where God wants to work…right where I AM.

      I can be more just, compassionate, advocating, dignifying, and good spreading!

  4. mm Tim Clark says:

    Great post my friend,

    As I was reading what you quoted about the commodification of labor I was thinking about the commodification of everything.

    Seems not just our labor but our time, our attention, our relationships… everything has been commodified.

    Case in point: When I learned that social media was making money off of my attention (even though I wasn’t paying them anything)… that I WAS the commodity for business that wanted my attention, I should have given up. But I’m still scrolling through Instagram.

    So we KNOW we are commodities and we’re ok with it as long as it keeps giving us dopamine hits.

    I know a bit of a rabbit trail, but I wonder what Polanyi would have to say about our culture today!!!

    • Jennifer Vernam says:

      Lots of interesting threads on this post, but I will “pile on” to Tim’s thoughts. How does this commodification of our attention relate back to John’s reference to the value of Stewardship? What is the interplay between the inherit worth of us (image bearers) and the worth of our attention? It’s a little dizzying to make sense of the moral implications of this new business model.

      • mm Tim Clark says:

        I think I have to keep aware of the difference between stewardship and commodification.

        Commodification def: “the action or process of treating something as a mere commodity”.

        If I steward God’s image in me, and value His image in others, I can’t treat them as a “mere commodity”. There is something much more important than economic value there.

        I think that’s what stewardship is: treating a person or thing like God would treat it, helping true value be seen and expressed for HIs purposes. Assigning value to a person or thing (commodification) that undercuts God’s true value cheapens the intrinsic worth God has given.

  5. mm Russell Chun says:

    Great post.

    Wrapping up my Designer workshop and flying to LA (mom’s 89th birthday). Fumbling with Polanyi, I spoke with the Vice President of Client services (automotive) for Epsilon (subsidiary of Publicis – a French company) Rhonda Kai (my sister) , I asked the question is “capitalism sustainable.” She asked how I defined capitalism and then proceeded to say that perhaps the question is “how is capitalism changing now.” Kai stated that, Capitalism will survive in some form or another, however, there are new forces in today’s world that can help reshape capitalism.

    Enter the Generation Y (30 somethings) and Z (20’s) . These generations, said Kai, consume global information at a “staggering” pace. The consumer power they wield is tremendous and through the power of social media than can expose “industry dirty laundry” to millions of other consumers globally. Kai added that these and future generations are intensely aware of climate change, work force conditions and other socially conscious issues which impact their purchasing choices (one kind of power). The power of “cancellation” is the other power. An example comes to mind of the “transgender” blunder of Bud Light. Through the power of social media, Budweiser has taken a major financial hit as mainstream males disengaged from the cheap (and arguably bland) beer.
    Capitalism, says Kai, will have to “Grow, Learn and give back to society.

    Not bad for my baby sister…


  6. mm Jana Dluehosh says:

    This is the work isn’t it..redemption. Repairing a fallen world for God’s good. I have to laugh a little to myself because I had to look up the definition of a word. I won’t admit how you stumped me but you did. Anyway, when you quoted
    God does not show favoritism.

    Jesus went around doing good and healing all.

    All. It simplified it all down and yet not so simple is it. I belonged to a church where we practiced “open table” and the pastor said,”who is welcome to this table?” and we answered “all people”. All people…God does not show favoritism.

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