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

Living With Flawed, But Necessary Instruments

Written by: on October 17, 2023

Our reading of Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the “Spirit” of Capitalism[1] underlines for me the unplanned effects that social movements can have on society. In addition, it serves as a reminder of the challenge we have as leaders and participants in these movements to strive to be aware of the impact of our actions. I want to be clear that I am not insinuating a judgement on the virtues of capitalism, I am simply saying we should be thoughtful about the sometimes-significant impact our theology has on what we reinforce as societal values.

Interplay between Religion and the Economy

Weber uses the first pages of his first chapter to lay a claim that Protestants of his time tended to be wealthier than Catholics.[2] He then goes on to develop a concept of a Protestant Ethic. Britannica’s site defines the Protestant Ethic as “the value attached to hard work, thrift, and efficiency in one’s worldly calling, which, especially in the Calvinist view, were deemed signs of an individual’s election, or eternal salvation.”[3]

Additionally, we then read from Weber a case that there is a relationship between Capitalism and Protestantism. In his argument to support this claim, he identifies four key values (The Protestant Ethic, Asceticism, The Spirit of Capitalism and The Iron Cage) that provides a foothold for us to have a conversation about the interplay between religion and society.

Wait, What?

As a lifelong church attender, I have always explained to myself that religion was our attempt to create structures that help us stay closely in step with God. I see religion as a flawed instrument, where we don’t always make the mark, but it is better than no instrument at all.


The potential connection between Protestantism and major global financial constructs is concerning to me. I am not saying that Christianity should not have global impact. It feels like somehow Protestantism has jumped the track and is now operating out of bounds. Last night in my Community Group, we spent some time meditating on James 1:9: (NLT)

Believers who are poor have something to boast about, for God has honored them. And those who are rich should boast that God has humbled them.

God confounds our presuppositions on what truly makes us prosperous. Our faith is supposed to bring us closer to God, not closer to our financial goals and our religion should be helping us to do that.

Culture Eats Strategy, but who makes Culture?

As we trace major movements through time, it is clear that those behind the movements had little inkling of the eventual impact of their efforts. We cannot know how we are shaping a culture when we are implementing change. I doubt if Martin Luther understood the relationship of his work with global finance, and yet, here we are still talking about it. While “culture eats strategy for breakfast,”[4] we don’t always have a firm handle on how culture is developing around us.

Dr Clark shows in his work, that Protestant beliefs did not happen in isolation, but were instead part of a complex social system of which Protestants were a part:

Life in the new Protestant world generated anxiety about assurance of faith. That anxiety was attended to with a relocation of assurance into providence. But the terms and limits of providence became increasingly set by market imaginations, rather than the original Evangelical horizons of faithful Christian living in the material world. What was initially resistance collapses into collusion and intensification. The resistance evinced in the Protestant Work Ethic resisted the deforming forces of capitalism, and quickly gave way to new and emerging work ethics that were intertwined with non-religious imaginations for life. The rational beliefs of the Evangelical life collapse into, and become a rationale for, market imaginations.[5]

Other Examples

This is not the first time that religion that religion has had an impact on financial affairs. Consider:

  • The impact of conservative Christianity on American politics as outlined in Kristin Kobes Du Mez’ Jesus and John Wayne[6]
  • At the time of the crusades, groups such as Knights Templar set up institutions loan money to pious Catholics to help fund their pilgrimages to the Holy Land. (The Precursor to my mortgage repayment plan) [7]
  • An even more sobering example in Mathew 21:12-13 when we watch Christ’s reaction to the money changers in the temple.

It is clear that the customs and values of the Church has a broader impact on finance and culture.

Who is impacting whom?

In our review of Bebbington from a few weeks ago, several of us mentioned in our blogs that we were struck by the “fish in their water” assertion that we are not always aware of the culture we are in. I would suggest that we also are not always aware of the water we are creating. I am thankful that people like Weber are asking questions that lead us to greater understanding of the impact our belief systems are having on a large scale.

The Fish is Still in Her Water

Above, I said that we needed to “strive to be aware of the impact of our actions” and yet as a cohort, we have already observed that it is very difficult for a fish to be aware of their water. And, while religion is flawed, it is necessary for us to maintain a healthy Christian life. This tension of a flawed necessity that is hard for us to recognize leads me back to my NPO. As I am working to develop strategies for surfacing positive discussions about disagreements, it strikes me that some of these disagreements may come from the lone voice who wants to challenge the culture we are creating and may be the canary in the mine we need when we get off track.



[1] Max Weber, “The Protestant Ethic and the ‘Spirit’ of Capitalism and Other Writings,” Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics (New York: Penguin Books, 2002).

[2] Weber, “The Protestant Ethic and the ‘Spirit’ of Capitalism and Other Writings,” 1–12.

[3] Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Protestant ethic.” Encyclopedia Britannica, February 5, 2020. https://www.britannica.com/money/topic/Protestant-ethic.

[4] Martyn Percy, lecture to DLPG students, Oxford, England, September 23, 2003.

[5] Jason Paul Clark, “Evangelicalism and Capitalism: A Reparative Account and Diagnosis of Pathogeneses in the Relationship,” n.d., 120–21.

[6] Kristin Kobes Du Mez, “Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation” (New York, NY: Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W.W. Norton & Company, 2020).

[7] Robert Pohle, “When a Banker’s Tools Included A Mace, a Sword, and Chain Mail,” American Banker (Pre-1997 Fulltext), January 31, 1990.

About the Author

Jennifer Vernam

8 responses to “Living With Flawed, But Necessary Instruments”

  1. mm Kim Sanford says:

    I really appreciated your thinking in this post. I’m curious if, in the course of your NPO research, you have specific examples of a “canary in the mine” that warned (or is warning, maybe you’re seeing these examples currently) the Church of dangers in shifting culture? And were they listened to or ignored?

    • Jennifer Vernam says:

      Great question. I have not done any deep dives on this, but at first blush, I would want to dig deeper into the responses of the German Church leading up to World War II. Also, we could look at the church’s contribution to the Civil Rights era. I would guess that anywhere the Church challenges the social status quo, there must have been an internal dialogue, first. Agree?

  2. Travis Vaughn says:

    Jen, you bring up the “culture eats strategy for breakfast” quote and say “we don’t always have a firm handle on how culture is developing around us.” I think culture is incredibly important, and I also think it really is a by-product (I think I may have heard author/speaker Os Guinness once share that?) rather than something we create in a systematic way. Like, I’m not sure we can have a “3-step plan to develop a healthy culture in our organization” strategy. I think it is something more akin to discovery rather than strategy. Thus, I agree with your thoughts on Luther… I’m not sure he would have necessarily grasped the connection between work, calling, and…the present-day socio-economic waters we are now swimming in (though he did have some really good things to say about work and calling). How else might the discussion around culture inform where you are going with your NPO?

    • Jennifer Vernam says:

      An interesting question I am going to have to chew on.
      A couple of things come to mind.

      1) Culture reinforces itself. So, to bring up a counter-culture suggestion, the suggester has to overcome the reinforcements that encourage the status quo. My solution should work to help that process.

      2) Culture isn’t good or bad- it just is. Therefore, I think the foundation for having counter-cultural conversations has to happen in a crowd that can discern what is essential versus what is cultural.

      What do you think?

  3. mm Tim Clark says:

    I think part of the battle is recognizing we are in a battle. I’m not sure we will ever fully grasp how our actions will impact the culture we are building but I wonder if knowing that there will be a culture shaped from our actions might create some healthy trajectory for the future (like in the observer effect). Thanks so much for this post.

  4. mm John Fehlen says:

    I see it as an issue of alignment: who or what are we aligned with in the Protestant Church? Of course, the church is going to be impacted by many sources (ie: culture, finance, trends/fads, shifts in morality, etc), however, the church must always align itself with the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

    Acts 3 tells us that Peter looked straight at the beggar by the gate and said, “Silver and gold I do not have, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.”

    According to Cornelius a Lapide, Thomas Aquinas once called on Pope Innocent II when he was counting out a large sum of money. “You see, Thomas,” said the Pope, “the church can no longer say, ‘Silver and gold have I none.’” “True, holy father,” was the reply; “neither can she now say, ‘Rise and walk.’”

  5. Esther Edwards says:

    “I see religion as a flawed instrument, where we don’t always make the mark, but it is better than no instrument at all.”
    This quote is so very true. I do appreciate learning all about the history of evangelicalism and how we have come to this place, but hindsight always has a different perspective then when you are traveling along in the present.
    I wonder how we can honor the past but also learn from its shorcomings and failures?

  6. mm Russell Chun says:

    Hi Jennifer,
    Brilliant (as always), and I would add there is a superb artistry in the way you answered the question.

    I wish I read your post before starting mine (a mistake that will not happen again!)

    I loved your other examples of culture/impacting faith. The Crusades caught my attention.

    It is nice to visit Weber’s protestant work ethic, but from a non Anglo perspective I wondered about the work ethic my immigrant grandparents (China and Philippines) exhibited when they came to Hawaii.

    They were not influenced by Weber, the catholic church or the protestant church. (I am a fish from a different pond.)

    They worked hard, reinvested in their various small businesses (one does get tired of pineapples and sugar can fields), emphasized education as a way towards success in America, abandoned their native languages, and encouraged martial arts.

    They sought a better way of life.

    Senator Hiram Fong, called my generation “bananas” yellow on the outside and white on the inside. I have always thought that he was funny, also very right. But I digress.

    Coming back to Evangelism/Christianity. Almost ALL of my high school friends (Class of 77), from various backgrounds and religions (Buddhism, Taoism, Hawaiian polytheism) have come to accept Jesus as their savior. We even did it unbeknownst to each other over decades. Why because, the message of the gospel pierced through all the cross cultural stuff with the truth.

    Yes, I see the interactions of capitalism and Christianity – however, like yourself I don’t believe the Holy Spirit is limited by either.

    Perhaps the Holy Spirit will untangle religion and capitalism ( a partial quote from Jonita).



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