DMINLGP

DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Christian Capitalism

Written by: on February 26, 2015

moneycrossAs a red-blooded American, I grew up with a certain understanding of life. America was the greatest country on earth, blessed by God and hard work, and everybody wanted to be like us. Our military was the best in the world and every war we every fought was righteous, defending freedom and fighting oppression. Our forefathers were great men of God and were the smartest, bravest, and most honest men of all time. We even had great contemporary teachers like Schoolhouse Rock to teach us everything we needed to know about history, math, astronomy, grammar, and even the wonders of capitalism in action. (Link to Schoolhouse Rock Dollars and Cents: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mV6YaTbNvvE )

 

As I got older, reality set in. Not everyone wants to be like America. Much of our history is appalling. Many of our actions and policies have had devastating effects on others both domestically and internationally. At least the church is there help mediate the damage! But wait; according to Max Weber in The Protestant Ethic and The “Spirit” of Capitalism and Other Writings, the Protestant Church actually helped bring into existence modern capitalism and all the problems that accompany it.

Weber exposes and interesting journey that led the Protestant Church to redefine the purpose of work and the pursuit of wealth. In examining the Calvinistic doctrine of predestination, he points out that, since some are predestined to be saved and others for destruction, those who believed they are saved seek some kind of assurance. Since it is impossible to know if one is “truly saved”, the best evidence is in living a life of good works. While works may not save a person, they are a solid evidence of the internal grace that has been given. “Thinking about having to repeatedly prove one’s state of grace, the guarantee of one’s eternal future, was the inner driving force for the Calvinist, and drew his attention emotionally to the present, in which the predestined Christian must constantly endeavor to gain self-confidence afresh in restless and successful labor in his calling.”[1] Labor was no longer simple a means to gain the necessities of life, it was the calling of every true Christian. To prove one’s diligence in labor, one needed to be successful. The best way prove that one was successful was to show a profit. Weber’s assertion is that the Calvinists had to become successful, wealthy capitalist to verify that they were part of the elect.

Weber does not stop at the Calvinists, he targets the Arminians as well. He claims that doctrines such as christian perfection are just a substitute for Calvinist need to “prove” themselves. Either way, the Protestant Church must perform works as a test of their salvation. “Radical Calvinists, Baptists, Mennonites, Quakers, Methodists, and the ascetic branches of continental Pietism all believe that only proving oneself in life [Bewährung], and particularly through labor in a calling, can bring assurance of regeneration and justification. This belief led inevitably to the conviction that the “proven” Christian is the one who is proven “in his calling,” in particular the efficient businessman (from the capitalist point of view). This type of Christianity was one of the chief educators of “capitalist” man.”[2]

Weber brings up some good points that cause deep reflection. Few would argue that capitalism developed within a “christian” culture, but did the church really cause capitalism? Would capitalism have developed without the Protestant Church? It is impossible to separate the intertwined histories of the church and the culture since the church lives within culture, but Weber seems to negate certain key issues.

Capitalism was beginning to function in parts of Europe prior to the Reformation as a growing merchant class sought ways to invest and participate in a growing trade market as sea transportation advanced. He also seems to take a low view of the doctrine that developed following the Reformation as the Protestant Church began to search the scriptures for the answer to the question “how then shall we live”. He seems also to assume that people like the founding father of America were striving to be good Christians trying to prove their salvation. Was Benjamin Franklin trying to help American Christians grow in the assurance of their faith or was he trying to motivate men and women to work hard and build a new nation?

 

[1] Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and The “Spirit” of Capitalism and Other Writings, trans. Peter Baehr and Gordon C. Wells Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics (New York: Penguin Books, 2002), Kindle Book, loc, 3177.

[2] Ibid., loc. 5520.

About the Author

mm

Brian Yost

Brian is a husband and father of three. He works with Free Methodist World Missions and is currently serving in Latin America.

12 responses to “Christian Capitalism”

  1. mm Dave Young says:

    Brian, Your post leaves me wondering if you’re against working for greater wealth; or working for anything more then substance survival? While capitalism is by no means a sanctified system – isn’t some of the concepts biblical? Like workers should be appropriately compensated, diligence in work brings a grater reward, work as though you’re working for the Lord. It’s easy to mix up work ethic with greed but wealth doesn’t need to fundamentally breed greed it can be used of good too. 🙂

    • mm Brian Yost says:

      Dave,
      I totally agree with you. My post was actually a little sarcastic toward Weber because he seemed to be addressing a move toward gaining as much wealth as possible simply for the sake of being wealthy. He seemed to portray capitalism as a negative force and blame it on the Protestant Church. I had actually contemplated blogging about the good side of capitalism like:
      -When we invest money to gain interest, others can borrow the money for things like homes, cars, and education.
      -Many business owners make a profit, but also provide a good living for their employees, even above and beyond the government requirements.

    • Phillip Struckmeyer says:

      Dave, All of our reading this semester (and last for that matter) is really breaking apart my simple (naive) black and white frameworks I have absorbed. It seems to learn something different makes me want to throw the baby out with the bath water. I love how critical thinking is such a core outcome of this class and I guess our prayer for wisdom and discernment is really being answered. While it feels like several of our readings are bashing capitalism, I do hear in our collective voice a swing back for capitalism and at least a desire some good it may have and be contributing. Very interesting stuff.

      • mm Dave Young says:

        Brian, Phil,
        Thanks for the dialogue. It’s a bit frustrating, I only have time to read a couple chapters in each book and maybe an article or a review. I get enough out of it to write a post but frankly without a careful reading I might be going down a completely wrong path with my take. No guilt on my part for not finishing a book a week for one class – while we’re also supposedly doing research, and oh yah a full time job. But my apologies if I ever misread your posts – thanks for the grace guys.

        • Jon spellman says:

          So let me jump into the mix and toss this hand grenade… I could argue that it isn’t so much that Protestantism forged capitalism but rather the Protestants allowed capitalism to shape them. The church today is replete with example afte example of how rampant consumerism (think, the other side of capitalism…) is leaving her hollow, a vapid excuse for the Ekklesia that Jesus intended. The “Protesters” were very quick to build into their ecclesiology provisions for the amassing of wealth, so long as it was to be used for good! I don’t so much think that the Protestants forged capitalism as I think capitalism forged the Protestants.

          Take that! 🙂

          • Mary says:

            So I’m tossing the hand grenade back at you, Jon. 🙂
            I think you’re using a chicken and the egg argument – how can we know which one came first? And for that matter, does it matter? We are where we are, and now what?

            I love that we’re all wrestling with the topic of capitalism, especially in light of living out our faith. As you state, Brian, it’s so hard to detach from what we’ve been breed to believe, reinforced through media and environment (I mean, who would want to disagree with Schoolhouse Rock – it’s so cool). In the Socratic method of an argument (correct me if I’m wrong for those of you who use this often), the best argument is the one who knows what the opponent is thinking. Our wrestling is doing just that – it’s making us fight for what we believe, while at the same time requiring that we hold in humility what we do not know.

            I appreciate how everyone jumps in to share in the dismembering in order to remember 🙂

  2. mm Nick Martineau says:

    Thanks Brian…I love the Schoolhouse Rock videos! I’d really love to know what our founding Fathers were thinking as their faith intertwined with growing our country. I definitely see Weber’s point.

  3. Phillip Struckmeyer says:

    Brian, Winner, winner, chicken dinner! Great post . . . and not just because you incorporated a school house rock clip:)!
    I was thinking yesterday how capitalistic my restatement of the Great Commission is . . . I the student ministry I lead and the church I planted it went like this: Our vision is to see a culture of radical devotion to Christ, ruthless commitment to loving one another, and a relentless dedication to reaching others. In light of our reading that is an interesting combination . . . Christ, love, and witness through devotion, commitment, dedication. That seems like pure Wesleyan, which now I can see similarly as the true Protestant ethic in the Spirit of Capitalism. My narrow, black and white idealism seems to be similarly crumbling much in part to do with this class and all its reading . . . and the strangest things is I seem to be enjoying it. Yikes! 🙂

  4. Dawnel Volzke says:

    Bryan,

    I too am a product of Schoolhouse Rock! I appreciate your honest and astute observation of what capitalism has come to mean in America. As a nation, we have become prideful in our accomplishments. An elitist attitude and unhealthy competitive spirit has developed. This is even seen in Christian organizations.

  5. Russ Pierson says:

    I am another Schoolhouse Rocker! 🙂

    Great post, Brian, and you and your cohort colleagues are wrestling nicely with the interplay of faith and culture: did the Protestant ethic shape our capitalist system or the other way around? My vote? “Letter ‘D’ – All of the Above”.

    It is interesting to consider how both capitalism and a work ethic rooted in the Christian faith have morphed through the years. Is globalism good or bad? How did corporations become people? Are these multinational corporations soul-less “people” working for little more than profit or agents for good?

    Enron, which famously imploded in shame and scandal, was riotously prosperous right till the end–and some of its highest executives were strong, professing (Catholic) believers? How can this happen?

    I love all the wrestling … and there’s more to come!

    Russ

  6. Travis Biglow says:

    Brian, that is so true about our nations history that has been less that admirable. I think we all grew up with the notion that our country was blessed by God and thats why we are the most powerful country in the world. What I do notice is that people in the church have learned from hard work by some of the scriptures like in Proverbs that teaches against lazyiness. But there is a problem with grace anf faith whereby what we work hard at should be believing what Christ has already provided. I think our work will be like what Jesus said, “to take his burden on us for his burden is light”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *