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

The ‘Christian’ Economic Model

Written by: on January 31, 2018

A complicated, yet powerful text that provides historical antecedents for the free market driven economy that has captivated the developed world, Karl Polanyi’s ‘The Great Transformation’ is an important read for anyone desiring to understand the causes and effects of this economic ideology. From the perspective of the 21st Century it is almost impossible to wrap one’s head around life without this market driven ideology, particularly from the vantage point of the ‘developed’ world. “A major obstacle to understanding Polanyi is the fact that living in a market society shapes our mindsets and behaviors, making it difficult to imagine radical alternatives. Understanding Polanyi requires standing outside the streams of history which have shaped modern societies, to see how our economic, political and social theories about the world have been shaped by external forces, and have evolved in time.”[1] It seems that swimming in the sea of the market economy makes it nearly impossible to comprehend its effects on one’s own life.

This book, even more than 60 years since its original publication, remains both insightful and controversial. Those who believe that the market economy has been beneficial continue to rail against Polanyi’s claims. “The Industrial Revolution in England did not represent a trade-off between gains for plutocrats and the horrors of poverty and unemployment for the poor. Instead, the greatest beneficiaries of the Industrial Revolution were the unskilled; this truly great transformation reduced the terrible inequalities that existed since at least the Middle Ages.[2] While others are quick to accept Polanyi’s assertions regarding the inconsistencies of the Market Economy. “As Polanyi demonstrates, the market economy isn’t a beautiful self-correcting machine, as neoclassical economists would have you believe. It instead voraciously consumes the society and natural environment in which it sits unless it is curbed. But this process isn’t orderly; the trajectory is more like a barely controlled fall in which the market system grinds onward until it becomes so destructive in terms of stability as to rally opposition.”[3] Most, however, appear to agree with the premise that the Market Economy has never been truly free and cannot remain unregulated. “Among his central theses are the ideas that self-regulating markets never work; their deficiencies not only in their internal workings but also in their consequences (e.g., for the poor), are so great that government intervention becomes necessary…”[4]

So, then how might Polanyi’s book influence those of us who desire to allow the life of Jesus to alter the way we live. Is the correct Christian world-view meant to allow the free market to have its way in a manner most notably supported by the Christian-Right in the U.S.? Or is that position incongruent with that which is found in the Gospels thus, supporting the idea that strict control is necessary to ensure that people and resources are not exploited. Though I am uncertain about Polanyi’s personal identification with Christianity, it seems that at the very least he captured some of the principles of the faith as they relate to the use of resources and the inherent selfishness of humanity. He states toward the end of his text; “The true criticism of market society is not that it was based on economics – in a sense, every and any society must be based on it – but that its economy was based on self-interest.”[5] If he is correct in this assessment then it is difficult to understand how anyone could claim both a genuine Christian faith and unwavering support for this particular economic ideology. It seems that this economic structure flies in the face of all that Christianity claims. Paul writes in Philippians 2:3-4 “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

It is absolutely true that this particular economic ideology is so deeply entrenched and supported that nothing short of complete world-wide collapse is likely to unhinge it. So, how then are we to live? It is unconscionable to me that we should have any part in supporting either the destruction of creation as found in nature, or the exploitation of those created in the image of God. And, when it becomes necessary to utilize the threat of starvation to ensure sufficient labor at an exploitative wage, certainly that should raise the ire of all those who claim to be followers of Jesus. The market economy is based on the belief that “…only the penalty of starvation, not also the allurement of high wages, was deemed capable of creating a functioning labor market.”[6] In fact, the market economy is predicated on the idea of poverty and the need to have a certain percentage of society almost permanently trapped there.  As Asad Zaman states in his blog “…both poverty, and a certain amount of callousness and indifference to poverty are required for efficient functioning of markets.”[7]

Unfortunately, it seems that a significant majority of Christians in the U.S. support the idea of a free market regardless of the consequences. And though, they would be unlikely to overtly endorse any form of exploitation of either labor or resources, they live as though God has given them a pass on this issue. They seemingly universally fail to recognize that; “We have sold planet Earth and the future of our children, and are celebrating the proceeds without taking into reckoning the costs. Accounting for the costs of destruction of environment, animal species, and human society, shows that that costs of growth have been far higher than the benefits.”[8] It is little wonder then that younger generations eschew the Church and the faith on which it is built, having recognized the hypocrisy of our consumeristic lifestyle. The Church should be the one leading the way in support of programs that alter the systems that injure and damage others.  And while there are certainly pockets of Christian communities that are doing their best in this regard, it seems that the cultural juggernaut that is consumerism has enveloped U.S. Christianity, sacrificing the Gospel in worship of self.


[1] Zaman, Asad. “Summary of the Great Transformation by Polanyi.” WEA Pedagogy Blog. December 28, 2017. Accessed January 29, 2018.

[2] Clark, Gregory. “Reconsiderations: ‘The Great Transformation’ by Karl Polanyi.” Reconsiderations: ‘The Great Transformation’ by Karl Polanyi – The New York Sun. June 4, 2008. Accessed January 29, 2018.

[3] Smith, Yves. “Something That Changed My Perspective: Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation.” Naked Capitalism. January 02, 2015. Accessed January 29, 2018.

[4] Polanyi, Karl. The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time. Boston: Beacon Press, 2014. P. vii

[5] Ibid. p. 257

[6] Ibid. p. 172

[7] Zaman, Asad. “Summary of the Great Transformation by Polanyi.” WEA Pedagogy Blog. December 28, 2017. Accessed January 29, 2018.

[8] Ibid


About the Author


Dan Kreiss

Former director of the Youth Ministry program at King University in Bristol, TN and Dean of the School of Missions. I have worked in youth ministry my entire life most of that time in New Zealand before becoming faculty at King. I love helping people recognize themselves as children of God and helping them engage with the world in all its diversity. I am particularly passionate about encouraging the church to reflect the diversity found in their surrounding community in regard to age, gender, ethnicity, education, economic status, etc. I am a husband, father of 4, graduate of Emmanuel Christian Seminary, an avid cyclist and fly-fisherman still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up.

6 responses to “The ‘Christian’ Economic Model”

  1. mm Jennifer Williamson says:

    Great post, Dan. And nice tie in to your project. I, too, see consumerism as a major problem. I’m also struck by the American value of “autonomy” as being at work here, too. The idea of “pulling onesself up by the bootstraps” and all. I didn’t notice Polanyi making specific refeneces to the need for community, but it was implicit in the idea that before industrial revolution, the idea that one family could fall into despair was inconceivable. People were aware of how deeply interdependent they were, even if there were Lords and serfs. If it didn’t rain, everyone went hungry. I see younger generations being turned away from the church by consulerism. I’m wondering where they stand on the value of autonomy.

  2. mm M Webb says:

    Great opening and quick summation of Polanyi’s main ideas and thesis. Thanks for narrowing in on the “horrors of poverty.” I was glad to see Polanyi begin with the “Satanic Mills,” which is a more abstract concept of the English “workhouses” that society put the poor and under-skilled workers until they were “ground them into masses” (Polanyi, Great Transformation, 35).
    After “non-reading” and “reading” Polanyi I was inspired to connect the Parable of Talents to his work. With that principle of stewardship and earn the master a profit (spiritual profit I think can take many forms) then I was able to make peace with where Polanyi was going. Especially since I see him as a man who understands spiritual “perseverance.”

    Stand firm,
    M. Webb

  3. Jay says:

    Hi Dan,

    First to post this week, well done!

    I wish I knew what the market system of Jesus’ day was. He was a carpenter and the son of a carpenter, right? I would assume Jesus (and Joseph) sold or bartered their woodwork, but was there some consumerism in that day?

    I don’t have the answers, and I don’t expect you to either, but I enjoyed reading your Blog and thinking about how it might have looked for our Lord in the early days…

  4. Hello Dan.

    My son, a millennial follower of Christ, would agree with your statement: “It is little wonder then that younger generations eschew the Church and the faith on which it is built, having recognized the hypocrisy of our consumeristic lifestyle.” I’ve learned a lot from watching his choices and listening to his passion. His mantra is sustainability – we need to recover the secrets of sustainability and cultivate a lifestyle as caretakers not exploiters of the planet.

  5. mm Jason Turbeville says:

    Great post, I too wonder what the effects of our me first society will have on the future of the church. I think the church has bought to much into the idea of pulling ones self to make something of themselves. I wonder why the idea of a communal church died off after the apostles died. It is evident in their writings that the early church took care of those in need.


  6. mm Jean Ollis says:

    Dan, interesting post! As I was reading this statement “If he is correct in this assessment then it is difficult to understand how anyone could claim both a genuine Christian faith and unwavering support for this particular economic ideology” David Platt’s book Radical comes to mind. It turns capitalism and personal attainment of wealth and “things” upside down. Do economics connect to your research in any way?

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