No doubt America’s church leaders are as concerned as anyone else about the grave news emerging from the European financial crisis. It threatens a disruption so serious that every economy in the world would be damaged. But pastors may naturally ask what, if anything, it all has to do with their work as the spiritual leaders of God’s people.

I don’t think pastors are called to become experts in international finance. However, I do think the European crisis intersects with the daily work of stewarding the mysteries of God and equipping the saints for discipleship in the American context.

One of the most important callings of the pastor is to equip the saints in discerning and carrying out the various callings God has for them in every aspect of their lives, including as members of their civil communities. And thinking Christianly about our daily calling to be good citizens in our homes, workplaces, and communities actually provides unique insight into the financial crisis and what we, as ordinary citizens, can do to make a productive contribution to the good of our neighbors and nation.

Moral and Theological Foundations

Looking at the European crisis, let’s start with some simple economic knowledge and work our way back to moral and theological foundations. The immediate cause of the crisis was a broad constellation of bad policies that reward irresponsible behavior. For example, when European banks buy debt from European governments, they’re exempted from rules requiring them to backstop the debt with some assets in case of default. Naturally, banks all across Europe have responded by buying lots of European government debt, even when they knew it was likely to default. So now, if one or more countries go bankrupt, the whole European financial system will suffer severe and unpredictable disruptions.

But how did Europe get to the point where so much of its financial policy and behavior is so irresponsible? And how did nations like Greece get to the point where voters won’t let them make the necessary reforms even in the face of catastrophe? That’s a longer story.

A historically unprecedented phenomenon has been unfolding—-in Europe for the past five centuries, in America for the past two, and more recently everywhere across the globe except sub-Sarahan Africa. That phenomenon is explosive economic growth. After millennia of basically stagnant wealth levels from the earliest recorded history forward, God’s world is at last beginning to flourish economically.

Just in the past two decades, the percentage of the population in the developing world that lives in dire poverty (less than $1 a day) has been cut in half. Contemplate that for a moment.

This economic flourishing was originally produced by a confluence of factors, the most important of which was Christianity. Late medieval Christianity developed an increasing emphasis on universal human dignity and (consequently) the intrinsic goodness of economic activity. The Reformation dramatically expanded these trends and added critical new dimensions—-especially the idea that your daily work is a calling from God and the primary way God makes human civilizations flourish.

All this culminated in cultures that made productivity—-improving the lives of others by responding to their authentic needs—-central to both individual and national identity. Scriptural treatment of this topic is extensive. Everything from the image of God to the Trinity to the prophets and parables is implicated in understanding productivity.

Christians believe human beings are made in the image of a Father who creates from nothing; this explains why human work creates wealth rather than just moving it around. Christians believe in a divine Son who joined in mystical union with temporal and material humanity. Material activities like economic work are not separate from, and inferior to, “spiritual” activities. And Christians believe in a Spirit who liberates us from selfishness; this explains why life works best when people orient their daily lives around serving others.

The problem is, too many Europeans now take wealth for granted. Some have forgotten where it came from—-productive work—-and feel like they’re entitled to it by birthright. More to the point, the people and institutions in authority have irresponsibly indulged this attitude (for various reasons, such as vote-buying) and have thereby anointed it as culturally accepted.

Where this happens, economics is reduced to the purely material. If the proper economic goal for individuals is to enjoy leisure rather than to be productive, then of course voters should demand endless, unsustainable entitlement programs. If the fundamental purpose of business is to make money rather than to serve customers, then of course businesses should game the system to enrich themselves—-and nations can try to get rich by playing games with the money supply.

The idea that policy should encourage financial rewards for productivity, and culture should set the expectation of productive work from all who are able, simply makes no sense in this context. Once you forget the Creator, you quickly forget that wealth needs to be created.

American Asset

Where does America stand in all this? Our finances are not nearly as bad as, say Greece’s. But they’re not nearly as good as Germany’s. And, like Europe, we’ve been punishing productivity and playing games with the money supply. Not to mention continuing unsustainable entitlements, housing market shenanigans, irrational subsidies, and naïveté about destructive programs.

But America has a hidden economic asset that not even Germany has: churches full every Sunday with people ready to hear what God has to say.

Again, I don’t think pastors should pretend to be experts on international finance, or try to handle political and policy questions beyond their knowledge. What they can do is equip people to discern the calling of God to productive work.

Imagine pulpits across America clearly and consistently preaching:

  • God is calling you to spend every day making the lives of others better through productive work in your home, workplace, and community.
  • God is calling you to be a spiritual leader who gracefully sets that expectation for others—-because everyone made in God’s image is called to productivity—-and for our nation.

Productivity is a critically essential component of both discipleship and good citizenship. In the long term it is the only protection against both pietistic subjectivism in our churches and also economic collapse in our nation.