The Table Podcast

Faith, Work, and Economics

In this episode, Bill Hendricks and Tom Nelson discuss the relationship between faith, work, and the economy.

Timecodes
00:15
Nelson’s background in writing Work Matters
04:11
“Pastoral malpractice” and misguided paradigm of faith
12:03
The cultural mandate and a biblical view of work
19:12
The Great commandment and a biblical view of work
26:20
Economic resources as the means to obey the Great commandment
32:55
Christians and wealth-building
38:08
Christians and caring for the poor
43:50
The Great commission and a biblical view of work
Resources Work Matters: Connecting Sunday Worship to Monday Work by Tom Nelson The Economics of Neighborly Love: Investing in Your Community's Compassion and Capacity by Tom Nelson
Transcript
Bill Hendricks
Hello, I’m Bill Hendricks, the Executive Director for Christian Leadership at the Hendricks Center at Dallas Seminary. I wanna welcome you to The Table Podcast, where we discuss issues of God and culture. We have a long-time friend of The Table with us today, Tom Nelson, who is the pastor of Christ Community Church in Overland Park, Kansas, and also the founder and leader of the Made to Flourish Network, a network that works with pastors and church leaders across the country around what we call the faith, work and economic space. Tom, welcome to our Table Podcast today.
Pastor Tom Nelson
Bill, it’s just wonderful to be with you.
Bill Hendricks
Yeah. You and I went to seminary about the same time, and then we sorta lost touch with each other. And then one day I got a phone call from you saying you were coming to Dallas and wanted to have lunch, because you had just come out with a book called Work Matters: Connecting Sunday Worship and Monday Work. And as soon as you said work, I was very interested, ’cause I’ve been part of what’s called the Faith and Work Movement pretty much my whole career. And I can’t prove it, but I think you may have gotten part of this title a long time ago; somebody wrote a book titled Your Work Matters to God, and…
Pastor Tom Nelson
Every great idea I’ve gotten from you, Bill, yes. And thank you for our historical friendship, and we shared the same seminary space periodically and knew our brides, at that time, and families, and so it was great to reconnect with you. And yes, thank you for being a pioneer in your thought and your book. I did read it, many years ago; it just didn’t sink in probably at the level I should’ve had it sink in at, but it took me a while.
Bill Hendricks
Well, thank you. Just rehearse how you got to this book, ’cause there’s a pretty compelling story behind how you even got into considering that maybe Sunday worship connects to Monday.
Pastor Tom Nelson
Yeah, my story is one that I’ve found is quite common among at least many pastors is that – and I’m grateful for my time at Dallas Seminary and other backgrounds that said, “You know, the Bible matters, and we need to take the Scriptures seriously.” So I had that when I went through my Th.M. at Dallas, and I realized that theology mattered, and that pastors should equip their people with God’s Word; and I remained passionate about that, even more today. But maybe it’s just because I was a little dense. Maybe it’s because I missed some things from those who taught me.

Or maybe it’s some of the tradition sort of blinded me, that I began to see, as I got into a pastoral role and we left Dallas Seminary. My wife and I began a wonderful church, a church plant; there were two of us in an apartment. And I wanted to be a good pastor, I wanted to be a faithful pastor, I wanted to be faithful with God’s Word. But I came to the conclusion over a period of time, rereading the Reformers, but particularly the early chapters of the biblical text. I mean I grew up in a Christian home, loved the Bible since I was six, but one of the dangers in life is that we tend to see what we know, rather than know what we see.

And I think I was blinded because I thought I already knew what the text said. I mean, after all, I went to Dallas Seminary – great school – and taught God’s Word. But the discovery of biblical truth is an ongoing life discovery, and it led me to unlearning some things, and learning some new things, and seeing some things that profoundly began to challenge my thinking. And that was unsettling; but I had to come to the conclusion that I’ve written about this, I’ve talked about this, that, “Wow, I’m committing pastoral malpractice.”

Bill Hendricks
Well, that’s a loaded term; unpack that for us.
Pastor Tom Nelson
Yeah. I mean I had that, and I don’t think it’s an overstatement; I wanna be charitable – but here’s why. It’s because the more I studied Scripture, particularly the early chapters of Genesis, I began to realize that my pastoral paradigm of what it meant for me to be an equipper of God’s people as a pastor was impoverished as what it meant to be a pastor, what my calling was all about, because I realize I was equipping people for the slimmest minority of their life. And I call this the majority/minority disparity, and it was a matter of faithfulness, not only to God, but to my calling, and to the Word, and to his mission in the world.

And I had to go, “Wow. I’m spending the vast majority of my time preaching, really focusing on people really doing Sunday well.” And I was more concerned – transparently – about how well I did on Sunday. Now, the gathered church on Sunday matters, and a pastor ought to care a lot about that, but my focus was really about how well we did Sunday, and how well Christians were Sunday Christians. I was completely missing the primacy of Monday and helping equip people for the majority of their life. So that led us on quite a big shift as a local church; a shift in how I did things and so forth.

But it was coming to that conclusion I was being unfaithful with my vocational calling because I was equipping people over the slimmest minority of life, when God had called it and the gospel spoke into every nook and cranny of their daily life.

Bill Hendricks
So if I’m understanding you correctly, you’re suggesting that the success, if you wanna call it that, of the church is not about so much what happens on Sunday in the church building, but it happens on Monday in the places where the people in your church work?
Pastor Tom Nelson
Yeah, that was the biggest shift. Now, if you’d have asked me did I care about whole-life discipleship 30 years ago, I would’ve said, “Of course I do, ’cause the Great Commission – I mean, I’m all in, discipleship.”
Bill Hendricks
Sure.
Pastor Tom Nelson
But my idea of what it meant to be a disciple, or equipping people to live a whole-life discipleship, was deeply reductionistic. So yes, I realize that my practical outworking of my messages, our discipleship programs, how I did pastoral care and training, was deeply missing the majority where people spend their life. I did talk about marriage, which is an important thing, right, and family life, but I missed this massive area of vocational theology and the importance of work, and helping people fully live out their Christlike discipleship in where they spent the majority of their life. And there are a lot of things that contributed to my blindness about that, but I had to really unlearn and rethink.
Bill Hendricks
Yeah, and I wanna make sure that we’re fair to pastors and church leaders who might be watching this podcast. If I step back and think about it, even you back then as a pastor, I mean, to my knowledge, you had not worked out in a corporation or some business for years and years and wouldn’t be aware of a lot of the issues that people are facing. So it would make sense that maybe you wouldn’t address those issues, ’cause you don’t wanna look incompetent, or speak out of ignorance.
Pastor Tom Nelson
Right. Right, and I certainly had a bit of vocational, professional and cultural insularity, which is a challenge for many of us who are in a full-time paid vocational pastoral role. Because there’s so many activities and duties that we think are important in the local church, and we have high expectations for our parishioners; do Sunday well, children’s ministry well. So all those things are very real, but I began to really wrestle with what is my vocational mission and calling? And I was so wrapped up in my Sunday or my local church within the walls focus I really wasn’t thinking about the mission, that God had called us to really impact people’s lives every day.

So it was a big awakening in my life, and it was built on theological conviction. This is what drove me. It wasn’t fad, it wasn’t church growth; I was looking at what the text said and what it meant for me to be an equipper of God’s people and his mission around the world. And that’s what really took me to my knees and began to – I actually confessed that to my congregation and asked their forgiveness. I felt compelled to do that.

Bill Hendricks
I assume they were fairly forgiving.
Pastor Tom Nelson
Yeah, they were, but they were shocked, and you could’ve heard a pin drop. And the reason is because our culture was, we take God’s Word serious, and the pastors are to deeply unpack it and equip it, and apply it in a relevant way in my life. I still passionately even believe that, so they were a little surprised. Like, “Pastor, you’ve done all this training. You love the Scriptures. We know you know some things even about the original languages. You’ve studied” – and I’ve done work in Israel. “You’re here to help me understand, what does the Word say, and you miss it? Have you not been listening? What about your training?”

So they were really gracious, ’cause we started the church so we had more equity; but I’m just saying they were gracious, but they were at first kinda like, “Whoa – so they’re missing it?”

Bill Hendricks
Yeah. Just ’cause you had had perhaps a mistaken paradigm, your people also had had a mistaken paradigm, and I certainly know plenty of wonderful people that love Jesus who go to church, but their assumption is that the pastors and the clergy, they’re the paid professionals. They’re supposed to do kinda the guide work for us, and our job is to go out and be good family members and husbands and wives and parents, and then go to work and make some money because we need to support the work of God in the church.
Pastor Tom Nelson
Yeah. What is really missing – and that’s very true, Bill. I’ve had people come up to me over the years and say, “When did you receive your calling?” And I have to be a bit pastoral, ’cause I know what they mean; they mean it respectfully. But I almost want to turn and say, “Tell me about when God gave you your call.” But there were a lot of things that played into sort of my impoverishment – I’ll use that word – not intentional, but impoverishment of theology first, and mission, that I now look back and say, “These things contributed to me not being as fruitful and faithful as a pastor as God had called me to be.”

I’m still wanting to grow in that, so I’m not saying I’ve arrived in any way, but there were factors. One of the things – Haddon Robinson was part of our history, many of us who are part of the Dallas Seminary family. Haddon Robinson said that the greatest heresy of the 20th century is the sacred/secular dichotomy. I think he’s onto something, because when we have a dichotomous thought about life – whether it’s eternal/temporal, even though those are realities; or sacred/secular; but we have a Sunday to Monday gap – we are really truncating the gospel that profoundly changes all reality.

We’re also, in my mind, extracting the Great Commandment and the Great Commission from the cultural mandate, rather than see how they are built integrally on that.

Bill Hendricks
Let me jump in there, Tom, ’cause you just used the three terms that we use a lot in seminary settings, but it’s occurring to me that some of our listeners may not be aware. Certainly they may have heard of the Great Commission. They may have heard of the Great Commandment. You threw a third one in there, the cultural mandate. Just briefly give us a 101 version of what those three are, just –
Pastor Tom Nelson
Thank you, and I apologize if I ran over that quickly. So these are realities. There are many texts and scriptures that really help us connect the whole story of Scripture in what we call a canonical coherence, or a whole-Bible-story coherence. And the cultural mandate is the title given to the early texts of Genesis – Genesis 1:25-28 – where before sin and death entered the world, we have an integral God with an integral design, and how he creates humans in God’s image. And then he tells them, with five very strong imperatives: be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, subdue it, and have dominion.
This job description, before sin and death entered the world in Genesis 3, is the foundational idea of how humans fit into God’s design of all of creation. So it starts with being fruitful and multiplying and filling the earth, and then it’s built more on Genesis 2
15-17, when Adam is put in the Garden and there are two words that capture his job description

If we don’t capture the early story well, the rest we miss in its fullness. It’s like starting reading a book without reading the beginning, going to chapter 2, or getting to a movie late. You’ve gotta set the foundation. Otherwise, the rest of the story is often incoherent. The cultural mandate is the foundational teaching from the Bible of how humans fit into God’s created order. The Great Commandment, to love our neighbor and to love others, and the Great Commission to make disciples of every ethnic group, or our global mission, is not eradicating the cultural mandate. It’s built on it, and it gives its fullness in the gospel.

So that’s where I often – just one example of how I so much missed that and begin to see things as compartmentalized and dichotomized. And that kind of thinking leads to language like full-time Christian ministry, not full-time Christian ministry, and so much of it is the water we swim in, we don’t realize that it’s unbiblical in its idea. And I think Haddon Robinson’s right; we have some dichotomist, compartmentalized ideas. The Bible speaks of an integral seamless life, that the gospel speaks into every nook and cranny.

Bill Hendricks
Well, I wanna sort of camp on the Great Commandment as we go on here. The Great Commandment, Jesus said, is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and then he said, “The second is like unto it: to love your neighbor as yourself” – what we typically call the golden rule. And the reason I wanna camp there is because you, in fact, have taken that idea of loving our neighbor to a whole ‘nother level with yet another book, and this time – you used the word impoverished earlier, And so poverty and wealth is a theme that very much comes into this book – The Economics of Neighborly Love: Investing in Your Community’s Compassion and Capacity.

So now you’ve gone beyond just the fact that work matters, and you’re putting a finer point here, that this somehow – work ties into loving our neighbor. Tell us how this book came about, and where in the world does economics fit into this whole thing?

Pastor Tom Nelson
So, Bill, there’s a lot of stuff you’ve unpacked here. First of all, yes, when I began to close the Sunday to Monday gap, when I saw all of life as an act of worship, and then I’m to equip God’s people as priests for the majority of their life, their work – as you did in your early book, I really bought into this wonderful, rich theology that work intrinsically matters and it’s an act of worship if it’s done unto God. And that is profoundly transformational for an individual’s life, ’cause many thoughtful congregants think they led a second-class life ’cause they’re not a pastor or missionary. That is just dead wrong.

So once I began to unpack a rich vocational theology, and that work matters in my stewardship of my life to God, then I began to wrestle with, “Well, how does that relate to others? How does my work fit into not only was I created with work in mind, but I was created with community in mind, modeling a Trinitarian God; a worker God who is communal? And how does this relate to others? ‘Cause in my cultural context, I get very individualistic, very private. I wanna be a good steward, and that’s a good motivation; but it’s not just me and my work that is an act of worship. How does my work fit into other work?”

So that is where the Great Commandment is so vital to understand. If we understand the cultural mandate, to be fruitful and multiply, what does fruitfulness mean? And that particular Hebrew word, you’re aware, has two meanings in Torah, the early chapters of Genesis. One is procreativity; that’s having babies, and the Genesis text talks about that, right? Marriage. What is often missed is, as you know, it’s also about productivity; it’s our work. So you have in the Old Testament both procreativity and productivity. In fact, the woman who is viewed as the wisest picture, personification of biblical wisdom, is Proverbs 31.

Proverbs 31, it’s not a priest or a king, it’s a woman. It says, “Give her the fruit of her hands and let it praise her in the gates.” This is her work, monetized in value in an economic system. All that to say, we need to think of work, our contribution – that’s how we define it, not compensation first – our work is not just something I do unto God for meeting my needs. It is deeply embedded in being a part of God’s community, which brings us to the idea of what does it mean to love our neighbor. Who’s our neighbor, and what does it mean to love our neighbor?

So that’s where we begin to make the bridge from my work to our; I call it moving from me to we, and we can unpack a little bit more of what that means. But that’s the basis of that book, centered in rethinking the Great Commandment and moving from just my work to our work.

Bill Hendricks
So are you saying that whatever one’s work happens to be – I’m a teacher, I’m a salesperson, I work in a manufacturing plant, I’m in the military – whatever – I’m a homemaker – whatever I happen to do for work, that that work is one of the primary means God has given me with which to love other people?
Pastor Tom Nelson
Yes, that’s exactly right. Not only to love God – ’cause when we go to Genesis, we know this idea to work, this idea to cultivate is both the idea to work with our hands, but also to worship in the tabernacle. So the idea of our work is worship, but it’s also loving our neighbor. And what we find – and this is what I think is really important – that in creation, we were designed to work, to glorify God, to meet our needs, but also to meet the needs of others. When we work, we contribute; we add value to others; we cultivate blessing in the created order; and in a growing community, we have an economy.

In other words, we share that value, we exchange that value. Like I have a goat, you have a cow or whatever, and we’re sharing meat and milk, and that’s a very simple economy. So Jesus understood this; I mean, Jesus was a business person. He was a trades person. He understood how the first century economy worked. The vast majority of his parables are about work and the economy; you just look at them carefully. So when we get to the Great Commandment, particularly in Luke chapter 10, Jesus gives us a greater understanding of what it means to love our neighbor.

And what I tried to say in the book is that Luke chapter 10, properly understood around the story of the Good Samaritan, is that neighborly love involves not only Christlike compassion. Because the Samaritan had – he’s most likely a business person. The text does not say he’s a clergy person at all. He’s going from Jerusalem to Jericho. So the question is, he has compassion for this person who is beaten, robbed and left dead by the road. And remember, you know this parable, Jesus centers this parable. It begins with economic injustice that is going down on this person, and he’s robbed.

It’s like a picture of someone taking what is not rightfully theirs. And it ends with the Samaritan giving what is rightfully his, earned through work and an economic system, for the good of another person. So I unpack in the book how Jesus teaches us that neighborly love, properly understood, is not only having the compassion of Christ, but the capacity to love and meet a neighbor’s needs in very tangible ways. And this is what bridges us to economic life and the importance of economic fruition.

Bill Hendricks
So you’re reinterpreting, I think, what is the traditional interpretation of the parable of the Good Samaritan. Normally, I’ve heard that brought out to exhort us to works of charity, and helping people that are in a bad spot; and of course, we use the term good Samaritan to talk about somebody who stops along the side of the road to help you change your – you know, help a little old lady change her tire that’s gone flat. But you’re saying it’s much more than charity.
Pastor Tom Nelson
Yeah, and again, charity is good, but notice he goes above and beyond what the Jewish people required. He not only renders first aid, he puts him on his donkey, takes him to an inn; that wasn’t required under Jewish law. Most likely, he’s going way above and beyond; that’s the point. He takes out his American Express card and says, “I’m good for this for the whole time.” Now, why does Jesus emphasize this? It’s beyond charity. It’s charity, but I think he’s emphasizing – and he says, “Go and do the same” – that this Samaritan not only had the compassion of Christ, but he had the capacity to truly meet that person’s need in generous ways, not just the basics.
And I think we often miss this, the reason why he said that. I think Paul – Paul, I think, is giving a midrash, or a commentary, in Ephesians 4, when he summarized the gospel transforms our individual life. You know, typical epistle language, most of it said who we are in Christ, the first part of the epistle; what does that mean in my life, or how do I apply that? Marriage, prayer, work – there’s a lot of that. But Paul uses that same principle in his book of Ephesians that’s so powerful in the gospel of the church, but in 4
28 he says, “Let the thief” – to me, this is a midrash of this parable, in an epistle form, not a story form.

This is someone who came to faith in Christ. “Now let the thief” – ’cause that’s what happened, they stole what’s not rightfully theirs.

Bill Hendricks
Right.
Pastor Tom Nelson
The gospel tells us not to steal; that transforms our economic life, we don’t steal. “Let the thief no longer steal” – but Paul says, “but let him work with his hands.” In fact, not only that, he says, “labor” – just look at the text – “so that he may give to anyone who has a need.” So right there, you have this profound gospel-centered transformation in an epistle that articulates the principle of Jesus’ narrative of the parable. In other words, when we come to faith in Christ, when we have the compassion of Christ and the love of Christ, and the gospel, that profoundly changes our work ethic. Not only for our self, but our community: let the thief no longer steal, but let him work, labor with his hands. Why?

Well, often that’s monetized or creating value, and the text is very – “so that he may give to anyone who has a need.” That requires compassion and capacity, and that’s the thesis of the book, that Jesus teaches us that love requires both compassion and capacity. And how do we nurture compassion in our communities, but how do we not only nurture compassion, but have capacity? My thesis – and I will stop here – the thesis of the book, really, I think hits the heart of Christ; that when we have compassion but we do not have capacity, we have frustration. Why? Because we were created with generosity in mind.

Jesus said, “It is more blessed to give than receive.” The greatest joy is giving. We were created to give and add value to others, in every way; forgiveness, but tangible ways. So when we have compassion without capacity, we have frustration, because we were created to be generous. When we have capacity without compassion, we have human alienation. Think of the rich fool, the parable of the rich fool. He had all this stuff, but he’s alienated from God and his community, because he’s not compassionate; he has capacity, but not compassion.

So when you have compassion without capacity, you have frustration. When you have capacity without compassion, you have human alienation. But when you have compassion and capacity, then you have human transformation, you have neighborly love. So the book is built around not only defending that thesis, but building out what it might mean in a local community.

Bill Hendricks
Well, so in our culture today here in the United States, we have a conversation that’s now at boiling point around the distance between the very rich and the very poor, and obviously, the poor lack capacity, and in many cases, the rich are at least perceived to lack compassion. What you’re suggesting here is if we’re gonna serve God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength, then we have to begin to find ways to bring capacity into this amazing sort of economic engine that we have going.

That sounds like a tough thing to do in a dog-eat-dog world, where the coin of the realm any more is I don’t even think I’d call it radical individualism; it’s now at what I’d call pathological individualism. Extreme, radical, almost violent demands that I get to choose what I wanna do, and be, and say, and you can’t do anything about that.

Pastor Tom Nelson
Yeah, I think that’s very true. And again, I think the gospel profoundly transforms every nook and cranny of human reality. It transforms our virtue. It transforms our values. It transforms all of life. So if we think about how the gospel speaks into people’s Monday life and their work life, it profoundly changes how they work, why they work, who they work for, how they treat others. It profoundly changes them as an economic actor, where the economics are mutuality, not just individually, take on a higher stewardship. It reframes the economic activity and the virtue that guides it.

In any economic system, virtue has to guide those exchanges. So I’m just saying the Christian salt and light profoundly – if it’s doing its job – profoundly shapes that economic reality. And Brian Fikkert and his team have done a great job defining; poverty is fundamentally a relational poverty. So the Christian addresses relational poverty with God and others, a Christian message. But if you don’t have food to eat, or you don’t have capacity – you’re a single parent who’s just trying to survive – you need capacity. James says, “Just don’t go tell people, ‘Be happy and love Jesus and be hungry.'”

So I’m just saying I think it’s really important for us to understand that when we love God and love our neighbor, we care about their capacity, their dignity. For them to work well, to create a livable wage, to provide for their family, to contribute to society, as a part of work. So that’s what I’m saying. There’s such an important sense that the gospel has to drive this, and it has to spread into all dimensions. And for me as a pastor, I really truncated the power of the gospel to really how it transforms me just in a pietistic way, but how it transforms all of life, now and forever.

Bill Hendricks
Well, this is really helpful. You would’ve thought that I’d sent you a bunch of notes to prepare for this podcast, but as you know, I’m sort of asking you questions cold here. But this really gets into one of the questions I wanted to ask. In your book, you quote a couple of economists, Victor Claar and Robin Klay, who wrote, “Democracy and free markets may be counted among humanity’s greatest social inventions, but the effectiveness of both these extraordinary institutions and the well-being of society depend on the presence of dynamic moral and cultural institutions as well. Such institutions provide the social glue that unites and equips people for common action based on shared values.”

And so what I’m hearing you suggest is there’s a role for the church and churches – I wanna emphasize the churches, meaning local congregations and pastors. There’s a role for them to play in informing the moral and character of believers, so that they match their capacity in their jobs and businesses and other forms of work with compassion in terms of how they do that work and what they do with the profits from that work.

Pastor Tom Nelson
Yeah. And for example, a pastor who really grasps the richness of the biblical theology we’re talking about initially cares deeply about how the gospel profoundly shapes an individual’s life when they live it out on Monday. Not only in terms of how they do their work, or the economic reality; that is broken – I mean, that’s part of a sinful world. So what does it mean to be salt and light? What does it mean for a CEO, a plumber to be salt and light? What does it mean to love our neighbor as a plumber or a CEO? What does it mean in terms of impetus for entrepreneurship? Creating jobs, helping people have dignity.

These are things that 30 years ago I would not think had anything to do with the church or with a pastor’s life or mission. But if we understand the connectivity, then we understand, yes, the gospel and discipling people for all of life profoundly helps them think through what does it mean to love my neighbor in India through the economic sy7stem? What does i6t mean to love my neighbor in Dallas? What does it mean for me to create capacity through wealth-building, so creating value? So it begins to open up an incredible vista of how important following Jesus is, if I’m a nurse, if I’m a teacher, if I’m a retiree; how profoundly it shapes the economic life.

And I’d say also, the local church is a profound economic actor; it’s called a halo effect. But I mean, when you think about local churches large and small, we play, as nonprofits, a profound economic role in culture. And many people have said if all the churches, the economic engine of all the churches are greater than Amazon, Google – I mean, think about the economic activity of churches within the economy. So it’s just a whole ‘nother thing that we’re gonna go, “Whoa, what does that mean in terms of virtue? How do we do our economics as an economic actor, as an institutional church, let alone individual?”

Bill Hendricks
Well, I just wanna make sure I heard you clearly on something you said just a moment ago, because you were talking about the important role that churches have in discipleship in equipping workplace Christians. And I believe you said something to the effect that as a part of that, there needed to be some robust teaching and equipping around wealth-building and wealth creation. Did I hear you correctly?
Pastor Tom Nelson
You heard me correctly.
Bill Hendricks
That seems like a new wrinkle for most churches.
Pastor Tom Nelson
Yeah. And one of the things we do in the book, which I think is really important, Bill, is that when we look at church history – and Peter Brown’s book, Through the Eye of a Needle – Princeton scholar – is the best on this area. He’s done the best work on church history. We do have two divergent views of material wealth in the Christian history – one is Pelagian, one is Augustinian –
Bill Hendricks
And those mean what?
Pastor Tom Nelson
And how you understand that. So some church histories see wealth – material wealth, or many kinds of wealth – as intrinsically corrupting. I don’t think that fits with Genesis, I don’t think that fits with the Scripture. The other group looks at all the Scripture and says, “Wealth is good. Material things are good. God said it was good; it’s not intrinsically evil. But of course, it needs to be managed well for God’s glory. It can corrupt people. Greed can come in. But you steward that.” But material things are good, and wealth creation, material wealth creation is intrinsically good, as an image-bearer of God, who is unimaginably creative of wealth.

And some say, “It depends on the tributary of your thought, of how you see material wealth.” I’m not talking about prosperity gospel or poverty gospel, but what does the Scripture teach about material reality and the Christian’s relationship to it. I hold to a Augustinian view that material wealth itself is not intrinsically bad; in fact, it’s part of what it means to be made in God’s image and creating material wealth – making things better. But it has to be stewarded, it has to be accountable.

Bill Hendricks
So wealth is kinda like fire, which is inherently good, but it has to be managed well.
Pastor Tom Nelson
That’s a great illustration, yeah. But people have different reactions to that, and when I look at Scripture, greed is something that can happen to anyone. It’s not how much you have; it’s how much of what you have has you. I think that’s a big part of how we all need to be sensitive to how material things can be an idol, and how material wealth can strangle our spiritual life. But I know many, many people who are materially impoverished who are also spiritually impoverished, and that’s true of people who have great material wealth can be very spiritually wealthy, but it really depends on how we manage and steward it.

But we also are called to create wealth for the good of others and the glory of God. This is the creation mandate.

Bill Hendricks
Well, I think your book is making a real contribution. I mentioned earlier that I’ve been part of the Faith and Work Movement, as it’s called, pretty much my whole career, and you’re now part of that same movement. And traditionally, it’s been called the Faith and Work Movement, but in the last I’d say two, three, four years, a third piece has been added that’s called the Faith, Work and Economics Movement, FEW. And certainly the Current Family Foundation, which is invested in a very generous and gracious way in that movement, has promoted the importance of that economics piece.

And through this book, you’ve certainly helped in the same way, that you’re basically saying, “Well, it is true that our work matters to God, but it’s also true that it matters significantly to other people” – the people that are affected by our work and the products of our work and the fruits of our work, or the lack thereof. And that there is an inherent economic piece to work that we ignore to our peril.

Pastor Tom Nelson
Yeah, you said that beautifully. I think that is the case. I’ve had this growing awareness from theological conviction that we need to not only help people think about their own stewardship of their own contribution and calling – whatever that is, is the priesthood of believers – but to understand that we are not isolated. That we create value for others, we love others, and every morning we wake up to our economic world. Every economic system is imperfect. And what I’m trying to say in the book is that, up into this time, anyway, a free market system has been the best of all poor systems to help human flourishing, and there are challenges with that, like with any system.

There’s some significant wealth inequality right now that we’re all trying to figure out, “How do we do that?” But you don’t force that; it has to be a virtuous-based thing. But we need to care deeply about the economic well-being of our neighbor, both in India, in a global world, as well as next door, and the church just needs to care about that.

Bill Hendricks
You mentioned Brian Fikkert’s work earlier.
Pastor Tom Nelson
Yes.
Bill Hendricks
When Helping Hurts, and there’s another excellent book along the same lines by Robert Lupton, Toxic Charity. And we talked about charity a little while ago, and this whole view that, you know, when we just give people money and write checks and that sort of thing, we may be doing more harm than good, because we make them dependent on us whenever we do something for someone else that they could easily do for themselves, if given that capacity and resources.
Pastor Tom Nelson
Right. Think about the apostle Paul, again, who had the greatest sense of compassion, collected offerings for the poor in Jerusalem. I mean he had a deep passion and compassion for the poor, to meet immediate needs for famine. I mean, the text says that. But again, he says to the Thessalonians, that’s like “if someone’s unwilling to work, they shouldn’t eat,” and we’re going, “What is going on here?” Well, Paul understands the double narrative that every human being, made in the image of God, was created to contribute; whether that contribution is monetized or not monetized, we were created to contribute to God and to others.

So that’s where this idea that to be human and to be made in God’s image is to be a worker, and to contribute, and when we do not allow people or discourage people to contribute – now, there are many different ways to do that; again, some is monetized, some are not – then we are violating the very image of God in them. Let alone taking their dignity. So that is why it’s so important to love our neighbor, to affirm others, to try to create the capacity and encouragement and resources so that they can contribute and have dignity. And also – think about this – the joy of giving to others. It’s more blessed to give than receive.

If you have very limited capacity – now, it’s not just material things, it’s kindness, forgiveness, love, prayer – but if you are so limited in resources, your opportunities to experience the joy of generosity as the image-bearer of God is much more limited.

Bill Hendricks
So Ephesians 4 there, 28 is certainly written to the thief, as it were, but I’m detecting in what you’re saying that there’s really perhaps an admonition to the modern-day church as really in the West, and particularly to the entrepreneurs within those churches, and churches that have a lot of entrepreneurs, that we try to find people who would otherwise become thieves and give them capacity to actually work an honest living. And of course, the ultimate transformation of a person is to go from a thief to a philanthropist, as that verse shows.

And that there’s a real opportunity here on the body of Christ to actually help create wealth-building businesses and economic systems that allow people who otherwise might go into a life of crime to actually be able to live honest lives, make an honest living, and have, as you put it, the joy of having something to contribute to the world, and not take from it.

Pastor Tom Nelson
Yeah. I can’t say that better, Bill. I mean, when I think about the physical poverty in under-resourced areas in many of our cities, and the vast inequity in the opportunity, educational systems, the church should care. We can say, “Lock people up ’cause they’re stealing,” and they do have personal responsibility; I’m not minimizing that. But we can also look at what are some of the causes? Family breakdown, opiate addiction, not having an opportunity for a meaningful job – there’s no jobs, so what does a young person do?

It doesn’t excuse their behavior, but we can say, “What if we created value? Businesses created job training to help them have dignity to contribute, and give them another opportunity, what a profound transformation in their life, their families, and in our cities’ lives. I just couldn’t affirm what you’re saying more. We can’t just say, “Don’t do that,” or blame people. We need to, “How can we come alongside them and love them as Christ would love them?”

Bill Hendricks
Well, I’ve had a number of friends who work in criminal justice and so forth tell me that our prisons are filled with many entrepreneurs, but if you grow up in a disadvantage neighborhood and the only job that really counts or means anything is dealing drugs, that’s probably where you’re gonna end up. And so when you think about, well, what alternatives could we create for that entrepreneurial young person to make money that’s real money, and create jobs for his friends, her friends, to me, it dovetails perfectly with what you’re talking about.
Pastor Tom Nelson
Yeah, and I think also on that, too, Bill, is that in a culture where as Charles Taylor says, we have a secular frame, the gospel is increasingly hard to grasp. It needs incarnational plausibility. So it’s also an opportunity for us to be gospel people who are proclaiming the gospel but living it out. And many people can accept the gospel when they see how the gospel profoundly not only gets them ready for heaven, but profoundly changes their everyday life. So it is a gospel opportunity as well, to put legs, arms, feet, hands and show how the gospel transforms all of life. So I think it’s an incredible evangelistic opportunity if we would think holistic.
Bill Hendricks
Well, I’m gonna finish with that evangelistic thought. We’ve got a couple of minutes left. I can hear many listeners saying, “Well, wait a minute. What about the Great Commission here? Isn’t that supposed to be our first priority? And it sounds like you just want people to go to work, and that’s great, and earn a decent living, and that’s great, but where does evangelism fit into all this?”
Pastor Tom Nelson
Yeah, I think it fits very much in the center of it. I mean, I’m just saying when we think about it. What it does, though, is it takes evangelism beyond merely a proclamation of a message to actually embedding that message in a loving relationship that is comprehensive. And the Great Commission says to teach them to, obey is a better translation, everything Jesus commands. So the Great Commission is comprehensive in terms of its call to train people to live fully into an obedient life, which as we know from Scripture, it touches all dimensions of reality. So it doesn’t replace it, it doesn’t sidestep it, it brings fullness to the Great Commission.

I think many times we have a very reductionistic view of what that Great Commission is. Look at how the disciples understood it. They planted churches, and a very comprehensive understanding of how the gospel transformed all of life. They didn’t just say, “We’re just gonna show our faith only, and then…”

Bill Hendricks
Move on.
Pastor Tom Nelson
“Go to church.” So I think if we just think about it, they all fit together; the cultural mandate, the Great Commandment, the Great Commission fits together beautiful in the mission of God in the world that we should give out.
Bill Hendricks
Well, absolutely. The core mandate there in the Great Commission is to go and to make disciples, apprentices of Jesus; that Jesus is Lord of all, that he’s Lord of all of our lives. And as we began, that means not just being a good church-goer – it certainly involves being vitally connected to a body of Christ and contributing your gifts and resources. But as we said, the success is not what happens just on Sunday; it’s what happens on Monday, when you go back into the real world and you there live out your faith as an apprentice of Jesus Christ. Tom Nelson, thank you so much for being on The Table today, and giving us the benefit of your tremendous wisdom in this area.
Pastor Tom Nelson
It’s a delight to be with you, and thanks for being a leader in this area and thinking so well.
Bill Hendricks
Yes, and if you would like to see more Table Podcasts, we invite you to the Hendricks Center’s website, and we’ve arranged the podcasts on The Table under a variety of headings. You can find more of this kind of material where we discuss issues of God and culture. For The Table, I’m Bill Hendricks.
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Bill Hendricks
Bill Hendricks is Executive Director for Christian Leadership at the Center and President of The Giftedness Center, where he serves individuals making key life and career decisions. A graduate of Harvard, Boston University, and DTS, Bill has authored or co-authored twenty-two books, including “The Person Called YOU: Why You’re Here, Why You Matter & What You Should Do With Your Life.” He sits on the Steering Committee for The Theology of Work Project.
Tom Nelson
Dr. Tom Nelson is president of Made to Flourish. He is also the senior pastor of Christ Community Church in Kansas City. He has served on the Board of Regents of Trinity International University and is on the leadership team of the Oikonomia Network.
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