Christian Economics

Last week someone asked me what studying economics in a distinctly Christian environment, like Calvin College, looked like. To be honest I was a bit taken aback. It was a good question. A question I had not fully answered for myself.

So I slowly felt my way through my answer. I said something general like themes of justice, development, and health fulfill larger roles in our course curriculum. The man asked for a specific example of how a Christian faith shapes economics education. I told a story about an experience I had just last semester. Mainstream economics uses a model that describes rationally thinking labor decisions. The basic idea is people will take time off from work if they are happier during the time of leisure than during the time of work. In economic jargon people will substitute leisure for labor if and only if the marginal utility of leisure is greater than the marginal utility of labor. This concept taught in a Christian setting will certainly summit (as it did in my class) different issues than in a secular setting. For instance, how does vocational calling and kingdom restoration fit into our idea of work? Is work always bad and leisure always good? Can this concept be simplified to this level? Does a feeling of happiness really indicate long term fulfillment?

Upon further reflection I wondered if John Wesley, co-founder the Methodist Movement, is the father of Christian Economics.

This commonly told story about John Wesley takes place when he was a young university student in the eighteenth-century. John had just returned to his house after spending the morning shopping for picture frames to decorate his house, when he heard a knock at the door. When the door was opened there stood a young woman and her newborn baby asking for help. They were hungry and cold. John was sympathetic to their dire situation but was unable to meet their basic needs of food and shelter as he had just spent the last of his disposable income on decorations for his house. The picture frames which now hung on his wall were beautiful but piercing reminders of the choices he had made.

In this simple story we see a devout Christian and a leader of a global spiritual movement, wrestle with the idea of the Biblical responsibility commanded in  Matthew 25: 34-40 and the implications on his daily economic decisions. For Wesley the picture frames on his wall reminded him of when he failed to feed the hungry, quench the thirsty, house the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit the imprisoned. Said differently John Wesley is wrestling with integrating the ideas of kindgom restoration and the opportunity cost of his daily economic decisions.

Opportunity cost is a foundational economic principle. It explains why there is no such thing as a free lunch. Why graduate school actually costs more than college, even when the sticker price is lower. And why residents of New York City tend to be rude and impatient and residents of a midwest city, say Grand Rapids, tend to be friendly and courteous. Opportunity cost can be loosely defined as the value of everything you must give up to engage in an activity.

What John Wesley discovered was that he was living his life without realizing the kingdom restoration opportunity cost of his daily economic decisions. The cold and harsh reality of his choices blew in through his front door as he stood in front of the young woman and her newborn child.

So what does studying economics in a distinctly Christian environment, like Calvin College, look like? We learn how to best use our world’s scarce resources while feeding the hungry, quenching the thirsty, housing the stranger, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, and visiting the imprisoned. We learn how to use our gifts to serve our Creator, Savior, and Father.

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