Holiness and Exchange

Most marketplace ministry and marketplace theology focuses on an incomplete picture by trying to read the creation narrative at face value. The key points are taken from Genesis 2:15: “Then the LORD God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it.” From this verse we delve into the theologies of work and stewardship, both of which are relevant to marketplace theology but do not complete the picture, so to speak.

The real keys are two-fold. The first is God’s pronouncement that it was not good for the man to be alone and that a suitable helper was necessary for “goodness” to be fulfilled (Genesis 2:18). After examining the various creatures that were already with Adam in the Garden, it was determined no such partner existed and God created the ezer neged, Eve. Ezer neged means, most literally, something like helper in sight, helper in front of, or helper opposite. There are three implications here. The first is the helper is present, visible to the one being helped. Adam is aware of Eve’s presence and her role as co-worker. The second is the helper is not in a position of prominence, not behind, not beside but in front of Adam, that is, the helper is in a position that Adam must deal with right up front. This hints at some degree of equality which is not at issue until after the Fall when he is placed over her in the fallen order. The role and relevance of the helper cannot be easily ignored, disregarded, or dismissed. Finally, the helper is in a complementary position, opposite. This is probably most apparent in the sexual differentiation between Adam and Eve. They are counterparts. The sense of opposite here does not mean contrary (though many couples may think it a more appropriate explanation of things) as we commonly think of opposition but rather serves functionally in a correspondent way (co-respondent, specifically, to God).

There are three ways in which it was not good that Adam was alone that only the presence of Eve could resolve. The first, which is also the one most apparent in the text, is in the role of wife for the sake of procreation. It was biologically impossible for Adam to produce progeny without Eve. The organism was not designed like an amoeba that would simply divide to reproduce. The second is in material prosperity. We have all likely experienced the difference of tackling large projects alone and of tackling them with a co-worker. Gained efficiency is typically apparent in that the division of labor and the sharing of overwhelming tasks (either mentally or physically) in the midst of the project. Camaraderie, which dispels the loneliness of being alone and offers encouragement at discouraging moments, adds a psychological boost to the physical work. In any case, as we recognize in the functioning of the marketplace, the division of labor requires ordered cooperation and leads to heightened specialization and collaboration, deepening the interdependency of workers and corporations, all to greater gains of efficiency, which is the crux of creating wealth through increased productivity.

The third component in the partnering of Adam and Eve is the most critical to God and man. As we have noted, Adam’s material prosperity was very limited without Eve, given the absent proliferation of the species and the inefficiencies naturally inherent in working alone. But more importantly, Adam could not prosper spiritually without Eve. That may, at first glance, seem preposterous since he was often (always?) in the presence of God in the Garden but there was no way for him to rightly relate to a veritable equal, someone like himself, that is, not God.

In Genesis 1:27, we are told that the image of God included both the male and female forms. That indicates that Adam was incomplete and can be most easily related to the [pro]creative aspect of God’s image. Adam could not “create” more generations without the female counterpart. But, the image of God also included the community of the Trinity in that three co-equal but distinct persons within the godhead were always in intimate relationship with one another. To fulfill the image of God, Adam needed a co-equal human. Herein lies the key to his spiritual reflection (image) of the holiness of God, in the relationship with Eve.

As I discuss in Eden’s Bridge: The Marketplace in Creation and Mission, there was no need of profit in the Garden of Eden. The abundance of the Garden might be said to have been, in business parlance, all low hanging fruit and easy pickings. Work in the Garden was neither tedious or demeaning. Basically, the production of the ground was so prolific that Adam did not even work up a sweat in getting the job done. There was more than ample supply for Adam, Eve, and the generations that would follow. But if there was no need of profit, what was the point, first, of creation and, second, of the relationship between Adam and Eve? If we continue in the line of considering the reflection of the image of God in Adam and Eve, we must consider how the holiness of God can be seen.

I posited in a recent online post that “holiness is practiced and perfected in our interpersonal exchanges, not the least of which, or perhaps more appropriately, among the most meaningful of which are our economic exchanges.” The central importance of economic relationships in the Bible is found throughout when the prophets rail against the injustice of neglecting and oppressing the poor, Jesus’ accusations of the social, political, and economic elitism of the Israeli leadership in his day, and the multitude of exhortations of Paul and, especially, James concerning how Christ-followers handle wealth and possessions.

The mishandling of economic relationships is far and away one of the greatest hindrances of the church in the West as we can attest to the disparity between the affluence of even our lower middle class by comparison to lifestyles of Christians across the world, and even across town. Sadly, this is not an issue spoken of with regularity in the churches of America that most need to hear it. It is enormously recognized by the poor and their cries are being heard by God. But for most of us, our possessions have come to possess us and our concerns of securing our households and retirement have taken precedence over acting compassionately toward the rest of the church, the world, and even our enemies, all of which, the New Testament is clear, are our responsibilities.

We have convinced ourselves that our prosperity is a clear sign of God’s blessing for being righteous by our hard work, diligence, and wise investment. This conflicts with the message of the Bible, especially in the Old Testament, and the witness of Jesus Christ and the New Testament authors makes it clear that our prosperity is a poor means test of our holiness. Even in the Old Testament the wildly successful king of Tyre is exposed for the violence inherent in the acquisition and use of wealth accumulated through unjust trade (Ezekiel 28:16). If we believe that our prosperity somehow reflects righteousness then those who become rich by unethical, and even immoral or illegal, means can hold up their prosperity to demonstrate that apparently God does not condemn them for their practices. Obviously that makes for a ludicrous argument but it is one which we buy all to easily in justifying our own marginal business ethics (means) and the abundance of our prosperity (accumulation as ends). We all too easily deflect the accusation of unrighteousness by resorting to the worldly adage that “it’s is not personal, it’s business.” But business is always personal. No matter how remotely we may carry out our transactions, our marketplace decisions, whether in the practice of conducting a business or in our purchase decisions, always affect the lives of a multitude of others, moving outwardly from us like ripples on a still pond.

But, we have a multitude of opportunities every day to glorify the presence of God with us and within us in our economic transactions. The most immediate that come to mind might be paying our bills on time and with gratitude for the wonderful products and services we receive in return, tipping wait staff generously as a demonstration of how graciously God has poured out his kindness on us, or restricting our “wants” to practical limitations, welcoming the growth of personal discipline we gain by delayed gratification, awaiting the promises we will inherit in the life to come.

Less apparent is to be conscientious consumers, wary of corporations that stroke our egos by the cool factor of obtaining their products, and of our own desire for status and self-indulgence in the homes, luxury automobiles, sumptuous meals, and “deserved” vacations we buy. The globalized world, always at our fingertips through the magic of wireless modems, presents opportunities to pursue the selfless glory of God every day. Our commitment to shalom, far more than peace as the absence of conflict, but rather the well-being of every human being made in the image of God, is tenuous at best. Shalom is a communal word, not meant to be privatized for our own self-satisfaction and security. True shalom reflects the glory of the Trinitarian godhead, the perfect creative, life-giving community of love.

Money is not the root of all evil but, as the root of all kinds of evil, it whispers us away from godliness in the subtlest of ways, but most especially in its promise of security. The disciples left all to follow Christ, the one homeless with no place to lay his head. Yet the disciples gained family, households, and wealth through the fellowship of the church wherever they went, and it is unlikely that Jesus, during the years of his earthly ministry, spent many nights without a roof over his head. His provision, whether of bed or board, came from the hospitality and generosity of his followers, in holy exchanges, self-sacrificial acts for the sake of following a higher Way.

The creation narrative of Genesis 1-2 reveals the life God intended for his people. We now live in a fallen world in which we hope to witness to the glory of God that, in the Kingdom to be consummated at Christ’s return, we shall live in abundance without scarcity, that no child of God will be without place and provision. Jesus proclaimed that the Kingdom had come, in himself, into the world. Our best witness of the power of the Incarnation is to put our money where our mouths are, doers of the word and not just hearers, deceiving ourselves (James 2:2). If we claim to be that which our actions deny, we are no better than the hypocritical Pharisees, practicing a form of godliness but without the transforming power of God (2 Timothy 3:5), power that transforms both us and the world.

The New Testament gives four strong messages concerning wealth and possessions. These are discussed in detail in Sondra Ely Wheeler’s Wealth as Peril and Obligation (Eerdman’s, 1995). Wheeler’s chapters examining four key passages on wealth and possessions lead to deeper considerations of wealth, in Chapter 8, as a stumbling block, as the object of devotion (worship),  as evidence of economic injustice, and as a vital resource for meeting human needs. The first two chapters, explaining her methodology for the study, can be a bit heady for many readers but well worth the effort to understand how she reaches the conclusions she shares. I would recommend this book to any Christian who considers themselves serious disciples of Jesus Christ. Wealth as Peril and Obligation is deeply challenging. It does not prescribe specific courses of action (rules), simply because the myriad of life circumstances facing Christians crosses a broad spectrum of possible responses to the Bible. But the book ends by asking a long list of hard questions which need to be asked, especially in the modern age of explosive global capital growth and the disparity of wealth within the church itself between the developed world and the developing world, and between affluent neighborhoods in our urban centers and those neighborhoods and small towns struggling in poverty.

The Parable of the Talents, from which we famously derive the misty-eyed looking-forward-to-hear “Well done, good and faithful servant,” was a story of economic exchanges analogous to how we expend (invest) all our resources, whether monetary, our time, or the gifts and talents which God has bestowed upon us each. Every interaction with God or others is an exchange. Many are done casually without deep consideration of eternal ramifications. Each, including economic exchanges, is an opportunity to walk according to the Spirit, as light and salt to the world because a measure of holiness, inherent as we are relational, is inherent in every exchange.

7 Comments

Filed under Discipleship, Faith in the Marketplace

7 responses to “Holiness and Exchange

  1. Jim Quinlan

    Excellent, brother. I will share this as much as I can and read the book. God bless your efforts!

    • Thanks, Jim. The North American Group of the Lausanne Global Business as Mission Think Tank gathered here in Atlanta last week. My concern has been, and continues to be, that the discussion of theology of the marketplace has been missing the mark. I hope you enjoy the book. Please let me know what you think.

  2. Beautifully and lucidly put, David. Thank you.

    I spent 30 years living in the States (now back home in England), always on the lower edge of economic stability. One thing I found was how there are lessons and attitudes that are really hard, if not impossible, to learn if you are wealthy. During one period of unemployment our 16-year old son went out to work in Walmart. He not only refused to keep any of the money he earned, putting it all into the family pot, but he also got really angry at his (Christian) friends who spent he summer complaining that their parents expected them to “get by” with a used car, not a new one! I never felt that our children were deprived growing up in such an environment and I pray that they remember the lessons they learned throughout their lives.

    • David – Thank you for your kind words. I believe the essay speaks enormously to the economic mindset the church has, by and large, lost touch with. Thank you for sharing some of the testimony of your own experience and especially that of your son.

    • Sweet. Thanks for sharing.

      It does seem that the Christian spirit, being like Christ, grows best in the valleys of life. God is good to give them to us, especially as He gives us the strength to get through them as well. You have raised your son well.

      Peace.

  3. Sherry Brown

    Hi Dave, Greetings!! It was a real learning experience & an eye opener from different perspectives in our day to day life, i feel trmedously blessed & educated in more ways.
    Best Regards,
    Sherry

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