Close this search box.

Missional Theology as Economic Enterprise

Author: Spencer Bogle
Published: Summer–Fall 2017

MD 8.2

Article Type: Peer Reviewed Article

In this article, I aim to articulate missional theology as an economic enterprise wherein human agents seek to participate in God’s work in the world. I will first provide a brief conceptual framework for speaking of God’s economy. Next, I will discuss missional theology as prophetic economic practice. I will identify ways in which missional theology, as it has been consistent with the person of Jesus Christ, has embodied countercultural challenges to dominant imperial, colonial, and neo-liberal economic structures. In conclusion I will identify several prophetic economic possibilities for missional theology in service of churches in the present US context.

On Economies

On a basic etymological level economics is an ordering of the household, or the house (oikos) law (nomos)—the Greek roots of economic conceptualization. This definition, if it can be called that, demands that any conversation articulate the scope of the household and the process for determining proper order within the household. I find speaking of a “divine economy” problematic because of the basic ontological difference between humanity and God, and thus humanity’s limitations in attempts to understand “household” in the same way that God does—whether in a particular space, the world, or the Godhead. In accordance with the premise that all theological language is analogical, any discussion of divinity, whether in reference to a transcendent divine economy or divine mission, must begin with apophatic silence. We cannot speak definitively of divinity, but are rather at the mercy of God who has crossed the threshold into creation so that we might bear witness to the Spirit that inspires life within creation as created beings. Jesus Christ therefore serves as the image of God’s economy and God’s mission because he is the image of the invisible God—the embodiment of God’s work in a broken world. In other words, a missional economy is accessible through God’s work and revelation of the kingdom of God in and through the incarnation, as humanity receives the gift of the image of life fully lived by the Holy Spirit. Both economy and mission are relational terms that accentuate eccentric existence when applied to the person of Jesus.1 While recognizing our epistemic limitations, we can claim that Jesus is the embodiment of divine economy and mission and orients humanity to a particular way of relating to others, which enacts the kingdom of Heaven, unleashing life in this world.

The boundaries of kingdom articulated by Jesus throughout the Gospels are marked particularly by the use of power, the power involved in relating to another. A basic definition of kingdom of God for the purpose of this paper is wherever God reigns. And the interpretive mark of God’s reign and power is the image of Jesus Christ. Wherever the use of power toward another defies the way that Jesus uses his power, there economy and mission stand in opposition to the Kingdom of Heaven. The actions of war with another, hate for another, or suppression of another do not lie within the scope (household) of the boundaries of the kingdom of heaven. Definitions of economy and mission are subordinate to definitions of kingdom, and in order to be consistent with the kingdom of Heaven in the Gospels, economy and mission must also embody a process of relating to the other congruent with Jesus’ orientation to power. Coherence between mission and economy as embodied within Jesus Christ challenges traditional constructions of mission, economics, and politics in line with both state and individual contractual rights.

I believe this is the reason Wendell Berry identifies the appropriate scope for economics as the kingdom of God, applied in scale to the most particular of relationships.2 What we order is creation itself, gifted to humanity as stewards—stewards of the place and material that God has pronounced “good” and “blessed.” This pronouncement of the goodness and blessedness of creation can be identified not only as a theme in the Genesis creation account, but also as a theme throughout the prophets, the wisdom literature, and the actions of Jesus. As human agents we are part of that very blessed creation. As human agents each one of us enters into a particular history where others have formed institutions, alliances, governments, and markets. As human agents we do not get to choose the history into which we are born.

One contemporary approach to accessing a basic description of economic practice is through the art of dealing with limited (or scarce) resources amidst unlimited desire. This is a common definition that will hopefully raise concern among theologians and biblical scholars. Is individual desire unlimited? Is desire of the masses unlimited? Furthermore, are the resources truly limited? Which resources? What counts as a commodity subject to a market? If anything is unlimited it may be the examples of how human desire exceeds the limited resources to which we have access. Is human nature essentially competitive amidst scarce resources?

Capitalism is based on a creative turn, which aims to transform proclivity of individual discontent and greed into a social good. In other words, capitalism concedes the depravity of the individual. The contemporary “mission” of capitalism accepts individual vice and aims to achieve the unintended consequence of a greater good through structural organization of markets. The hope (and arguably, the illusion) of capitalism is that virtues of charity and justice, particularly as they emerge from a sense of compassion and sympathy for those who are suffering, might be employed to raise the condition of the poor and the suffering. Adam Smith, widely regarded as the father of modern capitalism, grounded his economic imagination in the fertile soil of virtue-ethics, wherein sympathy for another can be identified as a primary nutrient.3 Smith proposed that exchange between butcher, brewer, and baker (who nonetheless act according to self-interest) still exists in an environment where the sources of labor and production cannot be dehumanized without a detrimental effect on the economy. Yet, labor markets have become more mobile and transient power has not flowed in the direction of sympathy but of fear, trending toward self-justified consolidation of resources among the one percent. If selfishness is assumed and economic relationships are fundamentally competitive, the question of capitalism is how competition might lend itself to mutual benefit. And this is not a terrible question, given the premise. However, the world is now several hundred years into the experiment, and there is significant disagreement as to whether and for whom the capitalist mission is succeeding or failing.

Several theologians have pointed to language of God’s abundance in order to throw a wrench in the machine of capitalist ideology based on scarcity.4 I believe that this move requires additional attention, since God is not an equal economic player in our economic systems. On the one hand, God’s abundance is something attributable to God’s nature, as infinite and eternal, whereas humanity receives such gifts within and as finite creation. On the other hand, scarcity, particularly in this age of globalization, water crisis, and climate change, is a reality with which we must deal quite intentionally. The question at the heart of a missional economy is how God enters into situations of scarcity and how humanity might participate in such action as humans. Such a posture does not deny realities of scarcity, and it does not deny human complicity in economic and political relationships that have resulted in a lack of access to the most basic resources of food, water, shelter, and healthcare. However, this approach identifies a human capacity to live into created intent, not of competition with others in the created order, but mutual fulfillment by a Holy Spirit of love and grace.

Missional Theology as Economic Enterprise: A Proposal of Basic Principles

God, the giver of life, created the world to flourish through a particular relational power. This holy power, seen in creation, resurrection, and reconciliation, sets right that which is broken and destroyed by mundane powers of death. The mission, the telos, is life by the Spirit of God. The image of that life is Christ. In such an approach, value is determined within the particular relationship. This becomes quite complex within economies wherein the individual is largely disconnected from local markets. It is often cheaper to buy mechanically mass-produced produce from another country than produce raised with care and concern from within one’s own town. The marketing tactics involved in everything from selling a box of cereal to a new computer conceal power dynamics in global labor and production. Because economies of biblical contexts and present markets for even the most basic resources are so very different, one must be careful and precise when identifying points of contact between God’s mission and human participation. I believe that it is this tension, as much as any other, that reveals the need for a robust pneumatology in constructive theology.

I propose seven basic principles as an outline for missional theology as an economic enterprise:

  1. A holy conceptualization of mission begins with God’s work in and for creation.
  2. God’s mission is embodied in the person of Jesus Christ. Humanity is empowered to participate in God’s mission by the Holy Spirit. In other words, Christian mission is to be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ.
  3. Mission entails an economy, an ordering of a household, which requires consideration of the scope of the household and process of ordering the household.
  4. The household is the very kingdom of God, which encompasses all creation.
  5. We are not God, and therefore cannot participate in God’s economy with the world as God.
  6. Within creation, at any point in history there are myriad economies, all with points of confluence and resistance to God’s economy.
  7. Participation in God’s mission within history entails prophetic action—specifically working and speaking against the forces and spirits of domination and death, which stand in opposition to God’s Spirit of Life that creates, sustains, reconciles, and redeems.

This outline serves as an introductory proposal concerning the relationship between mission and economy that will hopefully lead to more discussion, contributions that fill in the gaps, and revision of the principles themselves. Whereas the paper up to this point has touched on the first six principles, remainder of the paper will address the seventh principle and the implication of living out these principles in the world today.

The Prophetic Nature of Mission as Economic Enterprise

I contend that theology is always economic, communicating values, dealing with scarcity and finite resources. Likewise, mission is a political and economic enterprise involving work and movement toward particular ends. Christian “mission” has been ambivalent in relation to imperial and colonial systems of domination from the early church until the present moment. Each system of power and conquest in which the Christian church has found itself has required churches to find a way to work either in collaboration, resistance, or alterity to the prevailing economic system. There are countless examples of Christian institutions and churches serving a dominating state, empire, or corporate ideology—Christian complicity in genocide and violent conquest in the name of mission is well-known enough not to require rehearsal here. However, in a neo-colonial age economic policy has been used to starve entire people groups, obstruct access to medicine and clean water, and exploit labor through language in service to the missions of nationalist democracy and the free market. Quite often, Christian complicity in global relationships marked by domination and exploitation can be difficult to identify when control of foreign policy happens indirectly through economic means instead of direct military occupation. Self-criticism based on an honest exploration of our own histories is critical for faithfulness and righteousness at this juncture.

It is possible to understand “mission” as an embodied economy within a given context. In this sense, mission is never unilateral, but a way of embodying values for humanity and creation within a given network of relationships. Mission is an economic enterprise because it engages value, production, distribution, labor, material within good creation, and information as relational constructions. When these constructions cohere with Christian confession, they are always embedded within locally, nationally, and globally constructed economies. There are many examples in history where Christian mission has served as a prophetic practice in opposition to imperial and imperialist domination. As we imagine how Christian mission might embody the prophetic economic alternative particularly within the United States and in global relationships we have many historical examples from which to draw.

I speak of a prophetic economy in the spirit of Abraham Heschel’s description of a prophetic theme, which he states, “is, first of all, the very life of a whole people, and [the prophet’s] identification lasts more than a moment. He is not only with what he says; he is involved with his people in what his words foreshadow. This is the secret of the prophet’s style: his life and soul are at stake in what he says and in what is going to happen to what he says.”5 To speak of a prophetic economy, and to identify those who embody economic practice that reflects Jesus, is to enter the perennial conversation of the relation of church and state, a question to which the field of Christian ethics has devoted itself. While I do not presume to solve the question, I do wish to orient the attention of this article to what kind of power is being used, and who benefits from the use of power. Scholars from Heschel to Walter Brueggemann to Nicholas Wolterstorff accentuate the prophetic theme of reminding political leaders that the success of the political body on every level (scope) is determined by how faithful the respective body is to the covenant. Success is therefore judged by the well-being of the poor, the sick, the widow, the orphan, and the alien. In each age Christianity has been challenged by prophets on political-economic matters.6

Prior to the Edict of Milan in 313, churches often embodied a prophetic economy due to the reality that Christians represented a minority and often gathered in secret or in resistance to imperial control. Whereas the response to Christian communities varied across the Roman Empire for the first three hundred years, from outright targeted persecution to disinterest to general acceptance as long as the Christians did not disturb the status quo, there are numerous examples of Christian action that communicate alternative values in the face of imperial practice. Central to economic practice of these early churches, in line with consistent prophetic attention to care for the widow, orphan, alien, and the sick, and in line with Jesus’ embodiment of this economic ethic, many early churches placed care for disenfranchised human persons at the center of their relational economy.

For instance, Paul’s description of the body (1 Cor 12:27–31, Eph 4:1–15) articulates an economy in which no part declares the other unnecessary. Paul’s metaphor of the body stands in direct contrast to hierarchical Greco-Roman political body metaphors that argue for complete bodily submission to the authority of the state, the elite, the educated, or the wealthy. Whereas Greek and Roman metaphors emphasize parts of the body playing hierarchical roles, Pauline invocations of the body metaphor allude to mutual flourishing, concern, and connectedness in service to Christ.

In fact, Christian churches have always existed within the tension of living into an imperial economy, which determines values and success according to the power structures of the empire, or living into a holy economic order, which operates according to the power of a Holy Spirit. In the epistles Paul presents an alternative language rife with challenges to imperial economics. Joerg Rieger points to the ambivalence of terms like ekklesia (church), euangellion (gospel), dikaiosunē (justice), eirēnē (peace), and kyrios (lord), which take on a spirit of resistance to an imperial order when used under the headship of Christ.7 Upon Constantine’s proclamation of Christianity as an accepted religion of the empire, the relationship between mission of the empire and mission of the church became more complex. Augustine’s City of God is largely a treatise on how Christians might engage this political-economic tension. From the East, at both a geographical and epochal crossroads for the church, John Chrysostom’s sermons provide an economic vision for wealth and poverty when the ruling authority is God:

For our money is the Lord’s however we may have gathered it. If we provide for those in need, we shall obtain great plenty. This is why God has allowed you to have more: not for you to waste on prostitutes, drink, fancy food, expensive clothes, and all other kinds of indolence, but for you to distribute to those in need. Just as an official in the imperial treasury, if he neglects to distribute where he is ordered, but spends instead on his own indolence, pays the penalty and is put to death, so also the rich man is a kind of steward of the money which is owed for distribution to the poor.8

Basil the Great, who shared John Chrysostom’s conviction that holding great wealth while refusing to share with those in need was a form of stealing, established an institution to aid those who suffered from the drought and famine of 369. The painting of St. Francis kneeling before Pope Innocent III by Giotto de Bondone immortalizes economic tensions of power and authority within the church.9 In each and every context churches are confronted with a tension present among various spirits proclaiming life, whether a spirit of victory aligned with the Roman Empire, a spirit of civilizing mission throughout the colonial period, or a spirit of progress present within modernity.

Amidst the colonial scramble for Africa, particularly between 1876 and 1914, missionaries often faced an incredible tension between securely-funded promotion of a state-supporting gospel, or an economy of grace, love, and hope that served as a direct contrast to the colonial economic spirit that funded the mission. Numerous histories reveal churches standing against national institutional racism, churches standing for women’s equal rights, churches providing a safe haven for refugees, all because of an embodied economy that values the life and dignity of those crying out against the powers of death. The significant point is not simply that churches have aligned themselves with a particular human rights agenda, but that in situations where human life has been devalued, prophetic churches have identified an alternative vision consistent with the basic principles of a prophetic Christ-shaped economic participation in the Spirit of Life outlined above.

In each of these historical examples, Christian participation in the mission of God as an economic enterprise is not marked by a simple opposition to any given economic system, but by a positive exercise of power consistent with the work of the Holy Spirit. Power in the Spirit of God is distinct, holy, because it is creative and inspiring, giving fresh breath to those struggling with the greatest burdens and those facing the powers and cycles of death. Power of the Holy Spirit does not and cannot justify economic surplus built on the backs of the poor. Rather, divine power values the least of these, is manifest particularly through justice and charity for the poor, the sick, the rejected, and the outcast, and essentially stands against powers of domination in any form. Power is defined in ever expanding circles of influence that seek coherence among life for the individual in relation to family, neighbor, community, and world. The power of the Holy Spirit is about the life of the world that begins with reconciliation with the person in closest proximity.

Max Weber, the prominent sociologist and economist of the early 1900s, identified development of the “Spirit of Capitalism” with what he identified as a “Protestant Ethic.”10 In this work, Weber connects Protestant values of personal piety, a rising individualism, and personal responsibility of saving with increasing capital needed for the social structure of a capitalist economy. One of the values in Weber’s work lies in the simple suggestion that there is a “spirit” of economic systems. I propose that a central question of missional theology is how the spirit of any economic system stands in relation to the Spirit of God. Is the driving spirit of an economy one of competition or mutual fulfillment? Is it a spirit of love or a spirit of conquest? Is it a spirit that justifies collateral damage or a spirit that runs to those thrown to the side of the road? Our ultimate question as confessing Christians in the conversation of mission and economy is whether or not the Spirit that drives us is conforming us and those with whom we interact, trade, exchange to the image of Jesus Christ.

Christian mission, as it participates in the mission of God, forever lives in the economic tensions that demand discernment. Economic order is power. To learn from church complicity in oppressive regimes, colonial oppression, and nationalist domination means a continuous discernment on the part of the Christian body as to what will be resisted and what will be condoned through partnerships.

Mission for the Church Today

How is the Holy Spirit shaping relationships into conformity with the life of Christ in the midst of global capitalism? Again, to speak of the good news it is helpful to identify the bad news, the fractures, the sites of dislocation and relational brokenness among elements of creation that God has declared good. This is why mission as an economic enterprise is committed to social action—not because we as the church envision ourselves as a political or economic outlier able to act as an a-political unit. It is furthermore not because we as Christian missionaries, ministers, practitioners, and scholars will bring about the kingdom through our own action, as if we are the gods who speak light into the darkness and bring order from chaos. Missional theology is an economic enterprise because we are empowered and invited to participate in the cruciform and resurrection life that dives into individual and systemic processes of valuation and devaluation, pronouncing good the earth that has been exploited, the water that has been polluted, and the human lives that have been used as objects and means for economic gain.

If there is a connection between conceptions of mission and economic practice, the church cannot avoid dealing with the fractures within global capitalism. Mission is entwined in seeking out relational fractures and embodying life and good news in these places. Holy mission is conformity into the image of Christ in our particular places where individual benefit and competition has become a primary lens, where the virtues of love, faithfulness, and hope have been replaced by contractual deals that favor the wealthy and the powerful. Mission therefore turns attention to the housing crisis, the water crisis, the food crisis, the healthcare crisis, and the crisis of for-profit prisons. Mission is an economic enterprise consumed by the hungry, the homeless, the sick, and the imprisoned as much today as it was when Jesus declared in Matthew 25 that service to these groups is service to Christ.

Therefore missional theology does what it does best when located at the margins—the geographical margins at the edges of the economic empire. These margins consist of rural African villages, the border deserts in southwestern US, and the inner city barrios and slums. Missional economies work in the currency of love and justice with the given materials of a particular context. And missional economies are attuned to voices of those struggling for daily bread and water, speaking prophetic words of truth into our world. We therefore participate in God’s mission when we receive the prophetic words of hope that we too might be saved from exploits of competitive conquest, and that we too might live into an economy marked by justice, grace, and mutual flourishing.

Spencer is the Director of Program at The Water Project, and lives with his wife and two sons in Henniker, New Hampshire. Spencer was a missionary in the Busoga region of Uganda from 2004 until 2010 and holds a PhD in theology from Southern Methodist University.

1 I am borrowing the phrase “eccentric existence” from the title of David Kelsey’s two-volume work on theological anthropology. See David Kelsey, Eccentric Existence, vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009). Kelsey presents the correlative possibility for humanity to be postured toward the other like God, while maintaining the distinctions between God and creation: “Correlatively, as an enactment ad extra of the giving and receiving that constitute the triune God’s own life, God’s creative relating to reality other than God is a giving that is also at once God’s invitation to realities other than God to respond to God in ways that are appropriate to the manner in which God has related to them and God’s self opening to receive their response” (123).

2 Wendell Berry, “Two Economies,” in Home Economics (San Francisco: North Point, 1987).

3 Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, ed. Knud Haakonssen, Cambridge Text in the History of Philosphy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

4 See M. Douglas Meeks, God The Economist: The Doctrine of God and Political Economy (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989); D. Stephen Long, Divine Economy: Theology and the Market, Radical Orthodoxy (New York: Routledge, 2000); and William Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), for just a few examples of this turn.

5 Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets, Perennial Classics (New York: Harper, 2001), 7.

6 Whereas it may make sense to talk about politics, economics, and religion as separate spheres now, in the biblical writings and throughout most of Christian history (and even currently in much of the world outside of the United States and Europe) political, economic, and religious aspects of life are so enmeshed and intertwined that to talk of one distinct from the others is incoherent and often inconceivable.

7 Joerg Rieger, Christ and Empire: From Paul to Postcolonial Times (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007), 31.

8 John Chrysostom, On Wealth and Poverty, trans. Catharine P. Roth (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1984), 50.

9 See Douglas John Hall, The Cross in our Context: Jesus and the Suffering World (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003), 74.

10 Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, rev. 1920 ed., trans. Stephen Kalberg (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

Close this search box.