Acton PowerBlogger John H. Armstrong is with us this week in Grand Rapids for Acton University. He is founder and director of ACT 3, a ministry aimed at “encouraging the church, through its leadership, to pursue doctrinal and ethical reformation and to foster spiritual awakening.” Here’s his post on Wednesday’s conference activities:

The relationship between integrity, virtue and vision is not often developed in the business world. Yesterday the Acton University experience afforded me a unique opportunity to understand better why such a relationship fosters both free markets and free people. The moral dimension is critical to both sound economics and entrepreneurial leadership. This is one of several ways that Acton brings together the worlds of faith and freedom.

Last evening Mr. Jeff Sandefer, a Texas businessman who twice made a fortune and then sold his hugely profitable companies, shared his own story: “A Journey from Pride to Gratitude.” It felt a little like being back in the world I experienced growing up in Tennessee or the world I saw when I visited my businessman-farmer uncle in northeast Texas. Jeff is a down-to-earth humble guy who has made enough mistakes to fill a book. Divorced, filled with himself and his accomplishments, and determined to follow a course of running from God at several junctures in his life, he again and again met the God of all grace who called him to radical faithfulness and gratitude.

Today Jeff directs a charitable foundation, built with the money he earned, and leads a most innovative and highly regarded school of business, named appropriately the Acton School of Business, in Austin, Texas. He is now shaping the future by giving himself to others through his vocational skills. Jeff provided a wonderful model to Acton University students of a simple, but radical, “long, slow, obedience in the same direction” (Eugene Peterson). It was a refreshing conversational address.The highlights of the various seminars on Wednesday included workshops on the histories of liberty, economic thought before the Enlightenment (I signed up for this one), market economics and the family, limited government, spirituality and the marketplace from a homiletical perspective (this one was given by Rev. Gerald Zandstra, a friend who is a CRC minister, and a former Acton staff member who is now deeply involved in Michigan political action). Also included were seminars on how the New Deal and the Great Society failed morally and economically, the place of technology and culture in the marketplace, Pope Benedict XVI’s vision for Europe, and evangelical social justice thinking.

The intellectual content of these presentations is generally superb and the level of interest in the room is often quite high. Discussion allows for honest disagreement but civility is encouraged and practiced. Most of these sessions are designed for alumni of the foundational Acton course, “Toward a Free and Virtuous Society.” Those who are first-timers are required to take several of the foundational classes first. This strategy is wise since you cannot follow Acton’s arguments without understanding how the faculty understands Christian anthropology, limited government, freedom and virtue.

The most enjoyable session for me was “Wealth in Scripture,” taught by Father Peter Laird, the vice-rector and assistant professor of moral theology at St. Paul Seminary (MN). Father Laird has a rich background in the fields of business, politics and law. He actually holds a law degree from the University of Wisconsin as well as doctoral degrees in sacred theology from the John Paul II Institute at the Lateran University in Rome. He argued that there are two major heresies regarding wealth in our present context. The first is the prosperity gospel, developed in the Protestant world by an over-realized eschatological framework within charismatic circles. The second heresy is also the product of an over-realized eschatology, but this one comes from Catholic social thought in Latin America. This error is found in liberation theology. Liberation theology associates the class struggles of the poor with the kingdom of Jesus on earth and sees neighbors to the North, namely Americans, as the great oppressors of the poor in the South. If North Americans manufacture great wealth then it must be true that this in turns oppresses the poor in the South. Father Laird ably demonstrated that both of these errors are the fruit of bad biblical exegesis.

The second half of Father Laird’s lecture showed how Scripture has a very positive view of wealth but does not teach that wealth is necessarily the evidence of divine blessing. Amos and James were considered in terms of their strong words about the wealthy. In both cases it was shown that what is condemned is not wealth per se, or making wealth, but the corruption of wealth made dishonestly or by oppressing the poor through unethical business practices.

A biblical view is far more complex than these two major errors, as is always the case with heresy. Heresy usually captures a truth and then emphasizes it to the extreme, thus denying another equally important truth. In Scripture: (1) Wealth is clearly not condemned. Human flourishing is the biblical model and sometimes wealth comes when humans flourish. In a free and open society wealth can come in amazing ways to large numbers of people. Wealth can be used to help people flourish. The believer must not trust in wealth but in God alone. (2) Wealthy people are condemned for the means by which they obtained their wealth. Wealth can be gained by sin or by grace. (3) The tendency for the wealthy is to forget God.

Christians should be concerned about how wealth affects them and their lifestyle. Father Laird concluded by arguing that limited government is essential but such government needs healthy mediating institutions, especially a healthy church. This point reminded me of my own call to ministry with ACT 3. I engage economic theory and discussion with real interest but my primary calling is to help renew the greatest and most important mediating institution—the Church. People need to know that they are citizens of two kingdoms, or two different expressions of one kingdom; e.g., they are citizens of an earthly kingdom and a heavenly kingdom. Confusing these two creates huge problems. We must live out the truth of who God is and of who we are in the real world of sin and grace. Bad economic theory has massive implications for whole societies, destroying personal freedom and thus enslaving the minds and hearts of people.

Father Laird suggested a great conversation question for businessmen and women: “Where is asceticism in your life?” What do you do to practice “self-denial” so that you will become a godly businessman or woman who truly follows Christ in the marketplace. He noted that most who profess faith do not pay attention to this type of question. This is not a Catholic question, though our Catholic brothers and sisters are more prone to ask it. It is a basic Christian question regarding sanctification. It ought to be asked by everyone who makes money in business by the fair trade of goods and services.

A 58-minute documentary, that featured three entrepreneur’s telling their own story of pursuing excellence with virtue, was shown to us in the afternoon. I will say more about this film later but suffice it to say that it will become one of Acton’s very best resources for teaching the recovery of a Christian concept of vocation in the world of business. I will explain later why churches and Christian business groups must see it. It will premier soon and will then become available through Acton Institute. I plan to get a copy and show it as widely as possible.

  • Edwin Niles

    Informative!