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God Is a Free Enterpriser

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Faithful in All God's HouseFrom Gerard Berghoef and Lester DeKoster’s Faithful in All God’s House: Stewardship and the Christian Life:

The Lord God is a free enterpriser. This is one reason why Karl Marx, who was not a free enterpriser, rejected God.

God is a free enterpriser because he expects a return on his investments. Jesus’ parables of the talents (Matt. 25:14–30) and of the ten minas (Luke 19:11–27) clearly teach us that God expects interest on the talents he invests in each of us. This is implied in the Lord’s command: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48).

In short, all of God’s gifts to mankind are as a divine investment on which the investor expects full return. We know from the whole tenor of the Scriptures what the nature of that return should be: so putting our talents at God’s disposal that others derive benefit from the gifts given to us. This is summarized in the Golden Rule: “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31).

Yet, as we all know, sin presents quite the obstacle:

This ideal order of return on divine investment is shattered by sin. Paul vividly describes it: “They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised” (Rom. 1:25)… The divine investor is willfully defrauded of his return. At the heart of this theft is false worship. Men bow before their own lusts instead of before their Creator, because they are in bondage to the Devil, author of the lie.

Fortunately, hope persists. We are not left in bondage to sin and Satan, and thus, as Berghoef and DeKoster duly note, “believers are not left in the dark as to how the Lord wants interest upon his investment of talents and gifts.”

What, then, is this “by faith” that frees us from Egyptian bondage? It is the gift of God that sets us once more in the position of returning God some interest on his investment in us. Our gifts and talents are liberated from bondage to self-lust and freed for service to others in the name of God. To all those liberated by faith are the parables of the talents and of the ten minas addressed…

…The motif of investment-return appears in the Great Commission of the New Testament. The apostles are mandated by the Christ to build his church. First, they are to preach the good news (gospel) of liberation. Those who believe the good news are joined to the church through baptism. And the church is then obliged to teach them all that the Lord commands, which is how to produce a return upon God’s investment in them (Matt. 28:19–20)…

…Like any prudent investor, God does not leave his return to chance. He pursues it, and his agent in this pursuit is his church, where good stewardship is taught and practiced.

Purchase Faithful in All God’s House: Stewardship and the Christian Life.

Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The City, The Christian Post, The Stream, Charisma News, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.


  • Is this another way of saying that God is on our side without asking if we are on His side?

    • Joseph Sunde

      I believe the entire analogy, if you read it to the end, is all about whether we are on His side. If God entrusts us with resources and expects a return, how will we respond? The point of the analogy is, of course, about /stewardship/.

      Berghoef and DeKoster follow this bit with some thoughts on application, discussing it in terms of Christian “conscience,” urging us to focus on “how conscience behaves, what it does, and why that can be enlisted in service.” All of what follows is, again, focused on whether that so-called “conscience” is rooted in obedience to God. I plan to share more on that topic in the near future.

      • Joseph,
        I agree with stewardship and the fact that we have been entrusted with God’s creation. But I don’t see how God’s gift of creation and our stewardship to him endorses capitalism simply because a return is expected. Do you believe that the end of Acts chapter 4 is God’s way of endorsing socialism?

  • Will B.

    Or let’s try a slightly different take, from Christianity Today’s Books and Culture blog:

    Thus, God is literally poor because he “has no possessions … nothing is or acts for the benefit of God.” We can’t “give back” to God, or win his love with an impeccable credit history. His delight is to be with, not hound his children, like a rude collection agent; what parent thinks of a child’s life as a loan to be repaid or a debt to be squared?

    Come to think of it, the God of Jesus Christ has no business sense at all, and violates every canon of the Protestant Ethic. He pays the same wage for one hour of work as for ten, and recommends that we lend without thought of return. (Finance capital could not survive a day with this logic, which is one excellent reason to recommend it.) He’s an appallingly lavish and undiscriminating spendthrift, sending his sunshine on the good and the evil. He has a soft spot for moochers and the undeserving poor: his Son was always inviting himself into people’s homes, and never asking if the blind man deserved to be cured. How can you run a decent economy this way?

    • Joseph Sunde

      I’m not sure what you mean by “the Protestant Ethic” — many interpret this differently, and I myself reject much in Weber’s thesis — but Gerghoef and DeKoster address sacrifice and charity plenty — indeed, they incorporate it into their view of stewardship, as they do basic evangelism (see above).

      Indeed, it is /because/ God’s economy is so unique, and because within it, wealth holds such mystery, that Christian’s must pursue stewardship of their resources distinctively and not confined to the ways of the world. How can you run a decent economy when folks are actively obeying God across the range of their stewardship responsibilities, whether it be investing in a profitable business or having “a soft spot for moochers and the undeserving poor” as you call them? Mighty fine. The upside-down economics of the Gospel, peculiar in our minds though they may be, yield plenty of return from a variety of angles, do they not? I by no means seek to submit the God who is more than enough to temporal and materialistic and static views of wealth and scarcity. We do, of course, need to reconcile that with the reality that surrounds us, but seeing God as a “free enterpriser” doesn’t confine our actions either way, from where I sit.

      But what does this have to do with the above excerpt? Does not God expect a return from us? Does not God call us and expect us to be witnesses to the Earth, to both rich and poor? Does he not ask that we steward his creation wisely–materially, spiritually, socially, and otherwise? Does not the sacrifice of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit enable and empower the path to such a return, as DeKoster and Gerghoef say? If not, I’m going to go bury my talents in the dirt.

      • Will B.

        …wealth holds such mystery, that Christians must pursue stewardship of their resources distinctively and not confined to the ways of the world

        No, I think you’re proposing that Christians pursue stewardship of their resources pretty much exactly like the ways of the world. Maximize profits to the fullest extent (legally) possible. Nothing radical, mysterious, or particularly Christian about that type of “stewardship”–it’s just baptized capitalism.

        You seem to be going to great lengths to ignore the fact that God is not at all a prudent investor: he’s a terrible investor, not prudent at all in dying for a bunch of powerless sinners who could do nothing for him. The gospel is at its heart a scandal of “bad” investment, a wedding banquet that none of the guests deserve to be at. And while he calls us to obedience, it’s not out of some self-serving interest to recover his “losses” or collect “return” on us so he can break even, like an investment broker trying to get good numbers for his 3rd quarter report. That’s not what grace is.

        To say otherwise would be some sort of heresy outside of orthodox Christian belief. I fear you live within a very twisted version of God’s economy. You should revisit Ayn Rand; she recognized right away that grace makes an outright mockery of self-interested exchange principles and was thereby absolutely disgusted by it.

        • Joseph Sunde

          It’s a peculiar approach to dialogue that quotes one’s excerpt only to ignore it entirely.

          To be clear, once again, neither I nor DeKoster/Berghoef are advocating blindly “maximizing profits to the fullest extent (legally) possible.” You seem to be going to great lengths to distort the use of “prudent investor” to match a limited, debased and earthbound understanding based around short-sighted self-interest and personal gain. If you think “prudent investment” means blindly pursuing profit wherever legally possible, go for it. That is not, however, how I or the authors above are viewing it.

          I think there’s merit in noting that God’s love is not, as you say, out of “self interest.” But his love was and is continuously shown through /investment/ in us. Whether or not you think he’s a crummy investor — a claim you’ve made based on metrics that are, again, entirely earthbound — we are freed because of it. God expects us to be good and faithful servants and stewards in all areas of life, and I don’t think believing that requires one to believe it’s out of some human-conception of self-interest.

          For us, this expectation means following his Word, obeying the voice of the Spirit, loving our neighbors, protecting and cultivating creation, creating value in the lives of others, etc. You can call that heresy, but it sounds to be like Genesis 1 all the way through to the sledgehammer of grace in the New Testament — grace that will /most certainly/ tip Ayn Rand’s petty and shallow and selfish perspective of “value” and “happiness” well on its head. And bury it.

          • Will B.

            It appears we’ve reached a point where you’re recognizing God’s “investment” is nothing like the prudent “earthbound” investor and nothing like the self-interested free enterpriser. Sure, you can continue to widen the definition of investment, but we’re now a long way from this free-market capitalist God that you’re trying to counterpose against Marxism. (It’s notable that it’s actually Rand who was offended by grace, not Marx). Both the “prudent” and the “investment” aspect of DeKoster/Gerghoef’s claim requires a real Orwellian twist to have their argument make any sense, but you seem to be committed to whatever twisting is needed.

            Again, I return to the quote from the Books and Culture blog. If you can look at a gospel of welcoming back the loss-incurring prodigal son, paying late workers a wage they don’t deserve, inviting undeserving street bums to a glorious banquet, sending rain on the just and unjust, healing people who don’t deserve it, requiring generosity that entails foreseeable loss, canceling debts that can’t be repaid, and ultimately dying to save a people who were powerless to do anything in return, and call all that the behavior of a prudent investor or a exemplar free-enterprising capitalist….

            …well we’re clearly far enough down the rabbit hole that your words have no real meanings.

          • Joseph Sunde

            Again, if Jesus gives an example of paying late workers a wage they don’t deserve, that would seem that this can fall into the realm of appropriate stewardship if the Lord so directs. If he does, I, and Berghoef/DeKoster, would see that as using resources to His glory and to the benefit of society, a good use of the freedom God has given us. A demonstration of “the art of executive stewardship,” as they call it somewhere else. A “return” what-have-you.

            I’ve tried to explain how I and many others approach these terms, but it appears to be of little benefit. Your time would likely be better spent finding and fighting the Randians where they actually rest, for it certainly is not here. Good day.

          • Will B.

            …that would seem that this can fall into the realm of appropriate stewardship if the Lord so directs.

            I’d love to see any free-market publication that promotes paying labor a wage that exceeds their market “worth” or demand, that exceeds any return that the employer might get. I’d love to see it. The reality is: appropriate stewardship for Jesus is not appropriate stewardship for free enterprise. Appropriate stewardship for Jesus doesn’t go over well with the shareholders and gets people fired.

            I can see now your definition of “stewardship,” “prudent,” “investment,” and “return” are going to be defined post hoc however you see needed. God is a free enterpriser and prudent investor not because of any a priori set criteria (say, he makes “good investments”) but because your circular logic demands he must be. We really have gone down the rabbit hole with Alice: words mean whatever you need them to in this realm.

          • Joseph Sunde

            Thanks for the dialogue. For more on DeKoster (in a different book) on the employer/employee wage relationship, see here:

            One excerpt: “We have said that the twin tracks of work and wage do not meet, and cannot be scientifically related. They are bridged by morality, not mathematics.”

            If you have failed to find “free-market publications” that promote something outside of the narrow-minded bottom-line mentality you seek to impose on myself, I’m glad you’ve found the Acton Institute. Hope to see you again. Cheers.

          • Will B.

            The DeKoster quotations are great, they sound very similar to Catholic Social Teaching. Where can I find more from Acton on condemning the “idolatry” of relinquishing moral responsibility to conforming only to “what the market will bear”? That’s an idolatry taught in a lot of economics classes, I’m sure there’s a constant need for calling it out, right?

            And since you’re arguing Acton promotes something “outside of the narrow-minded bottom-line mentality,” where can I find Acton’s stern condemnation of Milton Friedman and his “profit is the only responsibility” mantra?

          • Joseph Sunde

            I would encourage you to read Sirico’s book, Defending the Free Market, in which he condemns idolatry of a blind commitment to market outcomes, but overall, it’s a pretty routine thing to see. The pieces on wages in the last few months point to this. That said, as DeKoster notes, profit is indeed an input.

            As for that bit of Friedman, I’m not sure I recall anything directly on that (there may be), but we’ve had some positive coverage of John Mackey’s Conscious Capitalism, the introduction of which includes a heavy critique of that very point of Friedman’s. I do think you can be a great admirer of Friedman’s thought overall (as I am), without necessarily “going there” with him on that particular point.

            Profit is, again, an important driver of business, but I think Christians need to approach it among other factors (employee welfare, working conditions, product quality, etc.), and approach “bottom-lines” with great complexity and transcendent obedience. The point of economic freedom is to have the freedom to make these tough moral choices with active discernment in the context of church and community.

          • Will B.

            The only critique I see of Friedman in Mackey’s work (after Mackey cites Friedman as a formative influence in his thinking in the first chapter, so no critique there) is Mackey’s proclamation that corporations shouldn’t be too quick to write off philanthropy as a means to make a profit. In other words, the sole responsibility of a corporation is still profit, as Friedman argued, but he doesn’t want to rule out that “philanthropy”can still be instrumentalized for profit maximization. This is Machiavellian virtue: be generous as long as it serves your own interests, but certainly not anything that comes at cost to yourself. We’re still firmly within bottom-line thinking here, a type of virtue Rand would be glad to sign off on with her virtues of selfishness. This is in fact the virtue of selfishness.

            Remind me, is that the kind of free enterpriser God is?

            Sirico largely makes the same argument when it comes to setting wages: don’t set them so low that they hurt you in employee turnover. I (unsurprisingly) can’t find his condemnation of idolatrous adherence to the free market principles in a book called Defending the Free Market, but please show me some passages. He can bash homo economicus as much as he wants, but I don’t see any advocacy of moving “outside” a bottom-line mentality in his work, other than perhaps in ways that still ultimately come back to the bottom line in the end.

            Your last sentence is beautiful, but even you yourself are promoting thinkers who still ultimately boil it down to the bottom-line. They’ll gladly deal with employee welfare, working conditions, product quality, and transcendent obedience as they can be instrumentalized for the balance sheet, but not beyond it. Don’t you think God went just a little beyond for us?

            Or is this what your version of the gospel is? A Machiavellian God welcoming back the prodigal son as a staged HR stunt to keep employee morale high, or a charitable gesture he can publicize to get a better deal on fattened calf trading? I’m very curious how you’re holding these things together….

          • Joseph Sunde

            Sirico’s tear-down of homo economicus is central to our discussion. If civilization needs more than homines economici to fill its markets, as Sirico notes, than that would point toward an approach to economic freedom that includes a more holistic and well-rounded account of obligations and responsibilities than debased pseudo-rationalism. As for Mackey, from what I took, his whole book is an effort to challenge narrow views of “prudent investment.” You can put words in his mouth, and assume the worst about his approach to business (its just for his own interests!), but I prefer not to dwell in a zero-sum world where one’s profit automatically means another’s downfall, particularly when so many plainly visible benefits are sitting there in his particular case.

            I don’t expect us to agree on what good stewardship consists of, or what an appropriate “bottom line” should be. We may agree on certain examples in certain cases, but you clearly see no room for much adherence to traditional market signals in even the broadest of cases. I think such signals are extremely valuable in guiding our decision-making, even if God tells us to incorporate plenty of other inputs alongside them, or ignore them altogether at times. You seem to want to move outside of a “bottom-line mentality” altogether, and I’m arguing for a more complex and varied approach to business that isn’t unnecessarily confined as such.

            Bottom lines are going to exist in a market, but what do they look like? How do we respond to them? How do we make our business decisions? Rand is of no help on this question for the Christian, as are plenty of other non-Christian free-marketers. Properly oriented, profits play a strong and healthy role, though not the only role, in guiding human action and social collaboration.

            But we have drifted from Berghoef/DeKoster’s analogy, and we could go on and on from here on out. Hopefully we have a better understanding of where we agree and where we don’t.

          • Will B.

            Mackey on philanthropy: “When engaged in wisely, corporate philanthropy is simply good business and works for the long-term benefit of investors and other stakeholders as well.” Page 124.

            I’m not putting “words in his mouth,” he’s saying it pretty directly.

            You’re trying to position me as arguing for a particular way to conduct business; I am not. Rather, you yourself are pointing out that a good, well-functioning business could not and should not ignore “traditional market signals,” aka, the bottom line. Absolutely true, yes. But in making this point, you’re just proving all the more what a poor free enterpriser God is, in that he DID ignore calculated self-interested profit-maximization in his act of redemption. Again, I can’t say it better than the Christianity Today quote, which I’ve noticed you haven’t really challenged but largely ignored…

            “Come to think of it, the God of Jesus Christ has no business sense at all, and violates every canon of the Protestant Ethic. He pays the same wage for one hour of work as for ten, and recommends that we lend without thought of return. (Finance capital could not survive a day with this logic, which is one excellent reason to recommend it.) He’s an appallingly lavish and undiscriminating spendthrift, sending his sunshine on the good and the evil. He has a soft spot for moochers and the undeserving poor: his Son was always inviting himself into people’s homes, and never asking if the blind man deserved to be cured. How can you run a decent economy this way?”

            If you’re going to continue to argue that “good” and “prudent” free enterprisers should/must/do attend to “traditional market signals,” you’re only helping my case that we should disqualify the God of the gospel parables and the God of Romans 5 from being a “good” free enterpriser. Likewise, when you adamantly reject a business approach that “moves outside of a bottom-line mentality altogether,” you’re only agreeing with me that any actor who would commit to such an approach (say, God) would be exercising an ethic not compatible with your (free-market-supporting) “art of executive leadership.”

            We both land on my initial argument: Berghoef/DeKoster’s analogy is a deeply flawed one because God exhibits the traits of a very poor, imprudent free enterpriser in most of what He does.

  • We both agree on the need to be good stewards with the plenty with which God supplies. But, for me, the title as well as some of the post raised red flags signaling the possible conflation of our particular economic system with what God practices and prescribes. Such a conflation occurs in many cultures, not just ours, by those who are seeking recognition and a sense of significance noting here that claiming to be special is normal. And since that is normal, there is a natural resistance to criticism.

    Thank you for your response

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