Work And Economics: The Religious Connection

(The following presentation was made in a Bible seminar in Nyeri, Kenya, East Africa, on December 5-9, 1994. The work ethic in Kenya is almost nonexistent. Consequently, it was a much needed study. It is presented here for your consideration. During this seminar, we actually spent 24 hours in the classroom. This is equilavent to 6 months of Wednesday night Bible studies. In addition to this subject, we also studied the Old and New covenants and the nondenominational nature of the church belonging to Christ.)

An excellent article in the Daily Nation of Tuesday, November 29, 1994, by Alex Gege, entitled “Are Kenya's Work Ethics Helping in Economic Reforms?” (Business Week section, p.6) addressed the problems Kenya is having implementing economic reforms and how these problems are made much worse by the sorry work ethic of too many Kenyans. Dr. G.K. Ikiara of the Department of Economics at the University of Nairobi, who was quoted in the article, believes that “sweat [and] hard work are the cornerstones of a stable economy,” and the trouble with Kenyan society is that it “does not place a premium on hard, disciplined work as the ticket to economic success.” Added to this is what Ikiara refers to as the Kenyan workers' “irresistible urge to steal from their employers.” According to Gege, all this is taking place “despite the strong and pervasive Christian belief in the country.” According to Dr. Ikiara, “Stealing by workers is a serious problem in Kenya.” In fact, he says, it is as if Kenyans think that “stealing from your employer is right.” Actually, many workers in business, and especially the transport business, told Business Week they saw nothing wrong with dipping their hands into the day's receipts and taking kitu kidogo (“a little something”) for themselves. According to Business Week, the general feeling expressed by those they interviewed is that many at the top, who are society's role models, have made it through stealing from the public and nothing has happened to them; therefore, there is nothing wrong with stealing as long as you don't get caught.

In the same article, Kwameh Njoroge, an industrial sociologist, believes that a great many Kenyan workers view the employer as a selfish exploiter. He says, “Work,” according to many Kenyans, “is oppression and [is] to be missed at the slightest opportunity.” In connection with this, one worker interviewed by Business Week actually traced the genesis of work to the so-called Biblical idea of “original sin.” “Had it not been for Adam and Eve's folly,” she said, “we now would not be toiling and moiling.”

It is extremely unfortunate that many people, even in a so-called “Christian nation,” are totally ignorant of work and economics and the connection they have to religion. In this study, we will try to eliminate some of this ignorance. In order to do this, we are going to be discussing these vitally important subjects from two different, but essential, dimensions: the God-dimension and the neighbor-dimension.

The God-Dimension

It is indeed unfortunate and certainly anti-Biblical that some Christians look at work negatively. As was noted earlier, they view the necessity to work solely as a result of the curse inflicted on mankind because of sin (cf. Genesis 3:17-19). Although it is true that man's work was made much harder as a result of sin, even so, it must be understood that the human race was given work to perform before sin entered into the world. From the very beginning of God's creation, Adam, Eve, and their offspring were given the task of subduing the whole earth (Genesis 1:28). More specifically, they were given the task of tending the garden “eastward in Eden” (Genesis 2:15). Therefore, we think it ought to be perfectly clear that mankind's continuing responsibility to subdue the earth is reflected in the various professions, crafts, skills, services, and industries that provide employment today.

God's Word teaches us that we were created to work. If, then, we were created to work, then working is a moral imperative. In fact, “Six days you shall labor and do all your work” was a commandment written right into the moral law (cf. Exodus 20:9). Consequently, it should not surprise us that the moral imperative of work has been reaffirmed in the gospel of Christ. In his letter to the Christians at Thessalonica, the apostle Paul wrote: “But we urge you brethren, that you increase more and mor e; that you also aspire to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business, and to work with your hands, as we commanded you, that you may walk properly toward those who are outside, and that you may lack nothing” (I Thessalonians 4:10b-12). And in another letter, writing of those who were able to work but would not, Paul commanded: “If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat” (II Thessalonians 3:10).

In this connection, it is interesting to note that when Jesus was incorrectly accused of violating the Sabbath by healing the man at the Pool of Bethesda, He defended Himself by saying, “My Father has been working until now, and I have been working” (John 5:17). In fact, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit continue to work for the good of mankind seven days a week. If it were not for their continuous work, we would not exist (e.g., Colossians 1:17; Hebrews 1:3). Although we certainly cannot claim deity as Jesus did, nevertheless, we have been created in the likeness of God, our Father, and, therefore, we do not think it inappropriate for us to say, “Our Father works, therefore, we work.” Furthermore, when the Christian works, he does it “as to the Lord” (Colossians 3:23). In other words, as followers of Christ, we glorify God in everything we do, including our work (I Corinthians 10:31).

The Neighbor-Dimension

When seen in relation to God, work takes on new meaning. Man cannot be pleasing to God without understanding his God-ordained responsibility in regard to work. But the Bible tells us there is yet another dimension that must be factored in with regard to work. The Bible teaches us that we cannot be right with God unless we are right with our fellow man (e.g., Matthew 22:37-39; I John 4:20). Therefore, it should not surprise us to learn that work has a neighbor-dimension to it. In Matthew 22:39, the Lord said, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This very important saying of our Lord is the very essence of our responsibility to our fellow men. We are, in fact, our brothers' keepers. In order to fulfill the love ethic that Jesus was talking about in this statement, it is necessary for us to work. Claiming to love one's neighbor without work, the Lord is teaching us, is just as dead as the body without the spirit and faith without works (cf. James 2:26).

One of the things the Lord is teaching us in Matthew 22:39 is that He did not create us to be self-sufficient. All members of society are interdependent. For example, in writing this article I relied on a computer, a desk, a chair, my glasses, a light fixture, etc. Taking just one of these items, namely, the light fixture, my use of it depends upon those who made the bulb, shaped the metal, mined the ore, made the tools that mined the ore, made the wiring, provided the electricity, mined the coal that produced the electricity, transported the coal, etc. In other words, my ability to do my work depends upon so many others doing their work. Self-sufficiency is indeed a myth! Well has it been said, “No man is an island.” Work is the individual's personal contribution to the interdependent needs of society.

When a man works, he not only honors and glorifies God, but, at the same time, he fulfills the law of love toward his neighbor. Knowing this helps us to understand why refusing to work is identified in the Bible as a sin (I Timothy 5:8). If we, through sloth and laziness, do not provide for ourselves and our families, we force our neighbors to work even harder to provide for us and ours. Anyone who really loves his neighbors would never force them into doing such a thing.

Looking at work from both the God-dimension and the neighbor-dimension helps us to appreciate the fact that our work is something more than “employment” or “making a living.” When we look at work from these two dimensions, we come to understand that work is the fulfillment of our duties to God and mankind. Contrary to what some may think, there really is a “work ethic” taught in the Bible. Therefore, we are all required to make a general contribution to the well-being of society. Work is the individual's personal contribution to a total system of mutual, interdependent support, and this is the way God ordained it to be from the very beginning..

In further contradiction to what too many have come to believe, the “work ethic” does not limit the “labor force” to a proletariat of blue-collar union workers. The God-ordained duty to subdue the earth is reflected in the work that is variously identified as blue collar and white collar, manual and mental, management and labor, hourly and salaried, skilled and unskilled, factory and office, crafts and professions, paid and unpaid. In truth, there is no legitimate work that is not meaningful. Whether one is a neurosurgeon, teacher, bricklayer, bottle cap maker, or garbage collector, one is doing valuable and meaningful work. If Kenyan workers would reflect in their work the work ethic taught in the Bible, there is simply no telling how productive this society could become. With this in mind, we now need to spend some time making sure we understand The Law of Productivity.

The Law Of Productivity

It is an economic truth that man's material welfare is equivalent to the availability of natural resources plus human energies, whether mental or physical, multiplied by the number of tools available to assist in the doing of a particular task or work (i.e., MMW=NR+HExT). Ultimately, of course, man's material welfare is dependent upon the God who created the natural resources. To illustrate this, let me use my country, the U.S.A, as an example. Although many in America today would be reluctant to give God the credit, no one would deny that America has been abundantly blessed with natural resources. Until recently, these blessings—coupled with a traditional view toward work derived from the Bible and a Biblically oriented market system that encouraged the creation of tools—permitted America to emerge as the undisputed economic leader of the world. Today, of course, America's productivity has slipped drastically. Economically, Americans are wallowing in a sea of debt measured in the trillions of dollars. Congress seems to reflect the sentiments of Artemus Ward, who said, “Let us all be happy and live within our means, even if we have to borrow the money to do it with.”


Why is this happening to America? We believe the answer is not just an economic one. The loss of productivity and increase of debt in America is, we believe, the reflection of a much deeper-seated spiritual problem. The religious foundation upon which America was founded is largely being ignored today. The current generation of Americans is a cut flower generation, severed from its religious roots and living on spiritual leftovers. Consequently, Americans have succeeded in corrupting an economic system (capitalism) that has proved over and over again its superiority to both socialism and communism. As proof of this rather assertive statement, it is important that we now spend some time looking at the much maligned “capitalistic” or “market” economy. Specifically, we need to know what, if anything, is Biblical or “Christian” about capitalism.

Economics And Capitalism

Many people do not think the Bible addresses itself to the subject of economics. They are wrong! The Bible provides us with some vital information on this important subject. For the purpose of this study, we are defining economics as “a study of the choices human beings make with regard to scarce resources.” In view of this definition, the Lord made a very important statement concerning economics. After His miraculous feeding of the five thousand, Jesus said, “Gather up the fragments that remain, so that nothing is lost” (John 6:12). Quite clearly, the Lord, in this passage, was speaking of the conservation of capital. By capital, we mean “any asset—material or non-material—that produces continuing benefits of any kind.”

In John 6:12, the fragments that remained were capital, as we have defined the term, and, as such, needed to be conserved. Likewise, in the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-14), the Lord taught a lesson on spiritual neglect by picturing a young man squandering his material possessions. Simply put, the Bible teaches a very important principle of economics: wastefulness (i.e., the failure to conserve capital) produces want (cf. Proverbs 21:20; 18:9; 29:3).

Just think how much better off we (Americans and Kenyans) would be if all of us really understood this basic economic lesson. As we have already pointed out, the economic base in America is being eroded by an economic philosophy that says: “Let us all be happy and live within our means, even if we have to borrow the money to do it with.”  (Incidentally, if the Republican majority in the newly elected Congress is really interested in a balanced budget, then, as uncomfortable as this will be for awhile, it will certainly be a start in the right direction toward fiscal responsibility. Time will tell!)

Contrary to what some would have them believe, Americans are not spending themselves into prosperity; instead, they are spending themselves right into the “poorhouse.” As we have already mentioned, America's national debt is now measured in the trillions of dollars. Several years ago, this amounted to approximately fifteen thousand dollars for every man, woman, and child in the country. If Americans started a repayment plan of one million dollars per day, it would take them well over two thousand years to pay back the debt. And furthermore, one cannot afford to be naive about this debt—it will eventually have to be paid back, either through literal repayment (viz., future taxes), deceitful repayment (viz., future inflation), or cancellation (viz., political upheaval). Barring the Lord's return, there are no other alternatives.

In connection with this, it is interesting to note that, according to the Social Security Administration, only two percent of the American people reach age sixty-five financially independent: thirty pe rcent are dependent upon some type of public or private subsistence; twenty-three percent must continue to work; and forty-five percent are dependent on relatives. As hard as it may be to believe, according to Social Security records, eighty-five out of one hundred Americans have less than two hundred and fifty dollars in savings when they reach age sixty-five. As shocking as this is to Americans, it must be doubly shocking to Kenyas who seem to think every American is a rich man. But, why is it that most Americans reach the twilight of their life with so little? Because they have forgotten how to conserve capital.

It is unfortunate that economically America is decaying; but, there are even more important areas in which they have failed to conserve capital. The family structure, as it was ordained by God, which is the very backbone of any nation, is currently being destroyed. Furthermore, the intellectual competence of America is being eroded. In addition, her legal foundations, which reflect Biblical principles, are disintegrating. Why? Because Americans have forgotten how important it is to conserve these assets. If Americans do not quickly get back to a clear understanding of Biblical economics, then all the prosperity they now enjoy will continue to disintegrate.

“But Kenya Is Not America”

“But Kenya is not America,” you say, and you are right. America is referred to as a “developed country” while Kenya is called a “developing nation.” This, of course, brings us to the question raised in the Daily Nation article quoted previously: Is Kenya really developing or has she become sluggish? The answer is clear: Kenya has become economically and morally stagnant! There is talk of economic reform, and some genuine efforts have been made, but Kenya still has its economic problems. Is this because Kenya has not been abundantly blessed by God with ample natural resources? No, Kenya is amply blessed! What, then, is the problem? The problem is a lack of human effort or energy; in other words, a lack of work. And what is the solution?: The development in wananchi (citizens) of a Biblical world view which looks at work from both the God-dimension and the neighbor-dimension. If, and when, this occurs, the material welfare of Kenyans will increase because human energies will be applied to the natural resources that so abundantly bless this nation. Then, as this nation begins to produce and conserve its capital, and as it wisely uses this excess capital to buy tools, the material welfare of Kenyans will continue to increase. In other words, Man's Material Welfare equals Natural Resources plus Human Energies multiplied by Tools. A nation that rejects this truth does so at its own peril. God is not mocked: “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people” (Proverbs 14:33,34). Kenya's current problems are rooted in the fact that in spite of all its claims of being a “Christian nation,” it is in reality a nation that has forgotten God.

Five Short-Term Uses Of Capital

In concluding this study, we want to return to monetary concerns. In considering the use of capital, we all need to understand that there are only five short-term uses for our income. It may be...

• given away,

• spent to support a lifestyle,

• used for repayment of debt,

• used to meet tax obligations,

• accumulated or saved.

The Bible addresses all five of these areas. How much do you know about what the Bible has to say about these areas? It is interesting that the Bible says very little about these areas by direct commands. Mostly, the Bible teaches on these subject areas by articulating certain principles and guidelines. What this means is that in order to conduct oneself properly in regard to these areas, one will need to be intimately familiar with God's Word—a superficial understanding of a few Bible passages will just not do it!

Remember, it is God's Word that separates the sheep from the goats. Consequently, we should be diligent to present ourselves approved to God, workmen who do not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth (cf. II Timothy 2:15).

A wrong attitude toward work puts us in conflict not just with our fellow men, but with God Himself. How we conduct our economic affairs can determine where we will spend eternity. “Therefore if you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches?” (Luke 16:11).

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