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Transatlantic Blog

The moral imperative of wealth creation

On a Sunday in late February, I was treated to a taxing sermon by the priest in our local church - not intellectually stretching, I might add, but taxing nonetheless.

Within the first five minutes we were told that, whilst tax evasion was illegal, tax avoidance (that is, the legal minimisation of tax liability) was merely immoral as it deprived the state of its necessary tax revenue for the National Health Service (NHS) and other government services. Equally immoral was multinational companies locating in low-tax jurisdictions. Rather sensible I would have thought.

Welcome to the Church of England. Welcome to the UK, the country where the NHS and its public funding have acquired such a divine status that one is not allowed to express the slightest doubts. Unfortunately, the same clergy who preach the divinity of the NHS often deny the divinity of Christ. Surely, I thought to myself, the only truly moral position is to pay the tax that is due under the laws of the land, taking into account the allowances, exemptions, and provisions which the legislature, in its wisdom, has provided? In other words, it is moral to pay the minimum legally due; to pay more than that would be irresponsible. Who would decide how much more than the minimum? My primary responsibility is to my God and my family. To pay the government more than the law requires leaves less for the Christian education and development of my family.

I will write more about the strange world of the church and UK tax in subsequent posts, but as I sat and listened (well, I gave up listening after a while), another question came to my mind: When was the last time I heard a sermon from the pulpit on the divine moral imperative of wealth creation?

The answer was never.

So, for Religion & Liberty Transatlantic readers, here is my sermon on the topic.

Good morning and welcome. We are today considering the moral imperative of wealth creation. The reason that this is important to consider is that we live in a world created by God, ordered by Him, subject to His laws. We are enjoined to work as part of the created order in order to provide goods and services, employment, and to ensure proper provision for our families and for those in need in our communities. For these reasons, before any debate can take place about the use of and distribution of wealth, both of which are proper questions, we need to establish the divine moral imperative of wealth creation.

There are five key reasons why wealth creation is a moral imperative.

1. Wealth creation reflects the character of God

God, according to Genesis 1, is the Creator. This implies both a noun (He is the one who creates) and also verb (what He does is to create). So, creativity is part of the very essence of God’s character from the beginning. God was really the first entrepreneur. He took that which “was without form and void” (Gen. 1:2) and created the cosmos. We too often overlook what God did in the beginning, and we too often fail to celebrate the contemporary entrepreneur who takes and then creates. That which is created is more than the sum of what went into the creative process – in economic terms there is added value, or wealth.

2. The divine revelation of scripture enjoins us to create goods and services

The second reason why wealth creation is a moral imperative is that it is a creation mandate. What we mean by a creation mandate is something which is set out by God as part of the principles of creation for all people and for all time.

Unfortunately, the same clergy who preach the divinity of the NHS often deny the divinity of Christ.

In Genesis 2:15 we read; “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” This short verse has enormous implications. The command to work precedes the entry into the world of sin and the fall. In other words, part of God’s intention for every person is that he or she work, to harness the resources of the world in producing goods and adding value. This basic requirement also has implications for any government programs that encourage dependency rather than work.

Reinforcing this verse, there is a remarkable description of what God has provided for those who work the land. In describing the Garden of Eden and its setting in verses 8-14 of the same chapter, we read that God had provided trees and water but also, three precious materials: gold, aromatic resin, and onyx. In other words, alongside the command to work is the provision of precious stones, metals, and resins, all of which can be used in the development of bowls and plates, jewellery, and medicines – the production of goods and services. In the creation narratives, God provides both the command and the materials. Hence the creation of wealth is a spiritual imperative.

3. God has endowed us with skill and innovation

The third reason why wealth creation is a moral imperative is that God – the God Who created out of nothing, the God Who commanded us to work with raw materials – this same God has endowed us with skill and innovation. Thus, entrepreneurship is a gift from God.

In Exodus 35, Moses received instructions for the construction of a tabernacle to provide the focal point of worship while the people were in exile. In Ex. 35:30-35, he points to one individual, Bezalel, and asserts that God has filled him “with the Spirit of God, with skill, ability and knowledge in all kinds of crafts.” Moses adds that the Lord had also given him “the ability to teach others.”

We see here the coming together of crucial theological and economic concepts. Notice the centrality of the flourishing of the human person, who has been endowed with skill. But note also two other crucial economic concepts: growth (that is, adding value through the combined use of resources and skill), and human capital, that is education and the training for the acquisition of such skills. God endows with skill, innovation, and the ability to teach – key entrepreneurial attributes.

4. God calls us to work in the vineyard He has created

Fourth, the God Who created, commands and endows, also calls. In other words, Christian men and women do not work in this part of the Lord’s vineyard (the business world) either by accident or simply as a means to an end. Rather they are called by God to work in commerce, law, banking, manufacturing, service industries, IT, and so on. It is a basic, but fundamental concept. If we understand that our business and commercial life is part of our call from God to work in His economy for the common good of all, then we at once begin to deal with the ethical issues which arise. Recognising that our call is from God will help us make good business decisions, good ethical decisions, and act responsibly and well. This of course goes right back to Luther, but also note this from the Roman Catholic Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace’s document, The Vocation of the Business Leader, paragraph 6:

The vocation of the businessperson is a genuine human and Christian calling. Its importance in the life of the Church and in the world economy can hardly be overstated. Business leaders are called to conceive of and develop goods and services for customers and communities through a form of market economy. For such economies to achieve their goal, that is, the promotion of the common good, they should be structured on ideas based on truth, fidelity to commitments, freedom, and creativity.

5. The life and character of our Lord Jesus Christ reflects His entrepreneurial and business character

Fifth, entrepreneurial wealth creation characterised the life of our Lord Jesus Christ Himself. Surely this cannot be the case amidst the marvellous miracles, unparalleled suffering, and work of Christ for our salvation? We must, however, consider the context. The Bible deals with the birth of Jesus and very early childhood and then His adult ministry. We know both that Jesus’ earthly father, Joseph, was a carpenter (Matt. 13:55) and that Jesus was also described as a carpenter (Mk. 6:3). Hence, it is entirely appropriate to describe Joseph and Jesus as running a family business. Indeed, the creator God of Genesis is also the divine creator Lord of the incarnation. What is more, in order to sustain the holy family through more than 20 years, it is also reasonable to suppose that the business was profitable – or else it could not have continued. (I hope they paid their dues and taxes!)

God has endowed us with skill and innovation. Thus, entrepreneurship is a gift from God.

Actually, the ministry of Jesus with which we are more familiar reinforces this point. Take the first miracle – water into wine at Cana in Galilee (Jn. 2) – a further example of how God incarnate takes the ordinary and turns it into something extraordinary. This is precisely the same creative activity as seen at the creation, precisely the same creative activity that creates wealth for the welfare of God’s people.

So, these are five reasons why the creation of wealth is a moral and divine imperative.

Naturally further questions arise over the moral use of wealth, personal responsibility and of community social provision. Yet, the church fails both to proclaim and celebrate wealth creation and wealth creators, and seems to adopt overtly and almost universally leftist political positions on wealth distribution. But if you only ever think about how to spend wealth, and never think about how to create it, you will very quickly fall into the trap of raising taxes, borrowing, and deficit spending. You may come to believe that the state has unlimited money, quite simply because you give no attention to the source and creation of wealth. These are the sorts of errors made by the Archbishop of Canterbury in describing the economy as one “for whom any gain is someone else’s loss in a zero-sum world” (Archbishop of Canterbury address 2014) and stating that “austerity is crushing the weak, the sick, and many others.” In making them, we deny God’s character, God’s revelation, and God’s call.

Let’s celebrate the creation of wealth, and the entrepreneurs who direct it, and remember that each one of us who plays our part in its production. Let’s do so because it reflects God’s own very character, both in creation and in redemption; His divine revelation in Scripture; His endowing His people with skill and innovation; His call upon our lives; and the example of our Lord Jesus Christ.

(Photo credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture. CC BY 2.0.)

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Rev. Dr. Richard Turnbull is the director of the Centre for Enterprise, Markets and Ethics and a trustee of the Christian Institute. He holds a degree in Economics and Accounting and spent over eight years as a Chartered Accountant with Ernst and Young and served as the youngest ever member of the Press Council. Richard also holds a first class honours degree in Theology and PhD in Theology from the University of Durham. He was ordained into the ministry of the Church of England in 1994. 

Richard has served in the pastoral ministry for over 10 years. He has authored several books, is a member of the Faculty of Theology of the University of Oxford and is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.