After Cape Town: Still Learning to Talk About Business and Ministry
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After Cape Town: Still Learning to Talk About Business and Ministry

Stephen Grabill and I follow up on the Lausanne Congress in this week’s Acton Commentary:

After Cape Town: Still Learning to Talk About Business and Ministry

By Brett Elder and Stephen Grabill

The Cape Town Commitment — a document that flows out of the Third Lausanne Congress on Global Evangelization held in Cape Town, South Africa, this past October — has generated a great deal of discussion since its release last week. Prior documents and declarations proceeding from the previous two Lausanne Congress gatherings (such as the 1974 Lausanne Covenant, and the 1989 Manila Manifesto) have been embraced as a sort of social encyclical and common rallying point for the evangelical church — broadly defined — around the world.

Last fall, we sat with rapt attention in the multiplex session on “Workplace Ministry” in Cape Town. It was during this insightful session that we were humbly reminded that one of the shortcomings of the Manila Manifesto was the glaring omission of the business community in the cause for global evangelization. Here we were apprised of the secular-sacred divide that has plagued the Christian church for centuries. Mark Greene, of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, and other distinguished speakers and panelists described eloquently the main reasons why, historically speaking, “ministry” and “business” have frequently operated in hermetically sealed compartments. The bottom line is that the evangelical church has yet to integrate ministry and business or harness its potential synergy in significant ways for the cause of global evangelization.

The sad reality for far too many in the church is that “ministry” is sacred and “business” is secular. You do not have to be a theologian to grasp the logical conclusions that follow and that perpetuate these bifurcated realms. Christian discipleship is reduced to one form or another of ministry effort and all ministry is done through the institution of the local church or a nationally or globally oriented parachurch organization. Therefore, all those serious about ministry will be drawn to spend as much time as possible in the “ministry” world. Perhaps one can even take some of that ministry into the “secular” workplace and redeem it? Perhaps Bible studies or personal evangelism efforts will help redeem that space?

When we relegate work (which God ordained before the fall) to the “secular” realm we cede territory that is squarely a part of God’s kingdom design. This separation has profound consequences. In fact, from a biblical vantage point, what we commonly refer to as “ministry” is no more sacred than “business” — God is the author and designer of all of life. That means that reflecting God’s image in our business activity is indeed a sacred calling and one worthy of a lifetime of intentional effort. It is most certainly not a necessary evil. We commend the framers of the Cape Town Commitment for very clear language that charts a fuller, more robust trajectory for evangelism and discipleship; thereby inviting the remaining 98 percent of the Christian community who do not serve in formal ecclesiastical roles to understand their vocation as “ministry.” We all must reflect God’s image as we employ our unique areas of giftedness in service to our neighbor, the kingdom, and the world around us.

We read this bold statement in Part 2 of the Cape Town Commitment, titled “Truth and the Workplace”:

We name this secular-sacred divide as a major obstacle to the mobilization of all God’s people in the mission of God, and we call upon Christians worldwide to reject its unbiblical assumptions and resist its damaging effects. We challenge the tendency to see ministry and mission (local and cross-cultural) as being mainly the work of church-paid ministers and missionaries, who are a tiny percentage of the whole body of Christ.

Unfortunately, the Cape Town Commitment itself largely fails to integrate these kinds of profound shifts throughout the two parts of the document and, it seems, even ensconces further the very sacred-secular divide that it strives to dismantle. While business as a vocation and ministry is embraced and honored as a worthy calling, wealth and wealth creation — not so much. Yes, the evangelical community loves the good that money and resources can buy in terms of global evangelism and the financial sustainability it brings to ministry efforts, and we want people, even business people, to use their gifts creatively in the market place. But profit and wealth creation … well, that is a different story. In the Cape Town Commitment, we read the very appropriate forewarnings about the perils and human propensity toward materialism and greed, but deeply ingrained in the document is a bias against wealth creation and wealth in general. We need to stop talking out of both sides of our mouth. Without a clearly articulated rationale for creating wealth, it is hard to talk coherently about the biblical guidelines for the management of all that God entrusts to us, and then to follow that logic further into the realms of transformative generosity and kingdom stewardship.

A well-resourced expanding global church requires the participation of those who are creating wealth and stewarding it well. Many are eager to jump into the economic dialogue at the point of the discussion regarding the best ways to redistribute other people’s wealth. Most, however, fail to consider the economic conditions by which wealth is best created; and then how it is most wisely and biblically invested toward God’s intended purpose. Does it matter whether profit is given away generously, reinvested in business, or taxed and redistributed by governments? We would contend that Scripture and historic Christian theology has plenty to say on these fundamental economic issues. And evangelicals and influential global evangelical organizations such as the Lausanne Movement would do well to take up further study and sustained reflection on these core issues 21st century Christian discipleship and spiritual formation. As the renowned Dutch statesman Abraham Kuyper proclaimed in his famous “Sphere Sovereignty” speech: “No single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: Mine!”

The gulf between economics and theology in evangelical social engagement and missionally informed action is a momentous barrier that must still be overcome before we can truly embrace all legitimate vocations as sacred and worthy callings. In God’s economy, he has entrusted his people with his resources to fulfill his mission here on earth. That’s a profound stewardship responsibility and privilege.

Yet, business people are not truly free to be productive and profitable without their brothers and sisters embracing a robust theology of work and a sound understanding of economics. How we fulfill the biblical mandate to address the needs of those less fortunate, and how we take the Christian message of hope to a lost world in need of restoration and redemption — even these fundamental mandates cannot be divorced from their economic ramifications. Not all economic forms of organization and practice foster biblical principles and human flourishing, but nearly every economic ramification has profound moral and pragmatic consequences. Religious leaders must move beyond good intentions to sound, biblically informed economic thought.

The church is rapidly expanding around the world and its need for leaders who are holistically well-rounded in whole-life discipleship has never been more necessary. Yet, while the Cape Town Commitment rightly calls attention to the fact that many Christian leaders need to be deepened in their spiritual formation, Part 2 of the Commitment itself lacks the overarching theological framework and understanding of whole-life discipleship that is needed as the church is called to action. Instead, important topics — many rightly elevated to ensure that the global church is thinking about such issues — prescribe morally controversial solutions to prudential questions such as measures to halt environmental despoliation and eradicate the scourge of poverty. In the section titled “Poverty,” Christians are encouraged to:

Recognize the great opportunity that the Millennium Development Goals have presented for the local and global church. We call on churches to advocate for them before governments, and to participate in efforts to achieve them, such as the Micah Challenge.

Here we see a profound reduction of the richness of integral mission and instead a push toward the UN Millennium Development Goals and foreign aid advocacy. It is a difficult theological jump to translate the biblical mandate to address the needs of the poor into the promotion of poverty eradication through government taxation and mandatory transfer of wealth via governmental means. Here is where a healthy understanding of the doctrine of subsidiarity would be helpful in informing the good intentions of this document. Not only do the Millennium Development Goals come with baggage surrounding issues of population control (i.e., a reflection of goals that do not reflect the Christian worldview that human beings are made in the image of God), but they also a lack of understanding of the principle of subsidiarity; namely, the biblical principle that the needs of people are best addressed at their most local level (1 Tim 5:3-8). Is the source of ideas or the source of money to address such needs unimportant as long as poverty is alleviated? Only if we think of economics as secular and taking care of the poor as sacred. It is here that we presume that the end somehow justifies the means.

For 20 years, the Acton Institute has helped shape the perspectives of thousands around the world, empowering and inspiring moral leaders to connect their good intentions with sound economics. Acton understands the importance of a theology that includes comprehensive stewardship, generosity, and discipleship, and one that views work and business as sacred callings rather than mere toil or as instruments to fund kingdom causes. We truly believe that it will take the whole church, taking the whole gospel, to the whole world, for Christians to experience the fullness of unity in Christ’s mission. We are grateful to the Lausanne Movement for taking an important lead in uniting Christians around the world in this whole-life mission and vision.

Brett Elder

Brett is the founder and Executive Director of the Stewardship Council. Brett serves as senior partner of International Steward; a ministry dedicated to encouraging mature stewardship in the emerging church around the world. A graduate of Western Michigan University, Brett served as Director of Finance and Administration for the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty for five years prior to helping launch the ministry of International Steward in 2000.