A Tense Observation about Church in a Free Market Society

*Posted by Barry Creamer

I’ve thought for years about whether it would be a good idea to remove “non-profit” or “not-for-profit” from the American church’s galaxy of essential attributes. A church with a “for-profit” status would still exist intentionally for service and not for the sake of the profit, but it would interface with vendors, consumers, and the government as any other “for-profit” entity, including, likely, by paying taxes. Such a status would, after all, free the church from so many artificial “preserve-our-tax-status” issues and, more importantly, allow the church to reassert its (metaphorical) free conscience and free speech on the basis of the First Amendment and not on the basis of its tax-code status. While removing the “tax-exempt-giving” deduction from donors’ motivations might require the church to rethink its revenue stream, it might also provoke greater accountability, responsibility, and creativity, and certainly would not intrinsically spell financial doom. Despite the validity of those points, though, I still do not believe it is a good idea to pursue the church as a “for-profit” entity. Here’s one reason why.

For ages thinkers have recognized the value of tension. It is uncomfortable and inconvenient, at times downright painful and debilitating. But those very characteristics also make it an extremely effective catalyst for change. Change may not always be for the better, but where change is needed, tension is a great way to motivate it.

Some tension can be engineered and controlled from beginning to end. Teachers use it when they ask questions and maintain silence until someone is forced by the silence (a source of tension in a crowd) to speak—presumably toward an answer.

But most tension is less synthetic, born not in the plans of benevolent instruction for education but in the chaos of malevolent competition for scarce resources. “This town’s not big enough for the both of us.”

Such is the case economically in the free market at its most basic level. People and companies stand in tension with each other, competing for market share and haggling over the price of goods and services.

In a free market with no other influences, excellent producers might (indeed, likely will) use their profits to aggrandize power to secure their position not as excellent producers but as dominant profiteers. They may (and if possible, they will) extend their profiteering to non-economic power, perhaps demonstrated politically, perhaps more directly by force. Such shifts from economic contribution and prowess to non-economic control and power harm the market and harm persons, both by restricting their liberty and reducing the prosperity and opportunity for prosperity available to them. As Dr. Barrett Duke of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention put it to me once: “an unrestrained free market is a brutal place.”

So what prevents the moral decline of the previous paragraph from being universally instantiated? Virtue.

But virtue is not (at least not sufficiently) created by the free market, nor by economic forces. Virtue must come from somewhere else. The church can be, and in Western society has been, that source. Virtue instilled through Christian institutions has led some of the greatest economic producers in Western history to give practically all of their profits to meet the needs of the impoverished or of the society as a whole. Virtue has led countless profit-motivated executives tempted to go for a quick legal but immoral buck to act with integrity instead.

Because of the nature of humans in this world, virtue will not be realized universally in any society until Jesus comes back to rule every society. In the meantime, some will be virtuous while others are vicious. The intersection of those competing values (virtues and vices) and of those competing interests (in the production, distribution, and consumption of scarce resources) causes both of its elements to flourish. On one hand, the free market enhances the awareness of virtue’s benefits, such as integrity, as people consistently prefer to do business with the trustworthy. On the other hand, real virtue can only flourish where there is freedom of conscience, and freedom of conscience is most thoroughly realized in the public policy which equates to a free market.

If the church were subject directly to the motivations of the free market, its own competitive presence in that market would likely create such a conflict of interest for it that it could no longer contribute, for example, the moral impetus separating profit-motive from greed.

What’s the point?

The tension virtue brings to the economic free market is invaluable—literally, beyond economic evaluation. Virtue can only bring that tension into the free market if it comes from outside of it, where the church must remain as its source.

And some corollaries of the point?

1)      The economic free market is awesome, but the church should not be an economic agent of it—at least not primarily.

2)      The church should teach believers to be virtuous, benefiting itself by remaining true to its calling while benefiting the economic society by adding service to productivity and purpose to profit.

3)      Churches should not try to be like economic free market entities such as stores, corporations, or industries. So churches should not measure their success in the same way those entities would measure their success. The tools for measuring economic success likely cannot provide anything for the church other than ways for the church to look like those economic entities—which is, to be repetitive, not what the church wants to look like.

So what does the church do in an economic context like America’s?

The church makes disciples whose virtue changes the way they act in the world, including in the economy, and whose changed actions improve the economy and society as a whole.

Oh, and by the way, the church makes those disciples by continuing to bear witness to the historical truth and real, spiritual power of the resurrection—in short, by remaining true to the gospel.

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One Response to A Tense Observation about Church in a Free Market Society

  1. Barton says:

    These are some excellent points. I agree with your conclusion on the church staying non-prof., but I am curious about any suggestions you may have in solving the “preserve our tax status” issues you mention in the beginning of your post.

    In a culture that is growing less and less tolerant of outspoken Christian morals, with a government growing larger & larger, the tax-exempt status does hinder (and may potentially keep) the church from exercising many freedoms (speech, marriages, discipline, etc).

    I think about this all the time, and I never land on a good solution.

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