Alternative Economics

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : May 4, 2007

Instead of continuing my series on Church and State forever, I’m ending it. Have no fear, however, I’m still interested in exploring what it looks like to live radically in the Kingdom. The Christian Anarchist perspective (which I’m going to call “Christarchism” from now on) is such a recurring theme of this blog that it will continue to come up. I can no longer contain it within a series of posts. So, now that the foundation has been build in previous posts, I’m ready to explore some of the applications of this perspective.

I get uncomfortable talking about Christian alternatives to things. After all, the attempt to have an alternative Christian music industry has been a horrible failure, if you ask me. Nevertheless, we need to embody those sorts of things that demonstrate the Kingdom of God, and I don’t believe that the best way to do that is to enact legislation that brings society more in line with Kingdom ideals (though I’m not completely ruling out the need for some of that). In this regard, I believe, we are called to enflesh a radically Christ-centered counter culture.

And if we want our alternative culture to be Christ-centered, we should start with economics. After all, the Jesus Manifesto (Luke 4) draws upon Jubilee language. In fact, so much of what Jesus talks about subverts the economy of his day. When Jesus taught his disciples how to pray, he told them to ask God to “forgive our debts as we have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew) or to “forgive our sins as we have forgiven those indebted to us” (Luke).

We hyper-spiritualize the Gospels so much that most Christians that I meet–even the ones that have read the Gospels a lot–tend to think that talk of economics and politics and the like aren’t really a part of the Gospel. I’ve actually OFFENDED people by saying things like “if you don’t care about poverty then you don’t actually believe in the Gospel.” One pastor friend of mine once asked me “what does consumer capitalism have to do with the Gospel?”

If you need convincing that Christians ought to care about economics and how we utilize our material resources towards just ends, then read the Gospels and look over some of my old posts. Enough theory. I want to get to the nitty gritty.


Here are some thoughts (in no particular order):

  1. We need to abolish the tithe. It may be biblical, but it isn’t Christian. People shouldn’t give based upon income. Instead, we should all live simply, take what we need, and share the rest.
  2. A church, at a minimum, should care for the poor in its midst. Let us begin to stop relying upon welfare to do it. Instead, let us share to address basic needs, confront learned-helplessness head on (which is a huge problem among the chronically poor), and lift one another up in love.
  3. I think we need to start financial accountability groups. With the same intensity and seriousness that drives men’s accountability groups (to deal with things like lust), we need to address the church’s struggle with greed and Mammon worship. It is a bigger problem. I know that some of you will disagree, but it is a bigger problem because it is more central to Jesus’ teachings and more commonly ignored. What would this look like? What if every family or individual met monthly with another family or individual that they trusted to freely share about their finances? They could talk about their budget, about their spending practices, about their goals for generosity and simplicity, etc. They could pray through the process and hold one another to account (pun intended). In order to keep spiritual abuse out of this, the accountability parnterships or groups would be among peers. Missio Dei has talked a bit about this as an alternative to having a common purse.
  4. We need to challenge the priorities of church budgets. At Missio Dei, we’ve agreed to spend at least 50% of our budget on those things that fall under the categories of hospitality, emergency aid, and the like. We spend 50% or less on our regular gatherings, staff, and office stuff. In the early days, it seems that almost all of the shared resources of the church went to hospitality and social needs (widows and orphans). Read through the book of Acts and tell me where I’m wrong.
  5. We should support local economies by shopping at local shops and community supported agriculture. At the same time, we should try to resist feeding the global consumer capitalist machine. Yes, I know I sound like a Marxist.
  6. If you want to support global economies, buy fair trade. Americans have too much money and pay too little for the things they get. This drives the market towards exploitation of developing nations.
  7. We should minimize waste. And whenever possible, we should reclaim the waste of others (think dumpster diving).
  8. We should share stuff whenever possible. Share housing (the church is a family, after all). Share garden tools. Share food (sharing a pallet from a local community supported farm is a good way to start). Share a garden. Share vehicles (Church of the Sojourners does this). Share board games. Share movies. Share books. Christians oughta share.
  9. When we get our taxes back, we should ask “how can I use this to demonstrate the Kingdom?” instead of asking “what shiny object am I just dying to have?”
  10. We should strongly consider giving others our best, rather than our worst. In other words, if your struggling friend from church needs a car and you have two, give them the better of the two. Or when you set up a food shelf or donate to a food shelf, stock it with your favorites instead of with Pork and Beans. Doesn’t this sound Kingdom-y to you?
  11. If you live in a city, consider getting rid of your car and use the freed up resources to bless others. You can get most places in a city by bus or bicycle. If you need a car but have two, consider giving up one car and making it work. Amy and I have done both at different times. It is AMAZING how much it can end up simplifying your life, pulling you a bit out of the rat race. It isn’t as hard as it sounds.
  12. YOU ADD TO THE LIST. Any suggestions?

And what is the point of all this? To be nicer people? No. By doing these things we will live more simply, have resources to address the problems in our world, and live in such a way that others will see the Gospel displayed.

for further reading . . .

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11 Responses to “Alternative Economics”

  1. Anna on May 4th, 2007 8:44 am

    Just before we left a pentecostal mega-church in our town last year, I sat down with the assistant pastor and his wife to discuss my ideas/concerns about poverty and the church’s involvement in the community. You can probably guess how well that went. They strongly defended the church, saying that occasional outreaches like single moms’ auto-care clinics and a children’s roving music trailer where “very involved” in the needs of the community.

    The pastor noted, however, that the folks on the other side of town never seemed to be comfortable attending their church. His attitude was, if the outreaches didn’t bring in the people to the church (posh nice side of town) then it wasn’t really worth it. The poor are better with “their own kind.”

    I had a screaming, kicking, and clothing-rending fit after that (at home), felt much better, and found the quirky urban church we attend now.

    Those are great starting points. I would love to join an accounting/ability group!

  2. Michael on May 5th, 2007 2:12 am

    I posted a bit on alternative Christian economics tonight too… Not nearly as constructive as yours though! I even touched on the music industry, as you did.

    The problem with the Christian music scene/industry is that is simply isn’t an alternative — it’s just another genre to market. Certain sectors of the independent label system have been much more successful — and I would argue much more Christian — than the Christian music monster.

  3. graham on May 5th, 2007 9:44 am

    Nice list, Mark.

    However, I wonder if quite a few groups would need some pre-steps before your ones. E.g. Confess our failure to name the sin of greed, discuss finances in the context of discipleship, or connect grace to giving.

    I came up with a basic list at the end of a piece that I did a while ago on Jubilee:

  4. toddh on May 6th, 2007 11:52 pm

    Mark, I like the practical nature of your suggestions. A bit radical for churches in our individualistic culture, but that’s a good thing of course. It would be tough for a lot of churches to put this into practice without questioning some core assumptions about how they operate. Kind of like what Anna noted above.

    I like Scott Rodin’s book, Stewards in the Kingdom, for a theological grounding of stewardship that provides a basis for your suggestions. Unfortunately, he doesn’t really do that well at jumping over to real-life applications, but it’s a nice start. It’s also interesting because he is a theologian and a fund-raiser and he is attempting to see what happens when the two are put together.

  5. Richard Daley on May 8th, 2007 2:05 am

    It may be biblical, but it isn’t Christian.

    So this quote has been intriguing me for a couple of days. Could you talk about what you see as the difference in general?

    About the tithe specifically, I wouldn’t agree with abolishing it. I think the principles of it are good, and, for the most part, consistent with what you are advocating in point 1 (the principles in my mind being that if you are given much, you should give much, and that at whatever income level you are, your budget should reflect your values). I think 10% is a good start, but is not, and should not be the full commitment.

    Anyway, I would love to hear you talk more about the tithe thing.

  6. markvans on May 8th, 2007 9:07 am

    It seems clear to me that in Christ, we are called to give everything as a sacrifice. The idea of a tithe is part of the Jewish religious/political economic structure. When Christ instituted Jubilee (and opened it up to those outside of Israel), it demolished the economic systems of the past and brought in something different. And so, while the tithe is in the Bible, it isn’t in the New Testament. It isn’t Christian. So many things are like that in the Bible.

    You’re right. It is a decent starting place for many people. But the idea that 10% of one’s income should go into an offering plate doesn’t even do the old testament practice of tithing justice. In the Old Testament there were multiple tithes. And often they were to go for things like the Temple and the poor. Most churches that I know of have such horrible budget principles that I think it is a poor investment for people to give 10% of their income in offering. If people want to give 10% (which is too much for the very poor and too little for most Americans) to something, they should split it between their church, missionary friends, and the poor.

  7. Russell Kelly on May 11th, 2007 2:58 pm

    Don’t let the pro-tihters rattle you. You are right. They are wrong and they will not enter into a dialog to defend their position. What the church calls “tithing” does not meet a single OT principle of tithign found in Leviticus 27, Numbers 18, Deuteronomy 12, 14, 26, etc. Those who received the food tithes in the OT were our equivalents of ushers, deacons, choir members, maintence men and politicians — read Numbers 3 and 1 Chronicles 23 to 26. And those who recived tithes in the OT were not allowed to own or inherit property in Israel. Where has that gone to? Check out my essay and free book on

  8. tithe on May 12th, 2007 10:09 am

    I agree, we need to get rid of the tithe . It would help create more of a christian economy than a christian socialistic government.

  9. Maria Kirby on May 14th, 2007 11:39 pm

    I would like to add the following to #7:
    Recycle: wear 2nd hand clothes (except maybe socks & underware), decorate with used furniture, buy a previously owned car and if you’re really adventurous, a fixer upper house . This is a great way to support a good local mechanic and other local craftsmen (an addition to #5) -not only does buying 2nd hand help save money and the environment, it helps with humility (and doing #1).
    Also there are a lot of craft opportunities with recycling; think Christmas, Birthdays, craft fairs, fund raisers; teaching people to fish instead of giving them fish (an opportunity to implement #2). Churches have an excellent opportunity to showcase, lead by example, and facilitate maximizing the utility of the resources God has given us.

    In #4 and #9 when we’re considering what to do with our money, a suggestion I have is to invest in sustainable practices such as green roofs, harvesting solar/wind energy, community gardens, extra insulation, geothermal heat pumps, composters, digesters, etc. Too often the church has seperated needs of the soul from the needs of the earth. We were placed here to care for God’s garden, as a church, we need to lead the way. And in so doing so, I believe we will care for the soul.

  10. Steve K. on May 19th, 2007 8:28 pm

    Thanks for this, Mark, and to everyone who have contributed here in the comments. I’m pondering it all in my heart.


  11. jonathan turtle on June 10th, 2007 11:54 pm

    i like this. so say we live simply, taking what we need from our income, and then share/give-away the rest. good. but my question is HOW? how do we practically do this? do we just walk down the road giving away money? do we pick-up a homeless person and take them out for dinner?

    what do we do with this money we have left over after our needs are met? how do we practically give this away?

    peace. jt.

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