A couple of years ago my wife and I read The Gifts of Imperfection* together. The book resonated with me. Since then other bits by the author, Brene Brown, have tended to get my attention. Here’s a video clip from Brown talking about forgiveness.
When I was introduced to faith as allegiance last summer it was like a strobe going off inside my head. It provided some much needed illumination to clarify some pretty muddled thinking. I got to the idea through reading about Greco-Roman history via both modern and ancient authors.
I’m currently reading Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King . The author’s route (so far) is through readings of biblical texts. The book is a subject of discussion on Jesus Creed, where Scot McKnight is excerpting and commenting on sections of the book. The posts are worth reading. They help flesh out the idea, as do the broad range of comments, which include some objections .
Faith as allegiance might be a difficult idea to engage because we moderns don’t understand it. The notion of Christ as King is completely alien way of thinking, other than in some sort of distant theoretical sense. There aren’t very many kings any more, and with some exceptions, they are pretty much figureheads without any actual power. This is a good thing, given the sketchy history of hereditary human monarchies. But it leaves us with a much weaker image of what loyalty to someone’s person actually looks like. What loyalties we have tend towards ideas and systems. Or possibly to perversions like wholly corrupt state cults of the The Dear Leader.
And at a personal level what we think of as loyalty is often mere affinity. We are committed to friends and spouses because we like them. When we no longer like them it seems to be perfectly fine to go find new ones. We demonstrate little understanding of the choice often articulated in marriage vows, forsaking all others.
My suspicion is that our poor understanding of loyalty predisposes us to treat faith as purely cognitive at the expense of the relational. Following Christ becomes a matter of accepting the correct propositions, accompanied in varying proportions by having the right emotions and experiences. We are committed to the idea of Jesus, or the feeling of Jesus, instead of to the person of Jesus.
To be clear, faith is not some sterile choice. The first and second century faith language of pistis/fides does not pull apart into ideas and experience in such a tidy way. Trust is enmeshed in it. And allegiance seems to be the binder that holds the thing together.
The contrast of a pair of Lenten vignettes might help us understand this a bit better.
There is Judas’ betrayal, which was rooted in divided loyalties. In addition to following Jesus he was serving his own interests. In his role as the treasurer for the little band of disciples he was also skimming a bit of coin for his own benefit. This was a small betrayal. But the difference between this and the larger payoff by the authorities was only a matter of degree. Unfortunately for Judas the actual implications didn’t register until after sentence was passed by the Sanhedrin.
On the other hand, there was no question where Peter’s loyalties lay. From stepping out of the boat in the storm to whacking off an ear in the garden, he was ready to do whatever the moment called for to follow his teacher. While this played out in some impulsive and highly dysfunctional ways Peter was “all in” at a very personal level. But he lacked the courage and strength to follow through and buckled from the fear of storms and people. And after the arrest of Jesus denied knowing him.
If faith is grounded in allegiance then an aspect of grace might include the mercy shown Peter for his frailties. Which means there is hope for the rest of us.
 Matthew W. Bates, with a forward by Scot McKnight. Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2017.
During our years in a former church my wife and I heard repeated admonitions from the leadership to greet visitors. Then a couple years ago we found ourselves visiting churches looking for a new church community. Now we were the newcomers. In some of the communities I noticed obvious personal connections between congregants that were not readily visible in others.
The common thread appeared to be that the communities with this “connectedness” had a single service and were smaller congregations . I can’t claim to be able to tease these observations apart. The impact of multiple services could simply be a matter of a meeting location that doesn’t work particularly well, such as with crowd bottlenecks in congested building entrances. But group size, on the other hand, seems to have some inherent dynamics beyond the physical constraints of a meeting place.
I’ve spent most of my working career inside of large organizations and something fundamentally different is going on among people in small social groups vs large ones. In large groups the organizational structure, whatever that happens to be, seems to consistently take on a life of its own and define the function of the group, rather than any shared sense of mission or purpose.
There is a good chance this is a byproduct our cognitive makeup. In the early 1990s British anthropologist Robin Dunbar observed a correlation between the average size of primate social groups and neocortex size . Dunbar extrapolated from that to calculate the number of stable social relationships that humans could comfortably have as somewhere between 150 and 200. He also made the following observation about human use of language, that it,
“…has two unusual properties that make it possible to form groups that are substantially larger than the 150-200 predicted by neocortex size: it allows us (1) to categorise individuals into types and (2) to instruct other individuals as to how they should behave towards specific types of individuals within society.”
In short, it allows us to organize, which suggests a fundamental insight about why organizational structures dominate how people interact when group size grows. Below the limit interaction is about social connection. Above the limit interaction is driven by categorization and instruction.
Since Dunbar first published there appears to be have been a fair bit of debate as to where this boundary actually is, as well as contrary voices pointing out that personal networks in the modern world can be far larger . I am not qualified to wander into the weeds here. All I am suggesting is that the boundary is real and has practical effects on the way social groups and organizing institutions work. And a good bit of political and economic theory seems to be blissfully unaware of it .
Why this matters to churches is that in the midst of theology and spiritual experience we seem to forget the limitations that characterize our physical existence. These just might include aspects of how our brains are wired. We are called into allegiance to the Body of Christ as part and parcel of our allegiance to the risen Lord. But it is possible that we can unnecessarily complicate the outworking of that when the structures we create don’t account for our material boundaries.
This problem seems to me to reach back into the ancient world. Group size was necessarily small when Christianity was a disfavored and sometimes persecuted minority. Faith can certainly come through preaching but in a hostile environment it would spread primarily via personal contact along social networks, such as families, work, and in the marketplace. Communities would be small and in periods of calm they could aggregate at the level of individual churches. But with numerical growth comes categorization and direction. And in learning how to do this the church absorbed the centralized authority practices of the surrounding culture.
And then Constantine’s official recognition of Christianity removed the limits to group size. At large scales centralized authority became a dominant feature of how the Church presented itself. It became an earthly kingdom that looked a whole lot like emperor, monarch, and baron. It is debatable how much this mirrored the kingdom Jesus describe to Pilate as “not of this world.”
We have the conceit in the modern world to believe we have put all this aside. But we also tend to uncritically absorb the authority and organizational structures from our own culture. And as our churches grow those structures come to dominate how they present to the world. Some of them have come to look a whole lot like corporations.
I am not trying to suggest that churches can’t ever be large, or that everything is inherently sweetness and light in small congregations. There are probably constructive ways that groups can grow in size and still foster stable community. There is nothing in Dunbar’s research to suggest that this is not possible.
But is is likely to require conscious thinking about limits as a church grows. Otherwise community is likely to be snuffed out by organization.
 By smaller I mean relative to what we were accustomed. We participated in the same community for nearly three decades. At the beginning attendance was a bit north of 300. At one point attendance peaked at roughly 1000. Relative to some mega-churches even this might be considered small.
 This is probably why some of our grand ideas do not scale well. Consider, for instance, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” That probably only can work when the “eachs” all know each other. Or have reliable knowledge of reputation, and can readily identify freeloaders, liars and the power-hungry. The moment organization is applied to scale up the idea it becomes all about the apparatus required to collect from those with ability and distribute to those with need. A weak apparatus will collapse under the weight of the freeloaders. A strong apparatus will be dominated by the likes of Stalin and Mao.
I recently finished Church Refugees, authored by sociologists Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope. It is a book about the exit from American churches of the talented and committed. The book challenges preconceptions about the dynamics of this exodus. Packard and Hope discovered something during their research that was rather different from what they expected to find, that “…the story of the dechurched was a story of modern religious organizations and institutions stifling people’s ability to engage with each other and their communities.” The dechurched encountered during the study aren’t done with God. But as the book relates, they are “done with church.”
The discussions I have found about this book since publication appear to focus on what the “dones” expressed about why the left. Commenters in online venues also had things to say about the theology of those doing the leaving – this was an aspect of the conflicted and frustrated space I was in when I heard about the book.
On reflection since it does seem clear that there are theological issues in play. I don’t think that it is possible to compartmentalize our faith by separating loyalty to the risen Christ from loyalty to the community of his people. Attempting to do so simply ignores what Paul has to say about the body of Christ and the bride of Christ. But having said that, “dones” leaving churches might actually communicate very little about the theology of those doing the leaving. It might instead say rather a lot about the actual expression of a professed theology in the place that is being left.
Beneath the surface of dissatisfaction with “church” are ways in which the insides of Christian organizations look unfortunately a lot like the insides of any other. Which is why I think Packard’s comments are such a big deal. What especially caught my attention was a comment on organization in Chapter 4.
“Existing research suggests that in any bureaucracy, power tends to become centralized, innovation is gradually diminished, and routines become cemented as the organization grows or simply continues to exist over time. The nature of the modern bureaucracy is to erase individual desire. In order to resist those forces, organizational leaders must be intentional and strategic. It’s not enough to simply wish for things to be participative and innovative. How many pastors have lamented the slow pace of change in their own congregations? Even founding pastors often find that after only a few short months or years of doing church, they’ve largely lost the ability to move the congregation in a new direction. This is true of all modern organizations, not just churches. It’s the nature of bureaucracies, not a function of poor leadership, bad vision, a sign of the withdrawal of God’s grace, or unfaithful followers. It’s simply a part of living in the modern world.”
Most of the comment online about this book seems to drive right past issues of organization.
The last time I thought about the matter it coalesced into a rather fuzzy idea of how adoption of a specific organizational form might yield toxic byproducts. Which I think is still the case but I’ve since begun to wonder if something far more fundamental might be in play. I have had the opportunity to watch group dynamics from the insides of large organizations over the years. My sense is that there is something hard-wired about us that affects how large numbers of people behave when they are together.
We can’t do without organization except at very small scales — any numerical growth beyond what will fit in the front room of an apartment necessitates it. And more growth necessitates more organization. It seems to me that, absent some critical thinking while our groups grow, the features of whatever organizational structure we adopt are going to come to define the way the groups work. Which is likely to trump any theology we claim about the body of Christ.
If this is the case it will be true of any organizational form.
At some point nearly everybody rails about “the system.” The problem is that, get enough of us together in one place and there will always be a system. So rather than critiquing the “dones” who left, we ought to be thinking about how those of us who stay reflect the body of Christ when we meet. And if we don’t reflect the body of Christ, we ought to be thinking about what it is about our particular group that gets in the way.
 Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope. Church Refugees: Sociologists reveal why people are DONE with church but not their faith. Group Publishing, Inc. 2015. Kindle edition, locations 86-87. See also: https://dechurched.net/church-refugees/
Reconciliation is what Christianity is supposed to be about. Just over a year ago I posted about shredding the toxic lists we keep of the wrongs others have done.
Here’s another view of it. I just listened to a podcast by Claire Perini and Mark Buchanan at Regent College in Vancouver, BC. They unpack what reconciliation looks like at a personal level between individuals and within national movements. Mark describes reconciliation as “…a father running down the road with his arms wide open…” and shares some personal stories of the “open embrace.”
The audio is about 45 minutes long and definitely worth the time. What really caught my attention was Mark’s statement near the end:
Stuff seems to leak out in our behavior online that says things about us we did not intend. And Christians need to take a good hard look at their motivations if cutting ties is wrapped up in severing a real relationship. This latest manifestation of the political climate is not something we should be participating in.
There are valid reasons for severing social media connections, such as avoiding the spillover from someone else’s toxic behavior. But if politics are at the bottom of this, your primary loyalties may be at issue. Christian faith at its core is allegiance to risen Jesus. It seems to me that this extends to how we treat his people — including those whose politics we find detestable.
Jesus gave the world the right to judge the authenticity of our claim to faith by our behavior toward one another.
Which might include how we behave in our political activities on social media.
The non-profit publisher Crossway is releasing what they are describing as a “permanent” English biblical translation. I am having some difficulty with what I think I hear them saying:
“Beginning in the summer of 2016, the text of the ESV Bible will remain unchanged—in the same way that the King James Version (KJV) has remained unchanged ever since the final KJV text was established almost 250 years ago (in 1769). Thus, all present and future editions of the ESV reprinted and published by Crossway will contain the Permanent Text of the ESV Bible—throughout the life of the copyright, in perpetuity. This means that current readers of the ESV Bible—as well as their children and grandchildren—will be able to read, study, and memorize the ESV unchanged for generations to come.”
Scot McKnight at Jesus Creed has some issues with the translation details. I am not qualified to speak to his points as I don’t read any ancient languages. My issue is at the conceptual level, with the notion of “permanent.” Perhaps Crossway means they intend no further revisions. But the way the King James Version is referenced suggests the English Standard Version will need no further revisions. I hope I am misunderstanding this.
Permanent translations of anything are in principle impossible. It really doesn’t matter whether we are talking about Paul’s letters to the Corinthians or Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic War. Language itself is not permanent.
Linguists use a concept known as “drift” to describe the impermanence. Words come in and out of usage. Sounds and pronunciations change. Meanings shift. Syntax changes. I am told that use of writing slows this process down but does not eliminate it. Which means writing that is “…unchanged for generations to come…” will become unintelligible to those generations, and rather quickly. Writing from the 19th century is already hard going for most modern readers. Think about how many people you know that have actually read works by Herman Melville or Alexandre Dumas.
If it were not for linguistic drift, English readers could still use the King James or Geneva bibles. The texts could be cleaned up with current manuscript discoveries and they would good to go. But since Crossway is presenting us with the permanent ESV those translations apparently were not sufficiently permanent.
The goal of translating any ancient text ought to be to make the original sense of that text available to a modern reader. It really doesn’t matter whether that ancient text was written by Aristophanes or the Apostle Paul.
As it happens, the Koine Greek of New Testament is not the Classical Greek of Aristophanes, Homer, and Plato. It eventually developed into the court and liturgical language in the Byzantine empire but its origin was the everyday marketplace Greek of the Hellenistic world. A good bit of the New Testament was likely oral composition in this very ordinary language, dictated to an actual writer. It was then likely read out loud, to be heard and understood by groups of very ordinary people.
The problem for us modern ordinary people is that we lack the linguistic and cultural context of the ancient audiences. Translation and the teaching and preaching that accompany it ought to be helping us engage that context, and hear what those ordinary people heard. Without that help we are apt to read our own linguistic and cultural contexts back into the text. And hear something quite different from what the author intended to communicate.
This is why linguistic drift is relevant. Language shifts in meaning and our understanding of it is tethered to an advancing present. And the shift will inevitably decouple our present understanding from the fixed written meaning anchored in an increasingly distant past. Which means the success of any translation in accurately supporting a reader’s understanding of an ancient context is only temporary at best.
And an update.
It doesn’t appear to have taken Crossway very long to reverse course and and apparently drop the idea of “permanent.” The text quoted above has been dropped and the following is from a statement by the publisher:
“Our goal at Crossway remains as strong as ever to serve future generations with a stable ESV text. But the means to that goal, we now see, is not to establish a permanent text but rather to allow for ongoing periodic updating of the text to reflect the realities of biblical scholarship such as textual discoveries or changes in English over time.”
I am surprised it took a bit of controversy (see article) to figure out that inevitable changes in the language might be one factor necessitating updates to the translation.
But I’m neither a translator or a linguist so what do I know?
 There is also a matter of shrinking attention spans that impacts on this, as well (see Eighteen Minutes). But the linguistic drift likely makes the attention issue harder to overcome.
 There are several probable reference to an author’s use of a writer in the New Testament (known in the ancient world as an amanuensis): Romans 16:22, 1 Corinthians 16:21, Colossians 4:18, 2 Thessalonians 3:16, 1 Peter 5:12, and Galatians 6:11.
The practice is likely to have been far more wide-spread than is first apparent, even among the literate, which St. Paul clearly was. We are the children of the printing press and formatted text — our modern text-saturated culture really has no sense of the cognitive demands of writing and reading in the ancient world. For a related discussion see this earlier post.
Skeptics ridicule the truth of the Christian message because of the discontinuity they see between Christian belief and behavior. They may have a point. Modern Christianity seems grounded in cognitive experience, more or less anchored by formal theologies expressing ethics governing what we think and how we behave. The problem is that what we think often gets compartmentalized from how we behave.
We claim a transformative power but we seem to end up with a faith that seems to be mostly a matter of rules and propositional truth. It might help to step back a bit from our arguments with skeptics and think about what faith actually is. A book review by Kate Cooper recently caught my attention, in which she profiled Roman Faith and Christian Faith, by Teresa Morgan.
The review describes our primarily cognitive and ethical treatment of faith as anachronistic. In contrast, “…ancient moral writers tended to think of faith in the relational sense of trust, allegiance, and loyalty.” Cooper quotes from Morgan’s book, anchoring faith in an ancient context of “‘an exercise of trust which involves heart, mind, and action’”.
I am looking forward reading the book to engage the historical context the book promises for the New Testament. It seems to square with my recent reading of Roman history and Roman authors. But what Cooper calls modern faith might also have some quite ancient roots, courtesy of the Hellenic culture diffused across the Mediteranean and eastward following Alexander’s conquests.
Hellenism was under-girded by a world of ideas incubated in the life of the polis, or the Greek city-state. The clearest biblical connection with this was Paul’s encounter with Athenian aristocracy at Mars Hill, when they brought Paul from the marketplace where he was preaching. They wanted to hear his unfamiliar ideas and proclamations of a foreign god, and to consider them within the business of the polis.
But the problem with this Greek world of ideas was its functional isolation. The city-states which gestated Hellenism were stratified into fairly rigid divisions between the activities of citizens (men), women, immigrants and their descendants, freedmen, and slaves. In the classical period citizens were the only ones who could own houses or land, or participate in public life and in the governance of the city. What this participation actually looked like might vary with the city but most of the actual work to support it was performed by someone other than citizens.
The result was that the Greek world of ideas was structurally disconnected from the practical and everyday. The intellectual heritage of the Western World owes a great deal to the ancient Greeks. But we may also owe them a tendency toward cooking down truth as a matter of bare cognition, separated from the activities of everyday life.
This does not mean faith operates in some sort of intellectual vacuum. Something must be true, and over the centuries Christians have done a fair bit of philosophy to engage this. But we used to also recognize that the truth statements within Christian creeds were never wholly reducible to propositions.
Unfortunately, some of our fine-grained modern theologies seem to do just that, resulting in a theoretical faith where the ethical content never reaches very far. It is a faith that has become very much like the philosophy of the ancient Greeks: positions to think about but that are mostly sectioned off from the ordinary day-to-day. And on those occasions we actually do drag them out of their boxes they are so wholly odds with that day-to-day as to discredit any message about Jesus.
It is a modern variant of something James was addressing in his letter to Jewish Christians dispersed throughout the ancient world. He nails this in his discussion of faith and works (James 2:14-19).
What I have been told by someone who actually reads Greek is that the words translated as “faith” and “believe” in English are really noun and verb forms of the same expansive word, encompassing a both a belief in the truth of something, as well as a far broader sense of trust and dependence concerning the fidelity of someone. The way the Greek word is heard depends on the context. James 2:19 is commonly translated in English as “believe,” and the context suggests a paraphrase:
You accept the truth that God is one. You do well. The demons also accept this and shudder.
A faith restricted to the cognitive and ethical can easily become a faith of bare facts — the faith of the demons.
In the preceding text, 2:14-18, the Greek word is commonly translated as “faith.” The context suggests something very different from 2:19.
And this difference would have been understood quite clearly by any Roman hearing the reading of James’ letter. The Romans who spread with their empire had some critical cultural differences from the Greeks of the city-states. Immigrants to Rome often became citizens, and sometimes this included freed slaves and their descendants. As Mary Beard has unpacked in SPQR, this making of immigrants and thousands of slaves into citizens is a major part of what enabled Rome to dominate the ancient world. And in their founding myths “…however far back you go, the inhabitants of Rome were always already from somewhere else.”
As a matter of clarification I don’t want to convey any impression that this meant empire and the associated making of slaves was a good thing. It was not. A slave in a Roman mine was unlikely to live very long. And Romans were probably as exploitative, xenophobic and ethnocentric as anyone else.
But the point is that the Roman social stratification was somewhat less rigid than in a Greek city-state. It was more interconnected, with citizens bound together in patron-client relationships of mutual obligation. Roman citizenship did not inherently insulate everyday citizens from activities with outsiders, or from otherwise doing the everyday business of Rome. Ordinary Romans proudly put their ordinary occupations on their tombstones. And landless Roman wage laborers might find themselves working on the same project alongside of Roman slaves.
For the Romans hearing a reading of James’ letter, truth did not stand in a vacuum devoid of the business of everyday life. The context of James 2:14-18 would have been understood in the sense of fides, what Cooper’s review identifies as encompassing “trust, allegiance, and loyalty.” Romans were accustomed to the sense of fides as found inscribed on coins and worshiped as a minor deity. It conveyed as sense of reliability, such as in the trust between two parties.
It is what a Roman would have heard when the Greek pistis was translated in Latin. In the ancient world these words appear to have been mutually intelligible. What we commonly translate as “faith” might possibly be heard like this by an ancient Roman:
Show me your trust, allegiance and loyalty, without works, and I will show you my trust, allegiance, and loyalty, by my works.
Our most common response to skeptics is to reach for some form of apologetic. Perhaps the proper response would be to recover a more ancient sense of faith.
Harvard historian Karen L. King ignited a controversy at a 2012 conference in Rome when she presented a papyrus fragment which appeared to refer to Jesus’ wife. An article in the July/August 2016 Atlantic details a subsequent investigation into the fragment’s provenance:
“A hotly contested, supposedly ancient manuscript suggests Christ was married. But believing its origin story—a real-life Da Vinci Code, involving a Harvard professor, a onetime Florida pornographer, and an escape from East Germany—requires a big leap of faith.” Source: Did Jesus Have a Wife? – The Atlantic
An interview with the Boston Globe echoed the Atlantic article. King has acknowledged that material given to her in support of the fragment’s provenance appears to have been fabricated. And King’s source has denied forging the papyrus or any knowledge regarding its authenticity.
It is possible that the fragment might be an old fraud. But King clearly believes she has been lied to (see follow up Atlantic column), so this seems unlikely.
The article is quite long but well worth reading. It lays out the anatomy of what increasingly appears to be an elaborate deception. In fairness King never ruled out the possibility of fabrication. But I am not an academic so I really don’t understand why the document was presented publicly in the first place, given the very large blank space where the provenance ought to have been. The scholarship is summarized by the Harvard Divinity School here.
The most effective deceptions are indirect. The perpetrator presents a fragmentary context buttressed primarily by misdirection and a few strategic lies. The core falsehood is misstated, as if the con artist doesn’t actually believe it, and is trusting the mark to help sort the matter out. It helps if the deception fits into something the mark really wants to believe. Then the mark is allowed to fill the very substantial blanks with whatever facts and opinions may happen to fit.
And even otherwise knowledgeable people get sucked in.
I am really wondering how there could be such a thing as explicitly “Christian” economics. I bumped into this question in a blog where the writer, Roger Olson, surveyed major strains of economic thought in the context of distributive justice and gave examples of prominent Christian proponents. But what especially caught my eye was this assertion:
Every Christian church ought to be an “intentional Christian community” that practices distributive justice within itself by making sure no member suffers from loss or lack of goods needed to live a life of well-being and no member hoards wealth above and beyond what is needed for a comfortable life of well-being.
This idea has some resonance. The modern church in our materialistic culture pretty much ignores John’s question highlighting the discontinuity between indifference to need and the love of God . But I don’t think you can get at this by adopting the lens of a societal-level political idea. Thinking about the organization of society and looking from this to the behavior of the Church is looking through the wrong end of the telescope.
Christians should think about organization, economics and politics. But the problem is that broad concepts necessarily spawn structures and mechanisms to implement them. But the process of organization grows the structures into institutions. Institutions leverage our influence and can accomplish a lot of good. But the under-girding organization also create routines that channel thinking in terms of resource allocation and who reports to whom. Which means using the wrong end of the telescope can result in the conflation of Christian practice with functional processes and societal norms.
This happens because the systems of organization used will inevitably tend to reinforce certain personal traits and behaviors at the expense of others. Some of these will be negative and the flavor will vary with the nature of the system. And sooner or later one or more of the negative traits will inevitably come to serve the self-interest of the leadership. Once this happens the processes for advancement and retention will start to advantage people with those negative traits.
Which, for example, is why authoritarian systems accumulate sycophants, and part of why corporate systems become fodder for Dilbert cartoons. As organizational growth weakens mechanisms that hold people accountable, a feedback loop forms that favors the selection of leaders who benefit in some way from their subordinates’ misbehavior. This reinforcing effect is the same, whether the system is used by a government, a business, or a church.
To be clear, we need organization. Forming institutions increase the reach of what groups of people can accomplish. But the ethics of the individuals in the institutions are the key. It is the only way to fight the tendency for organization to aggregate human vice and frailty. Otherwise, before we know it, the organizational forms in the institutions we’ve created allow the broader culture to colonize our faith.
The tendency of organization to aggregate our weaknesses suggests that creating explicitly Christian economics might be impossible in principle. My suspicion is that we might be better served by concentrating on the Christian ethic governing our personal behavior. This ethic ought to inform both how we treat others both inside and outside the church, also ought to inform how we interact with whatever economic system we happen to find ourselves in, including whatever systemic evils it might bring. It is the other end of the telescope.
New Testament writers seem zeroed in on this personal ethic, as is apparent in Paul’s letter to Philemon:
I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become in my imprisonment. (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.) I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart…
…perhaps this is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back for ever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother…(Philemon 10-15, Revised Standard Version)
Some Protestant pastors and theologians in the 19th century clearly used the wrong end of the telescope in relation to this passage. They started from the standpoint of their culture and as a result stood the text on its head, and turned it into the “Pauline Mandate” for slavery. The intellectual gymnastics used to achieve this are baffling, but the results are a clear image of what results from the conflation of social and economic norms with what Christians ought to do.
It is impossible to know why Onesimus was with Paul. A traditional interpretation is that he was a runaway. But the lack of any reference by Paul to the customary harsh treatment of escaped slaves argues against that. It is more probable that he was sent for some now unknown reason. Slaves in the Greco-Roman world were viewed as tools and the owner clearly didn’t think much of this particular one. Paul’s use of “beloved brother,” however, says absolutely nothing about the formal relationship of master and slave. It is wholly focused on personal behavior, to the probable discomfort of Philemon. We have no record of how Philemon actually responded, but the preservation of the personal letter argues in favor of some fundamental changes.
Such changes make us uncomfortable. It is actually easier to think about Christianity in the context of big ideas of the broader culture. We would much rather blame whatever system we are in, rather than engage our personal behavior within it.
Rawls was an American political and ethical philosopher, whose major work was A Theory of Justice (1971), a defense of egalitarian liberalism which contained arguments later revised in Political Liberalism (1993). A decent overview of his thought is available here: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/rawls/.
His thought was highly influential and I’ve found it attractive. But his fairness theory is in part dependent on an idea about free, equal, reasonable citizens who can agree to cooperate at the expense of their own interests. My reservations about this, however, originate in a career that involved significant contact with the public. I have met very few people whose real-world behavior suggests they might be able to act in a way that supports Rawls’ ideals. Most folks just don’t seem to have that much give in them when in conflict over their interests.
 “…if any one has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” I John 3:17