What does John Wesley teach us about work and economics?


David Wright bookA couple of months ago, Seattle Pacific University held a conference centered on a new book by Indiana Wesleyan University Provost David Wright, How God Makes the World A Better Place: A Wesleyan Primer on Faith, Work, and Economic TransformationI was invited to introduce a couple of the meetings at the conference with some remarks tied to David’s work and to Wesley’s thinking on work and economics.

This is what I said at a breakfast event with a roomful of eager SPU school of theology students and fellow-travelers:

Where can we learn from Wesley in the area of work and economics?

Theological first principles

The focus of this primer is “Work as cooperation with God.”

“In the Wesleyan view, godly work is not defined by what one does, but by the way one does it,” says David. I think that’s fair to say, and I would add, not only the way one does it, but the motivations and character out of which those actions flow. In examining the motives behind John Wesley’s extraordinary lifelong dedication toward bringing material as well as spiritual flourishing to the poor, Duke’s Richard Heitzenrater argues that it comes most fundamentally from a Christian virtue ethic, not an ethic of obligation.

An ethic of obligation sets the rules and laws for behavior, and then lays down the imperative: Go and do it! A virtue ethic recognizes that despite what Nike would tell you, you can’t “Just do it.” You have to “be it” before you can “do it.” Ethical behavior flows from ethical character. And ethical character is not a matter of gritting your teeth and performing a series of actions. It is about having your heart changed.

That should make us sit up and take notice: If it is true, then who should be more ethical in our economic lives than Christians? The Christian gospel as Wesley taught it is all about just this thing: being remade, transformed, changed into the image of God, in our very hearts—our characters.

David puts it like this: “The central emphasis of [the Wesleys’] ministry was the belief that people matter because they are created in the image of God. . . . Therefore, their life and ministry worked to restore the lives of people that had been damaged by the fall,” and they did so by creating “structures that would help disciple people and create healthy, flourishing communities.”

That’s the fountain from which economic virtues will flow in our lives, just like every other kind of virtue. So when David says that “human dignity arising from our creation in the image of God was the center of the Wesleys’ ministry, which led them to seek to restore individual lives, and through restoring individual lives, also restore society,” he’s laying a firm Christian foundation for economic virtue.

David talks about how the Wesleyan teaching on holiness can translate for our work lives when he talks about workplace discipleship.

Discipleship at work

Wesley liked to use a powerful phrase to describe the holiness we should aspire to as Christians. He called it “having the mind of Christ and walking as Jesus walked.” David quotes Daniel Levitin as saying that it takes ten thousand hours of practice to achieve mastery in any field.

This reminds us of something that Wesley’s heirs here in America have sometimes forgotten: our lives as Christians, including our economic lives, are not all about single crisis experiences—single events that change our lives. The imagery of the sawdust-trail conversion and the second blessing may sometimes lead us to think in that way, seeking a sudden, emotional experience as the solution to all our ills. But Christian life is more, in that famous phrase, “a long obedience in the same direction.”

Those powerful moments of repentance and coming to faith, Wesley taught, are just the porch and the door into the Christian life. The substance of the Christian life, which lasts as long as we live, is holiness. It is an every-day matter of “having the mind of Christ and walking as he walked.”

Here I think the Wesleyan legacy has particular power for these conversations on our economic lives. First, that we should remember, as Wesley did, that being a Christian is not just about what we do on Sunday mornings. It is about the thousands of hours—David says around fifty-two thousand in our lifetimes; I’ve heard Jeff Van Duzer say one hundred thousand—that we will spend working in the world.

Second, that we should remember the root of all economic success is the same as the root of spiritual success: grace-enabled discipleship. How do we live those fifty-two or one hundred thousand hours? What kind of waters are issuing to our co-workers, our customers, our shareholders from the fountain of our character? Bitter ones? Or sweet, nourishing ones? If it takes ten thousand hours to learn mastery, and if we entertain David’s suggestion that that rule might also apply to mastery of Christian discipleship, then we need to be aware of that we do more at work than just create products and services. We are at the same time being re-created, ourselves, after the image of God. And it’s going to take some time and some self-conscious effort, as well as a lot of grace. And there are much worse guides to this other kind of “workplace work” than John Wesley.

As for the particulars of this workplace discipleship, David leads us through a consideration of three key traits that Christians should manifest in their work, and that Wesley taught upon with particular power. These are assurance, integrity, and authenticity. Through the experience of receiving grace that transforms us, we live with an assurance that rides above all circumstances. Through the transformation that God’s love makes in our hearts, we gain an integrity that serves others and puts their needs before our own. And as we live out our salvation, we live into a kind of trustworthiness and reliability that “looks like Christ”—it is an authentic Christianity which, as David says, is very attractive to those who see it operating in us. Here as throughout the book, we have these wonderful stories of modern folks who exemplify these virtues. It would be worth a bit of reflection here this morning: How can Wesley’s teachings on assurance, integrity, and authenticity equip us to have missional impact in our workplaces?

How can we extrapolate Wesley’s organizational genius to a Christian systems perspective on economics?

Now it is true that Wesley did not always make the connection from personal virtue to economic virtue in a structural sense. Yes, he preached a few famous sermons that addressed the subject, but for him, the impulse to create better social structures was arguably secondary to the impulse to see individual hearts transformed.

But he famously did not believe that any such thing as a “solitary Christianity” could exist: he addressed communal, organizational forms from the beginning of his ministry, creating, as David reminds us, “structures that would help disciple people and create healthy, flourishing communities.” Those structures gave people accountability and help as they journeyed toward wholeness. They lifted people through education not only in more classically theological matters, but also in how to live well in all the dimensions of their lives. They provided secure relational structures in a world in which old social structures were being torn apart by the industrial revolution. They inculcated a new ethic of love and social responsibility. And they taught that true holiness is not a matter simply of what goes on inside our hearts. It must be externalized in service to others through works of mercy and even honest business practices like refusing to lend money at usurious rates or to borrow when you weren’t sure you could pay back.

Of course those communities were not primarily businesses, they were ecclesial organizations: societies, classes, bands. Therefore I’d like to ask us to consider, as we reflect on David reflecting on Wesley, how the ways this organizational genius configured those groups toward the mission of restoring fallen individuals provide us with lessons for organizing other kinds of enterprises, including business enterprises, in this fallen world.

This is a “bridge” we need to construct, and I believe we can learn many things from the master social engineer Wesley as we construct that bridge. David has served all today who still respect Wesley’s name by getting the conversation started toward building that bridge. How can we draw from the organizational as well as theological genius of Wesley as we work to promote legal, political, and economic systems toward the end of human flourishing?

In other words, how can we build onto the excellent foundation that David has created for us here, connecting dots that Wesley himself did not necessarily connect, from creation, fall, and redemption to full human flourishing in the social systems in which we live?

A way of approach: how Wesleyans have built social structures

One way into this question is a way that I understand David is already taking in further research beyond this book: that is, to look at the kinds of social and economic structures that Wesleyans themselves have created (and I use the term Wesleyans in the broadest sense—those whose Christian lives have been impacted positively by Wesley’s legacy).

We know that this exploration of Wesleyan social constructs in the economic realm does not go beyond what Wesley himself wished for his people. Although he was deeply concerned for the ways the love of money becomes an idol for us, damaging our relationships with God and others, he said in his sermon on the Use of Money, and we can read it ourselves: “[Wealth] is an excellent gift of God” that when well handled by Christians becomes “food for the hungry, drink for the thirsty,” clothing for the naked, rest for the traveler, support for the widow and the orphan, defense for the oppressed, health for the sick, even life for the dying! In short, Wesley recognized the importance of that great human enterprise of creating economic value. He would not somehow resent or resist what we are setting out to discuss today: the application of Wesleyan principles to our economic lives.

This is no stretch for the movement that, as David reminds us, “transformed peoples’ personal lives, helped to abolish slavery, reversed the spread of addiction, helped to humanize brutal industrial working conditions, encouraged the growth of a middle class, addressed inhumane prison practices, and helped to spread education for all.”

Moreover, though Wesley did not often explicitly turn his organizational genius from the task of shaping the church to that of shaping the economic and political life of the nation, he did extend his influence into the political realm to pressure politicians to address the conditions that were creating economic distress in England, such as enclosure of farmlands, wasteful diversion of resources into luxuries, and the like. As Wright puts it, “John Wesley knew that government helps the economy flourish when it safeguards the rule of law and personal liberties, ensures fair play, and expands opportunity for people to become self-supporting and successful.”

And what Wesley did, his people did too. Even in his own lifetime, we have the example of Wesleyan people applying Wesleyan principles in the economic sphere. For example, there are the Cornish miners, so tantalizingly introduced here by David, whose communal cohesion and Christian virtues changed the way they did business with each other as workers and with management.

This example raises quite explicitly the question, What happens when Wesleyans apply to their economic lives the principles that Wesley put in place in the ecclesial realm? I believe continued research in this area of the economic organization of Wesleyans will move us forward from this very good beginning, toward bringing these ideas not just in our churches and classrooms, but indeed in our economic lives, and I would look forward to further comments both from us here together and especially from David on this question of the social and economic legacy of the “people called Methodist.”

I’ve also posted my second set of remarks, from a session with a roomful of SPU professors, focused more on lessons from Wesley on how to organize ourselves socially to foster human flourishing.

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2 responses to “What does John Wesley teach us about work and economics?

  1. Pingback: That Was The Week That Was | The Pietist Schoolman

  2. Pingback: How can John Wesley help us find social forms geared to human flourishing? | Grateful to the dead

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