Review of Kathleen MacArthur’s “The Economic Ethics of John Wesley”

Diligence, thrift, and philanthropy appear to be a triad of Christian economic virtues. All three of them were taught as an economic formula in John Wesley’s sermon The Use of Money (1760), under the headings of “gain all you can,” “save all you can,” and “give all you can” (3.1.1, 3.2.1, 3.3.1; MacArthur, pp. 97-98). Diligence or industry is the practice of energetic, productive hard work on the job: it is this practice that produces money or gain. Thrift or frugality is the practice of penny-pinching; being careful about managing money; and especially not spending money wastefully on luxury items or other unnecessary expenditures. Wesley once quoted Josiah Tucker in his Serious Address (1778): “the hands of the diligent and frugal are the only hands which make a nation rich.” And finally, philanthropy, understood Biblically, is giving to the poor in Jesus’ name to alleviate their financial misfortune and distress. It is Christian poverty alleviation. Funds for poverty alleviation are meant to be taken from “overplus” or surplus (3.3.3)—that is, any money that is left over after your family’s financial needs and security have been comfortably provided for.

Gain, Save, and Give All You Can

1. The virtue of diligent hard work, is a preservative against the sin of laziness or sloth, which is spoken against many times in Proverbs (6:6-11; 10:4-5, 26; 12:11, 24, 27; 13:4; 14:23; 15:19; 18:9; 19:15; 20:4, 13; 21:17, 25; 22:29; 24:30-34; 26:13-16).

2. The virtue of thrift, or being frugal, penny-pinching, saving money, and plain living, are all a preservative against the sin of greed or avarice, which puts no restraint on the pursuit of wealth; and which leads to materialism or the idolatry of material possessions, as having more importance than anything, even spirituality (Proverbs 13:11; John 6:12; 1 Timothy 6:6-10; Ecclesiastes 5:10; 11:1-2; Matthew 6:24; Mark 8:36; Revelation 3:17). Christians should avoiding spending money on luxury items, expensive meals, designer clothing, costly jewelry, and spoiling children so they don’t know the value of a dollar.

3. The virtue of philanthropy or poverty alleviation, is again a preservative against covetousness, greed, and materialism—but it is also a preservative against the sins of snobbery, financial pride, and hatred of the poor. Its disciplined practice reminds the giver that his money belongs to God; and that his employment and his paychecks are gifts from God’s providence; and that God requires of Christians that we love our neighbors as ourselves, and treat others the way we want to be treated (Mark 12:21; Luke 6:31). However, our philanthropy should be based on financial math, not on sudden, irrational impulses based on guilt. Impressions from the Holy Spirit can certainly guide us in our distribution of wealth to the poor, but only after we have used a bit of math to rationally calculate a benevolence fund from the surplus of our earnings—I think 10% of the paycheck is a step in the right direction in this matter, basing it off the tithe (Lev. 27:30; Mal. 3:10; Matt. 23:23; Luke 18:12). But not all salaries are equal in amount: it should be calculated on a case-by-case basis. If you are below the Federal Poverty Level, it would probably not be reasonable for you to practice philanthropy to your fellow poor, until you yourself have lifted yourself out of poverty. The Federal Poverty Level (FPL), according to the 2021 poverty guidelines set down by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, say that a family of four which has an annual income of $26,500 is still living in poverty. A single man who makes only $12,880 a year is still in poverty. Reasonably, you should at least be making double these amounts, before you seriously start to plan on setting aside a benevolence fund for philanthropy to the poor. There’s no sense in giving to the poor if you yourself are still among them. Meet your own needs first! Be reasonable and not emotional about it.

Once we have reached a comfortable economic state, we should thank God for giving it to us (Deut. 8:10), we should have compassion on those in financial distress, we should seek to give them job leads as they often need job search assistance, and we should familiarize ourselves with them to prevent us from being snobs towards all the poor, we should love the poor rather than hate them—knowing that their faith in God’s providence is likely being strengthened despite their financial distress (Jas. 2:5). And we should join with God’s hand in that providence to help meet their needs; and so, become the hands of Jesus to them who are so beside themselves with unemployment, or confused by their poverty, that they just don’t know what to do. Don’t only give them money: also give them a sheet with resources on medical assistance, job training, rent and utility bill assistance, food pantries, etc. Names of non-profit organizations, addresses, hours, and phone numbers. Don’t just give them money—also give them information that will give them hope of getting out of this financial hole that they’re in. Save them some time and tell them to first try going to the nearest St. Vincent de Paul location: they are perfect at food pantries; and providing these kinds of contact sheets and guidance. In this practice of poverty alleviation, we align ourselves with God’s heart and his sympathy for the poor; and set ourselves against the Machiavellian philosophy of deceptive cruelty; and against the Smithian philosophy of competitive self-interest, all of which pervade our secular business world. Biblical Christians should be engaged in productive hard work; simple living and frugal spending; and should give to the poor from a benevolence fund that is calculated from their surplus.

In addition to the economically ethical triad of diligence, thrift, and philanthropy—we should also be ready to preach against all kinds of financial sins, such as bribery, thievery, gambling, buying stocks on margin resulting in debt and bankruptcy, bartending, acting, and the materialistic pursuit of riches (Prov. 30:8). And also against businesses which are based on ill-gotten gain, such as places like Hooters restaurants, brothels, strip clubs, and casinos, and—as it was a massive issue in Wesley’s time—the institution of slavery, most of which was based on kidnapped Africans which were sold to pirates and then to slaveowners afterwards. Modern efforts against human trafficking, I’m sure, Wesley would be in wholehearted support of. Bankers, doctors, and landlords are often horribly bad at extortion; and this is another thing which is very dishonorable in the world of economic theology (Prov. 1:19; 28:16). Enlightenment rationalism, hyper-grace antinomian Calvinism, and deism—as well as religious indifference—is what leads businessmen into such dark places; and only Biblical Christianity can bring them out of it.

MacArthur makes one observation towards the end of the book by saying, “the cardinal defect of Wesley’s approach to economic ethics” (p. 151), is that it fails to reconcile the fact that the business world is corrupt and Machiavellian. And that living by Biblical principles in the sphere of business—taking private morality into the public sphere—is just asking for trouble. It leads me to believe that either telecommuting, or starting a Christian business which embraces Biblical principles, are the only possible ways to be consistent with these ethics; and not have Machiavellian employers and co-workers keep you from living in accordance with those principles.

For a further study into Wesley’s economic theology, see his Thoughts on the Present Scarcity of Provisions (1773) and A Serious Address to the People of England, with Regard to the State of the Nation (1778), both of which were written for economic recessions. Other economic sermons were: “The Use of Money” (1760): from where we get “gain all you can, save all you can, give all you can,” “The Danger of Riches” (1780), “On Riches” (1788), and “On the Danger of Increasing Riches” (1790). His sermons are rich with Biblical references, so you can see which Scriptures were the most important to him in his reasonings. Also, it is evident that William Law’s A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life (1728) had an effect on his economic ethics: all of these chapters in that book touch on economics: 5, 6, 7, 8, and 10.

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