Is Capitalism the Best Means of Social Responsibility?

capitalism a red flag

Photo by Manuel González Olaechea

Too often, the word “capitalism” is the red flag that enrages the bull of social justice. But I would argue that what we call capitalism today is a caricature of the real thing. It shares some of the characteristics of true capitalism but without its inherent sense of social responsibility.

For generations, capitalism referred to an economic system flowing from what Max Weber identified as the Protestant (Work) Ethic. This ethic was preached from the Reformation pulpits of Europe. It featured three key principles: the dignity of work, the virtue of thrift (delayed gratification), and charity (personal-responsible care for members of the community). Hard work, coupled with a commitment to the pursuit of  excellence and thrift, leads to the formation of capital. When the virtue of generosity (social responsibility) is added you have true capitalism.

Wealth does not come from the ground as materialists like to claim. Wealth is a product of human innovation and creativity. The creation of wealth comes from the mind. For this reason, economist Michael Novak argues that the word capital is derived from the Latin word caput – head. The human mind is the source or fount of wealth.

What the world knows today as capitalism could better be called Hedonistic Consumerism. Many Western economies are based on hedonism. They are characterized by unbridled consumption and instant consumer gratification. Another modern corruption of true capitalism is Crony Capitalism, profits derived from close relationships between powerful political interests and the business community. A third perversion is Predatory Capitalism, maximum profits as fast as possible without regard for ethical or moral constraints, without consideration of consequences in the community.

These distortions are not new. The ancients called it chrematistics – the art of getting rich. Chrematistics was an economic order marked by manipulation of property and wealth so as to maximize short-term exchange values. The focus is on individual consumption. Wealth is created and spent without thought of being socially responsible.

Chrematistics stands in contrast to what the ancients called oikonomia. This Greek word literally means “the stewardship of the house.” From this word we derive our English word “economics.” Oikonomia focused on the management of a household so as to increase its value to all its members over time. The focus is on benefiting the community. Wealth is created with an eye to social responsibility.

The table below captures some of the contrast between chrematistics and oikonomia.

Oikonomia Chrematistics
Definition Stewardship of the house The art of getting rich
Activity Management of a household Manipulation of property and wealth
Time frame Increase value over the long-term Maximize short-term profits
Outcome Benefitting the individual and the community Individual consumption
Moral concerns Socially responsible Socially irresponsible
Modern parlance Stock investment Stock trading
Old-world parlance Plant an olive grove Rent an olive grove

Capitalism and Social Responsibility

What we call the Protestant Ethic is a legacy of the Reformation. This application of biblical principles transformed the economic and social life of entire nations. These principles came from the founding generation of Reformers: Martin Luther (Germany, 1483 – 1586), John Calvin (Geneva, 1509 -1564), and John Knox (Scotland, 1514 – 1572). Their spiritual and metaphysical “children” were the English Puritans of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This included those reforming the Church of England and the “New England” Puritans (1620-1680). The “grandchildren” of the reformers, men like Jonathan Edwards in the United States and John Wesley in England sparked the First Great Awakening (1734-1740). This movement once again transformed England and what would become the United States. The Reformers and their offspring taught and practiced the Protestant Ethic. One of their beliefs was that economic development must be socially responsible.

The Protestant Reformers studied the scriptures to see how they applied to every area of life, including the social, economic, and political spheres. These principles, applied, made Geneva a laboratory of reform; it became known as “the city on a hill.” This phrase came to Winthrop inspired socially responsible capitalismAmerica with one of the children of the Reformation, John Winthrop (1587 – 1649). Winthrop was a Puritan lawyer and founding governor of Massachusetts in 1630. While on board the ship Arbella, Winthrop preached a sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity.” For his fellow settlers, he cast a vision for the task ahead, a picture of mutual love and Christian community.

Winthrop called the Puritans to love one another, to be a community marked by social responsibility.

Now the only way to avoid this shipwreck, and to provide for our posterity, is to follow the counsel of Micah [Mandate], to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God. For this end, we must be knit together, in this work, as one man. We must entertain each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body. So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.

He speaks eloquently of the settlers as a community, not only knit together, but also characterized by a responsibility to look out for others. They would suffer together and rejoice together. For the colony to be successful, its people would need to be socially responsible in their enterprise.

For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God, and all professors for God’s sake. We shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land whither we are going.

Winthrop continues by saying that the Massachusetts Colony would be for the new world what Geneva had been for the old, a city on a hill. The whole world would be watching to see if this grand experiment would succeed or fail. If they worked together and cared for one another, then they would be honored and they would succeed. If they neglected social responsibility, each one looking out merely for his own self interest, they would fail and bring dishonor on themselves and their God. The sermon captured the imagination of the new community (which actually located on the three hills of Boston). The New England colonists grasped Winthrop’s vision, which ultimately shaped the conscience of the United States of America.

Ken and Will Hopper’s book, The Puritan Gift: Reclaiming the American Dream Amidst Global Financial Chaos, chronicles the impact of Puritan culture on shaping American management. From a few small colonies of humble settlers came the world’s leading economic power. The authors attribute this transformation to the Protestant ethic carried to the new world. Hard work, thrift, innovation, and a balance between individual initiative and corporate responsibility created a culture that led to America’s corporate and managerial success.

Furthermore, the Hoppers argue that as this ethic is abandoned by the nation, its economic prosperity will be endangered.

To reiterate, when we speak of “capitalism” we are not referring to those broken systems that have no sense of social responsibility, namely Hedonistic Consumerism, Crony Capitalism and Predatory Capitalism. We are referring to the socially responsible economic philosophy derived from the biblical principle of work, thrift and charity so well-articulated and applied by the Reformers and their children.

In the next installment of this theme, we will further examine the First Great Awakening. Specifically, we will consider the impact of John Wesley on Arthur Guinness, the founder of perhaps the greatest beer company of all time, Guinness Brewery.

-          Darrow Miller


This entry was posted in Social responsibility and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Is Capitalism the Best Means of Social Responsibility?

  1. Randy Uthe says:

    Dear Darrow,
    I have been reposting and commenting on your blogs from time to time. Your most recent series about the Popes address which helped to prompt this particular post by you. My comments have been pertaining to capitalism as well. Although I know you mean well, you make a grave error from the start. There IS NO “INHERENT SENSE OF SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY” in capitalism itself. You even inadvertently prove this to be true when you speak of the Protestant reformer bringing in the Biblical worldview in their forming of what you describe as a “true” form of capitalism apart from its “untrue” forms you give. What you are describing is what I describe as outside influences on the capitalistic system itself. Capitalism is nothing more and nothing less than an economic system. It is not, nor ever was, a social system by itself. Therefore, it has no inherent social properties of responsibility, greed, good, bad, etc… Those are ALL brought in from the outside. The US has tried to make it into a social system by bringing in their various influences and therefore you get many variant of capitalism itself. Although you try to explain this, you initial fatal mistake is still evident and does not factor properly into your reasoning and therefore your Christian worldview of social concern. The Biblical prophets and writers knew nothing of capitalism. God called for social responsibility (tzedek, mishpat) and concern regardless of whether or not we lived in capitalistic societies, as well as to people who did not know what capitalism was. You are making mistakes of reading your views back into the Biblical worldview. For those of us, and like yourself at least at one time, working in non-capitalistic societies; we can not force capitalistic ideas onto them. We also can’t expect them to adopt such views or even necessarily need to. We need to teach the Biblical principles alone without trying to force our cultures and worldviews onto them, period.

    • admin says:


      Thanks for your comments. I actually agree with you, that the Bible does not name or support a particular “economic system.” What it does do is articulate principles that have economic application. I have sought to express, perhaps not as clearly as I would intend, some of these principles. The first set is that the universe is both moral and an open system as apposed to amoral and closed. The implications of this are that wealth is not static and can be created, but must be created and used within a moral framework. Second is that the Bible articulates the principles of the dignity of work, the importance of thrift and the imperative of compassion in caring for the poor and contributing to the larger community. The application of these principles could be called oikonomia.

      So Randy, I appreciate what you are saying. But, I do not sense that you have understood my argument. I am sorry for not being more clear.


      • Randy Uthe says:

        Thanks Darrow,
        I actually did understand your over-all argument quite well and knew what you were saying. My general comment about the beginning of your statements still hold true and if you make the argument you make, you cannot say that those principles and truths are inherent to the worldly systems themselves. They are usually brought in from outside social groups, religions, culture, political ideologies, etc…What I would like to see is those types of statements said clearly up front and worked better into the argument/discussion as a whole. The tables you present are very useful in explaining things, but your argument needs a little more of how the other influences help create such classifications. I still like your blogs and tend to agree with most of them.
        Randy Uthe RN, MDiv, MPH
        Puchong, Selangor Malaysia

        • admin says:


          As always, thanks for your constructive input.


          • admin says:


            Thanks for your encouragement and your engagement with Jon Davis. It is always good to see our reader engage with one another.


  2. Jon Davis Jr says:

    I think the word “capitalism” has been effectively destroyed by those who are against it, whatever it is. It’s too bad, really.

    But I know this. The Old Testament Laws created a society that was very “free market.” People were free to work and produce and trade without interference from any institution resembling a modern “state.”

    The Old Testament Laws also promoted responsibility for one’s neighbor.

    The instructions of Jesus and the Apostles in the New Testament maintain this.

    So… People can get all tangled up in the word “capitalism,” but a God-ordered society will allow the free market to thrive while also promoting social responsibility, just like your article says.


  3. Randy Uthe says:

    Thank you Darrow & know this….Whatever you do, you need to continue your blog articles. They are a much needed voice in the world, both Christian and non-Christian alike. I look forward to the other parts of your discussion.

    Jon Davis Jr.
    You made a grave mistake that Darrow was very careful to avoid in both his article and his response to me. Darrow was careful to point out the specific lack of any reference to any political or economic system. I am certainly not anti-capitalism. I believe it IS one of the best systems to promote the justice and righteousness principles that the entire Bible calls for in the OT and the NT. It can also be easily used for evil just as it can for good and Darrow points this out. I also know that those same principles can be applied in ANY system in the world and that is exactly what the Bible calls for and the task of any missionary and/or Christian. We were never called to turn the world into some socio-political system we stand for. We too often today confuse our Nationalism with our Christianity. Your comment that the OT laws created (or even meant to create) a very “free market” system is false through and through. The bible was neither for nor against the free market system, but like I said, it didn’t promote ANY system above the other. In fact, in some cases like Jeremiah 28 which is a very popular passage Christians today like to refer to (Jer. 28:11-12), we often ignore the prelude to that passage. Jeremiah 28:4-10 discusses just HOW Judah was to live their lives in exile. Jeremiah even told them to seek the welfare of their captors in verse 7. Different versions say it differently: seek the welfare of the city, etc.., but that was in direct contrast to the call to look to Jerusalem for their socio-economic security as in Psalms 122:6-7. This call definitely had government program undertones. It could have meant a free-market system to be part of it, but either way, it is not the picture you are trying to paint. Again, the Bible promoted Kingdom principles which can be found and used in our various earthly systems, but the two are not necessarily equivalent or directly related. So, like I originally said in my comment to Darrow, this is why we need to be careful and specific when we discuss both of these together. Otherwise, we fall into the same trap the Israelites did when Jesus came onto the whole scene. Because like them, we try and find a utopian dream or form of this or that here on earth that doesn’t; at least not until the “new heaven and new earth” comes (Rev. 21). We HAVE to be careful not read OUR beliefs and bias’ back into scripture. We have to instead read the scriptures for what they are, who they were written to and why, and then apply them to us, not the other way around…..

    • Jon says:

      Howdy Randy.

      You seem to be arguing against something that I am not saying.

      Stuff I did NOT say (or do):

      1) Make any “grave” error.
      2) Confuse nationalism with Christianity.
      3) Promote a “personal preference” regarding a socio-political system.
      4) Anything about a utopian dream…
      5) Read my own beliefs into the scriptures.

      Stuff I agree with:

      1) Christian principles can be lived out anywhere. They even stand up under oppression. – I would add to this that ultimately the living out of these Christian principles generally tends to transform “the system.” (Yeast leavening the whole loaf).

      2) Reading the scriptures for what they are, who they were written to and why, etc…

      Stuff I disagree with:

      1) That the OT did not create a very “free market.”
      • My Response: The society that resulted from the OT worldview looks a lot more like a “free market” than most things. People were free to work and earn and save and give, and sell, etc. Obviously it was not anarchy, but “free market” doesn’t have to mean anarchy.

      2) That the Bible is neutral regarding a “free market.”
      • My Response
      1) Do not steal
      2) Do not covet
      3) OT lacks a call to a coercive “state” system of welfare
      4) OT lacks an intense regulatory system of the economy
      5) Etc.
      6) Looks like “free market” to me. :-)

      What you seem to be saying, but I am not sure:

      1) You appear to not believe that we as Christians are to “disciple all nations” in “every area of life.” For example, you don’t appear to believe in a “cultural mandate.”
      • My Response: I very much DO believe in those things.

      After reading your comment and then re-reading mine, I stand by my original comment 100%.

      • Randy Uthe says:

        I believe you are very much reading your culture & worldview into scripture. I believe in the cultural mandate but that means contextualizing scripture appropriately. So, yes, you are reading your beliefs and ideology into scripture instead of respecting the original culture and context of the scripture first. Therefore you can say, “My Response: The society that resulted from the OT worldview looks a lot more like a “free market” than most things. People were free to work and earn and save and give, and sell, etc. Obviously it was not anarchy, but “free market” doesn’t have to mean anarchy.” This statement shows you are coming at scripture from your point of view and not theirs.

        • Jon says:

          Howdy again Randy.

          I believe that you believe what you say you believe about my viewpoint. I am however, confident that you are wrong. :-)

          I am glad that you believe in the cultural mandate after all.

          Mr. Miller commented above “What it [The Bible] does do is articulate principles that have economic application.”

          I agree with this 100%. I would add that those many principles applied create a system that happens to be very free from coercive influence. I did not make this up or read it into the text. It is there for all to observe, interpret, and apply according to good Bible Study Principles.

          Obviously the “original readers” and the “original hearers” did not attend American Universities and engage in debates about economic systems in the language of 2014.

          The “original readers and hearers” of the Pentateuch (for example) were, however, familiar with a tyrannical economic system in Egypt where their recent ancestors were slaves, and would have seen that their new Law from God via Moses left them free to operate economically as families without having to obey Pharaoh and the Egyptian masters of their parents and grandparents.

          They knew that they had been freed.

          Of course, there is the “spiritual” application of freedom from the tyranny of sin and the Devil, but the original readers and hearers would have understood and observed and experienced a very real social and economic liberty.

          So… I stand by my original comment even still, 100%.


          P.S. I don’t claim to understand your entire worldview, or where you are coming from overall, but I would say this: In general, “the Bible is neutral on economics, politics (etc.)” and “you shouldn’t mix religion into setting up civil governments or political systems” are ideas consistent with modern thought. My personal observation is that Christians very frequently read these ideas into the Scriptures.

          I don’t know if you are doing that, but I could assume that if I wanted to do so. The fact that I am not coming to the same Scriptural Interpretation as you does not mean that I am reading my opinion into the Scripture. It could also mean (and in this case DOES mean) that I have studied the Scriptures inductively from Genesis to Revelation and come to conclusions that are different from yours. At least, they are different in the way we articulate them.

  4. Randy Uthe says:

    Thanks Darrow, I have chewed on your thoughts a little more and understand it better. I am still careful about how we as humans see our systems, communities and societies and therefore our religions and the interplay thereof. Actually, your article on needing more innovation was one I directly disagreed with. Not because I disagreed with your premise that innovation is needed, and that goes with the capitalism of the mind you discuss, but the ethics and worldviews themselves still have to come from somewhere. God says he writes his laws on our hearts, but our hearts are born into and bread in various situations in life. Innovations have made tremendous strides in helping the human condition rich/poor, overnourished/undernourished, resilient/vulnerable alike etc… BUT, what is needed more today, just as it was in the times of Israel, is the human willingness to live and behave differently. Behavior, over the mind, will win day in and day out. I can find SCORES of innovation all over the internet and through my global networks. What is still lacking is God’s call for the family of Abraham to bless the nations like the covenant says. What is still missing is our willingness to take up Jesus’ call to pick up our cross and carry it daily and follow Him. We have to be willing to live our lives by putting others first before ourselves at all times. Just like the story of the Good Samaritan where the religious leaders (even out of genuine concern) asked the wrong question to themselves, “what will happen to me if I try and help him?” I was reminded again this morning that we need to rephrase our thinking and questioning to “What will happen to him if I do nothing?” Innovation is a big part of that, but our attitude, willingness and straight out behavior will do more than anything no matter how innovative we are or aren’t. God’s call isn’t rocket science; it’s heart surgery……

    • admin says:

      Randy, thanks for your comment. Darrow is traveling and probably unable to respond before next week but in the meantime I’m posting your comment.

      Gary Brumbelow

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>