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Q&A: Charlie Self on Vocation, Social Justice and Wealth Creation, and More

This is part of the Values & Capitalism Q&A Series.

Dr. Charlie Self recently answered questions for Values & Capitalism related to vocation, the supposed tension between non-profit and for-profit work, the inseperable nature of wealth creation and social justice, and more. Dr. Self is a minister, professor, author and speaker. He was ordained as an Assemblies of God minister in 1980, and has been active in pastoral ministry for over 30 years across the U.S. He is presently the Associate Professor of Church History and Director of the Ph.D. in Bible and Theology for the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary in Springfield, Mo. He is also a Senior Advisor for the Acton Institute.

Charlie Self

Dr. Self is the author of a number of books, including “The Divine Dance”and “The Power of Faithful Focus”(co-authored with Les Hewitt). He recently releasedFlourishing Churches and Communities: Integrating Faith, Work and Economics for Spirit-Empowered Discipleship.”

Dr. Self has earned four degrees, including a B.A. in Renaissance and Colonial/Revolutionary America, a M.A. in Church and Social Change in Latin America, and a Ph.D. in History of Modern Europe (Belgian Protestantism) from the University of California Santa Cruz. He also earned an M.A. in Philosophical and Systematic Theology from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif. His other studies include the Holocaust, virtue ethics and apologetics.

How can an ordinary, 9-to-5 job can be a person’s greatest “kingdom service?” What would you say to a Christian who finds no lasting value—other than earning a paycheck—in their work?

This issue is the heart of my new book and a key message for all Christians if we are going to fulfill God’s purpose. The greatest kingdom service that we offer is framing our lives in light of the Great Commission and Great Commandment. Christians live their lives with a mindset to want to help others find faith. We shape our witness by obedience to Great Commandment of our Lord Jesus Christ. And all of this takes place through people who spend most of their day working.

Work should actually be defined as all meaningful activity apart from leisure and rest. It includes our volunteer activity, our pursuit of knowledge at school and house-husbands and house-wives who raise children. Work does include commercial, wealth-creating, and productive activity that we call business—but it also includes all other areas of meaningful activity. So the person who presently finds no lasting value in daily labors has not fully digested and reflected upon the story of God’s redemption. Christianity is the (historically true) story of God becoming a human being in time and place. Jesus of Nazareth is God incarnate in the first century Judean economy. He was neither incredibly rich nor terribly poor. Jesus lived most of his life as an artisan, participating directly in the economy. So if we don’t see work as an integral part of redemption, we misconstrue an important element of God’s own incarnation.
Paul says in Romans 12:1-2 that we ought to offer our “whole selves … as living sacrifices”—or as Eugene Petersen puts it “our everyday-walking-around, going-to-work-life”—as worship. This means economic activity is integral to our worship and God’s work in the world.
What are your thoughts on the tension that many of today’s Christian students feel exists between non-profit and for-profit work?
Let’s face it: there are different psychosocial dynamics between for-profit and non-profit work. But biblically speaking, there are to be no differences between the two. Commitment to best practices, godly character, and virtue apply to all work. Everything in our labor unto God—from accounting practices to interpersonal virtue—deserves the same kind of excellence and devotion. Excellence and integrity are essential, regardless of the field.
Now there are certainly differences in the realities of volunteer groups compared to paid staffs. Yet from a kingdom-of-God-standpoint, one’s decision about whether to go into non-profit or for-profit work is a matter of an individual calling. It is not the case that those who go into non-profit inherently have a “higher calling,” as some of us are inclined to think. And it’s certainly important not to put the tithe-paying factory worker in a lower position than the non-profit worker who is receiving money from that person! Both persons are going Gods work in their daily tasks.
My prayer, if you’re reading this, is that you will come to find your specific and unique calling from the Lord—and live it out in either or both domains
You argue that wealth creation and social justice cannot be separated. How do you envision the two working together to further God’s redemption of the world?
God’s redemption of the world—at least embryonically in our present age—includes improvements in all spheres of life. So when we say God’s redemption of the world, we mean taking care of creation, not dominating it. We mean fostering positive relationships, not perpetuating sin and brokenness. The goal is enhancing life in all its domains, even if there will be disagreements about policies, practices and expectations. Though imperfectly, we can, in fact, make the world a better place. God asks us to join in his redemptive work for a reason! Interestingly enough, the deep disagreements about justice stem from whether we see the world’s resources as a zero-sum game, or whether we instead believe that wealth can be created. If one believes our principle task is to carefully manage scarce resources, one comes to a very different conclusion than those who come to see—like an epiphany!—that wealth can be created. If one has the latter conviction, stewardship shifts from a distributional mindset to entrepreneurship, and to giving people made by God unique opportunities to flourish! Rather than socialism, this latter route leads to real social justice. Of course, the term “social justice” has itself been hijacked. It’s almost an oxymoron. Justice is inherently social: It gets at the heart of how we keep our word, how we treat one another, how we foster legal concerns, and how we create opportunity. Even our friend Bono of U2 admitted recently that entrepreneurial capitalism is the key to long-term prosperity for developing nations. One cannot foster justice without fostering opportunity. And you cannot foster opportunity if wealth is not created. Just yesterday I met with a philanthropist who is part a micro-lending agency. He told me the group he works with has made over a million loans in Africa, with virtually no default rate, and measurable empirical results. More than aid, these lending practices create durable change in individual families and whole communities—by employing people they change the very fabric of life for the better. Wealth creation brings new resources and opportunities to people who otherwise wouldn’t have access to them. When we give people economic opportunity, we empower them to improve their own future, and the future of others.
You have previously described the local church the “incubator of transformation.” Why would you describe its role as foundational to Christian mission—and in what new ways could the church better fulfill its transformational role?
The local church is the concrete community where people worship God, serve one another and serve their community. It is also the place where people most frequently discover their gifts, callings and unique abilities. One philosopher said: We find ourselves only in another person’s eyes. This equally applies to our ability to discover our vocation. I deeply believe the church’s work in the world, beyond liturgy and evangelism, involves empowering one another to take up our vocations for Christ. A friend of mine recently told me of a church in New England that once a month has special prayer in their worship service for a different domain of society. One month they take medical care. Another month they focus on education. Then they take business, or missions, the arts and culture, media. Those in the congregation who are engaged in these different domains receive prayer, with a clear sense that they are commissioned to represent Christ in their domain. Pastors today do not have to be experts in all the domains, but they can empower people to discover how their particular callings, vocations and occupations serve God in the world. It is a wonderful thing when congregational leaders commission their parishioners, in the power of the Spirit, to do their work to the glory of God.
What does a specifically Pentecostal worldview add to a larger Christian conversation about faith, work and economics?
First of all, we need to frame the Pentecostal movement historically. At a little over 100 years old, it is the youngest major Christian movement. And Pentecostals are a very polyvalent, polycentric group: there isn’t a one-size-fits-all definition. We have borrowed from every Christian tradition; we are synthesizers of evangelical and experiential impulses within the broader global Church. But what I think distinguishes Pentecostalism is our conviction about empowerment for mission. Fundamentally, it is our belief that God the Holy Spirit is active in the world: using his people in a myriad of ways to share the good news of redemption in Christ. That includes the ongoing supernatural work of God—the delivering, healing, reconciling work of Christ. Sometimes we see exorcisms or other miraculous things. These ongoing spiritual gifts are an important part of the Great Commission. In terms of a connection with faith, work and economics, we aren’t talking about being spooky or weird at work (trust me—that doesn’t get you promoted!). Rather than speaking in foreign tongues, it’s welcoming God’s presence and action—welcoming God’s guidance into everyday tasks. It’s welcoming God’s involvement in daily work, whether washing dishes or balancing revenue statements. Pentecostal Christianity reminds the rest of global Christians that when the Spirit is present, a new sociology emerges. There is a new egalitarianism in terms of inherent dignity and worth—not net worth, but the importance and value of each person in an organization, from janitors to CEOs—or from professors to students to college presidents.