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Is there any conflict between the tenets of Christianity and the free market economy?

A paper presented at the workshop on Religion and Economic Growth organized by the Institute for Public Policy Analysis, Lagos, at the Jabita Intercontinental Hotel, Ikeja, on February 28, 2002.


This paper is divided into three sections. In Section I, I will present the conventional arguments for and against free market economy. The presentation, which will be reportorial in approach, will conclude with personal observations and comments.
In Section II, I will present the arguments for and against the Biblical basis for and against free market economy, after which I will offer some comments. For the conventional arguments in both sections, I have relied on Craig Gay's For Liberty and Justice for Whom?, 1991, for much of the materials.
Section III is a distillation of my reflection on free market economy and the present Nigerian situation.

The debate over free market economy occurs at different point of engagement. We will highlight three areas for the purpose of this section, namely, the nature of the market, free market politics, and the free market and culture.

A. Nature of the Market
According to its advocates, the free market is an efficient method of private production for the market. It is a system where production of wealth has transformed the world for the better. Not everybody is convinced of this proposition, however. Some critics regard the free market economy as a comprehensive sociopolitical-economic system in which a small business elite exploits and oppresses the majority of people in modern society.

Free market advocates, however, reject this criticism. They insist that capitalism is not a comprehensive system, arguing that although the free market system represents the institutionalization of economic relationships, the market system is just one of a number of institutions that make up the social order. Other primary institutions, they argue, include the family, schools, religious bodies, etc.
On the question of oppression, free marketers argue that both parties to an exchange engage in their transaction in a peaceful atmosphere and perceive their exchange to be beneficial to the two parties. It is voluntary. Critics reply that equality of the parties is only on the surface. In real life, they suggest, there is hardly ever equality. On the accusation that free enterprise benefits only a tiny business elite, free market defenders make bold that there is a degree of inequality in all societies and systems and therefore it should not come as a surprise that free enterprise benefits some people more than others. Furthermore, they contend that the small degree of inequality is offset by the benefits of the market practice of consumer sovereignty. With reference to profit, free market exponents suggest that by equating the profit motive with greed, critics confuse selfishness with legitimate self-interest. What precisely is legitimate self-interest is, however, a matter of debate even among free market economists.

Critics contend that monopoly and a relatively high level of unemployment are intrinsic to the free market process. Market champions however see monopoly and unemployment as serious problems in contemporary societies, and not a product of the market per se. While they admit that there is some level of unemployment in the system, they blame it on a number of factors, especially disincentives to unemployment created by government welfare programs.

Internationally, critics of free enterprise blame Third World poverty on the practices of transnational companies. Free market exponents reject the accusation stating that although multinational make huge profits, they transfer skills to the Third World so multinational corporate involvement in the Third World is not totally exploitative. According to free market exponents, the real impediments to Third World business enterprise are internal factors such as political instability, population growth, and cultural patterns.

B. Free Market Politics
According to its promoters, capitalism promotes peaceful and voluntary social interaction and that the system of private ownership of property provides and important defense against the concentration and misuse of power. Critics of the market, however, denounce he democracy engendered by the market because according to them, it is illusory. What is really happening, according to them, is the domination and direction of the political process and the political agenda by a small elite for maximizing their own profits at the expense of the public good. For example, they mount puppets, fund their electioneering campaigns, win elections, and thereafter line their pockets. To this free marketers contend that far from being dominated by a business elite, modern governments tend to be controlled instead by bureaucratic political elites that are largely unaccountable to the electorate and have grown increasingly hostile to business.

C. Free Market and Culture
Decadence in society is a problem that analysts on both sides of the debate of free market economy are concerned about. Critics of the market see a connection between decadence and the prevailing climate of materialism in poor economic relationship. According to them, social change will occur when changes in economic structures occur. Free market proponents, however, suggest that this line of argument is a mix up. The breakdown in morals, in their view, is a result of the failure of other primary institutions such as the family, schools, and religious bodies. For social change, therefore, we should not speak primarily in socio-structural terms. Rather, efforts should be directed at individual moral and spiritual renewal.

It is perhaps important to purse at this juncture to make a number of observations and comments on the foregoing. First, the foregoing arguments over the merits and demerits of free market economy are advanced at the hypothetical level. In other words, they are not with reference to any particular country. Most of the scholars are Westerners - specifically Americans. Therefore, in terms of assumptions, the undisclosed assumption in these arguments is that the arguments are about the situation in America. If this assumption is correct, then the arguments are at a hypothetical level with respect to Nigeria.

Second, we have seen that free market supporters are not short of refutations, cute answers, to their critics. Nevertheless, some free market economists such as Hill and Doner (Gay: 1991, p.71), admit that the real issue goes father than the logicality of arguments - that the free market system has some problems or weaknesses. According to them,

  • Relative poverty and unequal income distribution pose problems for market economies.
  • Private property rights are subject to abuse
  • Prosperity has a tendency to become an end in itself
  • Market mechanism is largely impersonal and abstract
  • The market's inability to value certain public goods necessitates some degree of public intervention.
Third, central to the five areas of concern by Hill and Doner is the question of inequality, namely, that full-blown market operation worsens inequality in community. One of the basic tenets of the Christian faith is the equality of persons. Some analysts may conclude that, to the extent that free market economy has these foregoing problems, it conflicts with and is opposed to the tenets of the Christian faith. However, based on some considerations that I will draw our attention to in the course of this paper, I am prepared to argue that the problem is not so much of conflict as much as failure of the free market to live up to its vision.

Christians who take seriously freedom and justice, two imperatives of the Christian faith, have found themselves locked in a rather bitter dispute over the scriptural basis of free market economy. The debate over the scriptural basis of free market economy is important because if those who are opposed to free enterprise can show that the capitalist economy has no Biblical basis, then they can then declare that free market economy conflicts with the tenets of the Christian faith. Those on the right also take the argument over the Biblical basis of their system seriously because if they can ward off all the attacks against free enterprise and establish a scriptural basis for capitalism, then they can conclude that capitalism is a Christian system.

A. Arguments

Critics of free market system assert that private accumulation of wealth which they say is at the heart of the free market is roundly prohibited in both the Old and New Testaments. With reference to the Old Testament, free market economy is at variance with (1) the Mosaic legislation concerning the release of Hebrew slaves (Ex. 21: 2-6; Dt. 15: 12-18), (2) the Sabbatical Year (Ex.23:10-11; Lev. 25:1-7), (3) the periodic cancellation of debt Dt. 15: 1-11), (4) the Year of Jubilee (Lev. 25: 8-17), and (5) the pursuit of the knowledge of God which is mutually exclusive of accumulation of wealth (Pro. 8:10). They emphasize what they regard as Old Testament sanctions of the ideal of equality among brethren and Old Testament prohibition of private accumulation for any purpose other than that of meeting basic needs.

With reference to the New Testament, first, Jesus' announcement, "blessed are the poor (Lk. 6:20) and the corresponding, "woe to you who are rich (Lk. 6:24) as well as Jesus' encounter with the rich young ruler (Mk. 10:17-24; Lk. 14:33), illustrate Jesus rejection of accumulation of wealth. Second, according to the critics, the early church communism described in Acts 4 and 5 and Paul's determination to return to Jerusalem, Acts 20, for income distribution constitute a warrant for the equalization of capital then and now. Third, the prophets and Jesus call for sociopolitical-economic structural change as typified by Jesus message in Lk. 4: 18-21. Lastly, there is the confrontation with the quasi-demonic economic principalities and powers (Ro. 8:38); 1Cor. 2:8, 15:24-26; Eph. 1: 20ff; 2: 14ff; 3: 10; 6:12; Col. 1: 16; 2:15).

Free market champions accuse those on the left of flouting widely accepted rules of Biblical interpretation in order to discredit the market system. According to them, Christians in favor of free market alternatives quote the Bible but they arrive at their conclusions a priori along Marxist lines. For example, first, they deny that oppression is a Biblical-theological category. Second, they reject the idea that the exodus is a paradigm for today. According to them, the exodus was an event in which God fulfilled a specific promise to the nation of Israel. Third, they agree that God cares for the weak but He is not on the side of the poor in the sense that He perverts justice in their favor. Third, the Jubilee legislation could not have been intended as a scheme for expropriating the rich for that would fly in the face of the eighth commandment, "thou shalt not steal". Rather, the Jubilee was intended to safeguard equal opportunity for Israelites to earn income without destroying the incentives to work and to invest through normal economic activities.

Fourth, free market exponents object to socialist use of the prophetic literature. They point out that Biblical prophets were not social analysts as such but rather, they were concerned with what they call the ethical lapses that took place in their societies and the impact of those lapses on he innocent. They accuse socialists of manipulating the message of the prophets to call for class warfare.

Furthermore, fifth, they argue that it is impossible to deduce any economic system from Jesus' teaching on the Kingdom. On the much flaunted statement in Lk. 4: 18, they contend that it is not right to view Jesus mission primarily in socio-political terms because the poverty spoken of in the passage is spiritual service and not material poverty. They concede that wealth can be an obstacle to one's entrance into the Kingdom of God but there is nothing intrinsically wrong with private ownership. On the socialist insistence that Acts 4 and 5 constitutes the warrant for equalization of capital today, those on the right assert that those on the left are misled because communalism described in Acts 4 and 5 was temporary and was not made mandatory by the apostles.

Christians for free market economy not only seek to refute leftist interpretations of the Bible, they have advanced a positive Biblical case for capitalism. In particular, first, they argue that because mankind is created in God's image, (Gen. 1:26), the capacity to see new possibilities for products, services, and labor-saving devices to create wealth which lies at the heart of a growing economy is basic to human nature. Second, God's command to have dominion over the earth (Gen. 1: 28) reflects God's economic expectations of humanity. In particular, they interpreted this passage individualistically rather than collectively. In other words, domination is with respect to individual ownership limited only by the concept of stewardship understood to mean hard work, diligence, thrift, prudence, sobriety, and honesty. Third, they accuse command economists of dubious exegesis and evasion of clear texts such as 2Thes. 3: 6ff, "if anyone will not work … let him not eat". Fourth, free market advocate stress Jesus parable of the talent (Mt. 25: 15). They base their justification of profit on Jesus' praise of those who through wise management and careful stewardship created wealth.

Lastly, they draw attention to 1Sam 8 and Rom. 13 as the basis for a limited state. They suggest that based on these two passages, the state is to limit itself to the areas of (1) national defense, (2) adjudication of disputes, (3) defense of private property, and (4) monitoring of certain public goods. It is not the business of the state to use coercive power to force people to love their neighbors.

B. Comments

First each side of the debate accuses the other of not interpreting the Bible correctly. What actually goes on is the fact that although each side quotes the Bible, they cite Bible passages only to illustrate the ideological positions which they bring to the Bible.

Second, it is possible for each side to set their respective premises, supply relevant passages, argue logically, and arrive at their respective positions. Therefore, therefore we cannot categorically state that free market economy conflicts with the tenets of the Christian faith based solely on selected Bible passages.

Third, free market economy and its alternatives are entrenched in the struggle for freedom and justice respectively. It is not as if those fighting for freedom are ipso facto opposed to the struggle for justice. Indeed, those at the vanguard for justice are hoping to reap freedom at the end of it all. Similarly, those who are campaigning for freedom are aiming at justice at the end of the day. So, we can say it is a question of method, to some extent.

Fourth, freedom and justice are two Christian ideals and Christians have no choice between the two. They are morally bound to pursue the two. As methods for achieving these ideals, Christians are forbidden to bow to the methods.

Fifth, despite the orchestrated differences between free market economy and its alternatives, they have some things in common.

  • Both are human creations.
  • Both find scriptural warrant, therefore it is inaccurate to say that free market economy is opposed to the Christian faith.
  • Both forge their own chains of enslavement.
  • Both to a lesser or greater degree are responsible for the structures that create poverty, injustice, and oppression.
  • Both lack the transcendental principle of critical self-reflection and therefore fail to live up to their visions of freedom and justice.
  • Neither of them, its pure form has or can retain the loyalty of any given country indefinitely.
For example, Karl Marx' original communist idea was modified by Lenin, whose brand was also modified by Stalin. Then came Prestoika, and the free market economy in present day Russia. In a different development, Britain, Adam Smith's country has been a bearer of capitalism for years. Then came World War II and its aftermath. It became obvious to the British who did not contemplate the loss of their empire before the commencement of the war that their oversea colonies were going to demand independence in a way that Britain could prevent. Coupled with post-war unemployment and the logicality of reducing the social gap in a population in which virtually everybody contributed to the war effort, Britain had to go the socialist way! The major sectors of the economy were nationalized in order to create employment for the masses. The socialist mix persisted until Margaret Thatcher took over and reintroduced free capitalist economy. In a twist of events, the Labour Party under Tony Blair ditched it distinctive socialist Clause 4 in order to win the election that brought the traditionally socialist party to power, 1997. Since then all socialist talk has been a matter of rhetoric because Tony Blair has been correctly as been more right wing than the Tories in practice. Lastly, free market economy in USA functions as though it has come to accept the unionist principle of collective bargaining and the social security system as reality. What is really on ground is the woof and warf of free market and its socialist alternatives.

In the light of the foregoing, therefore, are we to conclude that free market economy and its interventionist alternatives are equally beneficial? We have noted that the conventional debate with reference to the nature of free enterprise, politics and culture is conducted at the hypothetical level. They may be logical but because of their purely hypothetical level, they can be misleading.

Similarly, if we restrict ourselves to Bible thumbing, it will be difficult to conclude that they are equally beneficial or otherwise based on the passages cited by each because of the usual mutual accusations of bad hermeneutics. One way to break the logjam is to ground the arguments in a given context - notably Nigeria - and look at it from the historically perspective. Another reason for placing the arguments in a historical perspective is to ensure that this workshop addresses itself to genuine issues than pander to the urge for sheer intellectual stimulation.


Nigerian economic history is a long story. We can blame the British for virtually everything before 1960. We know that they stage managed the hand-over of power from 1947-1960 in order to maintain British economic interest in Nigeria after 1960. Though imperfectly, 1960 marked the beginning of opportunity for the Nigerian people.

The new administration maintained the economic status quo throughout the First Republic and the Civil War years. At the end of the war, the military government of the day took steps to ensure a stronger indigenous grip on the economy. Besides, several publicly owned companies were nationalized the tackle the problem of unemployment. Although the intention was morally sound, the implementation was riddled with corruption. Military dictators who had nothing to offer but leprous management of the economy and the promotion of regional cronies especially since 1985 compounded the situation further. Beginning with the Babangida dictatorship, corruption became official policy, albeit unwritten. Merit was sacked and droves of unmotivated mediocre and parasites were thrust into management positions in the commanding sectors of the economy. The outcome of all of the foregoing has been the virtual collapse of the Nigerian economy.

Since the inception of the present dispensation under President Olusegun Obasanjo, and his free enterprise program, no person of integrity will deny that the quality of live of Nigerians have improved, as the economy has started picking up. For example, it is possible to count the number of Nigerians who bought a car between 1985-1999 on one's fingertips. In contrast, the roads in all our cities are congested with Tokunbo.

Similarly, the liberalization of the telecommunication sector is welcome development by ordinary Nigerians. There is an insatiable demand for its extension to cities nation-wide.

Therefore, in the light of the turnaround that the Nigerian economy is experiencing, I endorse free market economy for Nigeria of 2002. Left to the hypothetical level, my instincts go for the socialist line of thought. Looked at historically and empirically, I have to admit that free market has performed better than socialist prescription.

However, if human wellbeing is the goal of economic practice, then my endorsement of free market economy is not uncritical because of two reasons. First because it lacks transcendental principle of critical self-reflection just as its interventionist alternatives. Second because no country has ever adhered to it indefinitely in its pure form. Since there is hardly any reason why Nigeria may be treated as an exception, free market system in Nigeria may need its alternatives inputs in due course just as it has occurred in Britain and USA. In other words, the woof and warf of political economy makes it unlikely that it will run totally unencumbered. But there is no doubt that I wish free market to have the commanding heights in present day Nigeria. It is not opposed to the Christian faith but it fails to live up to its vision.

Dr. Olufemi Awoniyi( is the Director, Centre for Religion and Public Issues, Lagos.


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