Toward a Trinitarian Understanding of the Free Market

1in_god_we_trustThe concept of the Trinity is foundational to the Christian life. This fundamental doctrine teaches that there are not three gods but one God in three persons (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). Each person of the Godhead is equally, eternally, and fully God. There is unity among the three persons of the Godhead; they are “equal in every divine perfection” yet “execute distinct but harmonious offices in the great work of redemption.”

All human relationships reflect the Trinity. Because God created us in His image, we are relational beings. We were created to live in community. Although some types of social relationships are more intimate and lasting than others, all relationships are interpersonal and require at least some cooperation and interdependence. Furthermore, just as there are different roles among the persons of the Trinity, there are also roles within every social relationship.

Theologians often point to God’s design for the family as one example of this phenomenon. Familial relationships are characterized by interdependence, cooperation, and mutual service. The husband is called to lovingly exercise headship over the family, following the pattern of Christ and the church. Conversely, the wife joyfully submits herself to her husband’s proper exercise of authority, and children submit to their parents. Thus, the biblical pattern for family exemplifies the interdependence and interpersonal cooperation of the Trinity.

This Trinitarian pattern also applies to our relationships in the marketplace. Consider the relationship between employer and employee. Employers are called to lovingly and righteously exercise authority over their employees, and their employees are called to submit joyfully, so long as the employer isn’t directing the employee to engage in unholy or illegal behavior. In doing this, the employer and the employee glorify God by imitating the Father’s proper exercise of authority and the Son’s joyful submission as well as through acting righteously toward each other.

Even economic exchange between strangers reflects the Trinity and glorifies God. “Society under the market economy means a state of affairs in which everybody serves his fellow citizen and is served by them in return,” wrote the famed economist Ludwig von Mises.

This axiom is obvious to those who have studied the market economy. The businessman serves his customers by producing the goods and services they desire, and the customers compensate the businessman for those goods. The employee serves his employer by providing his labor, and the employer returns the favor by remunerating the employee for his work.

Through its division and specialization of labor, the market drives every person to rely on everyone else to supply his needs. No one person is self-sufficient. By fostering interdependence and interpersonal cooperation, the relational nature of economic exchange reflects the relational nature of the Trinity. Accordingly, the free market bears the mark of its Creator.

The nineteenth-century Christian philosopher and economist Frederic Bastiat affirmed this truth:

“We should be compelled to contemplate the Divine plan that governs society… And see how, by means of social [economic] laws, and because men exchange among themselves their labors and their products, a harmonious tie attaches the different classes of society one to the other! It is therefore certain that the final result of the efforts of each class is the common good of all.”

Adam Smith, renowned by historians as the father of modern economics, famously wrote that market participants “are led by an invisible hand… without intending it, without knowing it,” to “advance the interest of society.” Even when they are merely seeking their own benefit, market participants are led by the mechanisms of profit and loss to use their productive energies to meet the needs of others. Christians recognize that this invisible hand must be God, who uses the laws of economics that He created to guide market participants into the service of others.

In the free market, this mutual service through economic exchange is voluntary. No party is forced to supply the needs of the other. Instead, profit and loss direct individuals into the service of their fellow men. Assuming the absence of force and fraud, the people and companies who earn the greatest profit are those who best serve the needs of their customers. Christianity understands this and therefore affirms that profit is morally good.

In Matthew 25:35-36, Jesus commands His disciples to attend to the needs of others. Can it not be said that this is accomplished through the mechanisms of the market, at least in part? Do food workers not feed the hungry? Do pipe workers not help supply water to the thirsty? Do retail workers not help to clothe the naked? Do doctors and nurses not attend to needs of the sick?

This explains why the Christian Reformers believed that all work is sacred and provides an opportunity to glorify God. All work, even the most mundane, is a high calling. God uses our work and economic exchange to provide for ourselves and others. Through the process of voluntary market exchange, we glorify God by reflecting the Trinity’s interdependence and interpersonal cooperation in our own lives.


This post was published by Baptists for Liberty.

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