How the West Won

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In his 2005 book The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success, Rodney Stark points to the influence of Christianity’s teachings on global flourishing. The God revealed in Scripture and history bids us to engage in a relational covenant with moral implications. Doing so leads to behaviors that change the world.

Scripture continually invites us to reason together, to know God and love one another. The prayers of God’s people are focused on loving God and one another and teaching the same values to each generation. God is revealed through divine encounters and holy writings. Our quest is to seek God with all that we are and to grow deep in our understanding of God’s purposes.

Moral Equality

One of those purposes is moral equality. Anyone could be adopted into the Jewish faith. Paul, the Jewish Apostle, nearly lost his life multiple times because of his ministry to the Gentiles. Slaves who were believers were to be treated as spiritual equals in the New Testament and were offered their freedom on a regular cycle in the Torah. Class and race barriers were bridged by the grace of Christ until each was part of “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” as the people of God. The quality of our unity was to be so extravagant that we embody what it means to love.

One-ness was not passive. Relationships bear fruit. The Judeo-Christian faith describes a God who called individuals to participate in the co-creation of good. Industry is championed and sloth shunned. Believers were “blessed to be a blessing to the nations” (Gen. 22:18), so lives were to reflect God’s generous mercy across the world. Prosperity should level the playing field that included widows and orphans as well as the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum.

Faith Transforms Society

John Wesley picked up on this insight as he saw evidence of faith transforming society. The work of the Methodists among poor coal miners and other marginalized groups raised their ability to earn, save and give. The poor were becoming more stable, even affluent. That wealth growth tempted some to hedge on the giving side of the tripartite wisdom.

Wesley’s sermons included teachings on wealth. He preached on “The Use of Money” and “On the Danger of Increasing Riches”. He understood that generous people, whose lives are leveraged for witness, transform communities.

Stark convincingly makes the historical argument that the Christian faith became fertile ground for the rise of democracy and free enterprise. Economic flourishing, at least in modern terms, emerged across societies as the influence of Christianity spread.

That influence continues into the twentieth century. Stark acknowledges David Aikman’s report of a 2002 conversation with a Chinese researcher in his book Jesus in Beijing:

One of the things that we were asked to look into was what accounted for the success, in fact, the pre-eminence of the West all over the world. We studied everything we could from the historical, political, economic, and cultural perspective. At first, we thought it was because you had more powerful guns than we had. Then we thought it was because you had the best political system. Next we focused on your economic system. But in the past twenty years, we have realized that the heart of your culture is your religion: Christianity. That is why the West is so powerful. The Christian moral foundation of social and cultural life was what made possible the emergence of capitalism and then the successful transition to democratic politics. We don’t have any doubt about this.

Christian history is on the side of Christ’s agents of reason, moral equality and progress. Many scholars suggest that the marketplace was a primary avenue for the spread of Christianity. Paul often referred to his “tent making” as a way to avoid financially burdening nascent congregations. The first convert in the Macedonian west was a business woman (Acts 16:14). Many mission agencies embrace the same logic today. Business people will have easier access for the sake of the Gospel than missionaries, especially in countries resistant to Christianity.

Our faith as business men and women makes us spiritually potent. Societies are being transformed as we live out God’s mission at work and in our neighborhoods. Our vocations give us access to people many pastors and professional missionaries will never meet. As we exemplify biblically reasoned equality and creativity with the help of the Spirit, others will notice.

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Dr. Thomas Tumblin served ten years in ministry at Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church (Tipp City, Ohio) before joining the Asbury Theological Seminary faculty in 1999 as Associate Professor of Pastoral Leadership and Associate Director of the Doctor of Ministry Program. In 2003 he moved to half-time as Professor while serving as District Superintendent of the Findlay and Northwest Plans Districts of the West Ohio Conference. Dr. Tumblin returned full time to Asbury Theological Seminary in 2008. He serves widely as a consultant to local congregations and as a leader in the academy. Dr. Tumblin and his wife, Yvonne, are the parents of three daughters and reside in Nicholasville, Kentucky.

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