When discerning how to approach wealth and commerce, American Orthodox Christians have their work cut out for them. Should we embrace the “Protestant work ethic” of righteous enterprise? Or does the Apostolic witness shun “filthy lucre,” instead favoring a communitarian path? We need more than simplistic answers. The “one thing needful” is Christ Himself, Who reveals to us our vocation to serve God.
Thus, we cannot discover what we should do with our possessions without knowing who we are: Persons created in God’s image, called to communion with our Creator. In regard to the resources of the earth, we fulfill this calling through stewardship, as in Jesus’s “Parable of the Talents” (Matthew 25:14-30). Three stewards are entrusted with a sum of gold they must invest, becoming bountiful on behalf of their master. By gratefully receiving all things, fruitfully increasing them, and lovingly offering them back to our Creator, we bring God’s grace to all human affairs. But when we hoard what we are given, like the bad steward in the parable, we deprive the world of the blessings God intended for it.
When God gave man “dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth” (Genesis 1:26), it was not an invitation to subjugation but an offer of partnership. Whatever portion of the world we possess—materially or otherwise—are the talents God has given us.
Stewardship also features in our worship. This is perhaps most explicit in the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. The words that precede the Eucharistic offering indicate our willingness to work with God for the world’s sanctification: “Your own of Your own, we offer to You, on behalf of all and for all.” Receiving, remaking, regifting—this is what stewardship means to Orthodox Christians.
Our sacramental work does not end with liturgy. The whole universe is God’s. Our duty is to transform it and offer it back to Him. Great thinkers from Christian history offer different variations on the same theme. Examining their teaching can explain some of the historic confusion over wealth and possessions.
In a letter to the bishop Macedonius, St. Augustine noted that “what is lawfully possessed is not another’s property.” The quotation seems to affirm a laissez-faire approach, i.e., so long as wealth is justly acquired, one is free to do with it as one wishes. But Augustine does not stop there. To borrow a few terms from Roman Catholic social thought, Augustine points to both the universal destination of goods and the principle of solidarity, adding, “but ‘lawfully’ means justly, and justly means rightly. Those who use their wealth badly possess it wrongfully, and wrongful possession means that it is another’s property.” Thus, we forfeit our claim to wealth unless we continue to use it virtuously.
At the same time, the church never rejected enterprise, husbandry, and commerce. Among its canons we find this from bishop Hosius at the council of Sardica in 343: “Some of our brethren and fellow-bishops are known to possess very little private property in the cities in which they are placed as bishops, but have great possessions in other places, with which they are, moreover, able to help the poor. I think then permission should be given them … to visit their estates and attend to the gathering of the harvest….” Property-owning bishops were acceptable, provided they embraced their duty to cultivate it for the love of their neighbors. Even monasteries, which embraced communal property internally, practiced industriousness and prudence externally.
Stewardship gives meaning to wealth and sanctifies investment. God does not wish for us to squander what we are given. Pope St. Gregory the Great, in his Pastoral Rule, admonishes would-be Robin Hoods “not to go about getting what is another’s,” even if to give it away. Similarly, when it comes to almsgiving, Clement of Alexandria exhorted the rich man who would be saved to remember Jesus’ teaching that we use our money to “make a friend. But a friend proves himself such not by one gift, but by long intimacy” (see Luke 16:9). We must not measure our moral worth in the amount we have given, as St. Symeon the New Theologian warned, for all of it is from God and has been given to “all men in common.” The poor are no less righteous than the rich for having less to give. Ultimately, all of us act merely as stewards of God’s wealth. Thus, Jesus teaches us all to confess, “We are unprofitable servants. We have [only] done what was our duty to do” (Luke 17:10)
The institutions governing wealth and commerce today are markedly different from those of the Roman Empire. Thank God, there are many more ways to acquire wealth than stealing it or inheriting it. But our sacramental duty of stewardship remains unchanged: we must still “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28). As God “gives to all life, breath, and all things” (Acts 17:25), we must always and everywhere be stewards.
For many of us, that looks like using our labor, capital, creativity, and enterprise to provide for ourselves and others, as did St. Paul: “Yes, you yourselves know that these hands have provided for my necessities, and for those who were with me. I have shown you in every way, by laboring like this, that you must support the weak” (Acts 20:34-35). The modern world presents many opportunities for creating—not merely redistributing—wealth, but this does not change the basic Christian duty of faithful stewardship.
For others, it may look more like the widow’s offering of two mites, about which Christ taught his disciples, “Truly I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all” (Luke 21:3). We have a duty to do what we can, but we ought not to let pride in our good deeds blind us to the “one thing needful,” sitting at the feet of Christ, who ultimately provides all things to us for the good of all.
Finally, we must always remember the ecclesial dimension of stewardship. No vocation exists outside the church. Just as God’s kingdom encompasses all of creation, the church, as the eternal banquet feast of Christ, is the foundation for every human activity. The production and distribution of goods is not a separate, secular consideration—as we see in Christ’s self-revelation in the church, “secular considerations” are illusory. All true stewardship is churchly, and therefore Spirit-bearing, and where the Spirit is, there is the grace of God.
Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty, where he serves as executive editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. Alexander William Salter is an economics professor in the Rawls College of Business at Texas Tech University, a research fellow at TTU’s Free Market Institute, and a senior fellow with AIER’s Sound Money Project. Both are Orthodox Christians.
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.