Good News to the Poor: John Wesley’s Evangelical Economics

A Review

In his book Good News to the Poor: John Wesley’s Evangelical Economics, Theodore Jennings interprets John Wesley as an early (albeit unsuccessful) proponent of what has become liberation theology. The book is about Wesley. Yet it reads like a book about liberation theology using Wesley as a foil. This is no criticism of the book. Jennings partners with Wesley to argue a poignant thesis: “We can no more leave God out of our economics than we can leave God out of our liturgy” (130).

Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1990

Jennings distinguishes political questions from economic ones. The rich favour political questions to the neglect of economic ones. Yet economic matters dominate the plight of the poor. In fact, Jennings argues, economic injustice dwarfs political cataclysm in the lives of the world’s poor. The annual economic holocaust of children who die of poverty, he argues, matches the scale of the decade-long political Holocaust of the Nazi regime (14). Jennings therefore banishes political questions to the book’s appendix. There he nevertheless relates Wesley’s politics back to Wesley’s concern for the poor. This distinction between politics and economics is crucial for Jennings since Wesley was politically unremarkable. “While Wesley may have largely accepted the political status quo,” Jennings writes, “this was not true of the economic one” (24).

Liberation Themes in Wesley

Jennings finds an affinity in Wesley’s writings for “the general themes of liberation theology” (20). He reads Wesley in light of these themes. Jennings aims to clarify Wesley’s concern for the poor and build upon his contribution. The first liberation theme is Wesley’s emphatic demystification of wealth. Liberation theology opposes trust in wealth and even seeking after wealth, contrary to so-called “health and wealth” theology. Wesley is an ally on this front. Wesley regarded Ananias and Sapphira’s sin as akin to the fall of humanity in the Garden of Eden (39–40). It was the first test of early church, and exposes the love of money as her primal enemy. Therefore the love of money, even possessing excess money, is an ever-present danger to the Christian. Not every alleged financial blessing is a true one. A financial boon could actually be a “snare of Satan” (40). This remains true at the institutional level where churches become beholden to both affluence and affluent supporters.

Jennings then considers the liberation theme of a preferential option for the poor. According to this liberation theme, perspective matters when viewing justice and injustice in the world. That which seems welcoming and fair to the rich appears threatening and unjust to the poor. Which perspective is authoritative? The preferential option for the poor suggests that God shares the perspective of the poor regarding justice and injustice. God therefore lends the silenced voices of the poor an authority that many wrongly presume supervenes upon wealth.

Jennings argues that Wesley practices this liberation theme by approaching all matters from the perspective of the poor. Furthermore, Wesley sought to bring aid to the poor rather than merely sending aid (54). He thereby couples aid with fellowship. Such fellowship gives the poor a voice. Those who aid the poor also learn their perspective in fellowship with them. Beyond bringing aid to the poor, Wesley also would beg on their behalf (58). This reflects an even deeper concern for the silenced voice of the poor. This threefold preference for the poor perspective — in his deliberations, in coupling fellowship with giving, and in begging on their behalf — evinces Wesley’s powerful commitment to give the poor a voice.

Since the perspective of the poor aligns with God’s concern, Jennings claims that “the welfare of the poor should be the litmus test of all activity” (66). Wesley demonstrated this ethic by refusing to separate preaching to the poor from assisting them (129). He also let the interests of the poor govern his political lobbying. Indeed, “Wesley the patriot gives way to Wesley the radical when the welfare of the poor is at stake” (68). Altogether, Wesley continues to take the next logical step in light of the perspective of the poor — not only preaching but aiding; not only sending aid but bringing it; not only bringing aid but begging for aid; and not only begging but lobbying for systematic change. Given the demystification of wealth and preferential option for the poor, one cannot shrink from challenging systematic opposition to the welfare of the poor. A gospel that breaks the spell of money and aligns God’s concern with that of the poor demands such a response.

Wesley on Stewardship as Giving to the Poor

Jennings then turns to Wesley’s notion of stewardship. “For Wesley,” Jennings writes, “stewardship means giving to the poor — period. We give to God not by giving to the church, but by giving to the poor” (105). Jennings is adamant. He calls for us to “banish forever the vain superstition that one can give to God by giving to the church. God has appointed the proper recipients: the poor” (190). Such stewardship chafes at our engrained notions of private property (98). The property in our possession is earmarked by God for those who need it. We steal from God and the poor as we store it for our own purposes and alleged benefit (108).

Who then is rich and under the obligation to give? All those who have more than they need are rich. Evangelical economics, as Jennings defines it, governs riches according to God’s purposes for them. “For Wesley, the only legitimate claim to the earth’s resources is based not on industry or capital or enterprise or labor, but on the needs of our neighbor. This is the heart of evangelical economics” (117). Riches are earmarked to love the neighbour, particularly the poor neighbour. Evangelical economics therefore “places the welfare of the poor at the center of all economic activity” (137).

The imperative nature of evangelical economics requires some defense, given a common Christian misunderstanding of divine grace as cheap — namely grace lacking a corresponding demand. Jennings links Wesley’s teaching about money to Wesley’s teaching about holiness in the Christian life. Wesley insisted that when it comes to faith, the absence of evidence is evidence of absence. Growth in holiness is the inevitable evidence of a faith that embraces God’s power. “To say that holiness cannot be realized because we are sinners,” Jennings writes, “is to say that there is no remedy for sin” (149). Furthermore, the life of one saved bears the mark of their Saviour, the one to whom they belong. “If love is the imitation of God, then a purely ‘spiritual’ love would be an imitation of the Deist’s god, the god who abandons the world” (151). A faith that lacks concern for holiness — indeed a faith lacking any concern for the poor — indicates a false-salvation by a false-god.

Wesley’s Failure

Jennings considers in detail why Wesley ultimately failed to impart evangelical economics to his Methodist movement. “That Wesley failed — on his own terms — is indisputable” (157). What accounts for this failure? Jennings blames a “certain hesitancy in Wesley, a hesitancy that, to be sure, is always corrected, but appears to leave room for the hearer or reader to squirm out of the application of Wesley’s position to her or his own circumstances” (160). What then did Wesley hold back?

Jennings notes that Wesley qualifies his teaching on money by affirming that the rich are not necessarily unrighteous and that money is not necessarily evil. In fact, money is a great good in Wesley’s preaching. Unfortunately, these qualification afford the unrighteous rich an escape from the force of Wesley’s preaching. Those enslaved to money confuse their own case with an exceptional righteous one. Even if money is not necessarily evil, in the lives of most people it is an actual evil. Therefore Wesley’s qualification leads to what Jennings calls “a double message, despite his clear intentions to sound the trumpet for a truly evangelical economics” (162).

Second, Wesley qualified his interpretation of scripture precisely where the rich ought to encounter their strongest rebuke. For instance, contrary to his usual procedure, Wesley qualifies the episode involving Jesus and the rich young ruler as only applicable to the past situation described in that passage (162). He also strangely interprets the command to not worry as an admonishment to plan ahead and work diligently (163). Wesley also teaches diligence in work so as to earn one’s keep, appealing to the stock phrase, “Owe no man anything” of Romans 13:8. Jennings interprets this passage as pertaining to brotherly love rather than financial advice (164). In these cases Wesley aligns himself with common interpretations in his day. He blunts the force of scripture where it would have otherwise aided his case for evangelical economics.

Jennings then turns to Wesley’s threefold command — namely, to earn, to save, and to give all you can. Wesley’s purpose of earning and saving is in order to give. This is lost on many of his hearers. Indeed, Jennings asks, “what is the basis for seeking to ‘gain all one can’ in the first place? . . . Earning what is needful is not the same as gaining all you can” (166–167). Wesley’s advice on earning seems to align with the capitalist logic by which earning becomes an end in itself. Earning what you need makes sense. Earning all you can requires justification.

Wesley’s true reason is tardy in delivery and therefore neglected. By the time Wesley gets to preaching that we ought to give all we can, it is too late “to show the necessary relationship between the first two rules and the third. He has himself developed them independently. He reader can understand what he says here about the first or second without referring to the third” (167). Despite Wesley’s intentions, the reader has already interpreted earning and saving apart from giving by the time Wesley preaches on giving. Wesley’s teaching on earning and saving thereby tempts those in the grip of money to simply ignore his teaching on giving. Jennings laments that “The result is that only that portion of Wesley is generally read which opens the door to an anti-Wesleyan ethic!” (168).

Jennings gives one final reason for Wesley’s failure, namely his relation to the Church of England (177). Wesley’s evangelical economics are a threat to “the established economic order as enshrined in The Articles of Religion [of that church]” (177). The preaching needed to launch evangelical economics in the Methodist movement would have requires a division with Anglicanism that Wesley was loathe to instigate. The net result, Jennings argues, is that Wesley undermines his own preaching through his own preaching. His “hedges and qualifications” soothe the conscience rightly troubled by evangelical economics and blunt the force of his message (165).

A Call to Action

Jennings concludes with a call to action. We must acknowledge that sustained and reliable global economic injustice — as seen from the perspective of the global poor — dwarfs the ongoing political drama of governments, wars, and rumours of wars (183). Jennings calls the self-identified Christian church to account. “How shall we explain to ourselves that nearly one-third of the earth’s inhabitants claim to believe the gospel, while leaving human relationships as much characterized by greed and violence as ever they were before the gospel was first sounded among the poor of Galilee?” (186). Put another way, Jennings calls for a Wesleyan holiness movement at the corporate level of institutional church structure and finances. Evangelical activism, often merely a matter of saving souls, must be wedded to real transformation of the economic reality facing the poor. “Those who claim that the world can only be changed by converting persons one by one (or stadium by stadium) must ask whether the gospel they are preaching in fact produces any real transformation at all” (186). One wonders whether a gospel that cannot defeat economic sin on any noticeable scale defeats sin at all. Indeed, Jennings writes, “‘faith alone’ has been so stressed as to make faith a collaboration in the dominion of sin rather than liberation from it” (186). The gospel must be a gospel of power, the power of God at work in the world.

In summary, Jennings demands that the church “place the poor at the center and not at the edge or margin of our concern” (190). Stewardship must pertain to aiding the poor — “God has appointed the proper recipients,” — rather than serving as the modern temple tax (190). This is only possible as we “rid ourselves” of “our preferential option for the affluent” (192). A church beholden to the affluent — through large ministry salaries, expensive buildings, and the proliferation of the wisdom aimed at institutional growth and preservation — is not free to preach good news to the poor.

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