Recently a friend told me of his growing concern for the impact of the concept of Great Commission utilitarianism on the church. As someone who is relatively well read and is currently writing a book on the Great Commission I was intrigued about the concept. A Google search on the phrase returned only five documents—not too much discussion about something that my friend is so concerned about.
So what is this Great Commission utilitarianism and why might it elicit so much concern from my friend and so little discussion within the church?
Great Commission Utilitarianism Defined
First, let us define utilitarianism itself. The word utilitarian refers to something that is useful. It is derived from Philosophical Pragmatism, a movement born in America at the end of the 19th century and popularized by the atheistic humanistic philosopher John Dewey in the 20th century. Philosophic Pragmatism determines that something is valuable if it is functional; it is good if it works! There is no sense in asking if that thing is beautiful, good, or true, only if it is useful. Unfortunately, many Christians have, perhaps unconsciously, denied the biblical virtues of truth, beauty, and goodness for utilitarianism.
Great Commission utilitarianism [GCU] refers specifically to a prevailing Christian view of work and wealth. Work is separated from God’s purpose and viewed as a necessary evil, or even a curse. Wealth is not something to be pursued for God’s glory and as part of God’s intentions for families, communities, and even nations. Instead, wealth exists for utilitarian purposes such as the need to feed one’s family and provide basic housing and simple clothing. Any other use of wealth would be a waste. In addition, a person who has amassed wealth is expected to use it to support “spiritual purposes.” This should include his or her local church, missions, and charitable organizations. People who spend wealth on themselves (outside of a utilitarian framework) are often made to feel guilty; “How can one afford a new vehicle when the church bus is falling apart?”
Stated another way, GCU sees wealth as bad in itself and thus it should be rejected. Wealth can only be deemed “good” if it has utility; in other words, if it is used to support something that is spiritual. Enjoying material things such as a good meal, going to the theater, owning a beautiful home and clothes, enjoying art and good music, or owning a well-built vehicle is seen as worldly. Mediocrity and utility are virtues of GCU. To die with wealth is evil.
Like wealth, work is good in-so-far as it 1) is spiritual work – missions, evangelism, church planting or being a theologian, 2) is “ministry” – helping people who are hungry (relief or aid workers) or sick (health workers) or teaching, or 3) contributes to the support of spiritual workers. All other work is considered worldly or secular. Being a farmer, auto mechanic, homemaker, entrepreneur, or artist is thought to be inferior to religious vocations. Work has been devalued from its biblical glory, to being a curse.
This view of work is not what the Bible calls for, however. As ordained in Genesis 1-2, work is a sacred task. It is mankind’s contribution to fulfillment of the Creation Mandate to build Godly culture. Work is the human contribution to the fulfillment of God’s purposes for creation and to the end of history – telos, the completion of the garden-city – the City of God. In this framework work is worship, our dignity as human beings. We were made to be economic man! The meaning of the Greek word for economics refers to being stewards of [God’s] house; from the beginning, we are meant to labor, to create, to generate bounty in our communities and nations. The earth, our families, communities, and nations are all to prosper and to reach their fruition. This is what it means to be economic man. Or to say it differently, work is what human beings do to steward creation, to bring forth all its potential and bring God’s intention to fulfillment.
From this crescendo of understanding, the glorious biblical concept of work and wealth has been reduced to the utilitarian need to support missions and spiritual causes, and the necessity to put food on the table. The biblical mandate to work and to be rewarded with wealth for this work is now seen instead to be a curse and thus something to be avoided.
-Darrow L. Miller