Growing up in rural Maine in the 50's was hard, and I imagine that by modern standards, we would be considered poor. Not dirt poor, mind you. We could afford the occasional rock (about the only thing our land would grow), but poor enough. My parents raised five kids in a two- bedroom house with no indoor plumbing (ever try tackling a "two-holer" during a -40 degree Maine winter? It's not so bad; the chemical decomposition actually generates considerable heat, and the home-made methane has the most "interesting" aroma!). At least we never went hungry. For breakfast we'd be served up a big mess of uncooked beans. For lunch we'd get all the water we could drink. And for supper, we'd just let the beans swell! Sunday dinner, however, was the finest kind. Dad would go to the smokehouse and get a great big smoked ham, hang it over the table, and we'd all get to sop the shadow!
Though poor, my family's greatest boast was that we never went "on the county" or took financial assistance from the state. Though plagued by "bad luck" (one summer was so hot that the few meager stalks of corn in the fields actually started popping! The stupid cows thought it was snow and all froze to death!), lack of education and a harsh environment, my family knew the value of hard work, prudent living and thrift. Each generation was thus able to improve its economic lot. Granddad never did learn how to read and write, and my Mom never made it past the eighth grade. My generation was the first to actually finish high school. Yet, each of my brothers, with no capital except his own sweat, parlayed a commitment to hard, diligent labor into profitable, privately owned business. My being the lazy one of the family, I decided that education was the key to a job that did NOT involve heavy lifting or sweat. But since my family had no capital for educating their children, if I wanted to go to college, I'd have to pay for it myself. One thing they would NOT do was co-sign a student loan.
So, I sold myself into bondservice to the Federal Government for six years. The U. S. Air Force promised me free room and board and half the minimum wage if I would volunteer to let myself be used as target practice by pragmatic Marxists. I took the bet, and won. The war ended before our little brown brothers had a chance to warmly welcome me to Southeast Asia, and I spent my time in the military slugging it out in the pubs of East Anglia (a dirty job, but someone had to do it). In return for my "sacrifice," the Federal Government gave me "veterans'" benefits that essentially paid the costs of college, seminary and grad school. Of course, if I wanted to eat, I had to work as well. But for the entire six years of bondservice, I sent half my paycheck back home. As a result, I financed my entire education, debt free (in fact, when I finished college, we had $10,000 dollars in the bank, enough for the down payment on our first house). Now, 20 years later, we are about to buy a new five- bedroom home and we'll pay cash for it. Granted, an inheritance paid for some of that house, but please note that for most of the 80s I was in seminary or grad school, raised a family and the best paying job I ever had (I was paid four hundred a month, plus room and board). How did we do it?
I hesitate to offer the following principles of economic dominion because they sound so basic that I fear offending Chalcedon's intelligent audience. And yet, repeatedly, when I talk personal finances with highly educated, extremely bright and well-read individuals (including Christian Reconstructionists), I have found that many, many just don't have a clue as to why they have economic problems. Ironic, isn't it, that we are proudly ready to reconstruct the entire world according to God's Law-word, yet are often unable to reconstruct our own bank accounts! Please notice that I give no formulas for getting rich quick, or how to maximize your investments (I've never had any capital to invest!). Instead, I'd like to offer some practical suggestions as to how to get out of the financial hole that so many of us are in.
#1 Trust in the Sovereignty of God (Dt. 6:10-15) The Lord of creation blesses according to his divine providence. There is no true wealth apart from him. Therefore, obedience to him is fundamental to everything else. A commitment to personal holiness is absolutely fundamental to prosperity in any area. This personal holiness means that all that we have, all that we are, must be dedicated to him. We own nothing, but are simply stewards of what God has given. Therefore my health, my wealth, my family, my time, my energy, whatever, belongs to God and must be used according to his law, not my wishes. Every moment of every day ought to be lived in conscious recognition that we bring nothing into the world and will take nothing out of it. While our God is gracious and allows us much latitude, we ought to be firmly aware that one day the Master will demand an accounting for every deed done, every penny spent, every minute wasted. The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. Therefore, life is not a game but a solemn duty to live in humble submission to Christ. Perhaps God does not bless more of his people financially, because they would abuse the resources with which he would entrust them. With great wealth comes great responsibility. And too many of us, if given wealth, would just waste it on foolishness (Pr. 30:8-9).
God in his sovereignty chooses to bless some with greater skills, talents, intelligence or ability than others. He may prosper their labors differently than our own. We must never be envious or covetous of others' prosperity, but rather be content with what God has given us. "Contentment with godliness is great gain" says the Apostle Paul. "Cease worrying about acquiring wealth" says Solomon. Instead, the real issue is obedience to God. Get that right, and the material blessings will follow.
#2 Tithe (Mal. 3:8-12) The tithe is God's tax for living on the earth, the recognition that he is the sovereign Creator and Sustainer of the universe. When we tithe to God (not the church) we demonstrate our faith in his gracious provision. He is our Lord and will watch over and protect us. There were three tithes in Scripture that Rushdoony says added up to 13.3% of total income. While part of the tithe went to support the temple and the Levites who taught the law, there was also a tithe to help the poor and destitute and a festival tithe to celebrate God's gracious redemption. Thus while the tithe advances the work of the Kingdom, God also commands his people to enjoy the fruit of their labors, and even commands them to put aside a portion of the tithe so they could eat, drink and be merry! Our God is gracious, and while there is serious work to be done (and done diligently and conscientiously), there is also a time and a place to relax and enjoy the benefits that come from God's grace.
#3 Live Debt Free (Rom. 13:8) A man in debt is a slave to the lender. Slavery is contrary to the Christian Gospel. Therefore, Christians ought not to acquire long-term debt. For example, if you must borrow money to buy a car, you can't afford that car. By the time you finish paying it off, it will be a piece of junk and you'll have to go into debt all over again to finance a new one. Hence a vicious cycle begins that can be hard to break. Instead, buy only the car you can afford, and save your money so that when it finally does die, you can buy a better one. It doesn't make sense to pay the bank to borrow their money, when they could be paying you to borrow yours.
Similarly, buying a house with a thirty-year mortgage is economic servitude. Granted, it's better to pay a mortgage every month and have a house after thirty years than pay rent and end up with nothing but a stack of receipts. Better yet, if Christians do not have the capital assets to buy a nice house when they are first married, let them purchase a cheaper, smaller home that they can pay off in seven years, saving a fortune in interest payments. Let them live in that smaller, more uncomfortable house until they have enough money to buy another, larger house which they can then pay off in seven more years. Eventually, they will have a major financial asset, debt free, and have saved hundreds of thousands of dollars in interest charges. Granted, the first house will be cramped, inadequate and not in the best neighborhood. But, forgive me here, most modern Americans are sissies. They've never had to suffer any real hardship in life and are totally unprepared and unwilling to suffer any in the future. Just spend a few days with the saints in Kiletchie township outside Capetown where the houses are made out of packing crates and cardboard boxes and then say, "But my house is too small."
#4 Live Frugally (Pr. 30:24-27) Life does not consist of things, so don't buy things you don't need. Simple, right? When was the last time you moved? Amazing just how much "stuff" even the poorest Americans acquire. The question is, did you need that "stuff" or just want it? Christians must learn to differentiate between wants and needs. A need is something without which we cannot function. A want is just something that makes life a little nicer and easier. There is nothing wrong with having "stuff," if one can afford it. But our greed and envy often outrun our income. Hence, we must learn to live within our means; if you ain't got it, don't spend it.
Many Christians spend themselves into poverty. For example, Christians will spend a fortune on such things as Internet connections, cable television, movies, videos, CD's, eating out, etc. They think nothing of dropping 20 to 50 bucks at fast food places every WEEK! And the fact is, they don't NEED any of this. A fundamental problem is that too often we look at what others have and want the same life-style even if we do not have the income to support it. Consequently, we live above our means because we think this is the norm. So what if you don't have nice new clothes, a house full of fine furniture, vacations, etc? Life consists of making decisions with limited resources. Every dollar we spend on "stuff" that we don't really need is a lost asset that could be put to good work someplace else.
Now, if you have the money, if your debts are paid, if you are saving and preparing an inheritance for your children, then fine, if you have discretionary income to spare and if you want you can lawfully buy these things. But they are wants, not needs. You need food, you need clothes (but most Americans have closets full of clothes they never wear), you need a roof over your head. Most Americans need transportation of some sort. "With food and covering, with these we will be content."
A great way to distinguish between wants and needs is to keep track of where your money goes. Buy a small book and simply record what you've spent money on this month. It can be quite eye-opening to see how much we waste in useless and foolish expenditures. Then think of what you could have done with that same amount of money!
#5 Buy Wisely (Pr. 31:16) When you do determine that certain "stuff" is really a need and not just a want, then buy wisely. Over the years I have always bought cheap, and this has not been the best use of money. Shop around, find the best value for the money, and buy only the quality you need. Finding a quality item, even if one has to pay a little more, is often a better investment in the long-term. The problem is that Americans don't think long-term anymore and therefore do not build things to last. Most goods, even expensive ones, are shoddy and ill-made and with normal use will self-destruct within a few years. So we have to be more diligent in finding the right item at the right price. Second-hand shops are great places to buy things like quality furniture that will last.
We decorated our first apartment with "Brick and Board" (you know, boards placed on top of bricks to make tables, book-cases, etc.) that saw us all the way through grad school. We then moved up to genuine, imitation, pressed-wood furniture because that was all we could afford. Finally, recently, we were able to purchase a couple of pieces of good quality, real-wood furniture (the kids got the old pressed-wood stuff!). No, our home is not in any way a showcase. We are not out to impress anyone with the splendor of our furnishings. My wife was committed to getting that pesky mortgage paid off, and paid off now! And after 20 years of marriage we can finally afford some of the good "stuff" (and see it as a part of the children's inheritance). Yet many young people look at their parents' homes full of nice things and forget that it took their parents a lifetime to acquire it. They then buy on credit. Don't do it!
#6 Always put a certain percentage of income into savings, regardless, for emergencies (1 Tim. 6:17-19) This can be hard, especially if one is in a financial hole, but in his sovereignty God does afflict his people occasionally with trials and tests because they prove our faith and develop our character. Savings keep a trial from becoming a disaster. Hence a good rule of thumb is to adjust your living expenses (remember, life is a process of making decisions with limited resources) so that 10% of your income is put into savings. Then when the inevitable emergencies arise, you can deal with them. Now, my wife has often confessed that her faith was sometimes in our bank account rather than in God. So because he loves us, on several occasions he has emptied that bank account, forcing us to make decisions that we would not otherwise have made (it's not all her fault: sometimes God had to blast me out of my security so that I would be willing to take a few risks for the kingdom). As a result, no matter how hard we worked, scrimped and saved, we eventually had to throw ourselves on the mercy of God and trust in him completely for relief. God was gracious and ALWAYS replaced the capital that he had taken. But we learned that our security is from the Lord. An expensive lesson, but one well learned.
#7 Work is good and takes priority over entertainment (Pr. 21:17; 13:4; 27:23-27; Col. 3:23-24) Man is called to work as the means of subduing the earth. Work is good. Work is not a means of getting money so one can buy "stuff" but is valuable in and of itself. God blesses diligent labor and all men ought to expect to work long and hard. This is the key to long-term career development and advancement. Power flows to those who serve (Mk. 10:45). In American culture today, work is seen as a way to increase one's self-esteem, or subsidize one's affluent lifestyle. Nonsense.
It may be that different people are suited for different types of work and there is certainly nothing wrong with looking for a vocation that takes full advantage of one's gifts and natural talents. But all work is meaningful and rewarding, if it is done to the glory of God.
Sometimes, a family with no inherited capital may find that a single income from Dad is not enough to support the family. The American solution has been for Mom to leave the home, put the kids in public schools, and take a job herself. But I would argue that this is contrary to Biblical norms. It is the man's responsibility to work at a dominion calling and the woman's to help him. If two incomes are needed, then Dad had better think of getting a second job. Wow, a Dad sacrificing his leisure time to provide for basic economic necessities for the family. What a concept! Yet our immigrant ancestors did exactly that. The men labored 12 hours a day, six days a week for their families. Remember the fourth commandment is to WORK six days and rest one, not work five days, rest one and putter around the house on Saturdays. One of the families at our last church was experiencing financial difficulties. They had taken a pay cut in order to be a part of Lakeside Church. So Dad went to work on Saturdays at another company to pay for basic necessities. Eventually, the work experience gave him a superior resume eventually leading to a job at almost twice his original salary!
Working two jobs does not mean that the family has to suffer. The godly Dad mentioned above spent the Lord's Day resting from his labors by spending quality time with his children, catechizing and instructing them. He was also faithful and diligent in daily family worship. Yes, he sacrificed some personal peace and all his leisure time; but starting with literally nothing, he is building up economic capital for his family.
#8 Start your own business (Pr. 16:26) A Christian is a free man and ought therefore to live a free and self-governed life. Employers know something that most employees don't: you don't get rich working for someone else. Because of the division of labor in this country, the right man with the right skills can demand a very reasonable wage. But he is still working for someone else, and the man who owns the business makes more than those who work for him. Hence, men should try whenever possible to work for themselves. This gives a self-governed man the most freedom (and the least security) to live his life responsibly before God. It is interesting that in one church I pastored the family with the largest, nicest home (and the biggest annual income) had the least exciting job. The father ran his own carpet-cleaning business. Though the man was a seminary graduate, he found that he had no calling for the ministry and no marketable skills. So he bought a carpet-cleaning machine and went to work. His hard labor and conscientious attention to detail made his customers very happy. Soon, he bought a truck, and then another. Eventually he had to stop expanding the business because of a chronic labor problem; most people just will not work, even if they are extremely well paid. No one ever got excited about a glamorous career in carpet cleaning, but this godly father is capitalizing his family. His beautiful home is paid for. He supports several missionaries. He gives generously above the tithe to his church. His children are home-schooled and will inherit a family business that will bring them economic dominion (when the boys get old enough, he will let them do the sweaty stuff while he manages the business end).
#9 Education is expensive and ought always to be tied to dominion (Pr. 21:5; 24:27) There is perhaps no more controversial stand that I have taken than that formal academic education is an expensive luxury and is not for everyone. People get really upset at me when I say this, because a college degree has always been seen as a ticket into the middle class. It is a status symbol and one that working-class families are often proud for their children to have (except in my case, where my brothers kept asking me, "When you gonna get out of school and get a real job?"). When only a small percentage of the population had a college degree, then it was something special to have and made one competitive for jobs and promotion. But there will continue to be a glut of college diplomas over the next fifty years. Rich parents can afford to send their children to prestigious schools to give them a life experience (or send them around Europe during the summers). Those without economic capital must not ape their upper-class betters if it means investing limited resources in non-productive ends.
Vocational goals should be set early. In Europe, a thirteen-year-old already has a pretty good idea of what specific job he or she intends to do, and takes high school and college courses that are germane to his eventual career. In America, the average Christian teenager is clueless. Most Americans will change careers three or four times before finally settling down. Hence, all that time, money and effort spent in acquiring an academic degree is, for many Christians, wasted. Instead, parents need to work with their children at a young age, gauge their abilities and seek a vocation that is compatible with their gifts. Then purchase only that education that is pertinent to that vocation. Don't let your kids waste their lives studying nonsense while you are paying for the privilege.
If it is absolutely necessary for your kids to go to college, short cut the process. The average home-schooled child is years in advance of those who have suffered in public education. The College Level Examination Program allows college students to test out of many college courses. In fact, I did a full, four-year degree at an accredited Christian liberal arts college in two years, simply by testing out of most of the first two years' courses. Why pay for your children to sit in a classroom studying the same things they should already know (and no doubt learning heresy at the same time)?
But I fear what I am saying here will fall on too many deaf ears. A college degree is just too prestigious for most people to resist. And the formal academic community has a vested financial interest in convincing Christians that they really do need to send their kids to their schools. Look, if you have the financial resources and want to send your kids to college, then fine, do it. Rich people have more options than poor people. But don't be hoodwinked into thinking you are failing your kids if you use the time and money to capitalize them in a self-owned business.
#10 Young men, delay getting married and raising a family until you are secure in your vocation (Lk. 14:28) The normal process for American children is to go through school and college without a clear vocational objective in mind. Along the way, they meet somebody, "fall in love" and get married. Christians want children. They are a blessing from the Lord and therefore Christians start a family as soon as possible. But families are expensive. Mom does not want to put children into the public schools, or to work and let some child-care center raise her kids. However, both Mom and Dad probably have considerable debts from school. Dad may find a good-paying job but then has to go into debt again to buy a house, furnish it and provide basic necessities. Hence, the family is behind the economic power curve from the beginning and must spend a lifetime trying to play economic "catch-up."
A better way is for a man to have a clear vocational objective in mind from a young age and work diligently at acquiring the skills necessary to prosper in that vocation. Then, he should live at home and save every spare cent until he has considerable savings. Rushdoony wisely notes that according to the law a man must pay a purchase price for a bride that is the equivalent of three years' labor. This is a good practice to follow. Say a man makes only $30,000 a year. Now there are some expenses (taxes, necessities, etc.) so maybe the man can save only $20,000 a year. Three years of labor equals $60,000 for a bride price. That bride price PAYS for their first home! (Granted, it's no palace, but it does have indoor plumbing!)
In the same way, young girls ought to be thinking about what they will bring into a marriage. In rural Maine, every young girl received a "Hope" chest when she was about thirteen (I have my mother's, which was hand-crafted by my grandfather). In that chest went the linens, silverware, curtains, etc., that would all be necessary for setting up a bride's new home. If a young girl worked outside the home, every cent was put away for her future. My mom actually bought her first house, out of her own money before she got married (you remember, the two- bedroom place with rustic accommodations?). Thus, instead of starting married life in debt, young families need to sacrifice now to benefit later generations.
Of course, the family can and should capitalize the young couple (my wife Elaine's Dad gave us a wedding present that bought our first car). But if the family cannot provide an inheritance, or does not, then the young couple must be willing to sacrifice. Elaine's Dad went to work at fourteen to pay off family debts. He then worked and scraped and saved until he could buy a farm. He refused to get married until he could bring his bride into their own home. In England, where land is very expensive, his hard work and thrift resulted in his owning his own farm outright in just a few years. You see, it can be done, and it should be done by more people.
Of course, there is more that can be said. The real problem facing Christians regarding economic dominion is an unwillingness to sacrifice or endure hardship for long-term goals. We tend to want the easy way; and if that means enslaving whole generations so we can eat Big Macs and watch cable TV, then so be it. Long-term prosperity requires prudence, frugality, thrift and a willingness to roll up the sleeves and get our hands dirty when necessary.
Compound interest takes time to work. If you started out with no capital, it will take a while to see the effects of your labor. But time is something we have plenty of. Postmillennialists see not only the trials of today, but the victories of tomorrow. Therefore of all people, we ought to be the most willing to sacrifice for the future. Dominion begins with the family. And family finance plays a key role in subduing the earth.
- Brian M. Abshire
Rev. Brian Abshire, Ph.D. is currently a Teaching Elder associated with Hanover Presbytery. Along with his pastoral duties, he is also the director for the International Institute for Christian Culture, has served as an adjunct instructor in Religious Studies at Park University and is a visiting Professor of Comparative Religion at Whitefield College.