Beyond the State and Market: Why Christian Leaders Should Care About the Third Sector

What do neighborhood associations, homeless shelters, churches, book clubs, synagogues, parent teacher associations, girl scouts, cooking classes, quilting groups, food banks, and poetry nights all have in common?

First, they each contribute in immeasurable ways to the economic and political flourishing of a society.

Second, the full extent of their contribution is woefully ignored by just about everyone—economic and political leaders alike.

When presented with almost any social problem (education, health care, poverty, family life, and so on), today’s leaders typically point to one of two possible solutions—a freer market or a stronger state. But in opposition to these rather myopic solutions, I think there is a more complex and biblical lens through which leaders can consider the social eco-system and the people who move around in it.

Instead of simplistic descriptions of human beings as either clients of the state or competitors in the market, the Christian Scriptures present humanity in a refreshingly complex way. We find a complex creature with a wide variety of gifts, abilities, interests, aspects, loyalties, and solidarities. Created in the image of God, human beings in the Bible are anything but simple. They are musical, communal, religious, artistic, familial, charitable, scientific, literary, moral, athletic, fun, and funny. The robust anthropology found in the Bible depicts a creature that could never be fully defined, controlled, content, or nourished by the market or the state alone—thank God.

If history has taught us anything, it is that creative and complex homo sapiens will consistently refuse to be limited to economic or political categories. Even under extreme political and economic oppression, human beings consistently long for things like beauty, charity, comfort, sport, friendship, rhyme, worship, and play. These aspects of the Imago Dei seem to demand an ever-wider range of human groupings, beyond the state and market.

Non-profits provide a critical array of free spaces in which people can come together around issues and interests, with gifts and abilities that are either ignored or poorly addressed by the market and the state. These institutions constitute a crucial third leg to the societal stool and our very humanity. Their importance is often ignored by politicians, but sociologists tell us that a flourishing array of non-profits and free organizations consistently leads to measurable declines divorce, poverty, violence, obesity, depression, chronic illness, illiteracy, dependency, homelessness, and political apathy.

Governments and markets, sociologists argue, depend on a population flush with something they call “social capital.” A population with high levels of “social capital” will be civically active, culturally vibrant, responsible, connected, empathetic, engaged, aware, capable of compromise and dialogue, trusting and trustworthy, passionate and playful, creative, and committed.  The irony is that while states and markets depend on this social capital, they can neither produce nor sustain it—they need civil society to cultivate it.

Beyond the benefits of “social capital,” Christian leaders can sing the praises of these free institutions and groups simply because they provide human beings—created in the beautifully complex image of God—with free spaces in which they can sing and pray, play and rhyme, stitch and paint, collaborate and converse, cook and eat, and share together their hopes and jokes, fears and passions, frustrations and failures. Civil society provides a wide variety of spaces in which creatures can glorify their creator in a wide variety of ways.

To love God and one’s neighbor is a disciple’s most pressing obligation. If we are going to love this Creator and the complex nature of his creation with all their gifts, abilities, passions, and interests, we will need to provide more than just states and abundant markets. We will need to establish and lead free spaces in which the diverse passions of our neighbors find a voice. Though many of our neighbors will not recognize their Creator, their quilts and card games, neighborhood resolutions and food drives, songs and poems, merit badges and pledge drives give glory to the complex Creator they image.