The stock market looks at the world through a peculiar lens, one that people outside the market don’t always understand. Oddly enough, it is similar to the lens through which the Bible views the world, particularly how it views Christians and the church. The church has come under consistent criticism, sometimes well earned, and yet the Bible describes it as an object of beauty and purity. How do we reconcile these seeming conflicts? In this post I will explore how, by mimicking the point of view of equity market investors, we can better understand the biblical representation of the Bride of Christ.
The U.S. public equity market is one of the most efficient markets in the world. The New York Stock Exchange alone lists over 2500 companies and over a billion shares a day are traded. That kind of liquidity allows events happening in the world to be translated into price adjustments almost immediately. When an investor wants to know what a company is worth, she looks to the market.
Some elements of the stock market, however, can puzzle the average investor. For example, why do some companies that have never earned a profit have such high valuations? Airbnb first listed its shares for public trading in December 2020. Despite its being valued at over $1 billion, some analysts reported that it had never made a profit. The popular digital pinboard, Pinterest, with 450 million users, went public in 2019. Some valued it at over $12 billion but it had never earned a dollar in profits. Other examples abound such as Blue Apron, Peloton, and Uber.
The phenomenon of companies like these whose market value skyrocketed while not making money is confusing to many outside the finance industry. They may accuse the market of being rigged, irrational, or “frothy.” Those in the industry find it remarkable but understandable. Pricing phenomena like these are not special cases or counterexamples. They are inherent to the process of how all equities are valued.
The reason for these seemingly aggrandized valuations is that when stock traders are trying to figure out how much to pay for a company, they rarely look at past profits. They almost always focus on future profits. If you buy shares in a company, you get a share of the current assets but the most valuable thing you are buying is a share in the company’s future earnings. That future focus means that analysts calculate fair prices for stocks by adding up all the profits a company can be expected to earn in the future and discounting those earnings back to the present based on how long it will take and how much money costs (prevailing interest rates).
It turns out that the Bible performs a similar function when explaining the mysteries of God. In Zechariah 9:9, the prophet describes the coming of Christ as suffering servant, “See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” A mere five verses later, He is described as a mighty warrior, delivering His people in battle. It would require an imaginative reading of the gospel accounts of Christ’s first advent to interpret His ministry in Israel as one of violent conquest. That image of Christ is reflected rather in His second, future advent, in texts like Revelation 11.
This odd juxtaposition of texts, whose fulfilment may be thousands of years apart, is because the Scripture is not trying to provide us a timeline about the Messiah. It is trying to describe His full nature as both humble sacrifice and conquering hero. To provide that full description the Bible will “telescope” time, describing events that may be in the far future as if they were current. Like the U.S. equity market, the Bible does not only reflect the world as it stands today; it understands characters and organizations in the world in terms of what they will become in the future. The Bible provides this same point of view with respect to its descriptions of the church.
Scripture faithfully acknowledges the weaknesses and shortcomings of the church. The Apostle Paul describes bad behavior of all kinds in his letters to the Corinthians. Apparently, divisions, lawsuits, drunkenness, and sexual misbehavior were commonplace in that congregation. Likewise, Paul confronts greed, lying, and racial divisions in Ephesus. James addresses sins of arrogance, oppression, and favoritism in the early church. In the letters to the seven leading churches of the first century, captured in Revelation 2 and 3, all but two faced serious criticism.
The malfeasance of the church certainly did not stop after the canon was completed. The church is still subject to a variety of criticisms. A Lifeway Survey conducted in 2008 found that 72% of respondents thought the church was full of hypocrites.1 In 2021, Barna Research reported that racial diversity continues to challenge Christians, with angry responses to topics like “white privilege.”2 Divisions have been so much a part of the church that they are institutionalized. One could tally over 50 separate denominations of Baptists alone. The received wisdom is that American church attendance is dwindling with each successive generation, although post-covid numbers that reflect both in person and online attendance may confuse that trend.
The Bible, however, also describes the church in transcendent, glowing terms. In 1 Corinthians 1, Paul describes the church in Corinth as those who have been sanctified in Christ and called to be a holy people. In Ephesians 1 he describes the church as the Body of Christ. Revelation 21 ultimately describes the church as the Bride of Christ.
The high value God places on His church is evident throughout the New Testament. In John 17, Jesus spends some of his last few moments before being taken into captivity praying that those who believe His message will know His glory. In Romans 8, Paul describes Christians as God’s children and co-heirs of Christ. Revelation 8 describes the prayers of the saints as incense rising towards the throne of God.
Just like we saw with the prophecies of the Messiah in Zechariah, Scripture is trying to convey to us the full truth about the nature of the church. It is both scandalous and glorious, sinful and pure. It conveys this truth, in part, through telescoping the present church and God’s future plans for it into one picture. Which point of view is right? The one which encompasses both. Just like the equity market values stocks not just by their near-term losses but by their long-term gains, we should understand the church not just by its present failings but by its future perfection.
When one fails to understand how the equity market values companies, one can invest in stocks with poor prospects and miss out on investing in those that will produce amazing future returns. When we fail to understand the church as a combination of both its present and its future, we may miss an important investment as well. Those who would abandon the church because of its present day shortcomings are selling off an investment that is going to produce eternal rewards.
- Unchurched Americans Turned Off by Church, Open to Christians. (2008). Lifeway Research. Retrieved from https://research.lifeway.com/2008/01/09/unchurched-americans-turned-off-by-church-open-to-christians/.
- Helpful or Hurtful – How Practicing Christians View Race’s Impact on Their Lives. (2021). Barna Research. Retrieved from https://www.barna.com/research/practicing-christians-race/.