“The Bible leaves plenty of room for a discussion on the role, positive or negative, that money should play in the lives of believers. But it’s not a discussion that many pastors are willing to have…The relative absence of sermons about money— which the Bible mentioned several thousand times—is one of the more stunning omissions in American religion, especially among its white middle-class precincts.” — Time, September 18, 2006
This is an “un-sermon.” Hopefully, it will question most of what you’ve heard about God and money from both the world and the Church. For they are basically the same, despite Christ speaking more radically about money than perhaps anyone in history. It will therefore sound rather strange to you. It will also sound a little critical of my pastor friends. While they do a tremendous amount of good in many areas, economics and our personal finances may not be among them. I often quip that I spend half my time hoping that pastors will talk about money . . . and the other half regretting that they did!
businesspeople typically live in much greater financial faith than do most pastors.
Over the years, I’ve discovered that is because pastors and ministry leaders may be even more confused and conflicted, and therefore more anxious, about money than most of us are. After all, what businessperson would send out a pledge card asking clients to estimate the amount of business they’ll do in the coming year just so the businessperson can prepare a budget? In short, businesspeople typically live in much greater financial faith than do most pastors. And as with all of us, pastors’ lack of faith produces anxiety, which always impoverishes the future.
My good friend The Rev. Loren Meade, the founder of the Alban Institute for church growth, once wrote these words: “I came to the issues of churches and money reluctantly. But as I tried to point ahead of today’s institutions to the forms we will need in the twenty-first century, I ran across the issue of money more frequently. My problem was my own growing conviction that money not only is the Achilles’ heel of the religious institutional forms we have, it is also a subject that religious leaders avoid like the plague.”
Loren wrote these words elsewhere:
“Leading the fall stewardship campaign was often uncomfortable for me. I was asking people to pledge to God but I knew it was coming to me. . . . Money has more significance in the lives of people than almost anything else. If indeed clergy are caught up in debilitating binds over money, they are handicapped in dealing with one of the most significant spiritual problems in their own lives, and they are even more hindered in being of help to those in their congregations.”
As tensions grow among the haves and have nots of our world, a recent Time magazine cover story indicated that Loren was on to something quite important. It asked several of America’s most prominent pastors the question: “Does God want you to be rich?”
As the tragedy at Enron unfolded, and other corporations led by visible Christians imploded, I grew convinced that our schizophrenia about money was a major reason
Frankly, I felt the pastors did little to clarify the confusion of post-Enron America; where all we typically hear from pastors on days like this is essentially: “Give up to 10 percent of your income to church and you’ll be just fine.” Unfortunately, Enron was led by a very visible Christian who did exactly that; but he wasn’t just fine. I know, as I served on a ministry board with Ken Lay. As the tragedy at Enron unfolded, and other corporations led by visible Christians imploded, I grew convinced that our schizophrenia about money was a major reason. As demonstrated by the Time article, our leading pastors, who often influence our other pastors, are still anything but of one mind on the subject of money, much less of the mind of Christ.
C. S. Lewis, who I quote when I can’t quote God, once wrote these words: “There have always been some who say, ‘The best good action is charity. The best thing to give to is the Church. So hand us over ten thousand pounds and we will see you through.’ The answer to that nonsense, of course, would be that good actions done for that motive would not be good actions at all, but only commercial speculations.”
Many pastors, particularly of mega-churches, have been far too influenced by corporate culture. Yet we might be slow to be too critical of most, for they simply cannot give us what they have not been given. If pastors were gifted in the world of finance, they would probably be businesspeople. Furthermore, few seminaries truly teach much, if anything, about the moral practicalities of managing wealth. That’s ironic. Moses surely did. And Christ asked his fledgling Church who would trust us with true spiritual wealth if we haven’t been faithful when managing material wealth. So the early church became very relevant and a model to its world by lovingly giving over fifty percent of its income to the poor.
His Church will grow increasingly irrelevant until our resources of time, talent, and treasure again flow beyond the institutions of the Church into the Kingdom of God.
C. S. Lewis could have told us that desire for relevance is why Christ did not say to sell what you have and give it to the church or evangelist. In fact, the early church differentiated true prophets from false prophets by noting whether they asked for money to be given to others or themselves. The future of our church, as well as the peace of the world our grandchildren will inherit, may well depend on our pastors better understanding Christ’s financial plan. His Church will grow increasingly irrelevant until our resources of time, talent, and treasure again flow beyond the institutions of the Church into the Kingdom of God. So since I thought of attending seminary just as my son was being born twenty years ago, I have thought of little other than how to invest those resources in the Kingdom. And I had two overwhelming thoughts upon reading the Time story.
The first was given to me by Henri Nouwen. He was a priest who taught at Harvard, Yale, and Notre Dame before spending his final years among the disadvantaged. I asked him once about his career path and he said he’d taught the Christian life so long, he decided he might try living it. That alone says the world about how we might steward time and talent. As for treasure, Henri taught me through his writings that Jesus did not answer many questions put to him, as they “belonged to the house of fear rather than the house of God.” For example, Jesus once declined a seemingly just request to divide wealth between brothers. He even asked who made that part of his job description as the savior of the world. He apparently knew the division of wealth would take care of itself if he could just get people to live in Godly love, whether we live under socialism, liberalism, capitalism, conservatism, or yet another man-made “ism.”
The second thought that occurred to me while reading the pastors’ diametrically opposed opinions, which were nevertheless expressed with near-absolute certainty, was from my mentor, mutual fund manager Sir John Templeton. John is best known as “the dean of global investing”; but he also chaired the board of Princeton Theological Seminary for years.
“Anyone who has all the answers, doesn’t even know the questions.”
While we’ve had the usual theological differences, John’s been absolutely prophetic about the economy and faithful in his stewardship, usually while teaching and practicing the opposite of what religious celebrities have. That may be why John may be justified by saying: “Anyone who has all the answers, doesn’t even know the questions.”
Indeed, Professor Justo Gonzalez has written these words in Faith and Wealth: “The central question is not how rich or poor Christians were at any given time and place, but rather what Christians thought and taught regarding the rights and responsibilities of both rich and poor.” That is, biblical generations had both the widow and her mites and Solomon; our generation has had Mother Teresa and John Templeton, who The Economist magazine once said has done more good for the world’s poor than Mother Teresa.
John has asked me to tell you that he doesn’t necessarily agree. He gave Mother Teresa the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion long before she won the Nobel Peace Prize. But it is quite possible materially. For John and his fund managers have served as a conduit of God’s love by ethically and prudently investing tens of billions of dollars from affluent North Americans into developing countries. They may well have prevented as much material poverty as Mother Teresa and her saints have reduced the spiritual suffering caused by existing poverty. My guess is that God is rather pleased with both members of that odd tag-team against global poverty.
Our inability to define the word prosperity is actually the cause of ninety percent of America’s confusion, particularly among our celebrity pastors.
The Time article did include one astute observation by a pastor, which went unexplored. He said the answer to the question depends on what we mean by “prosperity.” Our inability to define the word prosperity is actually the cause of ninety percent of America’s confusion, particularly among our celebrity pastors. It is caused by some seeing the word through biblical, historical and global screens and others seeing it through cultural screens.
God is far more interested in how faithful we are with what we’ve been given than in how much we have been given.
By the standards of the Bible, church history and our world today, I think that God does indeed want us to be prosperous. Christ himself said he had come that we might have life more abundantly. So if I had to answer Time’s question, I would say yes. But I would hasten to add that even asking the question, much less trying to answer it, is indicative of how much more influenced western Christians are by Forbes than the Bible. For its Parable of the Talents clearly say God is far more interested in how faithful we are with what we’ve been given than in how much we have been given.
Few pastors realize it, so most Christians do not, but economic historians tell us the average person at the time of Christ lived on less than five hundred dollars a year. And most of Christ’s contemporaries were quite affluent compared to the Hebrew slaves Moses led through the desert. Yes, Moses promised them that faithfulness to God would make them “rich.” But to them, that meant having a couple of cows and acres of land on which they could grow their own food. Even the famous “rich” young ruler couldn’t begin to imagine our air-conditioned cars that brought us to church today; the comfortable pews in our sanctuary; and the telephones and fax machines in the church office.
In short, when trying to understand what God has really told us about material wealth, context is everything.
In short, when trying to understand what God has really told us about material wealth, context is everything. Missing that context can impoverish us, both spiritually and financially, just as it can in economics.
For example, millions of conservative Christians anxiously missed the bull market of the last decade due to confusion over the federal debt. That confusion was caused by some ministries’ refusal to place our federal debt of a few trillion dollars into the context of our nation’s assets. The economy did not suffer widely prophesied earth-shaking economic events due to those vast but ignored assets. The official budget of the Bush White House recently estimated America’s net assets, after subtracting all debts to foreigners, are now over one hundred trillion dollars. The budget actually detailed that our federal debt in relation to our assets has actually been in decline since 1960. But most saw the debt through political screens, which encourage us to anxiously count our problems, rather than through biblical screens, which encourage us to gratefully count our blessings.
Similarly, even the pastors in the Time story who replied, “No, God does not want you to be rich,” do not understand that God had better want that. For 99 percent of us in our pews are rich beyond the imaginings of past generations and many of our neighbors around the world even today. The average American enjoys approximately forty thousand dollars of annual purchasing power. Historically, that puts us among the top one percent of wage earners over the millennia. Globally, even today, the average person gets by on about seven thousand dollars each year, or less than a fifth of what the average American does. Even today, a billion people survive on the same dollar a day as Christ’s contemporaries. That’s actually four times as many people as lived at the time of Christ. Yet another billion of our neighbors still get by on three dollars a day. Our affluent culture simply does not allow even the best of us to see those economic realities. For example, one prominent pastor in the Time article replied that God does not want us to be rich. Yet he recently upset many pastors by claiming a housing allowance that by itself was more than ten times what the average person in the world lives on. When pastors questioned why he would risk our government challenging that very important tax benefit afforded them, the pastor’s staff replied that the pastor’s “lifestyle is very modest in every respect.” Of course, that pastor is quite influential among the readers of Forbes. Relative to its annual list of the four hundred richest people in America, the pastor’s lifestyle is indeed very modest.
Such affluence is also why the pastor’s recent mega-seller said little about the poor, despite Jesus saying he had come to bring them good news. And it is why the pastor recently confessed to a major publication that despite having been to three Christian schools of higher education, he had actually read the Bible after writing his best-seller and discovered that a central purpose of God for the Christian life is compassion for the poor. In effect, when his book cut compassion for the poor from the Christian life, the pastor performed the same service for our money culture that Thomas Jefferson did when he cut metaphysics from the Bible for his Enlightenment culture.
Such financial relativism and reduction of the Christian life is surely why Jacob Needleman wrote these words in Money and the Meaning of Life:
“Money in the modern era is a purely secular force, reflecting the lower nature of man. Cut off from any relation to spiritual aspiration, it has become the most obvious example of a fire raging out of control. Very little, if anything is left of the absolute demand from Above that is the essence of absolute ethics.”
while fear has no place in the house of God, judgment still begins there.
So, my friends, as we lament the headlines about corporate and governmental deficits in both the ethical and fiscal dimensions of life, let us reflect that while fear has no place in the house of God, judgment still begins there. For the sake of our grandchildren, let us take the dollars from our own eyes before we attempt to take the dimes from the eyes of others. And let us close with these words, so appropriate for today’s pastors and evangels, from Professor Jon Gunneman:
“Jesus surely drew on so many economic examples because they were immediately intelligible to his hearers. It is not much different today. The eyes of your listeners are less likely to glaze over if you talk about capital, dividends, and interest than if you talk about the incarnation, the Trinity, and the two natures of Christ. It ‘pays’ to use economic language in order to communicate clearly, and the reason is that economics is not just one dimension of existence; it refers to the entire household of the world-what the poet Wendell Berry called ‘The Great Economy.’”
The political, religious, and ethical opinions expressed by Gary Moore are not endorsed by National Planning Corporation (NPC).
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