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Fellow Christians: I'm Rich and I'm Sorry

Nov 1 2013
The church needs a more open conversation about wealth and stewardship—and not just for pastors.

Elevation Church pastor Steve Furtick recently came under media scrutiny for building a 16,000 square-foot-home for his family in Charlotte, North Carolina. After making news, he apologized to his congregation—not for the luxury of the home—but for the "uncomfortable conversations" resulting from the headlines and criticism.

Furtick is one of many Christian pastors, preachers, and authors who have prospered from their ministry, whose wealth often does make us as Christians feel uncomfortable. Stanley Hauerwas, of Duke Divinity School, called Furtick's lifestyle an "offense to the gospel." Shane Claiborne implied that Christian leaders who've accrued wealth "missed the simple commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves."

Do pastors owe apologies for getting rich? That's the way we'd prefer to word the question, especially to avoid examining our own stewardship responsibilities. It's legitimate and healthy for Christians to question pastors who collect offerings and live significantly above the majority of their congregants. And we must challenge those who preach the distortions of the prosperity gospel. Jesus never claimed that following him would make us rich. But, as my father once wisely told me, "Be careful when you point a finger. There are three fingers pointing right back at you."

I, too, am a fat North American cat. A rich Christian who gives away more than 10 percent, but still has much to spare. I haven't ever needed to worry about how we would pay for groceries or keep the electricity from being shut off. When one of our children outgrows a bicycle, we buy a new one. When a school fee is due, we write a check. When the co-pay for one of our children's surgeries registers $200, I don't decide what necessity we'll temporarily live without.

I wake to clean water running from my faucet. I have multiple toilets that flush. The nearest hospital is minutes from my house, and the neighborhood where I live is safe. We own two cars and two refrigerators. In the winter, all seven of us leave the house in goose-down coats. In the summer, we afford the luxury of keeping cool. Worse, my husband's executive salary affords many of our wants as easily as it affords all of our needs.

We are rich. And I am sorry. I admit to feeling a secret shame for the money my husband makes. I admit to feeling that there is someone to whom I should be apologizing. Maybe it's to my friend whose husband is a pastor, who can't afford the new washer and dryer they desperately need? Maybe it's to my friend whose husband is a professor, who must return to full-time work (when she'd prefer to be raising her children) because his (arguably enviable) tenure-track position earns him less than $40,000 a year? Maybe it's to my young pastor in Toronto who wonders if he can afford to live and minister in this city where the median home price nears $900,000?

What are rich people in the kingdom of God to do?

Andy Crouch's provocative essay on power (and book) can provide an important framework for answering this question. Crouch insists that the church must overcome its suspicions about power. "When we in the church talk about power, we often talk about it strictly as something negative—something to be avoided—rather than a gift to be stewarded." Crouch calls the church toward recovering a biblical view of power ("Jesus is completely at home with power") for the purpose of wielding power's right use: not for the benefit of those who hold it, but "for the flourishing of individuals, peoples, and the cosmos itself."

We might reasonably substitute money for power in parts of Crouch's essay: we need a new conversation about money if we are to recover its best purposes. In the church, this conversation starts by inviting rich people to openly admit, without shame, that they are rich. Of course, for this to happen we will need to make the important biblical distinction between the moral neutrality of having money and the sin of loving money (1 Tim. 6:10). Still, I would be the first to admit that, as someone who is rich, I don't know if I can own the difference: If I can buy what I need when I need it, can I judge myself impartial to that perceived security?

At the very least, admitting that we are rich properly situates us in the biblical conversation about money, which, to our great surprise, neither valorizes poverty nor incriminates wealth. Yes, it is difficult for a rich man to inherit the kingdom of God (Matt. 19:24); the Bible does warn against the subtle and deceptive lure of wealth (1 Tim. 6:9); and the rich young ruler was commanded by Jesus to sell all he had and give to the poor (Mark 10:21), but poverty is not a binding imperative over all God's people.

So should the rich in the kingdom of God feel sorry for their financial state? Are apologies in order? No. There is no shame in earning an executive salary (although, to return to my opening examples, there may be shame in a pastor earning like an executive on the backs of his congregants). In fact, saying "I'm rich" can be an honest, even humble admission of privilege, rather than a boast of position. As Caryn Rivadeneira wrote, as Christians, we should be the most comfortable admitting when our successes are owed to privilege, acknowleding that privilege is just another way of saying, "blessing."

The Apostle Paul warns the rich against the haughtiness and false security that money can easily buy and commands that the rich "do good, be rich in good works, be generous and ready to share" (1 Tim. 6:18), but offers no hard-and-fast rules for spending. I often wish he did. It might have helped me decide whether it had been wrong for me to walk into a neighborhood boutique and purchase for myself a new leather laptop bag. These are the choices by which I often feel tortured—choices between give and keep.

I know I cannot make these choices faithfully without the church holding the conversation of money and its proper stewardship and allowing me to admit that I am rich. I need the new conversation about money. I need it, not only because I am rich and feeling sorry, but because I believe—and the Bible insists—that the much with which I've been entrusted has been meant for good (2 Cor. 8:14).

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Fellow Christians: I'm Rich and I'm Sorry