Modern Voices: The Christian and Money
We live in a money-crazy age. Activity on Wall Street is more frenzied than ever before, even as some of its kingpins face fraud charges. Books and magazines on money are selling extremely well. Hundreds of experts are ready to tell you—for a fee, of course—how to make money, how to keep it, and how to use it to make even more money.
What should Christians make of all this? We have seen how Christian leaders through the centuries have regarded money. Their lack of unanimity is echoed by voices of today. The various Christian theories about money raise a confusing cacophony, differing on basic biblical interpretation and fundamental views of human society.
Take the Bible passage where Jesus commands the rich young ruler to sell all he has and give to the poor before becoming a disciple. Was this a command for all Christians everywhere or just for him? Or does it apply only to those who let money become their god? But what does it mean for money to become your god? Does that happen to Christians today? If Jesus’ command does apply to today’s believers, is it something for the church to legislate or merely to urge or encourage? And what do we do about the guilt that results from such urging? And, speaking of results, what would happen if all Christians would sell all and give to the poor? What would that do to the structure of society? Would that serve to make society less Christian, because it would remove believers from the ranks of the rich and influential? Or would it be a powerful testimony of the devotion of Christ’s followers?
You get the idea. Add to this confusion the fact that the Bible itself seems to present varying perspectives on wealth. The Old Testament in particular shows it as a sign of God’s blessing. Jesus calls it a danger.
Further, consider that the Bible was originally written to people in situations quite unlike modern America. Old Testament Israel was a theocracy. How directly can we apply its economic principles to our current structures? New Testament believers were generally poor and persecuted. Can we learn how to make economic choices within our democratic society from principles written to people who had virtually no political power?
Modern Christian views of money answer these questions differently. Some focus more on Old Testament teaching, others on the New Testament. Some are more individualistic in their approach, others more societal. Some see the church as a transforming agent within society, bringing in the kingdom of God (and there are different ideas of what that means), others see the church as separate from the world, quietly waiting for the Lord’s return.
The simple-living movement took root in the late 1960s and became fairly popular—at least in the religious press—during the inflation-wracked 1970s. Ron Sider has always been the major spokesman for the movement; his Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger explained its principles well. Magazines such as The Other Side and Sojourners carried the flag.
But there are two flags, really— personal and social. Regarding personal lifestyle, the movement has had a strong Mennonite influence, withdrawal from the world and its idols. Money and the things it buys can get in the way of one’s relationship with God. Therefore, they should be shunned.
Yet this personal discipline has always been married to a social commitment to care for the downtrodden of the world. Sider et al forged a new social consciousness among evangelicals. Evangelism and church growth were not enough, they maintained. For us to be faithful disciples of Christ, we must minister to “the least of these his brethren.” But there have always been significant disagreements over how that is best accomplished. Do you volunteer to work in an inner-city soup kitchen, or do you vote for legislators who promise more compassionate social systems, or do you set up pickets at companies that oppress the poor? The pragmatic considerations of ministry to the poor inevitably led to politics, and liberal politics at that. The simple-living movement has consistently stood for the rights of individuals and against the structures of society which, in their view, oppress the have-nots while pampering the haves.
The movement seems to have diminished in the 1980s. It w/3 as a helpful way to “sanctify” the financial hardships of the 1970s by making thrift a spiritual endeavor, but the economic revival of the Reagan era made simplicity obsolete. It still has its diehard devotees, but it no longer has the acceptance in the Christian “marketplace” which it once had. Interestingly, the strongest aspect of this movement right now is the work of Richard Foster. His books, Celebration of Discipline, Freedom of Simplicity, and most recently Money, Sex and Power, have gained a following. Foster emphasizes the personal aspects of simple living and generally steers clear of politics.
For Sider, the shame of rich Christians is that they hoard their resources while a world goes hungry. He would quote I John 3:17, “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need and has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?” The answer, Sider says, is redistribution. Christians must give to alleviate hunger. But Foster has grabbed onto another aspect of simplicity. The shame of rich Christians is that they tend to worship and trust their money instead of God. To restore our proper Christian priorities, he would say, we may need to practice more discipline in our handling of money.
The missions movement deserves mention at this point. Missionaries have always been asking for financial support, it seems. Churches and individual believers generally agree that it’s a good idea to support missions and that they should try to give as much as they can afford to a fulfill the Great Commission. Few, however, have spoken as fervently as Ralph Winter, head of the U.S. Center for World Mission. When he talks about rich Christians in an age of hunger, he’s talking about spiritual hunger. He can tell you exactly how many people-groups in the world have yet to hear about Jesus. He has counted the number of languages in which the Scriptures have not yet been translated. He grieves over the amount of cultures in which there is no self-supporting Christian church. He says that Christians need to develop a “war-time” mentality, to make personal economic sacrifices to achieve our God-given goals.
One of his more telling points is that, if his fellow Presbyterians in the U.S. were to live at the standard of living of the average Presbyterian minister, that would free up $2 billion for missions work, three times the amount currently given for missions by U.S. Christians. When we say we support missions, he asks, how serious are we?
Liberation theology was developed in Latin America in response to the oppression of the poor by the rich and, in some cases, by the church. Gustavo Gutierrez, Jose Miguez-Bonino, and Leonardo Boff are often considered among its architects. The idea is, simply, that Jesus came to “preach good news to the poor.” And what is that good news? That in God’s kingdom, they will no longer be poor.
So far, there’s not much to disagree with. But their next point is that it is the church’s responsibility to bring in the kingdom. If Christ is king in our hearts, that will emerge not merely in good theology, but in good actions, which demonstrate the same passion for the poor shown by our Lord. We will thus endeavor, they say, to tear down the structures that keep the poor chained to their poverty. We will revolt, if necessary, against the government to achieve liberation in the name of Christ.
It’s the same sort of passion as that of Ralph Winter, but with a vastly different object. They too are asking the church to go to extremes to bring salvation to the world, but for the liberation theologians, the salvation is primarily economic.
You might call theonomy a “liberation theology of the right.” The movement, founded by Rousas J. Rushdoony, is also known as reconstructionism. Gary North and Greg Bahnsen are also leading proponents, though many may have first discovered theonomy through David Chilton’s book, Productive Christians in an Age of Guilt Manipulators, a refutation of Ron Sider. Rushdoony heads the Chalcedon Foundation, North has an Institute for Christian Economics. All of the above are prolific authors, and they have done some rather heady thinking.
Their theology is Van Tillian and post-millennialist. That is, they believe thoroughly in the total depravity of human beings (unless they are born again) and they believe that the church will set up the kingdom of God on earth. Money, in their view, is a gift from God which should be used by Christians. Non-Christians don’t know how to use money properly, so Christians should get as much as they can, if for no other reason, to keep it out of the hands of unbelievers. Theonomists emphasize the Old Testament law as God’s ideal of how society should be run. They even dismiss the distinctions made by most evangelicals between ceremonial, civil, and moral law. Thus the economic systems of the Old Testament law, they say, apply today. Inflation, in their view, is institutionalized stealing—for the government to print more money without the gold to back it up is theft, since it robs value from the money people already have. But that’s what you should expect with unbelievers running the government.
The similarities to liberation theology are striking. Both see the church bringing in the kingdom of God—and there’s a certain inevitability in that. Both believe in a certain “chosen people” whom God will redeem, and both believe in the basic depravity of everyone else (for the liberationists, the poor are God’s people, and the structures that oppress them are unable to be redeemed). You could say they are just a few chapters apart. The liberationists base their theology on the Exodus (Exodus 12), while the theonomists encamp at Mt. Sinai (Exodus 20).
Health and Wealth
The health and wealth gospel is being proclaimed regularly on several nationwide TV and radio broadcasts. Hagin (Kenneth, Sr. and Jr.) and Copeland (Kenneth and Gloria) are the big names in this movement, though Oral Roberts remains something of a founding father. Roberts’s principle of “seed faith,” where your financial gift to God’s work, given in faith, will grow into abundant material blessings for you, has helped to inspire the “wealth” aspect of “health and wealth.” These faith teachers quote Mark 10:29–30, that Jesus’ followers would be returned a hundredfold in this life of whatever they had forsaken to follow him. TV evangelist/politician Pat Robertson has also expounded the “law of reciprocity,” based on parables of the talents.
As the Hagins and Copeland’s preach it—we could add Jerry Savelle, Charles Capps, and Fred Price—God wants you to be rich and healthy. All you have to do is ask. They base their theology on a collection of Scripture texts, including 3 John 2, where the Apostle writes to his friend Gaius, “I pray that you may prosper in all things.” Where Paul promises the Galatians the blessings of Abraham, the health and wealth people say that includes the riches God gave the patriarch. “You are redeemed from the curse of the law,” Paul says, and they read into that not only the curse of sin, but the curse of sickness and of poverty.
Most of the health and wealth preachers stress the importance of good stewardship. You can ask God for all sorts of money, as long as you use it for his glory. The important thing is faith. Do you believe God has the power not only to meet your needs, but also to shower you with material blessings? He has promised to do so, they say; you must only name it and claim it.
While the health-and-wealth preachers could probably teach us all a few things about faith in God’s power, their biblical exegesis is the weakest of any of the “modern voices” covered here. One can’t help feeling that there is a gaping hole in their selective canon of Scripture. The Bible speaks of suffering, not only as a curse, but as a redemptive act. Paul wrote about Christians “filling up” the sufferings of Christ, and Peter convinced the persecuted believers of the value of suffering for Christ’s sake. Paul elsewhere says he has known both plenty and poverty and has learned to be content in either situation. In the Book of Job, it is Job’s friends, and not God or Job, who seem to be preaching the health-and-wealth gospel.
The neo-conservative movement is the strongest among evangelicals right now, and it’s growing. Michael Novak (a Catholic) was an early exponent. His Spirit of Democratic Capitalism took to task those who applauded socialism for its human virtues and those who decried capitalism as the institutionalizing of greed. George Gilder’s Wealth and Poverty was the toast of Washington when Reagan took office. Suddenly capitalism was not only effective, not only the best we’ve got, but downright elegant—perhaps Christian. Why? Because it works. Novak, Gilder, Richard Neuhaus and others maintain that, for all its good intentions, socialism (and certainly communism) just makes things worse for the very people it tries to help most, the poor. Capitalism may seem greedy, but it is merely taking into account the depravity of man and building a system that balances the competing self-interests. Certainly the top dogs of capitalist societies are richer than the lower class, they say, but even the lower class is better off than it would be in a non-capitalist system.
Stewardship is a key concept here. Money isn’t bad, the neo-conservatives say, it’s a tool that can be used for incredible good, if it’s not misused. Jesus told parables praising the enterprise of the servants who invested their trust funds and doubled the amount. Can we use our money to make more money, and thus increase our potential to accomplish good things with it?
The National Conference of Catholic Bishops issued the final draft of a pastoral letter on the U.S. economy in late 1986. This culminated a three-year, several-draft process that kept bringing the nation’s attention back to the moral implications of economics. The pastoral letter bears no official moral authority within the church—it is a position paper, really—but it does seek to influence popular opinion and public policy.
The bishops adopted three basic evaluative questions: What does the economy do for people? What does it do to people? And what does it enable people to do for themselves? They affirmed the basics of human dignity (made in God’s image) and the responsibility of the community in preserving this dignity. The pastoral letter made recommendations on four issues: (1) employment, that government and the private sector should strive for full employment, recognizing every person’s basic right to a job; (2) poverty, that the government should deal with the “moral scandal” of poverty in the U.S. by establishing a “floor of material well-being” for every American; (3) food and agriculture, that the concentration of farming land into the possession of a few companies should be curbed; and (4) international responsibility, that the U.S. should do its part in the world economy, particularly in helping third-world nations.
In our continuum of modern voices, the bishops would seem to line up closer to Sider’s camp, with some pragmatic nods in the direction of the neo-conservatives. While adopting some Sider-type principles (such as God’s “preferential option for the poor,” a theme also fundamental to liberation theology), the bishops shrewdly extended their concern to the middle-class as well. Poverty, they say, hurts the whole community. The letter affirms people’s right to private property, but also stresses the responsibilities that go along with that.
One more modern voice worth mentioning is that of Jacques Ellul, a French scholar who has written extensively on modern society. He’s no household name, but many modern thinkers have been influenced by him and you get the feeling that people will keep rediscovering his work well into the next century. A recent re-release, Money and Power, was written in 1950. Ellul’s observations of a generation ago are just as apt today. You may not agree with him; he may make you mad. But he will make you think.
Stop thinking about money merely as an object, under your control, he says. Money is a power, a system, a spirit, a would-be God, a rival master. Do not confuse money with wealth. Wealth consists of those good things of God’s creation that are meant for our enjoyment. Money is the world’s way of amassing those things, hoarding them, assuring that you can have more tomorrow, dividing people according to its own arbitrary rules. Money does not merely tempt, it engulfs. It spins its web around people, forcing them into its service.
Ellul sees nothing good in money. Scripture, in his view, consistently sets money in opposition to God. You cannot serve two masters: Love God and hate Mammon or love Mammon and hate God. Yet money is necessary in earthly life. Asceticism is not the answer. We live in a world that worships money and we must join in the buying and selling if we are to survive. Yet we must always realize that these coins in our hand belong to Caesar, that we are playing with the sacraments of a false religion.
How do we break the power of money and demonstrate our allegiance to God? Ellul suggests three broad actions: (1) Put people ahead of money. Cancel debts, if need be. People are more important. (2) Do not love money. Ellul draws implications for both the poor and the well-to-do. The poor, following Matthew 6, should not grow anxious about their daily provision, since God has promised to care for them. But others tend to place their trust in insurance policies or savings accounts, rather than in God. (3) Make money profane, that is, deliberately violate its claim to “sacredness.” How? By giving it away. In the world where money reigns, giving is a suspicious, even traitorous, act. It introduces an element of grace into a context of merchandising.
The issue of money is both deeply personal and broadly social. It can topple governments. It can change what I do on Saturday night. The issue is both theoretical and practical. Unfortunately, there is no good lab where the theories can be tested; there are too many variables. Thus, theories of social economics will perpetually be debated, with much evidence being presented, but few facts being adequately proven. The issue of money also puts all of us in the realm of relativity. We are all poorer than some and richer than others. That gives us a dual perspective: We applaud the notion of sacrificial giving if it is the “rich” giving to us, but if we are the rich, that’s another story.
So it seems we are doomed to listen to this cacophony until we hear the last trump. The variety of perspectives and vested interests will keep the various contestants at odds. The Bible will be interpreted in many different ways. All of the movements mentioned above run the risk of misusing Scripture to fit their own purposes. All face the danger of pride. And there is always the possibility that the ferocity of debate will lead us away from the purer devotion to our God.
Randy Petersen is a free-lance writer from Westville, NJ, and a consulting editor for Christian History
Copyright © 1987 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History magazine.
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