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7 Church History Insights on Stewarding Money Well

Christian leaders have always grappled with tough issues surrounding finances and faith. Their insights still speak to us today.
7 Church History Insights on Stewarding Money Well
Image: Image: Wikimedia Commons

Some years ago, a survey estimated that 85 percent of clergy are uncomfortable talking about money. My dad was in the 15 percent. Before he was a Methodist pastor, he was a chemist at Union Carbide, supervising the making of Glad bags. As I was preparing to go into the ministry, he used to say to me: “There are two things they don’t teach you in seminary—how to run a finance campaign and how to fire the janitor.”

Eventually, after some years in the local church, my dad ended up in denominational administration. Among his tasks was consulting with clergy around financial issues. He talked to them about how to do their taxes, and he visited their churches and trained them in running finance campaigns. Shortly before he died, when I complained about having to do my taxes, he noted that doing taxes was a wonderful opportunity to take a spiritual inventory of our financial behavior. You learn a lot about yourself by what you do with money.

My dad may have been an outlier in our current moment, but he has a lot of company in church history. I think many pastors assume that if Christian leaders in the past thought about money at all, they thought about it in one of two ways: as hopelessly unspiritual (based on a misreading of 1 Timothy 6:10, among other verses) or as the natural reward of a life lived rightly, in what is sometimes called the “prosperity gospel” (based on a misreading of Malachi 3:10 and John 10:10, as well as other verses). In fact, Christian attitudes toward money and the market varied greatly by time, place, and context. They nuance any temptation we might have to either exalt money or denigrate it. Here are a few examples.

Money as Ministry Support

We can easily picture Jesus—and later, Paul—traveling from town to town, healing, preaching, and spreading the good news of the kingdom. Do we ever stop to think about who bought their lunches? Obviously, many times they were offered hospitality freely. But we also read in Luke 8:2–3 that among Jesus’ disciples traveled wealthy women—Mary Magdalene; Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward; and Susanna—who helped support his ministry.

In Acts 16, the prosperous dealer in purple cloth Lydia of Thyatira was Paul’s first convert in Greece, and she offered support to him while he stayed in Philippi. Later, in Romans 16:1–2, we hear of Phoebe, who was a leader in the Roman church and a “benefactor” of many. The role of fundraiser and ministry supporter has often (though not exclusively) been filled by women in the church, and we meet them here at the very beginning of the story.

Money as a Tool

Clement of Alexandria (c. 150–c. 215) was an educated convert to the Christian faith who taught at the catechetical school in Alexandria. (A catechetical school taught the basics of the faith, usually to converts preparing for baptism.) Among his works that have come down to us is a sermon on Mark 10:17–31, the story of the rich young ruler.

There he argues that not everyone is called to divest themselves of their possessions, but that the rich will be accountable to God for using them to benefit others:

Riches, then, which benefit also our neighbors, are not to be thrown away. For they are possessions, inasmuch as they are possessed, and goods, inasmuch as they are useful and provided by God for the use of men; and they lie to our hand, and are put under our power, as material and instruments which are for good use.

The most important thing, Clement concludes, is to subject the use of money to the lordship of Christ.

Money Used for the Poor

John Chrysostom (347–407), a clergyman in Antioch and eventually bishop of Constantinople, is famed as one of the great preachers of the early church (his nickname Chrysostom means “golden-mouthed” in Greek). He preached often about money. One of his homilies attacked the charging of interest (called “usury” from Exodus 22:25–27; modern translations often refer to moneylending).

Other sermons exhorted his congregation that their wealth was not to be used on opulent clothes and silver chamber pots, but for doing good to the poor: “Not to share our own wealth with the poor is theft from the poor and deprivation of their means of life; we do not possess our own wealth but theirs. If we have this attitude, we will certainly offer our money.” Accused of attacking the rich in his many sermons on the topic, he responded, “I am often reproached for continually attacking the rich. Yes, because the rich are continually attacking the poor. But those I attack are not the rich as such, only those who misuse their wealth.”

Money Held in Common

There is a long tradition in Christian thought which argues that possessions, while not inherently evil, ought to be held in common and used for the good of all. We first meet the idea in Acts 2:44–45 (though even in Acts it stands as a contrast to disciples like Lydia who obviously retained their property), but it is also one of the guiding principles of monasticism down to the present day.

The Rule of St. Benedict (c. 480–547), the foundational document for much of Western Christian monastic practice, forbade monks owning private property:

The vice of personal ownership must by all means be cut out in the monastery by the very root, so that no one may presume to give or receive anything without the command of the Abbot; or to have anything whatever as his own, neither a book, nor a writing tablet, nor a pen, nor anything else whatsoever, since monks are allowed to have neither their bodies nor their wills in their own power.

One ongoing debate among Christians throughout the centuries has been whether people who have not made a monastic commitment ought to hold goods in common. While most churches today don’t promote monastic-like common ownership, some Christian communities such as the Hutterites (an Anabaptist group) do maintain complete community of goods within their colonies.

Money Used, Not Abused, for the Community

Martin Luther (1483–1546) is often credited with introducing entirely new views on money and vocation to Western Christianity. While the truth is much more complicated, he certainly did not shy away from talking about money—including how he thought people were using it wrongly. Along with several other Protestant reformers, he condemned the way monasticism at its worst had elevated the idea of poverty for individual monks while monasteries and institutional leaders grew rich.

However, he also disliked the developing economic realities he saw transforming the society around him in the areas of debt, speculative markets, and the charging of interest:

The usury which occurs in Leipzig, Augsburg, Frankfurt, and other comparable cities is felt in our market and our kitchen. The usurers are eating our food and drinking our drink. Usury lives off the bodies of the poor. … The world is one big whorehouse, completely submerged in greed.

In response, he urged magistrates to establish social welfare policies and curb interest rates.

Money Carefully Stewarded

Perhaps the most famous statement about money that Anglican priest John Wesley (1703–1791) ever made came in his sermon “The Use of Money,” where he laid down a three-part rule for his followers in the movement called Methodism: “Gain all you can. Save all you can. Give all you can.” Wesley accepted as a given the market economy that had so alarmed Luther. He wanted Methodists to participate in it—as long as they did so through honest industry—and steward well what they had gained. But his greatest emphasis was on the final rule:

You may find many that observe the first rule, namely, “Gain all you can.” You may find a few that observe the second, “Save all you can.” But, how many have you found that observe the third rule, “Give all you can”? … And yet nothing can be more plain than that all who observe the first rules without the third will be twofold more the children of hell than ever they were before.

Wesley really did put his money where his mouth was: He spent his entire life living on no more than the £28 a year he had earned while studying at Oxford as a fellow. Eventually his writings earned him upwards of £120 a year, and he gave £92 of that away—the equivalent of earning about $29,000 today and giving $23,000 away.

Money as a Witness of Faith

Born in Prussia, George Müller (1805–1898) came to England as a missionary; after becoming minister of Ebenezer Chapel in Devon, he became convinced that he should renounce his salary and trust God to provide for him and his new wife, Mary. In 1836 the Müllers founded an orphanage in their home.

Eventually, having moved to its own site at Ashley Down, the orphanage housed over 2,000 children. But perhaps the most remarkable thing about it was its founder’s attitude toward money. From 1830 until the end of his life, he never took a set salary or solicited donations—he prayed and encouraged his fellow workers to pray, and people brought him and the orphans everything from spoons to salt to fireplace screens to breakfast to the £10,000 needed to buy Ashley Down. He once wrote:

Confidence in the Lord, to whom alone I look for the supply of my temporal wants, keeps me … from anxious reckoning like this: Will my salary last out? Shall I have enough myself the next month? etc. In this my freedom, I am, by the grace of God, generally, at least, able to say to myself something like this: My Lord is not limited: he can again supply.

All Belongs to Christ

These examples from vastly different times and places present us with various angles on the vexed questions surrounding money and the church, but similar threads run through them. Money, our brothers and sisters in Christ from the past tell us, is under the lordship of Christ. We are accountable for what we do with it. And we are called to use it for the good of others, especially the poor and vulnerable. I don’t know about you, but to me that sounds like the beginning outline of a steward-ship sermon.

Now my father is with the Lord, but I am myself a pastor, and I strive to be one of the 15 percent. Emboldened and challenged by these historical examples, and by his, I have tried to preach and teach that all we have belongs to Christ, and that we should steward it well—when we give to the church and when we consider our own leisure, when we pray and when we work, and even when we do our taxes. You learn a lot about yourself by what you do with money. You can learn a lot about God by what you do with it, too.

Jennifer Woodruff Tait is a priest at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Corbin, Kentucky. She is the editor of Christian History magazine and the author of Christian History in Seven Sentences.

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