I knew full well going to Facebook to ask for advice could be dicey. My wife and I had had our fill of mechanic bills and were in the market for a new (used) vehicle. Searching online for low-mileage, well-maintained cars in our price range was proving difficult, but I thought I’d found a good lead. The car was about 15 years old but appeared to have barely been driven by its one owner. It was in great shape and seemed like a steal.
There was only one problem. It was a BMW.
Am I a BMW guy? I thought to myself. My first concern, I confess, was about what others might think. So I took to Facebook and asked, “Anyone out there think it’s problematic for someone in my position to drive a car like this?” I was worried it might appear immodest or even hypocritical for a seminary professor and preacher of the (free!) gospel to be seen driving such a car.
I made sure to mention a few exonerating details—that it wasn’t new, wasn’t expensive, and the like. Most of my friends said they wouldn’t have a problem with me driving one. Interestingly, one commenter said that the very fact I was asking meant it probably was a violation of my own conscience. And another commenter added that seeing me drive a BMW onto the campus where I teach pastoral ministry would “cause him to stumble.”
In the end, my wife and I opted to keep searching, mainly because of warnings we received about costly repairs to older-model BMWs, which was the very thing we were trying to avoid in the first place. But the experience got me thinking about Christians’ vision of money and the perception, right or wrong, of extravagance and prosperity.
Our Complicated Relationship with Prosperity
Evangelicalism is a conflicted marketplace when it comes to prosperity. On the one hand, our suburban megachurches (not exactly known for frugality or architectural sparseness) continue to grow and reproduce while we prop up our subculture’s own version of internet influencers and self-help gurus by making their channels popular, their books bestsellers, and their brands lucrative.
On the other hand, we also enjoy scoffing at some of these folks’ obsession with image and unabashed displays of luxury. The Instagram account PreachersNSneakers—which features photos of well-known Christian spokespeople sporting expensive tennis shoes, ostensibly for the purpose of exposing their inappropriate extravagance—is just one example. And of course many evangelicals find the long-tenured cast of characters in the “health and wealth” movement a reliable stock for sarcasm and critique.
Americans are obsessed with money, and they’re obsessed with those who are thought to have too much of it. And American Christians are no exception. Perhaps there’s a double-mindedness at play here.
To be clear, the prosperity gospel—a theology of a Protestant subculture largely occupied by (but not limited to) Pentecostal and charismatic believers that posits financial blessings and physical health are God’s will for the faithful—is an especially pernicious plague in the world, now fully exported and a global affront to true Christianity. And its problems aren’t merely theological. The prosperity gospel movement exploits the poor and many others in ways implicit and explicit that often cross fully into the category of spiritual abuse.
When we couple this very real religious epidemic with wider (but also very real) concerns about social justice, income disparities, economic disadvantage, and the like, evangelicalism’s money problem makes total sense. Prosperity theology—“health and wealth,” “name it and claim it,” and so on—turns God’s commands into formulas and faithful obedience into a kind of magic. The prosperity gospel twists biblical concepts into a counterintuitive mix of superstition and pragmatism. This heterodoxy ought to be rejected wholesale.
But what if our rightful concern with the prosperity gospel and our honest zeal against it has created a scorched-earth policy regarding money and material blessings that is, in its own way, problematic?
The Biblical Balance on Wealth
Are God’s provisions only to be thought of in purely spiritual terms—that is, are we to reject any material prosperity as not one of God’s blessings? Could our reaction to the prosperity gospel’s errors cause us to miss biblical truth about God’s provision?
The Bible, of course, says a multitude of things about money and material possessions, but Christian thinking on the subject these days appears to be somewhat selective. For instance, we all know that the love of money is an idolatry that leads to ruin (Ecc. 5:10; Matt. 6:24; 1 Tim. 6:10; Heb. 13:5). Paul names love of money in the same list of shameful immoralities that includes abuse and brutality (2 Tim. 3:2–5). Jesus also warns about riches constantly. The wealthy, it would seem, are at a significant disadvantage when it comes to perceiving his glory and the eternal riches of the kingdom (Mark 10:25).
But the Bible also has plenty of positive things to say about wealth—not about the love of it or the finding of one’s satisfaction in it, obviously, but simply about the fact of it. In the Old Testament in particular, we find ample evidence of financial and material provision being viewed as part of God’s blessings. The Wisdom Literature especially seems to regard wealth as (often) the result of good stewardship, hard work, and faithful diligence. Proverbs 12:27 is just one example: “Whoever is slothful will not roast his game, but the diligent man will get precious wealth” (ESV). Riches are also held out very often metaphorically as a reward for faithfulness (Ps. 112:3; Prov. 14:24; Is. 60:5).
Job is an obvious example of a very rich man who is nevertheless regarded as righteous (Job 1:1–3). After he has undergone his unfathomable suffering, his restoration includes the reward of double his previous fortune. This comes from the hand of the Lord himself (42:10).
In the New Testament, where the warnings about riches seem to come more urgently, we nevertheless encounter wealthy people who support the ministry of Christ and his disciples. Joseph of Arimathea, who possessed a family tomb he offered to hold the body of the crucified Jesus and is identified as “a rich man” in Matthew 27:57, is just one example. A group of women financially supported Christ’s ministry out of their abundance, as well (Luke 8:3). And Lydia and other wealthy patrons helped sponsor the early church’s apostolic missionary efforts.
The problem with the prosperity gospel, then, appears not to be about prosperity per se. The spiritual dysfunction of this theology is largely about pragmatism, a turning of biblical principles into dubious formulas for wealth and accumulation. It is one thing to think of riches and material possessions as God’s blessings. It’s another thing entirely to think of them as God’s debt to our faithfulness (or to consider the lack of riches as an indicator of unfaithfulness).
Certainly the language of reward in the Scriptures may complicate the thinking here. When we come across verses about asking and receiving, we must take care not to misinterpret them as being about individualistic fulfillment or remove them from their spiritual and kingdom contexts. Similarly, passages on sowing and reaping or returns on investments often lend themselves to immediate financial or personal application, when their primary thrust is often about spiritual interest, heavenly rewards, or the stewardship of souls.
We can know that finances are not an automatic or reliable reward for faithfulness simply because there are too many of the faithful poor in the Scriptures! We can and should repudiate any theology that posits material goods as owed to anybody. And we can and should repudiate any vision of material goods that promotes greed, envy, vanity, and immodesty, not to mention stinginess or exploitation of the poor. The potential for sin is not in the money itself, but in how we think about it and what we may do with it.
How a Poverty of Thinking Impacts Our Churches
As church leaders, our vision of money—especially how we talk about it—has deep implications for our personal discipleship and the discipleship culture of our churches. What do we stand to lose, for instance, if in our rejection of the prosperity gospel, we unintentionally create a kind of shame around receiving such provision?
We could inadvertently deincentivize generosity among those in our midst who have more than others. If maintaining wealth is itself cast as greedy or otherwise sinful, we may be telling the wealthier among us that the church and its mission are not the place in which to invest one’s wealth, that their stewardship ought to be channeled elsewhere.
Consider: What do our better-resourced congregants think when we create unbiblical categories of sin around money and possessions? Will they feel unwelcome, ashamed, or even alienated from the values of the church? If we cultivate an unhealthy stigma around wealth, our wealthier members may have second thoughts about financial support of the church, opting instead to support charities and organizations that cheerfully receive their cheerful generosity.
Or they may even disengage from church altogether. If a church operates with a shame culture around money, it may ironically promote self-indulgence and self-interest in disengaged wealthier congregants, creating deep detrimental impacts on mission support and benevolence needs.
Think, too, of those in lower-income areas where successful businesses lead to job creation and other cascading effects of social uplift. By shaming wealth, the church may be confusing budding entrepreneurs and defusing the kind of passion that can have long-lasting, systemic improvements in contexts that most need them.
Additionally, casting a vision of money or material possessions as themselves sinful borders on a kind of Gnosticism that works against the real-world spirituality of the Scriptures.
It is much better instead to speak of money as a tool. Tools can help or harm. Many people in our world have been harmed by deformed thinking about and demonic use of this tool. But many others have been helped. To borrow a phrase from Martin Luther, let us take great care in our overcorrection, then, not to fall off the horse on the other side.
The evangelical problem with money can be remedied with a careful and biblical call for vigilance and balance, for grace and clarity. Pastors ought to remind their congregations—and themselves!—about the dangers of riches, about the particular vulnerabilities endemic to those who enjoy more of material provisions than others. As it traffics in self-interest and a kind of pragmatic legalism, the prosperity gospel is always lying in wait outside the doors of our hearts, so we need to teach biblical truth and encourage biblical wisdom in these matters at every turn.
But we ought not act out the now-clichéd misremembering of 1 Timothy 6:10, that “money is the root of all evil.” Along with sober-mindedness, encourage wholehearted generosity. Appeal to those who have much to remember in every way those who have little. To remember the poor is part of our fidelity to the gospel, in fact (Gal. 2:10). Every good gift comes from God. Nothing is to be rejected if it can be received with thanksgiving. Let us not dishonor the Giver by deeming any of his blessings as unacceptable.
Jared C. Wilson is assistant professor of pastoral ministry at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, director of the Pastoral Training Center at Liberty Baptist Church, and cohost of CT’s The Art of Pastoring podcast.