It's been announced today that one of the most luxurious department stores in the world, is filing for bankruptcy. My first (and only) trip to Barney's is forever etched in my mind. At the time, I'd never heard of the business, so I was completely unprepared for the price tags that awaited me inside their flagship New York City store.
In hindsight, my reaction to coming across a tie on sale for $300 was embarrassing. (It involved me loudly complaining to my wife about "injustice" and how the world had "gone mad".) It's fair to say I had "a moment".
I was genuinely angry, and I think for good reason. Homelessness and poverty are clear to see when you walk around a city like London or New York. When you turn the corner and see designer handbags being snapped up for eye watering amounts it just doesn't seem right.
The problem is, I'm not exactly writing this from a position of strength. Sure, I might rail against designer shops I can't (and don't want to) afford. But in the eyes of much of the rest of the world, I'm incredibly wealthy. And so are you.
If you're earning minimum wage in the UK, you're in the top 4% richest people in the world.
Almost half of people on earth live with a combined household income of £2 a day. I can complain about the super-rich all I like. But what would the world's poor make of the fact I just spent £3 on a takeaway coffee this morning?
When it comes to Christians and wealth there are no easy answers. I might have a deep sense that Christians probably shouldn't be flying around in private jets. But you might feel it's morally wrong that I have a Netflix subscription, and my £8.99/month should be given to charity instead. Which of us is right? Both? Neither? Who makes the rules? If you live in the West and have a job, then you can afford to buy a new pair of jeans for £40. If you live in a slum in India, that will look like an outrageous extravagance. Is it all relative?
How much is too much?
Earlier this year a new Instagram account named @preachersnsneakers was launched, and I had another "moment" similar to my Barney's experience as I scrolled through the posts. Apparently Hillsong's Brian Houston owns a pair of Gucci trainers worth over £500, while TD Jakes has been spotted with a glorified laptop bag worth £2190 and Stephen Furtick has a lot of very nice clothes.
The newly launched @prophetsnwatches has taken all this one step further. You might have already guessed that Benny Hinn owns a Rolex worth £13k, but did you know Hillsong's Carl Lentz can top that (his is worth £31k)?
I want to give these American preachers the benefit of the doubt. There's no biblical prohibition on having nice things. Besides, these expensive items might have all been gifts from others. Or maybe these pastors saved up for years in order to be able to afford them?
I still sympathise with the initial gut reaction many will have along the lines of: "This is overly extravagant and sends the wrong message to the world about what Christians stand for".
When the world looks on at preachers with expensive watches, they are going to make all kinds of assumptions and judgments not just about that individual, but the message they represent. (Before we forget, let's acknowledge there are still masses of Christian leaders who aren't bothered about flashing their wealth - check out Chris Tomlin's Casio for example!)
I recently asked a church leader what he would do if someone in his congregation bought him an expensive sports car. He said he'd give it back, or if that wasn't possible, he'd sell it and put the money to better use. Not because he didn't want the car, but because he didn't want his congregation to worry he was being overpaid by the church and could therefore afford such an item. The issue was less about the car, and more about what might be assumed about his ministry.
Granted, some people will always think the worst of Christian leaders and they shouldn't be overly concerned about our own reputation. But if they know that wearing expensive clothes is going to undermine their gospel message in their particular context, surely they should think twice? Paul became "all things to all men" in order to spread the good news about Jesus. (1 Corinthians 9) There might be some contexts where wearing an expensive designer suit is going to win us hearing. But there are other contexts where doing so will harm our witness. If nice shoes, nice cars and nice watches become a distraction from the pearl of great price, it's probably time we got rid of them.
The root of all kinds of evil
"The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil" (1 Timothy 6:10) often gets incorrectly shortened to "money is the root of all kinds of evil". It's the love of riches which the Bible warns us about, not the riches themselves.
This is why there aren't hard and fast rules in scripture on exactly how much is too much. God cares about our heart attitude much more than the number in our bank accounts.
This means that when faced with a question such as "Is it a sin to own an expensive watch?" the Christian response cannot be a blanket "yes" or "no". In some instances, it probably is. In others, it might not be.
That answer won't satisfy legalists, or those looking for another excuse to take aim at a pastor they disagree with. But it is a biblical one.
Criticising American preachers with nice watches is so much easier than considering whether our own material possessions might be a problem. Yet it strikes me that if we can be open to the possibility that our own wealth might be a spiritual problem, we'll be well on our way to winning the battle in this area. Being aware that compared to the rest of the world I am incredibly wealthy, and that it is "difficult" for a rich person to enter the Kingdom is both healthy and sobering.