Some will say that by asking ‘How rich is too rich?’ we assume that wealth is inherently wrong. Others might feel it’s a bit like a hormonally charged teenager asking ‘How far is too far?’ But what this question does demonstrate is the polarised opinions of Christians on the subject of money.
Most of us will never feature on the Forbes rich list. Consequently it’s easy to think that wealth is someone else’s problem. But if you’re reading this article, the chances are you’re pretty well off by global standards.
According to GLOBALRICHLIST.COM, if your net income is more than £23,000 a year (and the average Briton earns £26,500), then you’re in the top 1% of earners worldwide. An Oxfam report published in January (Working for the Few) indicated that the combined wealth of the world’s 85 richest people is equal to that of 3.5 billion of the world’s poorest. Regardless of how fragile our welfare system may currently feel, our standard of living is substantially higher than most of the world. We have access to healthcare and education, and in most cases, a roof over our heads. Welcome to the elite.
Jesus talked about money far more than he talked about sex, but we certainly don’t ? or at least, not in the way that he did. He warned us about the dangers of serving two masters, taught us to store up treasures in heaven, and told us we could rely on his provision. But when we’re already in a position where we don’t have to rely on him for most of life’s essentials, how do we make sure we don’t end up with a dichotomy between what we say we believe and how we live? Is it ok to be wealthy?
One of the difficulties in speaking about wealth is the concept of difference ? both in our income, and in our perception of what the Bible tells us to do with it. Crudely put, there are two camps: those who feel that Jesus’ teaching on money points towards a ‘give it away’ attitude, and others who emphasise the importance of stewardship and careful investment. So which is right? Or is there a third way we’re not seeing?
As with all things, both our wealth and the ability to produce it come from God (Deuteronomy 8:18). Scriptural wisdom includes some precedent for wise investment and future planning, including having stores or savings (Proverbs 21:20); and providing for future generations (Proverbs 13:22). But the words of Jesus about money frequently strike a cautionary tone ? as in the story of the rich young ruler. And then of course there are Paul’s words to Timothy: ’For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.’ (1 Timothy 6:10).
Some conclude from this that to be a wealthy Christian, or at least one who remains wealthy, is incompatible with true discipleship. But for every Christian we know who lives by faith, there are others with money to spare, ready and willing to meet those needs.
‘For some reason God blesses some people with a brilliant right foot to be great footballers, and others with a great brain to become nuclear physicists. And it seems to be similar with wealth,’ says James Featherby, a former lawyer and the author of Of Markets and Men (The Centre for Tomorrow’s Company), which explores an alternative to the increasingly individualistic nature of the financial system. ‘There isn’t one game plan given by God. Some people have a particular calling for the creation and stewardship of wealth. For [others], wealth is a terrible snare.’
‘Our job, whoever we are, is to be faithful to Jesus, no matter whether that wins us a Nobel Peace Prize or gets us put in prison ? there’s precedent for both,’ says Shane Claiborne, author of the Irresistible Revolution (Zondervan) and co-author of Red Letter Christianity (Hodder and Stoughton).
While most social attitudes in Britain have changed dramatically in the last 50 years, talking publicly about our finances is still a step too far for many of us. But does this reticence to talk about money affect the relationship between it and our faith?
In avoiding open discussion on this issue, we may be losing out on the balance of different perspectives. Are we missing an opportunity to learn from one another, overcome the cultural taboo, and to share both blessings and burdens? We may question whether we’re quite ready for that kind of openness, but there are those who argue that it should be standard practice.
‘Why shouldn’t we all bring our bank statements to our small group for some real accountability?’ says Andy Flannagan, director of Christians on the Left. ‘The decisions we make about how to save, spend, or give money and how ethical those decisions are often will say more about our closeness to God and true values and priorities than other areas of life.’
‘I don’t think [the Church] is in a healthy state [about money], because we don’t talk about it,’ says Simon Barrow, co-director of Ekklesia, an independent Christian political think-tank. ‘We don’t look at economic [and] spiritual disciplines as being the shapers of our lives.’ Barrow is an associate of the Iona Community in Scotland, where joining the community means committing not only to pray for one another and to study the Bible, but also to discuss their finances regularly. ‘It’s not so much about criticising one another,’ he says, ‘it’s about helping one another to make different choices.’
Making the move from being in sole control of your finances to discussing them publicly can be an awkward transition. ‘One realises very quickly that the light of scrutiny isn’t always going to be flattering,’ says Barrow, ‘but it’s not about condemning one another for making the wrong choices…It becomes a supportive rather than manipulative discipline.’
Jamie Treadwell, an executive life coach and artist, belongs to the Servants of the Word ? a brotherhood of single men who live in community together, where their finances and possessions are shared.
Before joining 37 years ago, Treadwell followed Jesus’ instruction to the rich young ruler to give up all he had.‘I found it incredibly freeing. It’s not that I disdained money or wealth, just that I wanted to be in a place with a very different agenda. I see money now as a resource of love that allows me to contribute to the world around me ? there’s a reciprocal exchange of value that’s important.’
So what about the argument that having wealth isn’t the problem in and of itself, it’s what we do with it that counts? Often we connect having money with the ability to spend it on possessions and over-consume, which can be problematic for our discipleship. One of the reasons we don’t feel rich is that we are constantly being told we could have more ? more money, and more things. ‘Many of us get caught in the trap of thinking we aren’t rich by playing the comparison game,’ says Andy Stanley, leader of North Point Community Church, Atlanta ? one of the largest churches in the US. ‘In our minds, rich is always the other person, the other family. Rich is having more than you currently have.’
We’ve heard the criticism of financial institutions that have lost sight of personal relationships in financial transactions, but are we also responsible for doing something similar? We are attached to possessions, but detached from the consequences of our consumption, argues Andy Hickford, leader of Maybridge Community Church, Worthing.
If we are to live differently from the prevailing culture, we need to be aware of how that culture influences our thinking about money. ‘Once we get our heads around the idea that every day we are being spiritually formed ? and that formation is taking us either towards Christ or away from him ? then we have to ask ourselves, “What is Western consumer society ? what is shopping ? doing to us?”’ says Hickford.
He argues that we have become detached from the people and processes involved in our consumer-driven society. ‘Shopping is a detached experience from everything that is related to production. I walk by a piece of chicken in a cellophane wrapper; I have absolutely no idea whether this chicken came from…I buy a pair of trousers and I don’t think about where [they were] made. That removes us from the realities and the costs of production.’
Similarly, he sees the advertising industry as fuelling our consumption and keeping us from contentment. ‘In a consumerist society, it’s not so much the joy of ownership but the pleasure of desire that grips us.’
These attitudes permeate the atmosphere, and money is seen as a means to fulfil our desires and shape our identity. ‘We’ll only begin to deal with the issues of generosity and how much money is enough,’ says Hickford ‘when we first understand how destructive normality is ? it’s toxic and yet we think it’s fine.’
Recognising our wealth and understanding our culture is just part of the journey. With wealth comes a certain degree of power, and there is more we can do with it than just seek to escape negative influences. We have a responsibility to use our money for positive ends, and our voices to advocate for the vulnerable. Some Christian leaders have been outspoken about the need to consider ethical investment, but the opportunities often seem limited ? or undermined by scandal. In July 2013, Archbishop Justin Welby took a hit for his bold stance against pay-day loans companies and the subsequent discovery that the Church of England had itself invested in Wonga ? albeit indirectly.
But such skirmishes shouldn’t put us off if we’re to make a meaningful contribution to this part of our cultural life. ‘The way in which the Church has withdrawn from engagement with society has been very damaging in all sorts of ways,’ says Featherby. He feels Christians have failed to make the most of the opportunity to influence the practices of the global economy, which he blames partly on our fear of money: ‘Money is basically power; and Christianity has had a slightly odd relationship with power too,’ he says. ‘But God is all-powerful…and he delegates some of that to us.’
‘Doing money right is a lot harder, more complicated and dirtier than just giving it away,’ says Guy Brandon of Christian social reform organisation, the Jubilee Centre. ‘We tend to polarise things ? the idea that you can either earn a stack of money or do good. That’s not clear thinking. You can do both.’
So how do we start to reclaim that responsibility? A significant issue for both the UK and US churches is the radical inequality between the West and ‘the rest’. Can we really speak prophetically about issues of wealth and inequality if we aren’t modelling anything different ourselves? One denomination that has considered this challenge is the neo-Anabaptists, who place significant emphasis on following the words of Jesus and living simply.
‘There’s an awareness…that Anabaptists in the West are considerably wealthier than Anabaptists in Africa, Asia and the rest of the world ? which is a problem for all the churches,’ says Barrow. ‘What they [the Anabaptists] are saying is, “If we pray that we will be one in Christ, and if we say that the gospel creates unity in Christ, that’s falsified if there are these enormous economic gaps between us. So how do we share our resources more effectively, so that we’ll be seen to be living out what we’re proclaiming?”’
But this is a challenge for the whole Church, and one where we see little teaching or discipleship. The idea that our attitude to money could strengthen or hinder our collective voice in mission is a powerful argument in its favour. At present it’s hard to imagine how this would be made possible; it’s easy to think of the barriers to growth, the arguments of aid versus trade and corrupt systems that might prevent such a global shift. But what do we want to be known for?
‘One of the opportunities for Christians,’ says Treadwell, ‘is to show how generosity works ? not only a flow of good conversation over coffee, but a flow of assets that support a body of people. That’s no small thing. It requires a lot of background, a common vision, commitment and expectations ? but that’s what our communities are doing.’
Shared ownership was one of the distinctive features of the Christian community in Acts. As Stanley says: ‘Generosity was the hallmark of the early Church. They did for those who could not do or would not do anything in return. That was new. That got people’s attention. Eventually, it shifted and shaped the moral conscience of the West…Generosity changed the world once.What would happen if the Church became known for inexplicable generosity once again?’
American mega-church pastors often hit the headlines for their large homes and reportedly extravagant lifestyles. With that in mind, Stanley’s latest book, How to be Rich (Zondervan) seems a little groan-inducing at first glance. But rather than telling us how to get rich, this book is about recognising we are already rich, and about learning how to become good at it; how to beinfectiously generous.
‘One of the things that happens at Pentecost when the Church [is] born, is that they all start sharing,’ says Claiborne. ‘Redistribution is meaningful as much as it’s rooted in love. So we’re not talking about a prescribed or legislated redistribution, a new form of socialism, or communism, or anything that ends in ‘ism’. Redistribution in the early Church was not a prescription for community but a description of it; it naturally flowed out of the movement and inspiration of the Holy Spirit among them. It’s not just about the stuff, it’s about the love that fills us and moves us to be generous in the world; the scriptures also say inCorinthians that we can sell all we have and still be empty.’
If generosity is a distinctive feature of the New Testament Church, one of the prominent financial principles of the Old Testament ? and indeed throughout scripture ? is jubilee. The Israelites were instructed to cancel debts every 50 years. At the same time, purchased land reverted to its original owner, and workers were instructed to live off the natural produce of the land.
I SEE MONEY NOW AS A RESOURCE OF LOVE THAT ALLOWS ME TO CONTRIBUTE TO THE WORLD AROUND ME
While these principles cannot necessarily be transposed verbatim into our own financial system, they are worth considering. ‘They are inspirational in reminding us where wealth comes from, and that society is more important than our money,’ says Featherby. ‘Despite our very best intentions ? and politicians do work hard to create better society ? we make mistakes, and every now and then we need to re-set things.’ This idea doesn’t finish with the Old Testament. ‘Jesus picks up the idea of the restoration of economic relationship of re-sharing what we have on a regular basis,’ says Barrow. ‘The Lord’s Prayer is one of jubilee ? we’re invited to forgive debts and be forgiven debts.’
Claiborne sees echoes of jubilee in another line from the Lord’s Prayer ? the idea that we are all dependent on God daily: ‘The biblical practice of jubilee and gleaning, and the constant thread throughout scripture of “give us this day our daily bread” offers a vision that there is enough. God didn’t mess up and make too many people or too little stuff, but we’ve created these extremities.’
Flannagan argues that our current situation makes it pertinent in the UK today too: ‘It is uncanny how relevant and necessary the principles of jubilee still are…The gap between rich and poor is widening, and land or property are a key part of that picture.Those who have no land or property are often at the mercy of exploitative rents.’
Whatever our political position on how we resolve systemic issues, we can be united in the great commission. We need to make sure our lifestyles don’t get in the way of the gospel’s message. Moving beyond either legalistic giving, or an unhealthy loveof money, it seems, is about valuing relationships above assets; both our relationship with God and with other people ? even those we have never met, but to whom we are connected as part of the global Church. The idea of a kind of generosity that would make the world sit up and take note is an attractive place to start.
What did Jesus mean?
Jesus said it would be harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. But what did he mean?
A camel was what a rich man owned ? poor men used handcarts, and the better off had a donkey. Only the rich carried their wealth and themselves on camels. The story of the so-called needle gate (though which a camel could squeeze without any luggage) is a fiction ? perhaps invented by a hopeful rich man. Jesus used hyperbole and humour like any preacher, to get a point home. So a modern preacher would put it like this: It is harder for a rich man to enter heaven than for his stretch limo to go through a Lego garage door. By the way, Jesus’ solution was not to throw away riches and save yourself, but to give them away ? ie let them be used for the good of others.
I think Jesus meant the same as when he said that you can’t serve both God and money. As a globally rich person, I find that infuriatingly challenging because I know I spend a lot of my time trying to do just that. Thankfully, Jesus also said that with God all things are possible, and that gives me hope that his grace and mercy will win through with me in the end.
The story’s not about whether or not the rich can get it in, it’s about the nature of the kingdom of God and in the kingdom we don’t have rich folks and poor folks, we have family.
The challenge of the rich young ruler is to begin to head in a significantly different direction in terms of our relationship with wealth and property ? and therefore our relationship with our fellow human beings and with God. But what Jesus doesn’t do is simply say: ‘Here is the simple formula against which you can judge your current situation.’ He invites you to turn around and go in a different direction ? ‘follow me’ on a downward path rather than an upward path in terms of acquisitiveness.