If you have attended evangelical churches for a long time like I have, you have probably sat through lessons and or sermons on how to handle your finances. This is especially true in churches that take a topical approach to sermons. But, it also happens in churches that are more expository.
Money is a huge part of our lives so we can’t just ignore it. And, the Bible has some profound things to say about it so we should probably listen. But, I do wonder at times if we handle this well.
Right off the bat, I think of one time when I thought it was handled very poorly. At one church I attended, the pastor had several sermon series on finances. The takeaway was that tithing wasn’t the goal, giving sacrificially was the goal. There is a part of me that agrees with that. I don’t believe that tithing is a New Testament expectation, I believe generosity is, but that is an article for a different day.
My problem with the series is, how do we define sacrificial giving? If our goal is to be sacrificial then we can almost always give more. Are we ever sacrificing enough? Does approaching the issue this way lead to a spiral of guilt? My issue was less the content of that series than the tone. One can ask the same questions about my position that we should be generous. But, the real capper was that after several weeks of saying we need to give sacrificially and planting the idea that maybe we weren’t giving enough the pastor then announced that they were going to have a giving campaign to try to pay off the church mortgage. I’m all for paying off the church mortgage, but I was left feeling that the sermon series was incredibly manipulative.
Most of the time, church teachings about money aren’t that transparent or manipulative. But, almost always there is the caveat that members should tithe in order to receive the full blessing of God. I find that theologically problematic but it isn’t my point in this essay. What I am really wondering is if we teach about money and finances from the wrong perspective.
It is clear Biblically that at times wealth is a blessing from God, think of Abraham or even more extreme, Solomon. It is also clear that there are great people of God who were not wealthy, John the Baptist and even Jesus as examples. Lazarus rather than the Rich Man was praised in Jesus’ parable. In the United States, we often embrace what I call the Evangelical Prosperity Gospel (I’ve written about it before). I’m not talking about the “name it and claim it”, Gold Toilet, and a Jet Plane for the pastor version of the Prosperity Gospel that so many rightly decry. I’m talking about something much more subtle.
There is a sense in our churches, and in our nation, that poverty is a moral condition. Very few people, especially evangelical Christians, would actually say that out loud. But, if you read between the lines many people actually believe this. After all, in this mythology America is the land of opportunity so if you struggle it must be your fault, wrong choices, poor work ethic, etc. Look for example at Deacon and Elder boards in churches how often are they filled almost, if not exclusively, with people who are financially successful?
When teaching about finances- who does the church have teach? It is often the pastor, but when it isn’t it is generally someone who works successfully in wealth management. When was the last time you knew of a church that asked someone who has learned to live contentedly with little to teach about finances? I have never seen it happen.
Typically, a church has someone who works in financial planning share their expertise. There is nothing wrong with that and there is good information we can learn from them. Scripture certainly wants us to be good stewards of what God gives us. But, the bigger story in scripture is to be content with what God has given us. How does the financial planner speak to that? Typically they will talk about budgeting and saving for retirement. Good things. But, when the financial planner talks about vacations as a fixed expense, what does that say to the minimum wage earning mother of three who has never been able to afford a vacation? When the planner comments about how not everyone needs a smartphone and then drives home in a BMW what does that say to the 20 something who has never lived in a time when payphones were accessible and while it seems a luxury to those of us who remember calling home on pay phones it doesn’t seem that way when those pay phones no longer exist.
We subtly give the impression that everyone has enough and if you are having financial problems it is a matter of your budgeting or lack of self-control. If you aren’t saving 20% for your financial goals it is your failure, even if your rent, groceries, utilities, etc. take more than 80%. Somehow, the impression is given that if you aren’t making it and saving for retirement then it is due to your own moral failing.
But, that isn’t the message of scripture. In scripture Jesus ‘calls out’ the wealthy man who builds a new barn (retirement account) to store his wealth. And he praises the beggar who sits at the gate looking for a handout. According to scripture “Godliness with contentment is great gain” not “Godliness with ample retirement savings.”
Now don’t get me wrong. Sound advice on how to handle money is a good thing. Saving for retirement is an important thing in our culture. But maybe, occasionally, rather than hearing from the professional, dressed in nice clothes and driving a luxury car, about money telling us how to accumulate wealth, we should hear from the widow, who relies on the help of the government and the Church, about how she has found contentment in Christ with her circumstances even if they don’t represent the American ideal.
This essay is from our Anastasis Series where we resurrect articles from the past that are either still relevant today. This piece was first published on June 7, 2016, and has been lightly edited and updated.