18 January 2015

The Corrupting Influence of Money: An example in the American Church

I had an interesting exchange recently with an old acquaintance who also happens to be a conservative Lutheran pastor. I harped for a moment about middle class values... my normal line about security and respectability being values cherished by the middle class and yet absent from the New Testament. He had asked, and I was attempting to explain to him my financial situation which usually leads most people I know to wonder what's wrong with me? Am I stupid? They know I'm not. Why are we always so poor and struggling? Am I insane? Why don't I do something about it? Something different? Usually they pull out the Einstein quote on me which I quickly repudiate as worldly wisdom and unbiblical rubbish.

Some of it is geography. I live in a very cheap area (in terms of cost of living) which is a huge plus if you're poor, but it's also a very depressed area. I'm open to moving but at this point couldn't afford it anyway. Besides, if I'm going to make a big move I would rather it be out of the country.

But primarily I believe (and quite strongly) that if you're genuinely applying your faith to your work situation you're going to find that you won't do very well in the world at large. I refuse to just shrug my shoulders and say, "That's how it is. You got to do what you have to do."

No. I say be faithful, do unto other as you would have them do unto you, and if that means you're broke, then you're broke. If all Christians were like-minded on this matter and had the spirit exhibited in the New Testament it wouldn't be a problem. We would all work together to meet each other's needs. But instead we bring cultural attitudes about money into the Church. This means that if you're poor, there's something deficient about you. Your moral character is dubious.

This is simple worldliness, the spirit of Babylon reigning in the Church. Sure, there are some people who are poor because they're lazy or stupid but the idea that someone is poor because they refuse to compromise.... that's unfathomable to the Christo-American mind. That's a rejection of the entirety of the American vision of how the world works. Is that what I'm suggesting, that American culture is evil and anti-Christian, that the American dream is incompatible with New Testament values?

That's right. That's exactly what I'm saying. I'm trying to shout it from the rooftops.

Anyway, my friend wrote back and said that he too knew nothing of financial security. He doesn't really know anyone who does. It was his way of dismissing my comment.

I smiled because I knew he had not understood what I meant.

If you listen to the financial teachers, they will sometimes speak of a concept which might be called Financial Freedom or Independence. What that means is that you've got enough money where you don't really have to work. Everything is paid for and you've got money pouring in through investments. At that point if you want to take two months off from work, you can do it. Finances are not just secure, they're self-generating. Your assets exceed your expenses. Basically you're rich. You might not be Rockefeller rich, but you've moved beyond middle class.

Apparently he thought this is what I meant by financial security and in that case he would be quite right in thinking it did not apply to him.

By security I mean... you can safely pay your bills, you have easy affordable access to healthcare, money to save for both a nest egg and retirement, money to take a holiday. Many will include home ownership and money to at least help your kids attend college. This is what the middle class has. I would also call that being rich, just of a different calibre. Many will scoff at this, but considering 90% of the world doesn't have this kind of financial security or power, I feel comfortable referring to the middle class as also being rich. They're rich by global standards and by Biblical measures as well.

Now I'll admit the Western middle class is getting squeezed and starting to disappear, but that security (and consequent respectability) are at the heart of the middle class. Without that security people will not invest, they will not borrow to buy and Western economies are in trouble.

I know of very few pastors in formal institutional denominations who don't have this middle class lifestyle. Many actually live at the upper end of the spectrum. He most certainly belongs to this class. In the same email he's telling me about taking out-of-state hunting vacations etc... I'm quite confident he can pay his bills, has health care and though he may not be wealthy by American standards, he's quite secure.

Ironically he recently left a congregation and took a 'call' elsewhere because when the rich patron died... who apparently was all but financing the congregation, they took to fighting and he'd had enough. He praised the presence of this 'rich' man whom he also enjoyed accompanying on some of these out-of-state hunting trips. Pardon my cynicism but one wonders if he would have gone to the same effort with other members of the congregation?

For many pastors, security is paramount and he exhibited this by effectively bailing out on his old congregation and 'taking' a new one which was more financially stable. That's a rather dubious concept of 'calling' in my book.

I think it's also worthy to note that when a congregation has no financial commitments like a building and paid clergy then the presence of a wealthy man has no bearing. The truth is not in danger because a wealthy man becomes part of the congregation. No one needs to fawn over him because in the end he has nothing more to offer than anyone else. When the Church doesn't need his money, his money affords him no power. The Kingdom of God is of a different nature.

It was a disappointing conversation in some respects but not altogether surprising.