The Good of Affluence, and the Danger of Repudiating it

Manuscript Marketplace Dinner 2008 Speech: The Good of Affluence, and the Danger of Repudiating it

The theme of this annual dinner has been specifically tied to the role of believers in the marketplace since its inception four years ago. God has instilled me in a sincere and passionate fire for men and women of faith to view their jobs and careers as God views them – an extension of His Kingdom. My theological commitment is to a holistic Christianity – one that applies the worldview of our great faith to all aspects of humanity. As the great Abraham Kuyper has taught us, not one inch of the earth escapes the fingerprint of Christ. He has, indeed, declared the spheres of science, and logic, and history, and morality, and technology, and education, and politics, and yes, even business and commerce – as His own. The philosophy behind this ministry and these annual dinners is a decidedly non-pietistic one. While Christianity is a religion of individual regeneration and redemption, it is equally a religion of culture-changing truth. As my Pastor frequently reminds me, our job as believers is to never tire in demonstrating the shalom of Christianity to the culture around us. Any Christianity that fails to speak to the sphere of business, and the marketplace, and our careers, is simply not the Christianity of the Bible. My zeal for this mission is even stronger today than it was four years ago when we first gathered for this annual dinner.

While theological controversies and debates have their place, I have grown bored and weary of the vast majority of them. However, the teachings being widely promulgated in Christian circles today regarding the Christian’s proper relationship to money have absolutely stirred my angst, and I stand before you tonight genuinely fearful of the consequences. Whether it be because of my own professional relationship to this issue as an investment advisor, or because I see the correlation between this issue, and the broader subject of the Christian in the marketplace, I am fearful for the witness we as believers are compromising when we posit a belief system about prosperity that is incompatible with the teachings of Scripture. I am fearful for the paradigm we are creating for Christians in the marketplace when the consistent theme and mood being presented regarding money is such a consistently negative one. I am fearful that Christians will further relegate themselves to the periphery of society, if we do not rally around a message regarding this crucial topic that is faithful to our belief system, and relevant to the culture at large. There is no need for a monolithic voice in all nuances of the topic, but surely we can do better than to continue allowing a voice that is explicitly socialistic, nefariously guilt-manipulative, and frighteningly humanistic speak for the entire Christian religion.

Tonight, we seek to present a message regarding affluence, values, ambition, prosperity, and the Christian that is faithful, cogent, and presentable. I have determined that in my efforts to further the cause of Christian stewardship and excellence in the marketplace, few obstacles are having a more detrimental impact than the view that Christians ought to repudiate wealth, or at best, view it as a mere means to an end in greater utilitarian objectives we have. To teach that message is to tell half of a story, and to tell half of a story from the Bible is to fail to tell the whole Biblical story. We must not be content to let this happen.

The most extreme error, and perhaps only slightly less frequent than the next one I will highlight, is the notion that material prosperity is to be repudiated altogether. Ron Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger has been a sort of handbook for many in the church for several decades now, seeking to tear down capitalism as an institution of greed and self-centeredness. Many believers (perhaps Mr. Sider himself) make allowances for a “middle class” lifestyle for a Christian, but condemn in the harshest words the concept of a believer entering the sociological sphere of the “upper class”. I suppose an easy place to start in critiquing this view is the incredible arbitrariness of it (if not downright hypocrisy). Are we to believe that $30,000 Honda Accords are okay with God, yet $60,000 SUV’s are not? Are four bedroom houses in the suburbs okay, yet more expensive two bedroom lofts in an expensive city are not? I don’t want to waste more time than necessary highlighting the selectivity and relativism that guide this line of thinking, but I should be careful to not stop there. Many of the loudest critics of Christians who live in the “upper class” themselves seem to lack the lifestyle of monasticism and extreme moderation they claim to be advocating. They want the benefits of wealth along with the luxury of criticizing everybody who has more of it than they do. The words used to describe Christian attempts to define what level of lifestyle is acceptable, and what is not, are legalism, and phariseeism. Poor and rich people alike are capable of bringing grave offense to their Creator; is it not the heart that God looks at? For Christian leaders to join the socialistic fray in the rhetoric of class warfare represents the worst kind of ethical relativism, and misses the actual important point that the Biblical narrative repeatedly seeks to make: That our hope and trust must be in the Lord. To ignore this message for the sake of criticizing expensive cars and restaurants is fool-hardy. I am convinced that we have lost our witness to an entire demographic of productive and morally-minded members of society. Class envy is to be expected from the elites of secular universities, but to hear it from the pulpits of our churches, divorced from the actual Biblical ethic on the subject, is of major concern.

There is an embedded conflict of interests in the message the church often teaches its people on the subject of money. There is no shortage of building funds, worthy causes, ministers to support, and charitable endeavors. Of course, there is equally no shortage of staff positions that need to be subsidized by these various causes and organizations. Are we, as a Christian church, really comfortable telling some of the most productive members of our society that their labors and fruits are acceptable, but only to the extent that they support the various objectives and agendas of Christian churches and ministers? Why is the free market system to be commended when it produces profits that enable a church building to be built, but to be condemned when it produces profits for a family to live in a bigger or better home? We have reduced the life of the wealthy man to one of being used and exploited – repeatedly. This is so antithetical to Christianity, I shudder to think that it is even necessary for me to share this, and yet we do this time and time again. Like the political candidate blasting entrepreneurs and corporate executives for greed, and then funding his campaign with the funds of entrepreneurs and corporate executives, the church has largely lost its credibility on this issue. We have accepted a message of “Great Commission utilitarianism,” wherein we commend certain pragmatic benefits that may come from one’s financial success, but repudiate the financial success itself.

So what is this “utilitarianism” that I refer to? Why is it such a bad thing for believers to be taught that their money is to serve merely pragmatic aspirations? Indeed, should we not do all we can to encourage Christians to increase in matters of philanthropy and charity? Besides the deeper philosophical point that our religion is not one of rank utilitarianism, there is much to be concerned about in this way of thinking. It denies the widely emphasized teachings of Scripture, that material blessings are often a reward for hard work and diligence. It turns the first question of the Westminster Catechism on its head, that our chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever. It tells the unbelieving world something that God did not tell them: that their riches, and accomplishments, and careers, and status, are in and of themselves sinful, when in fact, God has always looked to the hearts of people – not their bank accounts – in determining their love and affection for Him. I want to see the world’s most comprehensive application of charity and philanthropy come from the Christian church. I find the pragmatic needs that profits and abundance can help to meet to be extraordinary and significant. This message is not one-sided, and our main speaker tonight has done an incredible job in the book you have in front of you walking through the fully Scriptural balance on this issue. But to teach that God condemns material prosperity is to lie about the teachings of the Bible. To present to the unbelieving world a system of thought that condones the redistribution of wealth as the highest ethic, is to irresponsibly negate the 8th commandment. To label as sinful and intrinsically wrong a system of belief that has done more good for more countries and economies than any system of thought the world has ever seen (free market capitalism), is to woefully mislead people. Our job as believers is to receive and apply the whole counsel of God, and the whole counsel of God is one that has always appreciated the correlation between risk and reward, and between labor and fruit.

My passion for this subject lies not in my own internal need to justify a certain lifestyle, or certain aspirations. It fundamentally lies in my desire that countless people quit playing the game of feeling a need to justify such .. . My preference is that the conversation return to one of dealing with people’s hearts and souls. In some ways, I wish it were the case that all of those working towards building a greater affluence for themselves were always the greedy, idolatrous ones, and all those seeking more modest means, were always the God-fearing disciples of obedience. It would make things easier for us to have such a line drawn. I can sympathize with those who wish that God had told us what dollar amount was too high, and what income figure was “excessive”. Law-breakers like you and me will always wish we had new laws to more precisely define the old laws we don’t do a very good job of keeping anyway. But wishing that sociological trends were a certain way does not make them so, and wishing that God has drawn lines He did not draw will not help us live within ethical boundaries.

I purposely did not grant myself enough time tonight to fully explore all of the merits of private enterprise capitalism, and all of the extraordinary benefits that Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” provide a free society. I am not offering you an exhaustive view right now of the integration between faith and affluence. Yes, I am deeply convinced that collectivism and socialism, regardless of whether or not we are talking about Karl Marx’s view, or Jim Wallis’s view, are dangerous and ought to be opposed. And yes I do believe that part of God’s normative will for His people is that they experience His delight, and one of the manifestations of this can certainly be found in material blessing. But macro philosophical views of economics, and micro personal views of individualism, are tough to fit in an introductory speech. I plead with you to read the fine book that was left at your place-setting tonight. And I plead with you to share the book with others as well. The exegetical arguments for Dr. Schneider’s thesis are beyond compelling. But before I even worry about seeing the full-orbed Biblical view of wealth and money assimilate into your consciousness, what I want to suggest is that we at least start by repudiating what we know to be false. And what I refer to here is not just the explicitly dangerous teaching that wraps itself in the banner of Marxism or welfare-statism. I also refer to the prettier packaging that these messages often find themselves in – messages of pietism and sacrifice, that seek to bind another man’s conscience where God has not done so. The consequences of not rejecting the false teachings that are prevalent in the church today about this message are severe. Work and productivity suffer when the prima facie acceptability of money motivation is undermined. Christian morality is threatened when we substitute the Biblical ethic for man-made legalism. We need to be clear: the pietistic view of wealth is not spiritual and God-honoring; it is not merely neutral. It is positively harmful. Let us work through the difficult questions and challenges together, without compromising the Scriptural narrative we want the world to see – that ours is a worldview that prizes hard work, success, and enterprise.

But let me clear about one thing before I close tonight. I am not going to back down from my belief that tremendous dignity can be found in ambition – that is, God-given ambition that seeks to better life for one and his family. Without having said it, I assume you all have gathered that I am firmly committed to an ideology of growth, progress, economic achievement, and reward. But I will fail miserably tonight if I do not make one thing clear: The deepest meaning in the human life is found in the context of a redemptive relationship with the loving God who created the world. The human condition is a fallen one, and that fallen condition has left us with tremendous needs – spiritual, emotional, psychological, etc. There is no doubt that much can be said for the earthly benefits a lifestyle of prosperity and affluence can provide, but no amount of achievement, and no amount of success, and no level of personal financial worth, can ever, ever replace, the indescribable joy that is a life in Christ. To secularize our pursuits of material blessing and advancement, and to divorce them from the ethic of the Judeo-Christian religion, is to undermine the entire pursuit altogether. The Christian life absolutely allows for, and commends, the experience of affluence and abundance. But tasting that abundance is but a drop in the bucket of the truly rich, and truly full, and truly dignified life we find, when we are at peace with God. May this peace be in everyone of you, as a basic prerequisite to everything else you seek in your lives.