My agnostic coworker recently went to church, where he was fine until about the 45 minute mark. That’s when they took an offering. “OK, here we go, I knew it, now they finally get to the real point, it’s a shakedown.” These were his thoughts. He hasn’t been back.
In the “Movementarianism” episode of The Simpsons, Marge escapes the brainwashing compound and flees to the church, but Reverend Lovejoy impatiently taps the offering plate before he is willing to help.
The perception that The Church is “all about the money” is clearly present in our society. Is it true? I would say “yes”, but not in the way people think.
When people get mad at the Church over money issues, it is generally some variation on the theme that church leaders are attempting to personally enrich themselves at the expense of the willing dupes in the their congregations. That certainly happens— who can forget Oral Roberts’ famous “ransom demand from God” back in 1987?
To this, I can only respond with statistics. Among professional careers, pastors routinely rank near the bottom in compensation. A Business Insider article from May put “Theology and religious vocations” as nearly the worst choice from a financial perspective, worse than such notoriously underpaid callings as “elementary education” or “drama/theater arts”. A CNN Money roundup of “Stressful jobs that pay badly” included both “minister” and “music ministry director”. And in 2010, USA Today stated more than half of Southern Baptist ministers need to work a second job to make ends meet.
I would submit that, rare exceptions notwithstanding, there is no rational argument that pastors do what they do for the paycheck. If the church is a shakedown or a con, then it is both the longest-running and the least-successful one in history.
The Bible on money
One dominant theme in those verses is that what we have, here on Earth, is given to us “in trust”, without really belonging to us. Parables like the talents, the shrewd manager, the returning master, the field of treasure, “much is demanded“, “faithful with a little“… all paint the picture that God has left us (a) in charge of his stuff, (b) for a little while, (c) to use for specific purposes, (d) with plans for an eventual audit. How we use our money here on Earth is going to be profoundly influenced by whether we believe that is true.
If the bible is, in fact, the inspired word of God, then its frequent teachings on money represent— not a highly ill-conceived and unprofitable shakedown— but an urgent warning to avoid the trap of “misappropriating funds”. Our society is replete with stories of financial managers who lived fabulously for a time on other people’s money; the day of reckoning is an inevitable part of these stories. It is hardly coincidental that the same concept is an important element of the Christian story.
Mmm… would we call that “giving”?
Many people think of charitable benevolence as “giving”: something we do because we are generous. There are certainly places in scripture that use that type of language, but the picture is not complete if we stop there.
I once heard the story of a janitor, working at Stanford University in the early 20th century when California was still undeveloped. Although one of the university’s lowest paid employees, he lived very frugally, and with his surplus money, he bought land… land in places like Palo Alto and Menlo Park and Atherton. Here’s what home prices are like there today:
The salient point is, yes, he sacrificed to set aside a great deal of money, but few would say that he “gave” that money, that he did so because he was “generous”. He simply had an idea that he was onto an investment, recognized by few, that would someday have real value. And it is this picture that scripture truly paints for us if we will invest our temporal resources in the things of God, rather than in Earthly things:
- I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich. (Revelation 3:18)
- But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. (Matthew 6:20)
- And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings. (Luke 16:9)
Speaking personally, I have found in my life that money comes and goes. There is a very good reason why wedding vows include the phrase “for richer, for poorer”. During the leaner times, looking back, the one thing I absolutely never regretted was the good that I chose to do in the world with the resources while I had them. To me, those times may have been the wisest investments of all.