Monthly Archives: September 2015

The church is after your money

The Church is after your money! Sort of.

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.

Getting rich

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

Yet Christian teaching is clearly very interested in money. Dave Ramsey asserts that the Bible mentions money over 800 times, more than any other single topic.

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:

$1.3M 400 sq-ft teardown
Yes, this is an actual, current Palo Alto real estate listing

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.

9/11 cross and flag— a Christian nation?

This 9/11: We should be a Christian nation and shouldn’t

I am a Christian. I believe in Christ’s teaching to “love the Lord your God, and love your neighbor as yourself.”

I am an American. I love my country.

Two separate things, or one and the same?

Every year, on the anniversary of the horrific September 11th attacks, I memorialize the lives lost in my own small way. I post the image you see above on my Facebook page.

It has a cross, which to me stands for hope and faith and God’s resurrection power over sin and death and destruction.

It has an American flag symbolizing my country.

One of the things I love about my country is that I am free to practice my faith in the way I live my life. The laws of my country protect my ability to do that.

In some parts of the world, there are religious extremists— some of them the spiritual successors of the 9/11 terrorists— who are fighting to establish “sharia law” in the countries where they live. Most Americans agree that this is wrong. But we differ as to our reasoning.

Some of us see America as a Christian nation, and so we oppose sharia law because we favor laws that reflect Christian values, not Muslim values.

Others make a careful distinction between our faith and our nation. We oppose sharia law because in our view, the establishment of religious beliefs— any religious beliefs— into society’s law is destructive both to the religion and the society.

Which view is right? It matters, because there are grave implications in how we stand against extremism. To the first group, it is by enacting laws, in our own country, reflecting our own values, taking a stand as Christians. To the second, it is by protecting our diversity of religious faith, taking a stand together as Americans, whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or None Of The Above.

View #1: The case for a “Christian nation”

When it comes to separating religious views from secular laws, there is a fundamental problem: while easy to state in principle, it is nearly impossible in practice. This is because, for each and every one of us, our values are shaped by our “worldview” or our “set of beliefs” or our “religion” or whatever you want to call it, informing our decisions about right and wrong, which is inseparable from the creation of law.

Even in seemingly cut-and-dried areas, we cannot agree because our worldviews are different. Take, let’s say, murder, everyone’s favorite example of a moral absolute. We all believe murder is wrong, but! here’s the snag: we also believe that self-defense is OK. Which one is which? The polarizing debate over what killings are right and wrong is front page news every week.

Without some set of shared values, without some kind of moral compass, there can be no agreement as to law. Given our nation’s history, the closest thing we have to a shared barometer is Judeo-Christian values. Last February, a spate of editorials trumpeted atheist parenting skills, yet even there, the ever-present measure of good parenting was teachings central to Christianity: the sanctity of human life, the value of morality, the centrality of empathy.

When we come to the table to reason together, seeking the consensus which is indispensable to legitimacy in law, we could do a lot worse as a starting place than “do unto others as you would have done to you” and “love your neighbor as yourself”.

View #2: The case for separation of church and state

A recent issue of The Mission Society’s Unfinished magazine said it all. An article called “Living missionally in a post-Christian context” made the following point:

Christianity has certainly influenced American culture. But that is quite different than saying it is a “Christian culture.” If US missionaries believe their home culture to be Christian, the line between Christian faith and American culture can become indistinguishable.

When we imagine America as a Christian nation, here is the problem: we, the imaginers, are not perfect. Parts of what we imagine are biblically inspired, yes, but parts are shaped by our own personal and cultural biases. Those parts are, in fact, not God’s will at all. Putting it bluntly: we are fallen, we are sinful, so part of what we imagine is wrong. We just don’t know which parts.

There is a bigger problem with our efforts to enact Christian values into law: it badly distorts our notion of what Christ taught. Christ did not come to reveal a set of rules for all to obey. He did not. They had that already; that was what he came to change. To focus our efforts as Christians on making rules for everyone to obey… that is the very “yeast of the Pharisees” that Christ warned us against. The seeds of our own destruction, of the American Church’s destruction, are sown when we scatter to the chamber floors and the courthouses; instead, Christ would much rather see us at the homeless shelters, hospitals and prisons.

The genius of the “and”

Should America be a Christian nation or shouldn’t it? Both.

It should be, because to so many of our society’s ills, Christ has the answer. As it says in 1 Peter 4:8: “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.” That is what we need to be putting into our society. If we could be a Church of self-sacrificing true Christians, I can’t imagine that all our other problems wouldn’t find their way to a solution.

It shouldn’t be, because if we think that our Christian faith needs to be about bearing the weight of law to make our society behave, we have missed the entire point.


Also recommended:

Letting go of America being a Christian Nation —

What to do with sinners

Jesus and the “ho”, or, what to do with sinners

Fifteen years ago, a friend shared an insight from scripture. I lay awake most of that night turning over what she’d said, and I’ve remembered it ever since, mostly because I profoundly disagreed.

She was talking about the story of “the woman at the well“. Quick recap: Jesus strikes up a conversation with a woman drawing water and reveals himself as the Messiah, first to her and subsequently to her whole village. My friend’s observation was drawn mainly from this line: “Jesus said to her, ‘You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.'”

“I read this story a bunch of times,” she said, “and this time it just hit me: Jesus is callin’ her a ho! He is totally in her face! We gotta confront people over their sin, because look what can happen if we do… she and her whole village got saved!”

Now first let me say, balancing Jesus’ message of grace and truth is a tricky business and none of us consistently gets it right. Maybe my friend had been way over on the side of ignoring damaging behavior, even among those close to her. Maybe, with this new conviction, she was emboldened to show them a better way out of their self-destruction (think of an alcoholic intervention). I do believe that, reading it as God intended in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, scripture is alive and active, and different aspects of a story may strike different believers differently, depending on the word that God has to speak into their particular situation.

That said, here is how the story of the woman at the well strikes me. (For convenience, for the remainder of this post, I will refer to “the woman at the well” as “Allison”.)

Who is she?

To me, the first thing worth noting in the story is that confrontation about her sin (a form of social pressure) is the last thing that Allison needs. The social pressure on her is already turned to 11. How do we know? Just take a look at where Jesus found her:

So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon, when a Samaritan woman came to draw water.

Things to know:

Nobody goes to collect water at noon. Have you heard the expression, “Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noonday sun”? It originated in India, but it could equally well apply to the Middle East. Carrying a heavy water jug in the midday heat is lunacy. Instead, normal women go at the crack of dawn, all together. It’s fun! They chat, they socialize. The only way you’d go at noon is if you were such a social outcast that you couldn’t tolerate any of that.

She’s an hour outside of town. Jacob’s well was a mile and a half out into the middle of the desert from Sychar, about an hour’s walk. Lots of other wells were closer. Again, what is Allison doing out there? The most obvious answer is that she badly, badly wants to avoid running into anyone.

What she’s used to

Jewish men of the first century were not shy. Doubly so for a religious leader like Christ. Suffice it to say, when one of them called you a whore, you knew it. It didn’t take multiple close readings of the text to tease it out.

Most of the time, however, they said nothing at all, because Samaritans were their northern heretic cousins, so in their view, any Samaritan (and especially a woman) was simply beneath contempt. The text clearly reflects Allison’s astonishment when Christ even condescends to speak to her: “The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?’ (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)”

They begin to converse somewhat comfortably, until Christ ventures onto a sore spot, bringing out an answer from Allison that is all half-truth and evasion:

He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”

“I have no husband,” she replied.

Much of the bible is culturally pretty inaccessible to us, but a world where a woman would rather walk an hour into the mid-day heat than see another person… that is not so far removed. Her story could just as easily have been set in Puritan America; she is only missing the scarlet letter. In a world like that, our heroine only meets two categories of people: those who know what she is and shun her, and those who don’t know what she is.

The Jesus surprise

In that kind of context, what do we make of the statement that seemed so confrontational to my friend? Is Jesus really “calling out her sin” and “getting in her face”? As I read it, the answer is no. Rather, Christ is pulling one of his favorite tricks and confounding expectations.

By restating the source of her shame in the gentlest and most non-confrontational language possible, Christ declines to fit into either of her pre-defined categories. He is something new, unexpected, revolutionary: a person who knows what she is but doesn’t shun her. That’s the point that blows the doors off, and it’s only ten verses later that the woman who was too ashamed to show her face at the watering hole that morning is running down Main Street announcing the coming of the Messiah.

Regular old confrontation, regular old judgment, regular old shame… we’ve had all these available to us for thousands of years before Christ. None of that is transformative; none of that was why Christ needed to come, and live, and die, and rise. We sell our birthright for pottage when we walk up to a stranger and casually condemn. Let us rather walk up to a stranger in unexpected love and grace and mercy; it is in that context that the message of Messiah can be spoken and heard. Remember John 3:17: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”

Other recommended posts: