Today, in this country, the craze for money has infiltrated every segment of our society. From the religious leadership through to the traditional and the political, there is no difference. The things being done and said in order to enrich ourselves with money are no longer moral. Immoral ways and means are, today, the norm in every facet of our national life.
We read in our dailies of men and women who bear names that identify them as “Church-goers” who steal money meant for either those they are paid to serve, or used for the welfare of those who voted them to be in power. In years past, we heard of thousands and millions of Naira stolen; today we hear of billions in Naira and Millions in dollars stolen!
No segment of our society is revered any more. Church leaders, in order to compete with politicians and shady business men and women, ride the latest vehicles and aircraft, live in mansions, use the same methods to acquire the same astronomical amount of money. Business women and men engage in shady deals in order to keep their bank accounts fat. They refuse to honour agreements made with business partners, and, in a bid to get justice, the one who feels cheated assassinates the cheat!
Politicians, in order to keep winning elections, divert allocations meant for the development of their constituencies for private use, and the maintenance of their very expensive life-styles! Businessmen and women inflate contract sums, cut corners and produce sub-standard materials in order to make more money for their life-styles! The results are there for all to see: collapsed buildings, political assassinations, slow and painful deaths in hospitals due to sub-standard drugs! Journalists are not shielded from this craze – they publish articles written by those seeking cheap publicity, and get paid; they distort facts and murder truth, all in the interest of stashing away money in their bank accounts.
Sadly, most of those involved in all these deals bear names that identify them as Church members. In a pluralistic country like ours, with two contending faith communities, the challenge is always there for them to out-do each other in obeying the teachings of their scriptures! As followers of Christ, we are challenged to be faithful as stewards of all we possess; that includes money! This is what has informed our synod theme for this year: THE CHRISTIAN ATTITUDE TO MONEY (Heb.13:5).
Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have, for He has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”
In studying what the Christian attitude to money should be, it is strongly advised to take seriously the whole of the New Testament canon, with all its variety. An important reason for a comprehensive approach is that when we take very situation-specific injunctions and attempt to universalize them, we quickly run into conflict with other New Testament imperatives that are equally important.
For instance, some Christians take Luke 12:33, “Sell your possessions and give to the poor”, to be incumbent on all Christians in every situation, and follow this injunction to the letter. When that Christian meets the commandment, “Do not neglect hospitality” (Heb. 13:2), how does that Christian offer hospitality, having no home or possession? In other words, a canonical approach suggests that there must be a balance in the way we evaluate the evidence, not universalizing a calling or demand that may be meant for particular persons, living in particular circumstances and places.
It is also important for Christians to note that much of the orientation of the New Testament towards money and wealth is a carry-forward from Old Testament assumptions about the subject. These assumptions include the following:
(i) The assumption that God is the Creator and Owner of all things.
(ii) God’s creatures are not owners but only stewards of the material things, even when one has worked for them and earned them in a sense.
(iii) We find in the Old Testament the convictions that human beings are fallen, and that the internal battles with things like greed are on-going; one cannot afford to be naïve about that.
(iv) Finally, in spite of the many warnings in the Bible about wealth (repeatedly associated with idolatry and apostasy), a believer must be wary and take a cautious approach to the issue of money and possessions:
– Isaiah’s caution to the wealthy in Israel (Isa.3: 16-24)
– Amos critiqued the idle wealthy, warning them that they were going to be the first to go into exile (Amos 6: 4-7).
– God Himself complained that having blessed Israel, she became rebellious and idolatrous, “forgetting the God who gave you birth” (Dt.32: 10-18).
PITFALLS IN ATTITUDE TO MONEY
Today, prosperous Christians either deliberately ignore, or they are not aware of these warnings, and this is why our fallen attitudes about wealth and prosperity are no different from those of ancient Israel. The texts quoted above remind us that we cannot simply focus on the Old Testament or New Testament texts that say that, sometimes, wealth can be a reward and blessing from God for good, honest labour. We must meditate on the whole witness of the Bible.
This is where we create problems for other believers. When we treat, say, certain verses in the Book of Proverbs in isolation from what the rest of the entire Bible says, and without an understanding of how proverbs and maxims work, then we do not merely mistake the part for the whole but we even violate the character of the part which says that, sometimes, material things are a blessing from God and a reward for good, hard labour.
When we turn to the New Testament, the warnings about wealth as a potential stumbling block is intensified. In other words, the New Testament is harder on the assumptions of the health-and-wealth Gospel than the Old Testament. It is the New Testament that stresses that a person is not to store up his or her treasure on earth, and urges that the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Furthermore, the most we can get from the statement, “Seek ye first ..and all these things shall be added, “ text is that the believers are encouraged to rely on God, and not on their financial advisers, for the provision of their basic need (Acts 4:34; Lk. 6:31; 2 Cor. 9:10-11).
These texts do assure us that God can and will give His people what is necessary to sustain an obedient life, though there will undoubtedly be times of testing. When God is blessing a person with material prosperity, usually the text says that God is doing this for the righteous, which is to say those who are likely to use such resources in a good and godly way. For others, ruled by their errant desires and lust, prosperity is seen more as a temptation and a snare than a blessing. In any case, the New Testament is very clear that the goal of the Christian life is not success or prosperity, but godliness and contentment, which Paul stresses as the greatest gain of all.
Are the Poor more Spiritual?
The New Testament does not suggest that material poverty is inherently a more spiritual condition than wealth, though clearly there are a few stumbling blocks to a healthy relationship with God for the poor. According to Wheeler (1995), there is no repudiation of material goods as such in the New Testament. The disciples may be directed to sell their possessions and give to the poor; they are never directed to simply throw them away. The necessity and goodness of wealth as a resource for the meeting of human needs are affirmed, while the same epistles which condemn greed as idolatrous commend provision for oneself and one’s family as a duty.
The New Testament and the Prosperity Gospel
We begin this sub-topic with the question: to what extent is it possible for a prosperous Christian to hear a call to simplify one’s lifestyle and give more to the needy? This is a pertinent question because one of the great problems with the prosperity Gospel is that it removes any lingering guilt about being a conspicuous consumer and, indeed, accelerates the process of spiritual deafness to the cries of the poor. It gives permission to turn off such nagging voices in one’s head, or to write off poor people in general as victims of their own bad choices, or the like.
Some Basic New Testament Teachings on Possession and Wealth
In the New Testament, material poverty is never seen as a good thing in itself. By the same token, material possessions can be seen as a good gift from God meant to meet the needs of oneself and those of other persons. However, we are all fallen creatures and so self-centred, which create room for an infinite capacity for self-purification and rationalisation of one’s behaviour, especially the expenditure of our so-called disposable income. This is why a good thing, namely material possessions, can simultaneously become a means of turning human hearts away from God (Blomberg, 1999).
From the New Testament, we also learn that what one does with one’s money reveals where one’s heart is, and whether or not that heart has been transformed when a person claims to be a Christian. The wealthy but godly patriarchs are all depicted as having shared generously with the needy. There was a connection between their spirituality and their generosity. We can therefore conclude that a person who is really trusting God finds it easier to let go of material things and be motivated to generosity and kindness.
Furthermore, the New Testament suggests that certain extremes of wealth and poverty are clearly viewed as intolerable, though it is hard to quantify such things (Wheeler 1999:245). The Bible therefore really talks about all things in moderation, though extreme sacrifice is often encouraged and commended in specific situations.
The New Testament and Assistance to the Needy
We turn to St. Paul’s appeal to the church at Corinth for this sub-topic. There are several lessons here which, if taken to heart, would help us in our Christ-like witness in a country where many are departing from kingdom principles. In 2 Cor. 8-9, Paul gives us certain principles:
a) He teaches us that the Christian should give according to his/her means (vs. 11).
b)The goal here, as Paul says, is not that others should be relieved while the giver is hard-pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty (i.e. the giver’s) will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty (the receiver’s) will supply what you need. The goal is equality (2 Cor. 8: 13-14). By equality/equity within the body of Christ, Paul assumes that the customary system of patronage will continue, and that there will be some Christians with more, and some with fewer, possessions.
He appeals to the Christian principle of generosity, but he does not suggest a foolish sacrifice. He advises giving “according to one’s means.” Equality here may just be what we read about in Acts, where it is said that no one should go without necessities, so that giving is done on the principle of each giving according to their means and each receiving according to their needs. Paul is certainly not in favour of some being burdened while others are eased.
c) Paul uses the example of Jesus Christ who humbled Himself in the sense of becoming a human being taking on material poverty in order that He might gain spiritual riches for His followers. He then urges the Christians in Corinth to make similar sacrifices like Jesus did, out of generous hearts and a real concern for equity. Here therefore, Paul is urging that a reciprocity relationship be set up between two very different parts of the Christian Church (Jerusalem and Corinth). For now, the Jerusalem church needs material help. But Paul foresees a day when the Jerusalem church might reciprocate if a need developed in Corinth.
In giving by the Christian, the phrase “give from what you have” (2 Cor. 8:11b) is of importance. Paul is not asking the Corinthians to go and take out a loan in order to help. Nor is the sheer amount the crucial thing. He says that if enthusiasm and sincerity are present then any size of gift is acceptable. Here he is no doubt encouraging less well-off Christians to contribute without feeling a sense of shame about the little they can give. In an honour and shame culture like ours, shame is often an impediment to giving by those of moderate means.
In 2 Cor. 9:7, Paul stresses that each individual should decide in his or her own heart what will be given, and not do it reluctantly, for God loves a cheerful giver. Paul also suggests that such giving, which he says is like saving, leads to a proportionate harvest – if you sow little, you reap little. For Paul, the household of faith must take care of its own; this involves a transnational entity called ekklesia (church) of God, not merely a local congregation.
Why God Blesses People
In 2 Cor. 9: 6-11, Paul preaches that God often blesses people materially in order that they may be a blessing to others. In verse 9, he enunciates a principle of “enough”. His prayer is that the audience will have enough so as not to be dependent on others. Paul is talking here about financial independence of a certain sort, a sufficiency that enables generous giving to others. What we do with our surplus money reveals our true character. A further benefit of giving is that thanksgiving and praise will be given to God by those who receive what the Corinthians give. So, the end result of such giving is that good witness is borne to God before a watching world, and more Christians are actually led to praise God.
IMPLICATIONS OF PAUL’S TEACHINGS ON GIVING
While it is clear that Paul does not advocate for communism of any sort, it is also clear that he does advocate for communalism, or community-ism. By this, it is meant that Paul believes that the Christian community must not allow any of its members to be in want. Paul sees this as an obligation not merely within a particular congregation, but as a part of an empire-wide group of churches. Christians should take care of their own.
Paul’s advocacy for equity does not mean that all persons should have exactly the same quality and quantity of material resources. He is interested, especially in a time of economic crisis, in the Jerusalem church to set up reciprocity networks so that the needs of that church can be taken care of by other churches who can certainly afford to help. We need to also notice the emphasis on not creating further problems by burdening the givers in order to alleviate the need of the receivers.
In light of the New Testament, we need both the micro and the macro ethics when it comes to matters of money, wealth, possessions, work, remuneration, and the like. It is not enough simply to be an honest person earning an honest Naira. Our business ethics must match our Christian principles. If one has considerable assets, one has to ask hard questions such as:
– Has the money been made while investing in wicked enterprises and compromising companies? One must work to disentangle oneself from the ways of the world and its business-as-usual attitude and conversations.
– The whole idea of saving up huge sums of money for oneself and one’s family so one can live a life of ease or luxury, having no need to work any longer, is an all-too-modern notion, without any biblical warrant.
The New Testament as a whole encourages us to have generous hearts. It encourages us not to live our lives for “unrighteous mammon” in a self-seeking and self-centred manner. It encourages us to put our ultimate trust in God, and be willing to demonstrate that trust through sacrificial giving. It encourages us to be wary of, and wise about the fallen economic and political institutions of this world, and to do our best to disengage from their unethical practices.
The New Testament urges us to have a theology of enough, that is, to live by a principle that godliness with contentment leads to great gain in ways that cannot be monetarily quantified. The New Testament encourages us to deconstruct and disengage from the rat race for success, prosperity, and wealth. Greed is repeatedly warned against as a soul-destroying force. The goal of the Christian life is not prosperity or even happiness, but, rather, godliness, holiness, loving God and loving our neighbours wholeheartedly.
The New Testament does not promise an equivalent monetary boom for whatever amount one gives to a good Christian purpose or ministry. One is to give without any thought of return. But there is also the promise that God does bless in various ways those who generously give to others. In 2 Cor. 8-9, Paul does not encourage calculation, by which I mean he does not encourage the Corinthians to assume that God will automatically give them back more than they have contributed to the collection for the Jerusalem Church. Nothing in this or any other New Testament text suggests such a Conclusion.
Sometimes the rewards for material generosity are simply spiritual, and, rightly seen, those rewards are in fact more precious and valuable in the kingdom scheme of things. The New Testament asks if we have embraced kingdom principles when it comes to money, possessions, wealth, ministry, remuneration, and work. If we have not done so, or have not done so sufficiently, then at this synod, we hope we will do something about it.
*Idowu-Fearon (Ph.D) is Anglican Bishop of Kaduna Diocese