Funding Christendom and Stewarding Wealth
This is follow up to last week’s sermon:
September 4, 2022 Wisdom About Wealth: The Prosperity Gospel, the Poverty Gospel, and Kingdom Stewardship (Matthew 6:19-33)
As I said in the sermon, it’s not easy to preach on money, wealth, economics, etc. I want to further unpack problems with the “poverty gospel” and especially correct the impression that Jesus taught this distortion.
Some think Jesus is advocating a poverty gospel. They point to his focus on laying up heavenly treasure instead of hoarding earthly treasure. They point to his warnings about Mammon as a rival to God. But this is not the whole picture, even in Matthew 6. I covered this territory pretty quickly in the sermon, so I want to review and expand on it here.
It’s true that Jesus warns about wealth — but his warnings are not really new. The warning Jesus gives is not about wealth per se, but about loving wealth, trusting in it, worshipping it. Moses (e.g., Deut. 8) and Solomon (e.g., Proverbs) had already issued these same kinds of warnings. Much of the Sermon on the Mount is wisdom teaching, which means its application is not usually right on the surface but takes effort to decipher. There are tensions and paradoxes in the teaching we have to work through. Jesus is opposing trusting in wealth, or being anxious about provision, but he is not opposed to possessing wealth in other ways. And certainly does not advocate feeling guilty just because one possesses riches or “more than enough.” It is possible to be both righteous and wealthy. It is possible to be wealthy even as one seeks first the kingdom of God.
Should the lillies feel guilty for being so extravagantly clothed? Of course not. And obviously Jesus is not saying it was wrong for Solomon to possess the riches he had. There is nothing inherently wrong with wealth provided one does not treat it as a god, worshipping and serving it. Jesus even suggests that our Heavenly Father is happy to give us enough and more than enough, provided we are trusting in, worshipping, and serving him. That’s the whole point of 6:25-33. If we seek first the kingdom of God, we will not find that poverty is the “normal Christian life.” Instead, “all these things will be added to us.” What things will be added? The very things the pagans give their whole lives to seeking after — money, clothes, food. The point is that the kingdom must be supreme in our lives. If we make the chief end of living seeking after wealth — as the pagans do — then we will miss the kingdom. But if we seek the kingdom (just as if we seek wisdom, according to Solomon in Proverbs), we will often find wealth as a by-product. It is entirely possible to pursue and possess wealth in a kingdom way, which is what Jesus is obviously advocating. Unless Jesus is making a radical break with the Old Testament’s view of wealth as a blessing for which we should give thanks and which we should steward wisely, he cannot be advocating a poverty gospel. And Jesus makes it clear at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount that he is not breaking radically with the ethical teaching of God’s earlier revelation (Matt. 5:17-20). Remembering that Jesus’ sermon is intended to fulfill, and not overturn, the Torah, is one of the keys to properly interpreting it. If we arrive at an interpretation of the sermon that is out of alignment with the OT ethics in a deep way, we have gone wrong somewhere. Jesus’ teaching on money goes deeper than anything in the OT, but it is also on a continuum with the OT teaching. The OT associates prosperity with obedience and wisdom in many places (Deut. 28; Proverbs); Jesus does the same thing in Matthew 6:33. Jesus could be accused of the prosperity gospel just as easily as he could be accused of the poverty gospel.
Besides, we really cannot square a call to poverty with how Jesus lived his life. Jerry Bowyer has shown that Jesus came from a middle to upper middle class background; carpenters could do quite well financially in that time and place. Once he began his itinerant ministry, he obviously had no need for a permanent place to lay his head. Instead he relied on the wealth of his followers to provide for him as he carried on his ministry. But he never castigated them for their wealth. It is true he did on occasion call on those who might be part of his inner circle of disciples to renounce their wealth and give it all away to the poor (Matthew 19), but these were unique cases tied to his unique mission and that unique moment in history, not standing commands for all disciples in all times and places. This obviously has to be the case. The OT is full of people who are wealthy and faithful. The priests, especially, accumulated wealth by receiving a tithe from 11 tribes. The OT system enjoined extravagant feasting (Deut. 14). In the NT, we find there are Christians all along the socioeconomic spectrum in the church. There are poor believers, certainly, but there are also wealthy believers. And even after those wealthy Christians have given adequately to the poor and fulfilled their responsibility to be generous, they will still be rich (1 Tim. 6).
If we are serving the Lord rather than Mammon, we can expect, over time, to be growing in wealth in normal circumstances. Proverbs certainly indicates this. But if everything is taken away from us because of disaster or persecution, even then we can be content knowing that if we have the Lord, we have everything. Whether rich or poor, we will serve the Lord and rejoice in him.
The parables of Jesus (as I pointed out in the sermon) counter the poverty gospel mentality. Several of Jesus’ parables are drawn from the world of business and commerce and presuppose a market system. The parables are pro-profit, pro-productivity, pro-entrepreneurial. See especially Matthew 20, which presupposes the morality of private property and counters every notion of socialism (Matt. 20:15), and Matthew 25, which shows that seeking to grow whatever talents (money/wealth/resources) we have been given is the essence of stewardship. Jesus obviously had no objection to wealth inequality (25:29). The parable of the talents has many applications, spiritually and economically and redemptive-historically, but it should especially be tied to the creation mandate: God has given his people talents embedded in the creation and it is our responsibility to improve upon those raw materials so that God receives a return on his gifts.
All of this is underscored by the Westminster Shorter Catechism on the 8th commandment:
74. What is required in the eighth commandment?
A. The eighth commandment requireth the lawful procuring and furthering the wealth and outward estate of ourselves and others.
Q. 75. What is forbidden in the eighth commandment?
A. The eighth commandment forbiddeth whatsoever doth or may unjustly hinder our own or our neighbor's wealth or outward estate.
We have an obligation before God to increase our own estate as well as that of our neighbor. Note several realities here. First, even before Adam Smith the Westminster divines knew that a biblically shaped economy was not a zero sum game. It is possible for your estate and your neighbor’s estate to both increase. One person getting rich does not have to come at the expense of another. Second, there is no sense in which wealth is demonized by the catechism. It is true that sometimes the rich get rich through oppression of others, and in those cases the rich are rightly demonized. But it is also true that many get rich because of diligence, innovation, efficiency, service, etc. If we lump all wealthy people together (usually defined as anyone with more money than me!) and attack them, it is more likely that I am being envious than anything else. The reality is that we need the rich. They provide jobs for the rest of us. They are needed to fund Christendom. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently said “Billionaires need workers more than workers need billionaires.” But this obviously false. It should be clear that we all need each other; that’s how an economy works. But workers need billionaires to continue creating jobs or the workers will likely starve in today’s world. We should bring an end to the corruption of “crony capitalism” and the like that tilts the playing field in one direction. But we should also recognize that we need innovators, risk takers, etc., to grow our economy or we will all be worse off. Demonizing billionaires as a class is a dead end. Having wealth, even huge sums of it, is not intrinsically evil. But with great wealth comes great responsibility.
The poverty gospel has actually made pretty significant inroads in evangelical and Reformed circles, especially over the last 5-10 years, but really going back much further in less obvious forms.
Ron Sider, who recently passed away, was a well known proponent of the poverty gospel. His most famous work was entitled Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger and, frankly, proposed many of the worst conceivable attempts to address global poverty. Later in life Sider did come to appreciate the way market economics helped to raise the global standard of living far more than statist/socialist programs; he was willing to give capitalism some credit. But he never got over the supposed link between wealth and guilt. Along with other left leaning evangelicals, he advocated a form “simple living” or “minimalist living” based largely on a misunderstanding of key money texts in the gospels. David Chilton responded to Sider and completely decimated his arguments in his fabulous book Productive Christians in a An Age of Guilt Manipulators. The title says it all. I highly recommend reading Chilton.
It’s important to understand that Sider’s “poverty gospel” and socialist politics go together. Sider has no concept of Christians taking dominion, building a godly civilization, restoring Christendom (which would take heavy financing on the part of God’s people), etc. Christians don't need wealth because we have no cultural mission (except to encourage socialism). He has no problem with Christians basically functioning as serfs of a secular state. In his view, we can voluntarily reduce ourselves to poverty (or minimalist living) because they state will take care of our basic needs. But he is wrong; there is nothing pious about this. This is not trusting the Heavenly Father to care for us, as Jesus taught in Matthew 6. This is statism. This idolatry of the state. And trusting in Caesar to take care of us is just as wicked as trusting in Mammon. Sider does not renounce idolatry; he exchanges one idol for another.
Another poverty gospel proponent is Doug Jones, as seen in his book Dismissing Jesus. Jones’ is a sad case because his theology shifted from Reformational to a virtually heretical form of Anabaptism that denied the substitutionary death of Jesus. An earlier work he co-authored with Doug Wilson, Angels in the Architecture, is one of my favorites. But Dismissing Jesus is simply atrocious. I have called his book the worst I have ever read from cover to cover — it’s bad theology, bad eschatology, bad politics, bad economics, and so on, all based on bad exegesis. It’s sad because Jones should really know better given the circles he has been in. I will not enter into a full review here because it is not worth; Jones parrots typical leftwing and liberal gibberish. I’ll only point out that a book that decries the Western church’s captivity to Mammon that sells for $26 in paperback is not very serious about offering a solution. In fact, the entire book is short through with hypocrisy. Jones continually laments that he is has such opulence in his life — he even has tiled shower! And yet it’s not at all clear he intends to actually give up his blessings, though he indicates he really should if he wants follow Jesus. Jones will not thank God for his blessings, nor will he give these things up; instead he goes on feeling guilty about them. He says Mammon has blinded him, but is he really interested in seeing? How can he “see" when he still takes showers in tiled surroundings? Is his book a case of the blind supposedly leading the blind — straight into a ditch? Jones writes, "I am the rich young ruler Jesus addressed. I have a car, several computers, lawn sprinklers, a tiled shower, a full pantry, air conditioning, a nice outdoor deck, plenty of books….I am blind but arguing with myself, with us. I write to persuade myself out of blindness, with a plea to the Spirit. I long for a second chance, now later in life. Maybe the Spirit can get through to me…” But if the Spirit has not yet gotten through to Jones, why should we listen to him? Either give everything away like Jesus commanded, or shut up. If you are not doing what you say we should all be doing, why should anyone else do it? Jones asks, “The question isn’t whether middle-class life is a manifestation of the cult of Mammon. The question is would you be willing to give it up if it were?….would you do it?” Questions like this are classic “poverty gospel” questions — great at provoking guilt, useless when it comes to actual instruction in how God wants us to to live. Jones completely misses the church’s traditional way of dealing with these issues (which I alluded to in the sermon). The problem is never mere possession of money or nice things. The question is one of having rightly ordered loves. And there are many wealthy figures in Scripture who had rightly ordered loves even as they continued to possess a great deal of wealth (Abraham, Job, etc.). They possessed many possessions; their possessions did not possess them. The thing is, even if you do renounce all your possessions, Jesus said you will get them all back (even in this life) one hundredfold. Wealth is not a hot potato we need to try to get rid of. Rightly possessed, it is a blessing and a gift. (One issue poverty gospel advocates have to reckon with is that if we do actually help others rise out of their poverty to, say, middle class socioeconomic status, we have actually hurt them spiritually. If the poverty gospel is true, the last thing we should be doing is helping the poor.)
Jones and I agree on one thing: he is blind. But we disagree over what he will see if his eyes are opened.
In our neck of the woods, the most popular poverty gospel proponent by far has been David Platt and his book Radical. While there are some things to like about Platt and even his most famous book, the fact that he has gotten more and more “woke” since its publication shows the kind of trajectory he was on from the beginning. Many theologians and pastors engaged Platt’s work with helpful criticisms (e.g., Kevin DeYoung). I will not review the book in its totality, but I was part of several email discussions about the book when it was at the height of its popularity and I’ll give some excerpts from those emails here, then provide some excerpts from reviews others have written. These emails are from 2011-2103.
Platt has prescribed ways of tackling the poverty problem that are far too simplistic. Moving into poor neighborhoods is a great example...it's well intentioned, but can actually backfire by creating gentrification and pricing the poorest folks out, knocking them down another notch. There are other examples from his book. I don't think he's been a practitioner of mercy work long enough to understand the problems involved. It's just harder to help people than we want it to be.
There similar issues with how views of short term missions, international adoption, etc. Platt just constantly oversimplifies the complex issues involved. He creates the impression that if we just gave more away, we could end poverty -- again, it's just not that simple. Global poverty has many other factors, including spiritual, cultural, and political that must be addressed. He seems to think the answer to the orphan crisis is adoption, but in many cases, parents want to raise their children but cannot afford to do so. Why not fund parents instead of adopt children? That respects the natural family structure and avoids some if the problems in cross-cultural adoption, which are intractable and catch the adoptive parents by surprise because people like Platt encouraged adoption without being realistic about the challenges.
I have some other problems with the book too. I think it's largely driven by white suburban guilt that all too easily views riches with suspicion. He does not make sufficient room for us to "richly enjoy" all God provides (1 Tim. 6). He does not have a reformed worldview, so he does not see the value in "secular" work -- in his eyes, if you really want to please God, you have to go on a mission trip or be a pastor. He does not give a sufficient place to worship and prayer in cultural transformation, etc.
The book has many good points, especially in his critique of consumerism and the American dream. But in the end, it's not all that "radical." Somehow, "go sell all" gets watered down to "take a two week mission trip." It's just the same ol' Baptist stuff I grew up with, with a mercy ministry component added to the evangelistic.
Here’s the bottom line: While Platt wants to be missional, he is not nearly missional enough. He has reduced the mission of the people of God to evangelism and mercy ministry. But the original human mission is much bigger than that; going back to Genesis 1, we were created to rule and fill the earth. Platt (like virtually all poverty gospel advocates) has no place for building a Christian civilization. For Platt, advocating for a Christian political order would seem to be a distraction from more “spiritual” pursuits. But Platt not only ignores the foundational creation mandate of Genesis 1. He also truncates the Great Commission. The mission Jesus gave us is not merely preaching; it is not even preaching plus mercy ministry. It is nothing less than discipling the nations — that is, Christianizing the nations, making them Christocracies. There are different ways of describing Platt’s error: He starts with Genesis 3 rather than Genesis 1, with the fall rather than creation, so he cannot grasp the fundamental goodness of God’s world. Or to put it another way, he has separated the Great Commission from the Creation Mandate, thus losing both. He fails to grasp God’s original purpose/design for man (to rule and fill the earth), so he us left with a very thin, reduced version of the Great Commission. It is no longer the Great Commission, it is the Small Commission, the Truncated Commission. In the name os being spiritual, he guts about 95% of human life of meaning. His “radical” project” is radically dehumanizing.
I appreciate the fact that Platt's book helped you repriortize your life, more in line with the kingdom of God rather than the "American dream." His book has helped many reassess what's really most important, and I think that's great. I also agree with him that "easy believism" and "cheap grace" have made the American church too soft, too comfortable, too oriented around our own comforts and conveniences (and like Platt, I have taken a lot of heat for preaching the "hard" parts of the Bible that demand obedience, sacrifice, and suffering). I'm sure that Platt and I agree on many things. But here's why I asked you, "Is your family living the 'radical' lifestyle?" I think if you look closely at his book and the questions he raises, you'll find your actual practice of the Christian life is much closer to what I have termed the “ordinary Christian life” rather than Platt’s "radical Christian life."
My point is that people like your own family should not feel guilty for that. It's ok to be an "ordinary" Christian, who loves God and neighbor, who works a job and raises children. Again, listen to the sermon "Saved to Serve" that I preached on August 4 (follow up notes here) and you'll see that theme developed. Jesus heals/raises up Peter's mother in law, and she doesn't do anything "radical" in response -- instead, she serves in ordinary ways in the ordinary context of her home. Apparently, Jesus was ok with that. She didn't have to sell all her possessions or become a missionary in order to be a servant of Jesus. She could do that right where she was.
True, some Christians are certainly called to "radical" forms of service -- a life of voluntary poverty in order to serve in a particular place, or a life of singleness as a “eunuch” for the kingdom, or a life of service on the frontier mission field, or even martyrdom. But most Christians -- in the NT and today -- are called to serve God through more ordinary channels, e.g., working hard at their rather mundane jobs and at home, raising their kids faithfully, tithing, sharing when and what they can, etc. In 1 Cor. 7:17ff, Paul does not expect those who are called to Christ to suddenly or radically change their lifestyles. He actually says the status quo is ok. Whatever condition you were in when you became a Christian, stay put, unless God makes it clear you should do something different. You can fill that space Christianly without changing your vocation or advocating for social revolution. There is an inherent conservatism in Paul’s counsel in 1 Cor. 7. Paul is even fine with "upward mobility," so if the slave has an opportunity to become a freedman, he may do so. There is nothing intrinsically godly about being a slave or being economically poor or being single. You can also serve God as a freed person, as a wealthy person, as a married person. Paul makes that clear. Somehow, we have to fit that kind of "ordinariness" into our picture of the Christian life. In fact, it has to be seen as the way most Christians will live (cf. 1 Thess. 4).
I don't think Platt's book would resonate at TPC the way it has in his own congregation because we do not have the same kind of affluence in our congregation that Platt has in his. Certainly folks at TPC can and should be called to serve and sacrifice more than they do now, but Platt's book (as I see it) is aimed at an upper middle class audience -- that is, people who tend to have a lot more discretionary income and time on their hands. Many people at TPC struggle just to make ends meet, keep the lights on, and keep food on the table. When they encounter a message like Platt's, it's all too easy to get a sense of false guilt and think, "I'm doing all I can just to feed my family...and yet apparently that's enough....I've also got to be 'radically' generous, fund short term mission trips, etc. I don't know how I can do it." I have often wondered how Platt's message might sound if his congregation was in Fairfield or some other poorer part of town. I'm sure he would not preach the same way because the audience would be so different. What does the "radical" message have to say to a single mom, or to a husband who has to work two jobs in order to provide for his family or to a family that has 10 kids? Is it possible to be faithful without doing anything that would be considered "radical"? I think for many Christians, the answer to that question is "yes." Judging by your own lifestyle, I think you agree with me more than you might realize.
The property gospel has obviously been a huge problem in the American church., It’s diluted offshore, the comfort gospel is also a problem. If the prosperity gospel is the American dream on steriods, the comfort gospel is the American dream in more moderate, humble form. But it’s still a problem. Platt wants to push back against all of tis, and rightfully so. But the radical gospel he is proclaiming is just a mirror image of the property gospel and creates a host of its own problems. If the prosperity gospel creates false hopes of an easy life, the radical gospel creates false guilt if life is not hard enough. The radical gospel makes it sound as if we have to seek out poverty, hardship, persecution, danger, etc. if we are REAL Christians. This is not true. Just being faithful its enough. If persecution or trials come, deal with them. If financial loss and sickness come, wrestle with them. But there is no need for most Christians to seek out these kinds things. We do not have to manufacture trials by making foolish financial or missional decisions.
Again there is much about Platt’s work I can appreciate. His passion and zeal for faithfulness; his heart for the lost; his call to global consciousness and prayer; his rejection of passive, inactive Christian living; and so on. But I think the cure he prescribes is just as damaging as the disease he us seeking to heal.
You're being pretty generous to say American Christians are willing to put themselves in Zacchaeus' shoes! I seriously doubt even .1% of American Christians give away half their stuff they way Z did. Of course, I'm not saying they should give away half....as you've said, we each have different callings, so what it means to follow Jesus legitimately varies in the specifics, including generosity (beyond the mandated tithe). I suppose you've acknowledged that reality in your life by thinking through how much time and money you can afford to give away, given all your other responsibilities . Actually, I find a lot of wisdom in the overall approach to these issues in Christians like C. S. Lewis and Tim Keller who are stout defenders of a "middle way," which seems to be God's calling for most Christians, at least in our context. This "middle way" combines a belief in the "the good of affluence" (which is not the same thing as materialism/consumerism) along with a sacrificial generosity "which pinches and pains us." But, again, it is also true that there are indeed some Christians who are called to give 50% away, or even give 100% away (though this would be incredibly rare), just as there are some who are called to endure severe persecution, or even martyrdom. Likewise, there are some called to singleness (and the forms of service singleness afford), some called to marriage and a few children, and some called to marriage and a lot of children. Kingdom callings vary. But the "normal" kingdom life most of us live is not going to look very radical by most standards, and should not be denigrated for that reason. Just be faithful in whatever circumstance God places you.
I agree with much of what you say. I would just add that the interrelationship between people's "real world" practices and theological convictions is very complex. Having right theology does not guarantee right living apart from love (as 1 Cor. 13 warns us). But neither does "blind" love without sound teaching guarantee that our theology will eventually fall into place. That’s one issue I’ve seen with Platt’s book (at least the way some around here are putting it into practice). Well intentioned mercy efforts that aren't grounded in Scriptural and practical wisdom often do more harm than good. In the case of the Mississippi pastor during the civil rights movement, I do think a better theology of the kingdom would have helped him understand what love of his black neighbors really required; his love horizon was truncated by a narrow theological vision. But you're right to point out they could have said more about the former problem as a supplement; it's an issue especially in circles where Christians are more likely to passively critique the work of others rather than make their own active contribution. In short, I would say: Love can open our eyes to the truth and vice versa. It's always love and truth working together in the life of the Christian and the church. Or to put it another way, to love our neighbors as ourselves we have to love the Triune God with all our heart, soul, mind (yes, mind, which means loving his Word and his truth!), and strength.
We're each trying to figure out what it means to follow Jesus in our own context (though some are certainly trying harder than others!). Most everything you say about following Christ in your email resonates deeply with me, but I yearn to know more of what it means in concrete terms. I think if I were to preach what's in your email as it stands (which sounds a lot like Platt’s book), it'd leave people with a vague sense of guilt for "missing something" but also an eagerness for directives, to know, "What do I do next? How do I become that kind of person?" Maybe you're not far enough along in your own journey to answer those sorts of questions, but that's what I'm wondering about myself, and what I'd like to explore further with you. If we reject the extremes of pursuing the American dream with reckless abandon, just living for our own comfort, on the one had, and taking a vow of permanent poverty, on the other hand, where does that leave us? What is the Christian life supposed to look like? Who is modeling it for us? What does it mean to be the kind of person you describe? If we evaluate every decision with the questions you and Platt raise (and I think we should!), where do we go to get answers? How can I know when I am serving Christ or self? How can I know when I am really loving Jesus rather than just pursuing an alternative "designer lifestyle" of self-fulfillment through altruism (1 Cor. 13:3 being the most extreme form of this)? And what do we make of the paradoxes that are sprinkled throughout the Scriptures, especially the gospels? Is the Christian life all cross and no resurrection? But doesn't life come from death, and aren't we in union with the risen Christ who is now glorified to die no more? And what of Jesus, who had no place to lay his head, yet also partied so much that he was accused of being a glutton and drunkard? The same Scriptures that speak of giving out of our poverty also tell us God provides all things richly for our enjoyment -- how does all of that fit together? And so on. Our lives must actually embody these same paradoxes, no? But it's easier said than done. I think every Christian has to wrestle with these tensions. Only a few are called to the simplicity of martyrdom or voluntary poverty; the rest of us have to wrestle with difficult decisions for as long as we live. We live with a tension off seeking to obey a Bible that says we are enjoy God’s gifts with grateful hearts, even as we live sacrificially.
Most likely, mercy ministries at TPC will always be more organic than structured. It'll be folks doing what you've done -- finding ministries to get involved in and neighbors to love, and then going to do it. Oh sure, I'd also like to see us have a lot of organized, programmatic involvement in different things going on in the city. But the overall culture of our church lends itself to more "lifestyle" mercy and missions that doesn't necessarily flow through the institutional church. I don't think that's a cop out, I just think it's a reality. We can and should find ways to get people more plugged into worthwhile ministries, but I don't think there will be a net gain if comes at the expense of the more "hidden," organic forms of ministry I've seen permeate our body. I loathe using mercy ministry as a PR campaign for the church, which all too often happens. I'm sure you know what I mean. Let's just love the people God surrounds us with and everything else will take care of itself.
We do have greater wealth across the board than any other society ever has. And with that greater wealth comes greater responsibility to give to the poor and to steward resources wisely. I think other societies have struggled with the love of money just as much as we have, but we’ve certainly had more of it to love. Of course, one of the reasons we’ve been able to accumulate so much wealth is because for several generations, Western Christians did not love money inordinately. If we do not repent of our love of money, we will no doubt lose it all under the judgment of God.
I’m sure we agree on all this. I think we have to be sensitive to our rhetoric because there’s obviously a lot of talk about greed these days on the part of our politicians, and a great deal of it is bunk – not because we’re not greedy, but because they’ve completely missed the ways in which we actually are greedy. We ignore our true sins and confess those things which aren’t sins. It’s a recipe for disaster.
Pastorally, I think statements like the one you made previously tend to create guilt – and guilt does not produce long term generosity. I want to avoid a false guilt. Simply having wealth and possessions is not an evil in and of itself. In fact, we need to start by acknowledging these things as blessings from God. Povery gospel advocates tend to claim that desiring anything above what is needed for sustenance is greed. But this is simply false. We are not Buddhists or Gnostics. The material world is not bad and appreciating the abundant resources God has embedded in the creation is not evil.
One of the biggest problems with the popular evangelical pietism of men like John Piper, David Platt, and Randy Alcorn (men who have done very good teaching in a wide variety of areas!) is a suspicion of all wealth, and a suspicion of enjoying “stuff.” But I don’t see that in the Bible. Instead, I see that God provides richly all things for our enjoyment. But when we come to see that everything we have is a gift, we come to see that we really don’t have any intrinsic right to it – and so we should be willing to freely part with it for the good of others if necessary. Our giving should be rooted in the pattern of the gospel itself (2 Cor. 8:9).
Of course, giving is also guided by the biblical notion of proximity. I am not obligated to humanity in general. I am a finite creature, with finite resources and (thankfully) finite responsibilities. I have to understand the boundaries and limits on my obligations or I will be consumed with guilt. And fulfilling many of my responsibilities will require me to store up more wealth and provision than I need in the moment. After all, I am commanded to have enough to not only take care of my own family but to help those who cannot provide for themselves. I am commanded to leave an inheritance for my children — which suggests the accumulation of trans-generational wealth is a good thing in God’s eyes. If we are serious about building a Christian culture, we are going to have to store up capital, start businesses, invest in institutions, support particular political candidates and platforms financially, etc. It takes wealth to form a kingdom, which is what we are called to do.
Of course, none of this negates the requirement that we live sacrificially. In Bruce Waltke’s NICOT commentary on Proverbs, he defines righteousness and wickedness in terms of generosity/selfishness: “The wise and righteous are those willing to disadvantage themselves in order to advantage others; the wicked are willing to disadvantage the community to advantage themselves.” The righteous give to the needy, even to an enemy. The wicked, by contrast, are those who treat their own possessions as their own, rather than using them for the common good. I think that’s exactly right. One thing I think we need to do is rethink our entire Western notion of private property in light of God’s ultimate ownership. We have treated property rights on an individualistic, rather than a Trinitarian, basis. Aquinas has some insights to offer in this area.
So, yes, one thing we need to do is demythologize Mammon so that money is just….money. We need to humble the almighty dollar. But at the same time, I think we need to recognize that however far we have fallen away from righteousness in this area as a society (or a nation), we probably still have a higher degree of generosity than any other society in the world. I continually see Christians accepting lower pay, or living well below their means, so they can be servants to the community. I don’t want those sacrifices – which I know are legion throughout the church – to go unnoticed.
My "take away" from our conversation is mixed because much of what you're saying and thinking and doing I strongly agree with. I think mercy work is vital to the health and witness of the church and an essential piece of what it means to follow Jesus. But I also have a few concerns that I wanted to lay out for further discussion. You say we are not radical enough. I think we are radical, but not in ways that are going to be as obvious.
I'm probably quicker to "make excuses" for TPC as a whole because I know how much of a drain internal mercy needs have been on the resources of our body. There are many internal pastoral/diaconal issues that many members of TPC are not privy to and don't need to be. But we are a congregation that has helped the "least of these" in all kinds of ways, even if it's been predominantly "behind the scenes." Given the biblical injunctions to care for your own first, I think this is perfectly apporpriate. I'm glad we have genuine needs inside the congregation and I think it speaks well of our church that quite a few lower income folks or folks with particularly dire needs have found a home at TPC. Not every story is a success story, but at least we have some stories to tell. Many folks have witnessed to the caring, merciful, and generous nature of our congregation, even if they're ways that would not be appropriate to make public.
My main concern with what you are saying is playing off family-busyness with ministry-busyness. I certainly think everyone, whatever their season of life, needs to have some level of involvement in ministry outside their own family. At the same time, I don't think it's fair to say that those who have several young children are being unfaithful, any more than a single person could say you were compromising to get married. (I'm sure you'd admit, being married has taken away at least some time you could have spent in ministry, per 1 Cor. 7.) All of us have complex vocations; ministry should always be a part of it, though the size of that part will vary based other responsibilities at any given time in family, work, etc. Don't be shortsighted about this or hold people to an unrealistic standard. At some point in life, your own responsibilities will shift at least for a season, and you will find yourself having to decline ministry opportunities for one reason or another, just as people have turned down your invitations. It's impossible to avoid that kind of crunch. All that to say: I don't want to play off ministry vs. family at TPC. I want us to be a church that is balanced and holistic -- a church that does it all! Raising children to the glory of God is just as much a work of mercy as helping the poor. Moms feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and tend to the sick all day long when kids are little. That meets the criteria of Matthew 25 just as much as anything else done in the city. Family should never be allowed to serve as a personal excuse for not doing ministry in the world (and that's why I have pushed the whole, "we're not just raising moral kids, but missional kids" theme at TPC -- including in sermons, parenting seminars, etc.). But likewise, ministry can never be a reason for neglecting family responsibilities, whether it's getting married, having children, or raising those children. Ultimately, God's commission for us includes both family and mission. The Creation Mandate and Great Commission go together and should be played off against each other.
A friend of mine, Adam Borneman, wrote this review of Platt’s book, which I find a helpful assessment of Platt:
I recently finished David Platt's book, Radical. This short monograph has been of particular interest to me, given that Platt and I share a common local ministry context (we live in the same city and thus a similar set of challenges. To show my cards, I am someone who struggles daily with how best to approach mission and evangelism. Meeting the needs of the world around us, tearing down walls in our society, and bringing new creation to our community is hard work. In short, I am not an expert on mission, evangelism, or outreach, but I am someone who cares deeply about these issues and I hope to encourage an approach that is theologically and biblically responsible.
Before offering my own analysis and constructive criticism, I should note that Kevin DeYoung has an excellent review of the book here (click on link), and it includes a response from Platt. I would highly recommend reading their exchange, especially since Platt's response inadvertently responds to some of the issues I've raised. A more overtly critical review, by Anthony Bradley, can be found here. Bradley picks up on some of the same points as I do.
Here's what I really like about the book.
- Platt's passion is contagious, and it jumps off every page of the book. Readers get a true sense of what Platt is all about, namely, the gospel. More than anything, he wants people to know the good news of Jesus' death and resurrection. I share this passion. For instance, when Platt writes, "(God) puts his people in positions where they are desperate for his power, and then he shows his provision in ways that display his greatness," you get a real sense of his passion for God's power and God's mission.
- His book is very helpful on what I would call the "awareness" level. That is to say, his book does a good job of opening your eyes and insisting on self-examination. Whatever his conclusions may be, there is value in forcing people to rethink their assumptions and to think carefully through some very important kingdom values.
- I am also sympathetic to his dismantling of the "American dream." To be sure, other's have done this well, and its not the main focus of his book, but I think it comes across loud and clear that Platt wants to challenge the deeply rooted assumptions of American "upward mobility" (as opposed to what Henri Nouwen calls "downward mobility").
- Perhaps more than anything, I deeply appreciate his willingness to encourage obedience. This has become such a bad word in some evangelical circles, a case of throwing out the obedience baby with the legalism bathwater. Platt is correct -the gospel necessarily prompts obedience. To be sure, I have some minor objections to the way he addresses the finer points of this issue (with respect to what we might call "theology proper"), but on the whole I think its good to be encouraging Christian obedience.
To be honest, its difficult for me to criticize Platt, as my own church and denomination would benefit from Platt and others who have such strong evangelical zeal. I am confident that if he and I were able to sit down and discuss his work, it would be mutually encouraging and rather fruitful. In a world full of false teaching and a variety of heresies, we would do well to partner with those within the bounds of orthodoxy. Too often, we narrow our orthodoxy to the point where we end up shooting the good guys who are in our own trenches. I am very sensitive to this issue as I've seen professors and pastors whom I love very much be aggressively attacked over the smallest of theological matters. Its important to choose our battles wisely, and Platt isn't someone with whom I want to battle, but someone I want to build up.
Nevertheless, a constructive critique:
- First of all, its important to understand that Platt is coming out of a revivalist tradition that is uniquely American, uniquely Protestant, and in within the scope of Church history, very recent. His approach is reminiscent of the Shakers and other early revivalistic traditions that renounce material possessions in the name of "authentic" Christian living (Bradley makes the same point in his review). For this reason, Platt has a hard time communicating a coherent theology that takes into account not only sin, repentance, heaven, and hell, but also creation, fall, covenant, resurrection, and new creation (i.e. the "big picture" themes of biblical theology). Platt gives lip service to these latter themes, but by and large he is concerned with how many people are going to hell and what Christians are going to do about it. For instance, he writes, "If people are dying and going to hell with-out ever even knowing there is a gospel, then we clearly have no time to waste our lives on an American dream"(143). This approach, which is clearly indebted to American sectarian revivalism in the early 19th century, tends to downplay systemic cultural sin while focusing entirely on the soul of the individual. In short, the approach isn't holistic enough.
- Accordingly, it isn't clear from the book that Platt has done much serious thinking about how to address the vastly complicated economic, political, social, cultural and other systemic sins that plague so many parts of the world. In other words, how does fighting for justice and peace on a broader scale play a role in our mission to the poor? How are we speaking truth to those with legislative and political power? How are we using our resources to meet needs not only for today but also for the long term? By not clearly addressing these types of questions, Platt runs the risk of inadvertently prompting well-meaning evangelicals to use their resources unwisely and even irresponsibly. Brian Fikkert's book, When Helping Hurts,comes to mind as a helpful corrective.
- Concerning liturgy and ecclesiology (doctrine of the church): It strikes me that Platt really has no place in his missiology for the visible, historic, corporate church and/or corporate worship. It must be maintained that the church itself constitutes mission by being the primary locus of peace, reconciliation, and unity via the ministry of word and sacrament. Theologians in the Protestant tradition have described what happened in early Lutheran and Reformed contexts as a "liturgy after the liturgy." In other words, the massive societal reform (educational, economic, political) that took place in the 16th century started with the reform of the liturgy, and specifically, the preaching of the word and the administration of the sacraments (to which many did not have access due to practices of the late medieval catholic church). Simply put, I would like to hear Platt talk about how worship flows out into the world in the form of mission. One of the things I remind our congregation at the close of our eucharistic liturgy is that we are to go out into the world as the broken body of Christ for the world but also as a body that gives people a glimpse of the heavenly feast that has been prepared for us. In this way, our mission to the world, whatever form it may take, is prompted by the ministry of word and sacrament and ultimately by the body of Jesus Christ given for us.
- I am concerned that Platt doesn't place enough value on local mission. In a couple of places, he acknowledges that it is important, but he comes off a bit cynical. This is frustrating for me as someone who is passionate about addressing a number of sinful, systemic problems in Birmingham. He writes, "When we say we have a heart for the United Sates, we are admitting that we have a meager 5 percent of God's heart, and we are proud of it. When we say we have a heart for the city we live in, we confess that we have less than 1 percent of God's heart."(76) He then proceeds to remind us how many people there are in the world and how many of them (4.5 billion, by his count) are going to hell if we don't go to them. He insists that this doesn't mean we all need to be foreign missionaries, but his qualification on this point is too little, and too late. It is perhaps beside the point that his notion of "x percent of God's heart" is not an argument but ad hominemrhetoric that is a bit strange and, in my view, unbiblical.
- Before I ever read the book, I had several people tell me it made them feel guilty. Reading the book, I now see why. For example: "And how many of us are devoting our lives to taking the gospel to people in hostile regions around the world where Christians are not welcomed? Certainly few of us would be so bold as to say we 'would just as soon God annihilate all those people and send them to hell,' but if we do not take the gospel to them, isn't that where they will go?"(64). Moreover, "In the time we gather for worship on a Sunday morning, almost a thousand children elsewhere die because they have no food"(115). I was taken back by these statements. As a good evangelical Calvinist, Platt should be encouraging good works that are motivated by grace, not guilt. Surely he would agree (and in his response to DeYoung, he does). But more to the point, surely he doesn't really believe that if one of my parishioners doesn't feel called to a hostile region that they are basically asking God to annihilate those people and send them to hell. Surely he doesn't intend to make people feel guilty for worshipping in spirit and in truth. While our worship is in vain if we are not loving our neighbor, Platt's argument here is off the mark and warrants a more cautious approach.
- I also suspect a subtle dualism running throughout Platt's theology. More specifically, Platt seems to have an inherently negative view of material things. He writes "What if we take away the cool music and the cushioned chairs? What if the screens are gone and the stage is no longer decorated? What if the air conditioning is off and the comforts are removed? Would his Word still be enough for his people to come together?"(27) Its as if he wants to say, "What if we just rejected outright all the blessings God has given us and focused on the bible instead?" To be fair, I understand what he is getting at, namely, finding too much comfort in things other than Christ alone, but Platt throws the baby out with the bath water, and we are made to feel guilty about things that God might use to enhance worship for some people (although cool music, screens, and fancy stages are not things I would use in the first place).
- Finally, I really wish Platt had provided more bible exegesis. He often refers to certain biblical texts without explaining what they mean and how he interprets them. He owes it to us to make a case for how he is interpreting scripture.
On the whole, I would simply say that Platt's book should be supplemented by several other important books (listed below). As I've said, his work is good on the "awareness level," but it is lacking in some pretty significant ways. Missiology deserves a much more holistic and precise approach. The world is a very complicated place, and we need to be very prayerful and careful with how we address the brokenness around us and within us. Will Platt’s work be beneficial? Yes, to an extent, but I do not think he provides a sustainable missiology for the long term, something which the church desperately needs.
Christopher Wright, The Mission of God's People: A Biblical Theology of the Church's Mission
Tim Keller, Generous Justice
Brian Fikkert, When Helping Hurts
Robert Lupton, Compassion, Justice and the Christian Life
Kevin DeYoung, What is the Mission of the Church?
Christianity Today ran a helpful assessment of Platt’s movement (https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2013/march/here-come-radicals.html?paging=off). Here are some excerpts:
By contrast, there aren't many narratives of men who rise at 4 A.M. six days a week to toil away in a factory to support their families. Or of single mothers who work 10 hours a day to care for their children. Judging by the tenor of their stories, being "radical" is mainly for those who already have the upper-middle-class status to sacrifice.
The Church at Brook Hills's slum stage reflects the tensions of the radical movement. The movement is marked by the sincerity of young, energetic pastors and writers eager to make a difference for the poor. Yet the message constantly fights with the medium. It occurs in massive church buildings in middle-class surroundings, spoken to people who shop at the Gap, on platforms called stages rather than pulpits. In order to inject the message with more power and meaning, we revert to the language and symbols of the theater—one of our culture's favorite pastimes.
Which is to say, the problem with the call to radical Christianity is that it may not be radical enough. It's clear that middle- and upper-class Christians are looking for a deeper, more profound experience of faith. Yet it's unclear whether we can invigorate faith without revisiting our worship and community practices, asking whether they are forming disciples at subterranean levels.
What's more, the radical message comes packaged in the Christian-conference-publishing-celebrity-industrial-complex. While Platt warded off critics early on by donating his profits to relief and missions work, the popularity of his call for radical living requires the existence of a lucrative publishing culture that, by its nature, has to think and act with profits in mind. Thereally radical path for a megachurch pastor these days would be to refuse to publish, to take a smaller church, to not podcast sermons, and to embrace a more monastic witness. The irony is that if they tried, we'd probably turn them into larger celebrities and laud their humility. The desert fathers had a similar problem. But if the message is going to critique the American dream for the people in the pews, then we may need pastors willing to show us the path of downward mobility with their lives.
Interior-oriented movements can generate a lot of energy initially. But the gospel is supposed to create a culture, and a culture takes root only within a society over time. It perpetuates itself to future generations without requiring a new revival in every season. The urgent rhetoric of preaching the gospel to the billion unreached and helping the poor right now leaves little space to create the institutions and practices (art, literature, theology, liturgy, festivals, etc.) that can transmit such an inheritance to the next generation, and to form belief in deeper and more permanent ways. Buildings cost money, and beautiful buildings even more. Universities don't feed the poor or win souls, yet they promulgate knowledge in the church and around the world. These are the gears of a transgenerational movement. Yet it's not clear whether radical Christianity has any room for them. Most of the stories that are told in these books clearly do not.
The need for a revived attention to form is most clear in worship, which is the main theater of the church's confrontation with God. If the people in the pews have been uncritically co-opted by the American dream (and indeed many have), let's also point out that our worship practices have been nearly uncritically co-opted by the American emphasis on celebrity, stardom, and performance.
For us in the pews, testing ourselves must include deliberating about our vocations and whether we are called to missions, or to a life of dedicated service to the poor, or to creating reminders with art and culture of the gospel's transcendent, everlasting hope. Discovering a radical faith may mean revisiting the ways in which faith can take shape in the mundane, sans intensifiers. It almost certainly means embracing the providence of God in our witness to the world. The Good Samaritan wasn't a good neighbor because he moved to a poor part of town or put a pile of trash in his living room. He came across the helpless victim "as he traveled." We begin to fulfill the command not when we do something radical, extreme, over the top, not when we're really spiritual or really committed or really faithful, but when in the daily ebb and flow of life, in our corporate jobs, in our middle-class neighborhoods, on our trips to Yellowstone and Disney World—and yes, even short-term mission trips—we stop to help those whom we meet in everyday life, reaching out in quiet, practical, and loving ways.
In the sermon, I mentioned Christian businessman Tom Addison (that’s actually his pen name, not his real name). I alluded to his work but did not actually quote him. He has an excellent three part series on wealth on Aaron Renn’s The Masculinity website. Here are some key excerpts from the first article in the series (https://themasculinist.com/pietism-and-christian-wealth/):
We seem to understand that our moral responsibility with such a large sum of money, even one meant for charity, is to create a sustainable institution to steward it and ensure its work can go into the future as long as possible. Even if bleeding down the principal to zero in one year could help more people right now, we recognize to do so would be short-sighted, depriving the future for the present.
This principle of stewardship is what I call “gospel thinking.” It seeks for the long-term good, and thinks in terms of decades instead of months or years. It is the opposite of linear thinking that demands emotional, dramatic acts of giving that contradict wisdom. It is the opposite of the attitude of Judas – we are not, in fact, called to sell everything right now and give the proceeds to the poor. We are called to stewardship, no matter the size or type of fortune God has providentially placed under our care.
Gospel thinking accounts for exponential growth, peppered throughout the parables of Christ. Exponential growth isn’t complicated….
The gospel is very explicitly depicted as something with exponential growth in the New Testament. I believe this is why Jesus uses so many agricultural analogies in his parables. The gospel is compared to yeast, a microscopic creature that grows at a constant rate of doubling. It is compared to grains of wheat. And most interestingly for our purpose, it is compared to a quantity of gold, the talent, for which the master requires a return. The disobedient servant who buried his talent is corrected for not at least putting it to use with lenders to earn interest.
If you recall our earlier discussion about how growing a fortune, the reason tithing eventually does more good for the Kingdom than giving everything away in one dramatic act is because wealth grows the same way as plants or yeast. It grows at a rate proportional to itself, eventually leading to outsized gains where the tithe dwarfs the size of the original gift. This is why Einstein famously called compound interest the “eighth wonder of the world.” It is an amazingly powerful force, utterly overwhelming the claims of asceticism and pietism with inarguable mathematics.
A fortune can eventually grow so large that personal consumption becomes a rounding error. The essence of the pietist argument is that personal sacrifice, to the point of living like a monk, is necessary to maximize the reach of the gospel. If it doesn’t “hurt” to give, you must not be giving enough. This is the essence of every spiritual guilt trip pushed by pietist neo-Pharisees like Chan, Platt, and Piper. Mathematical reality says that a reasonable lifestyle in proportion to one’s wealth will have virtually zero impact on the eventual amount of support for the Kingdom.
The only remaining claim of the pietist is the appeal to a higher form of spiritualism than that which is actually demanded by the Bible. The Old Testament demands the tithe, and the New Testament even arguably makes that voluntary, but the pietist demands something beyond the Scriptures. The pietist is more concerned with subjective emotions, of a sort of masochism for the gospel, of taking on unnecessary sacrifice, and laying this as a burden on the successful. This of course is the more charitable view, as I believe not a few of them are motivated by envy. I do not think it is a coincidence that fully half of the commandments in the “Second Table of the Law” that govern our relationship with man concern themselves with envy and its derivatives. Do not steal, with its corollary to respect property rights. Do not commit adultery, with Christ explicitly linking adultery to a preceding act of covetousness towards the good fortune enjoyed by another man in having an attractive wife. And, of course, the last and longest commandment covering coveting itself.
The desire of the human heart to tear down others for their good fortune is so strong that covetousness is the only “heart sin” described in the entire Ten Commandments. Every other commandment concerns objective acts of behavior. Only this one talks about the motivations of the heart explicitly. The philosophies of Marxism, pietism, and their Christian equivalent, the social gospel, are fundamentally driven by baptized covetousness. They dismiss the idea that merit and chance are legitimate reasons for people having different outcomes in life, and assert that any differences must be due to oppressive structures.
The biggest blind spot in the church today is an entitled sense of covetousness, of encouraging people to indulge ideas of victimhood rather than overcoming obstacles through personal virtue. Christians who have made the sacrifices of hard work, education, and personal discipline to achieve a measure of financial success should be well aware that the most likely sin to be committed against them in the church is covetousness, even if veiled in gospel language.
We must reject pietism and the social gospel root and branch, for we cannot fulfill our Kingdom purposes if we are plagued by a debilitating sense of guilt for our success, especially when the teachers of guilt have the implicit blessing of the Church. This deprives successful contributors to our society of the joy of their calling, and it affects people up and down the wealth scale.
The wealthy person is of course made to feel inadequate in their giving, but also the middle class person. If you are a hardworking engineer, for example, you have the opportunity, over a career, to build significant wealth. You will be able to own a nice house, and likely have significant savings in a company 401(k). You support your family, your church, and you probably are raising a family, the most significant Kingdom work there is, though rarely acknowledged as such from the pulpit. You know in your conscience that this is your true calling. However, the church continually pushes forward as examples worthy of emulation those who quit a successful career to pursue missions, those who give away half their income, or give away all of their possessions to live as a Christian vagabond. In almost all of these cases, the church is promoting the public drama of an unstable personality, a person who thinks thumbing their nose at wisdom for the sake of “the gospel” is the essence of true faith.
A small but debilitating sense of guilt sets in, such that the everyday struggles of providing for a family, serving customers, being a good worker, a good spouse, all of these little virtues that build a church, even a civilization, from the ground up are seen as somehow less spiritual than those individuals who engage in public drama and write books about it. These fathers and mothers, struggling against the grain of our culture, are the hidden heroes of the church. They are the “forgotten man and woman” who are never praised because they simply quietly do their duty in a thousand different ways every day without seeking attention. They respect authority, especially authorities in their churches, and while they never expected public praise – for they do their duty out of conscience, not for attention – they are slowly, over the years, inculcated by the dramatic propaganda of the churches into seeing their ordinary Christian lives as somehow displeasing to God. It’s never stated, but it’s implied, and their joy is stolen from them by dramatic personalities who don’t understand that their need for attention is not evidence of spiritual superiority to the ordinary Christian. No, it is more evidence of pride and vanity than anything resembling true spirituality. The very people who ought to be most praised by the church are made to feel lesser, and those who need to temper their manic behavior with wisdom and humility are never corrected.
The novelist Raymond Chandler described movie stars, and dramatic personalities generally, when a character explains, “But show business has always been like that — any kind of show business. If these people didn’t live intense and rather disordered lives, if their emotions didn’t ride them too hard — well, they wouldn’t be able to catch those emotions in flight and imprint them on a few feet of celluloid or project them across the footlights.” With churches increasingly more pressured by the culture to provide entertainment as part of the church experience, it is not a surprise that highly charismatic, atypically dramatic personalities have risen to positions of influence in church culture. Dramatic people can inspire us to action, and they have a role to play in the church, but we do well to be aware of their shortcomings, which mostly come in the area of wisdom and discernment.
When the church puts itself at odds with wisdom – the wisdom of the Bible itself, which says a just man leaves an inheritance for his children – it breeds cynicism and paralysis. Instead of focusing on very obvious personal sins that kill the soul, whether lust, gluttony, or covetousness, the church focuses on pseudo-sins, like whether tithing is enough, or whether a church’s demographics are sufficiently diverse according to arbitrary categories, or whether it’s selfish to raise one’s children in a safe neighborhood. Worse, the church involves itself in complicated social issues, as pastors with no statistical literacy or policy expertise oversimplify real social problems with cherry-picked Scripture. Those sufficiently wise to not overrule their common sense, when faced with such foolishness in the pulpit, are left with a series of bad choices: leave, disengage, or become cynical.
My purpose is to set these “common sense captives” free, to liberate the vast majority of churchgoers from the guilt inculcated by drama kings and queens and their Pharisee enablers. I want to restore joy to the struggles of everyday life. All of the mundane trials of life, working hard, raising kids, saving money, all of these we can count for joy if we can link them to a higher purpose. This purpose is not short-term missions work, or short-term mercy ministries, as important as those are, but rather the cultural triumph of the Christian faith in human history.
When we do our best in our work, we imitate our original design purpose. God placed man in his innocent state in a garden, a garden he was expected to work, tend, maintain, and over which he was to exercise dominion. We see the same command given to Noah, post-Fall and post-Flood, to fill the Earth and subdue it. Christianity is about the redemption of the totality of human life, and at the highest level, our original “great commission,” man’s purpose is to exercise godly dominion over the Earth. Unfortunately, many churches reduce the purpose of Christian life to something akin to a pyramid scheme – we are saved for the singular purpose of evangelizing others.
Admittedly, because of sin a huge subset of this original commission is contained in the New Testament’s Great Commission. Our original nature distorted by sin means our ability to effectively subdue the Earth is mightily compromised, and only the regenerative power of the Holy Spirit can fix it. The Great Commission itself is a command to “make disciples.” Necessarily, making disciples requires healthy efforts at evangelism, but notice that evangelism itself is not the be-all end-all of a Christian life. It is a major part of man’s restoration to his original calling, but it sits underneath the call to make disciples, which itself sits under Christ’s overall mission to restore mankind to a righteous state before God, so that man can fulfill his original mission for work and dominion. All of this, of course, works towards God’s glory and man’s good, happiness, and enjoyment of communion with his Creator.
There are many things I like about Addison’s article. He attacks the mindset of the poverty gospel, focused on dramatic, emotional, and, frankly, foolish one-off acts of generosity that get immediate attention but actually undercut more effective, long term, more prudent ways of helping the poor. Again, there are a few people whom Jesus called to give up everything so they could join in his kingdom march to Jerusalem. But even in Jesus’ day this call applied to very few of his band of disciples. For most disciples of Jesus, even in 30 AD, discipleship looked a lot less radical and a lot more ordinary. Our use of wealth should be governed by long term wisdom. We have multiple responsibilities. Our responsibilities are layered. We have to provide for ourselves and our families (including an inheritance). We have to support the work of the church with the tithe and beyond. We have to care for the poor. Giving everything away all at once, or living a “ poverty gospel” life, destroys our ability to fulfill these responsibilities and risks making us a burden to others.
I also appreciate that Addison links the Great Commission back to the Creation Mandate. The Great Commission is necessary if the Creation mandate is going to be fulfilled in a fallen world. People must be formed into the image of Christ if they are going to fulfill the original purpose for man as the image of God. Grace restores nature, redemption fulfills the original purpose of creation. Any version of “spirituality” that does not tie back to the Creation Mandate is inadequate biblically.
Finally, Addison is right to focus on wise stewardship. His assumptions about growth may not always hold true (especially if our government continues to move in an interventionist, socialist direction, which will discourage business investment and hinder growth). But he still right: We should not hoard wealth (as if the goal of life was accumulating as much as possible), nor do we squander wealth (wasting it on purely selfish pursuits), nor do we give it all away at once (since this destroys our ability to grow wealth over time, for future generations and kingdom purposes). Our use of money should be governed by wisdom and the priority of the kingdom — but, as I pointed out in the sermon, we must remember the cosmic scope of the kingdom. Different kingdom activities will have different levels of importance, which is why it is important to keep in mind the concept of rightly ordered loves, but every legitimate human endeavor can and must be brought under the reign of King Jesus.
It is true that we must make pace for the occasional Jim Elliot or George Mueller but this is not what the Christian life will look like for most believers and we should not life with constant low grade guilt if it does not. Nothing will lead to burn out and cynicism quicker than constant calls for highly emotionalized, “radicalized” Christian living.
In considering how to be generous with our money, we should always start with those with whom familial, ecclesial, and geographic proximity. Kevin DeYoung addresses this in his review of Platt’s book:
Moreover, surely it is appropriate to hold to believe in some sort of moral proximity when it comes to the pressing needs of the world. We do have more responsibility for the boy drowning in our pool than for the boy starving on the other side of the world. The whole world wasn’t rebuked for neglecting the man on the Jericho road, but the priest and Levite were (Luke 10:29-37). The needs of the church come before the needs of the world (Gal. 6:10) and the needs of our families take on a priority that other needs don’t (1 Tim. 5:8).
Also see Jim Roger’s article “How Many Foreigners is an American Worth?”:
God permits, even requires, humans to have preferential commitments to sets of people smaller than humanity in general. These are the “especiallys” in the Scriptures. Paul writes to Timothy, “If anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” And in his letter to the church at Galatia, “While we have opportunity, let us do good to all men, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.”
We need to actually understand what causes poverty. Hernando DeSoto has pointed out that so-called “third world” nations are actually sitting on piles on wealth, but because they lack the rule of law, respect for private property, etc., cannot access it and make use of it. The issue is not so much exploitation from other (Western) nations, but their own incompetence, corruption, and sub-biblical worldview. The biggest thing holding back the "third world" is the third world itself.
Further, what the poor need most is not “hand out” but a “hand up.” They don’t just need charity, they needs skills, training, a work ethic, and, of course, jobs, which only come available in economic systems that make investment viable and profitable.
De Young commits on this rightly:
We need a better understanding of poverty and wealth in the world. The Christian needs to be generous, but generous charity is not the answer to the world’s most pressing problems of hunger, inadequate medical care, and grinding poverty. Wealth is created in places where the rule of law is upheld, property rights are secured, people are free to be entrepreneurs, and there is sufficient social capital to encourage risk-taking. We can and should do good with our giving. But we must not lead people to believe that most of human suffering would be alleviated if we simply gave more.