SynchroBlog: Money and The Church
The story is told of an occasion where St. Thomas Aquinas was walking with a prelate through one of the grand cathedrals of his day. Referring to a coffer filled with precious coins, the prelate remarked, “Behold, Master Thomas, the church can no longer say, as St. Peter, ‘Silver and gold have I none!'” St. Thomas was apparently quick with his retort, “Alas, neither can we say what follows, ‘In the name of Jesus Christ, rise up and walk.'”
The church has come a long way from the catacomb to the cathedral… it’s a real rags-to-riches story. I’ve been looking lately at a number of the Messianic prophecies in Isaiah and elsewhere in the Old Testament, and I’ve been struck by the promises to the poor, the oppressed, and the downtrodden. The Bible has a lot to say about money… far, far more, in fact, than it does about any of the pet issues that pervade and divide our churches. It would seem that our culture actually has just as much to say about money, though to a rather different tune. The church stands in between, interfacing culture and the Bible, the church and the world. In this, the church is effective in so many quarters in conveying the important themes concerning finances from one side to the other so that they can see things in a more harmonious fashion. It’s no small task, given that the two views, if we’re honest, are so often diametrically opposed.
Too bad the filter is on backwards.
In the Biblical text, we have a situation where the people of God were some of the downtrodden, the oppressed… but not universally. The Corinthian church had an integration problem between rich and poor, and the Epistle of James has a harsh warning for the rich, prophesying their doom for their behavior, the way they’ve managed their wealth and the way they’ve treated their workers. Give it a read:
Look here, you rich people: Weep and groan with anguish because of all the terrible troubles ahead of you. Your wealth is rotting away, and your fine clothes are moth-eaten rags. Your gold and silver have become worthless. The very wealth you were counting on will eat away your flesh like fire. This treasure you have accumulated will stand as evidence against you on the day of judgment. For listen! Hear the cries of the field workers whom you have cheated of their pay. The wages you held back cry out against you. The cries of those who harvest your fields have reached the ears of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies.
You have spent your years on earth in luxury, satisfying your every desire. You have fattened yourselves for the day of slaughter. You have condemned and killed innocent people, who do not resist you.
The warning is so harsh that many interpreters have assumed that it was intended for those outside the church. But James is a difficult epistle in so many ways, and here is another example — the letter didn’t circulate outside the community of faith, and the text is directly addressed to those inside the church. Clearly this problem of the unjust use of money is nothing new. If late modernity has contributed anything to it though, it might be some combination of protestant work ethic and the spirit of capitalism (sound familiar?)… not to mention the pernicious teaching that God wants us rich. As the blinders come off, more and more people are becoming willing to label it the late 20th Century’s major heresy. (Except it slipped past the millennium, dang.)
This past week I talked again with some people about tithing… and the “financial seminar” that a church sponsored recently because, well, we’re nearing the end of the budget year. It has to tell you something that the doctrine of material wealth for Christians invariably shrinks God to the size of a formula that promises a decent ROI if you just follow the giving-rules. Odd that although the New Testament doesn’t affirm tithing, the church tends to teach the end of every requirement of the law save this one. I have been told by some of these “teachers” to tithe on what I don’t have with expectation that God will make up the difference, and beyond. This despite Paul’s commentary on the matter, which includes the fact that we are not expected to give of what we don’t have. Again, this is one of those “How long has that been in there?” moments.
Hypothetically speaking of course, if some of these big-dollar ministries were to be targeted for review by the tax department, there will be no legitimate claim to persecution. It isn’t due to their bearing of the name of Christ, it’s due to their misrepresentation of it. I recall some of my former leaders using the phrase “living off the Gospel” as a means of avoiding the difficult phrase “full-time ministry.” I know what they meant, but these days it sounds more sordid, like a televangelist, as Bono would say, “stealing money from the sick, and the old.” In the local church, the recurring phrase is that your tithe is due the local church, and anything else above that can be redirected. It’s a way of thinking that always rubbed me the wrong way… but I never was able get them to change the phrase “God’s Tithes and Our Offerings” beside the thermometer on the back of the bulletin every week.
It’s true though, some form of power has left the church, sold for a mess of pottage in the offering plate. But dang, we’ve got to pat ourselves on the back, don’t we? From catacomb to cathedral — it really is a bootstrapping rags-to-riches story, isn’t it?