(This is a cross post with a post done earlier today at Jesus Creed.)
Henri Nouwen once observed that when people came to him for counseling, most of them would open up and readily discuss the most intimate details of their sex lives. But when he began probing about personal finances, body postures became closed and people would want to know why he was getting so personal. Money is important to us.
Today we continue our discussion of John Knapp’s How the Church Fails Businesspeople (and what can be done about it). We are looking at Chapter Three, “Uneasy Bedfellows: Money and the Church.”
How do you reconcile the historic ambiguity about wealth and money? Going back to at least Calvin we have the realization that we are not in a zero-sum game but that wealth can be grown. Does this matter for how we see wealth? Why do you think we in the church find it so hard to wrestle theologically with money and wealth?
Dr. Knapp believes the divide between businesspeople and the church is rooted in a related issue: the Christian community’s longstanding ambivalence toward money. This is important because work and money are inextricably connected in our culture. Money and wealth are the means by which we “keep score” in our society, not just in terms of how we rate possessions but, unfortunately, too often it is how we value people. Money and wealth have been a central concern of Judeo-Christian ethical teaching from the start. In this chapter, Knapp gives us a brief survey of “Money and the Church” over the ages.
Frankly, the Bible offers us a seemingly conflicted perspective. Wealth is presented as a blessing on some occasions while on other occasions we are warned not to desire wealth, even to renounce it. Knapp recounts several passages dealing with wealth in the Old Testament and sees three common themes:
- All wealth belongs to the sovereign God, whose purposes are not necessarily ours.
- There is spiritual danger in seeking after money or property for oneself, as this turns us away from our proper dependence upon God.
- Financial prosperity may indeed be a blessing, but a willingness to renounce wealth indicates that one is fit to be entrusted with it. (48)
As we come to the New Testament, things become more challenging. An ethic of selflessness, of taking care of other members of the Christian community, is central. There is teaching about forgiving debts. Jesus says that money may have spiritual power over us. We are told that the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. How does one reconcile a modern pursuit of profit and loaning at interest with the Bible?
The Early Church: A Community of Sharing and Sacrifice
Knapp gives a quick sampling of teaching on money from the time of the New Testament on through to Constantine and on to Augustine of Hippo. There is some diversity of opinion but Knapp sees four common themes:
- Christians are required to give generously, even sacrificially, to ensure that the needs of others are met.
- Responsible ownership of private property is permissible, but all wealth is intended by God to be used for the good of all.
- It is wrong to charge interest on loaned money, and even more so if the borrower is poor.
- A desire for wealth indicates a sinful heart and endangers the soul. (57)
The Middle Ages: Greater Accommodation to Wealth
In the millennium between Augustine and Luther, Knapp sees greater accommodation to wealth. Pope Gregory I in his Book of Pastoral Rule (a work that guided bishops for centuries) suggests that the rich not be condemned simply for being rich. He generalizes the rich man in the “eye of the needle” parable to mean any proud person. The medieval church relaxed restrictions on money-lending. Care for the poor was reduced to almsgiving.
At the same time, the church was becoming a major multinational entity, owning as much as one third of the developed land in Europe by 900. By the Thirteenth Century the church was making loans, often with ruthless enforcement. Knapp concludes:
“Medieval teachings on money were limited almost exclusively to individual practice (micro-economics in today’s terminology). It is fair to say that the church had not developed a theology capable of informing its own exercise of vast institutional and macro-economic responsibilities.” (60)
The Reformation: Rethinking Work and Its Monetary Rewards
Concern about financial behavior of the church was one of the sparks of the Protestant Reformation. Selling of indulgences was of particular concern. Knapp notes that many of the reformers, including Luther and Calvin were revisiting theology and ethics in light of the rise of a mercantile economy.
“No longer was wealth seen as “zero-sum game” where one person’s gain was another’s loss. These theologians recognized that a growing economy could provide new financial opportunities for the poor, that almsgiving was not the only way to help them.” (61)
Luther wanted to recover the dignity of work but he felt people should remain in their ordained life station. Calvin took a more radical view, seeing profits through business and investments as an opportunity to expand service. He broke with church history and encouraged people to pursue greater wealth, not for superfluous luxury but to create more to give to the poor. Economic development would give the poor “… the opportunity to work hard and to demonstrate they are among the elect.” (62) Still, even as he opened the door for capitalism (which came later), Calvin also stressed that generated wealth was to be used for the benefit of others, not self-centered pursuits.
Our Contemporary Confusion
Liberalism in the Enlightenment broke with historic Church teaching, advocating pursuit of personal enrichment without regard for the achievement of just ends. It was in stark contrast to the church’s historical teaching. That departure has certainly expanded the work and faith divide.
Knapp writes at the end of this chapter:
“So it is that some churches embrace money-talk with gusto, while others tiptoe around the subject except when necessary to raise the annual church budget. In either case, little serious attention is given to the practical concerns of working people struggling to apply their faith to questions of money in their own lives.
More often, major church bodies have taken the easier route of critiquing the macro-economic system and it injustices. They issue studies and pronouncements on economic policy, the moral shortcomings of capitalism, the effects of globalization, and other important matters that are not easily connected by Christians to their daily lives. Almost never do these pronouncements offer much help for living and working with an imperfect and frequently unjust system. Too often, these macro-economic statements suggest to individuals that the church is hostile not only to the system but also to the people who participate in it by going to work. Where the pre-Reformation church concerned itself with the economic life of the individual but had little to say about economic systems, the opposite is largely the case today.” (66)
In short, ambiguity reigns. Dr. Knapp is indeed an ambitious soul to try to capture 2,000 years of church teaching in twenty pages but I think he gives us a useful summary.
In the next chapter we will turn to the socio-psychological impact of the divide between faith and wealth. In succeeding chapters we will explore Knapp’s suggestions about how we might achieve some coherence.