How do wealthy Christians exist?

I was reading Sarah Vowell’s Wordy Shipmates and, while reading about the religious fervor of the Puritans, I couldn’t help but wonder: how does a Christian living in the U.S. reconcile their wealth with their beliefs?

I contrain the question to just the U.S. because if they live in the U.S and are earning $50,000 income/year, they are already richer than 99% of the rest of the world population. Yet as I see “What Would Jesus Do” bracelets proliferate, or attend rock concert-like Sunday services, I can’t help but think he wouldn’t be spending so much money on a Sunday service spreading his message. But I’m guessing here.

Before we progress, some background. I used to be a pretty devout Christian. I was raised Catholic. If you asked what I wanted to be in the future, I would say priest. In my teens, my family moved to The Bible Belt and I attended a private Baptist middle school. I witnessed a plenty. By the end of that experience, I was quoting scripture and carrying a leather bound NIV Bible.

But I was conflicted. And how richly one should live was one of the concerns. I just didn’t know how much I needed to walk the walk in order to certify my ticket into Heaven.

So, I’m back at wondering once again how/why do wealthy Christians exist. The concern is that if one is wealthy, they aren’t 1) helping out others enough, 2) are too focused on wealth or the making thereof, or 3) spending too much time with their material and not enough with their Messiah.

A friend reminded me that the Bible doesn’t concern itself with the ambiguities of how much wealth you should/shouldn’t keep. I agree. The Bible, New Testament at least, is notably ambiguous to specific amounts of wealth. However, the Bible in general is a qualitative not quantitative piece of literature.

I think the lack of dollar or percentage amount has more to do with not buying your way into heaven (1 corith 13:3) and less about it being OK to be wealthy/rich. Some state that their wealth is a sign that they are blessed. But Matthew 13:22 warns of the concerns of wealth, Mark 10:23 states the difficulty of the rich going to heaven, Luke 16:13 discusses how wealth detracts from God.

Is it OK for a Christian to be wealthy? As Palin says, you betcha! But let’s be honest, with so much scripture warning of the concerns of being wealthy and it detracting you from God, it would take a really, really, I mean REALLY devout Christian to be both wealthy and on the course. And I just don’t believe that most American Christians are this devout.

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16 thoughts on “How do wealthy Christians exist?

  1. I’m an atheist, but I also grew up around Christians and thus can make a pretty good devil’s (heh) advocate in this case.

    Some (most?) Christians believe that everything we treasure in life is a blessing from God. So if you become rich by virtue of your septic tank drainage business, that is a blessing bestowed upon you by the Lord. If you’re born poor and have to struggle all of your life to put food on the table, that’s just God’s will, right? This goes double for people like Creflo Dollar and Joel Osteen who preach that the more you reach out to God, the more money you will have.

    In the end, I think the real answer is the most followers of religion don’t actually believe in their religion to its logical conclusion. They take the parts that they want to hear and the parts that they actually want to live in their lives and they throw out the rest. Obama will put his hand on the bible in about two weeks, and he’ll probably not be thinking about the passages that condone slavery. If your average Christian truly believed that A) our primary concern on Earth should be for our fellow man and B) all non-believers are going to burn hell, they would give every penny to the poor and spend every waking hour trying to convert everyone on earth, wouldn’t they? I certainly would. If I could spend a few days persuading someone to believe in something, and in return, I would save them from roasting in eternal fire, that’s a pretty incredible ROI, no?

    Anyway, your point is well put. The vast, vast majority of the American Christian world would rather buy cable TV every month than feed three starving children with that money. Jesus would be disgusted by that, wouldn’t he?

    “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” 1 John 2:15

    • Garrett, thanks for the reply.

      From what I can gather, the issue is not wealth but the “love of money.” Ok, so one must not love money, which I’m gonna assume means so that they can acquire ungodly material possessions. But I go back to my inquiry: are granite counter tops not the love of money, or material possessions? Is an XBOX for the kids setting the Christian example? How can it not be? I know the Bible doesn’t say what they should buy, but only person that has completely deluded themselves can think Jesus would want them to buy their kids an XBOX. What other possibility is there?

      So what does a Christian deal with wealth? The parable of the talents states they shouldn’t bury your talent but rather use it for God. If you have wealth, that means you must use it as a steward of God. You know, charity, tithings, almsgiving, spreading the Word. More specifically, that means you shouldn’t enjoy it to buy “stuff” (Matthew 6).

      “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

      Here is an interesting website on the Bible and Money.

      Kudos to Warren Buffet for giving 85% of his wealth, but let’s be honest, that still leaves millions upon millions. Is that what Jesus would do? Probably not try and get PR on the giving, for starters.

      I don’t mean to “pick” on Christianity, but it is the only religion I know enough to discuss. I don’t want to rain on my professed Christian friends as they succeed in their careers, buy a house, and start savings. By all means, I encourage saving! Yet I often wonder how America can argue it is a Christian nation when it is also so materialistic that we have a renowned reputation for materialism. That America starts with the individual, which means you if you are professing Christian values.

      In the secular giving spirit, I fed three starving children in your name.

      • First – it is not money that is the root of evil – it is the love of money that is the root of all kinds of evil. Working hard at a business, in a business, for a charity, for a cause and if all of that provides a lot of wealth in monetary terms, there is nothing wrong with that. However, no matter how much money you have or do not have – if your whole waking day is consumed by your love of getting more and more money, to the point where you are constantly in court suing people for money, having people killed so you can inherit their money, burning and killing so you can steal what others have, or focusing on money to such a degree that you have zero or little compassion for your fellow man – that is what Jesus was talking about. To follow Him, is to not focus on money, but on Him.

  2. Thanks for the post. I knew you wanted to say more about this than a status message would allow!
    My response to your last sentence: They surely are not. So true.

    Another related topic I have found interesting as of late is the diference in what wealth was in Biblical times and now. For instance, I will totally pick at myself here, I would complain and whine to God to fix my car if it stopped running and I had no money to fix it. I would wonder, if He didn’t give me the money or miraculously made it run, why He wasn’t answering my prayers. But where did He ever promise us a car or a cell phone or 72 degree temperatures in our homes? Americans not only feel like they deserve certain things because of our culture, but even our existence in this time in history where we are afforded so much technology to make our lives cushy.

  3. Queue humility?

    And the key is *we*. Most humans, like 99%, live off $50,000/yr. Why can’t *we*? Because *we* assume inalienable rights such as Life, Liberty, and Cable TV.

    The fact is, most people are still fighting for food, shelter and clothing, while we are too busy figuring out what color to paint a wall, whether we want leather upholstery or fabric.

    Again, I pick on Christians because 1) I have a decent understanding of their scripture and 2) they, like many religions, make claims to charity, poor, and yadda yadda. Regardless, it should be a challenge to us all — to step out of materialism. I know its siren call all to well myself.

  4. I am surprised how little some westerners or Christians in the west understood the Bible on the issue of wealth or wealth creation. My family became a Christian 3 decades ago, and is fully blessed by the wonderful truth in the Bible. We understand, money is not wealth. Real wealth is character and competence, which is what the Bible seeks to tell us. Money is just the outcome or measure of our character and competence. To be wealthy one must cultivate the correct mindset, acquire good or rich habits. It is the way of thinking and the habits that make one rich. The Bible is the best business book that teaches one to change mindset and to acquire the character and competence to manage or look after His creation. God has given us the mind (knowledge), the hands and feet (human body), the talents & skills, the will (emotion) and spiritual power (faith, hope and love)and God’s bank (natural resources) to bring positive change to ourselves, our family, community, and country or to create tangible wealth to this world. Poverty is a state of mind when one fails to know God and God’s character, unable to find or know themselves, to own themselves and to be the best they can be. Poor people can be freed from poverty by renewal of the mind, to see things with their mind/ faith, not with their eyes, to believe that with God’s help they can do all things for His glory. The highest form of wealth is wisdom. To receive wisdom is very easy, just pray to Jesus and invite Him to enter your heart. Jesus is WISDOM. His gift of wisdom will transform people, their mind, character and competence. Wealth in the form of being wise, knowledgeable, happy, healthy and wealthy will follow through. Character is intangible wealth. Competence is to use God given talents to convert resources into tangible wealth. The Bible said, seek ye first the Kingdom of God (which is character) and all these things (human needs or tangible wealth acquired through competence) shall be added to you. Christians should stop receiving, and start giving. When we give love, we receive love. When we invest in serving others, we build God’s account, and we receive favor in return. We build business because of our goodwill account. Those who invest in Character – Words of gold in his lips(Integrity & trust), and heart of gold (to love and serve others), and in building Competence – effective use of time to value add life and use of resources to create tangible wealth, will be greatly blessed and succeed in the Game of Life. The whole Bible teaches man about the Game of life – to be a human asset, not human liability. To have Jesus Christ in your heart, the character and competence (love, compassion, hard work, discipline, etc) as a God’s servant or servant heart, to submit to the will of God, will make you a human asset. To be otherwise, to have negative values and bad characters, put one under the kingdom of darkness, man’s will or sin, and become a human liability to himself, to his family, community and country. Accept and invite Jesus today. God’s love will change you. Amen. Kota Kinabalu, Sabah Malaysian Borneo.

  5. I have struggled with the same issue. Throughout college, I’d spend my breaks between quarters on mission trips. I spent a month with the Quechuan people (Incan descendants) at the top of the Bolivian Andes. There I saw true faith, and no material wealth. But even there, among mostly people who worshipped rocks and water, materialism had a grasp. Sneakers were coveted over tire-tread sandals, but not in a practical way, more like they had some bling. Homes for families smaller the size of a dorm room. I got home and was repulsed by the materialism around me. But as I’ve prayed over it for years, and learning to look at people the way God sees them (and me), I see fear, insecurity, and rejection behind most displays ov accumulation. It’s human nature, I guess, to see wealth as a blessing, and no one wants anyone else to find out that they’re big fat sinners, too. When Christ has washed you clean, then you shouldn’t still be sinning, right? You should be out there blessing others, and being blessed in return! Alas, no, that is not scriptural. God condones saving for future “rainy days” in His Word, but those who build monuments to themselves are robbing themselves of the joy God has offered them through giving & serving. They forget they’re stewards, and that their excessive incomes are no better than another’s meager income. We all have available to use different ways to serve abundantly. So few of us remember to use them. It breaks my heart that our failings as Christians are a hinderance to other people knowing God’s love. And that so many people call themselves Christians but are simply following Christian traditions, not following Christ, and that tarnishes God’s name.
    In the timeline of eternity, even the oldest & wisest among us is a mere toddler… who gets into everything, makes messes everywhere, and barely notices the whirlwind of trouble he just caused. But even in all of our dysfunction & disobedience, the Lord is still the Loving Father who delights in His beloved children! That is Good News!

  6. Well,

    This is a consuming topic for me.

    I am a Christian, an Episcopal priest of 25 years. I am CEO of a waste water company (loved the septic reference above because that is me in many ways!)that I came to run then control through a most bizarre set of circumstances.

    Today I am in that top 1% of income after spending 20+ years in the bottom 50%. My net worth is in the top 1%, though I have always been a saver/investor for retirement. I started with nothing.

    I can say a few things from both sides of the spectrum–wealth makes you worried about wealth. You don’t want to loose what you have so you obsess. My rich friends are much less content than my poor friends. When the economy went south my business became vulnerable and I had to make a choice–risk loosing the company to the bank or release half of my employees. It was hell knowing that I was line operators on the bread line while I live in a lovely home. I did it because I knew no other way. I write happily that most have been rehired.

    The Fransicans had this struggle–what to do with wealth when you’ve taken a vow of poverty (which by the way is not part of any baptismal covenant I know of throughout the centuries.) Bonaventure’s solution–“use not ownership.) The Order could use the beautiful house, just not own it. Well, I look at my wealth in a similar manner. I am using it, but I am God’s steward. Yes I live well, but I seek to live responsibly.

    I set up a foundation that brings safe drinking water to remote African villages. My family travels to West Africa annually to meet with villagers and plan for our projects. We give away 20-25% of our annual income. We pay taxes which is another way that we underwrite America’s safety net (though this is not voluntary, obviously!) We have done estate planning to that upon our death the Anglican clergy in West Africa will receive a funded pension.

    I should note that all of this was set up when we were in the bottom 50% without any anticipation of “moving up” the income ladder.

    For me, Steven Spielberg hit the nail when he portray’s Oscar Schindler gazing upon a ring and lamenting that he could have saved three more Jews from the camp had he sold it rather than kept it. For me, I am reminded of my obligation to the poor every time a light up a cigar or play golf.

    I am willing to be held to a high moral standard, and to struggle over America’s wealth addiction. It should be noted that the Church’s early experiment in communism (Acts 2-4) failed miserable once everbody sold off their means of production. St. Paul never embraces the Jerusalem community’s mindset, instead opting for the Greek concept of charity in which one maintains ownership but gives from one’s produced wealth.

    When I went to sell my company to establish a pension fund for the clergy in West Africa, the African Bishops urged me not to sell. They understand the importance of a business as a wealth generator, as a means not only to provide a service or product to society, but also as a means to provide livelihoods and grow wealth for workers. Their message, ignore communism, continue your charity, and let go of the guilt. One and two are a pleasure, number three is tough for all the reasons noted above.

    It is indeed hard to keep oneself centered when engaged in making money. At least it is for me.

    • Doug:

      First off, thanks for sharing! Very interesting thoughts. 🙂

      I was struck, though, by one particular statement you made, which doesn’t jibe with my (admittedly limited) knowledge of early church history. Specifically: “It should be noted that the Church’s early experiment in communism (Acts 2-4) failed miserable once everbody sold off their means of production. St. Paul never embraces the Jerusalem community’s mindset, instead opting for the Greek concept of charity in which one maintains ownership but gives from one’s produced wealth.”

      This topic is something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, and I would be thrilled for more information/guidance on it, especially some historical context from the first century, so I was wondering if you might be willing/able to share with us some of the sources where you got the above information from–whether those sources be books, articles, or whatever. I’d be much obliged. Thanks!

  7. Personally christianity versus wealth is a struggle that perhaps can never be fully settled. When reconciling the qualitative nature of scriptures with modern world implementation, it is nearly an impossible job because it requires sacrifices most of us are unwilling to make. Christ and his followers lived not for themselves but for a single greater cause. Whether you are speaking of christianity or the other abrahamic traditions, modern interpretations of these faiths have evolved into corporate spirituality. By which is meant that everyone pitches in to accomplishing all the tenets or mission of their faith, instead of individually living their personal accountability. Sure, aspects such as accountability for sin which is arguably denoted as personal, might be an exception. Unfortunately people generally view taking care of the poor and needy as a part of an effort of their larger denomination. Like any corporation these efforts fail in light of its own bureaucracy. Surely we would have a different world if people did in fact believe that theirs is the responsibility of caring for the less fortunate. Jesus certainly acted though his was the personal responsibility to do a myriad of things which essentially made it impossible to carry on any sort of wealth building or mission distracting ventures. It is arguable if anyone who similarly believed and acted what Jesus believed, if they ever would find themselves rich.

    • Roger, thanks for your comment. As a business owner, I cringe whenever I meet another business owner that discusses profit in one breath and their Christian faith in another. The argument usually goes like this:

      – “I use a lot of my money for the poor and unfortunate.” Yet rarely if ever is this “a lot” a majority. Not that Christian scripture says you need to give any amount. But even if you just go with the “spirit” of scripture, in addition to its warnings wealth-focus, surely it’s far more than less than half.

      – “I don’t focus on wealth.” Unless you are a silverspoon, you focus on wealth. Not just “enough to live” but enough to travel afar, eat fine food, wear nice clothing, and own expensive stuff. I’m not suggesting this is wrong — I’m arguing that this isn’t in the spirit of their own religious principles.

      – “I’m blessed.” And everyone else is cursed?

      That being said, I think it is great when a person gives to charity, whether it be from a wealth of time or money. I just wonder what is going through people’s mind when they ask What Would Jesus Do in their mega-churches, adorned in fine clothing, and later going home to live lavishly relative to the rest of the world. I don’t think Jesus would do that.

  8. Lean not on your own understanding. It seems like everyone here is trying to comprehend the eternal. Our minds can’t do it.

    Just believe! Believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Regardless of your situation, God is still in control.
    Izzy

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