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Ignoring the Biblical Teaching about Greed

Ignoring the Biblical Teaching about Greed


On a variety of subjects I regularly hear about how people ignore the plain teaching of scripture. I’d like to take away the phrases “the Bible clearly teaches” and “the plain teaching of scripture” from conservatives, while taking “we don’t take that literally” away from liberals. Then maybe we could get around to discussing the nuances and appropriate social contexts for some biblical materials.

But one thing that I hear about much more rarely is the sin of greed, surely one of the things Jesus talked about very frequently in a number of different ways. I’d like to nominate “committing all that I possess to God” as a pretty clear teaching of Jesus.

Nobody is really saying “greed is good” using the word. Instead, we justify greedy actions by ourselves and others. I’d be very shocked to learn that more than a couple of percent of the possessions of the Christians in the United States was committed to God (or the church), and of what’s committed to the church, a significant amount is used in a self-centered manner.

Perhaps this would be an important topic on which to make a new commitment as we observe commercialism and greed used as a way to celebrate the birth of Jesus, who had no place to lay his head.

That was all launched as I was looking back through Christmas stories from my fiction blop (The Jevlir Caravansary), and found How Scrooge Got It All Wrong.

You see, what Scrooge really needed was some good, modern business advice!

Thoughts from the Energion Tuesday Night Hangout: Stewardship and Worship

Thoughts from the Energion Tuesday Night Hangout: Stewardship and Worship

books tuesday 020216I enjoyed interviewing three different Energion authors last night. The first was Rev. Steve Kindle who talked about stewardship and the importance of starting from an understanding that everything belongs to God. Steve provided some practical steps that a church can use in caring for all of God’s creation. Steve’s book goes into this somewhat more: Stewardship: God’s Way of Recreating the World.

At about 7:30 pm, a half hour into the program, Dr. Jon Dybdahl joined us. Jon is the author of a newly released book Hunger: Satisfying the Longing of Your Soul. When he experienced this longing as a young missionary he started to pursue the presence of God and co-taught a class in college in spirituality. Jon’s PhD is in Old Testament, but he has a passion for serious worship.

For the last 15 minutes, he was joined by Dr. David Moffett-Moore. Dave is author of Pathways to Prayer, and has two doctorates, both a PhD and a DMin. It was interesting and challenging to hear two men with so much education of the mind nonetheless tell us that the intellectual paradigm of religion was not enough. Prayer is an essentially. Coming to know the reality of God’s presence and power is essential.

When I asked Dr. Jon Dybdahl how one would start this in a church as a pastor or other church leader he said the best way was to see your own need and start practicing it yourself. People will sense when your activities in leadership are powered by prayer and time with God whether you’re telling them all about what you’re doing or not. He also suggested a change in terminology that struck me, suggesting we might use “lead worshipper” rather than “worship leader” to take away the separation of the one on the platform from the ones in the pew.

The video is embedded below:

Last Night on the Tuesday Night Energion Hangout: Stewardship

Last Night on the Tuesday Night Energion Hangout: Stewardship

97816319917389781938434129Pastors and church leaders cringe at the “s” word, because so many members don’t want to hear about it. Sometimes they blame the members for not wanting to dedicate their wallets to the Lord. But is that precisely what we should be asking church members to do?

I think the resources to carry out the gospel commission already exist. Those resources are tied up in our individual wallets, bank accounts, and possessions at the individual level. At the church level they are tied up in buildings and supplies, things we’re sure we have to have. But do you know that there are thousands of churches around the world that get along without the things that we, in American churches, absolutely have to have?

Come to think of it, am I aware that there are people who do without things that I count on every day?

My guests were David Croteau, author of Tithing after the Cross and Steve Kindle, author of Stewardship: God’s Way of Recreating the World. They come from different denominational and theological backgrounds and belong to different generations. Yet in looking at what the Bible says about stewardship, they both come to the same conclusions. You’ll be amazed at the level of agreement.

I have heard many of my fellow Americans say that the government needs to get out of charity and let the church do it. You know what? How about if the government could spend way less on social welfare programs because the church was doing its job? I don’t just mean giving out money; that’s part of it. But giving out money results from letting the gospel change our priorities so that we give ourselves to the Lord (2 Corinthians 8:5), and everything else results from that.

Just think! We might even turn the world upside down (Acts 17:6)!

Here’s the video:


Earlier today Dave Black commented on this as well.

From My Editing Work: What is Stewardship?

From My Editing Work: What is Stewardship?

9781631991738I’m editing the manuscript for a new Topical Line Drives volume, Stewardship: God’s Way of Recreating the World, by Steve Kindle. It’s currently scheduled for the end of May, but I’m hoping we’ll get it out a bit earlier.

Here’s a taste:

The apostle Paul revealed to us the key to successful fundraising in his appeal to the Corinthian congregation to assist in the collection he was taking up for the Jerusalem church. His formula: 3For, as I can testify, they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means, 4begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints— 5and this, not merely as we expected; they gave themselves first to the Lord and, by the will of God, to us, …

2 Corinthians 8:3-5

The Macedonians, in spite of their poverty, begged to give to the Jerusalem church—even beyond their means—because they first gave themselves to the Lord. Sure, it is possible to raise a lot of money using sophisticated methods based on psychological triggers and emotional appeals. These are too often resorted to as substitutes for the Macedonian way. A congregation that first “gives themselves to the Lord,” recognizes their stewardship partnership, and everything they do springs from that commitment. So let’s not encourage tithing, that’s about money. Let’s encourage seeing all we have as God’s and act accordingly.

The book isn’t laid out yet, so I can’t give you the page this will be on. I will tell you that I had to choose between several good quotes to use here. This book also looks at stewardship much more broadly than money, including our stewardship of the world we live in.

We’ll also be hearing from Steve Kindle tonight in his conversation with Elgin Husbheck, Jr. on the topic Lent: Season of the Resurrection.

Will Tithers Have Medical Expenses?

Will Tithers Have Medical Expenses?

Pat Robertson puts his foot in his mouth so frequently that it almost seems unfair to go after him for it, but in this case he makes the type of statement that simply must be corrected. I know quite a number of people who would be susceptible to what he says here, and then would be disappointed, and possibly blame themselves, when they continued to have health expenses despite their tithing. Now Right Wing Watch might have taken this out of context (though I don’t know what the context would be), but those few sentences are very damaging.

I’ve heard this type of thing much more regarding financial affairs. Pastors and teachers say that if you tithe you won’t have financial difficulties, won’t go bankrupt, or will even become wealthy. All the while real people pay tithes and nonetheless struggle.

Here’s an extract from a book my company recently published (note that the first sentence is presented as an argument to be refuted by what follows):

9781938434129sGod has significantly blessed those who have faithfully tithed. This blessing demonstrates that tithing is his method for giving in the current period.

In fact, some ministries have offered to give “refunds” if after a certain period (like ninety days) they are not in a better financial situation after giving tithing a try. Other preachers have stated that no one ever has financial trouble if they are tithing. I’ve even heard one preacher say that no one has ever gone bankrupt while tithing!

Has anyone who faithfully tithed gone bankrupt? Absolutely! There are many news stories on the internet explaining how certain individuals have gone bankrupt while tithing. While the situation of Evander Holyfield might seem like the exception, the reality is that so many have had this issue of going bankrupt while tithing that the federal government has been wrestling with how to adjudicate this situation. President Clinton signed the Religious Liberty and Charitable Donation Protection Act in 1998 to allow those who are bankrupt to continue tithing. But a 2005 law overturned that decision: the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act. The fact that the federal government has had to monitor this so much demonstrates that this is not a rare situation. To give my own “anecdotal argument,” I’ve had a friend who was giving about 18 percent of his income, and his financial situation continued to deteriorate more and more. Finally, in order to go to seminary, he filed for bankruptcy. He declared how good God was in taking care of him, but really the federal government bailed him out. (David A. Croteau, Tithing After the Cross, [Gonzalez, FL: Energion Publications, 2013], 51-52, italics mine)

Neither David Croteau nor I are arguing against giving or generosity. Rather it is the manipulation of people for purposes of getting them to give money. We should certainly discuss issues of stewardship in the church, and not just of money but also time and ability. But we must be careful not to force or manipulate. Certainly we must never make obviously false and hurtful claims.

Believing in Private Charity

Believing in Private Charity

Today is Blog Action Day, and though I didn’t get around to formally participating, I’m going to write a short post on dealing with poverty from a Christian perspective. I’m feeling idealistic, so beware!

Since I first started thinking about issues of poverty, way back when I was a teenager (and fish were just working on that “leg” thing) I have believed that ideally private charitable action would have priority over government action. I still think that as a general rule, what the government can do even poorly, private agencies can do better. The problem is whether private agencies will do it at all.

I recall having this discussion with someone a few years ago. He suggested to me that if the government would just get out of the welfare business, private charity would take over and there would be no problem. Personally I don’t believe that would happen. I do see a role for he government in providing that basic safety net, but I think that private agencies, privately funded can do much more.

One option is faith-based initiatives. I have a major problem with these myself, however, for two major reasons. The first is that when a religious agency, such as a Christian ministry gets in bed with the government, their distinctive focus is often blurred or even obliterated. My strongest reason for supporting separation of church and state is that I believe the church is better off without the state.

My second reason is that when the government provides the money, it can and indeed must regulate how that money is spent. As I will note below, one of the greatest benefits of private charity is its flexibility. That, combined with close access to the community in which aid is offered, helps a private agency to be more effective than a government agency.

What are some of the strengths of private charities?

  1. Close contact with the community means less fraud. If you go to your neighborhood church, you will find it more difficult to engage in repeated fraud, for example. I don’t mean you can’t defraud a church. In fact, I’ve dealt with people who were trying, and I doubtless made some wrong decisions in using a church’s money when it was my duty to make that call.
  2. A private organization can be more flexible in responding to actual needs, not according to a formula. There are situations that fit a boilerplate, but there are also individual situations that require a flexible response. This is where a faith-based, government funded program loses much of the benefit. Too many government programs are designed to keep people from starving rather than resolve poverty.
  3. A private organization is generally not the only option. A person can seek the program that fits.

I’d like to see an effort, especially on the part of Christians, to increase private charity before, not after, some mythical moment when the government will reduce its activities. Yes, I’m aware that there are many Christian and other private charities in action already, but I do not think that loving one another by our actions has a high enough priority.

I think this should start inside the church community. We should make a determination that nobody in the family (that is our church family) will be starving, without housing, or unable to get the necessary training to find a job, unless they make it impossible themselves. The early church did this, as recorded in Acts 4:32-37.

We would certainly have to take a look at some of Paul’s advice to the church in Corinth, and actually learn to police our own congregations, but that would be a good idea in any case. Let’s give this a priority over buildings. Let’s teach stewardship as hand in glove with charity. Let’s focus on making the time being helped by the church short and the time spent contributing great.

If a church congregation has a member who is in need, that church congregation could respond in a number of ways, including child care, opportunities for training, networking for jobs, and so forth.

I’m not saying we would succeed at all times. I also long for holiness of life, but the goal is a bit elusive! I’m not saying that we become a source of indefinite payments to support those who won’t support themselves. In fact, my suggest is exactly the opposite of that. The congregation makes wise decisions (we hope!) about what will be done and what won’t be done. The person who will not live up to the minimum expectations will be dealt with accordingly. If this idea was not combined with a return of some sort of congregational discipline, it would not be workable.

Why do this just for other Christians? I propose this as a start. I believe that if Christians as a group practiced stewardship on the one hand, and charity on the other, there would be no need for the scandal of church members unable to meet their basic needs.

Having demonstrated thus that we are different as a community, I suspect that we would have less trouble explaining who we are and why. Then when someone asks how it is done, we wouldn’t have to present theoretical models. We could point to our church congregations and say, “Like that.”

Idealistic? Obviously. Do I expect it to happen? Not really. But of all the things I read in Acts, it is the one I think would have the greatest impact on Christianity as a whole, and on the world as a result. I think it could stop short of holding everything in common, but it would certainly require a greater level of personal giving to the church, and better spending of that money with well-chosen priorities.

Guard Your Mind

Guard Your Mind

20My child, pay attention to my words,
Listen closely to my sayings.

21Don’t let them escape from your sight,
Guard them deep in your mind.

22For those who find them find life,
They bring healing to the whole person.

23Above everything guard your mind*,
Because from it flows your life.

24Turn your mouth away from crooked speech,
And keep lying speech far from your lips.

25Keep your eyes looking straight down the path,
And gaze only at what lies ahead.

26Clear the path your feet must follow,
and all your ways will be firm and safe.

27Don’t turn to the right or the left,
Keep your feet away from evil. — Proverbs 4:20-27 (my free translation)

* Literally heart. In this case the seat of thoughts, wisdom, and rational processes.

One of the things that I notice in American culture, and particularly in the church is that people are not discriminating in what they read, hear, and watch. I’m not pushing censorship, or heavy limitations on what you give a listen or look to, but rather with how you listen or look.

Ads on television, for example, are designed to leave you with an impression. If you actually watch most TV ads, and analyze the words and the information content, you’ll find that there is very little there. A certain insurance company informs you that by spending 15 minutes on their web site, you could save 15% or more on your insurance. Now you really haven’t learned that much new, have you? It didn’t say you would. It couldn’t. The company doesn’t know how much you’re currently spending. But their intention is to leave you with the connection between their brand name and saving money. I don’t object to them doing that–it’s what advertising on television is about, and they’ve been very successful at it.

Political and church ads are very similar. An ad from my denomination (United Methodist) informs viewers that our hearts, our minds, and our doors are open. What exactly does that tell you? Really very little. Again, the idea is to place in your mind a connection between the church and welcoming. In practice you will find somewhat varying levels of welcome in different United Methodist churches, which should be no surprise. Methodist churches, like all others, have people in them, and people aren’t always the same.

Political ads are very much the same. Have you noticed how hard it is to find concrete information on a candidate? You have to go to a variety of issue related web sites, various journalistic sites, and so forth, then you have to evaluate your various sources, because they each have their own agenda, and finally, if you put in the effort, you may be able to get a substantial picture of a particular politician.

Why is this? The politician is counting on a large enough number of voters not checking them out thoroughly. They want to create a particular impression. Why is it that negative political ads tend to work, even though substantial percentages of voters claim not to like them? Because the impression is left. Normally we take breaks during television ads. We see them out of the corners of our eyes, and we don’t concentrate on them. “Who could?” you say. True, but by looking but not thinking, we allow the impression the ad maker desires to get into our minds. The handsome candidate in front of his church with his perfectly angelic kids is giving us the impression that he’s a family man with family values. His opponent might show his image with various other scenes along with it–scenes of guys with cards in a smoke filled room, of money being exchanged in a furtive way, or of other negative images. It won’t matter if the man is really the someone who launders money and makes shady deals in smoke filled roooms, nor whether or not he actually is a church-going family man. The point is that his image is associated with that particular image in enough people’s minds. And believe me, if you don’t actually give full consideration to the candidate and factual information about him or her, you will be influenced by the image.

I refuse to vote based on my image at the time. I look up each and every candidate and find as much hard data about him or her as I possibly can. I make lists. Then my wife and I sit down and compare notes. Sometimes one of us will have found information that the other missed, or will see a flaw in some plan that the other didn’t notice. We sit down with the complete sample ballot and look at each item. Sometimes we find we’re going to vote different ways. Sometimes we change our minds. But we guard our path carefully and keep focused on the right way, looking for the truth to the best of our ability.

Christians face another trap–the piety trap. By this I don’t mean that you want to avoid candidates who tell you they are Christian. But as the saying goes you can walk into a garage, but it doesn’t make you a car, and you can walk into a church, but it doesn’t make you a Christian. Even further, we know that being a Christian does not make you perfect, and we have many fallen Christian leaders as examples. We also have many Christian politicians who have not behaved in an exemplary fashion. Claims and associations do not guarantee good character.

I have seen this come up in business as well. I once was contacted by a man who was creating a Christian business directory for the area. He told me he thought that Christians should give their business to other Christians. He was quite put out when I told him I was all about being in contact with people who were not Christians. I had no problem doing business with people of other faiths or of no faith at all.

But I’m most concerned with the reverse. There are many fads and scams out there, and they offend me, because they prey on people in need. Just join our marketing scheme, they tell you, and you will become healthy, wealthy, and wise. I do not mean to disparage all business opportunities for all people. You need to exercise judgment here as well. There might be that business opportunity that is just right for you. But check it our very thoroughly. Talk to other businessmen. Check small business support organizations in your area.

What does this have to do with Christianity? Well, some scam artists know very well that there are vulnerable Christians who are in need, and if they just suggest that this is God’s plan, and that they are simply fine Christian people sharing God’s blessings with you, they will seem very safe. But many, many people have lost huge sums of money by investing it in supposedly “Christian” scams. The claim of being a Christian is not proof that one is honest; it is even less relevant to the claim of being wise.

Don’t go with the impressions! Seek the facts. Apply wisdom. Let God’s wisdom into your heart and guard your paths. The book of Proverbs is in the Bible for a reason. God has given you a brain. Use it!

The Right Type of Accountability

The Right Type of Accountability

I’m an advocate of accountability, especially in church matters and our spiritual lives. I think it makes for wiser decision making and greater likelihood that we will carry out our goals. Accountability can come in many forms, from very formalized, such as an accountability group that meets regularly in which you question one another’s spiritual life, or simply telling friends and family what it is that you’ve determined to accomplish. The value of these types of accountability varies, of course.

The Washington Post has an article on accountability, which quotes experts to tell us a number of things about accountability that may seem like common sense, but in government at least we don’t seem to follow them. Perhaps having a few PhDs say these things will help!

This article quotes Jennifer Lerner, now moving to the Kennedy School of Government, as saying that the wrong type of accountability can produce the opposite effect to what was intended, and notes,

What she and numerous other experts have found is that particular types of accountability are needed for particular situations. Get the nuances wrong, and accountability backfires on you.

In particular candidates in either party may be drawn to the left (Democrats) or the right (Republicans) by the voters who will get them nominated, and then feel accountable to those voters once elected. Thus they may do things that please that constituency, to whom they are accountable, rather than what they actually believe is right.

Accountability may also make the decision maker favor things that are easier to explain, even when those things are not necessarily better. The article cites medical decisions, in which a physician may choose the course of action that would be easiest to explain in a lawsuit, for example, over what he or she truly believes is the best choice. From my own experience with the medical profession I suspect this would result in favoring a traditional, well-established course of action over something newer but potentially more effective.

Of course it should be no surprise that accountability that kicks in before and during the decision is more effective than accountability that kicks in afterwards. We needed a good deal of research to figure that one out! But it is something we don’t always notice. Once a decision has been made, we’re more likely to spend our time justifying what we have done than in reflecting on what we may have done wrong. Questioning often simply hardens our stance on that matter as we get defensive.

To relate this directly to church, consider the conflict between a forward looking ministry team and a hard-headed finance committee. We have the faith versus sight debate in full swing, with the ministry folks assuring the finance folks that they are following God’s leading and that God will provide for their need, and the finance folks pointing to the budget. Where is wisdom? I think each being accountable to the other is a good thing. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer.

But that kind of decision is not limited to the church. In a business you would have a similar conflict between the creative folks and financial officer. Is this product worth investing in? Do we have the money to produce it? All the while the creative people are pointing out how sales will quickly bring in the necessary support. Or something like that . . .

Accountability is good, but needs to be combined with the courage of our convictions and the humility to reconsider of favored ideas.

Time for Church Accountability

Time for Church Accountability

Quite frequently I receive appeals for funds from various ministries. This is probably because I head an all-volunteer ministry, Pacesetters Bible School, Inc. and thus am readily connection with Christianity, non-profits, and thus charitable contributions. Now I have no problem with charitable organizations making appeals for funds, though my group limits appeals to people who have attended an event we sponsor or in some way asked to be on the mailing list.

I got one of these appeals today, and the thing that bother me about it, and triggered this post, was that the pledge card inside invited me to pledge some tithe to go to support pastors in this group’s various mission locations. The question comes to mind immediately as to just why I should send tithe to them, and since I have no personal or business connection with them, other than their mailout, why I should regard them as trustworthy. In fact, reading their magazine I’m pretty sure I would not support them were I to make a full investigation. Since my default is to support things I know about, I won’t bother with that lengthier investigation.

Now I’m not a really strict person about tithe. I do believe it’s a good general standard of stewardship, but I believe each person must deal with their own conscience on charitable giving and service. But I also think that the local church is potentially a wonderful institution for giving and carrying out charity. Here’s a group of people you meet with every week (hopefully), and get to know (ideally), and trust (possibly). You can get the idea over a period of time of how they will spend your money.

In principle, it seems to be that a great way to do your basic charitable giving is through a congregation or local group. Taking that principle and asking you to apply it to essentially random people far away, without accountability is questionable at best. I’m assuming that most people who receive such solicitations treat them as I do. But inevitably, just as a few people get caught by “African dictator” scams in e-mail, so some people get caught by various ministries asking for money.

But as a follow-up thought, I have to ask just how accountable your local church is. Do they, in fact, spend your money in a way that you would regard as good stewardship? I’ve written recently about authority and accountability (Why Authority Issues are Important), and like many, I spoke more of accountability from above. But I think the focus needs to be a general accountability to the members–the people who produce the cash and suffer through failures of leadership.

In Christian churches we have too long lived with the idea that the pastor and the elders are above the rest, and should not be questioned. Even in churches with very democratic structures you will generally find a group of people in leadership who are informally considered above reproach and questioning. I believe that there should be no such time. Everyone should be accountable in what they do, whether they have served the church for 5 minutes or 5 decades.

This is true of financial accountability, of one’s moral life as a church leader, and of teaching and doctrine. In one church I attended I found that people were running around passing on things that I had said about the Bible. Now the fact was that I did have the strongest credentials in Biblical studies in the church, and I had often been able to provide answers and references. I was criticized for giving too carefully qualified of answers (people don’t want all that detail, just give them the answer). Some people even misquoted me back at myself, so that I was the authority behind something I never said.

I would regularly say, “Don’t take my word for it. Study it out and come to your own conclusions.” Some people in the church leadership told me I was unreasonable. Why shouldn’t folks depend on the Bible “expert” among them? Well, there is a simple problem there–accountability. There was nobody else in the church who knew Biblical languages, or who had studied the history of the ancient near east, or Biblical exegesis, or a number of other fields as I did. If I was in a seminary setting, there would be someone questioning what I said all the time, and justly so. I should be prepared to defend what I say. But in that local congregation, it was just one man–me–and my errors were getting perpetuated. I might correct them later, but they were already a tradition for some people.

The same thing happens with the finance committee. It’s too complicated and time consuming to check up on what they’re doing and to see how my money is being spent, so I just assume it’s being done well. But I think that’s irresponsible, and it denies accountability to those leaders.

Check your chuch budget. Find out, for example, how much is being spent on service to the community, and how much on maintaining the church structure. Consider whether those are appropriate numbers and what might be done about it. Consider how much is spent on children and youth, the future of the church, and how much is spent entertaining the older members. (As a grandfather approaching age 50, I think I can say that!) Don’t forget that taking care of the church facility and existing members does cost money, but consider how the church can maximize outreach and service.

One last thing–this isn’t a call for whiners and complainers. Quite the opposite! Whiners and complainers don’t hold people accountable, they just have fun complaining and gossiping. The difference is in who you talk to and how you do it. If you go to your finance committee to talk about the budget with some specific point in mind and a suggestion for positive action, that’s accountability. It’s still accountability if you go to them with a specific problem, along with evidence to support your claim. If you go to them just to say, “I hate this budget,” but don’t have anything concrete to suggest, that’s just complaining. No matter what you have, if you gossip about it around the table at Wednesday night dinner, that’s whining and complaining. Don’t do it. If you hear it happening, hold people accountable. Say, “I don’t think we should talk about this here and in this way. Let’s take any issues we have to the right people.”

That’s enough time on the soapbox for me today.