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Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Should Christians Feel Guilty About Being Rich?

Last week, Jen Pollack Michel of Christianity Today wrote a piece entitled, "Fellow Christians: I'm Rich and I'm Sorry," partly in response to the media controversy surrounding Evangelical Elevation Church pastor, Steve Furtick, and the 1.7 million dollar home he is building which the church owns and he isn't paying taxes on with his undisclosed salary. Furtick is a megachurch pastor in North Carolina who has written a popular book he claims primarily paid for his home. The Furtick affair brings to light an important question: how should Christians regard real wealth, what many of us call being "rich"?

With a great deal of sincerity, Michel discloses that she too has, at times, felt guilty about being rich. She describes feeling guilty for having nice things or for splurging for a higher-priced item at the store that is admittedly a luxury and not a necessity. Michel's take is refreshing and sheds light on an important conversation to have about Christians and money. But she misses a few points and I think in reading the article it's easy to gloss over some principles about wealth.

As Michel points out, "wealthy" is a relative term and that always needs to be kept in mind. Ultimately Michel concludes being rich isn't a sin (one might read, "never" a sin). But I really don't see that echoed in our faith.

Exorbitant wealth, i.e. so much money you wouldn't know what to do with it, actually is a sin if hoarded, the same way a single person keeping a refrigerator full of steaks would be wasteful since one person couldn't reasonably go through them before they went bad. And even if they did, that person would be a glutton (another serious and convenient sin we Americans like to forget about). And that's kind of the point of the controversy around pastor Furtick and other leaders. We don't want gluttons representing God.

The German Catholic Bishop of Limburg, Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, has been in the news in the past couple weeks and he puts Furtick to shame. He's been dubbed the "bishop of bling" for his extravagant and unseemly lifestyle as a Christian shepherd. He spent $42 million on the renovation of his residence alone, including lavish home decor like bathtubs and tables costing tens of thousands of dollars each.

There have been a lot of conversations about income inequality in this country and how it has recently grown. Many Americans think that CEOs' income should be somehow tied to the lowest-earning employee at the company, say as a percentage of that lowest salary (for example, a CEO could not earn greater than 20 times the mail room worker). Being neither economist nor ethicist, I can't say if this is a good idea. But if that's the prevailing attitude toward CEOs, what do we think the attitude toward pastors and spiritual leaders is, especially outside our churches? As Catholic blogger Kevin O'Brien said of abuse within the Catholic Church, It is not surprising that our shepherds fall short of the high standards of the Christian Faith. It is surprising that they don’t even rise to the low standards of the secular world.”

For better or worse (I tend to think the former), pastors are held up as examples of the Christian life. As lay Christians we are all called to be an example of the Gospel and Christ's love but some of us can do that more visibly than others. Furtick may have some very wealthy congregants who are also building lavish homes. But that doesn't make the news. Instead, a pastor does, one who mixes personal finances with church finances, refuses to disclose salary, and whose defense for his 1.7 million dollar home included, "It's not that great of a house!" and the explanation that other people have nicer homes than his rather than saying with honesty as Jen Pollack Michel did, "I'm rich" and that she sometimes does, sometimes doesn't feel guilty about that.

Often the point of Scripture's references to wealth isn't that having it is a sin but that it is a danger to right relationship with God. It really is. We know it's an obstacle for our own salvation when we have it (see Matthew 19:24) and we know how we use it can be a scandal to others.

It's tricky to say if being wealthy is wrong. I think the answer is, "it depends." And it doesn't depend on an income threshold but on how you regard and care for your wealth. If it makes you complicit in the exploitation of others, yes I do think wealth is a sin. If it draws you into even greater care and concern for the poor, no I don't think it's wrong.

Perhaps our model should be Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus is a wealthy man and a tax collector. Jesus doesn't encounter Zacchaeus and tell him his profession is wrong or criticize his income. Jesus doesn't criticize anything about him actually. But Zacchaeus' encounter with Christ results in the right attitude toward wealth when he responds: “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” 

If we have more than we could ever reasonably need then yes, I do think that kind of wealth is a sin if hoarded. In this case, it's especially important for Christians to be charitable and not hold onto 90% of their income. Give freely! It's not a numbers or percentages game but keep in mind that Zaccheaus only keeps half and that's before he makes restitution to those he's exploited. 

More importantly, when we have wealth we need to say, "have I gained wealth through defrauding anyone?" "Is my wealth the result of injustice and privilege?" (Unlike Michel, I don't think 'privilege' simply means 'blessing.') "Have I gained because others have lost?" And if that's the case then we are to make amends as Zacchaeus undoubtedly did. Only in that sort of encounter with God can wealth become relegated to its proper position as a mere part of our story rather than an obstacle we push along in front of us.


  1. Wealth is a complicated thing. On the one hand, it could mean a lot of money in the bank, sure, and it would be wrong to hoard that for no purpose when it could go to helping others. On the other hand, oftentimes a person's wealth includes a number of assets that are more correctly termed investments (although, really, even money in the bank is an investment), and those investments, while they are valuable to the person who owns them, are actually helping to support employment and industry through the companies by which they are invested. And often times that money is being saved to create a legacy which will provide support and funds for many other people who stand to inherit said money. "Rich" individuals could certainly give more to charity. it seems to me, but it always strikes me as dangerous to put blame on them, rather than to point out the danger in which they find themselves, as this risks society attempting to coerce charity from them (which is actually impossible). Rather than basing our understanding of wealth on the covetousness of the lower classes, we should instead base it on an understanding of the human soul, even from the perspective of the rich, and approach the matter from the perspective of ascetic self-denial.

    1. These are really good points and I pretty much agree. I hope I didn't come off as blaming the rich. I only intended to point out the danger of wealth and to condemn outright what I called "hoarding" that stems from avarice, which I think we can all agree is beyond the limits of ethical Christian behavior. As I said in the post, to my mind the morality of wealth depends on circumstances and the heart.