As I engage in pastoral conversations, I am often greeted with a sincere question: “Pastor Tom, I certainly understand that loving our neighbors well requires resources, but didn’t Jesus caution us about wealth?”
Throughout the history of the church, there have been two prominent and diverging views of wealth. One view insists that material wealth and wealth creation are intrinsically corrupting, and therefore must be avoided at all cost.
The other view contends that material wealth and wealth creation are essentially good, and are part of our creation design and cultural mandate. Taken too far, this can lead to the belief that God blesses his true followers with health and wealth.
We can learn from both.
Underlying many manifestations of the poverty gospel is a contemporary form of Gnosticism, which devalues the true goodness of the material world. The poverty gospel often fuels a blinding, pietistic spiritual pride that asserts the greater the material poverty, the more spiritual the person. Inherent in this distorted biblical teaching is that material poverty brings spiritual riches, and material abundance inevitably brings spiritual poverty.
Proponents of the poverty gospel are right to remind us of many biblical texts that speak to the sizable dangers that accompany increasing material wealth. They also rightly call an increasingly affluent Western church to greater material generosity and deeper sacrificial living (see Matt. 6:24; 19:16–30; 1 Tim. 6:7–8; Heb. 13:5).
Material impoverishment is no more intrinsically spiritual than material abundance.
Yet those who embrace the poverty gospel in its many explicit and implicit forms make a theological error by too closely wedding evil with material prosperity. According to Dallas Willard, “The idealization of poverty is one of the most dangerous illusions of Christians in the contemporary world. Stewardship which requires possessions and includes giving is the true spiritual discipline in relation to wealth.”
Material impoverishment is no more intrinsically spiritual than material abundance. In all economic circumstances, whether they are bleak or bright, faithful and fruitful stewardship of all God entrusts in required.
A second dangerous distortion regarding material wealth is the prosperity gospel. Proponents believe the creation of wealth is an authenticating sign or a direct causal apologetic for God’s blessing. Prosperity-gospel adherents assert that God wants everyone to be materially prosperous. Embedded in the prosperity gospel is a good and admirable attention to what is often a neglected robust theology of the goodness of human flourishing.
Tragically, like most other theological distortions, important truth is ignored, minimized, or outright denied. In many cases, prosperity-gospel proponents have a paltry view of human suffering, tend to ignore Scripture’s call to a sacrificial lifestyle fueled by neighborly love, and blatantly disregard the sovereign will of God for some of Jesus’s followers to experience material poverty.
There are times or circumstances in this world in which God would, on balance, prefer someone to be poor.
While affirming some of the good aspects of prosperity-gospel teaching, John Schneider persuasively challenges its erroneous belief that God desires all to be materially prosperous: “It is that there are not times or circumstances in this world in which God would, on balance, prefer someone to be poor. And Scripture makes very clear that such times and circumstances often do exist.”
The prosperity gospel is not only inconsistent with Scripture, it also flies in the face of many devoted followers of Jesus in the present day and throughout church history who face and have faced great material deprivation in their apprenticeship with Jesus.
Seeing that wealth is neither to be avoided nor praised but rather stewarded wisely and generously, how should we think about material-wealth creation?
Sometimes we assume there is a “fixed pie” of wealth or fruitfulness in the world. The common fixed-pie fallacy suggests that one person’s growth in wealth results in another person’s diminishing wealth. We see the effects of this fallacy in the contemporary pulpit. Both explicitly and implicitly, many pastors herald the notion that the wealthy create the poor in a causal kind of relationship.
A robust theology of creation, however, helps us see the error of the fixed-pie view. God designed the natural created order so the wealth pie might be expanded through human work.
This means the work of cultivating the Garden of Eden was a call to steward the raw materials of God’s creation and to create something that wasn’t there before, multiplying it many times over for the flourishing of all (Gen. 2:15).
God designed the natural created order so the wealth pie might be expanded through human work.
So we see wealth creation as a good thing, because through it, we reflect our created nature and have an increased capacity to love our neighbor. We were created to flourish, to be fruitful, to add value to others in the world. Paul writes, “If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me” (Phil. 1:22).
Whatever work God has called us to, we must ask: Are we becoming more fruitful workers? Are we increasingly doing our job better and gaining greater skill? If we are in a paid work context, what kind of job reviews are we getting? If we are pursuing more formal education, are we taking our learning seriously? If we do not earn a regular paycheck, how are we continuing to grow in our contribution to others? If we are a stay-at-home spouse, how are we becoming a more fruitful parent?
Our seamless gospel faith tells us that every nook and cranny of our lives matters. The fruitful lives we are called to have profound economic implications for our world. As apprentices of Jesus, the mandate to bear much fruit in every dimension of our lives is at the heart of faithful Christian discipleship.
This is an adapted excerpt from Tom Nelson’s book The Economics of Neighborly Love: Investing in Your Community’s Compassion and Capacity (IVP, 2017).