Volume 29 - Issue 1
The Price is RightBy Carl Trueman
A funny thing has happened to a Christian I know, and not just once, but twice: recently he has been invited to speak at a couple of evangelical conferences in the US. and has been asked both times what his appearance fee’ is I am pleased to be able to report that this friend has, on both occasions, replied that he speaks for groups for whom he thinks it is worth speaking; any fee—it there is a fee—should be linked to the group’s ability to pay, not some superstar system of financial worth. The very fact, however, that the question was asked says something significant about American evangelical culture, does it not? Have we not come to a point where the culture of celebrity that plagues the secular world has started to make damaging inroads even into the ranks of orthodox Christianity?
Now this is probably a specifically North American Problem—in Britain, as in much of the rest of the world, Christianity is so poor that a system of prima donna payments cannot be sustained. Sadly, the advanced capitalist culture of the West, combined with the sheer numbers of very rich evangelicals in the USA makes such a phenomenon a reality in the land of the free. There are, indeed, ministries and institutions in North America which appear to exist primarily for the purpose of making certain individuals into very rich people—and we are not talking about obviously corrupt televangelists here; we are talking about good, solid evangelical leaders who sometimes appear as little more than Christian counterparts to the tycoons and corporate raiders of modern America. Hardly surprising when the whole culture of white evangelicalism in the US is so tied to the wider culture of capitalist individualism and acquisitiveness. For me, the material wealth of this movement is extremely worrying and not simply because I envy people who are wealthy. Wealth is not the real issue here. The real issue is that of ownership: who owns the gospel? Or, more sharply, who owns the people who teach and preach the gospel?
One thing that my father always impressed upon me as I was growing up was the need to be careful from whom I took gifts. As a Chartered Accountant in a small firm in a tight-knit rural town community, he was aware that he needed to maintain a level of professional integrity with their financial affairs. If a client was to try to lavish him with gifts or favours, he knew that he would be compromised. He knew that it would be that much harder to refuse to cut corners in the future; that it would be much more difficult to point out the need for tough financial decisions as and when they were necessary. In short, he knew that such gifts would buy a little piece of his soul and mean that he would be exposed to temptations to be less than professional because he was no longer just a client’s accountant; he was also, in a strange sense, part of the client’s property. He was owned by somebody else. My father was careful to make sure that nobody ever owned him in that sense. He therefore never made big money, but he retained his integrity and his personal independence, and he is still one of the most trustworthy and honest people I have ever known.
When the question of ownership is brought to bear on issues surrounding the gospel, therefore, how much higher are the stakes? Throughout church history, this has been one of the single most explosive issues. At the time of the Reformation, Luther faced the issue with regard to God’s grace: was it an easy thing to obtain through a mere financial transaction, or was it something which required a deep radical transformation of the heart? His Ninety-Five Theses Against Indulgences which, somewhat accidentally, triggered the Reformation had at their heart the question of who owned grace: was it the Pope and his church? Was it the man or woman with the buying power to purchase a piece of paper with the papal imprimatur? Or was it the sovereign God?
Then, in the nineteenth century, the Church of Scotland faced the issue of ownership in a somewhat different form: did the wealthy landowners and the aristocracy have the right to decide which ministers should be appointed to which parish? Did land ownership effectively determine who preached, where they preached, and bearing in mind this is minister’s livelihoods we are talking about here, what they preached? After an almighty struggle over a decade, the Church of Scotland split in 1843, losing a third of its ministers and large numbers of elders and ordinary members. Many lost church buildings, homes and livelihoods, but they deemed the sacrifice necessary because they were simply unwilling to allow that the rich should call the shots when it came to leadership in the church. And they were right: ownership of the gospel and ownership of land are two entirely different things.
This then brings us to the present day. I recall a minister friend telling me that a member of his congregation had offered to build him a house; he refused the offer on the grounds that this person would never respect him as a minister again; I also recall a senior British NT scholar telling me about receiving a phone call from a US institution asking what his salary was on the grounds that they could offer more. To his credit, he simply put the phone down. He knew that those who aspire to be teachers of the gospel should not sell their wares simply to the highest bidder.
Now, it is unlikely that money will prove a temptation to many of the readers of Themelios. There simply isn’t any to be had in evangelicalism outside of the USA; and that, to be honest is not an entirely bad thing. There are, however, other ways we can be bought. Every community, whether church or scholarly, has its value system, its processes for expressing approval and disapproval, its rewards and punishments, its hierarchies and its rules of ascent. There is, therefore, a need to be careful as to how we operate within these contexts to make sure that we do not compromise ourselves in some unwitting, yet lethal fashion. There is always the temptation when speaking or preaching to play to the gallery, whether liberal or conservative. There is the ever present desire to ‘get on’, to climb up whatever greasy pole we have within our sights. For the preacher this can involve the careful cultivation of a following within a congregation; for the church leader it might take the form of cosying up to powerful groups within the church, for the scholar it might start as the desire to be in with the in-crowd and end up in a basic abandonment of the faith.
Every moment of our Christian lives, in all our dealings with anyone, we constantly need to be asking ourselves what lines are being crossed, what precedents are being set, to whom we are selling ourselves at any given point, and whether the real price of any action we might be taking is, in fact, unacceptable. If your actions and decisions mean that you cannot speak God’s Word honestly and frankly into any situation in which you might find yourself with any particular person or group in the future, the price is not right. It is far too high, both for you and for them.
Of course, the refusal to dance to the tunes played by the wealthy and the powerful in any given context will carry with it a price. For many refuseniks in the past—and in parts of the world today where the gospel is not tolerated—the cost has been house, home, sometimes life itself. But better to live—or die—as the possession of Christ alone and not as the lackey of some Establishment or tycoon or ecclesiastical faction interested only in church power and not in the spread of the gospel through all nations, races and classes.
In 1839, at the height of the troubles over who owned the Church of Scotland, a layman, Hugh Miller, wrote a famous letter criticising a legal judgement against the church by the House of Lords. In response to the claim that asserting the spiritual independence of the church, of underscoring the fact that it belonged not to rich or poor, but to Christ, would drive the rich and the wealthy from the congregations, he replied simply:
Well, what matters it? Let the chaff fly! We care not though she shake off, in her wholesome exercise, some of the indolent humours which have hung about her so long. The vital principle will act with all the more vigour when they are gone.1
Miller had grasped the crucial point that any price that sells our own consciences or our churches to anyone other than Christ is far too high. And if the financially rich and the politically powerful don’t like that message—well, let the chaff fly!
In Themelios 28.2 (2003), the second part of Stephen Williams’s article on Transfiguration appeared.
On page 17 there is an indented quotation from N.T. Wright in which Professor Williams’ omitted a line. The full quotation should read:
Forget the ‘titles’ of Jesus, at least for a moment; forget the pseudo-orthodox attempts to make Jesus of Nazereth conscious of being the second person of the Trinity; forget the arid reductionism …
Professor Williams would like to apologise for the omission.
A reader wrote concerning Krish Kandiah’s review of Peters Jensen’s The Revelation of God, that the reviewer misrepresented Jensen when he wrote: ‘Jensen seems to assume those that believe in contemporary revelation have abandoned Scripture and arrogantly states that: “they would be better to join those who have abandoned the whole Christian enterprise” ’ (p. 274).
In relation to this quote the reader says: ‘In fact he says no such thing. That reference on page 274 is made in relation to modern theology and liberals within it. He is simply making the same point that Gresham Machen made in his book Christianity and Liberalism. It is misleading … to link this with Peter’s views about the charismatic movement, which on the whole are irenic, critical but fair.’
Sorry to have caused offence to anyone, the quotation comes in a chapter on Contemporary Revelation and particularly the charismatic movement. On the previous page to my citation (p. 273) there had been interaction with Wayne Grudem’s position on Spiritual gifts and in fact the whole chapter from page 257 had been dealing with this subject and so I must have missed the change of subject matter. Please pass on my apologies for any offence caused.
1 Hugh Miller, The Headship of Christ (Boston, 1863), 39.
Carl Trueman is academic dean, vice president of academic affairs, and professor of historical theology and church history at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.