Financing the Kingdom and Church Debt

A great difference lies between alternative living and eccentric living. As citizens in the kingdom of God we want to live in a way that demonstrates a genuine “third way” without veering off into eccentric overreactions. Living under the financial blessing of God, without adequate fleshly explanations for the provision, is such an alternative.

“Let your conduct be without covetousness; be content with such things as you have. For He Himself has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you’” (Heb. 13:5-6).

In asking whether debt for a church is sin, let us begin with a couple of disclaimers. When this question is asked in this context, it reveals many assumptions about the nature of sin and financial responsibility. If someone were to splay his fingers on a concrete sidewalk so that he could whack each one with a hammer, we might try to stop him. But what if he asked, pointedly, “Would it be a sin to do it?” the answer would have to be, “Not necessarily.” To answer the question this way shows that debt is not neutral. In Scripture, debt is always something to be avoided if prudent.

That said, in the first place borrowing entrammels.

Basic Principles in Financing the Kingdom

We all know what the uh oh point is in various situations. The person you thought might be a new good friend invites you over for a business opportunity presentation. Uh oh. The church gets in a financial jam and “stewardship Sunday” seems to come round more and more frequently. Uh oh. But the point of writing about finances is not so that we would be able to accomplish what we have undertaken, but rather so that we would do it right. “But [the Israelites] lusted exceedingly in the wilderness, and tested God in the desert. And He gave them their request, but sent leanness into their soul” (Ps. 106:14-15).

“For the eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to show Himself strong on behalf of those whose heart is loyal to Him” (2 Chron. 16:9).

In the context, Asa the king had been rebuked for his “political realism.” He had relied on the king of Syria when the Lord had previously shown that He was able to save apart from such fleshly support. Because of this folly, the Lord promised Asa the trouble of wars. Asa then compounded his sin by refusing to accept the rebuke.

So God’s eyes run to and fro through the entire earth. God is omniscient. He knows everything, and as this figure of speech shows, He knows everything actively. He does not simply register the information—He seeks it out, He knows everything because He has sought out everything. He is our Father, not an impersonal computer with all knowledge passively resident in His memory. He knows. God’s omniscience does not simply mean that He could successfully answer any question put to Him— pass any test. Rather it means that He immediately knows all things regardless of whether we pose the question.

This is the God who intervenes in our lives. God delights to manifest His strength in the earth. His omnipotence is not a closely guarded heavenly secret. His interventions are on behalf of some people, and not others. Some churches are blessed, and others not, based upon God’s actions, which in turn are fully consistent with His infinite and inexhaustible knowledge.

He does what He does on the basis of heart loyalty. Why blessings in this place, and not in that place? His knowledge is perfect—there is no nook or cranny in the universe in which God and all His knowledge is not fully present. Because we have material bodies, extended in space, there are parts of us (i.e. our feet) which are quite ignorant. But God is not like this; He is omnipresent, and everywhere He is, all His knowledge resides. These doctrines do not mean you must always reckon with at least a part of God. No man ever reckoned with anything less than His full and triune majesty. This is the God who intervenes in our lives on the basis of heart loyalty.

So what does this have to do with financial basics?

Obstacles to Financing the Kingdom

The goal here is not to get into household finances, but rather the financing of the work of the kingdom of God. This relates to household finances at some point, obviously, but the purpose here is to address finances at the kingdom level. The amount of material on this subject in the Bible is simply immense, but many of the passages are neglected in our common preaching and teaching on the subject. This can be the result of fear, or ignorance, or self-pity, but the end result is the same. When God’s Word is squeezed out, for whatever reason, the methods and words of men will always come in to take its place. And when it comes to money, men do have their traditions.

“You then who teach others, do you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law. For, as it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”” (Romans 2:21–24, ESV)

When disobedience is common, there are usually excuses for that disobedience. What are some of them? It is important to note by the way that the excuses, while remaining excuses, are not necessarily false. Excuse makers frequently have a point.

First, the leaders of the church provoke the people:

“And we have sent with him the brother, whose praise is in the gospel throughout all the churches; And not that only, but who was also chosen of the churches to travel with us with this grace, which is administered by us to the glory of the same Lord, and declaration of your ready mind: Avoiding this, that no man should blame us in this abundance which is administered by us: Providing for honest things, not only in the sight of the Lord, but also in the sight of men” (2 Cor. 8:18–21).

Paul knew how easy an accusation of financial mismanagement is to make. He also knew the importance of being prepared in advance to rebut such slanders. When this does not happen, Christian leaders positively create reasons to avoid giving.

Second, the people in the church provoke their leaders:

The Walking Stick Problem

If you say, as Bacon once did, that knowledge is power, you will find yourself arraigned pretty quickly on charges of wanting to rape the earth. But knowledge is power, and knowledge cannot be applied in this world without exercising authoritative dominion. This axiom needs to be defended and it needs to be defended without appearing to be a mindless defense of strip mining.

For all his virtues, Tolkien has unfortunately contributed to our confusion on this issue.

“Now goblins are cruel, wicked, and bad-hearted. They make no beautiful things, but they make many clever ones . . . Hammers, axes, swords, daggers, pickaxes, tongs, and also instruments of torture, they make very well” ” (The Hobbit, p. 60).

We have this sturdy mythology that makes us assume that elves get everything done by purity of mind, while goblins are down in the forge heating up the metal in order to bang on it. And of course, when we do this we know better, because we do know that elves actually make things. But whenever that fact becomes a little too obvious or a little too apparent, we politely avert our gaze. We ignores it.

The “knowledge is power” adage is equally true when the good guys are doing it. It is true when you are clearing a plot of land to build a cabin, or cutting down a sapling in order to carve a fine walking stick, or shaping a block of stone for a place in the wall of Minas Turret. In the list of things that goblins make, all of them would be capable of noble uses with the exception of the instruments of torture.

But a pickaxe, by definition, is designed to make the dirt move when the dirt didn’t necessarily ask to be moved. To which — I want to maintain — both the elves and the goblins could reply, “Deal with it, dirt. Knowledge is power.” Now the elves are famously fair-spoken and gracious in speech, and so they wouldn’t exactly put it that way. But that does not change the reality of what is happening to the dirt. Someone who knows more than the dirt does is moving it around, usually without permission. That someone is himself a creature, and will ultimately answer to his Creator for his motives in doing whatever it was he was doing. And when that account is ultimately settled, I think it is safe to say the judgment will not be “for making and using a pickaxe.”

Look up from your computer, and look around you. If you are anything like me, you are surrounded by tools, and by the products of tools. And if you tallied them all up to three generations, we are talking about millions of very clever tools. This is true, not because we are orcs, but because we are men.

I suggest that we need to make our theological peace with our tools. We need to stop factoring them out of our discussions. We need to stop treating them as invisible. To treat them that way is simply to set ourselves up for picking an arbitrary date in our technological advancement, and treating everything prior to that date as de facto “not to be considered.” And after that entirely arbitrary “year one,” we have determined we are henceforth going to live a simple life — the Amish with their buggies and Wendell Berry with his typewriter. So fifty years from now are we going to be dealing with a group of the “simple folk” who still use the iPhone 4? Will it be a matter of high spiritual principle? Or perhaps spiritual myopia?

I want to maintain that the central question we must all answer is “what are you building?” and not “what tool is that?”

Gilt Guilt

The Lord Jesus famously said that if we don’t forgive others, we ourselves are unforgiven. “But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt. 6:15).

This seems like a bad bit of business, but only because we tend to think of forgiveness as a peculiar sort of double-entry bookkeeping. We think the moral universe runs in a quid pro quo fashion, and so we think God is telling us that if we do not perform action x, then He will most certainly not perform action y. We desperately need action y, but are still most reluctant to perform action x, and so we mutter about it for a while. But after haggling for a while in the flea market where clean consciences are heaped up, rumpled on the table there, we offer a grudging forgiveness to some undeserving schmuck as the price we must pay to get our flea market forgiveness. And that is what it is — rummage sale forgiveness, which is to say, no forgiveness at all. If it was not purchased with the blood of Jesus, then it was not purchased.

Guilt and Glory

Mankind was made for glory, and naturally hungers after glory. There is therefore nothing wrong with seeking glory, provided we seek it where the true glory may be found. “Therefore let no man glory in men. For all things are yours” (1 Cor. 3:21). Paul is saying that when glory is offered us in Christ (all things are yours), it is high folly to try to glory in men apart from Christ. Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord (Ps. 34:2) — and when we boast in God, the humble hear it and are glad.

Sin is not seeking after glory, but rather falling short of it. “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). When God renders judgment in accordance with our deeds, one of the things He will evaluate is the way in which we sought after glory. “Who will render to every man according to his deeds: To them who by patient continuance in well doing seek for glory and honour and immortality, eternal life” (Rom. 2:6–7).

As a race, we were created to be glory bearers. We need glory. It is no more optional for us than oxygen, or food, or sex, or drink. The need to be a glory, and to glorify other things, is woven into the very fabric of our identity. We cannot not seek it. Man is the image and glory of God, and woman is the glory of man (1 Cor. 11:7). This is what we were created to be, and we cannot opt out of the burden of carrying glory. Glory is weighty; it is challenging. But it is all of these things precisely because of the relationship we have to God our Creator.

Piketty’s Point

Thomas Piketty has a detailed response to the “number-cooking” criticisms leveled at his book by the Financial Times, which you can read here.

Now my point is not to run get my hip-waders on in order to get into the stats and numbers. I am afraid I would catch very few mountain trout that way, and thus would not be in a position to say if there were any of them in there.

So if I am not a numbers wonk, what defensible basis might I have for being so hostile to Piketty’s message? For he does have one — here is what he says what it is:

“The main message coming from my book is . . . that we need more democratic transparency about wealth dynamics, so that we are able to adjust our institutions and policies to whatever we observe.”

Let me reduce this to its essentials: “We want to be able to see what everyone has, so that we can take it if we want.”

Jabba the Catt

In a sinful and fallen world, any blessing can be abused. The temptation to lord it over others is a constant one, and the human heart will use whatever materials are ready to hand — intelligence, looks, education, money, age, strength, and so on.

This means that inequity in the distribution of wealth does present temptations — most certainly, and welcome to earth. But Scripture teaches us to deal with sin where the sin is, which is under our own sternum. The cause of our faults is not to be located elsewhere. Lust is not caused by beautiful women, covetousness is not caused by other people owning things, and dishonoring parents is not caused by them asking you to do something.

If a man has five million dollars and I have five, then he will no doubt be tempted to believe he is better than I am. This is often and easily noted. What is almost never noted is my temptation to believe I am better than he is. If we both succumb to the temptation, we both commit the same sin . . . but at least he has a better argument. I am constantly reminded of Ambrose Bierce’s definition of a Christian — “one who believes the New Testament is a divinely inspired book, admirably suited to the spiritual needs of his neighbor.”

If someone points out that great inequity of wealth creates a power relationship that is morally problematic, then what do we create when we create a mechanism that can fix this inequity? Right. We have created a larger power differential. Granted the problem is a big hole, why are we digging it deeper?
We justify this to ourselves by pretending that we are not digging it deeper, and we do this by leaving the government and its powers out of our consideration. But what happens when we do the sensible thing and include the government and its powers among the fat cats?

Those who lament this wealth inequity of ours, like Piketty does, want to “fix it” by jacking the marginal tax rate on the super-wealthy up to 80 percent, and up to 60 percent for those making between 200K and 500K. But how can you do this without creating an uber-wealthy entity — the government — which has now just successfully taken 80 percent of the earning of all the super-wealthy, and which has an army, navy, powers of coercion, and so on, and which comes into my house on a fairly regular basis in order to boss me around? Why are you guys arguing that we should take most of the money away from all the fat cats and give it to Jabba the Catt?