More Money More Jesus?

March 27, 2015


So occasionally I see things like the above meme. Or similar ones with sarcastic slogans like “Jesus died so Joel Osteen could buy a multimillion dollar home in the suburbs”. Recently Christian wealth-adviser Dave Ramsey himself responded to criticisms over the cost and value of his own home clarifying that he lives by his principles of having no debt and giving back huge amounts through church and charity. Ramsey has always held the viewpoint of “how can the poor help the poor?” In his recent defense of ownership of said home he positioned his abode as a nexus for service– a place for other wealthy Christians to gather and donate to support church and charity.

Conservatives are hardly the only folks who preach service to the poor while simultaneously generating wealth. Weathy liberals abound. And honestly, could Bill Gates do the work he is doing through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation without his massive resources and personal wealth? No. Yet there is a difference between someone like Gates who made his money from business and someone like Osteen or Mr. Dollar whose “business” is that of Christian ministry. Protestant Ministers have never been asked to take a vow of poverty of course, but the sheer extravagance and amount of remuneration these high profile celebrity preachers earn has long irked not only cynical secularists but also many of the religious as well. Now Mr. Ramsey, of course, is not a pastor and hasn’t made his money from sermons–he’s made the bulk of it from financial advising. Of course that financial advice is, according to Ramsey, Christian-based. He advocates wealth generation as positive for his fellow Christians.Therefore his message and his money is worth consideration in this present discussion.
Ramsey echoes a sentiment that folks as varied as Jay-Z have also made with his “I can’t help the poor if I’m one of them” sentiment. Of course that is true to some degree. Yet the question is: is that Christian?

I do not ask this as an attack but as a genuine consideration. Earning wealth for oneself and one’s family is not at its face value an evil or a social ill unless one earns that money through destructive means and/or uses that money for destructive ends. I’m not here to claim a wealthy person is by default a “bad” person. But can a very wealthy person be a Christian? Can a very wealthy person be a Christian pastor? Conservative Christians will likely take this question as more of an insult than I intend it. I once again stress as I have in many recent articles that I am not trying to ask this question from the inside–that is, I ‘m not inside of the Christian tent pointing fingers and asking if those “others” belong in here with me. I am outside of that tent looking in and here is what I think–some of the people inside of that tent may be better suited and more honest with themselves and their neighbors if they exit that tent by their own accord and find something else to identify as because the label just doesn’t fit without stretching so far that it is unrecognizable. I’m not saying your “immortal soul” is in danger or that you are not “saved” but I am saying that if you are closing in on having a billion dollars in personal assets and you aren’t using 98% of it to make this world a better place you are kidding yourself with the Christian label.

There simply exist far fewer “Christians” in the world, particularly in America, than  people who identify as Christian. It’s most often a superficial label signifying one’s birth to Christian parents not that far removed from how most of the world considers their own identification as Jews, Muslims or Buddhists. Most Christians in America are participants in the civil religion of American culture that meshes patriotism, national foundational documents, capitalism, and common social mores. If generating, maintaining, and then sharing some of a great amount of wealth is your interest you may very well be a good person but you’re not a Christian in the traditional sense. Jesus was pretty clear about what his followers had to do to follow him. Jesus was not a financial adviser. Following Jesus through the teachings and example he provided (as best as we can objectively understand it 2000+ years after the fact) will not lead to a 401k or a vacation home. The original Christian community as established by Jesus’ brother James did not encourage its members to hoard their goods. The diaspora Christian churches as established by St. Paul practiced communal pooling of wealth and resources to care for the poor members of the community.

Now, you can: (a) follow these examples and some still do; or (b) not. They are pretty central to the original basis of Christianity, so if you claim Christianity and do (b) you are at most a Christian-influenced person. You may be (c) and not care about fitting into either category.  I don’t claim that a, b, or c is a “better” choice. It’s totally up to the individual and should be influenced by more than anything written here and it should really be based on more than financial issues as well.  I certainly wouldn’t claim that those who follow (a) will lead stable, happy lives and I wouldn’t even go so far as to claim those in the (a) camp are in any way “better” than those in the (b) camp just that they are more honest in their self-identification. You can be a good or a bad person in a, b, or c. Those in the banner at the top of this article are in a category of all their own, however. They are (d) those who misuse, misunderstand,and misrepresent a religion for personal gain (whether intentional or unintentional) and their seemingly sole (or at least majority) way of “giving back” is limited to their “ministry” which is simply a recurring cycle of misuse, misrepresentation, and often the spreading of false hope and blame to people who will never have that type of wealth.

I don’t think I’m done with this topic yet. But I’m done for now.


3 Responses to “More Money More Jesus?”

  1. R Parker said

    Ok I am a Christian woman but because of a major accident I’ve had 3 back surgeries and have severe nueropthy in my legs. I am on Disability and draw a small check that just barely gets me by each month but my 10% is always the first to come out. I would give more if I could. My statement is we are suppose to live our lives as Jesus did and these pastors that have millions of dollars cant possibly know the same savior as I do wow how could they keep that much money when they know it could help others. I am just in totally disgust but bad people always gets what they deserve in the end. So very very sad.

  2. Craig said

    Your apparent limited understanding of Christianity and net worth is misleading.
    First, to be a Christian means a sincere acceptance of Jesus into your heart and the belief he died on the cross for your sins. Nothing more, nothing less.
    Second, net worth doesn’t mean they have stacks of cash sitting around their $10.5 mansion. It’s the amount of cash they could possibly get if they were to liquidate all there assets.
    Joel Osteen makes millions from book sales, like you mentioned, and takes no paycheck from his church. It’s money he earned from a business just like Bill Gates, who you praised for having an entrepreneurial spirit.
    If God wants his people to take care of the widows and orphans (poor people), then his people are going to need an abundant supply of resources.
    Poor implies someone who doesn’t have enough. If all the poor people pooled their resources together communally, there wouldn’t be enough still because you need people within the community to have more than enough to make that situation work.
    It’s not a sin for these pastors to have $20 million net worth. The worth is that high because he or she successfully built that ministry legally under his or her name.

    • dmhamby2 said

      first of all, thank you for commenting as I welcome interaction with anything I post.
      However, I take issue with your suggestion that I have a “limited understanding of Christianity.” It is obvious to me from your response and tone that you disagree with me on this issue. That is fine. However, you are false in assuming that I do not know much about Christianity. I grew up in the church. I was active in three very different denominations in my life and I have visited, worked with, interacted with and studied alongside pastors and clergy from many other Christian denominations as well. I have studied religion as a whole and Christianity in particular in a seminary and multiple “secular” schools and universities. I have a Masters Degree in religious studies. I have read the Bible through multiple times and studied it and its interpretation (including Hebrew) many times. I have also read hundreds of books on the history of Christianity and the Church from religious and secular scholars and sources. So yes, I do have more than a limited understanding of Christianity. It is just that I happen to disagree with you on this issue.
      I was only exploring whether or not the claims made by memes like the one I posted at the head of this article–which I stumbled across and did not create–were accurate in their condemnation of celebrity preachers on the issue of wealth. I was not making a “judgement call” against these pastors and their souls. I was simply exploring how traditionally “Christian” upper-level wealth is for a clergy member. It has some historic precedence in the lives of some medieval Catholic Bishops and Popes but all in all, I simply do not think wealth (whether liquid or total personal assets) is cohesive with historic, traditional Christianity. Is it in line with the original church, the one started by Jesus’ brother James and those who personally knew Jesus? No. Neither is it much in line with the church Paul started in countries expanding far out of the area of that original church as even though his church plants differed in many ways from the original church begun by Jesus’ friends and disciples it also stressed a communal pooling of wealth and assets so that those who had and could provide within the church were able to care for those who had not within the church (the original point of “tithing”.) Your statement that ” to be a Christian means a sincere acceptance of Jesus into your heart and the belief he died on the cross for your sins. Nothing more, nothing less” is a theological claim not a sociological or historic fact. It is true in belief for many people but it is not true for many modern or historic Christian churches. Additionally, even for many who believe that as a theological truth it may be a “salvation” status granted but it does not entail how one then is to live as a Christian–and almost every single branch and sect of Christianity in history places a huge level of importance on how one is to live a Christian life to best impact the world. Once again, I said I was not making a judgement call on these pastors’ souls. So even if their belief grants them salvation and that is what they believe they still have an obligation to live out a Christ-following life if they are self-proclaimed Christians and as leaders of a congregation their example is even more paramount.
      You wonder why I “praise” Bill Gates’ “entrepreneurial spirit” but not Osteen’s–because church is not a “business”. You rightfully point out that he and many others make their money off of book sales, not church salaries. This is of course important and differentiates some of those pastors on the list–making his decisions very arguably more ethical than say Cleflo Dollars. Yet what one does with that wealth once such a mass is created is of importance. This would bring in debate on how best to use money to impact the world–all such discussions are important but all arguably leave the path of the original argument–is such massive wealth generation in the name of Christianity in fact “Christian.” I simply argue that no, it is not. It is not in line with the original example of Jesus, of the original Churches practice and much of the core theology and ethical commands of Christianity. Osteen and many other Christian pastors may be good people, may do good things, etc–this does not make them “Christian” and in my opinion that is not a good or a bad thing it is just a thing. I no longer self identify as a Christian though issues within and about Christianity are and will likely remain important to me for the rest of my life. I do not think it is a value claim to say one is or is not Christian but I think it is important to know whether what we identify as or not as is important. I think a healthier Christianity will bloom when fickle and name-only Christians who entered for cultural and political reasons naturally exit.
      You and I disagree on this issue and that is fine. I just wanted to respond to let you know I have thought out all of the issues you brought up and I have posted all throughout this site over the past 7 years or so on many of those issues during my evolving journey. Thank you again for your comment and interaction.

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