With respect to Christian belief and practice, I consider myself a tolerant, laissez faire kind of fellow. I tend to be more reformed by upbringing, but as I move along this faith journey, I’m finding that there is a great deal to learn from my fellow faith bearers. The Spirit-filled charismatics, the middle of the road evangelicals, the egalitarian theologians—I learn from them all. Even in disagreement, they help me refine my understanding of God. They bring nuances to God in ways I’d not otherwise considered.
This kind of open-minded, open-handed dialogue has helped me mine more from my faith journey, and so, I have afforded my fellow believers (especially my fellow writers, speakers, and apologists) a wide berth. After all, I’m one of the more conservative contributors here at A Deeper Story, and couldn’t I use a wide berth from my fellow writers from time to time?
That being said, there is a growing trend in Christianity that brings out the more vehement, insistent side of my faith. The trend is known simply as the “prosperity gospel.”
If you have been a believer for any period of time, you know the spiel. The televangelist stands before the body, promises them that if they follow a program, if they sow a seed of one-hundred dollars, if they train their minds in a particular way, they can have their best life now. They are haphazard manipulators of scripture who claim that Christ came to fill our savings accounts. The accumulation of wealth is one of the primary indicators of obedience to Christ, they claim.
Is it any wonder, then, that the wealthiest proponents of the prosperity gospel are held above reproach, that they are given the most authority? Is it any wonder that they are rarely held accountable by an eldership, a body of deacons, or the congregants themselves? And while the poor, weary, and wanting are duped into sowing their widow’s mite in the hope of a better future, the prosperity preacher laughs all the way to the bank.
The prosperity gospel is a thin ruse that associates the accumulation of wealth with Godly character, and if it were relegated to the silver-tongued televangelists, perhaps it’d be tragically laughable. The unfortunate truth is, though, the philosophy is seeping into mainline Christianity at an alarming pace.
Last week, Dave Ramsey posted a list citing “20 Things the Rich Do Every Day.” The list was an oversimplified, dichotomous view of the rich and poor—the rich do this; the poor don’t. Though I found the list to marginalize the plight of the poor, though I found it to be in poor taste, I’d have breezed over the article if it had been left at that. After all, taste is a matter of opinion.
Ramsey, though, did not let the list speak for itself. After receiving some well-warranted constructive criticism regarding its lack of nuance, Ramsey found it necessary to respond. These were his opening remarks:
There has been so much negative and ignorant response to the above list that I felt I needed to respond and teach; that is what teachers do. So to clear up any confusion from others’ blogs and comments about us, we are adding this commentary to this posting.
Teachers teach, sure. But “ignorant response?” I found his pedagogical semantics poor at best. Even then, I might have afforded Ramsey a wide berth had he not proceeded to under-girded his philosophy of wealth building with a bit of familiar theology. “There is a direct correlation between your habits, choices and character in Christ and your propensity to build wealth in non-third-world settings,” he wrote.*
With those strokes of a few keys, Ramsey revealed a theological chink in what otherwise seemed to be his common sense financial principals. There it was in black and white: Christ blesses the obedient with the ability to build wealth.
The ensuing social media criticism was harsh, with many indicating that Ramsey’s position reeked of prosperity theology. In response, Ramsey made light of the criticism, tweeting, “I have discovered that Occupy Wall Street has a ‘christian’ branch. Disappointing. Blocking them by the 100s.”"
I’d like to be very clear in this piece. I am neither a Dave Ramsey detractor nor a public proponent of the Occupy Wall Street movement. And though I believe that cycles of poverty are often systemic and nuanced (much more nuanced than Ramsey’s original list might suggest), I have listened to hours of Ramsey’s show and have heard him rail against some of the very structures that perpetuate the cycles of poverty. He has helped some of my own family members avoid the financial pitfalls that often end marriages. I am not here to say that all of Ramsey’s principles should be eschewed.
That being said, I am here to call Ramsey’s “direct correlation” between the character of Christ and wealth building into question. Is his position supported by the Gospel?
The words of Jesus are clear: he came to give us full life, not full coffers. (John 10:10; Matthew 19:21). Jesus spent the majority of his ministry bringing hope to the poor, the crippled, and the mourning. (Matthew 5:3-12). As best as I see in scripture, Christ only distinguished between the rich and the poor for the purpose of warning the rich of their impending doom. (Luke 12:16-20). He told one rich young ruler to stop living by legalistic principles in an effort to earn God’s favor, and to go and sell everything he had, give it all to the poor, and follow him—a poor retirement plan, indeed. (Matthew 19:21; Mark 10:17-27).
Jesus befriended the poor, and did not call those who maintain sensitivities to the poor “ignorant.” He did, however, call some ignorant.
And [Jesus] told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’
“Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.” ’
“But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’
The prosperity gospel is a cheap knockoff, a theology which would leave us chasing wealth as proof of Christ character. It would relegate us to building our bank accounts on the eve of our destruction.
This brings us to the question of Christ-character. Shouldn’t we judge Christ-character by the character of Christ himself? Shouldn’t we say that Christ-character is evidenced by befriending the poor, by bringing a salve to the sick, by weeping with those who weep? Isn’t Christ-character evidenced more by warning the rich against the accumulation of wealth at the expense of their souls? Isn’t Christ-character evidenced by warning those who might like to turn a buck in the name of God? (Matthew 21:12-13).
Perhaps we should give Ramsey the benefit of the doubt, extend him a measure of grace. After all, any writer on the internet is prone to wander into poor word choices from time to time. But even still, let’s not accept gospel oversimplifications that are but shadows of the true prize. Let’s question gospel sleights of hand when we see them. Let us pose questions to those who take up the mantel of gospel teacher, whether preachers, teachers, or financial gurus. Let’s not back down in the face of their intimidation, of being called ignorant, or Occupiers, or by threat of being blocked on social media.
And should those espousing prosperity theology refine their positions, should they admit to poor phrasing, or otherwise give a clear view of the Gospel–one that does not distinguish between rich and poor except as a warning–let’s extend the olive branch and move into mutually beneficial discipleship. Let’s teach by example.
After all, that’s what teachers do.
*To date, and to the best of my knowledge, Ramsey has not expounded upon his “character in Christ” comment.
Image by Tax Credits, Flickr via Creative Commons.