Money

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?

You bet.

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?’

(Luke 12:16-20)

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.

29 comments

  1. I love the manner you responded, with grace and truth. Honestly, when I meet with my friends in Third World countries (the majority world), I leave feeling impoverished in my faith. Because I have so much comfort and the trappings of wealth, I forget my utter dependence on Jesus. He is my wealth, but often I substitute gadgets for godliness.

    Reply
    • Sandra Montes

      Mary, I too appreciate the grace that you expressed to the writer for I agree with him. I have come to the truth and understanding of God word regarding prosperity. The Lord spoke to my heart and told me to stop the practice of tithing. I obeyed and then He reveiled His word to me. My eyes were opened to the very thing you said about depending on God alone and not on things or humans. I saw that I had positioned myself repeatedly for anguish, because I did depend on my husband, children, friends, my rental income, etc…”Oh and let’s not forget myself”. I made a decision to give all that I had over to Him. I gave Him ownership of all that I thought was mine. He led me to read Job, where Job says: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised.” Job1:21.
      My faith and relationship with the Lord is at a place hope, trust and Holy respect for who He is.
      Thank to the writer of this article. May many more put their trust in The Lord, in the path He has prepaired for them.

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    • Sandra Montes

      JULIE, I posted the bottom comment prior to reading your comment. I can relate to what your going thru as what the current post you commented on. I was asked to do some radical things by the Lord that I know He was asking me to do, which was letting go and trusting Him. We have made some wise decisions but we have made some really bads as well. However I alone have decided to commit everything to the Lord and trust that as I am being as a child (humble) that He will be the Father (head, Lordship, guide, counselor, director) of my path. Be encouraged that your Father knowns every hair on your head, that your worth and care is far above the birds or the air. Rest and trust Him, He is Abba Father to you.

      Mary, I too appreciate the grace that you expressed to the writer for I agree with him. I have come to the truth and understanding of God word regarding prosperity. The Lord spoke to my heart and told me to stop the practice of tithing. I obeyed and then He reveiled His word to me. My eyes were opened to the very thing you said about depending on God alone and not on things or humans. I saw that I had positioned myself repeatedly for anguish, because I did depend on my husband, children, friends, my rental income, etc…”Oh and let’s not forget myself”. I made a decision to give all that I had over to Him. I gave Him ownership of all that I thought was mine. He led me to read Job, where Job says: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised.” Job1:21.
      My faith and relationship with the Lord is at a place hope, trust and Holy respect for who He is.
      Thank to the writer of this article. May many more put their trust in The Lord, in the path He has prepaired for them.

      Reply
  2. I LOVE THIS!!!! You did well with this article. Thank you and be blessed:)

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  3. I sincerely appreciate your ability to respond with such clarity, compassion and measured humility. The world would be such a gentler place if we could all find that tenuous balance between holding fast to our convictions while still being willing to admit we might not have ALL the answers.

    I am very grateful to have your contributions here at A Deeper Story, as it is pieces like this that keep me coming back and reading more. I’m always attracted to true humility, intellectual curiosity and grace.

    Thank you.

    Reply
    • Danny P

      I think that there definitely is a direct correlation between our devotion and dedication to God and the resources with which we are given as stewards of the kingdom. Sometimes, these resources are financial. Dave Ramsey is far from a teacher of the “prosperit gospel” because the end purpose is that we are available to take part in Jesus’ ministry without anything holding us back. Debt and financial struggles are certainly hindrances towards that end. As we show ourselves to be good stewards, we are trusted and given more to use towards His purpose.

      I think Dave Ramsey’s response was maybe a bit blunt, but I understand why he would be so upset to receive the harsh response he did. Many of the harsh comments against him were not in light Dave Ramsey’s ministry as a whole. I can appreciate why he would choose the word ignorant for that reason. His charachter was being attacked blindly.

      Reply
      • Elizabeth

        Cassie – I couldn’t have said it better!

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      • Jenna

        I agree. I do not see Dave Ramsey’s ministry as being linked in any way with the prosperity gospel, but with wise stewardship TAUGHT in Scripture. Does he get it all right? No. None of us do. I agree that the prosperity gospel is wreaking havoc, but so is the poverty mindset. We need to fix our eyes on Jesus, and be thankful in plenty or want and seek to honor God whether we have much or little, which is also what Scripture teaches.
        This is a great conversation to have, though and I appreciate your POV. Thank you!

        Reply
  4. Cassie

    Mr. Seth,

    Some of the things you wrote about Christ character is very true. However, have you actually ever been through Financial Peace University? Do you even really know what Dave Ramsey teaches or did you just read this one article by Ramsey? I’m just curious. I just finished Financial Peace University myself and I can honestly say I have no idea how you came to this conclusion that FPU is a prosperity theology. I have been in so much debt and financial struggle because I mismanaged what God had given me. Because of FPU and Dave Ramsey’s teaching which are founded in scripture (check out what God has to say about managing money in Proverbs) I have learned that my money is not my own. It is God’s and He has given it to me to be used in accordance with His will and for His kingdom. If I don’t use that money wisely, how then can I give to help the poor, to meet the needs of the sick and helpless, the orphans and those who have nothing? I do agree with you that the prosperity gospel is a cheap imitation and not what Jesus had in mind at all. God is not our personal genie. But you can’t get around the fact that God does bless those who walk in obedience and love toward Him. Dave Ramsey teaches us to yield our finances to God to manage them wisely out of love for Him and a desire to bring glory to His name. I’m finally out of debt because of FPU and because of the wisdom that Ramsey gleaned from Scripture and its application in his own life. God never said that we had to live in financial poverty to be His followers. There is nothing wrong with wealth when it is used for God’s purpose. Remember the parable of the wise and foolish stewards? I would encourage you to reread Matthew 25:14-30. The wise stewards who invested the wealth of their master were entrusted with more of that wealth. The foolish steward had even what he was given taken away because of his foolishness. I don’t have a lot of money and I don’t know whether I’ll have ever a lot of money, that’s up to my Lord and Master Jesus Christ. But Dave Ramsey’s teaching helped me to learn humility and recognize that what I have is what God has given me and I must use it for His glory and not for my own pleasures and excess. Thank you for sharing your opinion. I hope that my experience will give you a better idea of what Ramsey teaches and that maybe you might explore FPU yourself to find out whether He really is all about “prosperity theology.”

    Reply
    • Cassie,

      Thank you for sharing your experience.

      My wife and I have walked through most of the FPU material, and I have read Ramsey’s books. I also want to make sure I’m being really clear. I’m not so much taking issue with the principles as with the Christ-character comment. Even as we walk toward independence from debt (bondage it is, no doubt), I think it warrants asking whether it’s a badge of Christ-likeness or merely common sense.

      When you set up financial prosperity as a badge of Christ-likeness, there are troubling implications. What of those who, for whatever reason, are not out of debt bondage? What of those who never achieve financial peace? Do they represent Christ less? Are they second tier followers of the Gospel?

      I think these are the questions I’m really trying to ask here.

      Thanks again for sharing your story. It definitely adds value to this discussion.

      Reply
  5. I’m not sure I even know what to say here… I did not read Dave Ramsey’s article nor do I want to right now… I love God with all my heart, we followed where we were told to follow, and here we are in the process of losing our house and the $25,000 equity that we had in it. It’s not the way we wanted things to go down when we put it on the market 7 months ago in order to move to another state for the spiritual health of our family. We both had jobs in a new town, house was not selling, we packed up to move. We knew it was right, we still do. My husband’s job fell through 1 week before the move. We’d already rented a place, packed up our belongings. We were going anyways. It’s what the Spirit of God told us to do. For 6 weeks my husband looked for work, 40 job applications put in.. finally something opened for him. Now we are not only several thousand dollars in debt due to the loss of job we are losing our house. Yet we didn’t do anything wrong to cause this. In fact we did exactly what we were directed to do. Bad things happen to good people. People work hard, follow the Shepherd where He leads and yet it doesn’t mean that prosperity will befall them. Quite the opposite for us. We are dependent on the Father like never before… That is prosperity in my book…

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    • Juliej

      I couldn’t agree more. Prosperity doesn’t have to mean money. We can be prosperous in our growth towards God’s purpose for our lives, which to me is more important than any material prosperity. I’m on a small disability pension and have barely enough to get through a month. But amazingly I am still able to find enough to support several charities I believe in that help those in third world countries who would consider my life luxurious. I’m not always sure where it all comes from every month, but it’s always there, none the less. I feel extremely prosperous!

      Reply
    • Oliver

      This is such an opportunity for you to be distinctive in the way that you respond to this hardship. You’re already doing it, so just keep going. Regardless of the conclusions one might come to after reading this article, the prosperity gospel itself is so worldly, isn’t it? There’s no room for your sort of experience in its teachings. No prosperity teacher could prepare you to glorify God in times of massive, undeserved financial hardship. There is no possibility of saying to the world, “I have lost everything, yet I still have Christ. I am prospering indeed!”, only confusion and self-doubt.
      There is so much to be gained by suffering well; it is when God changes us and brings us closest to Him. Keep on going. As a Christian writer wrote in a book I read a while back (it was either Carson, Packer, or Stott; I think it was Packer), in two billion years, you won’t care how much money you had, or how many comforts you enjoyed, but the work you did for God will be eternal.
      Glorify Him in your plight! Continue on your road, ever looking for ways to depend on Him MORE! You are doing well, and He is changing you. Prosperity indeed!

      Reply
  6. Dave M

    You hit it right on, Seth.

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  7. This was just a much needed post! You didn’t response with ignorance and you did not wrongfully criticize. Its apparent you put a lot of thought into this post, which I appreciate as many responded with emotions running high and not much forethought. So, great post!

    Reply
  8. Rowen

    “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.”

    …just curious, but is King Solomon also to be verbally lambasted for listing the “oversimplified, dichotomous” habits of the poor and rich as well? What about Jesus’ statement, “the poor you will always have with you.” when he was challenged for allowing the woman to annoint His feet with costly perfume? Several of Jesus’ teachings were specifically about stewardship, and he taught it is “the love of money,” and not the money itself that is the root of all evil. I say all this, as I know wealthy Christian families that are extremely generous and have blessed us on many occasions, but some would pigeonhole as tenents to “prosperity theology”, as if it is the same thing as Biblical stewardship.

    You seem to sit quite high on your genteel, yet very Intellectual, post-modern high horse to judge another of his heart’s intentions.

    Reply
    • Jolene

      Mr. Pot, I’d love to introduce you to Mr. Kettle. Although I have a feeling you’re well acquainted.

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    • Rowen,

      Please go back and read the piece. I think you will find that I was not judging Ramsey’s intentions, but rather, his words. There is a difference.

      Reply
  9. Josh Freeman

    I doubt Ramsey is a prosperity theologian, or any kind of theologian, really. “Lack of nuance,” you said… Indeed. (Not being a theologian is OK, by the way. At least I hope so, because I’m not much of one either.)

    Ramsey is a coach, and a darn good one. His sport is the First World economy, and his players are those with ability and opportunity to suit up for it. Ramsey projects a vision of a game in which the players are equals, the rules are consistent, and you win more than you lose if you work hard. He’s a Christian, so his motivational storytelling draws from Christian tradition, and he talks like a coach – which means he’s going to offend pretty much everybody sooner or later.

    Here’s the thing: a good coach doesn’t sit around wondering whether his game is ultimately a good idea, or what the impact of the stadium on the surrounding landscape is, or what to do with people who don’t play the game. He also doesn’t spend a lot of time communicating with non-players. Expecting Ramsey to do, or be good at, any of these things is inviting disappointment. It’s not his job.

    Ramsey’s mistake was stepping out of his lane and implying general conclusions from his specialization. Unfortunately for him, he did it on the Internet, where the walls have ears and talk to all the other houses.

    Reply
    • Michael J.

      I think you “nuanced” it quite right Josh. It’s uncanny how often such “coach/celebrities” get out of their lane and end up out of their league.

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    • Josh,

      I like your coach analogy, and as Michael J. said, when coaches get outside of their lanes, things sometimes get wonky. I have no doubt that Ramsey is applying *some* biblical concepts to his debt free coaching, but to say that the propensity to build wealth is a sign of Christ-character seems inconsistent with the life of Christ.

      You are a good brother, Josh. Keep pushing back (and nuancing my arguments). I like it.

      Reply
  10. Isaac

    the author misunderstands ramsey’s principles as well as the parable he cites.

    the “prosperity gospel” preaches that christ wants you to be rich and that riches are the necessary consequence of christian obedience. the cart goes before the horse – “i am rich, therefore, i must be christlike” or “i am poor, therefore, i have not been obedient to christ”.

    ramsey’s message is much different: that christ calls us to honesty, patience, discipline, industry and charity… virtues that happily coincide with financial success.

    the parable from luke cited above does not speak to how wealth is built (the topic of ramsey’s list). instead, it illustrates the foolishness of using wealth as personal security rather than a means to be christ to the world (a goal ramsey repeats daily). perhaps there is scriptural justification for the author’s position… but he has not provided it.

    i’d be interested in hearing the author’s opinion on the following (1) which specific virtues underpin ramsey’s list? (2) do those virtues promote the building of wealth? (2) if so, are those virtues in conflict with a christlike life?

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  11. I know that Dave Ramsey has helped a lot of people get out of debt. My husband and I have done financial counseling together for several years (he’s the expert, I’m the trusty sidekick) and we do not agree with all of Ramsey’s principles. Nevertheless, when we run into young couples who are drowning in poor decision making and overwhelming debt, we send them to FPU. So I look at Ramsey as a person/pastor who has listened to and learned from him, despite not being in full agreement with some of this financial opinions. But this latest brouhaha has not been well-handled at all. A simple gracious statement, acknowledging that he had stepped out of ‘his lane’ (love that analogy up above) would have stopped the conversation immediately. He chose not to go that route, but to become defensive and even obnoxious in his responses. They were most definitely not reflective of Christ’s character. Thank you for your push-back, Seth. As usual, you handled it well. I am distinctly uncomfortable when anyone becomes a guru-like celebrity in christendom. I don’t think that’s good for anyone, ever. I’d love to see him offer a short apology and then go back to what he does well.

    Reply
  12. Sarah Gingrich

    Thank you. As a overseas missionary, here in the U.S. between assignments, I have inwardly cringed many a time when the overtones of the prosperity gospel percolated up in conversations with believers. As Christians we are entitled, entitled to be mocked, entitled to be despised, entitled to be imprisoned and beaten for our faith. But currently in vogue is an entitlement to be wealthy, healthy, and well-followed on Twitter. Entitled to multi-media flashy, non-boring church services and a consumer mentality when it comes to our church communities. I am so very grieved by this. A pastor I knew in Chile, where I lived six years, sold all of his possessions to be able to attend a Bible school. He lived on tea and bread for a year so he could afford classes. He regularly gave away his money to others as their needs arose. What a terrible financial planner, right? What a Christ-like giant of faith, right? I think there’s a mix-up here, between the world’s wisdom and God’s wisdom?

    Reply
  13. Such a balanced, well-written response. Thank you, Seth!

    Reply

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