The health and wealth of the church

October 29, 2011 in How should we process the Occupy Wall Street protests?, Question of the Week, Spotlight Answers by Chris Altrock

In recent weeks, the Occupy Wall Street protests have drawn attention to the issue of economic disparities in America. Those facts seem particularly significant here in the poorest big city in America. Do too few have too much money and power? What values are at issue here and how should we process these protests?

In a trio of letters called the “pastorals” Paul addresses the health and wealth of the church.  The Timothy of 1 Timothy and 2 Timothy and the Titus of Titus were authorized by Paul as temporary pastors of these churches.  Their primary role was to combat the false teaching that was taking place in these churches.

One of the things Paul has learned about these churches is that they are in danger of not being “sound.”  Coming from fundamentalist and ultra-conservative groups, the concept of “sound” doctrine can sound like intolerance and narrow-mindedness.  But the word “sound” means “healthy.” Paul’s learned that there is something unhealthy going on in these churches.  Paul refers to the “soundness” or lack of “soundness” in these churches at least nine times. Paul is concerned about the spiritual health of these congregations.

In fact, Paul finds much that is unhealthy in these churches.  Certain teachers and speakers have infiltrated these communities and sowed terrible spiritual diseases. Some of what Paul identifies as unhealthy may not surprise us. In 2 Tim. 3 Paul writes about spiritual diseases of the love of self, pride, arrogance, abuse, unholiness, and sexual passions. It’s easy to hear these things and quickly identify them as unhealthy traits that are bound to have a very negative impact.

But then Paul writes about something that most of us would probably overlook. Paul identifies something as major that most of us would likely call minor. Paul points to something creating tremendous spiritual disease that many of us would only thing could do very little damage. Look at these lines:

“Therefore an overseer must…not [be] a lover of money…” 1 Tim. 3:3 ESV

“Deacons likewise must…not [be] greedy for dishonest gain…” 1 Tim. 3:8 ESV

“For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils” 1 Tim. 6:10 ESV

“But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty.  For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money…” 2 Tim. 3:1-2 ESV

“For an overseer…must not be…greedy for gain” Tit. 1:7 ESV

In addition, Paul spends all of 1 Tim. 6:2-21 writing about the love for money and the correct and incorrect use of money.

In one sentence, here’s what Paul is saying: The wealth of the church is one of the largest threats to the health of the church. Paul’s major concern in these pastoral letters is the health or soundness of the churches. And one of the greatest threats to that health or soundness is the wealth of the church. Paul believes that the way the church handles wealth is one of the most important issues in the life of a church. If Occupy Wall Street is trying to awaken the country to the dangers of economic greed and disparity, Paul is trying to awaken the church to the dangers of economic obsession.

And nowhere is this a more challenging thought than in the American church. A website called “Global Rich List” invites you to enter your annual income. The site then calculates how wealthy you are in comparison to the rest of the world. For example, an income of $40,000 per year puts you in the top 3.17% of the world. An income of $80,000 puts you in the top 0.78 % of the world. The reality is that many of us American Christians are among the wealthiest people in the world. But our wealth is so normal we have a hard time even fathoming a different way of life. Occupy Wall Street may be correct in protesting the fact that the richest 1% of Americans control 40% of the wealth in the United States. But the reality is that the average American controls the majority of wealth in the world. The most run of the mill of us is among the elite when we consider the world’s wealth. That’s especially true in American churches.

Jon Acuff, a popular Christian blogger and an author of several top-selling books, tells of his five year old daughter seeing a picture of a starving child from Africa. His daughter had no category for this. All she had ever known was her middle to upper-middle class life in America. So when she saw a young child with bones protruding and staring lifelessly into a camera, she couldn’t make sense of it.  She said to her father, “Daddy, that’s not real is it? That’s make believe isn’t it?” Many of us American Christians are so wealthy that any other way of life seems made up. And Paul’s warning rings true for us perhaps in an even greater way than it did for the churches in his day: The wealth of the church is one of the largest threat to the health of the church.

Occupy Wall Street might force America’s top 1% to soberly reflect on the “soundness” of their own fiscal lifestyle. Perhaps it ought to force us all, especially Americans, to soberly reflect on the “soundness” of our own fiscal lifestyles.