In this article I want to interact with several misconceptions that people often have about wealth, poverty, and what the Bible says about both. Some of these mistaken ideas can be found in print, others are of a more urban-legend variety. All of them are false and unhelpful.
Myth #1: Money is the root of all evil
This phrase still gets thrown around in different contexts to this day, but it is not what Paul actually says in his letter to Timothy. Actually, Paul tells his young protege that the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. In the context of 1 Tim 6, Paul is warning of the temptations that attend the desire to be rich. Yet, given this warning, it must be acknowledged that it is by God’s design that societies function through the exchange of goods and services and flourish when this exchange is conducted with honesty and integrity. When people love money (instead of God and people) they will act unlawfully to get more money, exploit and defraud other people (James 5:4), break laws, hoard their possessions (Luke 12:13-21), and act selfishly. But the love of money is the problem, not the money itself.
Myth #2: Christians Must Sell (All or Most of) their Possessions and Live in Poverty in Order to Truly Serve God
This idea typically comes from misinterpreting and misapplying Luke 18:18-30 where Jesus tells a potential disciple to sell his possessions, give to the poor, and follow after him. But it is vital to understand Jesus’ words to the rich ruler in this passage in Luke’s gospel. Jesus was not providing a command by which all Christians must strictly abide; he was challenging directly the ruler’s self-righteousness and his heart toward his wealth (something Jesus does do with all Christians). The rich ruler may have thought he had ‘kept’ the commandments, but he loved his wealth more than God, thus demonstrating that he had replaced God with the idol of possession. What this man needed was repentance and genuine heart change toward his wealth—something only possible through the work of God’s Spirit. Furthermore, Scripture assumes elsewhere that there will be wealthy Christians (1 Timothy 6:17). In the case of these wealthy Christians, the issue isn’t the wealth per se, but their attitude toward and trust in it.
Myth #3: Christians Should Be Wealthy
This is the mantra of the prosperity teachers. Prosperity teachers usually claim that the Bible promises great financial success to Christians who obey and trust God. Indeed, as these teachers often suggest, to be poor is to demonstrate that one does not have enough faith. Such teaching clearly ignores passages that indicate that one’s wealth or relative poverty is not necessarily connected to one’s obedience to God. The wicked can be rich (Ps 73:3) and the righteous can be poor (James 2:5). Sometimes it is better to be poor than wealthy if one’s riches have come by way of injustice or other perverse means (Prov 28:6). Also, while it is true that a Christian who seeks to steward well his resources may find himself with greater wealth, it is never guaranteed in Scripture that a Christian will be materially wealthy. With these truths in mind, I believe there is much wisdom in the prayer of Agur in Proverbs 30:7-9: “Give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me; lest I be full and deny you and say, “Who is the LORD?” or lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God.”
Myth #4. Seeking a Profitable Business is Sinful
I have heard James 4:13-15 used to discourage Christians from pursuing for-profit business ventures. James says,
Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit’—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.’ As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.
What James is condemning is not planning and profit making, but such activity when it is conducted without acknowledgement of or submission to God’s sovereignty. To seek to build one’s business without recognizing that God is the giver of wealth (James 4:16; cf. Deut. 8:18) leads to boasting and arrogance. It will also lead to misusing one’s employees (James 5:4). Other Scriptures clearly condone the pursuit of profit.
For example, in the parable of the talents, Jesus tacitly endorses the improvement of one’s resources—i.e., profit—(Matthew 25:14-23) and actually denounces the one who refused to increase what his master entrusted him with (Matthew 25:24-30). The book of Proverbs is replete with exhortations to planning and diligence and profit making (Proverbs 14:23; 21:5; 31:18) while reminding readers that to fear God is to commit one’s plans ultimately to him (Proverbs 16:3; 16:9). Moreover, profit-making businesses can actually be a way one can do great good in the world: they supply useable goods and services to the immediate and greater community, provide employment for others, add value to other local business and homes, and some business give a portion of their profit to charitable organizations. What the Bible condemns is profit making that exploits and misuses one’s employees (see Proverbs 28:18 cf. 10:2).
Myth #5: The Widow in Luke 21 is an Example of Sacrificial Giving.
The story of the widow who parted with her last two lepta for the sake of religious devotion has doubtless been used in thousands of sermons as an example of sacrificial giving (see Luke 21:1-4). Sadly, what many preachers miss in this story is the fact that Jesus did not see this event as a triumph of faith in the face of poverty but the tragedy of false religion in the life of a deceived follower. The context makes this latter interpretation far more plausible than the idea that Jesus was telling his disciples that they should follow the widow’s lead and put all their money into a corrupt religious system.
In Luke 20:45-47, Jesus warns his disciples of the Pharisees for these religious hypocrites love honor, they make long prayers for the sake of recognition, and they devour widows’ houses (v.47). When Jesus comments that the widow gave more than these Pharisees did—for they gave out of their abundance but she gave all she had to live on (21:3-4)—it is unlikely that he is commending this widow for her sacrificial giving because her actions were actually irresponsible: she now had nothing with which to support herself. And who knows how many Christians have been burdened by the thought that their charitable giving must bring them near the brink of pecuniary ruin before they are pleasing to God. Contrary to popular evangelical lore, the widow is not an example; she is a cautionary tale.
Myth #6: It is Godly to Live off of Others
I have come across professing Christians who have determined that it is legitimate to live off others so that they can give themselves to endeavors more “spiritual” than work. Paul faced this kind of problem in his own day but plainly rejected any thinking that tended to downplay the God-ordained responsibility to work and earn one’s living (see 1 Thess 4:11-12; 2 Thess. 3:6-15).
Although the apostle had a divine “right” to request material provision from those with whom he shared the gospel, he did not always make use of this right and instead labored with his own hands to provide for himself. In doing so, he relieved the financial burdens of his hosts and offered himself as an example of hard work and integrity thus removing a stumbling block before other Christians who may not have understood the theological legitimacy of Paul’s request for material provisions (1 Thess. 2:-1-12)
Paul makes it clear that people must provide for their own needs; to live off others when one is physically and mentally able to work and provide for himself is unacceptable for a Christian. Of course, Paul gives us no specifics (for each situation requires wisdom and careful application of Scripture), but he does make it clear that Christians are expected to earn their own living.
Myth #7: It is Sinful to Have a Savings Account
This idea can be taken from Jesus’ parable of the man who, having encountered growing wealth, chose to build larger barns to store his surplus (Luke 12:13-21). The point of Jesus’ parable of the rich fool, however, was not to condemn his act of saving, but rather covetousness and his failure to acknowledge God in his act of saving. The man had believed the lie that his life consisted “in the abundance of his possessions” (v.15). He simply stored up his wealth without any thought of providing for others or giving for the sake of God’s kingdom.
Myth #8: The Bible is Anti-Capitalism and Endorses Communism or Socialism as a Superior Economic Model
This idea is usually taken from Acts 2:44 and 4:32 where we read that the early church “held all things in common.” There are, however, several features of this narrative that are often overlooked when these passages are used as proof that the Bible is socialistic or communistic. First, the believers did not sell all their possessions, nor were they required to do so. For example, Peter tells Ananias—who apparently wanted to make it look like they were giving more than they really were—that his property was his to do with what he wished (Acts 5:3-4). He was not obligated to sell it or give it away. The believers also continued to meet in homes, implying that some were keeping their houses and selling extra property. Second, in Acts 4:32-35, the text says that “no one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own; but all things were common property to them.”
The point is that these believers did not view their positions as exclusively their own, but could be used for the benefit of others. Thus, it is best to understand the previous verses describing the voluntary generosity of the early church; they not giving a prescription for all Christians at all times. As Art Lindsey has noted, “this early sharing was voluntary, without state coercion, and did not necessitate that believers give up their rights to private property.”[i] Furthermore, there is no evidence in the remaining portions of the New Testament that Christians are obligated to give up their personal property to community control. Even if, for the sake of argument, the church was requiring believers to sell their possessions and relinquish them to the Christian community, this would not be an endorsement for state-run communist or socialist economy.
Myth #9: The Bible Endorses Capitalism as a Superior Economic Model
It might be tempting to use the Bible to argue that capitalism is the answer to all our economic problems. While I believe that free-market capitalism is an economic model superior to all other options, I don’t think the Bible explicitly endorses capitalism or a specific brand of it. There are biblical truths that help us see why free-market capitalism is a wise and beneficial economic model—the doctrine of creation, for example, and basic principles like legitimate self-interest, the value of work, and the validity of personal property—but we must be careful not to use the Bible to legitimize a particular kind of capitalism as though God has placed his unqualified stamp of approval on Western business practice and societal structures. Like anything, we must always draw our judgments back to Scripture to ensure that we are thinking God’s thoughts after him—even when it comes to our reflections on economics. For two excellent defenses of free-market capitalism developed from a Christian perspective, see Jay Richards, Money, Greed, and God: Why Capitalism is the Solution and not the Problem and Wayne Grudem and Barry Asmus, The Poverty of Nations: A Sustainable Solution.
Myth #10: It is Wrong for a Christian to Earn Lots of Money
This myth comes again from misunderstanding Paul’s warning in 1 Timothy 6:10 and the Bible’s general warning against the love of money and serving wealth. The mistake is made in thinking that the Scripture calls the Christian to avoid earning a significant amount of money rather than calling him to avoid loving that earned money and using it in profitable, generous, selfless ways. A Christian who earns lots of money is not obligated to increase his standard of living, and much of his wealth can be used for great good in the world. Furthermore, it is not necessarily sinful for a Christian to accept a job that will pay him more money. There are other factors to consider, but the ability to create more wealth by taking another job is a stewardship to consider, not a sin to shun.
Myth #11: A Pastor Should Be Poor
Believe it or not, there are churches today that believe that a pastor must be poor to effectively serve God. They may not come out and say it, but the compensation packages they offer usually reflect their mistaken notions about the pastor and his money. I have had friends tell me of job offers from churches with compensations packages that barely reached the median income of the local area. I’ve even heard of churches that offered their salary package to their pastoral candidate with the expectation that the his wife would work outside the home. Sadly, rather than helping cultivate an fruitful ministry, these churches are actually hindering their pastor’s effectiveness by forcing him into a situation where he must worry continually about his family’s financial situation. As a result, he may be required to find other means of income which and his time and energy will be diverted from the ministry.
Scripture, however, does not require that a pastor be poor. He cannot be a lover of money (1 Timothy 3:3), but, as we saw above, money and the love of money are two different things. The former is neither moral or immoral; the latter clearly is. Paul even tells Timothy to treat elders with double honor, a command that probably included more than mere recognition: those who served the church with competent teaching and oversight should be paid in a way that was appropriate for their work and would provide adequately for his family. (Of course, there are bi-vocational pastors, and many of them deserve our praise and admiration for their dedication to the work of Christ, but I do not refer specifically to pastors in these kinds of situations where a small or new church cannot afford to pay them full time. Rather, I am commenting on the mistaken notion, held wittingly or unwittingly by some churches, that a pastor should be, by necessity, relatively poor.)
Myth #12: A Pastor Should Be Filthy Rich
I admit this is not a popular myth among evangelicals, but it is an idea that is gaining traction due to the financial achievements of men like Joel Osteen and Steven Furtick. These men are on record saying that they believe their ostentatious living is a blessing from God and they make no apologies for their opulent lifestyle. While I do not want to draw lines where the Bible doesn’t and create a false standard for how a pastor should spend his money (e.g., you are in sin if you drive a Lexus, but you are super spiritual if you drive a ’99 Toyota Corolla), I find it difficult to accept, based on the biblical warning against the desire to be rich and the love of money, that over-the-top spending on homes and cars and vacations is an effective method for showing unbelievers that Christ is your most prized possession. (Even the world thinks it a little strange when pastors build mansions.) Nor is it a wise strategy for guarding one’s soul against the encroachments of materialism.
Myth #13: Caring for the Poor is the Supreme Priority of Christians
While it is obvious that Scripture places a burden upon God’s people to care for the poor (Deut. 15:7; Prov. 14:21; 14:31; 19:17; 21:13; Matthew 6:2-3), it does not make poverty care the ultimate priority for Christians. As John Piper has aptly said, “Christians care about all suffering, especially eternal suffering.” To say “especially” means to place a higher priority on eternal suffering than temporal suffering, while not taking away from the necessity of earthly distresses. The heart of the Christian must be to alleviate suffering (indeed, if you have little desire to alleviate temporal suffering, you may not be a Christian; see James 2:16; 1 John 3:17-18), but this can not be pursued at the expense of the gospel, for a person brought out of physical poverty yet who remains in spiritual death is little better off despite his new financial status. On the other hand, a poor man who has Christ is wealthy beyond measure (Romans 8:17; Phil 1:21).
Myth #14: Caring for the Poor is Not a Priority for Christians
There is a tendency to react against the “social gospel” of classic liberalism because we believe that a concern for the poor of this world will lead us to embrace liberal doctrine (e.g., Jesus is a mere man, the Bible is full of errors and myths, humankind is inherently good, etc.). As a result, some evangelicals may be doctrinal stalwarts but neglect to obey straightforward biblical commands to care for the poor. It is clear throughout the entire Bible that God has concern for the poor and calls his people to show compassion for those who do not possess the necessities of life (see Matthew 6:2; 25:35-36; Galatians 2:10; I John 3:17-18).
It is important to remember, however, that not all Christians are gifted or equipped or called to care for the poor in the same way. Actually, to require all Christians to serve the poor in the same way would be counterproductive. Wayne Grudem, for example, after serving with his wife for a time at a local shelter, determined that it would be a better, more God-honoring use of his time to ply his gifts in another way in serving the poor. The result of that decision was a useful, well-researched contribution to the discussion over poverty care (See Wayne Grudem and Barry Asmus, The Poverty of Nations: A Sustainable Solution). Furthermore, there may be ways that our charity actually hurts the poor rather than helps them (for more on this see Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor…or Yourself).
Myth #15: The Poor are a Special Class of Citizen
While the Bible as a whole views the poor with particular concern and compassion, it does not advocate overturning justice for the sake of the poor as though poverty is the worst kind of evil and the goal of eradicating poverty should serve as the reference point for all other ethical judgments. God tells his people in Leviticus 19:15, “You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor.” Neither the poor nor the rich should be treated with special exception when it comes to what is right and wrong (see Exodus 23:2-3).
Myth #16: Poverty Can Be Completely Eradicated in This Life
There have been recent excellent evangelical contributions on the matter of small and large scale poverty solution and I welcome such efforts. But the best of these works tell us that Scripture gives us no reason to believe that poverty will ever be eradicated prior to the coming of Christ and the establishing of a new heavens and new earth. Due to man’s fallen nature, countries will continue to endure the scourge of corrupt leadership, tragedy will befall some men and women and cast them into poverty despite their hard work and responsible financial planning, false religion will continue to strangle its adherents by requiring economically destructive practices, and laziness will continue to rob men and women of motivation and the desire to make their own way in the world. Indeed, Jesus himself said, “The poor you will always have with you” (Matt 26:11).
[i]Art Lindsey, “Does God Require the State to Redistribute Wealth? An Examination of Jubilee and Acts 2-5,” in For the Least of These: A Biblical Answer to Poverty (Bloomington, IN: WestBow, 2014), 110.