Christian Beliefs about Money
Christian money beliefs are controversial because they claim to be based on biblical teachings about money. The Bible is a controversial book. People have many different beliefs about the Bible. Some treat it as literal truth. Some regard it as literature and moral guidance. Others think that it is all nonsense.
No matter what you believe about the validity of the Bible, the Bible continues to affect what people believe about many important topics, such as the meaning of human life, human worth, marriage, slavery, war, sex, government, and money. Let’s pick just one topic that affects all of us. What is the Biblical teaching about money?
Why the Bible Is Not a Book
As soon as we ask the question, we have to stop and analyze the question itself. No matter what the topic, the biggest problem for any question about “what the Bible teaches” is that the Bible is not really a single book. We think of the Bible as a single book because we can buy it as a book in bookstores. But the word “Bible” comes from the Greek word meaning “books.” The Bible is actually a collection of books rather than a single book.
You will always find people who “prove” what “the Bible teaches” on any particular topic because they can quote particular Bible verses to make their case. You will also find people who “prove” just the opposite based on other Bible verses.
The solution to such contradictory efforts to “prove” what “the Bible teaches” is to recognize that the Bible did not originate as a single, organized, coherent book. It is a collection of writings from different times and places, written in different languages. In addition, these writings have been edited, expanded, and then edited some more.
Bible Money Beliefs and Economic Systems
Another problem about biblical stories about money and wealth is that they come from different economic systems than the capitalist economy in which we live. Some of the bible money stories are about nomads. They were herders rather than farmers. Other Bible money stories come from an economic era based on farming, in which wealth was based on land. Money in an agrarian society based on farming was very different than money in an economic era based on herding. And both are very different from money in a capitalist era, when wealth is based on money itself.
People often read the Bible as if they are stories written in today’s newspaper. People will ignore the differences between these economic systems, to look for direct answers to apply directly to our own economic era.
If you want to know what “the Bible teaches about money,” do you take the stories of a nomad, such as Abraham, who amassed great wealth? Do you base your economic life on Jesus money quotations, such as “Blessed are the poor,” and believe that God wants you to be poor? Or do you simply get confused with all of the conflicting stories?
Misunderstanding What Jesus Said about the Rich Man
At a seminar about creating wealth, I saw a man who was confused about what he thought the Bible teaches about money. I heard him ask the speaker, “How can you say it is good to be rich? Jesus said that a rich man cannot get into heaven.”
The first problem is that the man had misquoted a story told in the Gospel of Matthew. (The same story is also told in the Gospels of Mark and Luke.)
“Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Truly, I say to you, it will be hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God'" (Matthew 19:23-24.)
The most basic fact that the man did not understand was that Jesus was telling the story in an agrarian society. A rich man was part of the ruling class who controlled the land. Wealth came from exploitation and abuse of the majority of the population.
In its own context, this story about Jesus and the rich man is not about being rich in a capitalist economy, where it's possible to be rich without exploiting other people. The man who asked the question simply assumed that the words of Jesus could apply directly to life in a capitalistic economy. This is the kind of misunderstanding that happens again and again when people use Bible verses about money without paying attention to the economic context behind the story.
The only real answer to the man who asked the question at the seminar would be to understand the point of the story in an agrarian society before making assumptions about what the story means today. You don’t have to be Christian to be affected by Christian beliefs about money. You might have learned that money is evil or a rich man cannot get into heaven or that money is a sign of God’s blessing.
The truth is, there is no single set of Christian beliefs about any topic. This is especially true about money. Money is one of the necessities of life. Money is power. Those who have money have social and political power. Those without money struggle endlessly.
The heart of the problem is that much Christian education about money reduces the topic of money to a few Bible verses, with no effort to put the words of the Bible into any larger context. Such careless Bible interpretation keeps people broke and struggling for money.
My book, Gospel of Wealth or Poverty? How Do Bible Verses about Jesus, Wealth, Poverty, and Heaven Affect Your Income?, puts Bible verses about money into biblical context, to show that much of Christian education about money completely ignores the reality of money in different economic systems.
[Original Post November 4, 2007]