Think about this: 16 of the 38 parables Jesus taught involved how to handle money and possessions. In the Gospels, an amazing one-out-of ten verses (288 in all) deal directly with the subject of money. Though the Bible offers 500 verses on prayer and less than 500 verses on faith, it has more than 2,000 verses on money and possessions.
Along with sex and power, money ranks as one of the all-time greatest temptations of those who are trying to follow Jesus. He was so concerned that his followers not allow money become their foremost priority, he gave to money a godlike name: Mammon. Mammon is the only pagan “god” that Jesus ever referred to.
A little less than a year ago a man walked into the bookstore at Joel Osteen’s Lakewood mega-church in Houston, Texas and began pulling books off the shelf and scattering them all over the floor. He saw himself as re-enacting the story of Jesus’ throwing the moneychangers out of the Temple found in all four of the Gospels.
Osteen’s wife, Victoria, had recently said, “I just want to encourage everyone of us to realize when we obey God, we’re not doing it for God — I mean, that’s one way to look at it — we’re doing it for ourselves, because God takes pleasure when we’re happy.
“So I want you to know this morning: Just do good for your own self. Do good because God wants you to be happy. When you come to church, when you worship Him, you’re not doing it for God really. You’re doing it for yourself, because that’s what makes God happy. Amen?”
The book-thrower believes that Victoria Osteen was close to blasphemy and decided to take matters into his own hands.
I work with international leaders from many nations. They are pastors or bishops who command the respect of millions of Christian believers in their home countries. Again and again, I hear from them that one of their greatest concerns is the rise of so-called “prosperity churches” that claim to the credulous that if you are faithful, generous and self-giving you will reap financial rewards. It would seem that Osteen, who proclaims — “It’s God’s will for you to live in prosperity instead of poverty” — isn’t doing very badly himself. He and his wife recently moved into a $10.5 million mansion in Houston’s toney River Oaks neighborhood.
Undoubtedly, the Osteens’ preaching and piety have touched millions. But confusing the Gospel with wealth is one of the cardinal temptations of which Jesus was particularly wary — as we should be, too.
When the early church confronted the pagan culture through the ministry of the apostles they encountered a “big man” named Simon who thought that God’s blessings could be purchased. Peter said to him, “Simon, your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God.” It’s a short walk from that attitude to the one that says that God’s gift to us is in the form of money. (See Acts. 8:9-24)
When I was the president of a theological seminary, I faced the temptation to put money in the driver’s seat. We had lived a precarious existence, relying on God’s last-minute supply in answer to fervent prayers at the end of each fiscal year. Despite God’s faithfulness year after year, I sweated the month of June out and often questioned God’s ability to answer our prayers.
Then, during my tenure, the board believed we should embark on a capital campaign to raise $12 million. The money was mainly to assist with scholarships, faculty salaries and to build some necessary new buildings. I frankly wondered where that sort of money would originate.
A short way into our campaign I received a phone call from the headquarters of our denomination saying that a man had left a sum of money (it was not specified) for a seminary that was evangelical in theology and mission-minded. We seemed like the perfect recipient. Did we want the money?
There was only one catch — the man had left it only for the theological education of “white males.” This raised the specter of racism and led one trustee to say that it had “the smell of sulfur about it.” I battled with my conscience and was finally persuaded that the trustee was right. We turned the money down. It ended up being a whopping $750,000 and it went to another seminary in our denomination.
I learned an important lesson that our founding dean had taught us: In Christian ministry always put money in the secondary place. It’s ministry that matters. If you do faithful ministry, the support will come. Be sure in all your teaching and in the minds of your faculty and your students, you are guided by the number-one priority of preparing men and women for Gospel ministry.
Oh and by the way, we did manage to raise the full amount of our capital campaign and exceeded it by $2 million. There were nights when I could hear those ancient words in my ear: “O ye of little faith.”
Christian ministry, like all endeavors, needs money to survive and grow. But we cannot see this issue the way the rest of the world sees it. It is not the amount of money; it’s the value we put on that money and whether the means we use to get it are totally above board and do not arouse suspicion. As a Christian, I want to be sure my motives are pure.
Peter C. Moore, D.D. is the director of the Anglican Leadership Institute, Mt. Pleasant and also scholar-in-residence at St. Michael’s Church.