It is easier perhaps for poorer Christians who make only enough to survive to justify all their expenses and their lifestyles, than for Christians who are upwardly mobile. As a one gets wealthier, tastes in cars, restaurants, housing, and entertainment all become more expensive.
When I was a doctoral student, the Mrs. and I lived on about $35,000 per year (inflation adjusted)–and that included expensive tuition. Now our expenses are easily triple that amount. Is such lifestyle inflation justifiable?
Thanks to a comment in an e-mail from blogger Paul Williams, I’ve learned that Dave Ramsay, whom I’d never heard of, has recently bought a house worth nearly $5 million. Ramsay has a radio show and is in the business of giving advice to Christians about how to get their finances in order, though I have no basis for determining if Ramsay’s teaching is based on sound biblical interpretation, because as I said, I’d never heard of him. But Paul Williams asks the pertinent question if a Christian should even live in a five million dollar house. And certainly any Christian who has a public presence like Dave Ramsay will be questioned about how they are using their money, particularly if they seem to live in such opulence while teaching others how to live frugally (though one should bear in mind that that’s four million in US dollars–which have no intrinsic value).
So Paul has asked me to respond to his comments. And I would say that he is right, that Christians, whether in the public eye or not, must be accountable to one another. Otherwise, why would the Apostle Paul in 1 Tim 6 advise Timothy concerning instructions to the wealthy? So it is a biblical non sequitur that Christians don’t have to answer to one another about their use of their own money, as some are wont to say. Yes it is their money, but the root word for Christian community is koinonia/κοινωνία (pronounced key-no-KNEE-a), whose root meaning is “sharing”. So a balanced Christian teaching would respect property rights while learning how to share and create a community in which the members love one another and reach out to the world with the message of reconciliation that God offers to the world. It is not a community in which members are required to give a tenth or some other part of their increase and never think again about the Kingdom of God. That churches may have many members like that is besides the point. That is not Christian community but just another social club where members pay dues.
But because we must also balance community with property rights, it is difficult for me, because I don’t know Dave Ramsay nor his church, to pronounce any kind of opinion on whether he should or should not have bought this house. But I agree with Paul, what someone does with their money is not just a matter of that person alone or his family, but it concerns the church too.
This subject is important to the righteous investor. As we have argued elsewhere, the righteous investor’s goal is not to attain wealth in order to enjoy the good life. Often the righteous investor could just quit and live comfortably and well from his existing wealth. Why take risks with capital just so that one can live a more wasteful and indulgent life? Rather, the righteous investor will be motivated by the charismatic gift of giving and will desire to increase net worth for the purpose of creating a continuous revenue stream to benefit the Kingdom of God, for Jesus said, “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness.”
I can’t judge Ramsay. But I can judge myself. There is room for Christians to judge first themselves (Matt 7.1-5; 1 Cor 11.31), and we also have the responsibility to help other Christians be accountable before God and the Christian community about how they use their finances. So if I were to buy an expensive house or any other thing, I would have to ask myself some basic questions:
(1) Is my purpose to further the agenda of the Kingdom of God? If I buy a large house, is it so that I can (a) host the church for Bible studies or even Sunday worship (as in the early church); (b) provide housing for retirees, widows or orphans; or a hospice care for the dying? I often regret living in a house that is so small that I cannot really do some ministries.
(2) Is the purpose of my spending to create or run my home business? If I buy a large house in order to run a home business, it is justifiable. For example, I barely have enough room in our current house, which we bought when our income was an eighth of what it is today, and therefore I would consider moving to a more expensive house in order to have more space for my research business and my wine making.
(3) Is my spending a justifiable expense with regard to the enjoyment of wealth for the purpose of rest, relaxation or entertainment? For example, we own a large screen TV, and the watching of DVD’s is a chief source of cheap entertainment; we also go on a get-away vacation, typically 10-20 days a year. But these are necessary things if we are too be able to keep up a pace of arduous labour during the year. We drink sparkling mineral water from Italy. It is inexpensive compared to other beverages, but it’s good for us and doesn’t make us fat. In the end, we believe that the funding God provides for us will permit us an enjoyable life and permit us to give generously to the Kingdom of God. God is not a kill joy who wants to squash our every attempt to have fun or to enjoy our wealth, but rather he “richly furnishes us with everything to enjoy” (1 Tim 6.17).
(4) Does my spending give honour where honour is due? At times it is necessary to spend in an apparently opulent manner in order to give honour where honour is due. Mary of Bethany honoured Jesus with an extremely expensive perfume (John 12.1-8); and Judas Iscariot, the hypocrite, rebuked her with specious argument that the money could have been given the poor. The value according to Judas was 300 denarii which is the equivalent in those days of about 600 days wages of a skilled labourer. At Ontario minimum wages, such a perfume would have been at least $40,000 CDN; and yet Jesus defended Mary because she gave honour where honour is due (Rom 13.7). So as Christians we have to remember not to be cheap like the hypocrite Judas but to spend money appropriately when necessary–whether it is a funeral or wedding, or the birthday or anniversary of a beloved parent or grandparent. We must show honour. Our wedding was at the Delta Inn in order to show honour to our guests, and not at the first ugly restaurant that we looked at. My father-in-law would have been ashamed had we chosen such a dive, for it would have shown disrespect to all his guests.
(5) Does my spending improve the life of anyone? For example, I’d far rather eat at a restaurant and leave a nice tip to my server than to have the government confiscate my wealth and give it to people with whom I have no connection. A wealthy person who regularly eats at restaurants provides jobs. I have two people who work regularly in my home, a full-time research assistant and a housekeeper (one day a week). These expenses may seem luxurious to some, but they need no other justification than that they free us up to our revenue generating activities and they provide a source of income for others. This would apply also to the expensive vacation that we take, because whether it is a luxury cruise or a resort, the guests at such places are served by people who need jobs to survive. Why would we, as Christians, want to question the sort of consumption that provides jobs for people, which is far better than welfare because it doesn’t humiliated them into accepting charity without working? Yet in our day this is an easy target of those who promote class envy. But we know that Job and Abraham, men held up as biblical examples, had large households with many hired servants, and perhaps some slaves as well. Many early Christian householders who were stalwart leaders in the early church owned slaves and had hired servants, and in doing so, they were able to redistribute their wealth in a manner which is far less problematic than our current welfare system.
(6) Is my spending a good temporal investment? It may at a times be a good investment, particularly in a temporary downturn, to buy a house that one intends to flip once the economy improves and the real estate market recovers. I seriously doubt that this is a good time for real estate in the US but I cannot judge another, who is real estate savvy and buys a house for such a purpose.
(7) Is my spending a good eternal investment? I want to imagine that Kingdom of God works in a way that is similar to investing. When investing in company, I ask myself if the investment has the ability (a) to provide a revenue stream; and/or (b) to multiply in value. If I had five million dollars to invest, would I buy a 5 million dollar house to live in? Or would I build a seminary in Latin America or Africa? Which would reap greater rewards for me in the Kingdom of God? I ask this question because I was involved in theological education overseas and trying to raise funds for that venture. I thought that theological education could be a means of raising up sound biblical teachers, providing much needed leadership infrastructure for young churches, and addressing the needs of AIDS, poverty and war in distressed countries, through Christian education and changing the hearts of people towards God. While I now question methods and assumptions I previously held, the challenge remains. Then again, I could live in a one million dollar house instead and give four million to build a hospital and provide a few staff members for a few years in a country that has few such facilities. I could build and staff a medical school in some countries. For crying out loud, the ministries that could be done here in North America require very little imagination. I know missionaries at one of the Mohawk Territories here in Canada who do Christian work and are underfunded by a thousand a month. I could help them build a community house where they could teach Mohawk children how to live for Jesus. What about inner city missions where homeless are fed and offered the good news of the gospel? These are the things I could do and I believe that my reward in heaven would probably be greater than if I bought and lived in a five million dollar home.
Here are some of the criteria that I use to judge my own use of money. The questions don’t always have cut and dried responses, and context and motive are very important. But once we have judge ourselves and have removed the planks from our own eyes, we may be able to help our Christians brothers and sisters to ask similar questions of their use of wealth. May the Lord help us.