Is lifestyle inflation justifiable for the righteous investor?

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.

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What is counter-cultural, charismatic giving: A Response to Poser or Prophet

Poser or Prophet, Dan Oudshorn, in response to made the following comments in response to my sermon on charismatic giving :

Okay, I read the sermon. You think that “counter-cultural generosity” is charismatic giving that is done cheerfully and is not performed based upon mandated compliance with any sort of law of tithing (BTW, I agree with a number of your criticisms about the supposed 10% local church tithe rule).

Still, that doesn’t get us much closer to providing any sort of concrete example of what “counter-cultural giving” looks like in our day. You do say this: “the generous giving of the early Christians, so that no needy person was found amongst them, was a response to the amazing reality of the Holy Spirit” (emphasis mine). So, I take it that the absence of any poor people within contemporary Christian communities would mean that “counter-cultural generosity” is being practiced appropriately. Is that correct? That seems to contradict things you have written elsewhere.

Well, not quite.  Certainly the local church is a start.  We must care for one another within our local assemblies.  But the mission of the church is global.  So the scope is much bigger than what happens in our local community.

You also write that this practice “sets us free also from the bondage of materialism, of trusting in material possessions instead of in the God who created all things.” Could you explain in more detail how exactly it does this? The only way I can imagine it doing so, is if we give so much that we are actually uncertain about our own stability not just in the distant future, but tomorrow as well (hence, “give us this day our daily bread” regains the urgency it had in Jesus’ day). However, I can’t imagine you agreeing with this interpretation, so clarification would be good.

We don’t need to live unwisely in order to demonstrate liberation from material possessions.  To a degree, all of us need food, shelter, and clothing.  And for most places in the world, the struggle to provide all of those things for oneself and one’s family is very consuming.  Your suggestion of giving so much that we become uncertain of the future is not a good way to approach the matter.  (By the way Greek behind the line, “Give us this day our daily bread,” probably means, “Give us this day the bread of the future kingdom”).  I think it is better to make giving a passion or a preoccupation rather than a road to personal poverty.

Here are some other suggestions:

(1) Charismatic Giving becomes a higher priority than consumption. Consumer debt in Canada is $25,000 per person at end of Q3 2010.  The Bible teaches the avoidance of debt (though I don’t hold that all debt is bad).  So those who can claim that they have no consumer debt  are on average counter-cultural.  It is counter-cultural in a Christian manner when one can say, “As a result of having no consumer debt, I am able to give more to charity and to respond to the needs of others.”

(2) Once one has made enough wealth to survive, then charismatic giving becomes the motivating factor for further work or investment.  The goal of many people in our culture is what Jonathan Chevreau has called “Findependence”, financial independence from the obligation to work.  Others are more ambitious and wish to have more power or be able to consume more.  The charismatic gift would lead the Christian to work beyond what is needed to comfortably survive in order to be even more charitable or to be able to maintain a constant revenue stream towards their charitable gifts.  Paul says work with your hands so that you have something to give (Eph 4.28).

(3) A charismatic investor whose hope is not in material possessions can become an investor par excellence. Why?  Because investing requires risk taking.  Those in bondage to riches may be the worst investors because they are afraid to lose what they have.  An investor has to be able to risk when market fear is palpable.  The Christian investor whose confidence is in the Lord instead of riches will be able to risk at the right moment.

(4) While some may be called by the Lord to sell all they have, most charismatic givers are called to use what they have in service to the Lord. It is far better in the long term vision of the Kingdom of God that donors provide a revenue stream to charitable projects than a one time gift which will be spent and then lost.

(5) Since death is the ultimate separator from wealth, the charismatic giver must have a will with designated charities and people they intend to help.  In this manner, the charismatic giving is not ended by temporal death of the person.

(6) Do not muzzle the ox that treads the corn (1 Tim 5.18).  Charismatic giving does not require that the giver wallow in mud eating pig crap.  Above all, those who have the gift of giving must be able to enjoy their wealth too.  Paul says (1 Tim 6:17): “As for the rich in this world, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on uncertain riches but on God who richly furnishes us with everything to enjoy.”  It is ok for a Christian to drive a nice car, if that is how he enjoys his wealth, or have nice house, or go on an expensive vacation.  If it were not the case, then neither Abraham nor Job would have been lifted up as models in the Bible, for they were wealthy men who had many servants and lived in fairly opulent conditions compared to their contemporaries. Wealth is also a blessing of God according the Bible.  For those who have received from charismatic givers, it is also important not to criticize them for trivial matters such as their choice of foods or vehicle.  The person who receives has the duty to be grateful to God but not the right to criticize the trivial luxuries that help the giver to enjoy God’s creation.

(7) The charismatic giver should obtain wealth through righteous investments or honest work and business, not through exploitation, extortion, or gaming the system. I personally have a problem with the tobacco investments because it is a product which exploits its clients’ addiction to nicotine, though there may be some room here for other opinions.  Other businesses have less legitimacy.  But this principle does not mean becoming hostage to trendy ideas about the environment.  I am heavily invested in the Canadian oil industry because it is a righteous investment.

(8) Recipients of a gift have no right to expect support beyond what has been promised, for God’s riches are fungible. If a charismatic giver has made a pledge, then it is normally right to keep that pledge.  But the recipient has no right to say to the giver, “Because you are rich and I am poor you must give to me.” Or, “Because you have supported us in the past you must do so now.”  The charismatic giver is answerable to the Holy Spirit.  If God is behind the project, then those seeking funds must seek God’s face first and foremost, because ultimately it is God’s responsibility, not the responsibility of the charismatic giver.

(9) Socialism destroys the relationships that could otherwise be established through charismatic giving. Charismatic giving is an overflow of God’s love.  Socialism is forced redistribution voted on by the majority and enforced through threats of fines and imprisonment.  Christians therefore should avoid lobbying the government to spend more money on social systems, because the government goes into de facto competition against the Holy Spirit for the people’s money and time.

(10) The primary motivation of charismatic giving is the advancement of the Gospel and the Kingdom of God. It is the Lord’s prayer, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done.”  Our motivations should be in line with this prayer.  Hence, it is not social justice or the alleviation of the poor that is the primary focus, but the advancement of the gospel and God’s Kingdom.  If this is our main focus, then God will take care of the rest (See Matt 6.7-34).

Good Stewardship and the Imitation of God

Good Stewardship and the Imitation of God

Dr. Peter W. Dunn,

February 5, 2006, FATEB

Matthew 13:1-9 (NIV)

In John’s Gospel Jesus says that he has seen him has seen the Father (John 14.9).  Thus, we can say that one aspect of the mission of Jesus is to reveal the nature of the Father to us.  In Matthew’s Gospel, he says (Matt 11.27) that no one knows the Father except the Son and any one to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.  Thus, one very clear aspect of the Parables of the Kingdom is that Jesus is trying to reveal to Jewish people of his time what God is really like.   And there was then as there are today many misimpressions about God’s character.  In looking at the parables of the Kingdom, I would like to focus on the issue of God’s generosity, to complete a two part series on giving.  In the first sermon, which I gave Friday, January 27, I spoke about how we as evangelical Christians often view giving in terms of the law of tithing instead of as a charismatic gift of the Spirit.  I would like to continue this teaching of giving because I believe that when God pours out his Spirit into our hearts and our hearts overflow in generosity to others, we are actually becoming imitators of God.  Jesus does tell us that we must be perfect, even as our heavenly Father is perfect.  And Paul calls us to be imitators of God (Eph 5.1).  So I would like to study God’s generosity so as to be a better imitator of that generosity.

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The Charismatic Gift of Giving or the Law of Tithing? Which?

The Charismatic Gift of Giving or the Law of Tithing?  Which?

FATEB – 27 January 2006  Dr. Peter W. Dunn

Acts 2.41-47

Acts 4.32-5.11

Romans 12.6-8

Introduction:  Having taught the books of Acts several times at FATEB, I have read several exegesis papers on the Acts 2.41-47 and Acts 4.32-37.  There was even at least one sermon here in chapel on one of these passages.  What has struck me is that in every case Fatebian exegetes and preachers have placed the emphasis so squarely upon the imperative:  this is what we must do if we wish truly to be the community of God.  When I have taught Matthew 5.20, where Jesus says that unless our righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, we will surely not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven, I have told my students that the problem with our righteousness as evangelicals is that our righteousness too often IS the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees.  Because our righteousness is the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, we see the actions of the earliest disciples, adhering to the apostle’s teaching, joining for the breaking of bread, the holding of all things in common, as prescriptions—things that God requires of us as Christians in order for us to be a good community of faith.  Since the absence of these qualities in our community continually besets us, we are forced to preach sermons and write exegesis papers making law out of passages which do not come to us in the form of a law, but as a description of true Christian community as it was experienced in the nascent church.  At least the Pharisees had the excuse that their tradition was based upon the Torah, which really is in the form of a law.

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