How Christians handle money speaks volumes about our Christ. It’s one of our greatest opportunities today to show ourselves distinct from the world, or just like it.
Jesus talked about money more than any other temptation. More than sex. More than power. More than heaven and hell. Some of his best-known words, in his most-remembered sermon, strike right at the heart of the polar reality deep beneath all the practical shades of gray: “You cannot serve God and money” (Matthew 6:24).
C’mon, Jesus, we might think. Money isn’t evil in itself — which is true. It’s just paper and coins (or now digits on a screen). Money represents value, the value of God’s created world, and humanity’s God-commissioned efforts to “subdue it” into goods and services for our flourishing (Genesis 1:28) and to move around and exchange such God-ordained value with others. Isn’t “love of money” what the apostles warn us of (1 Timothy 6:10; Hebrews 13:5), not money itself?
It is “love of money,” but that might not create as much wiggle room as we first think. When Jesus explained the parable of the sower, he identified the thorns choking out his gospel as “the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things” (Mark 4:19). “Love of money” wouldn’t be an unfair summary. When the apostle Paul warned of the climactic evil to come “in the last days,” he said, “People will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive” (2 Timothy 3:2) — anticipated by the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, the Pharisees, who were also “lovers of money” (Luke 16:24).
Jesus also told the parable of the rich fool, who instead of trusting in God for his future, built bigger barns to trust in his surplus. The fool said to himself, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry” (Luke 12:19). Yet in an ironic twist on the saying, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die,” he didn’t even see tomorrow. God said, “Fool! This night your soul is required of you” (Luke 12:20).
Jesus’ point for his people is plain: be “rich toward God,” which means handling money in such a way that we show God, not money, to be our greatest treasure. Or to put it negatively, do not “lay up for yourselves treasures on earth” (Luke 12:21; Matthew 6:19-20) but “be on your guard against all covetousness” (Luke 12:15) — for which Jesus gives this penetrating rationale: “for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15).
Showing the Soul
Christians, of all people, have come to know that our life does not consist in what we have on earth but whom we have in heaven. We look upward, with eternity in view, to “take hold of that which is truly life” (1 Timothy 6:19), not the temporal and earthly. And yet the money-loving world in which we live constantly dulls us to what is truly life.
Money is a powerful revealer of the human soul. What we do (and don’t do) with money puts the depths of our inner person on display — in ways we often do not see (and show) otherwise. Money provides a wonderful and terrible objectifying glimpse into one’s heart.
The human heart is deep and complex, the very seat of subjectivity. Who knows the heart of man besides his maker? Well, one startling peek into a man’s subjective heart is his treatment of objective dollars and cents. Which is why our handling of money is such a wonderful opportunity for Christians to show the world the value of Christ — and for pastors and elders to lead the way for their people.
Not Greedy of Filthy Lucre
“Not a lover of money” is an especially vital qualification for Christian leaders. The way the leadership goes, the church soon will follow. God appoints a plurality of pastor-elders in the church (Acts 20:28; Titus 1:5; James 5:14; 1 Peter 5:1) not only to teach and govern together (1 Timothy 5:17), but also to serve as a collective example to the flock of the healthy Christian life (1 Timothy 4:12; 1 Peter 5:3). What leaders — and all Christians besides — do with money is no small thing.
Of the 15 qualifications mentioned in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 for the church’s lead office, “not a lover of money” (memorably in the KJV, “not greedy of filthy lucre”) may be the most conspicuous when compared with other lists. The synonymous attribute “not greedy for gain” appears both in Titus 1:7 and 1 Peter 5:2, as well as for deacons in 1 Timothy 3:8, while Titus 1:11 rebukes false teachers who are “teaching for shameful gain.” The single word translated “not a lover of money” in 1 Timothy 3:3 (Greek afilarguron) appears again in Hebrews 13:5, this time for the whole church: “Keep your life free from love of money.”
Why is it essential to have pastors who aren’t seduced by money? Not simply so that pastoral teaching and decisions aren’t sold to the highest bidder, but chiefly because of how pointedly our handling of money shows what we believe about God.
Hebrews 13:5 makes the connection crystal clear. Why “keep your life free from love of money”? “For he has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’” Why do you need more money when you have God? Why pine over more earthly resources when you have a Father in heaven who owns everything?
The pastor who drips love of money, subtle as it may be, tells his church and the world that having God is not enough. And added to that, those who love money, Jesus says, do not truly love God. Rather, we need leaders who show the church and the world that God, not money, is our refuge and hope and safety and comfort and peace.
Root of All Evils
At the heart of Christianity is the claim that God is our true life (Luke 12:15). It is tragic beyond words for a professing Christian to pursue life in more and more earthly possessions — and an even greater tragedy for leaders in the church to do so. Modern society constantly inundates us with messaging that implies true life consists in more stuff and greater spending power. And if the pastors of the church aren’t cutting unambiguously against the grain, in their teaching and in their lives, who will rescue the flock from this deadly trap?
Besides the all-important message it sends, the love of money is not a small danger in the human soul, only to be magnified in our leaders. Paul says, literally, it is “the root of all evils” — meaning, according to John Piper, that love of money “corresponds to the root longing for the things money can buy minus God. That is why all these many desires ‘plunge people into ruin and destruction’ (1 Timothy 6:9). … [A]ll evils come from that root desire — the desire for anything minus God. No exceptions. … all sin, ‘all evils,’ come from this desire, this love — represented in 1 Timothy 6:10 by love for the currency of satisfaction minus God.” (“Is Love of Money Really the Root of All Evils?”)
In other words, the kind of heart that loves money (more and more human resources) in place of God is the kind of heart that produces all manner of evil, and the very essence of evil. Love of money, then, is not an isolated flaw or foible. It is a penetrating peek into the recesses of a soul’s rebellion against God. In due course, the truth will come out. And the repercussions will be all the more disastrous when it comes out among leaders.
But thankfully we have more to look for, and pray for — in ourselves and in our leaders — than simply “not a lover of money.” Hebrews and 1 Timothy both are explicit about the positive virtues as well: “be content with what you have” (Hebrews 13:5; also 1 Timothy 6:8) and “be generous and ready to share” (1 Timothy 6:18). Why line our lives with gold when copper will do? When God does the miracle of unseating love for money in a human heart, he grows in its place an increasing eagerness to give, and do so with joy. “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7).
The church needs leaders who are not only free from the tyranny of money, but who know, and regularly recall, the words of Jesus: “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). We need leaders who are not reluctant givers, but cheerful ones — and not just individually but together as a team of leaders, in order that our churches too become cheerful givers as a body.
God’s Money, Wise Managers
Note well the call is not to pinch every penny and refuse to spend God’s money, but to spend it well. Jesus wants his people to be spiritually smart with their cheerful generosity, righteous managers of his resources, using them with eternity in view, serving God, not sin (Luke 16:9). Pastors who love money cannot fulfill their calling to be righteous managers of God’s money. “No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money” (Luke 16:13).
Could the stakes be any higher for our pastors and elders not to love and serve money? As gray as it can seem in practice, Jesus assures us that at bottom it’s binary. It is one or the other.
Test your heart, not just once but regularly. We want to be free from this as Christians, and we want leaders who love and serve God. Which means we look for leaders content with what they have and cheerfully generous with others. We cannot afford leaders who love and serve money.
David Mathis is executive editor for desiringGod.org and pastor at Cities Church in Minneapolis/St. Paul. He is a husband, father of four, and author of “Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus through the Spiritual Disciplines.”
A version of this article previously appeared on the Desiring God website under the headline “Does Your Pastor Love God or Money?”
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