More money, more ministry
Ross Douthat’s book, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, brings further context to this semester’s focus on how we’ve arrived here – a postmodern, disconnected, do-it-yourself faith constructed in our own image – a heretical, even shameful, deviation from orthodoxy. Begin with Bebbington’s foundational review on British evangelicalism, continue with Weber’s Protestant Ethic, enrich with Hunter’s To Change the World, and top it off with Bad Religion, and you have a rather unappealing portrait of Western Christianity in the beginning decades of the third millennium, and a multilayered description of how we got into this mess.
Douthat’s book is pessimistic, but strangely, I found it inspiring and a call to renewed orthodoxy – to a mysterious, often incomprehensible, faith that discovers life in death, and hope despite suffering. In identifying where we’ve meandered into heresy on both the right and the left, in both Catholic and evangelical streams, Douthat demonstrates that our Christian response to five catalysts affecting our faith has been lacking. We have responded to overarching trends in politics, sexuality, globalization, the economy, and class with two divergent approaches – accommodation, favoured by the progressive left, and resistance, where conservative culture warriors have dug in their heels. The author demonstrates the deficiencies of both pathways.
As you might expect, given my emphasis on philanthropy, I’ll focus here on the economic discussion, where Douthat focuses on “the refashioning of Christianity to suit an age of abundance, in which the old war between monotheism and money seems to have ended, for many believers, in a marriage of God and Mammon”.
It’s easy to critique the loopy caricatures and egotistical indulgences of Benny Hinn, Creflo Dollar, Joel Osteen, and other proponents of the prosperity gospel, and Douthat does. But more interesting is how he unveils evangelical attitudes toward money in more mainstream leaders such as Larry Burkett, Bruce Wilkinson and Rick Warren. For example,
“[Burkett] preached a doctrine of ‘radical’ financial surrender, but this surrender turned out to be entirely spiritual: the money ‘belongs’ to the Almighty, but it stays safely in the individual Christian’s bank account or investment portfolio.
Even more than the pure prosperity gospel, this turns out to be a religious path ideally suited to an upwardly mobile society. It disciplines believers against excess and folly by insisting that they always tithe, think of the poor, and keep God uppermost in their minds. At the same time, it frees them to be as ambitious and acquisitive as their secular neighbors, so long as they put their ambitions in the service of Christian faith…. where it translates into … a theology of ‘more money, more ministry’.” 
This phrase arrested me. I’ve heard variations on this theme frequently in my work with philanthropists. Even though vast amounts are impressively given away, they still live at upper echelon levels. The saying “more money, more ministry”, seems to ignore the morality of how wealth was generated, and assumes all portfolio growth is attributed to God’s blessing. It may be true that more money can thankfully lead to ministry expansion, but one must allow orthodox beliefs regarding the corruptive nature of wealth to hold in tension rising income streams. Traditionally, ascetics in both Catholicism and Protestantism acknowledged that hoarding wealth could destroy one’s soul. Jesus’ metaphor of the camel and the eye of the needle affirms this.
Reviewer Paul Baumann wonders if even Douthat is surrendering ground to Mammon.
“Great concentrations of wealth are seen to be inimical to the health of society. But while [the author] exudes confidence in the truth of Christianity’s teaching about sexuality, he is less certain about its condemnations of capitalism. Bad Religion goes so far as to venture that economic inequality may be salutary. “Perhaps the uncertainties of the capitalist economy make us cling more tightly to the promises of God,” Douthat writes; “perhaps the absence of a cradle-to-grave welfare state encourages us to rely on the networks of family and community instead.” Indeed, “the understanding that capitalism is the economic system best-suited to man’s fallen nature” may indicate the need for “some kind of Christian compromise with Mammon.” One has to wonder, why is Douthat so doubtful on this subject?”
Growing wealth in Western society has impacted the church, and as income levels have risen and one’s own comfort has become akin to a right, traditional attitudes by the church toward wealth have modified into this heresy that Douthat exposes. We need to resist the subtle perversion to own our wealth and take credit for its increase. The contents of one’s wallet do not belong to the owner.
William Cavanaugh, in Being Consumed, shows the mystery of the eucharistic economy. “[T]he gift relativizes the boundaries between what is mine and what is yours by relativizing the boundary between me and you. We are no longer two individuals encountering each other either by way of contract or as active giver and passive recipient…. [W]e cease to be merely ‘the other’ to each other by being incorporated into the body of Christ.” This eucharistic economy differs markedly from capitalism’s survival of the fittest, dog-eat-dog competitive landscape where wealth today is generated.
Philanthropy may be the best option within our late capitalist world to deal with wealth in a Christian way. Embedded within this context, perhaps the best we can do is to give it away well. Once given, we pray it will lose its stranglehold on our lives.
 Douthat, Ross. Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2012), 65-82.
 Douthat, 183.
 Douthat, 197.
 Baumann, Paul. “Losing our religion: Ross Douthat rightly asserts that religious faith is essential to America’s understanding of itself. But his own understanding of religion is suspiciously selective.” Washington Monthly, May-June 2012, 55+. Academic OneFile (accessed March 22, 2018). http://link.galegroup.com.georgefox.idm.oclc.org/apps/doc/A290292899/AONE?u=newb64238&sid=AONE&xid=6843e349.
 Cavanaugh, William T. Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 2008), 97
12 responses to “More money, more ministry”
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Solid post again sir, well done. I like your philanthropy bias, and especially liked your discussion on “more money, more ministry.” It always amazes me when I hear Christians, especially rich ones say something like this considering that God created the world and everything in it. So, how does more money really make more ministry, in God’s economy?
Nice plug for the “eye of the needle” statement from Jesus to donors worldwide past, present, and future. It is a very catchy saying for sure and gives an excellent metaphor about how hard it is to push a camel thru the tiny hole of a sewing needle. Yet, like spiritual warfare desensitization with movies like the Walking Dead, the eye of the needle is now a possibility with imagery of the Ant-Man movie.
I am a lover of science-fiction movies, but I emphasize “fiction” so not to create a new heresy with our Biblical truth principles.
I included the “eye of the needle” metaphor as a shout-out to you. 🙂
Thanks for your comments.
I was so much interested in reading your post, and you did not disappoint. When I read your title, I thought to myself, “Yes, now we are going to talk.”
The “more money, more ministry” quote must have really struck you, especially with your topic. That is why I loved your closing, “Philanthropy may be the best option within our late capitalist world to deal with wealth in a Christian way. Embedded within this context, perhaps the best we can do is to give it away well. Once given, we pray it will lose its stranglehold on our lives.” I think you are right on!
I recently read a book by Green, the founder of Hobby Lobby with the title, “Giving It All Away, and Getting It Back Again.” I was wondering what your take on this book was, have you read it?
Thanks for the tip off on Larry Burkett in our most recent book. My take on Larry Burkett is only positive. He helped my wife and I more than he will ever know. We have never tried to become wealthy, only faithful as stewards, and Larry helped us tremendously. So, in that, I was hurt by Douthat’s comments about Larry. I can understand where he was coming from, but I disagree with his conclusions…
I haven’t read Green’s book but have heard about it. I need to get a copy. Thanks for mentioning it.
It is true that Douthat may be conflating his argument against televangelists by including the more moderate evangelical ministry leaders such as Burkett. But if Christian givers are “as ambitious and acquisitive as their secular neighbors” in their business dealings, the Gospel hasn’t truly penetrated and transformed how they view the wealth they are stewarding (for God).
Well thought out post as usual. I too was interested in not just the “health and wealth” preachers but how Douthat fleshed out Rick Warren and the like. I was hoping you would write on this and was not disappointed. What is the biggest hurdle you encounter in your work in philanthropy?
Philanthropy may indeed be a good way but I wonder whether in the midst of all the huge building programs of the 40s, 50s and 60s highlighted in Douthat those who were contributing believed they were being charitable. From a contemporary perspective they were constructing edifices rather than providing much needed aid. How do you seek to help wealthy and generous Christians hold their wealth loosely and not expect to see any tangible construction with a place to put their own name?
Mark, do you think that in the same way that I see Christianity’s meaning corrupted, Philanthropy has also been corrupted. The “philo” and the “anthropos” of the word meaning demonstrates a “love for mankind”; however, doesn’t that interpretation of such render the same predicament? If the identity of God has changed so much over the years, how do we preserve the integrity of philanthropy without the same dilemma?
Good job Mark
I too felt Douthat was skeptical. In fact, I started reading/listening to this book before I researched the author so it took me a while to find out whether or not he was pro-Christianity or not. I too felt a refreshing take on Christianity through this book. He was brutally honest with the facts of the scandals and compromises of the church, but at the same time still spoke positively about christianity as a whole.
Mark, I feel like this capitalist “theme” all semester is a great fit with your research. While I don’t disagree that philanthropy is a great solution to the issue of wealth, the bigger question is… should the wealth be built in the first place? As always, excellent writing!
Thanks for your thoughts Mark. The potential for being involved in the systemic evil involved with generating money has me questioning buying certain products…unless it is on sale. Even for myself there are selective ethics. I am sure that is multiplied when dealing with larger spending choices.
Good reminder of Cavanaugh’s Eucharistic life.
Thank you, Mark for this great review. Especially for lifting up that phrase, “more money, more ministry”. That is something to chew on and wrestle with, for sure. I can see how in your work it would come up, but also, definitely within my own congregational context and even my own thinking about money! My wife recently got a new job and the main focus of my comments about her income has been: “great, now we can give more to things we care about”. Which, on the surface might seem holy and good, but underneath it, really reveals my own acquisitive attitude toward that income. I may want it for “good” purposes, but I still want it! Thanks again.
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