Fall is the time of year when congregations focus on stewardship. Many of us will soon be hearing (or preaching) sermons about money and giving. Finance committees are preparing pledge cards and the 2020 budget. Fall council meetings are just around the corner.
Because money has a necessary place in our congregations, it seems timely to consider the phrase “Money is the root of evil.” In keeping with the theme of our Bible study series, however, we want to ask, “Does the Bible say this?”
A matter of the heart
The answer is “not quite,” as the common usage of this phrase misquotes 1 Timothy 6:10a: “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. . . .” It might seem like a small distinction, but the difference is profound. Money itself is not the issue; our attitude toward money is. As is often the case with matters of Christian discipleship, the fundamental issue is a matter of the heart, and not an external person or thing. A study of the context of the passage helps bear this out.
Paul’s first letter to Timothy is an extended list of instructions to a young pastor in a difficult ministry setting. Timothy is pastor in Ephesus, and he seems to have his hands full. The first five chapters of the letter include instructions on a wide variety of congregational matters: handling false teachers; prayer; the qualifications of bishops, deacons, and pastors; and how people of different ages and life circumstances are to relate to one another. In chapter 6, Paul turns his attention to how certain unnamed leaders have fallen away from the faith, in large part due to their “love of money.”
As this applies to the churches in Ephesus, Paul sees two kinds of teachers. Faithful teachers are those who lead their congregations in the accepted doctrines of the faith. Unfaithful ones teach different doctrines.
Paul has quite a bit to say about unfaithful teachers in verses 4 and 5; reading these verses, one can only imagine the congregational strife that Timothy was forced to deal with. These unfaithful teachers apparently created factions within the congregation over competing doctrines and interpretations of Scripture (“disputes about words,” v. 4). Once factions existed, relationships within the congregation inevitably became strained.
But Paul believes he understands the motivations that have led these teachers astray: they have come to believe that “godliness is a means of gain” (v. 5). Their motivations are not to help people grow in Christlikeness, or to see church members support one another through the difficulties of being a Christian in a non-Christian world. Instead, their motivation in the gospel has been to get rich. Their love of money has caused them to “fall into temptation” where they found “ruin and destruction” (v. 9). Simply put, these false teachers have “wandered away from the faith” (v. 10).
We should not, however, overlook that there is “gain” to be found in the gospel. The gain is not measured in wealth or possessions. It is found when our desires become aligned with God’s desires and when we learn to be content with what we have.
Brethren recognize the significance of this kind of gain; our own tagline reads, in part, “Continuing the work of Jesus. Simply.” Brethren affirm that the accumulation of wealth and possessions can become a spiritual idol.
Interestingly, this idol is not necessarily defined by how much wealth or how many possessions we have. Any amount of wealth and possessions can become an idol. The spiritual issue has to do with the ways our hearts are shaped by our wealth and possessions.
How can we tell?
I spent two weeks studying this topic with a Sunday school class in my congregation. We had an excellent study that included great interaction and reflection on both the misquoted phrase and the scripture text, right up to the point when we began applying the text to our lives. That’s when we began to struggle. We weren’t sure what “wandering away from the faith” because of the “love of money” actually looked like. How can we tell?
Our class recognized that some moral and spiritual failures are easy to see and ought to be addressed by the pastor or other church members. If we knew, for instance, that a member was having an extramarital affair, or we witnessed a Facebook argument between members of the congregation, or heard a member use racist or sexist terms in speech, we would feel it appropriate to confront our sister or brother about this.
But financial matters seem different; somehow money is a private matter. Only a few members of the finance commission ever see the pledge cards, and most congregations expressly forbid this information from being shared with the pastor, even though generosity is an important spiritual discipline.
So how do we know if a sister’s or brother’s heart is shaped more by their finances than their faith? As we consider our own personal giving, one place we might start is by considering the financial needs of the members in our congregation. Brethren mutual aid recognizes that the love we have for one another includes sharing money and possessions when there is need. Because we matter to one another, the abundance of one member can be willingly shared with another who experiences scarcity. Brethren recognize that the kingdom of God is demonstrated as we help one another have enough to live.
A second area to consider would be the examination of our own living standard. In his book The Naked Anabaptist, Stuart Murray writes that “the Anabaptist tradition might ask whether lower living standards and reduced security could be at least as conducive to genuine spiritual growth as listening to sermons, participating in worship services, or visiting retreat centers” (p. 124). This is a point Paul makes in 1 Timothy 6:8: “but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these.” Might we find spiritual renewal as we give away our wealth and invest ourselves in others?
Perhaps more than anything else, our attitude toward money reveals how much we really trust God. Based on our own study of this phrase, my congregation will be taking a deeper look about how giving related to a church budget offers helpful commentary on our individual spiritual lives. Might we be giving anything away this fall? Might you?
For further reading
The Naked Anabaptist: The Bare Essentials of a Radical Faith, by Stuart Murray (Herald Press). A challenging and helpful analysis of core Anabaptist beliefs, including how mutual aid helps us pursue justice, peace, and deeper relationships with Christ and the church. Available from Brethren Press.
Tim Harvey is pastor of Oak Grove Church of the Brethren in Roanoke, Va. He was moderator of the 2012 Annual Conference.