- You’ll notice that Paul describes the condition of a slave’s life as being under a yoke. It is a revealing metaphor not only because it likens slaves to an animal, for yokes are borne by animals, but is a metaphor that almost always suggests oppression. Jesus, remember, had to make of point of saying that his “yoke” was easy and his burden light. No one would have thought a yoke was “easy” unless care were taken to add that qualification. Paul does not deny, in fact he explicitly affirms that slavery was a form of tyranny. [Stott, 142] If you remember, earlier in the letter (1:10), Paul had numbered slave traders among those classes of people condemned by the law of God. So, once again, there is no easy acceptance of the institution of slavery in the New Testament, as has sometimes been alleged. No one wanted to be a slave and everybody understood that. However, a vast number of people were slaves and the institution was thoroughly rooted in the economic and social life of the ancient world. It wasn’t going away anytime soon.
- We have looked at Paul’s exhortation to slaves and slave holders quite recently when we were studying Colossians and Philemon. What he said there he says here as well. On the other hand, there is nothing here about the duties of slave-holders. The contrast between vv. 1 and 2 suggests that the slaves Paul refers to in v. 1 have non-Christian owners; the slaves of v. 2 have believing owners. In the first case the reputation of the gospel is at stake should Christian slaves be surly or lazy or quarrelsome or rebellious. In the latter case slaves must not take advantage of the fact that their master is a Christian and disposed to treat them kindly as brothers in the Lord. Christian business men have often found that people who work for them assume that because they work for Christians they needn’t work as hard. What’s the boss going to do? Fire me? It is certainly likely that these remarks were made necessary by the fact that the false teachers had attracted a following among some of the church’s slaves (there were always a considerable number of slaves in the membership of early Christian congregations) and this had led to complications in the relationship between these slaves and their masters.
By the way, the thought and the term that connect all three groups concerning which Paul has had something to tell Timothy — widows, elders, and slaves — is “honor.” The noun or the related verb occurs in all three sections. Christians are to be people who honor others and supremely who honor one another.
- The test for all teaching in the church is two-fold: 1) does it agree with the teaching that was given by Christ and his apostles and 2) does it foster godly living. [Mounce, 336]
- Paul is not pulling punches. Put the two descriptions together and you get “conceited idiot” or “pompous ignoramus!” [Stott, 147] The proof of this new teaching is in the pudding: it has produced sinful behavior, not godliness among the saints.
We have here an almost perfect and complete description of what controversy — even necessary controversy — causes in a church: envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction. Good reason to prevent it if at all possible.
- As we said, the phrase “these things,” a single word in Paul’s original, is a way Paul sums up a section and looks forward to what he is about to say. It is transitional. All of what he has taught must be urged upon the Christians in Ephesus. And all the more because the false teachers had diverted some or many of them from sound teaching, engaged them in foolish controversies — Paul has already mentioned earlier their ascetic teaching (forbidding people to marry; to abstain from some foods, etc.), their fascination with myths and genealogies (a kind of secret wisdom hidden in the Bible that they had supposedly discovered), and their departure from apostolic doctrine. The result had been that, as always happens, Christians were set against Christians, they began to speak poorly of one another, and the resultant bickering and worldly living had begun to damage the church’s reputation in the city.
Now we discover that these teachers were in it for the money. Precisely how they were making money from their teaching we are not told, but behind the façade, behind their supposed intellectualism and super piety, lay a deeper motive: the desire for personal gain. [Mounce, 340] How many times have we encountered that, even recently, in the life of the church! One after another humiliating situation in which it became perfectly obvious not only that the so-called Christian minister was in it for the money, but that the Christians themselves were so easily duped.
- Very cleverly Paul admits that there is nothing wrong with seeking gain, so long as the gain you seek is godliness, not money, and so long as that godliness is mixed with a spirit of genuine contentment. There is nothing wrong with ambition, or, for that matter, even with a grasping spirit, so long as what you are grasping for has eternal worth, which money does not. As to contentment, it is a spiritual condition of heart, and does not require, never has required, a particular set of financial circumstances. As for this contentment, remember how Paul said in Philippians 4:11-13:
“… for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”
- First you’ll notice that the text doesn’t say that money is the root of all evil but that the love of money is and it doesn’t say that it is the root of all evil, but a root of it. And the love of money is a root, not of all evil, but of all kinds of evil, which, while not a literal rendering of what Paul wrote is a faithful one. [Mounts, 346]
It is worth mentioning that a passage like this infuriates a certain class of non-Christian thinkers and writers who take Paul to condemn the poor to misery here in hopes of reward in the world to come. It is teaching, they say, perfectly designed to keep the poor in their place. But that is hardly fair. First, Paul isn’t talking about poverty per se, or about destitution. He assumes that people will have what they need to eat and live. Nor is this all that has to say about social injustice. Fact is, hard-working Christians have often improved not only their own lot but the lot of many others as well. The Puritans were serious readers of Paul but they were also a prosperous lot, not because they grasped for wealth but because they considered themselves obliged to use their time and energy to good effect. Paul’s point has little to do with economic result and has everything to do with contentment of spirit. On the other hand, it is as true today for billions of people as it ever was in Paul’s day that complaining about poverty is of little use in changing it. A growing number of Christians in any society always has the effect of creating a tide that raises all boats.
Now if anyone still thinks that what Paul had to say about elders in the previous paragraph was not easy to apply to his or her own daily life, there can be no such problem here. However much the particulars of the situation in Ephesus may have arisen from the teaching and the behavior of the teachers who were causing the problems in the church, the issue was timeless. Some proof of that is furnished by the fact that the same sorts of things that are said about money in these verses are said in many places in the Bible. Is the love of money a snare? Does it sometimes lead to spiritual ruin? Well, Agur told us that a thousand years before Paul.
“Give me neither poverty nor riches;
feed me with the food that is needful for me,
lest I be full and deny you
and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’
or lest I be poor and steal
and profane the name of my God.” [30:8-9]
Are there things much more important than money?
“Better is a poor person who walks in integrity.” [Prov. 19:1]
“What is desired in a man is steadfast love,
and a poor person is better than a liar.” [Prov. 19:22]
Is it true that we can’t take it with us; that we came into this world naked and will leave the same way?
“Do not toil to acquire wealth;
Be discerning enough to desist.
When your eyes light on it, it is gone,
For suddenly it sprouts wings,
Flying like an eagle toward heaven.” [Prov. 23:4-5]
“The wicked earns deceptive wages,
But one who sows righteousness gets a sure reward.” [Prov. 11:18]
Or think of the Lord’s parable of the rich fool who planned to build bigger barns to store his ever increasing harvests, only to be summoned from this life before he could begin to build. You remember the conclusion of that story: “So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.” [Luke 12:13-21]
And, of course, the Bible often urges upon us contentment with whatever measure of this world’s goods the Lord should see fit in his wisdom and goodness to supply us, given the relative unimportance of such things.
“Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be added to you,” the “all these things” being food, clothing, and shelter, not great wealth or luxury. [Matt. 6:33]
But, however obvious all of this teaching about money, we find the love of money nevertheless a terrible temptation all our lives. We worry about money, whether or not we have it, we think about it constantly, we wish we had more of it, we dream about what we would do with it if we got more of it, and, God forgive us, we want more of it all the time. Agur’s prayer, “Give me neither poverty nor riches,” is a prayer very few Christians pray from the heart! I think if we stopped and thought about our inner thoughts, we would be forced to admit that we think about money far too much and make far too much of it, given what we know, given who we are, and given where we are going as Christians and how soon we will get there. Like Paul, we find the tenth commandment impossible to keep!
Now, I take it as a fair assumption that we understand Paul’s reasoning here. He makes sense to us. Obviously, one cannot take his money with him when he dies. To live one’s life for the accumulation of money is illogical for a Christian because wealth in this world helps us not one whit in the world to come and what helps us for the world to come is literally infinitely more important than what helps us for this fleeting life. No one is going to be rewarded in heaven for having been wealthy on earth. No one gets more comfort in heaven because he was so comfortable on earth. We understand that. Every Christian does.
We are also well aware of the distracting and corrupting power of money. It diverts our attention from what really matters — a godly, fruitful life of Christian service — and it allows the world to gain a place in our souls that it ought not to have. It makes us comfortable here. Money makes a man or woman at home in this world when no Christian should find himself or herself at home in this dying world. It is not our home and to live as if it were is to live an inauthentic Christian life. No wonder that Jesus should have warned us that it is harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. Money is spiritually dangerous. We understand that too.
But there is also the question of a Christian’s witness. If the world is to take seriously our message about heaven, about the last judgment, about the love of God and about the nature of the Christian life as a life of self-denial for the sake of God and others, it cannot, it simply cannot observe Christians caring about money as much as everyone else does. If we claim to be living for higher things, eternal things, the world needs to see us doing so! And believe me, the world always notices this. It notices it even in the life of unbelieving people. Pat Tillman’s sacrifice after 9/11 created such a national story because so few people would ever think to do what he did. After he felt his nation to be under attack he forsook a lucrative NFL career and to join the army and head off to Afghanistan where he was killed. Everybody thought that noble, noteworthy, remarkable; why? Because people just don’t do that. Well, unbelievers ought to be saying that about us all the time: people I know just wouldn’t do that.
Obviously every Christian does not have the same amount of money as every other Christian. What is more, everyone must have a place to live, clothes to wear, food to eat. Still more, the Bible certainly teaches us to enjoy and celebrate the good things of life because God has given them to us. Nobody is going to deny any of that. But a thoughtful Christian understands and resonates with these words from the Lausanne Covenant from 1980.
“We resolve to renounce waste and oppose extravagance in personal living, clothing and housing, travel and church buildings. We also accept the distinction between necessities and luxuries, creative hobbies and empty status symbols, modesty and vanity, occasional celebrations and normal routine, and between the service of God and slavery to fashion. Where to draw the line requires conscientious thought and decision by us, together with members of our family.” [Cited in Stott, 151]
Or consider this practical advice from John Wesley’s sermon “On the Use of Money”:
“1) Earn all you can; 2) Save all you can; 3) Give all you can.”
But what I want to conclude with this evening is not a recital of the reasons why we should sit lightly on our money, be careful not to allow it too honored a place in our hearts, and be generous with the investment of it in the Lord’s kingdom and the lives of others. Rather I want to remind you of the importance of a public witness to this indifference to money on the part of Christians. Maybe all the more in a culture like ours, given to the love and the worship of money as it is.
You are well aware that the desire for money has been a bane in the church ever since those earliest days when Ananias and Sapphira cheated on their tithe and Simon in Samaria hoped the Gospel would make him rich. I know many of you have visited Rome and seen St. Peter’s. It is magnificent! The largest church in the world and what a church! The vastness of the area below Michaelangelo’s magnificent dome, the immensity of that great nave, the beauty of its construction and of the art work that adorns it; I say, no one should ever come away without being impressed with its splendor. But it is surely high irony that it was to pay for that fabulously expensive construction that the 16th century European church corrupted herself and her people, sold church offices to the highest bidder, and then sold indulgences to the faithful. That fabulously expensive church and the vast amounts of money that were required to build it, together with the corrupt practices employed to raise that money, split the church by igniting the Reformation.
The church has always been bedeviled by love of money, whether on the level of the institution or the private Christian, whether an entire church that remained silent in the face of manifest injustice because she wanted wealth for herself — think of the conquistadors or slavery in North America — or churches by the score in our day who built grand edifices that they then could not pay for and embarrassed themselves and all the rest of us by sliding into foreclosure.
But the church has always known better as well. From the beginning there has been a wonderful public witness to both the relative unimportance of money and the need to resist its temptations. In one of the very first works of popular piety in Christian literature, Athanasius’ Life of St. Antony, we have this. As Antony, widely regarded as the first Christian monk, set out to live in the desert — to gain mastery over his passions by a discipline of subduing them and by denying himself the pleasures of life — he came across a silver dish lying beside the road. But Antony, seeing through the Devil’s wiles, refused to pick it up. He said to himself, this is a largely untraveled road, I’ve encountered no other travelers on it, the dish is too large to have fallen and the sound of it hitting the ground not be heard or not to have been missed. The devil must have put it there. And as soon as he finished his piece of reasoning, the dish vanished right before his eyes.
A similar account is found in Bonaventure’s Life of St. Francis. As the saint was walking along the road one day in the company of another monk they came across a sack of money in the middle of the road. The other monk urged Francis to pick it up and give the money to the poor. But the saint refused; it obviously belonged to someone and it would have been theft to take it, for whatever reason. But the friar kept pestering Francis about the lost opportunity, so finally he agreed to return to the place, but only to show the friar the devil’s trickery. Sure enough after returning to the spot and saying a prayer, Francis ordered his younger companion to pick up the sack. As he did so a large snake slithered out of the sack and then suddenly snake and sack and money disappeared in a puff of smoke.
Legends like these in such immensely popular books were meant to instill in Christians a suspicion of money, and were meant to train a godly conscience to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness. So with Bunyan’s protestant version in the depiction of Vanity Fair in The Pilgrim’s Progress. We need to hear this again and again, relentless as the lure of money is. We need to hear Dietrich Bonhoeffer remind us that “money is dirt.” [Mataxas, 284] We need to hear the thousands upon thousands of anecdotes that help us visualize a life lived with little regard for the accumulation of money.
I was reading the other day in David McCasland’s fine biography of Oswald Chambers that Chambers was a perfect spendthrift when it came to giving money to others. Now listen to this because I suspect you have, as I have, reasoned your way out of giving money to someone who comes up to you on the street and asks for it. You have said to yourself as I have, “I won’t be doing the man any good. He’ll just use it improperly.” Oswald Chambers took seriously the Lord’s command, “Give to all who ask.” He once gave his last coin — which proved to be a larger sum than he had thought he had in his pocket – to a drunk. He heard the man’s story and then told him, “Man, I believe your story is all lies, but my Master tells me to give to everyone that asks so here is my last shilling. The Lord bless you.” His family and friends would criticize him but he would reply, “I believe beggars are sent to test our faith.”
I have a long, a very long list of such anecdotes to remind me how many Christians there have been who have willingly, even gladly parted with their money because they loved the Lord and the gospel and other people more. From men of great wealth such as Cyprian and Ambrose, who gave away their immense fortunes upon becoming Christian ministers, to ordinary Christians whose spirit of charity is the bright light of truth and goodness in this dark world.
During the wars for Scottish religious freedom in the 17th century a minister took up a collection from his poor and small congregation to give to the covenanter army. When counted the collection proved to be large beyond anyone’s expectation. One woman had contributed eight pounds sterling, a huge sum in those days. She was asked why she gave so much. “It was a dowry that I had gathered for my daughter. The Lord has been pleased to take my daughter to himself, and I thought I would give him her dowry too.” [Walker, The Theology and Theologians of Scotland, 172]
Or John Eliot, the early colonial pastor of Massachusetts. As so many others in those days, he was given his salary in coin, but often, before he got home, he would have given much of it away to folk he thought needier than himself and this frustrated the deacons of the church. So one day they wrapped the coins very tightly in a piece of cloth hoping to get him and the entire sum home together. On his way Eliot visited a widow of his congregation and, after struggling unsuccessfully to get the coins unwrapped, said, ‘Sister, I think the Lord wants you to have it all.’”
I have anecdotes as well concerning wealthy Christians, like John Thornton or William Wilberforce, whose generosity to others knew no bounds. And I have told some of you recently of the Riady family of Indonesia, James and his wife Aileen. James, you may remember, was convicted of campaign violations for his support of the Clinton presidential campaign and as a consequence paid the largest fine ever levied for the violation of campaign finance regulations. He would tell you that he learned a lot about the difference between how they campaign in Indonesia and how they campaign in the United States!
But he was wonderfully converted some years ago. His marriage was on the rocks, he was living apart from his wife, he was personally miserable, and then he met the Lord Jesus. His wife says that when he called her on the phone to tell her what had happened she could tell he was a different man. They attend a prominent Reformed church in Jakarta. The Riadys are fabulously wealthy, having acquired a vast fortune in banking and real estate development. But he is spending that money on Christian schools in his homeland of Indonesia (a predominantly Muslim country) (he’s a very controversial figure in Indonesia precisely because he’s doing so much to grow the Christian church in a Muslim country), thousands of Christian schools, to provide a Christian education to young Indonesians from kindergarten through university. He supports as well a wide variety of Christian work. Cynical as news people can become, especially when a man has been convicted of campaign finance violations, no one doubts either the sincerity or the passion that has led the Riadys to invest their wealth in the kingdom of God. Someone once said that when a rich man becomes a Christian the Lord gains a fortune; when a Christian becomes rich, the Lord either gains a fortune or loses a man.
Now, what has all of this to do with you? We are not fabulously wealthy. No; but we can be the conscience of the church; we can provide the public witness to an authentically Christian view of money; our lives can become the stuff of anecdotes that others tell to prove that this teaching about the relative unimportance of money is not just propaganda; it is fundamental to our philosophy of life as followers of Jesus Christ, who, though wealthy beyond words, lived his adult life on the charity of others — how humiliating — and had no place of his own to lay his head and was buried in a borrowed tomb. The church needs people, lots of people, who are obviously sitting lightly on their money; people who obviously put lots of other things ahead of money and the things money can buy. The church needs that persistent witness to that undeniable truth: “we brought nothing into this world and we can take nothing out of it,” nothing, that is, except the good works we have done in Jesus name. They, we are told, follow us to heaven. The money doesn’t.
I was struck in reading Ross Douthat’s book, Bad Religion, in his account of the decline in the Roman Catholic Church over the past generation — decline in church attendance, decline in giving, and decline in spiritual seriousness — that this precipitous decline was not unrelated to the collapse of vocations in the church, the disappearance of monks and nuns in other words. I want you to listen to this, because the principle is the same for us who are Protestants.
“…poverty and renunciation were woven into the fabric of everyday American Catholic life. …the Church’s abundance of vocations meant that a life of vowed poverty occupied a place of honor in Catholic communities, even if most believers didn’t share in it. No matter how mainstream or prosperous Catholics became, the heroes of the American Church were nearly always figures who had renounced the world — from nineteenth-century saints like Elizabeth Ann Seton and Frances Cabrini down through the Eisenhower era religious celebrities like Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day. The pre-Vatican II Church was freighted with more than its share of pomp and circumstance, of course. But it also offered near-constant contact with examples of asceticism, and it placed such examples at the heart of Catholic identity.
Since the collapse in vocations in the 1960s and 1970s, such contact is no longer available to most American Catholics. Fewer and fewer Catholics have Fathers for brothers or Sisters for sisters; fewer and fewer Catholic schools can staff their classrooms with the nuns and priests who once educated American Catholic youth; fewer and fewer parishes have more than one overstressed, overworked, spread-too-thin priest to personally embody Catholicism’s solidarity with the poor. The institutional Church is still theoretically committed to such solidarity, but it lacks the numbers necessary to make that commitment manifest in a comprehensive, culturally significant way.” [199-200]
Well, it seems to me that is precisely true of Protestant evangelical Christianity as well in our time. We long had our examples, examples by the hundreds and thousands, of those who renounced money and its pleasures for the gospel and the kingdom of God. Think of the brutal hardships willingly undertaken, the Spartan lifestyle cheerfully embraced, the risk of early death gladly accepted by the thousands of 19th century missionaries who literally hastened to an early death because they believed the salvation of souls so much more important than a comfortable life. I’ve told you a number of times before of William Burns, the great Scottish preacher, the man whose preaching ushered in the revival in St. Peter’s Dundee, Robert Murray McCheyne’s congregation, while its pastor was away on a trip to the Holy Land. But Burns, who could have commanded any pulpit in the land, was set on China. And in China he spent the remainder of his life, enjoying great success only near the end, though his influence lived on in Hudson Taylor and the China Inland Mission. When Burns died, his possessions were sent back to Scotland in a single box. It was found to contain a shirt, a pair of trousers, his Bible, another book and a Chinese flag. Not much to show for a man’s life’s work, unless it is true that it is foolish to lay up treasure on earth, where moth and ruse destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but wise to lay it up in heaven where there are no moths or rust or thieves either!
What is the old adage? “He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep, to gain what he cannot lose.” But where are such examples today? Now, not so much the missionaries. Nothing wrong with that, of course. Missionaries nowadays are likely to be paid reasonably well. It is right for the church to take care of those who do important work in her name. We cannot ask the missionaries to suffer want just for the sake of giving us at home in our comfortable lives and homes a good example. Our missionaries, certainly the missionaries in the Presbyterian Church in American are well paid. That’s why it takes them so long to get to the field nowadays; they have to raise so much money. But if not the missionaries, where will the examples come from now?
I always think of, the late John Dorsey, one of our longest serving missionaries in India or at least “our missionaries” back in the days of the RPCES. A big bear of man, who spent his life in gospel work, cheerfully serving the people he loved, without a care for the money he was not earning. I remember years ago, Mr. Dorsey staying with Florence and me — he was in Tacoma to speak here about his Christian school in Delhi — and taking him to the bus station. He traveled by bus, not by air, because he wasn’t with a mission agency and didn’t have the funds for air travel. A big man, he could not have been comfortable sitting for long hours on a bus, but he was all smiles and cheerfulness. I hope I have always been a better man and a better Christian for having had the privilege of taking John Dorsey down to the bus station and seeing him off! I have so often thought about him when tempted to think too much about money.
Young people, what sort of Christian do you aspire to be: the person whose life and whose use of and indifference to money is the conscience of the church and the inspiration of her people, or the person who is always struggling, and usually unsuccessfully, to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness? We live in a profoundly materialistic age, materialistic to the bone; perhaps never before in human life has a people had so much money, been so constantly bombarded by the propaganda of materialism, and come so universally to expect a comfortable life. What does that mean? It means we need men and women by the thousands and the hundreds of thousands whose lives are public witness to the truth that you cannot serve both God and money. The teachers in Ephesus were heretics when judged by the unchanging standard of the Word of God. You and I need to be heretics when judged by the standards of our money-worshipping world worshipping money. Here’s to the right kind of heresy!