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November 01, 2008

The American presidential election is almost upon us (even those of us who do not live in the United States). One of the fundamental issues in this election regards distribution of wealth. Many people have become alarmed at Obama’s statements about the redistribution of wealth. I think it is useful to provide a Christian perspective on inequality of wealth. To that end, I am posting the seventh chapter of Wayne Grudem’s book Business for the Glory of God (Used with permission of Crossway Books).

Some inequality of possessions is fundamentally good and provides many opportunities for glorifying God, but also many temptations to sin; and some extreme inequalities are wrong in themselves.

It may seem surprising to us to think that some inequalities of possessions can be good and pleasing to God. However, although there is no sin or evil in heaven, the Bible teaches that there are varying degrees of reward in heaven and various kinds of stewardship that God entrusts to different people. When we stand before Jesus to give account of our lives, he will say to one person,

“You shall have authority over ten cities,”

and to another,

“You are to be over five cities” (Luke 19:17, 19).

Therefore there will be inequalities of stewardship and responsibility in the age to come. This means that the idea of inequality of stewardship in itself is given by God and must be good.

In a similar teaching, Paul, speaking to believers, says, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Cor. 5:10). This implies degrees of reward for what we have done in this life. Many other passages teach or imply degrees of reward for believers at the final judgment. Even among the angels, there are differing levels of authority and stewardship established by God, and therefore we cannot say that such a system is wrong or sinful in itself.

Inequalities are necessary in a world that requires a great variety of tasks to be done. Some tasks require stewardship of large amounts of resources (such as ownership of a steel mill or a company that manufactures airplanes), and some tasks require stewardship of small amounts of resources. And God has given some people greater abilities than others, abilities in artistic or musical skills, abilities in mathematics or science, abilities in leadership, abilities in business skills and buying and selling, and so forth. If reward for each person’s labor is given fairly and is based on the value of what that person produces, then those with larger abilities will naturally gain larger rewards. Since people are different in abilities and effort, I don’t think there could be a fair system of rewards for work unless the system had different rewards for different people. Fairness of reward requires such differences.

In fact, God has never had a goal of producing equality of possessions among people, and he will never do so. In the Year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25), agricultural land returned to its previous owner and debts were canceled, but there was no equalizing of money or jewels or cattle or sheep, and houses inside walled cities did not revert to the previous owner (v. 30).

Some people have seen an argument for equal possessions in 2 Corinthians 8, but there Paul did not say that God’s goal was equality. For example, he did not tell the wealthy Corinthians to send money to the poor Macedonians mentioned in 2 Corinthians 8:1-5, but only that they should contribute their fair share in helping the famine-stricken Christians in Jerusalem:

…as a matter of fairness your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be fairness (2 Cor. 8:13- 14, ESV; the Greek word isotΣs also means “fairness” in Col. 4:1, where it cannot mean “equality”).

Nor does the book of Acts teach some kind of “early communism” when it says that believers had all things in common. It is important to look at the passages carefully:

And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts … (Acts 2:44-46).

Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need (Acts 4:32-35).

These texts certainly show an amazing level of trust in God, generosity, and love for one another, all as a result of a remarkable outpouring of the Holy Spirit’s power in a time of great revival. But it is a great mistake to call this “early communism,” for (1) the giving was voluntary and was not compelled by the government, and (2) people still had personal possessions, because they still met in “their homes” (Acts 2:46), and many other Christians later still owned homes, such as Mary, the mother of John Mark (Acts 12:12), Jason (Acts 17:5), Titius Justus (Acts 18:7), many Christians in Ephesus (Acts 20:20), Philip the evangelist (Acts 21:8), Mnason of Cyprus (Acts 21:16, in Jerusalem), Priscilla and Aquila in Rome (Rom. 16:5; 1 Cor. 16:19), Nympha (Col. 4:15), Philemon (Philem. 2), and other Christians in general to whom John wrote (2 John 10).

Immediately after the description of such amazing generosity in Acts 4, there is in chapter 5 the story of Ananias and Sapphira, who lied about the sale price of some land. But Peter tells them there was no need to do this:

“While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God” (Acts 5:4).

It is significant that this story occurs immediately after the paragraph that says “they had everything in common” (Acts 4:32). It reminds us that all of that generosity in Acts 4 was voluntary and was not intended to nullify the ideas of individual ownership or inequality of possessions. When Peter says,

“While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal?”

he reaffirms the idea of private property and keeps us from the mistaken idea that the church was establishing a new requirement that Christians give up all private property, or that Christians all had to have equal possessions. Acts 5:4 guards against such misunderstandings.

Later in the New Testament, when Paul gives specific instructions to those who are wealthy, he does not tell them to give up all their possessions, but to be generous and to set their hearts on God, not on their wealth:

As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life (1 Tim. 6:17-19).

So we should not think of all inequalities of possessions as wrong, or as evil. In fact, inequalities in possessions provide many opportunities for glorifying God.

If God gives us a small stewardship with regard to material possessions or abilities and opportunities, then we can glorify him through being content in him, trusting in him for our needs, expecting reward from him, and being faithful to our commitments. In fact, those who are poor often give more sacrificially than those who are rich. Jesus saw a poor widow put a penny in the offering, and he told his disciples,

“Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on” (Mark 12:43-44).

And James tells us,

Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which he has promised to those who love him? (James 2:5).

Thus, the Bible does not teach a “health and wealth gospel” (at least not until heaven!). In this present age, there are inequalities of gifts and abilities, and there are also evil, oppressive systems in the world, and because of these things many of God’s most righteous people will not be rich in this life.

As for those who have large resources, they also are to be content in God and trust in him, not in their riches, and both James and Paul suggest that they face greater temptations (see 1 Tim. 6:9-10; James 2:6-7; 5:1-6). Those who are rich have more opportunities and also more obligation to give generously to the poor (1 Tim. 6:17-19) and to the work of the church (Luke 12:48; 1 Cor. 4:2; 14:12b).

Inequalities in possessions, opportunities, and abilities provide many temptations to sin. There are temptations on the part of the wealthy or those who have other kinds of large stewardships to be proud, to be selfish, to think too highly of themselves, and not to trust in God. On the other hand, those to whom God has entrusted less have temptations to coveting and jealousy and not valuing their own personal position and calling in life, to which God has called them, at least for the present time.

In addition to this, there are some extreme kinds of inequalities in possessions and opportunities that are wrong in themselves. Poverty will not exist in the age to come, and so Jesus’ statement, “the poor you always have with you” (John 12:8) is best understood to mean “always in this age.” It does not mean that poverty will last forever, even into eternity. Poverty is one of the results of living in a world affected by sin and the Fall, and by God’s curse on the productivity of the earth after Adam and Eve sinned (Gen. 3:17-19).

We should seek to help the poor and seek to overcome their poverty. John says,

If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? (1 John 3:17).

And when Paul went to Jerusalem to confirm the validity of his teaching in conversation with the apostles there, he found that they were in agreement, and then added,

they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do (Gal. 2:10; see also Matt. 25:39-40; Acts 2:45; 4:35; Rom. 12:13; 15:25-27; Eph. 4:28; Titus 3:14; Heb. 13:16).

The emphasis in the New Testament is on helping poor Christians, especially those who are near us or who come to our attention (see 1 John 3:17; Matt. 25:39-40; Rom. 15:25- 27; 2 Corinthians 8-9). But it is also right to help non- Christians who are poor and needy, as we see in the parable of the Good Samaritan who helped someone in need from a different religious background (Luke 10:25-37). We also see it in Jesus’ teaching, where he told us,

“love your enemies, and do good and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil” (Luke 6:35; compare also Jesus’ practice of healing all who came to him, not just those who believed in him as the Messiah).

So the New Testament emphasis on helping the poor shows us that there is an extreme kind of inequality that is not good, a point where people are in poverty and should be helped. (Just what “poverty” is will vary from society to society and will also vary over time within any one society.)

But is there an opposite extreme of having too much wealth? In contrast to many admonitions to help the poor, there is no corresponding command in the New Testament to take some wealth away from the very rich, and there is no teaching that a large amount of wealth is wrong in itself. But there are strong warnings against spending too much on oneself and living in self-indulgent luxury:

Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you… . Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days… . You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter (James 5:1, 3, 5).

James does not here imply that all those who are rich are evil, for in this same passage he speaks of the fraud and murder committed by these rich people, implying that he is speaking about the rich who are wrongdoers (James 5:4, 6). Paul says that Timothy should tell “the rich in this present age” that they are “not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy.” Paul does not say that the rich are to give away all their wealth, but that they are “to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share” (1 Tim. 6:17-18).

Yet James clearly warns against a kind of “luxury and self-indulgence” that is wrong, that shows little or no concern for others, and that does not take seriously the stewardship obligations that God bestows along with great wealth. It seems that those who are wealthy can too easily slip beyond a level of spending on themselves that is appropriate to their place in life and spend excessively and ostentatiously on themselves while neglecting to give generously to others.

But the distortions of something good must not cause us to think that the thing itself is evil. The evils of poverty and excessive, self-indulgent wealth must not cause us to think that God’s goal is total equality of possessions, or that all inequalities are wrong. Inequalities in abilities and opportunities and possessions will be part of our life in heaven forever, and they are in themselves good and pleasing to God, and provide many opportunities for glorifying him.

September 05, 2008

For sheer entertainment value, I think American politics in general, and Presidential campaigns in particular, are about the best bang for my buck, even as a non-American. For little more than the cost of an internet connection I can spend endless hours being amused. This 2008 campaign may be the most entertaining yet. While I rarely use this blog to discuss politics (and especially when I’m as ignorant of a topic as I am with U.S. politics), today I’ll make the rare exception. Over the past few days I’ve bookmarked a whole lot of links and today will try to tie a few of them together.

Sarah Palin is undoubtedly the most electrifying and polarizing figure we’ve seen in U.S. politics for a long, long time. She has completely changed the face of election. A week ago the media could not break away from Barack Obama. Today Sarah Palin is dominating the discussion. She was the perfect foil; if anyone doubts McCain’s smarts, I’d say he has proven himself the wily veteran with this pick. This has become an Obama vs. Palin election. At least for now, McCain is taking a back seat in his own Presidential election campaign. It’s all about Sarah. Chuck Colson’s article on clashing worldviews is interesting reading. “In the life of Sarah Palin, we see the clash of worldviews playing out before our own eyes. Consider every major controversial issue in American politics and culture right now … and somehow, they touch her personally.” Everyone can either love or hate Palin; few are ambivalent.

It’s little wonder that many evangelicals are quickly learning to love her. The little boy Piper Palin spit-shined in front of the nation is living, breathing proof of Palin’s commitment to life—probably the single most important issue to a vast number of Christians. In an age when 90 or 95 out of every 100 children with Down Syndrome are destroyed, Trig is, well, alive. That, in and of itself, is almost miraculous today. Asked about her brother’s Syndrome, Palin’s daughter Willow said, “I don’t care - he’s my brother and I love him.” Trig is exactly who God made him to be and he is a gift to that family.

But the greatest source of Palin’s appeal must be her sheer normalcy. She is exactly the kind of pit bull hockey mom you’d meet anywhere in Alaska (or Canada). She’s so unlike the majority of the politicians who strive for the White House. It seems almost a mistake that she is up on that platform.

People on the Loony Left know they hate Palin but they are struggling with how to hate her. They turned first on her children, insisting that her infant son could not possibly be her own. They smeared her for having a baby in her “old age” (as if they all had their families in their prime child-bearing years) and determined that the baby must be her daughters’. The stupendous stupidity of leveling and believing such a charge showed just how far people would stoop to attempt to discredit her. Of course the controversy was quickly resolved when the McCain campaign announced that Palin’s daughter was pregnant with a child of her own. Perhaps worst of all, she was going to keep the baby and will marry the father. While I read many articles assuring the American public that Palin was lying about being the mother of Trig, I don’t recall reading nearly so many retractions or apologies.

Things got even weirder than this. Liberal feminists (is that redundant?) began to turn on Palin. You would think women would be thrilled to see a woman who is poised to rise higher in government than any woman before her, but this was not the case. While these feminists would have cheered Hillary Clinton as President or Vice President, Palin was not exactly the woman they had in mind. Not the hockey mom, church-going mother of five who is undoubtedly a better shot than Dick Cheney! And not the woman who is a powerful figure while remaining feminine and attractive. Stand to Reason says “One of the things that bugs me about the Feminist movement is it seems to tell women that they have to act like men to be equal to them. And in the process women are no longer feminine and instead take on some of the worst aspects of masculine nature… Gov. Palin seems to have a feminine appeal while displaying her capability and strength.”

And so feminists wondered if she could possibly take care of her family while dealing with her responsibilities as Vice President. The feminists said this! Eventually there was something of a backlash and prominent feminists were forced to speak out. But the damage had already been done—we had seen another example of how far the left is willing to go to discredit this McCain/Palin ticket. They’ll gladly violate their own principles to keep McCain out of the White House. It truly was a shameful week for the press.

Interestingly, while feminists have been asking whether Palin can care for her nation and her family, Christians have been wondering the same. Is it right for a woman to take on a position of such responsibility? Is it right for her to assume a position of leadership? No sooner had Palin been announced than Voddie Baucham wrote a much-publicized article in which he said this: “My point is simple. The job of a wife and mother is to be a wife and mother. Anything in addition to that must also be subservient to it. There is no higher calling. Moreover, I believe Paul’s admonition [in Titus 2] should lead us to reject any notion of a wife and mother taking on the level of responsibility that Mrs. Palin is seeking.” Baucham believes that the pro-life party is using Palin as a pawn in a move that is distinctly anti-family. Those who know of Baucham will know that he is very conservative when it comes to the role of women (going so far in The Return of the Daughters to suggest that women should probably not go to college).

Other more moderate conservative Christians spoke up. Writing for the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, David Kotter asked, “Does Sarah Palin Present a Dilemma for Complementarians?” He answered very well, saying, “From the outset we must remember that on November 4 the voters will not elect a national minister or pastor in chief. A president is not held to the same moral standards as an elder of a church. While it is a blessing from God to have ethical or even Christian political leaders, the Bible places no such requirements on secular governments. Even though the Bible reserves final authority in the church for men, this does not apply in the kingdom of this world.” Al Mohler agrees, saying “The New Testament clearly speaks to the complementary roles of men and women in the home and in the church, but not in roles of public responsibility. I believe that women as CEOs in the business world and as officials in government are no affront to Scripture. Then again, that presupposes that women — and men — have first fulfilled their responsibilities within the little commonwealth of the family.”

One blog I appreciated was Amy’s (which has 173 comments and counting). Amy takes issue with the automatic assumption that a woman’s highest calling is to be a wife and mother. “Being a wife and mother is a good and noble thing, but it is not the highest thing.”

And I firmly agree with Amy and Mohler and Kotter. While Christians do want to maintain the focus on the family we have to be careful about stating categorically that a woman has no business running for Vice President. Palin’s decision is one to be made with her family and with counsel from her local church. Beyond that we, as Christians, have to trust her judgment in this kind of disputable matter. Far be it from us to declare that she cannot do both and that she cannot do both with excellence.

The timing of this campaign is interesting since we are likely to be facing an election here in Canada in the weeks to come. Palin is an unique figure and for so many reasons. Her husband is a snowmobile racer, for goodness sake. I wouldn’t be surprised if she gets a few write-in votes in our election.

September 04, 2006

There is a great deal of controversy surrounding global warming. Some insist that it is a terrifying and imminent concern that portends worldwide disaster. Others scoff at the notion, accusing those who spread such dire predictions of using global warming as part of a larger, sinister agenda. Al Gore considers global warming to be an inconvenient truth and a pending planetary emergency. In his political career he was an advocate of measures to deal with this and other environmental crises, and in his post-political career he has accelerated these warnings. An Inconvenient Truth, an immediate New York Times bestseller, and the film that was released at around the same time, are his attempt to take this message to the masses.

June 27, 2004

J.A. Wylie was a pastor and author who lived in the nineteenth century whose greatest work is the three volume masterpiece “The History of Protestantism.” The first book spends a small amount of time examining early Christian history and how the purity of the original church gave way to the corruption of the Catholic system. Wylie says “This change [making God less free in His gift of salvation] brought a multitude of others in its train. Worship being transformed into sacrifice – sacrifice in which was the element of expiation and purification – the “teaching ministry” was of course converted into a “sacrificing priesthood.” When this had been done, there was no retreating; a boundary had been reaching which could not be recrossed until centuries had rolled away, and transformations of a more portentous kind than any which had yet taken place had passed upon the Church.” (Volume 1, Chapter 2, page 8).

In short, Wylie believed that the downfall of the church began with assigning too much power to the clergy. When the office of pastor changed from a teaching office to a mystical, sacrificing priesthood, the clergy gained too much power and immediately passed the point of no return. It would take hundreds of years and a world-changing event for the Church to regain the original beauty of the office of pastor.

After the Protestant Reformation, the Protestant clergy no longer held the mystical power of converting a simple piece of bread to the body of Christ and they no longer had the power to forgive sins. The primary role of the minister of the Word was to exposit the Word of God to the people. It was an office of honor and respect. The title “reverend” was often used to convey respect to those men who had the awesome privilege and responsibility of preaching God’s Word.

As the Protestant church has changed and evolved since the time of the Reformation, so has the office of pastor. Where in times past the minister wore a robe, collar or both to differentiate himself from the laity, it seems that today the pastor is often the person wearing shorts and sandals. Where a pastor once wore clothing that conveyed dignity and displayed the uniqueness of the pastoral ministry, today the pastor often tries to be the most unnoticeable person in the church. Where the term “pastor” was once largely reserved for the minister who led his flock, today we have pastors of every type – music pastors, counseling pastors, administrative pastors, and even lay pastors (which seems to be a contradiction in terms). Where pastors and office-bearers once held the keys to the kingdom and had the privilege of administering the sacraments, today the laity is permitted and even encouraged to do this themselves.

I sometimes wonder if we have thrown out the baby with the bathwater, so to speak. I wonder if we’ve reduced the office of the minister of the Word to such an extent that it no longer carries with it the respect and uniqueness that God intended. Surely pastors are called to a high office and are blessed with unique privileges and responsibilities. When we take those privileges and dispense them liberally throughout the Church, I wonder if we are elevating the role of the laity or reducing the role of the clergy. Either way, I suspect we are not honoring God or the special role He created for the minister of His Word.