Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Re: Spinning Wheels

Tracey over at Worship Naked raised an interesting question: basically, would it bug you if your pastor bought a flashy, expensive new sports car? This really raises the issue of conspicuous consumption while in the ministry. I posted a long comment at her site, and decided to post it here as well. If you find what I wrote interesting, check out her original post, and all the comments.

Here's what I wrote:

Good question, Tracey.
A couple thoughts.

First, the Pope is not rich - the Catholic church is. He can't quit and take any of the stuff lying around the Vatican with him as he walks out the door. I see it as an important difference - surrounded by wealth and opulence, and you own none of it.

Second, between the Catholic clergy's value of personal poverty and the Puritan's value of simplicity and frugality, we Americans have been surrounded by an equation of Godliness and meagerness when it comes to personal wealth. We expect pastors to live a somewhat meager lifestyle. Whether or not it's in the Bible that this HAS to be the way, that's what we feel in our bones.

Question: How many pastors refrain from smoking and drinking so as "not to cause a brother to stumble", knowing full well that a biblical case against these two things is weak? We would see that as an honorable and godly thing to refrain from these. Now, what's different about a Conspicuous Consumption-mobile? Knowing what the almost-ingrained expectations we (society) have of pastors, why draw the line here? Why be willing to potentially "cause a brother to stumble" over a car, but not a beer? A beer can be much more discreet. Less real chance of causing anyone to stumble, but harder to impress the neighbors with a beer. Hmmmmm...

Personal story: I used to work at a major broadcast ministry. Let's call it "Thru Grace our Insight has Focus" or TGIF for short. Once a month we would take time to pray for the folks who sent us letters asking us pray for them. Each employee would get 4-6 letters, and we would spend time in prayer for these people and their requests. It used to bug me big-time to read these letters that would say something like "I'm sorry I only could send in $10 this month, but I've been out of work for 9 months, and money is really tight". I would look around the beautifully decorated offices (solid oak desks, explosion-in-a-Laura-Ashley-store decor), and think "what are we doing?".

Did they have a right to spend their money on "nice" offices? Sure. Did it keep on poking me in that "godly=frugal" spot on my brain? Absolutely.

Wouldn't it bug you if the story of the Widow's mite ended by telling us that the Pharisees took the money, and used it to add more pure gold thread to their tunic, as the woman walked away in rags?

Sorry this went on so long - I think you hit on a sensitive subject for me.


Sue 1:58 AM, September 14, 2005  

Oh, such a difficult topic. I think it's not so much that the Pharisee might take the money and add it to his wealth, but that the Rabbis or workers in the synagogue were probably much better dressed than the widow. They should have been helping her! Perhaps they were... and yet she still needed to give her mite, for her own sake.

We've struggled with this whole issue of frugality/good stewardship/God's abundance, over many years. In some countries, pastors and missionaries MUST have a higher standard of living than those around them, or they - and God - are despised. We would feel most uncomfortable with that. On the other hand, when people give to our support, they don't want us to be over-economical. They want us to go out occasionally, to buy clothes that aren't second-hand, to take vacations, to have a functioning car. Perhaps not a flashy sports-car, but then again, why not?

Incidentally where I come from, most Christians don't smoke because it's anti-social, expensive, and very bad for the health. However the majority drink alcohol in moderation, since that's the reverse: helps with socialising, is very cheap here, and (in small quantities) beneficial for health. Besides which, Jesus drank wine and even created some with his first miracle.

Professor Steve 8:13 AM, September 14, 2005  

Thanks for the comments, Sue!
Good to hear from you again.

For this posting, I was referencing the U.S. Christian culture. I realize that other cultures will have their own variations on what is acceptable/unacceptable.

I once heard a story that was originally from J. Vernon McGee - the Thru the Bible guy. When he moved from Texas to California, a couple from his new church invited he and his wife to a pool party. When they got there, they were horrified to see women in 2-piece bathing suits (good Christians didn't do that in Texas!), and some in his new congregation were horrified to see them both light up cigarrettes (an accepted social norm in Texas at the time)!

I guess the point would be to be sensitive to your environment - especially as a conspicuous ambassador for Christ. I know I am held (and I hold myself) to a higher standard here at my college, being a somewhat ourspoken Christian on a secular campus.

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