One of my greatest passions has for years been to teach what the Bible says concerning poverty and wealth. This is the topic for my blog and youtube series God vs Wealth, as well as my free e-book God vs Inequality. I think it’s very clear in the Bible and in early church writings that Christians should not be rich. Instead, we should live simply and practice community of goods and economic equality, just like Jesus and the apostles.
Someone who disagree with me is Dave Ramsey, Christian money guru who argues that Christians can and should be rich. In an interview with charismatic TV host Pat Robertson, Ramsey says:
“I think there’s a problem out there with some bad and toxic teaching that somehow [says] that if you’ve won money, if you’ve built a level of wealth, if you’ve become successful – biblically you have done something wrong. And that’s actually a form of heresy called gnosticism.”
Is it really gnosticism? It’s not the first time I hear a statement like this, and I would like to debunk it. Firstly, who are Ramsey talking about here? He’s saying that the modern “Gnostics” are attacking the production and accumulation of wealth, rather than the possession and storaging of wealth. Now, it’s important to differentiate between these. Ramsey is basically using the accumulation of wealth to defend the possession of it – he’s talking about “building a level of wealth” and “becoming succesful”.
As I argue in my e-book God vs Inequality, the Bible says that we should work and produce wealth, but not for personal gain but for the benefit of the common. Thus, while we work we should be content with food and clothing (1 Tim 6:8) and promote equality (2 Cor 8:13), having everything in common (Acts 2:45). Of course, there is a temptation in earning a lot of money, and many times people earn money through harmful means, destroying the environment or exploiting others, which is unacceptable for Christians. But the main problem for me and other Christian activists such as Shane Claiborne, Jim Wallis or Ron Sider is economic inequality and how rich Christians possess a lot of wealth instead of living simply and share all they have with the poor.
Gnosticism was a heresy in the early church that taught that matter was evil. Many Gnostics believed that the material world was created by a lower god, the demiurge, while the higher God sent his Son, Christ, to free us from our material bodies and become free spirits. As a consequence, many Gnostics tried to free themselves from their carnal desires through fasting, abstinence and poverty. This is why prosperity preachers and other rich Christians like to say that if you don’t think that Christians should be rich, you’re a Gnostic, influenced by an idea that material possession is evil because it’s material.
Now, if I would have thought that material possession is evil because it’s material, I agree that it would have been Gnostic thinking. But this is not what I, and other Christians who are critical to wealth that have inspired me, are thinking! What we’re saying is that economic inequality is evil and sinful because it lets people starve and suffer unnecessarily. And this is an idea that is very clear in the Bible (see Deut 15:9, 17:17, Lk 3:11, 12:33, 1 Jn 3:17 etc.) and in the early, anti-Gnostic church.
Orthodox Christians of the first and second century criticized the Gnostics for ignoring the apostles and Jesus Himself, for teaching polytheism and for wanting to censore the Old Testament and several books in the New Testament. But they rarely criticized them for their aschetism or for living simply, because that was something Orthodox Christians did as well! I have recorded what many early church fathers said concerning wealth and poverty here. Some examples:
“Share everything with your brother. Do not say, ‘It is private property.’ If you share what is everlasting, you should be that much more willing to share things which do not last.” –The Didache, c. 90 AD, (Did. 4:8)
“We who once took most pleasure in the means of increasing our wealth and property now bring what we have into a common fund and share with everyone in need.” – Justin Martyr, 100-165 AD (1st Apology 14)
“And instead of the tithes which the law commanded, the Lord said to divide everything we have with the poor. And he said to love not only our neighbors but also our enemies, and to be givers and sharers not only with the good but also to be liberal givers toward those who take away our possessions.” –Irenaeus, 130-200 AD (Against Heresies, Book IV, Chapter XIII, paragraph 3)
The last quote is particularly interesting, since, Irenaeus’ Against Heresies was an anti-Gnostic work, adressing the errors of various Gnostic groups. To say that it’s biblical to be rich but Gnostic to criticize personal wealth is a false description of both the Bible and the early church.