The church café.

by K.W. Leslie, 30 July

Some churches offer refreshments before, after, or even during the service. My current church did, before the current pandemic made us suspend it. At one of my previous churches, one of our pastors’ wives who loved to cook (who became known as our “minister of munchies”) would have so much food available, you may as well skip breakfast at home, ’cause there was plenty of food at church.

But many churches—namely the churches which get so big, refreshment tables get cleaned out within minutes—have decided to go with cafés. They stick it somewhere near the front of the building, and sell coffee and doughnuts—and other drinks, and other foods.

A friend likes to sarcastically call them “concession stands.” To him, the church café is just a money-making scheme… kinda like the moneychangers Jesus had to throw out of temple ’cause they turned it into a marketplace. Mk 13.13-17 In some churches, that’s precisely what their cafés feel like.

But the purpose of this article isn’t to bash church cafés. It’s to remind us of the point of providing food and drink for the people of our churches: Fellowship. Food and drink mean fellowship, and fellowship grows God’s kingdom. In many cases it grows it a lot better than sermons and worship music. You know the saying the fastest way to a person’s heart is through their stomach? Works in church too.

Growing God’s kingdom… or not.

The first Christians used to eat together. It was part of their worship services: Read some bible, talk about what Jesus taught, pray, anoint the sick, have holy communion, and have lunch. Yeah, they were largely hanging out together for a few hours, with some formal parts of the service, and a lot of informal, interactive parts. When we moved out of the homes and into church buildings, we lost a lot of the informality. Particularly the meals.

And the reason churches put out refreshments is to give people a reason to stick around before and after the service… and interact. We gotta wait in line for the coffee urn, and make small talk about weather. We gotta take turns with the toaster, and make small talk about baseball. We gotta semi-sincerely tell one another, “No you take the last strudel… well here, we’ll cut it in half.” And so forth. We gotta talk. And at some part we might actually run out of small talk and get into deep talk.

Whereas with a church with no refreshments? Oh, they bolt for their cars right away. As soon as my current church stopped serving refreshments, people cleared out of the services almost as soon as they were over. Really easy to get ’em out of the building. We have a reputation as a friendly church… and once you take away the refreshments it is so easy to dissolve that reputation.

So do I recommend the practice? Heck yeah.

Doesn’t have to be anything special. Just please, for the love of God, don’t buy Folgers. I know it’s the cheapest coffee there is (unless you have a Costco membership; then it’s usually Kirkland) and there’s a reason for that: It’s not good. It’s what people who don’t drink coffee buy when they gotta buy coffee. Don’t do that to your people. Find out who all the coffee snobs are in your church, and get them to take care of it. They’ll do you proud.

Likewise with the food: Doesn’t have to be anything special either. Discount doughnuts, day-old specials, Little Debbie snack cakes, homemade coffee cake (if anybody likes to bake), finger sandwiches, deviled eggs, a big jar of Tootsie Rolls, whatever. Bring anything. Something is better than nothing, and somebody’s gonna appreciate it.

What if people spill coffee in the auditorium, or otherwise make a mess? Clean it up. If it doesn’t clean out, you’ve either got ineffective cleaning supplies, or inferior carpeting and upholstery. I drink coffee all the time; I’ve spilled a bunch; it only ruins paper. Everything else, it cleans right out of. (Yes, even laptops.)

What if homeless people start showing up to get at the free food? GOOD. Share Jesus with ’em as well as the food. See if you can help in any other ways, while you’re at it. Maybe you can; maybe they don’t want any help; either way, be good news to them.

Switching to a café, and how not to do it.

Now like I said, if your church has a lot of people, you’re gonna run out of food and coffee quickly. So you gotta put some brakes on them, and that’s where money comes in: People aren’t gonna casually swipe all the doughnuts and drink all the coffee when they gotta pay for it.

Churches don’t always realize this is when or why they oughta charge for food. More often they start charging because some church leader says, “What’re we paying for coffee and doughnuts every month?… That much? Why don’t we charge people for them then?” They wanna pinch pennies, or they wanna raise money. So they put up price tags… and in so doing, kill the ministry.

I visited a friend’s church a few years ago. They had a café. They charged $2 for black coffee (same as most places), $4 for mochas and lattés and other coffee drinks; $3 and up for pastries. Roughly the same prices as any other coffeehouse. Because that’s what they were mimicking: Other coffeehouses. Hey, if Starbucks can charge you $4 for a latté, why can’t they?

And I remind you: The point is fellowship. How many people are gonna buy church café lattés? How many are gonna buy church café pastries? (Especially once they ask themselves, “Wait… is that Kirkland coffee? Are those Kirkland pastries? Why am I spending full coffeehouse prices on Coscto food?”) Are the poorer members of your church even able to fellowship at your café? If not, you’re doing it wrong.

A few decades ago my church’s café shut down: It made so little money, and the volunteers didn’t last long, so the church let it go dormant. Then it handed the café over to the Christian elementary school which shared the building—where I was a teacher—so we could use it for fundraisers. We ran a fundraiser or two, but once the fundraisers were over, the café went back to being empty.

Then one summer I was put in charge of it for the school’s summer day camp.

Theologian that I am, I needed to know the purpose of a church café before I ran one. So of course I came to all the conclusions I articulated above: It’s about fellowship.

Not profits. Yeah, ideally you should cover expenses… but there’s no rent, barely any utility costs, you got an all-volunteer staff, so if you sell everything at slightly more than what you paid for it, the prices are gonna be ridiculously low. And they were. I slashed all the café’s prices to a dollar or less. Coffee was now 25 cents. Espresso drinks were $1. Bottled water was also 25 cents. Doughnuts were still a bit expensive, but at 50 cents they sold out fast… and we still had plenty of other, healthier alternatives.

When people discovered bottled water was 25 cents instead the $1.50 they expected, they’d buy multiple bottles. Same with a lot of the other items. And if our 25-cent coffee was Folgers, they wouldn’t care or complain; they’d just be thrilled there was someplace on earth 25-cent coffee still exists.

My principal was worried the café couldn’t possibly make any money with those prices. We did volume business: We made way more money than before. So much so, the church took it back over the next year. (And didn’t learn from my example, hiked the prices back up, and did just as poorly as before.)

During that time, there was a crowd round the café every Sunday. Not just in line: Seated at the tables, eating together, drinking with one another, interacting. Fellowshipping. Talking about the service, talking about life, talking about what God’s done in those lives—being the body of Christ together.

Goal achieved.

Unexamined priorites.

To a point Starbucks tries to encourage fellowship too. Their vision is more secular: They want their coffeehouses to be a “third place,” other than home and work, where people gather and share life together… and while they’re at it, buy Starbucks products. They get the point. Churches don’t. And of all people, should.

Instead, too many of us think of the church café as a side business. Something that’ll raise a little money for the church, to make up for the fact our members aren’t putting enough in the offering. Or because they covet the business coffeehouses get: “Why can’t they hang out at church the way they hang out at coffeehouses?” So they try to duplicate the coffeehouse experience. Poorly.

More often, it’s just because the leadership thinks it’d be really cool to have a coffeehouse in the building. Saves ’em the trouble of going elsewhere for their caffeine fix. So their motive is convenience. Not fellowship, not profit. Hence it encourages little fellowship… and isn’t all that profitable either.

How does a church café grow God’s kingdom? That, and that alone, should be the only thought in mind when churches decided to create a café. How does it help Jesus? Or does it?—’cause in some churches they really don’t. They’re simply a dividing wall between the wealthy, who can afford it; and the poor, who can’t, and feel pushed outside because of it. Would Jesus encourage it as another means of spreading the good news, or would he get the whip out and overturn its tables?

Does suicide send you straight to hell?

by K.W. Leslie, 29 July

Years ago I taught at a Christian junior high. We had the usual classes you’ll find at most schools, plus bible classes and a weekly chapel service. Principals led most chapels, but the last year of our junior high program (before the school phased it out and I went on to teach fourth grade), our principal handed off the duties to various guest preachers. Earnest guys… but let’s be blunt: Some of ’em didn’t know what they were talking about. Some churches have no educational standards, and’ll let anyone babysit pastor the youth.

One of our regular chapel speakers was a youth pastor, the husband of one of our school’s daycare teachers. As far as theology is concerned, my eighth graders knew more. Not just ’cause I trained them; he really was that ignorant.

One week this guy was talking about salvation, and he let slip that if you commit suicide, you go to hell. It wasn’t his main point, but one of our seventh-graders did catch it and question him about it: “You go to hell for suicide?”

“Yes you do,” he said, and went on.

Once the eighth-graders were back in my classroom, one of ’em asked, “You don’t really go to hell for suicide, right?”

ME. “What’re you saved by, God’s grace or good deeds?
SHE. “Grace.”
ME. “Any of your evil deeds gonna send you to hell if you have God’s grace?”
SHE. “No.”
ME. “Suicide gonna send you to hell if you have God’s grace?”
SHE. “No.”
ME. “Okay then.”
SHE. “Well, why’d he say suicide will send you to hell?”
ME. “Because somebody told him that, and he believed it. He didn’t bother to ask questions and get to the truth like you’re doing. He doesn’t know any better.”

Some of the kids were looking in surprise at one another—Pastors can be WRONG?—and if they didn’t know this yet, best they learn it now. We’re all wrong in one way or another. No exceptions. And when you catch someone getting it wrong, ask questions. “Where in the bible does it say that?” usually does the job, although a lot of times they do have a proof text—which they’re quoting out of context.

But I digress. The youth pastor’s belief is surprisingly common among a whole lot of Christians. The rationale is simple… but graceless.

Saved by confession.

Works like yea: You’re saved by grace, right? This, they’ll concede. We don’t save ourselves; God does the saving. So how do we get grace? Easy: We ask God for it, and he grants it.

And every time we pray, let’s be sure to ask God’s forgiveness for every sin we’ve recently committed, and every good deed we’ve left undone. He’ll totally forgive us; we’re clean. Now, go and sin no more. Otherwise… we’ll be unclean again, and now we gotta apologize to God all over again. He’ll forgive us all over again, but do try to stop sinning.

Sounds good? It won’t in a moment.

Now what if we die before asking God’s forgiveness for the most recent batch of sins we committed? Say you just left the accountant’s office after lying a whole bunch about your taxes. Or nothing so dramatic; you just told various white lies throughout the day, and just haven’t got round to confessing them yet. Then you stepped into the street, got hit by a distracted Uber driver, and had no time for a last-second “Save me Jesus!”—you were dead on impact. What happens then?

Right you are: You still got sins on your soul. God forgave everything up to the last time you confessed your sins, but you’re still on the hook for everything since. And God can’t abide sin… oo it’s off to hell with you.

So wait: We can spend our entire lives following Jesus, carefully and devoutly, and one little mishap can plunge us into fiery hell? What kind of grace is that?

Well it’s not grace. It’s good works.

Yep, turns out we imagine we’ve been saved because we regularly performed the good work of apologizing to God for our sins. And I’m not saying it’s a good work we shouldn’t do! The Christian life is meant to be one of repentance. But in this scenario, if there’s any lapse between repentance and death, we wind up un-saved.

This is how graceless Christians think. They don’t view God as loving and forgiving, but harsh and strict, and any little mistake will doom us. They’re the ones who claim suicides are going to hell. Because suicide is self-murder, and murder’s a sin. Ex 20.13 Either they killed themselves quickly, and had no time to repent; or slowly, but they didn’t bother to stop their coming death, so they weren’t all that repentant. Either way, suicides had sins on their souls. They’re going to hell.

Especially since John said murderers don’t have eternal life in them. 1Jn 3.15 Self-murder or not, suicide is considered a hell-worthy sin.

Thus for centuries Christians (more accurately Christianists, worried about how it’d look) refused to bury suicides in church graveyards. ’Cause these people were in hell, right? Why should their bodies mingle with those who are going to heaven? Why should they be confused for saints?

Didn’t matter if these suicides were suffering from clinical depression. (A subject, I should point out, which the average person nowadays still doesn’t entirely understand.) Didn’t matter if they were suffering from chronic pain, or from an abuser they didn’t imagine they could get away from; suffering makes no difference. Suicide is a sin, and puts you in the hot place, where the worm doesn’t die and the fire doesn’t go out. Mk 9.48

Is suicide a sin?

Now, a lot of the reason people today insist suicides don’t go to hell, has nothing to do with God’s grace. It’s because they don’t consider suicide a sin.

Usually it’s ’cause they’re pagan. They don’t care what the scriptures say, one way or the other. They’re sympathetic towards the suicides, and figure they killed themselves because they were suffering in some way. They figure God’ll be kind enough to comfort them in the afterlife after all their suffering on earth. (Well, most of the suicides. Not Adolf Hitler. He’s in hell.)

But the fact is the scriptures never specifically describe suicide as murder. For one very simple reason: If you permit yourself to die in order to save others, you actually are killing yourself. It is suicide. But you’re saving others, so that’s noble, and people immediately overlook the suicide—or even argue it’s not suicide, and can’t be suicide: You’re sacrificing yourself, which is the most selfless and noble thing you can do.

(It’s not actually what Jesus meant by “laying down your life for your friends.” Jn 15.13 He meant submission, not sacrifice. But yeah, dying for them can be a form of submission. Sometimes it applies. Not always though.)

Simply put, the bible puts suicide into a gray area. It always depends on circumstances. Just like homicide: Sometimes it’s murder. Sometimes not: When you shoot an attacker it’s self-defense. When you intentionally poison a rival, it’s just plain murder. Suicide’s the same way, so we gotta look at motives. If you’re trying to end your own suffering, most folks, including a number of Christians, consider it yet another form of self-defense. I don’t always agree: Same as when people shoot “attackers,” there’s often a non-fatal way to deal with the problem. But people didn’t wanna take that route; killing the bad guy is quicker and easier—and let’s be blunt: Some of ’em have always wanted to kill somebody, and this makes it nice ’n legal. Killing yourself has often been called the easy way out, because dealing with pain is hard. But unless they’re nuts, nobody likes pain. So they won’t call it self-murder: To them it’s justifiable homicide.

Now true, some people kill themselves to escape justice. A former pastor of mine shot himself before he could be arrested for fraud. He figured instead of going to jail, he’d go to heaven. That situation is a little hard to be sympathetic about. Hard to classify as self-defense. Hard to not call sin. The pure selfishness of it wipes away any gray area.

Jesus, as we know, came to save the world. Jn 3.17 He did so by sacrificing himself. He wasn’t a victim of circumstances: He was in total control of these circumstances. He could’ve put a stop to his death at any second. Mt 26.53-54 He chose not to.

John 10.17-18 KWL
17 “This is why the Father loves me: I put down my life so I can pick it up again.
18 Nobody takes it away from me; I put it down on my own.
I have the power to put it down, and the power to pick it up again.
I received this commission from my Father.”

But those who consider suicide a sin, do not wanna describe Jesus’s self-sacrifice as that. They’re gonna be outraged by the very idea.

And yet it’s what they themselves have always taught: Jesus was a willing sacrifice. Jesus was in complete control. Jesus is sovereign. Jesus could’ve stopped his death at any time. They’ll say all this stuff about him. They’ll just never say “let himself be killed” is the same as “killed himself.”

…That is, till someone waves a gun in front of a police officer, hoping to suffer “death by cop”—then it’s not the officer’s fault for shooting the apparent criminal. Or till someone signs a “do not resuscitate” form—then it’s not the doctor’s fault for doing nothing to revive the patient.

Fact is, suicide is sometimes sin, sometimes not. In an ideal world nobody should have to, or want to, kill themselves. Should never be necessary in God’s kingdom. But sometimes it happens, and yeah, we can judge the act as sinful or not.

If it’s a sin though, does that mean it nullifies grace?

Grace trumps all.

If suicide is just the latest selfish act in a person’s life, capping off a lifetime of disregarding God’s commands and taking him for granted, culminating a life of fruitlessness and gracelessness, there’s absolutely no evidence God will save this person. These suicides will likely go to hell. I say “likely” because we never know for certain: God can do whatever he wants, including save ’em anyway if he so chooses. Since they’re likely gonna hate heaven—and be very annoyed their death didn’t result in non-existence—I wouldn’t count on it.

But for everyone else: Thanks to Jesus, we know God forgave our past sins, our present sins, and our future sins. Not that this gives us a free pass on future sins: Keep avoiding sin. But when we do sin, we have Jesus, our advocate, who cleanses us. 1Jn 2.1-2

Our real, living relationship with Jesus means we’re not getting sent to hell on a technicality: “Well, you murdered yourself, which is a no-no, and died with an unconfessed sin on your conscience; guess that cancels out everything I’ve ever done since I sealed you with the Holy Spirit, so off to hell with you.” That makes no sense. Might to a legalist, or to anyone so graceless as to throw away a decades-long relationship over one poor decision. But not to God.

God isn’t like that. If we’re his friends—really friends, and not just suck-ups or hypocrites or people who think their orthodoxy will save them—we were never going to hell anyway. Suicide won’t tip the scales against us. Thanks to grace, God threw out those scales a long time ago.

Christianists, justice, and social Darwinism.

by K.W. Leslie, 28 July

In the scriptures justice is defined on doing what’s just—what’s appropriate, what’s fair, what’s right, what’s consistent with the Law of Moses.

And lest you get the idea, “Oh, the Law of Moses; so it’s about breaking commands and meting out punishments,” no it’s not. Read the Law sometime and you’ll notice there’s a lot in there about doing for the needy and powerless, about loving one’s neighbor, about compassion and mercy and grace. Read the Prophets and you’ll see they get on Israel’s case not just for breaking the Law, but for shafting the poor and needy… which is forbidden by the Law. Anybody who thinks the Old Testament is all legalism, and the New Testament is all grace, clearly hasn’t read the Old Testament—or is projecting their own bad attitudes onto it. Plenty of grace in there… called “favor” or “mercy” or other synonyms, but you shouldn’t miss it.

Okay, that’s the bible. In our culture it’s assumed a very different definition. Justice in the United States is about upholding our laws. Particularly about punishing the guilty.

In so doing, justice has become another word for vengeance. Meted out by our government, but it’s still vengeance; check out all the people who push for the death penalty, or who stand outside death row while an execution goes on, pleased as punch that somebody’s getting what’s coming to them. It’s all about karma. It looks nothing like biblical justice.

Hence Christian activists have to distinguish biblical justice from unbiblical justice; from civic justice, which sues fast-food restaurants for making their coffee too hot, and from criminal justice, which gives people life sentences for stealing three cars.

This is where social justice comes in: It’s biblical justice. It’s nothing more than God’s admonitions to his people to do right by the powerless and needy. It’s helping those who can’t do for themselves—which is 180 degrees away from the way our individualist society tends to treat ’em. Society ignores anything Christ Jesus and his scriptures have to say about helping our neighbors, and instead holds to a very selfish, karmic attitude which blames ’em for their own troubles, blames ’em for being unable to escape their troubles, exploits or penalizes or punishes ’em for it, and (on the off chance we realize any of this is evil) justifies itself by inventing “biblical principles” which make it sound like it’s God’s idea.

God’s response to such folks?

Isaiah 1.16-17 KWL
16 “Bathe! Get clean! Get rid of the evil deeds before my eyes.
Stop doing evil. 17 Learn to do good. Seek right judgments.
Straighten out oppressors. Judge orphans fairly. Defend widows.”

Ancient Israel’s worship wasn’t working for the LORD, because they figured they could please him by sacrificing fields of animals to him—not by actually obeying him, and loving his people whom his Son would eventually die for. In Isaiah 1 he expressed his frustration with their rotten attitudes… and since American Christians are so biblically illiterate nowadays, of course we’ve fallen right into the very same behaviors.

Social justice and Christian history.

Lemme make this clear: Politics is about the pursuit of power. Both the Christian Right and Christian Left are regularly co-opted by politicians so they can gain power. So though I’m about to critique the Christian Right a bit, do not get the idea the Christian Left doesn’t have plenty to critique as well. I’ll discuss them in a bit. But first the rightists.

Historically the Christian Right in the United States has not been on the side of justice. It was on the side of slavery. And once slavery was abolished, it was on the side of segregation and the Jim Crow laws. The Christian Right baselessly believed blacks were “the sons of Ham”—descendants of Noah’s son Ham, who had mocked his father’s drunken nakedness, and as a result his son was cursed with servitude. Ge 9.20-27 As far as they were concerned, black people need to know their place and stay there. Their economy, politics, philosophy, interpretation of history, society, theology, everything, was designed to support their racism. Still does.

For a number of years, the Christian Right’s segregation and racism was largely outlawed and went underground. Oh, it still exists. It’s why black families still can’t move into certain suburbs; it’s why white people get plea bargains and black people go to prison; it’s why cops racially profile blacks, kill them carelessly, and get away with it. And while many in the Christian Right are now firmly anti-racist, many simply assume they’re not racist because they don’t hate blacks and browns—but they’re totally fine with leaving racially biased systems as-is. Because it doesn’t affect them negatively. Just the opposite.

It all goes back to selfishness and unaccountability. That’s always been the desire of sinful people. Slavery and racism gave it a theology, and justified it.

The Christian Right largely clung to their racism till the 1980s, when they realized the only way to join the political mainstream was to set it aside. In the meanwhile the main faction in American Christendom, from the founding of the colonies till the ’80s, was actually the Christian Left.

Most of the social reforms in American history were promoted by the Christian Left. Mostly this was because they believed in postmillennialism—the idea Jesus’s followers have to establish his thousand-year kingdom of God on earth so Jesus can come back and reign over it. (Nope, it’s no more biblical a view than the Left Behind novels.) Hence everything in the Christian Left was about progress, reform, and improvement. Read Charles M. Sheldon’s In His Steps sometime—the novel which popularized the slogan “What Would Jesus Do?”—and you’ll see what the Christian Left looked like in 1899.

Evangelicals and mainline churches were largely Christian Left, as was every evangelistic movement. Even the early Fundamentalists were part of the Christian Left. Yep, you could actually be Fundamentalist and progressive!—an idea today’s conservatives can’t imagine, because that’s how far their politics have compromised them.

Fr’instance. Westminster Theological Seminary in Glenside, California, was founded by J. Gresham Machen, one of the founders of the Fundamentalist movement. Machen firmly believed in government reforms, social programs, and social justice. Westminster’s current president, Dr. Peter A. Lillback, occasionally appears on conservative talk shows to denounce such things. To decry “the roots of social justice.” To claim it’s unbiblical. Conservative Christians regularly assume their founders believed exactly as they do; that they’d be appalled by the directions our society is going. And maybe they would be. But the forebears’ solutions to these problems were not conservative solutions. Nor did they look back to the past, and insist things oughta return to the good old days… which really weren’t that good. They were looking forward—towards Jesus.

Lillback claims justice only applies to individuals, not groups: It’s about resolving individual mistreatment. He points out the words “social justice” aren’t found together in the bible. He’s right; they’re not. They don’t need to be. Look up every instance of justice in your bible and you’ll notice it’s all social: It consistently pertains to groups.

Leviticus 19.15 NIV
“Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.”
 
Leviticus 19.15 NIV
“Cursed is anyone who withholds justice from the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow.”
Then all the people shall say, “Amen!”
 
Psalm 82.3-4 NIV
3 Defend the weak and the fatherless;
uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed.
4 Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.
 
Psalm 140.12 NIV
I know that the LORD secures justice for the poor
and upholds the cause of the needy.
 
Jeremiah 22.3 NIV
“This is what the LORD says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place.
 
Luke 18.7-8 NIV
7 “And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? 8 I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”

Apparently Lillback’s not done any word study on justice. Or he has, but he’s willfully blinded himself to the results ’cause they don’t suit his politics. As a conservative, he’s so fearful of collective responsibility—of communism, socialism, anything which interferes with his right to avoid a movement and do his own thing—that he’s even willing to dismiss God’s movements as Lefty inventions.

Social Darwinism in its place.

SOCIAL DARWINISM 'soʊ.ʃəl 'dɑr.wən.ɪz.əm noun. The idea individuals and groups are subject to the same fight for superiority and supremacy as plants and animals.

“Do for others” is a central tenet of Christianity, Lk 7.12 and “do for yourself” is a central tenet of total depravity. Yet “do for yourself” has also become a central tenet of American philosophy. Independence, individuality, freedom from co-dependence, freedom from external influence, pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps, learning to fish instead of being given a fish, making and running on your own steam: These are all qualities Americans consider admirable, and part of a good character.

But they don’t look like God’s kingdom at all. In his kingdom we’re called to submit to one another, Ep 5.21 love one another, Jn 13.34 encourage and build one another up, 1Th 5.11 and care for the weak. 1Th 5.14 Our churches, the kingdom’s outposts, oughta look like this. They don’t always. Because too many of us are Americans first, Christians second. Or we’re simply Christianist instead: We love the trappings of Christianity, but do our own thing.

Americans have largely adopted the philosophy of social Darwinism. Like animals fighting over prey, the strong will survive, the weak will perish… and that’s fine. It helps ensure only the genes of the strong will be passed down to the next generation. No it doesn’t account for time and chance, which can undermine the results. Ec 9.11 But then again social Darwinism isn’t actually a scientific description of the world. It’s solely a justification for letting the “unfit” perish—however we choose to define fitness.

The reason God calls for justice is precisely because the strong try to dominate the weak. He doesn’t want the strong to get away with sin, simply because they’re strong. Nor for the weak to perish, simply because no one offers them help. He wants Christians to treat both strong and weak equally. To stop favoring the strong, the popular, the winsome, the wealthy, the famous; and dismissing the weak. Especially since it’s the strong who exploit us Christians most. Jm 2.1-9 Historically, God takes the side of the weak against their oppressors. Far be it from us Christians to ever be found on the oppressors’ side—and suffer consequences either in this world, or the next.

We need to ask ourselves which side we’re on. In any issue. Are we helping the needy, or do our politics and personal behaviors do nothing for them, or even fight them? Are we helping the sick? The disabled? The mentally ill? The uninsured? Those people who work 60 hours a week and still can’t afford to support their families? The convicts who’ve served their time, yet still no one will cut them a break? Those people whose other life circumstances mean no one will ever hire them? Are we condemning them for their lack of skills, their lack of education, their lack of citizenship, their lack of drive, or any lack they have?

“They’re not my problem.” Wrong; they are. The default mode of every Christian must be that of a problem-solver. That’s why God gave us the Spirit’s fruit and gifts in the first place: To apply these abilities to others. That’s why the apostles instructed Christians to help the weak. 1Th 5.14 They’re precisely the people whom God’s strength is given to us to help.

This doesn’t always mean we gotta help directly. Sometimes we gotta connect people to better help. Nor does it mean we help con artists who steal what’s meant for the truly needy. Nor is the existence of con artists and lazy people an excuse for doing nothing. A lot of us Christians ought to be more generous with our resources, instead of looking for excuses to be bitter, and give less.

Helping the needy takes God’s side. Dismissing the needy—and helping their exploiters—opposes him. Our choice is clear: We must contribute to social justice, or we’re contributing to social Darwinism.

Satan’s excuses precede lawless Christians.

by K.W. Leslie, 27 July

1 John 3.7-12.

Many of the verses from today’s passage tend to be yanked out of context.

  • “Let no one deceive you” 1Jn 3.7 —used to refer to anything which might trick or mislead Christians, from heresy to the latest internet conspiracy theories.
  • “The Son of God came to destroy the works of the devil” 1Jn 3.8 —treated as though it’s the only reason Jesus came to earth, so certain dark Christians use it to justify their fixation on demonology instead of good news.
  • “Everyone borne of God doesn’t sin” 1Jn 3.9 —used to condemn Christians who do sin, instead of encouraging them (really, all of us) to go back into the light.
  • And of course those folks who wanna interpret the Cain and Abel story to make Cain an irredeemably evil person… instead of recognizing the LORD and Cain had a conversational relationship, Ge 4.9-15 and God obviously wanted to redeem Cain, not destroy him. (Otherwise he’d have destroyed him!)

All right, best I jump into the text before unpacking it.

1 John 3.7-12 KWL
7 Children, let no one deceive you: Doing what’s proper is right, just like Christ is right.
8 Doing sin is of the devil, because the devil sins from the very start.
This is why God’s Son appeared: To undo the devil’s works.
9 Everyone reborn by God doesn’t do sin, for God’s seed remains in them.
They can’t sin, because they’ve been reborn by God.
10 This is how God’s children and the devil’s children are identified:
Everyone who doesn’t act properly, who doesn’t love their fellow Christian, isn’t of God.
11 This is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another.
12 Not like Cain, who murdered his brother Abel out of evil.
Why did Cain murder him? Because Cain’s works were evil.
The works of his brother Abel were proper.

John wrote this right after he defined sin as violating the Law. Parts of the Law are still totally valid. (The ritual sacrifice and ritual cleanliness parts are redundant, and the rules for native Israelis and Israel’s descendants don’t apply to nonresidents and gentiles.) Following those valid parts is still what God expects of a saved people: Now that we belong to Jesus, be like Jesus. He didn’t sin; we shouldn’t sin.

So John went on to say his readers shouldn’t let themselves get tricked into thinking otherwise. ’Cause plenty of us have been deceiving ourselves for years. Like the Christians who are anti-Law, who think Jesus nullified God’s Old Testament commands and therefore nothing’s a sin anymore. John cuts right through this rubbish: If you don’t resist sin, if you don’t behave as God’s children ought, you’re not one of his children. “Everyone reborn by God doesn’t do sin.” 1Jn 3.9 He doesn’t, so we shouldn’t.

No, this doesn’t mean Christians never ever sin. Of course we do. Hence grace. The proper idea, reflected in some translations, is N.T. Wright’s “Everyone who is fathered by God does not go on sinning.” 1Jn 3.8 NTE We don’t continue in a lifestyle of sin; we don’t wanna live that way. We want to follow Jesus!

And people who legitimately wanna follow Jesus, crack open their bibles and find out what Jesus taught so we can follow him. What they’ll invariably find is Jesus took the Law, expounded upon it, and closed all the Pharisee loopholes. We’re not to follow the letter of the Law, like any lawyer, politician, or activist judge; we don’t twist it till it suits us. We’re to follow the original intent of the Law, “the spirit of the Law,” the will of the One who gave it. How does Jesus interpret it? ’Cause we do that.

Those who don’t really wanna follow Jesus, but only look like they do: They prefer loopholes. The bigger the better. They like to quote “Christ is the end of the Law,” Ro 10.4 but they don’t mean, as Paul does, that Christ expresses it better than the Law does itself; they mean Christ ended it. Or “He taketh away the first [Law], that he may establish the second [Law],” He 10.9 not just updating the old covenant with the new, but abolishing it altogether, so that breaking the Law is no longer sin, 1 John 3.4—

1 John 3.4 KWL
Everyone who commits sin also commits an act against the Law.

—notwithstanding.

No, this passage isn’t about perfectionism either. John isn’t claiming Christians don’t sin anymore. He already objected to that idea in chapter 1. What he’s stating, is real Christians try not to sin. We no longer consider a lifestyle of sin to be acceptable. “Not perfect, just forgiven” simply isn’t good enough! We have God’s seed in us, the Holy Spirit within us, leading us away from sin and selfishness, and towards Jesus. If we’re following him, we recognize sin is the opposite direction. We don’t make excuses for it any longer!

And if we do make excuses for it… well we’re not God’s children. Really we’re Satan’s.

Children of the devil.

I translated John a bit literally: Ἀπ̓ ἀρχῆς ὁ διάβολος ἁμαρτάνει/ap arhís o diávolos amartánei, “from [the] start, the devil sins.” John used present tense, not past; not aorist. The devil sins now.

Yeah, this isn’t how this verse has been traditionally interpreted. Most translators tend to put it in past tense:

  • KJV “…for the devil sinneth from the beginning.”
  • CSB, NKJV “…for the devil has sinned from the beginning.”
  • ESV, ISV, NIV, NRSV “…because the devil has been sinning from the beginning.”
  • GNT “…because the Devil has sinned from the very beginning.”
  • NLT “…who has been sinning since the beginning.”

This is one of those instances where Christian theology has bent our interpretation of the bible, rather than reading the text itself and beginning from there. John clearly wrote in present tense, but translators keep throwing it into past tense because they keep fixating on the story of the Fall: At the beginning of history, either before Adam was created or shortly after, Satan must’ve revolted against God and got thrown to earth, Rv 12.7-9 because here he is in paradise, in the form of a serpent, tempting Eve. Ge 3.1-5

So when your average translator reads ap arhís/“from [the] start,” their brains immediately leap to that start, and adjust the verb tense accordingly. And incorrectly. They get us to miss an important truth about how temptation works.

Don’t get the wrong idea: When we humans sin, that’s on us. We make the decision to do wrong. Blaming the devil doesn’t cut it. Eve tried it, Ge 3.13 and it didn’t work then either. We have free will; we never have to sin. God always provides his kids a sin-free option.

But when we sin, we usually adopt an excuse. Whatever loophole justifies us, excuses us, blames someone else, makes us feel we’re an exception to the rule, makes us feel like the good guy in the story. “Jesus did away with the Law,” or “I simply didn’t see any other option; I had to choose the lesser evil,” or “I’m not trying to achieve salvation by works,” or “I’m not a legalist,” or whatever. None of these excuses are new; they’ve been around forever. They predate John.

Guess where every last one of ’em originated? Duh; Satan.

Satan doesn’t have to actually be there, at the moment of temptation, nudging us to do evil. (Nor any other devil. Satan’s not omnipresent, remember? If you’re tempted by a devil, it’s not necessarily the devil—who’s probably tempting somebody more important.) But Satan set up all the common human arguments for why we’re not all that bad. Those arguments do its job for it. Once we humans embed the excuses in our heads, we can pretty much sin on autopilot. Satan sins first; we sin thereafter.

The bulk of the devil’s followers aren’t Satanists. They’re dupes, suckers, marks, the easily confused, the heavily prejudiced, the inattentive, the apathetic, the shallow thinkers, the gullible, the irrationally angry. They’re not using a lot of brainpower. They don’t need to. And they think their knee-jerk reactions, their gut instincts, are the right responses. Some of ’em even claim God put these reactions in ’em.

The devil ropes these suckers into believing there’s some sort of Christian foundation for the evil they do in Jesus’s name. Next, the sucker sins. Both bear responsibility for the sin. But here, John forewarns the Christian: Don’t let anyone deceive you. Proper Christians follow Jesus and his Law. False Christians, the devil’s unwitting followers, don’t.

Loving one another, as opposed to murdering one another.

When people read the Cain and Abel story, where the first murder took place between the first brothers, Ge 4.1-16 they constantly skip over the fact Cain heard God. And talked with him. And heard God’s answers. Cain heard God better than many Christians nowadays hear God. And no, this isn’t because these were prehistoric bible times, when just anybody could hear God: This is because Cain and God were much closer than, sad to say, many Christians and our God. Yeah, Cain murdered his brother. That was evil. Even so. Moses and David were murderers; Paul got people killed. Nobody’s irredeemable. Not even Cain.

John pointed to the story of the first murder, ’cause the writers of the scriptures regularly liked to point out hate leads to murder. Mk 7.21, Ro 1.29, Jm 2.11, 4.2 In our day murder is illegal, and prosecuted by the state… unless cops do it, but that’s a tangent let’s not go down today. In John’s day murder was also illegal, but there were no prosecutors: If you wanted a murderer dealt with, the victim’s family had to have influence with the government. Otherwise they’d get away with it—and a lot of murderers did. Some of those murderers were even right there in the church.

Murder’s a heinous crime, and for that reason murderers go out of their way to justify themselves. Nowadays it’s self-defense, or the victim “got what’s coming to them,” or otherwise karmically deserved it. The murderer was simply restoring balance to the universe. Life for a life, Dt 19.21 or something they consider just as valuable as life… like their honor, or their personal code of ethics, which assigns the death penalty to all sorts of offenses.

Because of how often murder took place in the first century, the bible’s various statements against murder aren’t just hypothetical worst-case scenarios. They aren’t just subtle reminders of how hate and murder are connected. Mt 5.21-22 The two are connected. People back then murdered their enemies. In some countries people still murder their enemies. Warlords and dictators do. Even criminals in our country do. And think they’re right to… and need to be reminded they’re not. Especially when they consider themselves Christian, as (believe it or not) some ganglords do.

Sheltered American Christians tend to reinterpret the anti-murder sentiments in the bible, to reflect their world where murder seldom happens. Hence “don’t murder them in your heart”—don’t hate anyone so much, it’s like they’re dead to you. Yeah, that’s one way to look at it too. We shouldn’t hate anyone that much. But John wrote to a culture where murder isn’t a metaphor, murder isn’t hypothetical. People murdered Christians for being Christian. And in a heat of passion, anybody might murder someone else, exactly like Cain had. We all have it in us to do something just as extreme, just as regrettable. Don’t delude yourself.

’Cause it’s the self-deluded who usually wind up becoming—to their great surprise and horror—murderers. If you know you have a temper, no matter how successful you’ve been thus far at keeping it under control, take steps to make sure it never escapes you. Those who tell themselves, “No; I never would; people are naturally good” never take such steps… and sometimes become the folks who “snap,” of whom everybody later says, “I never knew she had it in her.”

We should love one another, and reject hate in all its forms. Hate’s typically the product of sin. Cain’s works were evil because he refused to recognize the danger in him, even though God warned him his sin “has stretched out for you.” Ge 4.7 He was in denial, and the consequences of his denial were terrible. It could happen to us too. Sin stretches out for all of us.

Mammonists versus God.

by K.W. Leslie, 23 July

Luke 16.8-15.

the Shrewd Butler Story, Jesus commended the butler for using his boss’s money to generate goodwill instead of profits, and his moral was for his followers to do likewise.

Mammonists stumble all over this story. To them the point of money isn’t to use it as a resource, but to accumulate it and gain power by it. To their minds the butler was completely untrustworthy. He was already accused of squandering it, Lk 16.1 and then he turned round and deliberately squandered it by changing his boss’s debtors’ receipts. Lk 16.5-7 He made it look like he collected more money than he actually had; like his boss was owed less than he truly was; and he did it to benefit himself instead of enriching his boss—which was his job, wasn’t it? He embezzled from his boss. He stole. He’s a thief. There’s a command against theft in the bible somewhere; it’s one of the bigger ones!

So Mammonists really don’t know what to do with Jesus commending this butler… except to conclude, “I guess Jesus appreciates shrewdness over goodness.”

No he doesn’t. As I pointed out when I dealt with the story, the butler had full authority over his boss’s estate, and could legitimately do whatever he wished with it. Including forgive debts. He stole nothing. He embezzled nothing. It might be improper, ’cause you certainly can’t afford to do such things all the time. But it wasn’t sin.

…Well, unless losing money is a sin. And to Mammonists, that’s an egregious sin. Isn’t wise at all. Indicates you’re not worthy of having money in the first place, and deserve to lose it all. (There’s a lot of karma-based thinking in Mammonism, ’cause it helps Mammonists justify the iffy things they do to gain and hoard wealth.)

Jesus isn’t Mammonist, and neither are the butler and his boss in the story. They rightly recognize money as a resource, not a raison d’être. It’s a means to an end; it’s not the end itself. By contrast Mammonists figure it is the goal, and the Christians among ’em figure the whole point of turning to Jesus is so we can gain stuff. Mansions in New Jerusalem. Golden crowns full of jewels. Treasures in heaven, which they constantly imagine as material possessions they get to keep forever. And, if they’re into the prosperity gospel, they can even tap into some of that wealth now.

As a non-Mammonist, the plutocrat in the story recognized money—even “filthy lucre,” as I translated τῷ ἀδίκῳ μαμωνᾷ/to adíko mamoná (KJV “the unrighteous mammon”) —is here today, gone tomorrow. Friends can be just as transitory, but when friendship is done right, it doesn’t have to be. And the goodwill his butler generated with his debtors, was gonna come in handy in future—and not just for the butler. It was a wise move, and a wise boss would keep such a guy around.

Luke 16.8-9 KWL
8 “The butler’s master praised the impropriety, for the butler acted shrewdly,
for the children of this age are more shrewd than the children of light of the same generation.
9 I tell you, make yourselves friends out of improper mammon,
so when it runs out, they might take you into their great houses.”

“Their great houses” is how I rendered τὰς αἰωνίους σκηνάς./tas eoníus skinás, “the eternal tents” (KJV “everlasting habitations”). Y’get many Christians who insist it’s about God accepting us into heaven—despite a plural they letting you into plural tents—or the idea that once we get to New Jerusalem, we’re greeted by all the needy people we’ve helped. But properly it’s a euphemism for old money, for great families who’ve been indirectly running the country forever, and they’re the very best friends to have whenever we run afoul of temporal political leaders. That is what the butler was thinking of when he came up with his scheme: He wanted to be taken in by some other plutocrat. Lk 16.4 And it’d be just as shrewd of us Christians to have a few plutocrats in our corner.

Can we handle money? Or really anything important?

Of course Jesus had more to say on the subject of money, and continued:

Luke 16.10-13 KWL
10 “Trustworthy in little things means trustworthy in big things.
Improper in little things means improper in big things.
11 So when you’re not trustworthy with filthy lucre, who will trust you with truth?
12 If you’re not trustworthy with another’s things, who will give you your own things?
13 No slave is able to be a slave to two masters: Either they’ll hate one and love the other,
or look up to one and down on the other: Can’t be a slave to God and Mammon.”

Pharisee logicians taught the principle of light and heavy (Hebrew קַל וחומר/qal v’khomér), which westerners call the argumentum a fortiori, “argument from the stronger [point].” Jesus’s statement “Trustworthy in little things means trustworthy in big things” is a great example of it: If it’s true in a small instance, in a simple case, it’s just as true (and way more consequential) in a big instance, in a complicated situation. If the butler can’t be trusted with money, he can’t be trusted anywhere. If we can’t be trusted with money, we can’t be trusted anywhere.

Mammonists regularly misinterpret this to say we oughta have our financial houses in order. And by “in order,” they mean profitable. We oughta reduce our unnecessary expenses, ’cause they’re bleeding us dry. We oughta eliminate debt, ’cause the interest payments are largely keeping us in debt. Cut up those credit cards! Buy, not rent. Buy used instead of new. Buy generics instead of name-brand items. Use coupons. Squeeze those pennies till Lincoln farts.

Um… was what the butler did profitable? No.

“But in the long run it is,” Mammonists sometimes claim: The goodwill generated by forgiving a few debts, means people are more likely to do business with the boss in future. They’ll think, “He knocked off a few jars of oil from my debt, so I kinda owe him one,” or that maybe he’ll give them another surprise discount in the future. More business, more profits. Shrewd.

And again, not what the butler did. He wasn’t thinking of his boss’s reputation, but his own. He wanted people to think well of him—and if they thought well of his boss instead of him, and didn’t even think of him at all, his scheme would’ve failed. He was offering the debt reduction, not his boss. Spin it all you like into it being good business, good public relations. But you’d be missing the point.

Likewise if you take the other extreme and conclude the butler wasn’t trustworthy. He’d only be untrustworthy if he lied to his boss. He didn’t. His boss would know about the scheme, ’cause it’d be kinda obvious: His debtors had marked up the receipts. Lk 16.5-7 There was no such thing as correction fluid back then: The old amount would be crossed out on the papyrus, and the new one written down. (Or, if they wastefully used parchment for bookkeeping, the old amount was scratched off—but still visible.) Didn’t take a genius to figure out what had happened—and the boss immediately recognized what was up, and found it clever.

Lastly Jesus’s comment about not being a slave to both God and Mammon. I’ve commented more than once how Americans are kinda determined to prove Jesus wrong. We’ve done a lousy job of it so far. We’ve mostly just reimagined Jesus till the version of him we follow approves of all our greed and materialism. But at that point we’re not following Jesus anymore; just our own desires, mainly our desire for wealth.

Mammonist Pharisees.

No surprise, the Pharisees in Jesus’s audience balked at this lesson. Same as Christians do nowadays—the difference being that Christians pretend to follow Jesus anyway. Pharisees figured they could take or leave him, and in this case they figured they could even mock him.

Luke 16.14-15 KWL
14 Hearing these things, the silver-loving Pharisees mocked Jesus.
15 Jesus told them, “You justify yourselves before people—and God knows your hearts.
Those who are exalted before people, are disgusting before God.”

Sounds kinda rude of Jesus, but knowing his character, we know the reason he said this was not to slam his hecklers. It was to warn ’em of reality: Their wealth is not the indication of God’s approval they believed it to be. Some people are wealthy because God enriches ’em. The rest are wealthy because they stole it, inherited it, are idiots who were given wealth by other idiots (but then again I did just mention inheritance), or they got it through dumb luck. Institutional biases keep certain groups poor, and of course the wealthy have rigged things so they can keep their wealth. There’s a lot of unfairness in the system, and people have been tricked into thinking nothing but hard work can overcome it.

But like Jesus said, God knows our hearts. Exalting ourselves in order to justify our wealth, or to justify materialism, or to claim our riches make us better and worthier and greater: God finds it disgusting. Not just because Mammonism is idolatry; because it blinds us to all the sins we commit so we can hold onto our stuff, and put it ahead of God’s kingdom.

The “prosperity gospel”: Mammonism disguised as Christianity.

by K.W. Leslie, 21 July
PROSPERITY GOSPEL prɑs'spɛr.ə.di 'gɑs.spəl noun. The good news that God doesn’t just want to save his people, but bless us materially.

That’s not an ironic definition, folks. That’s legitimately how the prosperity gospel is defined by those who proclaim it. God doesn’t just want us to come live in heaven’s kingdom with him. As we’re headed thataway, he wants us to be materially successful and comfortable.

For totally legitimate reasons, they claim. Remember when Moses was advising the Hebrews to follow the Law in Deuteronomy, and how he said part of the blessings they’d receive for doing so would be material? Oh you don’t remember that bit? Fine; I’ll quote it.

Deuteronomy 28.1-13 KWL
1 “If you happen to listen to your LORD God’s voice,
so as to observe and do every command I instruct you about today,
your LORD God will give you power over every country on earth:
2 All these blessings will come to you and overwhelm you, for you listened to your LORD God’s voice.
3 You’ll be blessed in city, field, 4 the fruit of your belly, the fruit of the ground,
and the fruit of your animals—what your cattle births, or your flocks produce.
5 You’ll be blessed in breadbasket, in yeast; 6 when you enter, when you leave.
7 The LORD will have your enemies which rise against you be struck down in front of you.
They’ll come at you from one direction, and run away from you in seven.
8 The LORD will teach you about blessing in your storehouses, in everything you undertake.
He’ll bless you in the land your LORD God gives you.
9 The LORD will raise you to himself: A holy people, as he swore you’d become.
So observe your LORD God’s commands. Walk in his ways.
10 All the earth’s peoples will see you call upon the LORD’s name, and fear you.
11 The LORD will give you a good surplus, fruit of your belly, beasts, and your ground,
in the land the LORD swore to give your ancestors.
12 The LORD will open his good, heavenly treasury for you:
He’ll give rain to your land in its season. He’ll hand over every deed.
Many nations will owe you, and you’ll never borrow.
13 The LORD makes you the head, not the tail. You’ll go upward, not downward.
So listen to your LORD God’s commands. Observe and do what I’m instructing you today.
Don’t dismiss any words I command you today. Don’t go right or left, to follow or serve other gods.

This passage was addressed to the ancient Hebrews, and applies to whether they as a nation followed the Law in the land he gave ’em. Does it apply to present-day gentiles, not as nations but individuals, who live in all sorts of other lands, Christian or not?

Well, the prosperity-gospel folks certainly believe so. This, they figure, is why God’s made the predominantly-Christian United States so profoundly rich. (Ignoring the fact we’re actually up to our eyeballs in debt, and only look rich. We borrowed our riches.) So if they individually follow God’s commands, refuse to turn right or left away from them, and serve no other gods but the LORD, they’re counting on God blessing them with growth and surplus.

Well… okay, they don’t always figure they gotta follow God’s commands necessarily. But if they follow God’s general principles, and believe really hard, they expect God’ll make ’em prosperous just the same.

Well… okay not all God’s general principles. Plenty of them have no problem with being as dishonest, covetous, and promiscuous as any pagan. They’re kinda focused on a few principles. Namely it’s these three:

  • ACT LIKE GOOD CHRISTIANS. In public, anyway. God wants to make his people rich so that pagans’ll get jealous and wanna become Christian. But it doesn’t work when his people don’t act Christian. So behave yourselves! Quit sinning. Get rid of the negative attitudes, and let everything which comes from your mouth be encouraging and confident.
  • GIVE, AND IT’LL BE GIVEN YOU. Loosely based on Jesus’s teaching about generosity Lk 6.38 but only applied to giving to one’s church. If you give sacrificially large amounts to your church, God’ll reward you tenfold. Or more, depending on the preacher. But giving to the needy isn’t so necessary. God doesn’t wanna give them wealth unless they practice these principles, so no going around him, okay?
  • NEVER EVER DOUBT. Unless you wanna lose your blessing, don’t ever, ever question prosperity beliefs. Not in your mind, not in public, not ever. You gotta believe, and keep believing, that God’s gonna enrich you. Even when he doesn’t. Even when he hasn’t for years or decades.

Stick to these three principles, and watch the riches come pouring in. Guaranteed.

After all, look at the preacher. He follows these principles, and as a result, his church is flush with cash, he has a seven-figure income, he has a Bentley and a Gulfstream and a really nice house, he wears expensive suits and gold jewelry—he’s been blessed! Follow his example, and you’ll be blessed too.

If this sounds like a giant scam to you, that’s because of course it’s a scam.

Stuck in the scam.

And it’s a very-well crafted scam too. It’s had about three centuries of development and fine-tuning, as Americans tried to figure out how to reconcile our riches, or our mad pursuit of riches, with Christ’s teachings.

Since a lot of Pentecostals have adopted it, a number of people think we came up with it. Nah; for a while it used to be called the health-and-wealth gospel, and that predates the Pentecostal movement by a century. But Pentecostals have been pioneers in multimedia, which is why a lot of Christian TV and radio shows are Pentecostal—and of course, all the health-and-wealth preachers who happen to have TV and radio shows, also happen to be Pentecostal.

Like most scams, it works great for the person on top. The pastors who preach prosperity are frequently gonna be prosperous once everybody starts giving to their ministries—and, they hope, giving a lot to their ministries. Way more than the traditional 10 percent; sometimes as much as 60 percent. I’m serious.

It’s intentionally designed to discourage questions and criticism. If you’re legitimately wondering how these “promises” of wealth work, considering their proof texts don’t apply to present circumstances at all, you’re gonna be condemned and rebuked by both the leaders of these churches, and by the people who are striving for prosperity, for your “negativity” and doubt. Even though it’s exactly the right kind of doubt. You’ll be told your doubts cancel out your blessings; you’ll never be prosperous so long that you question the system. And some of ’em are a little worried your negativity might affect them—that if God decides to smite you, he might accidentally hit them too. So quit doing that!

It’s unintentionally designed to encourage undisciplined financial behavior. People imagine their windfall from God is gonna arrive any day now, so they don’t plan ahead. There’s nothing in the savings account. The credit cards are maxed out. They’re already buying all the accoutrements of wealth. They got that ridiculous mortgage and that ridiculous second mortgage. America’s in debt to its eyeballs; their debt level would be up to the eyeballs of someone standing on their shoulders.

Undisciplined financial behavior also extends to their churches. They give loads of money, but pay no attention to how the church, its board, and its leadership handles the money. The pastor’s salary is wholly inappropriate for any person who runs a nonprofit. The pastor’s wholly unnecessary entourage is also well-paid… but most of the projects they’re working on were invented so they could have something to do, and justify their salaries. The church gives far too little to charity, benevolence, and missions. Large sums of money are regularly wasted on frills and perquisites.

The system is also designed to encourage hypocrisy. ’Cause you gotta look good! But you don’t necessarily gotta be good.

If you’re wondering how people can fall for this scam, you gotta remember things look very different from their point of view. Every Christian in their circle has likewise fallen for this scam. So its theology and practice appear to be, as far as they can tell, “normal.” Since they don’t know how to look at the scriptures in context, as far as they can tell the proof texts are totally solid: Isn’t this what every true Christian is supposed to believe? So those folks who claim prosperity teaching is bunk: They’re the ones who’ve been scammed. They’re doomed to live without victory, without prosperity, without success, because of their negative, pessimistic mindset. Of course they don’t believe in a gospel of wealth; at this rate they’re never gonna see wealth.

Yeah, it’s pretty cultlike. So much so, certain Christians claim the prosperity gospel is heresy. But technically they’re not heretics. Prosperity churches (unless they’re oneness churches; some of ’em are) don’t really teach anything contrary to the creeds.

Well, unless you count the fact they’re worshiping Mammon instead of Jesus.

Well they are.

Mammonism is of course the worship of wealth. We call wealth “Mammon” because it’s a convenient way of making it crystal clear we’re talking about idolatry. In the United States, where we’re taught every American has the potential of gaining great wealth, Mammon’s a popular god: Americans devote our lives to getting rich, by hook or by crook; by compromising every other thing we claim to believe in, because everything else takes a back seat to wealth acquisition: Friends, morals, family, even our own freedom. Even, ironically, our own wealth.

And if people identify themselves as Christian, that’s often gonna take a back seat to wealth acquisition too. We’re gonna join a stingy church, which doesn’t give, and doesn’t expect us to give either. Or we’re gonna join a prosperity church, which demands we give, but promises God’ll pay us back in bucketloads. As a reward for our trust and faithfulness (and our silence when we discover it has problems), we’re told God will give us full, unrestricted access to Mammon. All the Mammon we can eat, and rub all over our bodies.

In this way God gets turned into a means to an end. The end, the true object of worship, would therefore be Mammon. We’re supposed to follow God because we want God; we wanna be with him in his kingdom forever. Not because we want mansions, streets of gold, riches, health, and comfort. Not because we expect that stuff in the next age, nor because we’re told we can have that stuff in this age. If you’re following God because you want peace, you’re unintentionally worshiping peace; if you want heaven, you’re worshiping heaven; if it’s ultimately about wealth, you’ve embraced Mammon.

Whoops.

Prosperity-gospel folks are entirely sure this isn’t true: They don’t worship wealth; they worship God! Who’s promised them wealth. And if he never comes through for them with the wealth, they’ll be disappointed, but they’re still gonna worship God. But here’s the thing: They’re entirely sure he will come through for them with the wealth. Maybe, in their heart of hearts, they realize he won’t pony up the dough in this age. But after they’re resurrected, after they’re shown their new home in New Jerusalem, they’re expecting the nicest of mansions. It’ll come eventually. It’s just they figure it’ll come much sooner than that.

So to their minds, wealth and God are a package deal: You get God, you get prosperity. You get the LORD, you get Mammon. Six of one, a half-dozen of the other. Jesus said we can’t serve both God and Mammon, Mt 6.24, Lk 16.13 but prosperity gospel folks figure why serve it when God’ll just give it to us, free? And thus we sorta can serve both God and Mammon. In your face, Jesus!

Okay, that “in your face, Jesus” bit is a lot more blatant than prosperity-gospel folks are willing to be. Instead they’ll just quietly undermine the gospel of Christ Jesus by adopting various views which run contrary to his teachings, but which suit the prosperity gospel just fine.

Disrespecting the needy.

Animals fight for survival and supremacy. The animals which win get to pass down their genes, and the animals which lose, don’t. Charles Darwin figured this was how evolution works: The better genes and traits survive, and improve the species. Capitalists figure the marketplace and workforce works the same way, and call this social Darwinism.

Here’s the thing: In nature, the better genes and traits don’t always survive. Ec 9.11 Quite frequently dumb luck, not survival of the fittest, is how things work. And in the marketplace and workforce, people likewise beat the competition through dumb luck. Or by cheating; there’s nepotism, bribery, blackmail, lowballing the competition, insider trading, rules violation, various unfair advantages, various disadvantages like institutional racism, sexism, ageism, and prejudices against the disabled or the previously incarcerated.

The prosperity gospel claims the only reason you’re needy is because you don’t believe hard enough. The only reason you’re poor, sick, disadvantaged, or in any way not successful nor prosperous, is all your fault. Jesus claimed the good news is for the poor, Lk 4.18 and the prosperity gospel would agree—but with a very different spin on Jesus’s meaning. The good news is for the poor only when you believe really hard. Otherwise it’s really not.

So when people actually are needy, or become needy—a hurricane floods a city, or a tornado or earthquake knocks its buildings down, or a volcano burns ’em away—the prosperity gospel really has nothing to say to such people. According to them, bad stuff doesn’t happen to God’s people. When it does, they can’t really be God’s people, can they? Not anymore, at least; they must be sinning. They stopped believing. Somehow they’re deficient, so God took their stuff away. (Like he did Job—but they consider Job a special exception to teach a special lesson.)

This blame-the-needy-for-being-needy mentality is a very old one. The Pharisees had it, which is why they were so quick to dismiss the guy born blind whom Jesus cured. Jn 9.34 Jesus’s students had picked some of it up from the Pharisees, which is why they initially asked Jesus whether the guy was blind because he or his parents sinned. Jn 9.2 Jesus had to correct them, Jn 9.3 because while we create a lot of our own luck, some of it we don’t. Some of it is just plain meaningless.

But the true gospel is that God loves the needy. That he came to meet those needs.

Prosperity-gospel folks suck at being aid and comfort to the needy. Not that some of ’em don’t try; that despite what their churches and preachers claim, they do know enough of Jesus’s teachings to recognize they need to be generous to everyone, and love everyone regardless of merit, just like their Father. They may not realize the practice of this love violates every principle of the prosperity gospel—that you’re supposed to merit God’s riches by believing really hard!—but it’d seem they follow Jesus a lot more than their teachers do.

And this is the route we need to take when we’re correcting the people who believe in the prosperity gospel: Emphasize the needy. God cares about the needy. They care about the needy. So what’s the deal with a belief system which condemns the needy?

Worshiping Mammon instead of Jesus.

by K.W. Leslie, 20 July

Matthew 6.24, Luke 16.13.

Lately I’ve been seeing a meme on social media, warning people about what might happen if society goes cashless. Some of the memes claim Dave Ramsey wrote it; he did not. Like most memes which go viral pretty quickly, it’s meant to scare people. And since it plays right into many a Christian’s fears about the End Times, of course Christians have been spreading it too.

My comment after yet another friend posted it on Facebook: “Isn’t it funny? The first thing Christians worry about when the Beast comes… is Mammon.”

Mammonism is the worship of wealth, money, material possessions, and the joy of pursuing all that stuff. Our word Mammon comes from something Jesus taught in his Sermon on the Mount, repeated in Luke. I’ll quote both variants.

Matthew 6.24 KWL
“Nobody’s able to be a slave to two masters: Either they’ll hate one and love the other,
or look up to one and down on the other: Can’t be a slave to God and Mammon.”
 
Luke 16.13 KWL
“No slave is able to be a slave to two masters: Either they’ll hate one and love the other,
or look up to one and down on the other: Can’t be a slave to God and Mammon.”

A few current translations drop the reference to Mammon and translate this verse, “You cannot serve both God and money” (GNB, NIV, NLT), or “You cannot serve God and wealth” (NASB, NRSV). Thing is, μαμωνᾷ/mammoná isn’t the Greek word for money; that’d be ἀργύριον/argýrion, literally “silver.” Nor the word for wealth; that’d be χρῆμα/hríma, “thing of value.” Mammoná is actually an Aramaic word with a Greek ending tacked on—as if it’s an Aramaic name. Hence people extrapolated the idea Mammon is a person, and since Jesus says you can’t serve this person as well as God, it must therefore be another god.

A false god of course. But some god which competes with the LORD for our devotion. And since the Aramaic מַמוֹן/mamón is a cognate of the Hebrew מַטְמוֹן/matmón, “secret riches,” people imagine Mammon is therefore be a god of riches, wealth, or money.

In Luke when Jesus made this statement, he’d just told the Shrewd Butler Story. Maybe you remember it; maybe not, ’cause pastors hesitate to teach on it, ’cause Jesus straight-up praises a guy who’s widely seen as an embezzler. In it, a butler made friends by undercharging his boss’s debtors. Lk 16.1-9 Jesus’s moral: “Make yourselves friends with your improper mammon.” Lk 16.9 In response, the Pharisees who heard the story rejected it, ’cause they were φιλάργυροι/filiárgyri, “silver-lovers.” Lk 16.14

So is Mammon a money god? Or simply Jesus’s personification of money? Or a mistranslation?

Mammon’s a person?

First of all, there’s nothing in ancient literature about the god Mammon. Seriously, nothing.

The Mishna is a collection of what second-century Pharisees taught—and this’d include some things first-century Pharisees taught, so it’s a useful insight into what Jesus dealt with. When the Aramaic word mamón came up in the Mishna, Pharisees meant money. When we’re taught to love the LORD with all our might, Dt 6.5 the Pharisees said it also means with all our mamón. Berakot 9.5 They sorta equated might with wealth—same as we might do. But they didn’t think of it as a person or god. Merely a power.

Archaeologists have dug up nothing about Mammon in Israel and ancient Aramaic-speaking territories. That’s not to say one of ’em won’t discover something someday. But till something gets found, all our talk about the god Mammon, all of it, is guesswork. The ancients may have never worshiped any such god as Mammon. We’re just extrapolating all of it from Jesus’s lesson.

But this sure hasn’t stopped us Christians from extrapolating away. The mind can’t handle gaps in our knowledge, and has to fill it with something. Anything. Myths if necessary.

Christians invented all sorts of theories about who Mammon is. Fallen angel or demon. Elder god or spiritual force. What its motives and goals are. What it plots when we’re not looking. Popular Christian mythology (namely The Faerie Queene, The Divine Comedy, and Paradise Lost) include Mammon as one of the demons under Satan. Our saints invented complicated theologies about where it fits into the devils’ hierarchy. Whole books were written. Whole industries were created.

All of it guesswork. ’Cause our only source of Mammon’s existence is the Mishna and Jesus, and neither of ’em define it as anything but money.

Is there any legitimacy to any Christian teachings about Mammon? Depends on who’s teaching. Any preacher who claims, “We know from the bible that Mammon is a demon,” knows no such thing. “We know Mammon is headquartered in the financial capitals in the world”—no we don’t. “We know Mammon gains power every time the market goes up”—we do not.

We know money is a force. Educated economists understand how we create it. Yes, we humans create it. Money’s a human invention. We used to barter. Barter’s inefficient; how is a week’s labor precisely worth one goat? But if you can trade goods and labor for grams of copper, silver, gold, or platinum, now you can meter out how much you think something’s worth—and haggle over that price. Problem is, the value of precious metals is way too easy to manipulate, so governments switched it to pounds, dollars, yuan, yen, and our other currencies… and now people worry about how much governments manipulate its value. Not that the “cashless society” meme considers that… but I’m gonna stay off that tangent today.

People who don’t understand money, and how humans influence it, tend to imagine money has a life of its own. They attribute all sorts of special powers to it. Those are myths too. Stands to reason these same folks would imagine Mammon has a life of its own too. And that it controls money, not humans. And that we’re powerless against it—when in fact we humans have a great deal of power over everything we’ve created. Yeah, even when it gets away from us sometimes.

I’m gonna stop capitalizing the word now: I treat mammon as the same as money. It’s a spiritual force. Not a person. Yes it’s always possible there’s some no-foolin’ spiritual being which attached itself to money, and claims power over it. After all, there are humans who do the very same thing; why not a devil? But it has no more power over money than we do. It’s tricking us into thinking it’s mightier than it is. We can dismiss it, because through Christ we can easily defeat it. Any fear or awe we have of it is misplaced, and will simply get in the way of our understanding.

So… why’d Jesus personify it? Because Jesus is a poet, and this is what poets do. When the Greeks described ἔρος/éros, “passion,” as if it’s a being—one which could strike you with its arrows of love or hatred—it’s a clever way to describe just what passion kinda does. Problem is, the Greeks also began to mix up personification with personhood. They worshiped Éros as a god, same as they did Phóbos (φόβος/fóvos, “fear”) or Plútos (πλοῦτος/plútos, “wealth”—not the Latin god Pluto; notice the -S at the end). But that isn’t Jesus’s intent. Mammon’s not a competitor god. But it will, wrongly, get our worship—which only rightly belongs to the LORD.

Mammon doesn’t need to be a person before humans’ll worship it. A money manager doesn’t go to any Church of Mammon to pay homage to her god; she just goes to the office. A banker doesn’t need to pray to Mammon; accessing his online bank account serves the very same function. The ancients worshiped lifeless stone gods, and Mammonists just happen to worship lifeless wealth. Worshiping a dead god is just as wrong as worshiping a spirit; the pursuit of a fake deity will lead us just as far afield.

Yeah, every once in a while some Christian claims they had a prophetic dream in which Mammon is one of the archdemons, battling the holy angels with its silver arrows. Speaking for myself, very very few of the prophetic dreams I’ve heard are profound sources of revelation: It’s just their subconscious, telling ’em stuff we Christians already believe and sometimes take for granted… and shouldn’t. All the popular Christian myths get mixed up in their visions. The human subconscious is an unreliable messenger, so remember this whenever people insist on the validity of their prophetic dreams. Dreams regularly represent mammon as a being, but it’s still not. It’s a force. It’s money.

Money. It’s a gas.

Money isn’t material.

I know; pocket change is a physical thing. As are dollar bills. But these items only represent the actual value of money. That’s why people will pick up a quarter when they find one in the street, but they won’t pick up a washer. (Or even pennies anymore.) They’ll pick up a $10 bill, but not a napkin. Currency makes money appear tangible. In fact money is a cloud of mathematics, behavioral psychology, economic theory, and political theory. When we convert it into bills, coins, and bonds, we make it look tangible, solid, countable, and controllable. It may be countable and controllable, but it’s really not solid.

For the longest time, instead of bills and coins, humanity used metal, and we attached a specific value per gram to the metal. (Or in the States, value per ounce.) For this reason certain people wanna put us back on a gold and silver standard: They insist gold has a built-in value, and dollars don’t. But they’re wrong: Gold has no built-in value. ’Cause human psychology easily manipulates that value.

It’s actually way easier to manipulate the value with gold than dollars. One of the first events people called “Black Friday” was when Jay Gould and James Fisk tried to manipulate the New York gold market. They slowly bought up a lot of gold… then on 24 September 1869 they sold all of it, dumping it on the market. Thanks to the rules of supply and demand, too much gold caused people to value it less, and gold’s price plummeted. Gould and Fisk took advantage of the new cheap price of gold, and bought back more than they sold. And if we didn’t pass laws against this practice, people would do it again and again, just to enrich themselves. Other countries don’t pass such laws, which is why gold isn’t a safe investment: They could dump gold on the international market, and mess with the world’s prices for fun and profit.

Goldbugs insist such acts artificially alter gold’s price. ’Cause they refuse to believe gold doesn’t have a fixed value. Which only proves they’ve no idea how money works. All value is entirely based on belief: What do people imagine something’s worth? Same with trading cards, collectible toys, art, memorabilia, silver, gold, and the dollar.

The U.S. dollar is worth a dollar because the American people believe it buys a dollar’s worth of something. If we figure a dollar can buy a cup of coffee, that’s how far its power extends: Any coffee sold for more than a dollar is “too much,” or less than a dollar is “a bargain.” Everything gets tied to that dollar=coffee metric. We don’t even think about why they should be equal. Says who? Um… the government? The Federal Reserve? The economy? (Clearly not Starbucks.) The collective belief of every American?

Actually… yeah it is collective belief.

Gold works precisely the same way. Gold is worth $40 per gram because gold buyers believe it’s worth $40 per gram. When they don’t anymore, that’ll change. Might go up, or down. Claiming, “But its real value never changes” is the illusion: Everything’s real value changes. And you don’t want two speculators who don’t mind bankrupting the world, wielding the power to make those changes so they can enrich themselves. That’s why we abandoned the gold standard.

Stocks are a more obvious example. A corporation might make no money, and hasn’t for years, but it’s an internet company, and people are convinced they should put their hopes (“put stock”) in internet companies, so its stock is outrageously overvalued. Some ninny on CNBC with a sound effects box said it’s worth a lot, so it is. Conversely another company might be really profitable, doing great, very stable, yet its stock value is low because stockholders think it should be inexpensive.

The collective belief of shareholders just happens to be far more volatile than that of every American. But even American faith and credit has its limits. When other things take greater priority than money, like food during a famine, humans will trade a decent pile of money for donkey heads and dove crap. 2Ki 6.25

So money isn’t material. And any force which isn’t material is spiritual.

I know, some folks are gonna object to my reducing things that way. In part because many pagans imagine material things are real, and spiritual things are not. And money’s real!—therefore it must somehow be material. But it’s not material. Yet it’s real. Therefore spiritual.

No, others will argue; it’s intellectual. It’s psychological. It’s conceptual. Pick any synonym with means “immaterial but real,” and they’d far rather use that word than “spiritual.” ’Cause that word “spiritual” bugs ’em, and they wanna strictly limit it to religious stuff. Stuff they don’t believe in. They believe in money; God’s another deal. If money is spiritual just like God is spiritual, perhaps they’ve gotta take another look at God… and they really don’t wanna.

If that’s your hangup, get over it. Spiritual is real. God is real. Stop treating religion as if you’re only pretending. This is substantial stuff.

And too often money has taken religion’s place. It’s why Jesus warned us about making a master of it. People look to money to save them! It solves their problems, achieves their dreams, Ec 10.19 secures their futures, buys their health, conquers their adversaries, gives them peace. Heck, if they can afford to be cryogenically frozen, it’ll even offer them an afterlife.

But like every false god, it destroys more than it gives, and all its promises are deceptions. The Beatles figured out money can’t buy you love. I joke sometimes, “No; but you can rent it.” Sadly, for a lot of people, renting will do.

In Jesus’s day: The opposite problem.

Back when Jesus first taught about mammon, it was to remind his students money is substantial. Y’see, they had the opposite problem from us: God was real, but money not so much.

First-century Palestine didn’t practice free-market capitalism. Back then the Roman Empire was on the gold standard, but gold wasn’t common enough for common people to use. (Hence the big parties they’d throw when you found a lost coin. Lk 15.8-10) Only the wealthy had actual coins. For everyone else, wealth was tied up in property: Land, slaves, animals, and personal possessions. They practiced barter-based theocratic feudalism: Everything ultimately belonged to their lord, i.e. the LORD. And every seven years the LORD decreed they’d cancel debts and free their slaves. Not all wealth would last.

God was more tangible to them than money. As he’s supposed to be.

Jesus taught about mammon because he wanted people to take money more seriously. Well, nowadays we do. Often too seriously. In fact our economic system is rigged in such a way, it’s no longer possible to follow the rules set out in the Law. Selling yourself into slavery to pay debts? On the up side, slavery’s illegal; on the down side, debt repayment might take the rest of your life. Debts aren’t cancelled every seven years. And when government takes part of our income to help the needy, same as the Hebrew priests did with tithes, conservatives scream bloody murder about socialism.

Every once in a while I hear of some Christian money-manager who holds a seminar, who claims he’ll teach you some biblical principles for dealing with wealth. I’ve been to a few. What they actually teach is free-market capitalism. (Not that there’s anything wrong with learning about capitalism; it is the system Americans live under.) The rest is about debt avoidance, based on various scriptures they quote out of context to support their ideas. Again, not that debt avoidance is a bad idea; it’s a really good idea. But what they teach about money, and mammon, come from free-market economics, not bible.

Economics in the bible were greatly different than economics today, so of course what these money-managers teach doesn’t wholly jibe with the bible. Problem is, it doesn’t always jibe with the parts of the bible which can apply to our culture. Generosity, fr’instance. Giving to the needy so we can have treasure in heaven. Mt 6.19-21 Giving to everyone who asks, and not turning people away. Mt 5.42 Money-managers don’t teach that. Instead they teach “stewardship”—a concept which they claim is biblical (and it does exist in the bible, Lk 16.1-13) but it’s not about giving; it’s about gathering. It’s about investing our money, and spending none of it, so that our pile of money will grow, so the power and security mammon could bring us will increase. It’s about storing up treasure on earth, disguised as “kingdom principles.” It’s part of the “prosperity gospel.”

True Christianity is forsaking everything, everything, to follow Jesus. When we spend too much time on wealth “stewardship,” rather than making God’s kingdom grow, we forget to be generous. We forget to take leaps of faith with our money: It’s not prudent to be foolish and wasteful, even if it’s for the kingdom’s sake. We trust our pile, instead of trusting the ultimate Owner of every pile, who can easily tap those other piles for our sake. We serve the wrong lord. And as Jesus said, we just can’t serve both.

But dammit, we Americans are convinced we can serve both if we try hard enough.

The Mammonist gospel.

A particularly American teaching—one popular among the poor, and one we’ve even exported to poor countries—is God doesn’t want his kids living lives of defeat. (Which is true.) He wants us to find success in everything we do. (Which is also true.) He wants us to be rich. (Wait a minute…)

Supposedly God wants us to have so much wealth it makes pagans jealous, and want to get in on this Christianity stuff so they too can become fat and comfortable. (Wait, God tells us not to covet, Dt 5.21 but it’s okay to use covetousness to spread his kingdom?) So to these folks, mammon isn’t God’s opponent or competitor. The love of money isn’t the root of many kinds of evil. 1Ti 6.10 On the contrary: Money is God’s tool, and money-love is God’s bait. It’s our reward for trusting him, following him, for giving money away to Christian charities or churches. God’s gonna open heaven’s windows and make it rain, baby. Make it rain!

This prosperity-gospel bushwa isn’t a new idea. The Pharisees believed in it too. It’s how the rich justified their many possessions… and their stinginess towards others. They were wealthy because God blessed them… and the poor had nothing because God didn’t bless them. Why? Well, they must’ve sinned or something. Some defect of character.

Properly this philosophy is called social Darwinism. Like Darwinism, everybody fights to survive, and the “fittest” do. The wealthy are the “fittest”—they struggled, came out on top, and deserve their wealth. Even if they inherited it, or if they stumbled into wealth through dumb luck: Those are just other forms of God’s blessing, claim the wealthy.

In bible times this was how Pharisees believed the world worked. It’s why Jesus’s students were floored when their Master informed them the rich are gonna have the darnedest time getting into the kingdom. Mk 10.23-27 To their minds, the rich were already in the kingdom—it’s why they were rich! But in this age, God gives people wealth for one and only one reason: To spread his kingdom. Not to grow our own. If we aren’t growing his kingdom, we may not even be in it. We’re worshiping mammon… but we call it “Jesus,” and pretend its power came from God.

Nope, prosperity gospel folks aren’t worshiping God. Really he’s a means to an end, and that end is wealth. They’re Mammonists. Whether they think God’s got a mansion and a crown waiting for them up in heaven, or they think God’s gonna get them a Bentley and an Apple Watch here on earth, they’re following him for the bling. They’re proclaiming their ideas to an impoverished world because hopeful Christians who believe their tripe will send them donations, and these contributions fund their lifestyle. They’re exploiting the poor, same as plutocrats who make 10,000 times what their underpaid employees do. They irritate God just as much.

Look, I have no problem with billionaires, or with preachers who make really good salaries. But like I said, God gives his people wealth so we can spread his kingdom. Hoarding it spreads nothing. And one of the surest signs we’re dealing with a Mammonist instead of a Christ-follower, is when people justify this sort of behavior. I’ve heard many a Mammonist misquote Jesus’s story of the Vineyard Employer, “Isn’t this my money, to do with as I please?” Mt 20.15 They ignore the reason the employer said this: To justify his generosity, not his miserliness. In Jesus’s culture, the only one who really owns everything is God. And it just so happens, the employer in Jesus’s story represents God. It is his money, to do with as he pleases—and it pleases him to be generous, and it pleases him when his children are likewise cheerful givers. 2Co 9.7

’Cause when we’re not, when we’re fruitless and tight-fisted, we’re likely not his children either. We’re mammon’s.