Part III

Chapter 9

The Bride -- Material Girl

Pop-singer Madonna, a few years ago, released a song called Material Girl. It was sung from the perspective of a blatant materialist openly admitting her motives were crass and purely hedonistic pleasure and gain. A lot of people were shocked by the bald selfishness Madonna expressed. They were used to singers masking their selfish sensuality with at least a cloak of decent motive. Even overt requests for sexual satisfaction are usually couched in terms of "because I love you" or promises of being "together forever." Songs devoted to material wealth are normally sarcastic or satiristic. This distancing from baser motives is a result of the lingering influence of the Judeo-Christian ethic which presupposes materialism to be an evil. However, Madonna's tune appears to have been an appeal to the rationale of the Epicurean philosophy. Not surprisingly, this song became quite popular -- as did the acceptance of its premise.

In the Church, blatant materialism is still frowned upon. Many American Christians are deeply offended by the crass materialism of the prosperity teaching. Yet, it is difficult for them to look in the mirror and see that the established "comfort zones" accepted under the American Dream Gospel amount to the same material philosophy -- just not as explicitly stated.

This American Dream Gospel passively accepts many of the material success markers placed by Middle American values. The importance of home ownership, college education, financial security (both current and future), established goals, self-sufficiency, approximate conformity to behavioral and appearance standards, and independence are stressed in ways both subtle and overt. I say "approximate" conformity because there is an emphasis in the Middle American values for independence -- just not too much of it. The value of independence itself, in this day, is recognized mostly as a right to rebel against godly standards (i.e., "independent" thinkers are those who do not accept the "old rules.").

There may some legitimate value to any of these, but many take a ranking that is far above their true import. Generally we have adopted -- and in some cases, helped form -- these values and place them near the top of the hierarchy.

But is college education of our children a worthy goal around which so much of our lives should be wrapped? This is an especially pertinent question when one considers that the majority of Christian students going off to college are converted away from the faith by heathen professors and the availability of powerful, sinful attractions. Even kids going to Christian colleges do not fare much better -- as some investigative journalists report. 1

And what would be the priority rating of home ownership to followers of the Son of Man who had no place to lay his head (Matthew 8: 20) and Whose followers sometimes had to live "in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground" (Hebrews 11: 38). The point is not that owning a home is some evil to be avoided, it is that our homes more often own us than the other way around. Even those who do not own a home have come to expect that this is some kind of required blessing for American Christians.

That attitude can be seen in so many other areas. We have placed the trust for our security in home ownership, our pension plan, social security, our education and abilities, our jobs, and our expanding circle of influence. We have become sufficient unto ourselves because of our wealth. All of these material things are "money" or gain in the Biblical sense -- in the sense that the love of these is the root of all kinds of evil.

We fear to be bold in our faith for fear of losing these things. There is a presumption that God owes us an ever-increasing or, at least, stable standard of living. I have had believers tell me that they dare not openly express their faith in word and deed for fear of losing their job (which God gave them) causing them to have to spend their children's college fund or their pension fund (which God also gave them). They have clearly expressed to me that, since God provided these things, He must intend for them to do whatever was necessary to protect them -- including submerging the gospel of the Kingdom beneath the Gospel of the American Dream.

This is materialism in its most insidious form. It adopts a cultural standard -- often one that is not inherently bad -- and inculcates it into the list of Christian virtues. In the American Church, materialism is often disguised under the virtue of "stewardship" -- a virtue noticeably missing from the catalogue of the fruit of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5.

"Do you know what the problem with the American Church is?" my Nigerian friend, Theophilus, said, "The Church has let the culture tell them what is right instead of the Bible telling the culture -- and the Church -- what is right."

I think this sums up much of why the American Church is in the shape it is in. We have been conformed (fashioned after and adapted to its external, superficial customs; Romans 12: 2 Amplified Version) to this American world and our actions and attitudes show it. We have adopted the birth control mentality and it has led to widespread abortion. We adopted the non-confrontational, non-judgmental teachings of modern psychology and it has led to practicing sinners despoiling the Church rolls (Jude 1: 12-13).

Money Madness

"For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil," 1 Timothy 6:10 says. And it is this love of money (gain) that seems to drive the American Church. The extravagant fundraising measures taken by churches to raise money betray several motives:

  1. Greed,

  2. Lack of trust in God to provide, and

  3. Acceptance of the world's standards of business practices and the "needs" of the Church.

Anyone might be able to cite a few examples of out-and-out slavering greed in the American Church. But greed often wears a more passive face. When, for example, the motive of an otherwise fine preacher is merely to bring home a paycheck and climb the denominational ladder, this is also greed. To treat one's Christianity as a mere job not only debases the faith but places it on the level of a business.

I have heard it said that the Church learned from the Romans to be a good organization, from the Germans to be a good doctrinal system, and from the Americans to be a good business. There is much truth to this.

Paul the apostle railed against those who saw "godliness as a means of gain." (1 Timothy 6: 5) On the surface, it is easy to see how this fits the blab-it-and-grab-it crowd, but its more proper interpretation, I believe, concerns those of us who cloak ourselves in religion as a means of attaining success. Whether as businessmen sporting fish symbols on our business cards or as Christian leaders who treat our ministries like a job, both stand under hot lights around this verse.

I think, however, that the larger problem in the American Church is that of trust. Often we lack the faith to believe that God can accomplish his work without money, without our church, and without us. As a result, we fall into the error of scrambling around grubbing for money to "do the work of the Lord."

We act as though God were unable to do His work unless we wring it out of the people -- even to the point of using some very shady methods. It becomes we who are in the driver's seat for reaching the goal we have decided God wants to reach -- and we who are ultimately responsible to squeeze the turnip for the last dime.

Yet, such huge ministries as those of Calvary Chapel, including world-wide radio Bible studies, tape lending library, television, and a huge church in Costa Mesa, California, have gone for years without even asking for money. The pastor, Chuck Smith, has simply said if the money stops coming in that God is probably trying to move him on to some other work. It is a refreshing -- if alien -- attitude in the Church.

And even this is not to condemn asking -- it is the method and mode of asking that is the problem.

Finally, we often have a rather expansive (and expensive) definition of "needs" which will include such oddities as carpeting in the church while unemployed congregants go without utilities or food.

These are issues the Church in America must examine.


Despite the show of concern for souls, many of the American Church's activities and our evangelism are motivated by philaguria -- the love of money. The goal is often to bring people into the church, not into the Church. "Church growth" not spiritual growth has become the watchword.

The attitude now is to give people what they want, not what they need. An extreme example was reported in the Wall Street Journal. The Second Baptist Church in Houston, Texas calls itself "Fellowship of Excitement." They feature a weight lifting room, a restaurant, pool tables, Broadway-style shows (complete with "Biblical" messages), an aerobics center, "mood lighting" in the sanctuary, catchy, fix-it sermons, basketball teams (three courts), Jacuzzis, an in-house cinema, and age-appropriate study groups with matching music. All this is to draw people to a place "that a totally godless, secular person can come to . . . and not feel threatened." Essentially, they are seeking young, self-centered, upper-class families willing to contribute money in exchange for padded crosses. 2

But if one thinks seriously about the gospel for a moment, unrepentant sinners should "feel threatened" by the truth. After all, their entire sinful lifestyle and their carnal natures are condemned to death by the Word of God. Their response to this "threat" will either be repentance or rejection. The Church should not fear, but rather embrace, a gospel that so challenges men.

Most readers are probably thinking, "My church doesn't have any of that stuff." But chances are your church operates on similar principles. Think for a minute of the attempts made by your church to "reach the neighborhood" or "bring new people in." Central to most of those efforts is an entertainment "bait" of some kind -- a play, music, a famous speaker/sports figure. The hope is to essentially trick people into coming and hearing a gospel plug at the end. Many churches do not address uncomfortable areas such as sin during Sunday services because they fear they will frighten possible recruits (I shudder to call them converts or disciples) away from God. Then the "gospel" presented under these circumstances is often an Antinomian "acceptance of Jesus as your personal savior" where the Lordship of Jesus is never clearly mentioned or even at issue. This travesty of a gospel is one that overlooks that the important event occurs not when you "accept Jesus" but when He accepts you.

But the American Church wishes to remove the offense inherent in the cross because it is a stumbling block to our projected church growth goals. The cross and the blood of Christ are mentioned only superficially -- if at all. "Taking care of your problems" has replaced "taking away your sins." The American Church has bought into both First Century errors about the gospel: The error of the Jews who were offended at the cross and the error of the gentiles who thought the cross was foolishness. (1 Corinthians 1: 23) The church mentioned above even "shun[s] crosses and steeples that might scare people off."

What is being overlooked is that the unsaved cannot be "scared away from" a God that they are already eternally separated from by their sin and unbelief. Their staying away from any church because of talk of sin only reveals an unrepentant heart. Until there is a confrontation between God, the sinner, and his sin -- with the cross as his only hope -- there is no benefit in having him "churched." It is a sheer detriment to get a man going to church and cleaning up his life if he never acknowledges his sin and believes upon Christ as Lord and Savior. This is one reason the American Church is so diluted -- it has received as brethren multitudes of unsaved "good" people.

The true goal of the Church is to draw souls to Christ through the gospel and our evident love one for another. After that we are to train all disciples to sacrificially live out the Word of God.

1 Timothy 1: 5 reads, "But the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and sincere faith. Church size has never been stated as a goal of a Biblical Church. It is, however, the goal of the American Church. The "unchurched" seem to be more a concern than the unsaved.

For the first 12 years of my walk with Christ, I was almost solely involved with a small home fellowship which met 3-4 times a week -- usually not on Sundays. A number of Christian friends regarded me as "unchurched" because I did not attend a regular church edifice (especially on Sunday) and seemed to equate my "unchurched" state with being unsaved altogether.

Expressed as "nickels and noses," the objective seems to be to get more money to bring in more people to get more money to bring in more people.

But "bringing in more people" is not the same as leading souls to Jesus. And bigger collections are no measure of spirituality.

Consider the Lilies, How They Toil

"They said to Moses, 'The people are bringing much more than enough for the construction work which the Lord commanded us to perform."

"So Moses issued a command and a proclamation was circulated throughout the camp, saying, 'Let neither man nor woman any longer perform work for the contributions of the sanctuary.' Thus the people were restrained from bringing any more. For the material they had was sufficient and more than enough for all the work, to perform it.'"

-- Exodus 36: 5-7

* * *

This passage describes a pastor's dream church. No money worries -- every project gladly funded by an eager congregation to the point where he needs to beg them to stop giving. But there is a key to this Scripture portion. The success of this fundraising was dependent upon "work which the Lord commanded us to perform." That is, God supplies the needs according to His work and to the extent that He desires. There are modern examples of this. Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, California, as mentioned earlier, has experienced this kind of God-generated giving.

However, to look at most ministries, Church leaders do not really believe this. We resort to gimmicks, tricks, and even fraud to raise funds for "the Lord's work."

We lean on tax deductions and other bonuses to elicit contributions. Gifts of used articles for charity are written off -- with Church blessing -- at full, new item value rations.

Perhaps the difference lies in where He and we draw the line between needs and wants.

Creeping Needs

Accustomed luxury becomes necessity. Human nature is such that former "wants," once realized, quickly become "needs." The standard of living in our vicinity does more to shape our concept of need than does the Standard of Life -- the Word.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us that our needs will be met if we seek first the kingdom of God -- those needs being food and clothing. Anybody notice the curious absence of "shelter" from the list? Some might argue that shelter is an extension of clothing in that it protects the body from the elements. I would be willing to grant this point for the sake of argument. But Paul the apostle noted the same short list if physical needs in 1 Timothy 6:8 saying, "And if we have food and covering (raiment), with these we shall be content."

"But, but . . ." I hear some of you sputter. Yet, the Word itself has listed your physical needs. The only question now is: What kind of food and clothing? Do we need three square meals combining all four food groups, deliciously prepared or will subsistence level nourishment suffice? Should our clothing be purely functional or tasteful and fashionable as well?

I think most would answer, "It doesn't matter," and that would be correct. But in the minds of most, that answer would -- in spirit -- mean that it does not matter that we have the full complement of meals or the fashionable clothing. It would, I believe, matter a great deal to most of us if we didn't have those things and were in the position of living with mere sufficiency.

And so it is with our churches. Do we need large auditoriums that are empty most of the time? Do we need carpet and padded pews? . . . flowers and candles? . . . stained glass and choir robes? Of course not.

I do not doubt that there is some justification for some of these, but none of them are "needs" except in the eyes of a worldly American culture. What's more, we adopt these "needs" at more and more extravagant levels every year. What started as a need for a large room to meet and worship eventually becomes a need for a striking architectural edifice with central heating and air conditioning, Sunday school rooms, and maybe a gym, all located on private property with lots of parking.

The culture, not the Bible, has defined our needs -- and as such our "needs" will forever demand more. As we proceed, more and more of our "wants" become transformed into "needs." We drift further and further from our reliance on God for our true needs and, if truth were told, we become more and more insensitive to those who lack those needs. We rob from our duty to the needy to pay for the materialistic neo-needs of today.

Our spiritual requirements are adequately illustrated in the story of Mary and Martha. Mary had chosen to sit at the feet of Jesus and drink in His presence and His teaching. Martha had chosen to take care of other "needs" -- the preparations for the church service in her home. Disturbed that Mary was not likewise preoccupied, Martha took her complaint to the top. "Martha," Jesus answered her, "You are worried and bothered about so many things; But only a few things are necessary, really only one, for Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her." (Luke 10:40-42)

In this, even Jesus gave a nod of recognition to other things being somewhat necessary, but He then homed in on what is the true necessity.

In like manner as Martha, we fret over the unnecessary. We must have enough comfortable chairs (or pews), the proper music, appealing decor, refreshments for after the service, flowers at the pulpit, a tightly organized missions committee, a system for evangelization, printed study guides for the lessons, and a building fund finance committee. We see these as all necessary to our services and our outreaches. Really only one thing is necessary: To have Jesus at our meeting. No truth is more simple, sublime -- and easier to "Yes, but . . ."

Pharisitical Fundraising

"Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you devour widow's houses, even while for a pretense you make long prayers; therefore you shall receive greater condemnation."

-- Matthew 23:14

* * *

I believe that this accusation of devouring widow's houses made by Jesus is two-fold. First, it was true on its face, and, second, it was illustrative. In other words, they actually did steal the property of widows -- though He does not specify how -- and He used the phrase to illustrate how low the scribes and Pharisees would stoop to acquire more money. It was all done very religiously, of course, and for worthy ministries besides. I doubt if it made much difference to Jesus whether the perpetrators were fully convinced of the righteousness of their actions or were merely crafty shysters -- Christ still labeled it predatory.

Little has changed in nearly twenty centuries.

Let Us Seize the Inheritance

I was doing an "author" radio interview in 1991 on the phone for another part of the country. Between segments, the ads and announcements were piped back in through the phone so I was able to be prepared for the next segment as it approached.

I paid scant attention to the beginning of the financial planning advertisement until something caught my ear. The announcer was talking about setting up a trust account to "take care of that church." As the ad continued, the pitchman talked of the listeners' fulfilling a desire to see their money used for the kingdom of God -- "and your kids are not Christian" they added.

I was stunned. It had been a few years since I had heard the robbing of widow's houses so bluntly perpetrated. 3

* * *

To me, there is no better illustration of Christ's woe in Matthew 23: 14 than the practice -- so widespread in American churches -- of using religious pretenses to steal inheritances from children and from pliable and vulnerable widows. The "Stewardship" departments of many churches have greased the skids of this theft with Scripture verses and talk of how "your kids will never use the inheritance to the glory of God" (read, to buy new carpet for the sanctuary).

One of the reasons I choose to highlight this practice is because it is common and -- like with the Pharisees -- it best illustrates just how low the American Church will stoop to prop up its sagging ministries. It is quite one thing to make the needs of the Church known, it is another to lead a raiding party into the inheritances of others.

Inheritance, in Scripture, is a nearly sacred trust given to one's children. Notice the care God takes in instructing the laws of Israel so that no man was ever completely disinherited. Heritage lands were returned at the seventh year or the Jubilee. Even the giving promoted by the Word never includes taking from an inheritance -- even when the child is not following God. An excellent example is the story of the prodigal (wasteful) son. It would have been better "Stewardship" by today's standards for the father to have refused to give the inheritance to the wastrel because he wasn't following God or wouldn't spend it to glorify God. Current wisdom would have advised the father to give it to the local church. But it is helpful to note that the son asks for "what is his." The father, without objection or contradiction, gives it to him.

I realize that this was not the exact point of the parable but it does reflect the realities of Jesus's time. It also reflects the Jewish Biblical view of an inheritance as the rightful property of the son. Even a cursory examination of inheritances in Scripture will reveal the importance -- in God's eyes -- of them being directed to the children. A good example appears in Ezekiel where even the prince was not allowed to disinherit his children. He was permitted to give a gift out of his inheritance to a servant only provided it returned to the sons on the death of the prince. He was also prohibited from removing any subject from their inheritance.

Throughout the Bible there is only one case of an individual leaving anything at all to the Church. This was David's gift for the building of the Temple. But with David's great wealth, he most assuredly left none of his sons without inheritance.

But the worst part of all this thievery is that it is all done with "long prayers for a pretense" -- that is, it is done under the guise of being religious. Church financial planners pray (prey?) with their clients about the "will of God in this matter," all the while knowing exactly what advice they will render. It is reminiscent of the keepers of the Lord's vineyard who sought to kill the son and seize the inheritance. 4 The donor will be told to use the money to glorify God -- and perhaps, there will be a plaque to commemorate the giver. By implication, though, the prayers of the widow for the salvation of her children will never be answered (Poor soul!) but the gift will be a "testimony" to the children of her faith.

In reality, the testimony to her children will be, "My church was more important to me than your family inheritance." The bitter memory will do little to endear the fleeced children to a Lord Who (in their minds) sought their paltry inheritance to add a trinket or two to one of His churches.

To me, this is one of the grossest illustrations of what the American Church will do for the love of money -- even the money being raised for legitimate ministry.

When will we learn that a man's life does not consist of the abundance of what he has? True Christianity does not mandate a vow of poverty, but few of us are in any danger of that. True Christianity, however, does entail a vow of contentment -- a vow that we will trust God and be content with His provision. As Paul put it, "Let your character be free from the love of money, being content with what you have; for He Himself has said, 'I will never desert you, nor will I forsake you.'" (Hebrews 13: 5; also Phillipians 4: 11)

If we would seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, if we chose the one truly necessary thing, we would not greedily scramble for mammon. Nor would we, in our unbelief, seek to provide for ourselves in ways that dishonor God or depend on worldly wants for the success of the ministry.

God Doesn't Need Me

"Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?"

-- God speaking to Job

Job 38: 4a

* * *

God, in His goodness, has permitted men to be fellow-laborers in His work of redemption, but none of us really has any depth of knowledge of God's plan. For this reason, many of the events we see, which are under God's control are entirely inscrutable. Imagine what Abraham may have thought when he was commanded to sacrifice Isaac. Here, in this young boy was not only Abraham's personal future family but, knowing the promise of God, the future out of which Messiah would come to redeem the world. The greatest ministry of God resided in Isaac's progeny and yet God commanded Abraham to sacrifice the lad.

Abraham, however, knew one thing about God. He knew that God would always prevail in accomplishing His will. Abraham knew that neither his own nor Isaac's life or death would alter God's plan. If necessary, God would raise Isaac from the dead -- one way or another, God would be sovereign in the situation. So Abraham did not waver in his faith and proceeded to take Isaac to the mountains of Moriah. (Romans 4: 16-21)

It is this faith that is commended in Scripture, not the striving, struggling unbelief that characterized Abraham's earlier attempts to do God's work for Him.

God did not need Abraham, or Isaac, or David, or me. God will perform His sovereign purposes when He wants, how He wants, and with whom He wants. I recall the time I officiated -- as a pastor -- the "death" of a church. One of my Christian friends was appalled. "How can you break up a church?" he asked. "How can it be the will of God to disband a group dedicated to doing the will of God?" I told my friend that God was simply finished using this particular tool.

So often, we foolishly (and pridefully) believe that the work of God -- or a particular work of God -- simply cannot get done without this or that ministry organization, or building, or leader, or budget. In our limited view, anything that appears to be accomplishing a good work should not be stopped. Peter's rebuke, "This will never happen to You, Lord," echoes through the Church. Our trust is more in our organizations than in the Lord we are supposed to serve. With such misplaced trust, it is only natural that we would presume that anything -- like budget problems -- which threatened to end the work would be insufferable.

In this misguided effort, we invent gimmicks to fund the organizations and ministries. But God can get along fine without my books, so-and-so's radio ministry, or the First Church of Christ, American down the street. He has done just fine without us for thousands of years and will continue long after we turn to dust.

If your ministry is not getting funded to the level you would want, perhaps God wants you to learn to suffer want or maybe He wants you to close shop and move on to other things. The sooner we begin to trust God as Abraham did, the less we will be trusting and grasping after Mammon.

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Copyright © 1999 Paul deParrie