Pietism and Christian Wealth

[ As a followup to Masc #46 and Masc #48, I’m including this guest essay from Masculinist reader Tom Addison on Christianity and Capitalism. This is part one of a three-part series, with part two following tomorrow and part three shortly thereafter. - Ed. ]

About a decade ago, I began writing a book in reaction to the church’s pietist hostility to intentional wealth building, in particular those promoting personal spiritual drama as a talisman for true faith, such as Francis Chan, David Platt, and to some degree, John Piper. It is written as a comprehensive treatise to my children to help them assimilate their Christian faith with the wealth they will one day inherit. The following excerpt is the philosophical core arguing for a comprehensive view of the Christian life that I call “Christian Capitalism.”

Imagine you are called to the bedside of a dying, faithful Christian Texas oil baron. Due to your reputation for good judgment and his lack of heirs, he is leaving all of his fortune, some $500 million dollars, to a new Christian nonprofit of which you serve as CEO.

He wants to remain anonymous to preserve his heavenly reward, but charges you before his death to steward his assets for the Kingdom as if they were your own. As you begin your new job, you find out more about your donor. Since he kept his personal consumption around $1 million a year on $50 million plus in income - more than enough for two nice houses, nice cars, and a nice jet - most of his earnings simply accrued to his empire. In particular, he was extremely frugal in the early years, even when his income rose to multiple hundreds of thousands a year, so that he could reinvest in his rapidly growing business. For a decade or more he earned like a doctor but lived like a schoolteacher, just to avoid slowing down the growth of his business. What would be the best way to steward such a legacy?

Most of us would recognize intuitively that the right way to utilize the baron’s fortune would be to give away some of its income, say half, reinvest the rest, and generally steward the underlying business. In other words, when dealing with large sums of money we understand that the smart way to manage it is to avoid touching the principal. You don’t kill the golden goose - you collect the eggs! In fact, you would be smart to allow some of the eggs to stay in the nest and hatch into new golden geese. We seem to understand that our moral responsibility with such a large sum of money, even one meant for charity, is to create a sustainable institution to steward it and ensure its work can go into the future as long as possible. Even if bleeding down the principal to zero in one year could help more people right now, we recognize to do so would be short-sighted, depriving the future for the present.

This principle of stewardship is what I call “gospel thinking.” It seeks for the long-term good, and thinks in terms of decades instead of months or years. It is the opposite of linear thinking that demands emotional, dramatic acts of giving that contradict wisdom. It is the opposite of the attitude of Judas - we are not, in fact, called to sell everything right now and give the proceeds to the poor. We are called to stewardship, no matter the size or type of fortune God has providentially placed under our care.

Gospel thinking accounts for exponential growth, peppered throughout the parables of Christ. Exponential growth isn’t complicated, it’s the difference between the way things tend to develop in nature and our human expectation of things changing at some constant rate. With exponential growth, things double at a constant rate. Think about planting in a garden. Seedlings do not grow at a constant rate, i.e. so many inches per day. Until they reach the limits of their growth, they tend to double at a constant rate. This is why a tiny plant seems to explode all at once over the course of a week or two after weeks of what seems like slow growth. In fact, its growth rate relative to itself was constant all along, but the growth itself builds and builds on itself over time, such that the final doubling, from say one foot to two foot high, takes about the same amount of time as the growth from one inch to two inches.

The gospel is very explicitly depicted as something with exponential growth in the New Testament. I believe this is why Jesus uses so many agricultural analogies in his parables. The gospel is compared to yeast, a microscopic creature that grows at a constant rate of doubling. It is compared to grains of wheat. And most interestingly for our purpose, it is compared to a quantity of gold, the talent, for which the master requires a return. The disobedient servant who buried his talent is corrected for not at least putting it to use with lenders to earn interest.

If you recall our earlier discussion about how growing a fortune, the reason tithing eventually does more good for the Kingdom than giving everything away in one dramatic act is because wealth grows the same way as plants or yeast. It grows at a rate proportional to itself, eventually leading to outsized gains where the tithe dwarfs the size of the original gift. This is why Einstein famously called compound interest the “eighth wonder of the world.” It is an amazingly powerful force, utterly overwhelming the claims of asceticism and pietism with inarguable mathematics.

A fortune can eventually grow so large that personal consumption becomes a rounding error. The essence of the pietist argument is that personal sacrifice, to the point of living like a monk, is necessary to maximize the reach of the gospel. If it doesn’t “hurt” to give, you must not be giving enough. This is the essence of every spiritual guilt trip pushed by pietist neo-Pharisees like Chan, Platt, and Piper. Mathematical reality says that a reasonable lifestyle in proportion to one’s wealth will have virtually zero impact on the eventual amount of support for the Kingdom.

The only remaining claim of the pietist is the appeal to a higher form of spiritualism than that which is actually demanded by the Bible. The Old Testament demands the tithe, and the New Testament even arguably makes that voluntary, but the pietist demands something beyond the Scriptures. The pietist is more concerned with subjective emotions, of a sort of masochism for the gospel, of taking on unnecessary sacrifice,  and laying this as a burden on the successful. This of course is the more charitable view, as I believe not a few of them are motivated by envy. I do not think it is a coincidence that fully half of the commandments in the “Second Table of the Law” that govern our relationship with man concern themselves with envy and its derivatives. Do not steal, with its corollary to respect property rights. Do not commit adultery, with Christ explicitly linking adultery to a preceding act of covetousness towards the good fortune enjoyed by another man in having an attractive wife. And, of course, the last and longest commandment covering coveting itself.

The desire of the human heart to tear down others for their good fortune is so strong that covetousness is the only “heart sin” described in the entire Ten Commandments. Every other commandment concerns objective acts of behavior. Only this one talks about the motivations of the heart explicitly. The philosophies of Marxism, pietism, and their Christian equivalent, the social gospel, are fundamentally driven by baptized covetousness. They dismiss the idea that merit and chance are legitimate reasons for people having different outcomes in life, and assert that any differences must be due to oppressive structures.

The biggest blind spot in the church today is an entitled sense of covetousness, of encouraging people to indulge ideas of victimhood rather than overcoming obstacles through personal virtue. Christians who have made the sacrifices of hard work, education, and personal discipline to achieve a measure of financial success should be well aware that the most likely sin to be committed against them in the church is covetousness, even if veiled in gospel language.

We must reject pietism and the social gospel root and branch, for we cannot fulfill our Kingdom purposes if we are plagued by a debilitating sense of guilt for our success, especially when the teachers of guilt have the implicit blessing of the Church. This deprives successful contributors to our society of the joy of their calling, and it affects people up and down the wealth scale.

The wealthy person is of course made to feel inadequate in their giving, but also the middle class person. If you are a hardworking engineer, for example, you have the opportunity, over a career, to build significant wealth. You will be able to own a nice house, and likely have significant savings in a company 401(k). You support your family, your church, and you probably are raising a family, the most significant Kingdom work there is, though rarely acknowledged as such from the pulpit. You know in your conscience that this is your true calling. However, the church continually pushes forward as examples worthy of emulation those who quit a successful career to pursue missions, those who give away half their income, or give away all of their possessions to live as a Christian vagabond. In almost all of these cases, the church is promoting the public drama of an unstable personality, a person who thinks thumbing their nose at wisdom for the sake of “the gospel” is the essence of true faith.

A small but debilitating sense of guilt sets in, such that the everyday struggles of providing for a family, serving customers, being a good worker, a good spouse, all of these little virtues that build a church, even a civilization, from the ground up are seen as somehow less spiritual than those individuals who engage in public drama and write books about it. These fathers and mothers, struggling against the grain of our culture, are the hidden heroes of the church. They are the “forgotten man and woman” who are never praised because they simply quietly do their duty in a thousand different ways every day without seeking attention. They respect authority, especially authorities in their churches, and while they never expected public praise - for they do their duty out of conscience, not for attention - they are slowly, over the years, inculcated by the dramatic propaganda of the churches into seeing their ordinary Christian lives as somehow displeasing to God. It’s never stated, but it’s implied, and their joy is stolen from them by dramatic personalities who don’t understand that their need for attention is not evidence of spiritual superiority to the ordinary Christian. No, it is more evidence of pride and vanity than anything resembling true spirituality. The very people who ought to be most praised by the church are made to feel lesser, and those who need to temper their manic behavior with wisdom and humility are never corrected.

The novelist Raymond Chandler described movie stars, and dramatic personalities generally, when a character explains, “But show business has always been like that — any kind of show business. If these people didn’t live intense and rather disordered lives, if their emotions didn’t ride them too hard — well, they wouldn’t be able to catch those emotions in flight and imprint them on a few feet of celluloid or project them across the footlights.” With churches increasingly more pressured by the culture to provide entertainment as part of the church experience, it is not a surprise that highly charismatic, atypically dramatic personalities have risen to positions of influence in church culture. Dramatic people can inspire us to action, and they have a role to play in the church, but we do well to be aware of their shortcomings, which mostly come in the area of wisdom and discernment.

When the church puts itself at odds with wisdom - the wisdom of the Bible itself, which says a just man leaves an inheritance for his children - it breeds cynicism and paralysis. Instead of focusing on very obvious personal sins that kill the soul, whether lust, gluttony, or covetousness, the church focuses on pseudo-sins, like whether tithing is enough, or whether a church’s demographics are sufficiently diverse according to arbitrary categories, or whether it’s selfish to raise one’s children in a safe neighborhood. Worse, the church involves itself in complicated social issues, as pastors with no statistical literacy or policy expertise oversimplify real social problems with cherry-picked Scripture. Those sufficiently wise to not overrule their common sense, when faced with such foolishness in the pulpit, are left with a series of bad choices: leave, disengage, or become cynical.

My purpose is to set these “common sense captives” free, to liberate the vast majority of churchgoers from the guilt inculcated by drama kings and queens and their Pharisee enablers. I want to restore joy to the struggles of everyday life. All of the mundane trials of life, working hard, raising kids, saving money, all of these we can count for joy if we can link them to a higher purpose. This purpose is not short-term missions work, or short-term mercy ministries, as important as those are, but rather the cultural triumph of the Christian faith in human history.

When we do our best in our work, we imitate our original design purpose. God placed man in his innocent state in a garden, a garden he was expected to work, tend, maintain, and over which he was to exercise dominion. We see the same command given to Noah, post-Fall and post-Flood, to fill the Earth and subdue it. Christianity is about the redemption of the totality of human life, and at the highest level, our original “great commission,” man’s purpose is to exercise godly dominion over the Earth. Unfortunately, many churches reduce the purpose of Christian life to something akin to a pyramid scheme - we are saved for the singular purpose of evangelizing others.

Admittedly, because of sin a huge subset of this original commission is contained in the New Testament’s Great Commission. Our original nature distorted by sin means our ability to effectively subdue the Earth is mightily compromised, and only the regenerative power of the Holy Spirit can fix it. The Great Commission itself is a command to “make disciples.” Necessarily, making disciples requires healthy efforts at evangelism, but notice that evangelism itself is not the be-all end-all of a Christian life. It is a major part of man’s restoration to his original calling, but it sits underneath the call to make disciples, which itself sits under Christ’s overall mission to restore mankind to a righteous state before God, so that man can fulfill his original mission for work and dominion. All of this, of course, works towards God’s glory and man’s good, happiness, and enjoyment of communion with his Creator.

Tom Addison is the pen name of a self-made entrepreneur in Texas and supporter of the work of The Masculinist.

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