Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

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The dark side of the Protestant work ethic

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In 1905 German sociologist published what many called the most important sociological work of the 20th century: Die protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus. The book was later translated into English and published in 1930 as: The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

His thesis was that because of the teaching of predestination, that one’s eternal destiny was determined before he was born, Protestants, especially Calvinists, were left with no clue as to their personal salvation. Protestantism also taught the deification of all productive work. Therefore the idea arose that material success, due to diligence on one’s work, was evidence of salvation. And this became the foundation for the rise of capitalism.

This is not the place to discuss whether Weber was right or wrong in his thesis. I mention it only to point out that the concept of a Protestant work ethic is drawn from this book by Weber.

Neither do I want to be understood as denying Christian values of honesty, integrity, responsibility and the value of a job well done. But I believe we can uphold those values without labelling them a “work ethic”.

For there is a dark side to the Protestant work ethic. It is that a human being is valued by his productive capacity, or in other terms, his earning capacity. For money so easily becomes the yardstick by which to measure a person’s work ethic. It is assumed that those who are poor are that way because they lack a work ethic. Work such as Bible study, the reading of good books, writing, etc., should be kept to a bare minimum, as they are a distraction from a person’s true purpose in life.

Where are the older men and the older women that the New Testament tells to instruct the younger ones? Too many of them are still pretending to be young. Why is being young at heart valued more than the wisdom of old age? Isn’t it because people have spent a lifetime striving to live up to the material values that they believed were expected of them and don’t believe they have acquired much spiritual wisdom that the younger generation wants to hear?

I’m not so sure the younger generation is so closed to learning spiritual lessons from their elders. But let them be genuine spiritual lessons, not just “this is the way we used to do things.”

I acknowledge that most Christians who talk of a work ethic don’t think of all the baggage that may be attached to the term in our society. I feel, however, that it does carry too much baggage in the minds of others and we might be better off to lay it aside. Work ethic is not a term found in the Bible and we do have clear instructions in that book about the values relating to work and material things that Christians should uphold.

One of the roots of poverty

There’s a nifty new all terrain electric quadricycle from France called the Swincar. Each wheel is independently powered, each wheel and the driver’s nacelle have independent suspension.

I want one.

But I don’t expect to ever have one. It costs $15,000 and there are more pressing needs for any extra money that comes in. Things like upgrades to our house and/or a trip to visit friends 3,000 km from here.

That’s an extreme example, but one of the big differences between the haves and the have-nots in a prosperous country is the difference between needing to have instant gratification for one’s wants and the ability to defer gratification and decide which of one’s wants are of the greatest importance.

Should we aspire to be poor?

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When there are so many warnings and examples in the Bible of the dangers of being rich, why does it seem that many Christians think it is desirable to be rich?

Luke 18:25 For it is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. / 1 Timothy 6:9-10 But they that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows. / James 5:1-2 Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you. Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are motheaten. / Matthew 6:24 No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.

Luke 6:20 And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said, Blessed be ye poor: for yours is the kingdom of God. / James 2:5 Hearken, my beloved brethren, Hath not God chosen the poor of this world rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which he hath promised to them that love him?

So, it is well nigh impossible for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven, but God has chosen the poor to be heirs of the kingdom. Have we got our priorities wrong?

Some Christians interpret these verses as referring to those who are poor in spirit. Hmmm. Honestly now: does it really seem like those who make that interpretation are poor in spirit? Or are they trying to justify their riches, in their own eyes at least?

The middle class was created by Christians who were honest and diligent in work and business and not wasteful and self-indulgent in their spending. That kind of living is right and good and inevitably leads to a measure of prosperity. Therein lies a snare. People who were converted under the preaching of John Wesley quit spending money and drink and rather took it home to feed and clothe their families. Their children grew up never having known poverty, many of them forgot God.

This is the danger when Christians grow smug in their prosperity and forget that their prosperity has more to do with the grace of God than with their devotion to their work. When we despise the poor, say that their poverty is their own fault, they should be wise and have a work ethic like we have, we have become too rich.

Most Christians are not hypocrites, hungry for money and status. A few may be, but there is far too much good being done in little and big ways to say that all is lost. But perhaps most of us would benefit by examining ourselves to see if we have the right balance between the spiritual and material aspects of our lives.

How much time do we take for Bible reading and prayer? Something more than a few verses of the Bible and a one minute prayer? How much time do we make to help a neighbour in distress? How much time do we have for a friend who wants to talk? How much time do we have for our family? Our Lord is probably much more interested in these things than in the state of our bank account, we should be, too.

Matthew 6:31-33 Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.

It’s not that we are doing everything wrong. But it is worth taking stock every once in a while and honestly asking ourselves if the kingdom of God is our first priority. We should not aspire to be rich, or poor, but to be faithful citizens of the eternal kingdom.

Baby steps

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“God will provide.” We say those words glibly, so certain of their truth that we may appear to have no compassion for people in distress. That isn’t what they are experiencing day after day. Life seems to be stacked against them. Perhaps they don’t have the skills to find a job that will pay a living wage. So they eke out a meagre existence on welfare.

If they take part time work, the income is deducted from their welfare cheque. The government offers financial aid to get the training needed for a better paying job. But if they accept that offer, they no longer qualify for subsidized housing and they are worse off than before. What are they to do?

Some do escape from the welfare trap. That possibility exists for many more, but it looks hopeless who are caught there.

If they could just win the lottery that would give them a way out. Except it doesn’t; the lottery is just another trap. Those who win big are usually back where they started within two years.

The real problem is not a lack of education or a lack of money. Those problems are real, but the underlying problem is a lack of hope. Well-meaning people can’t inspire hope in the poor by telling them that there is work for anyone who really wants to work. All the listener feels from that is condemnation. Neither does it help to label them as lazy or stupid.

A baby watches big people walk around on two legs. Eventually she gets the courage to try it for herself, and she falls. The next day she tries again, and falls again. But she sees the big people doing it and wants so badly to do it herself that she keeps trying. Soon she can stand by herself. Then she takes a step or two, and falls once more. But she keeps trying and pretty soon she can walk; before long she is running.

That is the way life works. Winning the lottery does not instantly make one capable of walking, in whatever metaphorical context one may wish to apply it. None of the people who appear to be so successful in life got there without a shaky start. Everyone began with baby steps.

That is the way that God works in the life of a newborn Christian. Jesus told the disciples “ I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now. Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth” (John 16:12-13). The Holy Spirit does not dump the whole load on us and tell us the shape up; he gently guides us step by step, allowing us to concentrate on making the next step and giving us a gentle assurance that we are moving in the right direction.

This is the kind of help needed by those who feel trapped in a dead-end street. First, they need to grasp the hope that it is possible to get out of there. Then they need the courage to take just one step. Even if that step doesn’t get them very far, they need to feel that they have accomplished one little thing and that will give them the courage to take one more step. In time their steps become more confident, leading to possibilities they thought were forever beyond their grasp.

As Christians we have a reputation for thinking that the misfortunes of the poor are entirely their own fault, for lacking compassion. I’m afraid many of us have earned that reputation. Perhaps we need to begin making baby steps toward an attitude that inspires hope in others.

Ministers, money, and Mennonites

Quote from Menno Simons: O my faithful reader, ponder this.  As long as the world distributes splendid houses and such large incomes to their preachers, the false prophets and deceivers will be there by droves.

I admit that this seems a little unjust when I think of preachers I have known in small towns and small city churches across Canada who were not very well paid.  Yet I have noted a disappointing tendency among many of them to tailor their preaching to give the least offence, so as not to spoil their chances to move to a larger, better paying church later on.  We all remember what big incomes did to many of the famous TV preachers of the past generation, don’t we?

Menno had a solution: the ministers should provide their own incomes: Therefore this is my brief conclusion and Christian admonition to all preachers and teachers.  Brethren, humble yourselves and become unblamable disciples, that you may hereafter become called ministers.  Try your spirit, love, and life before you commence to shepherd and to teach.  Do not fo on your own account, but wait until you are called of the Lord’s church; I say, of the Lord’s church, of the Spirit of God, and are constrained by urging love.  If this takes place, brethren, then pastor diligently, preach and teach valiantly, cast from you all filthy lucre and booty; rent a farm, milk cows, learn a trade if possible, do manual labour as did Paul, and all that which you then fall short of will doubtlessly be given and provided you by pious brethren, by the grace of God, not in superfluity, but as necessity requires.

This is still the practice of the church to which I belong.  In the congregation where we live, one of our ministers is a house builder, the other manages a large chicken farm.  All of our ministers, in every country, are self supporting.  A congregation usually reimburses its ministers for travel on church business and I know of at least one instance where a congregation had a love offering for their ministers whose incomes were reduced by time spent in the work of the church.

One advantage of not being dependent on the congregation for their livelihood, is that ministers are free to speak the hard truths that need to be said without fear that their wages might diminish or their employment be terminated.  Another is the realization that we are all in this together.  The spiritual life of a congregation cannot be totally dependent on the spirituality of the minister; we are a brotherhood and every member must contribute to the spiritual life of our fellowship.

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