Mark DeVine is associate professor of history and doctrine at Beeson Divinity School.


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First Question—What Does it Pay?

By Mark DeVine


I found it hard to complain much about the dirty, exhausting, and dangerous work in the cotton mills of Upstate South Carolina. I relished what seemed a sort of primal enjoyment the physical exertion itself afforded. Pride in the finished product—high quality, heavy duty, cotton work gloves—also seemed to compete with and limit occasional groaning over sore muscles and deep exhaustion.

But the chief chastiser and squelcher of potential complaint emerged from neither the work product nor the working itself but from a little thing called money. What sustained my “work ethic” and bolstered my weary spirits on the long slog from 4 till 12 pm, Monday through Friday, 40 hours a week every week at age 16 is no mystery—it was the once per fortnight delivery of filthy lucre into my eager hands. It came in the form of a crisp check cut (in those days the checks were literally cut) by the business manager of Arkwright Mills.

I earned three whole dollars above the minimum wage at the Mill and, in time, would earn six dollars above the minimum. We know from the inspired word of God that the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and so it proved to be in my case. 

The exhilaration of the receptions of those cut checks sprang from the promise they boasted. And the promise of those bright, pristine, official-looking, fancy signature embossed documents did not dissipate in a flash or even in a few hours. The promises the money made proliferated in my mind, laid hold of my heart, and acquainted me intimately both at once and over time with a whole plethora of truths and lies about money and wealth. That little conversation indulged in by Jesus’ man with the barns makes perfect sense to me.

Most immediately there was just the pure pleasure of the power to purchase and consume. And purchase and consume I did—cheese burgers and milkshakes and that then very recent but spectacular newcomer to the culinary scene—PIZZA! But then there were the more “relational” purchases that promised much more than immediate pleasure—Clearasil and Vitalis to combat those pimples and shine up that hair and support the spine to ask Sharon Green with those green eyes to take my hand and skate the roller rink under dimmed lights, a glittering disco ball, and the illuminated neon “Couples Only” sign. Oh what tantalizing possibilities a few dollars dangle before us!

And then there were the creature comfort purchases to excite the mind and soothe the soul and provide periodic, temporary escape from having to think about my parents’ divorce, my mother’s suicide attempts and her schizophrenia. Here too, money made a path forward through the procuring of Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, alcohol, marijuana, hashish, LSD, and cocaine. There would have been no need for eighteen candles on a cake had Crack and Meth been available to me in 1976.

But let’s not go totally dark just yet. The purchase list goes on to big ticket items my Railroad working father could not provide—motorcycles, automobiles and trips to Myrtle Beach where I encountered exotic female creatures from squarish northern states who’d never heard of grits and who spoke with wild accents saying things like “we’re from O-Highey-O.”

Money now begins to dangle the big prize, the one that tells the big lie about wealth. Money promises independence and power over the future. Money lures us into conversations with ourselves that run something like this, “I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry” (Luke 12:19). 

Independence is not only wrong, it is a lie—it is not achievable. The reach for it in the Garden proved abortive. Our utter dependence upon God and mutual interdependence upon each other belong to a permanent structural and irreversible and very good divine design. The fall has not and cannot undo this. Sanctification leads us out of, not into the shiny but sinister mirage of independence and the lies it tells.

But let us be careful here. The same God who remembers and prompts us to remember that “we are dust” and warns the one who “lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God,” also insists upon work that earns money—enough money first to take care of ourselves and then to provide for legitimate dependents and others in need (2 Thessalonians 3:6-15; 1 Timothy 5:8). By itself, the idleness of the idlers in Thessalonica cannot account for either the character or the intensity of Paul’s rebuke to both the idlers themselves and their enablers. It was the joining of the idleness with the eating that proved combustible for Paul. The combination is what ticked him off.

Paul might have waxed profound and poetic about the service his tent-making provided to the ubiquitous first-century tent buyers, but he did not. Likewise, sufficient biblical warrant was available for a quick lesson in the imago Dei implications of the tent-making itself. You know, having dominion and keeping the Garden and all. No time or need for that though. Because what Paul couldn’t see but demanded to see first and foremost was not personally meaningful or satisfying labor but simply legitimate work that pays cash money. Paul’s concern here was not for work’s supposed inherent value but for its instrumental purpose; its power as a means to unburden others and so serve the community.

My teenaged love of money exhibits not only a certain exhilarating innocent coming-of-age but also hallmarks of the fall of mankind and original sin. That the love of money is a fruit of all kinds of evil finds adequate confirmation in my own experience. Many pernicious elements permeated my pursuits in those days. But the desire for and expectation of remuneration for work done was not among them. Expectation of fruit from ones’ labor, like everything else, lies under the shadow and curse of original sin—but the promise to prosper the work of our hands was and is God’s idea and remains a vital dimension of divine activity where healthy communities serve one another by providing for themselves, caring for dependents, and serving those in need.

Photo by Tracy O via Flickr
Posted by Betsy Childs at Friday, February 21, 2014
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Un-Burdening Love

by Mark DeVine


“You ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day that we might not be a burden to any of you.”  (2 Thessalonians 3:7-8)

What off-putting words! Aren’t they? Where are Christians admired for such sentiments and speech? If Paul had a wife and talked like this in polite company, surely she would draw him aside and try to teach him a thing or two about how folks tend to receive such braggadocio.

It gets worse. Paul not only sets himself up as a model for imitation but does so in contrast to believers right there in Thessalonica who were idlers eating the food of others. Does he not realize that of course if these idlers had enjoyed the opportunities and benefits Paul obviously had, then sure, they would love to make tents and pay for their own food and forgo deserved pay for preaching. “There but for the grace of God goes Paul, right?” Paul’s strutting around is unseemly and unfounded, is it not?

It’s a fascinating passage on many fronts, not least because of how politically incorrect it sounds today. Paul sets himself up as a model for imitation precisely because he is able to pay and actually does pay his own way among the Thessalonians. Paul makes a big deal here and in 1 Corinthians 9 of his offering the gospel “free of charge”. Some (not many because preachers have to eat too!) have used these scriptures to impugn acceptance of pay by proclaimers of the gospel. But Paul is very clear that his practice involves the forgoing of a right, not the laying down of a rule.

So why do it? In Thessalonica Paul wants to reprimand, shame, and prompt to repentance the idling busybodies who, though they “will not work” still expect to eat. His message essentially is, “Look, I pay for my food. I come here and labor among you as an apostle of Jesus Christ and am due my rightful wages! Yet I take nothing from you. No, I labor at a second vocation with my own hands so as to triply serve you. I preach and I pay and I take nothing for my services.”

It’s a very heavy, blunt, and impolitic message. Idleness alone (the devil’s workshop and all) deserves reprimand. God carves out one day for the cessation of “our work”. The other six exist precisely for the accommodation of that work. “On six days you shall do your work.”

But Paul’s reprimand cannot be comprehended according to the mere inherent perniciousness of idleness and sloth—the mere refusal to work, blameworthy as it is. No. The fire in Paul’s words, his in-your-face tone, requires recognition of a second element. It’s the eating without paying combined with the idleness—that’s what sets him off. “I pay for my food! You do not. You should. You could. But you don’t. And that’s wrong. That’s wrong because you are making yourself an unnecessary burden to others who are paying because someone else does pay for that food and it ought to be you!”
Love, Paul is saying, not only does not behave as do the eating idlers; love does not aid or abet or tacitly approve or tolerate such behavior. Love calls out such behavior. Love says to the idlers “such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living” because the burden such eating idlers place upon others does real harm to the community.

At a particularly troubled juncture in the raising of my boys, I agonized over what I could do or say that might benefit them. I am their father after all. From the day of their birth I have known with crystal clarity what I want most for my boys—for them to know and love my Lord. But of course this I cannot ultimately provide. During this difficult time, any direct “Christian talk” would have been utterly unwelcomed by them (they are preacher kids!). But in a flash of insight I realized that, in spite of their rebellious spirits, they did, deep down, covet their father’s respect.

As I reflected upon this I realized what it would take for them to gain my respect. I called them into the living room for one of those heavy, electrically charged talks that must occur from time to time. I first reminded them of my greatest desire and prayer for them—that they know and love my Lord. But I told them that they could know and love my Lord yet fail to win my respect. On the other hand, they could go to their graves without Christ (horrific prospect) but still gain my respect.

How? By becoming men others can count on. Men whose wives, children, and friends can count on. By, insofar as they are able, taking care of themselves and gaining the capacity to provide for their dependents. By doing so they would in fact be offering tangible, substantive and significant love to their communities by not unduly burdening others through any sort of eating idleness. To pay one’s own way through one’s own work is an act of real love. Something here needs recovering among us. Something of the connection between love and working, paying one’s own way, and un-burdening others belongs to communities where “the love of God” and the “steadfastness of Christ” prevails.

Posted by Betsy Childs at Wednesday, February 5, 2014
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"Let Him Not Eat!"

by Mark DeVine


“Let Him Not Eat!” --The Apostle Paul

Is it just me or has fasting fallen on hard times across the fruited plain? Oh, I see—fasting never flourished here in the first place, at least not voluntary fasting. Not that folks haven’t gone hungry, sometimes even on a large scale. Depression era photographs don’t lie. As a child, more than once I made my way to bed hungry rather than consume turnips and peas and any number of indecipherable and frightening casseroles served to me. I soon learned to “acquire” tastes rather than slink off from the table with an empty stomach.

  

Voluntary fasting is not the American way, not the tradition, not by a long shot. We eat the food available and instinctively find the notion of depriving ourselves or others of food abhorrent. Food is plentiful here and we consume it. Inhabitants of lands where food is scarce and expensive notice this and a goodly number make their way over deserts and oceans in hopes of taking their own big bite out of the American dream.

One Indian immigrant to America recounted the troubles he’d faced in the good ole US of A. But his attempt to dissuade his relative back in India from making the difficult and expensive move to the States failed: “I want to live where the poor people are fat!” Surely every person created in the image of the God who owns the cattle on a thousand hills should be provided what all recognize as necessary for life itself—food.

Yet in his letter to the church at Thessalonica, the apostle Paul calls for the withholding of food in keeping with what he calls “the tradition you received from us.” There are those, insists Paul, who ought not to eat (2 Thessalonians 3:6-12).

And this is not even the Old Testament with its commands to destroy whole populations, careful not to leave so much as a kitty-cat still breathing or its musings on the dashing of baby’s heads against rocks. We’ve grown somewhat adept at finding hermeneutical strategies for domesticating troublesome passages from that “Old” Bible of the Jews. But here we are in the New Testament— you know, where we meet the blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus of Hollywood fame who talks to birds, speaks like a misty-eyed poet, and stares gently into space.

Can this be the same apostle who penned the famous “love chapter” to the church at Corinth that so frequently adorns our wedding feasts? Is this the same “sent one of God” who admonishes believers to “remember the poor,” and “count others better than yourselves”? Can he now also chide believers for failing to banish from their tables a few idlers in search of a piece of bread? Can he really now commend the withholding of food! “Let him not eat!”?

How can this be? Surely every divine image-bearing human being has an inherent, unassailable birthright to food. For the untimely-born apostle, apparently not. One wonders if, for Paul, any inherent human rights can place a claim upon others if food itself does not make the list. What about shelter? Clothing? Health care? Unemployment benefits? Whose up for plumbing the depths and mapping the contours of non-rights according to one who is prepared to see food withheld among followers of Christ?

Yet Paul does identify a universal human right of sorts. He does identify what every person ought to expect from a follower of the one who didn't mind working miracles in order to see folks fed:

Owe no one anything except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments . . . are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. (Romans 13:8-10).

Excursion into Paul’s rhapsodic affirmation of the “law of love” is crucial, indeed decisive for our comprehension of his harsh, alien-sounding admonitions to the Thessalonians. Indeed, immediately before taking up the matter of idleness in Thessalonica Paul prays, “May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ.”

Paul cedes to his would-be naysayers not one inch of the high ground of LOVE with his “let him not eat.” Just the opposite. Love shapes the Apostles’ construal of the situation and prompts his guidance regarding food.

But how so? Unloving consequences (intended or not; recognized or not) result from aiding and abetting those who “will not work.” This blog has previously noted that productive work belongs to the good life God intended for human beings from creation. But, Paul’s concern here is not that the slothful deprive themselves of the divinely intended blessings work brings. Rather Paul hones in on the harm the eating idler inflicts upon others, harm Paul himself was meticulously careful to avoid at Thessalonica—eating idlers are “a burden” to others, and an unnecessary burden at that.

Paul addresses the whole community of believers, giving disproportionate attention to those who prop-up the idlers: “we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies.” But his last word on the subject targets the idlers themselves. His command seems to fit nicely with a fundamental feature of free-market economics, namely that whoever is capable of doing so should strive to produce more wealth than he consumes. Here are the apostle’s words to the eating idlers: “Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.”

Posted by Betsy Childs at Tuesday, January 21, 2014
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Wealth and Warnings

by Mark DeVine


“Stay away from that road!” “Put those matches back where you found them right this minute!” Love warns. Love warns because love reflexively acts to prevent harm to the beloved. God is love. No wonder the Bible is so crammed with warnings—“Thou shalt not have any gods before me . . . thou shalt not covet . . . thou shalt not bear false witness . . . and also this one, “people who want to get rich fall into a temptation and a trap” (1 Timothy 6:9).


It might seem obvious or at least likely that divine warnings target that which is pernicious and often that which is positively evil. Certainly much biblical admonition does just that: “resist the Devil,” “flee from idolatry.” There’s no context in which snuggling up to the Devil or plunging headlong into idolatry commend themselves. These warnings identify and address intrinsic evils.

But many warnings and admonitions, biblical and otherwise, do not. Their purview concerns not inherent evils but potential misuse and abuse of good things. “One scoop of ice cream and that’s it for now.” “Do not drink and drive.” “Do not commit adultery.” Give up ice cream altogether? No way. God invented sex, Jesus turned water to wine, and a great deal of ministry takes place through the use of automobiles.

What about the many biblical caveats concerning wealth and riches? Which sort of warnings confronts us here? Do these expose wealth and riches as intrinsically and irredeemably evil or only illumine dangers that threaten where misuse or abuse of wealth arises? 

Certainly the frequency and fervency of biblical warnings regarding wealth must rivet the attention of any serious would-be follower of Jesus Christ: “One cannot serve God and money”, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Insistence upon the intrinsically pernicious threat of riches boasts an ancient and honored pedigree within the Christian tradition. The rich young ruler disobeyed Jesus’ command to sell everything and follow him, but thousands across the centuries and around the globe have since complied, taking vows not just of chastity and obedience, but also of poverty. Countless Christian communities have arisen across two millennia within which all property is shared and no one says that anything is his own.

Middle and upper-middle class believers not yet willing to alter their own lifestyles often harbor pangs of guilt for not doing so and sometimes even glamorize “the simple life.” We may be rich by any global or historic standard, but at least we feel really bad about it! Such entrenched, reflexive identification of riches as evil (even among rich Christians) takes much satisfaction in the admittedly pervasive biblical warnings on this score.

At the other extreme we find spunky Bible-toting preachers of the prosperity gospel and the vibrant communities of faith who follow and support them. They too find much aid and comfort for their views throughout the pages of Holy Scripture. The divinely inspired images of the good life God brings and promises to bring to his children include these: a paradisiacal Garden free of want; a promised land flowing with milk and honey; a messianic banquet; a new heaven and a new earth replete with a new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven to be traversed along streets of gold. In fact, these images are made to frame and punctuate the whole history of God’s primal and periodic and promised provision for his people—images of neither want nor moderation nor simplicity but of abundance and affluence.

Do we want to glamorize poverty or a simple lifestyle while clinging to an authoritative Bible? We’ll have to reckon with stuff like this:

For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with streams of water, springs, and deep water sources, flowing in both valleys and hills; a land of wheat, barley, vines figs, and pomegranates (let me just stop here and warn folks of modest means to discourage in your children habituation to the consumption of pomegranates!); a land of olive oil and honey; a land where you will eat food without shortage, where you will lack nothing; a land whose rocks are iron and from whose hills you will mine copper. When you eat and are full, you will praise the Lord your God for the good land He has given you.” In this place God sees to it that his children will “build beautiful houses to live in” and their “herds and flocks [will] grow large, and your silver and gold [will] multiply, and everything else you have [will] increase.” (Deuteronomy 8:7-13).

After casting this dazzling God-given vision, Moses immediately warns of the special dangers abundance and affluence will bring in its wake. Israel needs such warnings because the coming affluence and the abundance are not optional. Dangers notwithstanding, God insists that his children receive the material blessings prepared for their enjoyment. 

If we want to glamorize poverty and demonize riches, we can find traction for our views in the Bible, so long as we put up blinders periodically and strategically. Likewise, if we are looking to legitimize an unhindered and unabashed quest for affluence and riches as the birthright of every joint heir of Christ, we’ll find sufficient footholds in both testaments so long as we keep clear of the numerous contrary passages. But if we aim at faithfulness to the whole of God’s word on the matter of wealth, I suspect we’re going to have to take seriously the prized passages on both sides of this divide. Warnings about wealth are serious, but clearly do not identify an intrinsic evil. God has prospered his children in the past and promised unimaginable abundance for his children’s future even as he issues grave warnings of dangers posed by the love of money.

Posted by Betsy Childs at Thursday, January 2, 2014
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