Is being so-called “rich” a sin? Does God always prohibit Christians from having wealth?
Regarding our attitude toward wealth, Jesus gave commands. Regarding our possessions and lifestyle, he gave us principles. Jesus did not hand us a checklist of what we can and cannot own, and how we can or cannot spend money. Jesus didn’t say just one thing about money and possessions. He said many things. They aren’t random clashing noises, but a carefully composed melody and harmony to which we must carefully listen as we develop our lifestyles. If he gave us a checklist, we would not have to depend prayerfully and thoughtfully on him to guide us into the kind of lifestyle that pleases him. On the one hand Christ said, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth” (Matthew 6:19). On the other hand Paul gave the following instructions to Timothy:
Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life. (1 Timothy 6:17-19)
Note that Paul didn’t say, “Command those who are rich to stop being rich.” The implication is that there is legitimate diversity in the amount of money and possessions held by Christians. Most early Christians weren’t people of high social standing (see 1 Corinthians 1:26-29).
Other believers were well-to-do, which explains why Paul can address those he calls “rich” in the church. One of the first converts was the Ethiopian eunuch, who was “an important official in charge of all the treasury of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians” (Acts 8:27). He was a wealthy man with a huge sphere of influence. Cornelius had great political power and wealth. Mary, Martha, and Lazarus had a large home, as did Mary the mother of Mark, who had servants and in whose house “many people” gathered to pray (see Acts 12:12). As the church spread, before there were church buildings, meetings took place in the sizeable homes of the more wealthy believers.
Jesus spoke of the “deceitfulness of wealth” (Mark 4:19). The psalmist warns, “Though your riches increase, do not set your heart on them” (Psalm 62:10). The dangers of materialism are far-reaching. We should not think that we’re immune to the value-changing nature of wealth: “To suppose, as we all suppose, that we could be rich and not behave the way the rich behave, is like saying we could drink all day and stay sober.”
Although many will volunteer to bear them, riches do have their burdens. Wealth is a relational barrier. It keeps us from having open relationships. The wealthy say, “I don’t know if people like me for who I am, or only because of my money.” There’s a solution: Give the money away and then you’ll find out!
There’s no room for making wealth a source of security, or for lacking generosity or hospitality, or for an unwillingness to share. Still, Paul left a door open for Christians to be “rich in this present world”—but only if they carefully follow the accompanying guidelines related to their open-handed use of that wealth. The rich are not told they must take a vow of poverty. They are told, essentially, to take a vow of generosity. They are to be rich in good deeds, quick to share, and quick to part with their assets for kingdom causes. In doing so, they will lay up treasures in heaven.