Briefly Noted: Do the Biblical Commands to the Rich Apply to Affluent Americans Today?

[Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on October 11, 2013.]

In a recent article in Journal of Markets and Morality, Clive and Cara Beed raise the question of whether biblical warnings about the rich are contemporary affluent Westerners.[1] Clive (Retired, Department of Economics, University of Melbourne) and Cara (Retired, Department of Social Science, Australian Catholic University) argue that the categories used in Scripture to describe different degrees of wealth and prosperity do not necessarily correlate directly to contemporary definitions.

They note that by today’s standards of wealth and poverty, “the rich in the past history in the United States are poor” (370). Even those considered poor today have access to more health care, food, clothing, shelter and even intellectual resources than would have been true a century ago in the United States. The disparity is even more striking between our contemporary culture and the cultures presented in Scripture.

The Beeds wrestle with various definitions of poverty. They conclude that all of the definitions are inadequate because they try to exactly quantify a qualitative attribute. In other words, people are generally considered rich or poor in a society based on a comparison to the relative economic state of other people in the same society. Because of this inexactness, the Beeds shift their argument to evaluate the relative justice of economic inequality. Their argument is that God’s design for the world was that humans would prosper both spiritually and economically, that some inequality will exist because of the fall, but inequality can become unjust if it is too great (365).

The authors find it helpful to discuss three categories instead of two in order to apply teaching on wealth and poverty in the Bible. They hold that teachings that apply to the rich in Scripture still apply to wealthiest people in society. They argue that the category of the poor still exists and it contains those for whom meeting basic needs can be a struggle, they find this consistent with the biblical category of poverty. The Beeds argue for a third category, the affluent. The affluent are those who do not have significant economic concerns about meeting basic needs regularly, but still do not fall into the category of the rich. The authors debate what constitutes affluence and the dangers of affluence, but they approve of the category in principle.

The Beeds, therefore, arrive at the conclusion that the ethical teaching in Scripture that relate to the rich do not apply to the affluent, though mandates regarding the poor and rich still apply to people in those categories. The responsibility of the affluent is to live well and in accordance with the moral precepts of Scripture, but “the Bible’s warnings to the rich do not apply to modern middle-class [affluent] people” (381).

This article as a whole is helpful in some ways in providing a voice in the middle of the ongoing theological and economic debates about wealth and poverty. For example, the categories of rich and poor are variable, and understanding that can help to understand the ethical obligations of individuals and organizations. The authors are also helpful in reminding the reader that prosperity is a good thing, and that being prosperous is not an offense to God.

The Beeds are probably right that the biblical commands to the rich do not apply univocally to those whom we might call “affluent” today. Those commands, however, do apply analogically to those who are affluent. To state or imply that the biblical warnings to the rich do not apply to a particular group is dangerous, because possession and the desire for wealth can be a poisonous sin to anyone, regardless of their economic status.  In 1 Tim. 6:10, Paul writes that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils” and his instruction was not directed to a wealthy person, which seems to indicate that an improper affection for wealth can be problematic for anyone. Similarly, in its original context Jesus’ warning in Luke 18:25 was understood to address the rich young ruler as well as the people who were listening to the conversation. Jesus warned that it was hard for a rich man to get into heaven, to which his audience responded by asking, “Then who can be saved?” (Luke 18:26)

Both the “rich” and the “affluent,” in the Beeds’ model, find it incumbent upon them to recognize that poverty is one aspect of broken shalom, the shalom that was God’s creational design and that will be on full display when Christ the King renews and restores heaven and earth and populates it with the redeemed of the nations. If God cared about this sort of shalom at creation, and if he will restore it in the future, then we as believers should care about it also, and should work for our Christian communities to be previews of that shalomic Kingdom.

The Beeds call for efforts to “enhance both efficiency and equity” in economic systems, but they do so within a capitalist framework that allows for poverty alleviation more consistent with God’s design (382). As Corbett and Fikkert have noted in When Helping Hurts, approaches to poverty alleviation could be divided into three categories. One approach focuses on relief, which is emergency aid during crisis conditions. A second approach is rehabilitation, which is the attempt to restore people and communities to pre-crisis conditions. A third approach is development, which is an ongoing process of equipping people and communities to reflect the shalom God intended, which includes financial development but extends beyond that to broader concerns.

American churches tend to focus on the first approach to the exclusion of the second and third. Further, we tend to be paternalistic, viewing the poor as little children who need things done for them. As Corbett and Fikkert note, we do best to use all three approaches depending upon context and circumstance. Instead of merely asking people what their problems are, we should ask them what they can do, equip them to use and develop their gifts, and remove social and cultural barriers which prevent them from doing so. Instead of limiting ourselves to doing things for the poor (or to the poor), we should work hard to do things with the poor. They, like we, are made in the image of God, and deserve nothing less.

These applications are consistent with the Beeds’ call to “abide more by the triune God’s eternal principles, [so that] the benefits of capitalism can be enhanced and its limitations reduced” (382). It brings theology to bear on economics to shape it is a Christian manner. Moving closer to biblical definitions and proper biblical application can bring the whole creation closer to shalom.

[1] Clive and Cara Beed, “Biblical Warnings to ‘the Rich’ and the Challenge of Contemporary Affluence,” in Journal of Markets & Morality 15:2 (Fall 2012): 363-390.