On Stewardship, Idolatry, and Dave Ramsey

Money

For many American Christians, if the Bible had an appendix, it would include a few books by Dave Ramsey. The personal-finance guru and creator of Financial Peace University is immensely popular, and rightly so. Ramsey’s practical advice has helped countless families get back on their feet after financial difficulties, or simply avoid financial difficulties in the first place. I have personally suggested Ramsey’s material to families and will do so again, but I always do so with an important caveat—because as helpful as Dave Ramsey’s advice is, any good financial self-help program carries with it very real dangers.

Ramsey’s 7 Baby Steps to Financial Freedom offer a good snapshot of the counsel he offers:

BABY STEP 1 – Save $1,000 to start an emergency fund
BABY STEP 2 – Pay off all debt using the debt snowball method
BABY STEP 3 – Save 3 to 6 months of expenses for emergencies
BABY STEP 4 – Invest 15% of your household income into Roth IRAs and pre-tax retirement funds
BABY STEP 5 – Save for your children’s college fund
BABY STEP 6 – Pay off your home early
BABY STEP 7 – Build wealth and give

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Losing Community, Losing Wisdom

Dinner party conversation

When political scientist Robert Putnam published Bowling Alone in 2000, the evocative title neatly captured a social disintegration which Putnam traced back more than a generation. Beginning in the middle of the 20th century, essentially every form of civic engagement, from hanging out at a bar to volunteering with the PTA, declined significantly as American society became more atomized and Americans became more isolated.

In the nearly two decades since Bowling Alone came out, we have become more busy, more mobile, and more digital, but no more connected.

This social disconnection extends into American Christianity, as professed Christians are increasingly unlikely to regularly attend church and even less likely to be part of a church community where they experience meaningful discipleship and fellowship. Like most of our lives, religion is an increasingly do-it-yourself affair. And among a thousand other consequences, this shift has made it much harder for us to grapple with questions which require wisdom.

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The Problem of Not-So-Sinful Second-Generation Christians

Happy friends

Our church’s liturgy includes a confession of sin near the beginning of every Sunday morning worship service. This week, our pastor borrowed the words of John Calvin’s Strasbourg Liturgy. Calvin’s confession ends on a note of hope, asking God to “blot out our sins and stains… producing in us the fruits of righteousness and innocence which are pleasing to You,” but it takes a hard road to get there, mourning that “we are poor sinners, conceived and born in iniquity and corruption, prone to do evil, incapable of any good, and in our depravity we transgress Your holy commandments without end or ceasing.”

Such grim language feels out of touch with the cotton-candy religiosity of our culture, but we use it because it reflects how the Bible speaks of sin. It was not Calvin but God who warned through Jeremiah that “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick” (Jer 17:9). It was not Calvin but God who inspired Paul to declare that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). The Bible is not shy about calling us sinners, nor about declaring sin damnable apart from the grace of God, so Bible-believing churches teach the same. But unless we’re careful, these scriptural truths can make the gospel feel less urgent, less relevant, for those who grew up with all the advantages of a Christian family and a Christian community and struggle to see themselves as desperately wicked sinners.

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An Internet Pastor Is Not All the Teaching You Need

Listening to a sermon on headphones

The Bible is quite clear in its expectation that being a Christian is a community experience. From the Lord’s Prayer’s appeal to “Our Father who is in heaven,” to Paul’s frequent references to the church as a single body with Christ as the head, to the institution of the Lord’s Supper as a shared, communal sacrament, the Scriptures take it for granted that our faith entails horizontal relationships as well as vertical. And not just any sort of relationships, but relationships within an organized local church. So Paul considered it a matter of utmost important to appoint elders over local congregations (cf Acts 14:23, I Tim 3, Titus 1); the same local congregations to which he collectively addressed his epistles. The author of Hebrews made it even more explicit, warning his readers against “forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some” (Heb 10:25).

The Bible expects—or rather, directs—that the normal Christian life is a life embedded within a local church body. That is particularly important for us to remember in our individualistic American context, with an internet full of rich, compelling, biblical preaching available for streaming to our heart’s content. When I can listen to Tim Keller or Sinclair Ferguson with the click of a button, why bother with a local church where the preaching is (let’s face it) probably not as good?

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Work Will Trump Family Time (Unless We Fight It)

Man with phone at work

My child arrived just the other day
He came to the world in the usual way
But there were planes to catch, and bills to pay
He learned to walk while I was away
And he was talking ‘fore I knew it, and as he grew
He’d say, I’m gonna be like you, dad
You know I’m gonna be like you

I first heard Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s In The Cradle” when I was a young boy, and even then I felt the poignancy of the lyrics, with the understated sadness of the closing verse as the now-grandfather is brushed off by his grown son. “And as I hung up the phone, it occurred to me / He’d grown up just like me / My boy was just like me.” As I’ve become a man, then a husband, and now a father, the song has stuck with me as a reminder of the terrible danger of prioritizing success in every area of life except the one which is especially my own to steward, to cultivate, and to love: my family.

I still vividly remember having lunch with a prominent figure in Christian publishing and asking him for any insights into how to care for one’s family while working in a ministry field where there is always one more good thing to be done before you wrap up for the night. This elderly, godly man replied, with tears in his eyes, “Don’t be like me.” He had learned his lesson the hard way, amid the ruins of his first marriage.

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Don’t Bring a Knife to a Gunfight

Raiders of the Lost Ark scene

There is a famous scene in the first Indiana Jones movie in which Jones, fresh off a fast-moving battle against a dozen attackers, is suddenly confronted by one more adversary: a massive, sword-wielding warrior. The director had planned a final, climatic fight with Indiana’s whip pitted against the sword of his opponent.

Instead, Harrison Ford simply pulled out a hidden pistol and shot the huge swordsman in the chest.

Ford knew his character was too tired to play around in that scene. He needed his best weapon against a dangerous adversary.

Being a Christian in a fallen world means you and I are also surrounded by dangerous adversaries, but too often we start the fight by tossing away our most powerful weapons. The problem is ultimately one of faith. The Bible calls us to arm ourselves with righteousness, faith, and prayer, but these don’t look very impressive arrayed against the world’s wisdom and power—so we throw down the weapons with “divine power to destroy strongholds” (II Cor 10:4) and snatch up the world’s shiny tin swords.

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Men, Church, and ‘Laboring Alongside’

Men working

I have a challenge for men out there: Spend a couple hours working with another guy on some project at which you’re both pretty competent. It doesn’t matter what it is. While you’re working you are not allowed to talk about yourselves or about anything other than the project itself. Just pound in the nails or debug the code or do whatever it is you’re doing. Then, when you’re done, try not to feel a sense of respect and comradery with your work-buddy.

I doubt you’ll be able to prevent it.

It has become almost a cliché to point out that men naturally relate to one another side by side, while women relate face to face. Generally speaking, men bond though shared effort. Women bond through shared emotion. It’s not an absolute distinction, of course, but it’s a strong tendency. It’s just how we’re built.

It’s worth thinking about how this affects our faith and our churches. When you think of church, what comes to mind? A loving, welcoming, friendly place? What about when you think of God? A loving heavenly Father who welcomes our worship and listens when we talk to him? American Christianity has a lot of face to face, but not much side by side.

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Don’t Let a Fight Against Error Kill Your Love

Caution cone on keyboard

Last week’s article wasn’t supposed to be an article. I started out writing an opening illustration for a different point, but it took on a life of its own and I ended up with a whole post about the dangers of getting so caught up in the fight against racism, sexism, and other ugly -isms that we forget Jesus’ command to be peacemakers, to turn the other cheek, to love our enemies. We must always remember that Satan loves to tempt us to fight the right fight in the wrong way… Which I suppose still works as an opening observation to bring us around to what I meant to talk about last Monday. Because there is more than one “good fight” which can become an idol. For many conservative, Bible-believing Christians, one of the most potentially dangerous good fights is the battle against error in the church.

Are you entirely satisfied with everything taught by every part of the American church? I thought not. Neither am I. From churches which don’t bother to teach the Bible to churches which outright teach against the Bible, there is every reason to be concerned about the spiritual health of many of the professing Christians around us. And such caution is appropriate and biblical. Paul warned Roman believers, “I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them” (Rom 16:17). Corruption in the church is the worst kind of corruption, because it dishonors the name of Christ and destroys our witness to the world. Vigilance is essential—but vigilance has a way of killing our love.

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Servants Don’t Take Offense

Potter with clay

A couple years ago, an academic and writer who was researching the role of women in Reformed churches flew in for a day to attend a presbytery meeting in my little part of the Christian world. Her subsequent scathing report generated quite a bit of discussion and controversy, with particular outrage over her revelation that the women’s restroom was temporarily labeled for male use. What kind of church, readers demanded, would care so little about female concerns as to refuse to even give them restroom facilities? The account of the omission was one of the most dramatic parts of her report, with three paragraphs devoted to describing and analyzing the way in which “women’s physical needs were considered unimportant and inconvenient.” It was a damning indictment—and perhaps a tad overstated.

Frankly, the bathroom labeling was thoughtless, creating an uncomfortable situation for any women who had to remove the sign and wait for the bathroom to clear before using it. But in a denomination which does not have female elders, everyone knows there are going to be hardly any women at a presbytery meeting. As someone who has run large events in the past, I have a great deal of sympathy for the harried organizer, worrying the night before about the prospect of long bathroom lines snaking through the foyer of a small church, who hastily tried to solve the problem with the “Men’s Restroom” sign which was shortly to become a thing of infamy. (Had the same organizer been running a women’s conference, I expect we’d have seen a “Women’s Restroom” sign on the men’s room.) Was it a less-than-ideal solution? Yes. Was it a significant sign of underlying sexism on the part of everyone associated with the meeting? Perhaps… not?

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You Have Enough Time

Hurrying crowd

Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.
~ Matthew 6:25-33

For most Americans, Jesus’ promise of provision in the Sermon on the Mount may seem like a nice abstraction. It’s lovely to think of God providing for our physical needs, but how many urgent needs do most of us really feel? How many of us have really had to worry about the next meal or whether we’ll have someplace to spend the night? Of course, for some in America and for many of our brothers and sisters around the world, these assurances are a much more urgent and wonderful thing, but for most Americans they are promises to meet a need they have never really felt.

But even if God’s rich provision for our nation means that you never have to worry about food or clothing, studying Jesus’ promises in Matthew 6 offers a helpful, encouraging template for thinking about another resource, one which we always seem to be needing more of: our time.

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