Saddlebag Stewardship #4

prosperity-gospel1Almost everyone in our society would agree that poverty is a bad thing.  Poverty is something that even we in the church have a responsibility to help those less fortunate than ourselves to “get out of.”  Poverty is bad, and having money is good, right?  Well, Francis Asbury wouldn’t have necessarily agreed with our culture’s analysis of poverty.  John Wigger writes:

The only acceptable course was to live in a state of voluntary poverty, or as close to it as decency allowed.  Writing to an English correspondent in August 1788, Asbury noted with satisfaction that he could hardly afford “one coat on my yearly allowance.”  “Our connection is very poor, and our preachers on the frontiers labor the whole year for 6 to 8 pounds,” which, in Asbury’s mind, was a good thing.  His belief in the virtue of poverty was one of the reasons he clung to the practice of paying all of the preachers the same salary ($64 a year), whether probationers or bishops.  This had the virtue of reducing competition for more affluent, usually urban, circuits, since the preachers assigned to those circuits couldn’t expect to benefit much from the relative wealth of their congregations.  Offering better salaries on circuits that could support them would have drawn more candidates into the ministry and kept others from locating, but only at the risk of making money a motivation for preaching.  (American Saint, 176).

I was intrigued by what John Wigger terms Asbury’s belief in the “virtue of poverty.”  This seems to fly in the face of many mega-church pastors like Joel Osteen and Rick Warren who make millions of dollars a year, and other similar pastors who tout what has become known as “the prosperity gospel.”  This is a belief that if we live faithful lives that God will bless us with lots of money.  However, when I read the gospels I have never heard Jesus say, “Follow me…and I will make you rich.”  Though, I do recall at least one instance where Jesus told a wealthy young man to sell his possessions and follow him.

My Greek professor at Duke, Dr. James Efird, always had some useful comments about money and the church.  “Do you want the pagans to have all the money!” he once remarked.  I have to say that no, I don’t want the pagans to have all the money.  However, I think Asbury might be on to something when speaking about the virtue of poverty.   Asbury didn’t worry about money.  His worries were about the church and the fate of the souls of sinners.  Many churches in our day and time have it backwards–they worry more about money and less about people.  We would do well to worry more about such things as occupied Asbury’s thoughts and prayers, and to worry less about money and more about people.  I think that there is much for us to learn from Asbury and his belief in the virtue of poverty.  However, there can also be virtuous ways to use wealth.  Perhaps that is part of our task as the church today–to use our wealth virtuously without forgetting the virtues of poverty.