Money of God
(A complementary page for the God of Money)
Televangelists, mega-church leaders and other pass-the-loot pastors are skilled in making us part with our cash. When somebody reminds us that the fruits of our labours belong to God (Lev. 27:30), we don't hesitate in parting with "God's money".
Yet God's money is not the currency we usually associate with wealth. God's currency is faith and love.
And God shares His wealth, investing it in everybody on Earth. What we do with that wealth is for each of us to decide. The parable of the master giving wealth to his servants (Matt. 25:14-30 & Luke 19:12-28) relates how non-investment results in being cast into darkness.
This page, however, will look further at the material wealth that people "give to God", through the agency of the Church. A better heading for this page would be the "Money of the Church".
It exists in all major denominations and regions. It is not a new phenomenon; gold and other property have been an important part of the Church's entire 2,000-year history. How much does the Church have? God knows.
The aims of the Church are well understood, and to achieve those aims organisational structure is imperative. Institutions cost money to operate, and must have reserves for unforeseen expenses – even avoidable expenses, such as financing war, which was once a major drain on, and replenishment of, Church wealth. A more recent avoidable expense is the significant compensation payments to victims of abuse by clergy.
But that still leaves sufficient surplus wealth in the Church coffers to maintain outrageous affluence.
Where did all that money come from?
The Early Church was not so wealthy, neither were Christians. The Apostles were fishermen, artisans and peasants; not wealthy princes. Their 401(k) pension plan consisted of three goats, a leaky fishing boat and as many sons as they could father.
As the Church grew, people with more material wealth joined, but persecution until the 4th century hindered the Church from amassing significant assets. Emperor Constantine is credited in ending the persecution, allowed the institution to expand and even sponsored the erection of church buildings.
At that stage, the expansion coincided with the emergence of decadence, as denounced by Damasus I, Bishop of Rome.
Within a century, the Roman Empire in the West fell, leaving the Church in control of the political and economic aspects of society, enabling the Church to become wealthy on a grand scale. This secular responsibility and authority required the Church to levy taxes, just as nobility had done.
Tax paid by businesses and citizens to the Church is less common today, but church congregations still feel compelled to pay a tax. This is ostensibly voluntary, but pressure exists to make regular contributions for church maintenance. In some denominations this is called 'tithing', a euphemism for 'tax' or 'membership fee'. Cults especially quote Mal. 3:19-24 to emotionally blackmail their followers.
Members of European religious orders, such as the Benedictine monks and later the mendicant Dominican and Franciscan friars, took vows of poverty. But this was at an individual level. The religious orders and their monasteries themselves often became quite wealthy, powerful, and also useful in providing food, work, medical care, education, etc., to the townsfolk.
This benevolence was often reciprocated with gifts by those who could afford it, in gratitude for benefits received, or in gratitude to God for not requiring such benefits.
And today, some parishioners wish to share their wealth with others who are less fortunate and the Church organisation is in a better position to distribute their charity.
In the Middle Ages, the secular authority of the Church was very much intertwined with that of the State. This was also the Age of Discovery, colonialism, and the global scramble by several European nations to grab whatever they could before somebody else did.
The Church was very much part of this scramble by sending missionaries to convert the indigenous population. The missionaries travelled with the "explorers" (conquerors), who benefitted not only by the missionaries' superior education (in particular their ability to read and write, and their medical knowledge), but also by their conviction that the conquest was a mission for God. (Sound familiar?)
The gold, silver and other riches shipped back to Europe went mainly to the State's vaults, but the Church coffers also started to bulge further.
In many countries and regions the Church is a significant owner of land and other tangible assets. These are invested, sometimes loss-making, but since the investments are usually very long-term and the world's economy has steadily increased, overall returns in dividends, interest payments and net worth have been substantial.
Where does the money go?
Churches do not always own the property in which they operate and rents must be paid.
The maintenance costs for the countless number of properties is enormous.
There are also significant contractual obligations such as providing stipends, salaries, pensions, and other allowances and benefits that go with employment.
Not all activities are free from State tax.
Sometimes donors stipulate how their gift should be used, and the Church is obliged to honour those instructions, even if the benefit is questionable.
For example, a philanthropist may wish to pay for some artwork, even though remedial paintwork is required in a hostel for the homeless; or a bequest may provide a trust for choral scholarships, even though many local citizens could benefit from literacy classes.
In these cases the Church is merely the trustee and does not "own" the asset. The same could be said for all Church wealth.
Ah yes, and a bit goes to poor people, too.
Where does the money stay?
In many countries and regions the Church is, through inheritance, the largest landowner. Whether through bequests, coercion, or spoils of war, the Church owns not only tons of gold but also enormous tracts of land. Much of this is leased to farmers, and this provides a significant amount of income for the Church.
It makes no business sense to sell profitable land. Or if it is currently not profitable, then its low resale value means it would be worth retaining for better times in the future.
The Church is all too aware of the negative image its wealth has, particularly for people outside the Church, but many assets cannot be sold. This is not necessarily because of restrictions imposed by the source; for example, Fine Art donated by an individual or institution. Many assets owned by the Church may be priceless, but have no resale value. Not many people want to buy, for a proper price, a gigantic stained-glass window or the skeletal relic of a saint. These riches cannot feed the poor.
In any case, society as a whole rather likes to retain a few treasures. Whether it's the English Magna Carta or the United States Constitution; the public firework displays to herald the New Year; the shopping mall Christmas decorations, etc. These are all part of being human and the society that we have created for ourselves. Included, of course, is our organised religion with its cathedrals, archbishop manses and solid gold candlesticks.
We humans are irrational.
No matter how comfortable or uncomfortable our lives, we squander our money on trifles; the rich drive gas-guzzlers to prove to themselves and others that they can afford it, just as the poor buy tobacco to prove to themselves and others they can afford it.
Oh! How we love wealth!
The Church has enough valuables to raise the standard of education, health, and quality of life for millions of disadvantaged people, but we (and who else but we are the Church?) want to hold on to the treasures.
No man can serve two masters – Matt. 6:19-24
One day you see a burglar climb through your window to steal your money. What do you do?
- If you are the "What Would Jesus Do" type and the Bible is your guidebook for life, then you will give him a ride to your bank, withdraw more money and give it to him (Matt. 5:39, Luke 6:30).
- If Loving Your Enemies is not so easy you might quote Exod. 20:15 "You shall not steal", and perhaps make sure he listens by thumping him.
- If your hard-earned money is just too important for you, then you might ask him to take you along on his next expedition.
Is this latter scenario the reason why the Church colluded with the New World explorers and settlers? The Church not only stole gold and other property, but also stole people as slaves. This was not the Great Commission given by Christ when he said "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation". (Matt. 28:19, Mark 16:15)
So yes, the Church has made grave mistakes, and to be fair, some departments are trying to rectify those mistakes. There is realisation that the mismanagement of money and power has been a disaster and hugely damaging. Change is a slow, painfully expensive, process. What are we doing to help and encourage the Church in this regard?
The State seems not to be rectifying their ways. Indeed, our monetary system is designed to steal more and more. Are we doing enough to change the selfish thought process of policy makers? Are we doing anything at all? Or has our living standard become so comfortable that we are losing our instincts as humans to survive?
Ironically this parable is a favourite of the televangelists.
There is a limited amount of material wealth in the world; so if you have more of it, then others have less.
By contrast, love is unlimited. If you have more love, then others will have more love.
Note that this page was written with the Western Church in mind, though the same applies to the Eastern Church, Islam, Judaism and most other religions. And of course, practically every cult!
The internal rebellion of this extravagance culminated in the Middle Ages with the Protestant Reformation.
Catechism of the Catholic Church states:
The seventh commandment forbids unjustly taking or keeping the goods of one's neighbour and wronging him in any way with respect to his goods. It commands justice and charity in the care of earthly goods and the fruits of men's labour. For the sake of the common good, it requires respect for the universal destination of goods and respect for the right to private property.