Pastors in Their Mansions
Recently I had a conversation with one of my friends whose daughter is working as an intern for a megachurch pastor who has made headlines with his gigantic private mansion. As I have observed the megachurch phenomenon over the last decade or so, I have become disturbed by how commonplace it has become for “successful” pastors to live in luxurious, large homes. I shared with my friend, who was worried about her daughter’s learning experience, that it is a red-flag in my book if your ministry is known for making you rich. [sidenote: many such pastors “defend” their decision by arguing that said mansion was purchased with their own money, not that of the church. We will get to this serious failure of logic and theology a bit later.]
Combine this trend with the recent debate over the “homeless Jesus” statue. One passerby commented that it is offensive to portray Jesus as a “vagrant.” She urged, “Jesus is not a helpless person who needs our help.” Caveat (*clearing throat*; preparing for my professorial voice) – let’s leave aside the obvious Scriptural words “the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Matt 8:20) and “he came to his own, but his own did not accept him” (John 1:11)– somebody had to take Jesus down from the cross, because at that point he was helpless. For my part, it makes all the sense in the world to have statues of a penurious Jesus if you have ever read Isaiah 53, Phil 2:5-11, and 2 Cor 8:9.
But, going back to the primary matter I want to address – given this season of Pentecost, what light might be shed on mansion-mania when we look at the work of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament?
The Spirit in the Last Days
St. Luke is noticeably passionate about two things (three, if you add Jesus!). First, he is passionate about the plight of the needy and rejected. Second, he is passionate about the work of the Spirit. And, often enough, we see these two things come together. An obvious starting point is Acts 2 – the classic “Pentecost” chapter. The apostle Peter quotes Joel 2:28-32 and includes the promise that in the “last days” the Spirit will be graciously poured out on all, “even on my slaves, both men and women” (2:18). The “even” here should underscore that God intends to level the playing field, one particularly dominated by power and wealth. How do we recognize the age of the Spirit, the equalizing redemptive activity of God, when pastors are living it up in mansions? Luke should remind us that our eschatology and pneumatology should hit us right where we live (literally).
The Spirit of Shared Wealth
Not long after the Spirit permeates the community of Jesus, there is a strong impulse towards commonness, sharing of goods and property. How can we read Acts 2:44 while we live in palaces and others in our church community struggle to survive? One might respond: the struggling and poor ought to speak up, ask for money from the church. That’s not what Luke says that these early churches did. They seemed to be compelled to share with each other as a foundational vision of the age of the Spirit of the Lord. Notice how the Common English Bible translates how the church expressed its unity in 4:31: “The community of believers was one in heart and mind. None of them would say, ‘This is mine!’ about any of their possessions, but held everything in common.”
I am not advocating shared bank accounts and no sense of personal possessions, but we must heed the spirit of the text – the model leaders of the church cannot stand out as the wealthy ones, as the ones living in luxury. Here is an easy litmus test: If Jesus were to come back to earth and commit himself to living in your community for a year, where would he live? If you say, that mansion of there, you need to brush up on your understanding of the nature of the upside-down kingdom. If you say, that poor family’s small home, “you have chosen wisely” (so says the ancient knight from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade). Remember 2 Cor 8:9 – though he [Jesus] was rich, he became poor for your sakes. God doesn’t want poor people to be poor to make them miserable. He wants a community of mutual support, and in a broken, fallen world this requires sacrifice on the part of the extra-blessed, and that includes pastors. (I did live in England so this might sound socialistic, but I cannot help but feel convicted when I read 2 Cor 8, especially 8:13: “It isn’t that we want others to have financial ease and you financial difficulties, but it’s a matter of equality”).
Whose Money Is It Anyway?
Some pastors have defended their mansions by noting it is book sales that funded the home, not pastorate salary or “the church’s money.” When did we start making Christian spending the difference between public and private, church and personal? That sounds much too dualistic for my taste. When Jesus left his luxurious throne to become “like a slave” (Phil 2), he made no public/private distinction. It was not just his “public” self that died on a cross. It was not just “Jesus as Messiah” that was crucified – it was all of Jesus that died, he was entirely crucified. His scars do not merely remain on his “public self,” but his one body, even his resurrected body.
My day-job is to train pastors, and I would consider it a massive failure on the part of my seminary if we ever gave students the impression that any money they had (even if they won the lottery!) was “my money.” 1 Cor 4:7: “What do you have that you did not receive [from God]?” Notice how Paul labored day and night as a tentmaker (1 Thess). And yet I doubt he ever thought of those earnings as “private income” for “personal use.” Let alone if Paul sold Christian books!
When men and women become Christian leaders, they enter a sacred and solemn vocation that especially renounces worldliness in all its forms, luxury as defined by society (1 Tim 3:3). One last text should drive this point home: in Revelation 3 the Spirit (of Pentecost!) says to the church of Laodicea, “You say, ‘I am rich. I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing,’ but do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked” (3:17). The church is told to “buy gold from me refined by fire” (3:18). It is hard to know exactly what this means, but it seems similar to Luke 12:21 where Jesus tells the people not to live according to mortal riches, but to be “rich towards God” – as the New Living Translation puts it, to “have a rich relationship with God.”
So, in this season of Pentecost, let us praise God the Spirit for being generous, but let us be fully content with the richness of simplicity and the blessedness of sharing our mortal wealth.
And if Christ could be content to make his home in our “lowly” human bodies (Phil 3:21), may our pastors reflect the same domicile humility.