The Common Good
May 2008

Whom Do You Serve?

by Marva J. Dawn | May 2008

A biblical framework for understanding money's grip on us -- and how to break free.

Why does money have such control over us? Before I read French theologian and social critic Jacques Ellul’s Money and Power, I thought money had little or no influence on me. I had grown up with just enough to have all I needed without getting spoiled by superfluous luxuries. Since college my life has since been filled with a passion for the hungry. Surely money wasn’t a problem for me?

But it was—and is. Ellul’s writing made it clear that we all make some kind of a god out of money. Perhaps we have too much of it and therefore hoard it. If we have too little of it, we no doubt covet it. Or—and this is the stickler—we have the right amount and are such good stewards of it that we are not generous.

That was my problem—and one of the three might be yours. Money sneaks its way into our thoughts and desires and takes over more of our time and attention (or affection) than it ought to have. There is no such thing as another god beside the one true God (1 Corinthians 8:4), the apostle Paul insists, but he also admits that “in fact there are many gods and many lords” (8:5), and money easily becomes one of those gods in our lives.

So why does money have such control over us that it becomes one of our gods? And how does our faith in Christ overcome money’s grip on us?

Principalities and Powers. Even before the time of Jesus, some philosophers recognized that wealth poses a grave danger to its possessor. Jesus used the Aramaic word “mammon” in warning against a preoccupation with money (Matthew 6:24; Luke 16:11, 13). As a re­sult of those warnings, however, most Christians have thought that money was neutral and became a problem only if people thought about it inordinately or acted to gain it immorally.

We can understand the obstacle of money more thoroughly if we recognize that it is one of the “principalities and powers.” But that biblical notion has been widely misunderstood because of various 20th-century novels that equated the powers with demons.

The biblical concept of the powers was used frequently in the early church to portray Christians’ struggles against the empire. But it began to be avoided at the time of the Reformation when Luther’s and Calvin’s struggles against different apocalyptic sects necessitated caution in treating the cosmic aspects of biblical eschatology. As theology moved toward a non-cosmic and subjective conception of Christ’s kingdom and then as modern critical tools were developed, the language of the powers disappeared.

The extremity of events in the years surrounding World Wars I and II brought the vocabulary back. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about the powers as early as 1932, and Karl Barth was a major force in restoring this concept to theological discussion. But Ellul was one of the first to specify money as one of the powers. We will see the appropriateness and benefit of that categorization as we survey what the scriptures say about the principalities and powers.

A Fallen Vocation. The following characteristics of the principalities and powers apply to such entities as governments, technology, church (and corporate) institutions, and money. Let us observe specifically how this biblical notion enables us to deal in a more godly way with money.

In the semantic domain of all the biblical terms denoting forces of evil, the grouping of principalities and powers is separate from the class of terms such as “angels” or “de­mons.” Instead, the group de­notes entities that have connections to both the human (1 Corinthians 2:8) and supernatural worlds (Ephesians 3:10, 6:12). Such things as money and technology are human constructions, but they both display a force that is more than human.

The principalities and powers are created (ultimately by God) for good (Colossians 1:16). They have a good vocation—that is, a rightful place in God’s purposes for human well-being. But the powers share in the fallenness of all creation (Romans 8:19-22), and thereby always tend to overstep their vocation. Thus, money is not neutral. Its propensity is to turn away from use for God’s purposes toward self-centered or even destructive employments.

The Bible does not define the exact essence or being of the powers. But Jacques Ellul proposed that we can recognize their functions of turning various cultural elements away from their God-given roles and toward working for harm. He suggests that God’s good purposes are thwarted when we acquiesce in evil’s methods of deception, division, accusation, destruction, power, or mammon.

The Bible does make it totally clear that Christ has triumphed over the powers (Romans 8:38-39, 1 Corinthians 15:25-26, Colossians 2:14-15, 1 Peter 3:22). Money, therefore, cannot control or dominate us as we seek to live in union with Christ. At root, the issue with the powers is a spiritual problem. To combat them, we stand against them with the armor of the Triune God (Ephesians 6:10-18), and we follow Christ in exposing and disarming them (Colossians 2:15) in order to triumph over them. For example, Jesus exposed the power of money (he was betrayed by Judas for 30 pieces of silver), along with the principalities of government and religious institutions, by submitting to the soldiers arresting Him and enduring all the sufferings of the trials, cross, and grave, until He defeated the last enemy, death.

The weaponry that Ephesians 6 describes emphasizes the importance of community in helping us to maintain our resistance to the forces of darkness. For example, we are assisted in being vigilant against the power of money in our lives if other members of the Christian community hold us accountable for our stewardship.

Love and Resistance. The powers continually interact with one another and amplify each other’s ill effects. For example, the force of money is given added weight by misunderstandings cultivated by deceptive communications, including media hype and information glut, which nurture our dissatisfactions and incite us to keep grasping for more, thus escalating into spiraling consumerism.

Each of these factors, furthermore, can develop long chains of coalescing aspects—such as political-economic confusions related to the military-industrial complex or financial forces in elections that affect who is in Congress, which then affects the U.S. budget allotments for world aid. All these interconnected powers fortify one another’s potency. Consequently, we are deluged by the power of money and suffer from a lack of discrimination and genuine meaning: We no longer know what to value, how to select what is significant for us, or how to cull the rest. We become enslaved or paralyzed. We are flooded with too many possibilities, too many commodities, and choices that are too difficult.

We can be extremely grateful that the first weapon in the armor of God (Ephesians 6:14) is the belt of truth, which exposes the powers. When we state precisely what our needs actually are and compare that to the possessions we have—and then contrast that with the needs of the world—we will far more likely set aside a larger proportion of our income for aiding the poor. Rather than putting up barriers against overspending, it is far more effective to set up a positive framework for directing our money toward specific goals—such as sending 50 percent of our income (or whatever percentage correlates with our family responsibilities) to ministries that feed the hungry, care for their medical needs, provide them with homes, and deliver them from the bondages of illiteracy and injustice (see Isaiah 58:6-7).

More generally, if our main goals in life (as suggested by Jesus’ comments in Matthew 22:34-40) are to love God and our neighbor, we can let those focal concerns guide all of our decisions about money. We can ask, for example, before each purchase, “Will this object or this choice in food or entertainment enable me to love God and my neighbor better?” I’m astounded by the extent to which such a question cuts to the truth of my stewardship and assists me to be more faithful.

Rejoicing in Christ’s eternal victory over the principalities through His death and resurrection, we are set free both to resist the power of mammon ourselves and to expose it for the sake of those around us. We can steward our own money for the sake of those in need throughout the world and enable others to see the idolatries that are connected to mammon. Thanks be to God.

Marva J. Dawn was a teaching fellow in spiritual theology at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, and author of Powers, Weakness, and the Taber­nacling of God and Unfettered Hope: A Call to Faithful Living in an Affluent Society when this article appeared.

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