What is Money?
by Dr. Ronald Nash
Money is first and foremost a medium of exchange. As human society became increasingly more complex, it became inconvenient for humans to barter one commodity or service for another or to exchange a certain quantity of labor for a certain quantity of some commodity. No one invented money; it simply developed. People who wanted to exchange something found that it was sometimes difficult to find someone who had exactly what they wanted and who at the same time wanted exactly what they had to exchange. In order to make exchanges easier, the circle of exchanges widened from two parties to three or more. A had what B wanted; B had what C wanted; C had what A wanted. In this way, indirect exchanges began to develop. Over a period of time, specialized goods that were more difficult to trade were exchanged for goods that were more easily marketed. As a consequence, the more marketable goods became even more marketable because demand for them increased. Eventually, the most marketable or saleable of these goods acquired the function of money, a medium of exchange. Many goods have served as money. In the cultures with which we are most familiar, money tended to take the form of precise weights of such metals as gold and silver.
In this sense of a medium of exchange, money is both a social and an economic convenience. It makes complicated economic exchanges more convenient and more efficient than if each person had to barter commodities and services directly with other people. Money is an important social institution. A complex society simply could not function without some kind of common medium of exchange. Money also allows people to specialize in what they do best and thus increase their efficiency in ways that benefit both themselves and others. People no longer have to produce everything that they need in the way of food, clothes, and housing. They can concentrate on what they do best, exchange that good or service for money, and then exchange that money for whatever else they want. As people specialize in this way, their productivity is increased.
In addition to its use as a medium of exchange, money has acquired several subsidiary functions. For example, it is useful as a measure of value. Money is used as a standard by which we measure the value of various things. When a farmer goes to buy a new truck or tractor, he does not have to think in terms of the number of cattle he will have to exchange in order to acquire the tractor. He can think solely in terms of the monetary cost. Obviously, it is easier and more efficient to handle such transactions in terms of a common denominator than to engage in a continuing series of calculations in which one estimates the interrelated exchange values for a large number of items. Money eliminates the need for such complex procedures by serving as the one commodity with reference to which the price of anything can be compared.
Money is also useful as a measure of deferred payment. When selling something, it is not necessary that the seller demand full payment in the present. He may opt instead for a deferred payment in order to receive interest. Money is also useful as a store of wealth. It is an easy form by which people can save and store that part of their wealth that they choose not to consume in the present.
Given the important social functions of money, it is difficult to understand what Christians like Ellul really have in mind when they denounce money. The conviction of some Christians that money is evil appears to be grounded on several serious economic errors. Such Christians seem to have little comprehension of what voluntary economic exchange is and how it is a positive-sum game in which both parties can win in the sense of leaving the trade in better position than they were before the trade. They also seem unaware of the necessary social functions money performs as a medium of exchange, as a measure of value, and as a store of wealth. Much of Ellul’s confusion in this area seems to result from his failure to draw a clear distinction between money (anything that may be used as a means of exchange) and mammon (which is money personified and deified).
Money and Mammon
Christians like Ellul are right in warning that money can often assume a sinister power over human lives. But whenever this happens, money (something ethically neutral) has become mammon. Ellul refers to the texts where Jesus spoke about mammon (Matt. 6:24; Luke 16:31). Most people interpret Jesus’ words in these texts as teaching that money has the potential of becoming a power that can assume control over people. Ellul rejects this interpretation as insufficiently radical. In his words: “Money is not a power because man uses it, because it is the means of wealth or because accumulating money make things possible. It [money] is a power before all that, and those exterior signs are only the manifestations of this power which has, or claims to have, a reality of its own.”
Ellul appears to believe that mammon is a personal, spiritual force or power in opposition to or in conflict with God. Money is a power that “acts by itself, is capable of moving other things, is autonomous (or claims to be), is a law unto itself, and presents itself as an active agent.” One would like to think that Ellul is simply spiritualizing here, as some preachers are prone to do when their rhetoric gets the best of them. Unfortunately, that does not seem to be the case. Ellul really seems to think that money is a personal, spiritual force or power existing in opposition to the true God. Like many of the other things he says about money, many of his readers will find it difficult to believe that Ellul means what he says. Has he possibly allowed his metaphors to get the better of him?
A more sensible way of explaining Jesus’ teaching about mammon is this. Because human beings are sinners, they are capable of turning anything into an idol. Such idols can and often do assume sinister control over the people who treat them as gods. Even though money is a social institution that can be the source of much good, it—like anything else in God’s creation—can be turned into an idol. It is when this happens that money becomes mammon. On the view being suggested here, what should concern the believer is not money (something necessary for economic exchange) but improper attitudes towards money.
Ellul’s possible confusion between money and mammon may explain some other strange things he says. For example, he insists that Christians sin if they save money for their future. Given Ellul’s confusion, such a claim seems to make sense. If money is evil and if every economic transaction in the present is evil, then it is clearly just as wrong for Christians to put money aside for their future. But Ellul’s incredible claim that saving for the future is an act of unbelief is another example of his misreading of Scripture and his shallow grasp of economics. His position is reminiscent of those Christian anti-intellectuals who used to advise Christians not to worry about getting an education since Christ might return at any moment; or of misguided pietists who tell Christians not to worry about good nutrition or health habits since God has promised to take care of them. It never occurs to such pietists that one way in which God takes care of them is through their practice of proper nutrition. God clearly expects Christians to provide for themselves and their families. In fact, those who do not are said to be worse than unbelievers (1 Tim. 5:8). Fortunately, most Christians will ignore Ellul and recognize that one way in which God may take care of them is through their own saving for the future. Some who might heed Ellul’s advice will no doubt end up on public welfare, which they will then interpret as God’s way of caring for them through the use of other people’s money.
What Does the Bible Teach about Wealth?
Claims that the Bible condemns wealth or that God hates all the rich are clearly incompatible with the teachings of Jesus, who saw nothing inherently evil in money, wealth, or private ownership. While Jesus certainly condemned materialism and the compulsive quest for wealth, He never condemned wealth per se. Jesus did not teach that being rich means necessarily being evil.” Jesus did not see anything sinful in the ownership of houses, clothes, and other economic goods. He had wealthy friends and followers (Luke 14:1); he stayed in the homes of wealthy people; he ate at their tables (Luke 11:37).
A number of Jesus’ parables provide insights into his views on wealth. In Luke 16:9 and the accompanying parable, Jesus taught that His followers should use their resources with the same dedication and keen judgment as the unjust steward. In the parable of the rich farmer (Luke 12:16-21), Jesus did not condemn the farmer for making money but rather for his single-minded concern with his own wealth and happiness. The man was a fool because he was a self-centered materialist who had forgotten God; he was not a fool because he had been a successful businessman. The parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31) does not teach that a person’s eternal destiny is determined by the amount of possessions he acquires in this life. It is clear that the rich man went to hell because of a godless and self-centered life, a fact made evident by the way he used his wealth and by his indifference to the poor. The parable also implies that Lazarus was a believer. Any interpretation of the parable that suggests the poor man entered heaven simply because he was poor would contradict everything the New Testament teaches about regeneration.
Jesus’ teaching stresses human obligations that cannot be fulfilled unless one first has certain financial resources. For example, passages that oblige believers to use their resources for God’s purposes presuppose the legitimacy of private ownership. Jesus taught that children have an obligation to care for their parents (Matt. 15:3-9) and that His followers ought to be generous in their support of worthy causes (Matt. 6:2-4). It is rather difficult to fulfill such obligations unless one has certain financial resources.
Jesus often spoke about wealth without condemning it (Matt. 13:44-46; 21:33-46). When He did call on people to renounce their possessions, His statements reflected special conditions; in one instance, for example, he made this demand in a situation where people had made their possessions into a god (Luke 18:22-24). Instead of condemning wealth, then, Jesus’ teaching offered an important perspective on how people living in materialistic surroundings should view the material world. What Jesus condemned was not wealth per se but the improper acquisition and use of wealth. Every Christian, rich or poor, needs to recognize that whatever he or she possesses is theirs temporarily as a steward under God. Wealth that is accumulated dishonestly or that becomes a controlling principle in one’s life falls under God’s judgment. Wealth resulting from honest labor and wise investment, wealth that is handled by people who recognize their role as stewards under God does not.
Those who draw attention only to passages in which Jesus indicted prosperous people are presenting only part of His teaching. Jesus also praised those who through wise management and careful stewardship created wealth. We must avoid the temptation of selecting a few passages from the Gospels and attempting to show that Jesus’ views conformed to our preferred opinions and lifestyle. Jesus’ teaching about money, wealth, and poverty is extremely diverse.
Some Biblical Principles about Money and Wealth
While the Bible contains no systematic teaching on economics, it does have some important things to say about economic matters. This section of the chapter will note some of the more significant Biblical principles dealing with money and wealth.
The Creation of Wealth
As noted earlier in this chapter. Scripture does not treat either money or wealth as inherently evil. On the contrary, Christians have a mandate to create wealth. Brian Griffiths explains that God placed us in his world to “cultivate it, improve it and harness its resources for our own use. Man has been created to have dominion in this world. The urge to control, direct and manage the resources of this world is part and parcel of man’s nature and vocation. Idleness is at root alien to human personality.” (This is also known in some theological dictums as “the cultural mandate.” (MM)) God did not intend that humans simply scrape by. “God intended us to enjoy his world…no Christian should feel a sense of guilt from living in a decent house, driving a solid car, wearing a proper suit of clothes or eating a good meal. If we take seriously the fact that this world is God’s world, then the business of creating wealth has a Christian foundation.”
Since the world is God’s creation and since God placed us in such a close relationship to the material world, the creation and use of wealth is a perfectly proper activity. As Griffiths observes, “Life itself demands that we be continually involved in the process of wealth-creation. The basic necessities for living are not provided like manna; the land has to be cultivated, the sea has to be harvested, minerals have to be extracted, the city has to be supplied with services. God created us with the capacity and the desire to do all these things. Life itself, therefore, demands that we use what God has given us to provide the necessities.
The Warning About Money
While there is nothing inherently evil about money or wealth, and while the creation of wealth is a legitimate Christian concern, nevertheless the Bible contains a clear warning that money can and often does have a negative effect on people’s character and spiritual relationships. Money can be hazardous to a person’s spiritual health. While neither the parable of the rich farmer (Luke 12) nor Lazarus (Luke 16) condemn wealth per se, they illustrate the extent to which the pursuit of wealth can damage a human soul. In Matthew 13:22, wealth was one of the things that choked the growing seed. The rich young ruler could not bring himself to renounce his wealth in order to follow Jesus (Luke 18:18-23). The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil (1 Tim. 6:10).
Brian Griffiths, whose defense of wealth-creation has been noted, also recognizes the peril of wealth. “The mere fact of owning wealth tends to produce a spirit of arrogance and self-reliance. Success tends to breed a philosophy of possessiveness: things become mine, my money, my property, my company, my work force. Wealth gives people a false sense of security; it deadens the life of the spirit; it makes people unresponsive to the good news of the gospel.”
Without question, then, the pursuit of money can become an obstacle that can make it difficult or even impossible for some to enter the Kingdom of God (Mark 10:25). Concern with wealth can encourage the development of such character traits as arrogance, selfishness, self-satisfaction, materialism, and a total indifference to the plight of the needy. Money has the potential of becoming a god that competes for our devotion and commitment.
The Doctrine of Stewardship
Human beings are only stewards of their possessions. Since God is the Creator of all that exists. He ultimately is the rightful owner of all that exists (Psa. 24:1; Job 41:11). Whatever possessions a human being may acquire, he holds them temporarily as a steward of God and is ultimately accountable to God for how he uses them as well as for how he acquires them. Christians have a duty to use their resources in ways that best serve the objectives of God’s Kingdom (Matt. 25:24-30; Luke 19:11-27).
The doctrine of stewardship is consistent with the human right to private property. In fact, the Biblical norm is not collective or state ownership but private ownership. Many who notice that God ordered the land of Israel to be divided among Jewish families somehow miss the point that this clearly made property rights within Israel private and not public. While the Old Testament views God as the ultimate owner of all that exists, it also teaches that God passed delegated ownership rights on to families.
Unfortunately, the doctrine of Christian stewardship is often misused by Christian Leftists in an attempt to justify the aggrandizement of the state, a necessary step in the implementation of their political ideology. In such a view, the enhancement of social justice requires the transfer of increasing degrees of authority, power, and money to the government that alone has the compassion and the means to take care of the poor. In this way, Christian stewardship is perverted into a doctrine that obliges Christians to surrender their judgment, will, and resources to the state which, in the view of the Religious Left, becomes God’s surrogate on earth.
The Obligation to Share
The followers of Jesus are responsible for those they can help (Matt. 25:31-46). Jesus’ disciples were to demonstrate a constant willingness to share their possessions with others (Luke 6:29, 30). However, the New Testament says nothing about this sharing being coerced by the state. Once Christians acknowledge their obligation to care about the poor and to take action on behalf of the poor, the next question concerns the best means to do this. I take it that acceptable means in this matter will result in actions and programs that work, not just in the short run, but in the long run. There are certainly times when the poor do require help in the form of cash and noncash benefits in the present, in the short run. But a system of “aid” that encourages people to become dependent on the dole, that robs the poor of any incentive to seek ways of helping themselves, that leads the poor into a poverty trap, is hardly a model of genuine compassion or of wise public policy. Exception must be taken to those Christians who insist that the only approved means of easing poverty is a welfare state, especially when such measures are now known to be so counterproductive.17
The Call for Justice
Christians have an obligation to seek justice both on a personal level and on the level of the structure of society. The God of the Bible is a God of justice (Deut. 10:17, 18). God’s people are to rectify instances of economic injustice (Jer. 22:13-17; Lev. 19:13; Malachi 3:5; Jas. 5:4). The Bible clearly condemns those who abuse economic power. The Christian Left, however, twists the Biblical call for justice in an attempt to use it as a justification for political and economic views that have no basis in Scripture. One way they do is by reading twentieth-century meanings into words like “justice.” The basic idea in the Old Testament notion of justice is righteousness. Christian radicals ignore this and attempt to read contemporary notions of distributive justice into Biblical pronouncements about justice. When the Bible says that Noah was a just man, it does not mean that he would have voted the straight Democratic ticket; it means simply that he was a righteous man. Old Testament prophets like Amos and Isaiah attacked pre-minor premise, “Capitalism is unjust.” Therefore, the Bible does not teach the conclusion that “God condemns capitalism.”
The Biblical principles we have noted make it clear that Christians are to beware of the enticements of money and wealth. They should beware of allowing their necessary relationship with money to become so important that they fall victim to acquisitiveness, materialism, selfishness, or idolatry. Christians should remember that whatever they have, they possess it temporarily as a steward of God. They should share with those less fortunate than themselves;
they should practice economic justice, encourage economic justice on the part of others, and seek to correct instances of economic injustice. But none of this implies that Christians are to shun money and wealth as necessary evils. In spite of the dangers that accompany money and wealth, Christians are called to create wealth and then make certain that they use it in ways that are consistent with their other Christian obligations.
Ronald Nash, Poverty and Wealth (Pages 160ff)) (Dr. Nash was a teacher at Reformed Theological Seminary in Oviedo, FL before his death.)