An Ethical Primer on Wealth and Poverty

Along the spectrum of understandings of Wealth and Poverty among Christians, there are two common errors. The first is asceticism, which presents the idea that the poor are more holy than the rich. The second has recently been labeled the Prosperity Gospel, which equates material wealth with spiritual blessing. 


It is easy to figure out how people fall into the trap of asceticism. Some key passages from Scripture point toward wealth as a trap that can lead to sin; Jesus and his disciples lived a very minimal lifestyle, with no concern for possessions to speak of; Jesus himself taught that following him implied self-denial (Luke 9:23). The result of this has been the error of asceticism, which is the teaching that self-denial is the key to holiness and that owning possessions is sinful.

There are some problems with this position. First, there are a number of materially wealthy individuals in Scripture who are presented as heroes of the faith. Examples include Abraham, David, and Job (at times). The key is that their possessions were not the ultimate purpose of their lives. Second, there are passages that show that God provides material wealth to some people as a blessing. 

Prosperity Gospel

The opposite extreme from asceticism is known in our day as the prosperity gospel. The prosperity gospel teaches that being holy necessarily results in material blessings in the form of health and wealth. There are a number of contemporary teachers who offer us our best life now, but there are biblical examples of this found in people like Job’s friends (who assumed his sickness and impoverishment were a direct result of sin in his life) and the Pharisees (John 9). 

There are many, many problems with this position. First, Job was “faultless” and yet God allowed Satan to test him by taking away his wealth. Second, Paul was poor and he told Timothy to be content with basic necessities for life (1 Tim. 6:6–10). Third, Jesus was poor (cf. Matt 8:20).

Biblical Witness to Wealth and Poverty

Scripture has more to say about the subject of wealth and poverty than about any other specific topic. By most counts there are over 2000 verses in Scripture that talk about wealth and poverty. This means that we will certainly only cover a small minority of the verses in Scripture about wealth and poverty.

First, we should understand that God is sovereign over the quantity of our material possessions:

You shall remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your fathers, as it is this day. (Deut 8:18)
The LORD makes poor and makes rich;
he brings low and he exalts. (1 Samuel 2:7)
The rich and the poor meet together;
the LORD is the maker of them all. (Proverbs 22:2)

Next, we should understand that the love of wealth, either gaining or maintaining it, is a sin problem:

‘And you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife. And you shall not desire your neighbor’s house, his field, or his male servant, or his female servant, his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.’ (Deut. 5:21)
For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs. (1 Tim 6:10)

Wealth isn’t an ultimate good in itself, and we should pursue holiness as our primary goal: 

Better is a little with the fear of the LORD
than great treasure and trouble with it (Proverbs 15:16)
Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away. For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits.” (James 1:9–11)

However, poverty is not a good thing. We should work diligently and enjoy the benefits of our labor:

How long will you lie there, O sluggard?
When will you arise from your sleep?
A little sleep, a little slumber,
a little folding of the hands to rest,
and poverty will come upon you like a robber,
and want like an armed man. (Proverbs 6:9–11)
A rich man’s wealth is his strong city;
the poverty of the poor is their ruin. (Proverbs 10:15)

Ultimately, whether rich or poor, we should trust in God’s sufficient provision:

And he said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? If then you are not able to do as small a thing as that, why are you anxious about the rest? Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass, which is alive in the field today, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith! And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be worried. For all the nations of the world seek after these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things will be added to you.

“Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (Luke 12:22–34)

Even in the heavens and new earth, different people will have degrees of responsibility and blessing:

When he returned, having received the kingdom, he ordered these servants to whom he had given the money to be called to him, that he might know what they had gained by doing business. The first came before him, saying, ‘Lord, your mina has made ten minas more.’ And he said to him, ‘Well done, good servant! Because you have been faithful in a very little, you shall have authority over ten cities.’ And the second came, saying, ‘Lord, your mina has made fi ve minas.’ And he said to him, ‘And you are to be over five cities.’ (Luke 19:15–19)

There is a great deal more that could be said about the topic of wealth and poverty, but here are a few principles we can find in the passages we just read:

1.    The degree to which we are wealthy or poor is dependent on God’s sovereign plan.
2.    God will always provide us what we need to do his will. (Sometimes his will is for us to glorify him through suffering.)
3.    There is nothing wrong with possessing material wealth as long as we view it as a tool for serving God.
4.    However, material wealth should never be pursued as an end in itself nor for selfish gain.