J. W. McGarvey: On Money

The following is part of an ongoing commentary on J. W. McGarvey’s Sermons Delivered in Louisville Kentucky. For an introduction to and table of contents for the series, see Happy Birthday, J. W.
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Admittedly, I find matters of church finance to be a great deal less inspiring than questions of providence or even baptism. Yet, McGarvey rightly notes that it is the “experience of all religious bodies” to struggle with money, so much so that “the very first sin and scandal within the Church in Jerusalem was connected with its financial matters–the sin of Ananias and Sapphira.” It is appropriate, therefore, that McGarvey should take time in his sweeping homiletical programme to say a few words about money. Thankfully his sermon does not take the form—as so many modern ones do—of a thinly veiled appeal to boost donations.

McGarvey’s first point is to define the biblical principles which ought to guide regular contribution for church maintenance. The first is stewardship, which is more often than not a euphemistic way of attributing theoretical ownership to God while claiming all practical rights for humanity (e.g. the stewardship of natural resources). In McGarvey’s estimation, however, a proper understanding that humanity truly owns nothing in the world and that everything is owned by God would radically redefine the way Christians deal with their money. “Don’t you suppose there would be reproduced in that congregation [that understood stewardship] the liberality of the first Church?” The absence of that liberality with God’s goods by Christians is perilous for Christians; just consider the parable of the unjust steward.

The second principle is proportionality, tied closely to the third principle of equality. First, God has commanded that all give proportional to the degree they are blessed or burdened. There is no fixed fee for membership in the church, and God has made allowance for times of fiscal hardship just as He has proportional expectations for times of great blessing. “If I am to give to the Lord of that which he has entrusted to my hands for the time being, it follows, as a necessary conclusion, that the amount I am to give is proportioned to the amount which He gives me.” Yet, proportionality is not intended to shift the burden onto the blessed. Even as there is a quantitative disparity between the duties of the rich and the poor, everyone shares equally the command to give. This is not the US tax code; there is no line beneath which you are no longer expected to contribute. Even the widow offered her mite.

After listing the principles which ought to govern church contributions, McGarvey takes a moment to remind his audience that the Christian’s fiscal responsibility to the church does not nullify the Christian’s fiscal responsibility to the world. To be in Christ is to be committed not only to the body of Christ but to the world which Christ came to save:

With these principles to govern us, I do not think it will be very difficult for us to decide what is the best way to secure from the members of a congregation that portion of their funds which is necessary to carry on the work of the Church. I am guarded in saying that portion of what they have, because I do not think it can ever occur in this country (it certainly can very seldom occur) that all the giving to be done by the members of a congregation is that which is necessary for its own regular and current expenses. Of course, that must be met. But what man is there that is willing to be contented with that? What man who loves the Lord, and desires to do some good in the world, is willing, while giving what he ought for his own congregation, to never give a cent for the broad, outlying world that is perishing in sin for the want of aid from those who have the knowledge of the truth? The home demand can not bound the liberality and the benevolence of any man or woman who has a heart to feel for the suffering and dying nations of the world. A man can not be contented to give to the treasury of his own congregation what is necessary to keep it up, and refuse to give to the suffering poor in the city. Our benevolence must reach out beyond the narrow circle of our own congregation’s wants.

It is here that McGarvey makes a contentious suggestion, controversial in his own day and exponentially more so in our own: “Just here let me remark, that I find men all over the country in the churches, who think that they are not responsible to anybody except God, as to their giving;–Nobody’s business but mine and my God’s. I wonder if those men could give a reason why a man should be held accountable by the authorities of the Church for all the other sins he is guilty of, or maybe guilty of, and not be held accountable for this particular sin…The Church has greatly sinned in not dealing with them as it ought. The time is coming when we shall deal with them more faithfully.” In our own time, there is a prevailing sentiment that every sin is “nobody’s business but mine and my God’s.” McGarvey was lucky enough to live in a time with the more biblically defensible worldview that sin was a community matter among the members of Christ’s body. If we believe that—or, in the case of the modern church, if we can reclaim that belief—it is difficult to circumvent McGarvey’s suggestion that what we do with our money ought to be just as much a matter for concern among the brethren as the much more popular topic of what we do with our genitals.

Finally, McGarvey turns his barbs to his own ilk, preachers. Insofar as he hoped from the beginning that this sermon series would be a homiletical aid for young minister for generations to come, this exhortation rings especially true:

I am afraid that we preachers are not as faithful as we ought to be in dealing with this subject in the pulpit. I have myself tried to be, and consequently I have never yet lived and labored regularly for a congregation that was not a liberal one. I remember an incident told me by an aged brother when I was a young preacher, which often comes to me in this connection. There was a man about to die, the richest man in the congregation. He sent for his preacher. When he came, he said, “I want you to read and pray with me; I think I am going to die.” The preacher sat down, and not recalling at once any particular passage to read, opened the book at random. His eye fell on this–“Lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust do corrupt, and where thieves breakthrough and steal. But lay up for yourselves treasures in Heaven.” He said to himself, I will not read that to the dying man; he will think I am hitting at his great failing. So he gave the leaves a flirt at random to another place, and the first passage his eye fell on, was the story of the man who was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day, but who, when he died and was in hades, lifted up his eyes in torment. He would not read that. Then he flirted the leaves towards the back of the book, and the first passage was this: “But they that desire to be rich fall into a temptation and a snare and many foolish and hurtful lusts, such as drown men in destruction and perdition.” The preacher’s conscience began to hurt him now. He felt as if the Lord was dealing with him. He said to himself, maybe it is the intention of the Lord that I should read these very passages. So he read this last passage; he turned back to the story of the rich man and read that; he turned back to the passage in the sermon on the Mount and read that; and when he got through, the dying man looked up at him and said; “Why haven’t you called my attention in your sermons to these passages? You know, and I know, that they strike the very sin of my life, and you have been unfaithful to me.”

What is there to unite these seemingly disparate threads? McGarvey offers very little in the way of an explicit overarching theme. He concludes with an uncharacteristically short invitation with an all-too-familiar tie-in to the trustworthiness of God, but for the most part his musings on church finances show no signs of coherence. In truth, however, there is an obvious principle which undergirds all of them: the Christian use of money is essentially a matter of ethics. That is not all that revolutionary a suggestion, at least in its formulation, and yet McGarvey applies it with remarkable consistency to push the bounds of Christian thought on money. If improper use of money really is a sin, why do we marginalize it in our ethical discourse? Why do we care more about a man’s divorce records than his tax records? Why are we not afraid to condemn homosexuality but terrified to preach that it is harder for a rich man to get into heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of the needle? That last one is easy: American Christians are more likely to be affluent than sexually aberrant. Undoubtedly that is the motive behind all marginalization of monetary ethics. In an American society that worships the unbridled power of wealth, our pulpits are conspiring to teach the church how to serve two masters. Unfortunately, we’ve been told that doesn’t work. It was perhaps a little easier for McGarvey, who was born into a Southern society that, at least in his youth, still had a built-in cultural critique of Yankee capitalism and “mammonism.” How much harder is it today to hear the truth of his message?

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