What should we think of flashy pastors? That’s the question this Monday morning from a listener named Emily. Emily writes in to ask this: “Pastor John, thank you for sharing your wisdom with us all on this podcast. Recently, social media accounts have surfaced and gained quite a bit of attention which show numerous well-known pastors wearing extremely expensive and flashy clothes, shoes, watches, etc. These accounts have raised controversy about whether these leaders are justified in doing this.
“Many say they should be able to use the money they make however they please. Or that these items are gifts. But others are offended by their luxurious lifestyles and argue that regardless of how a pastor obtains these things, they should still be demonstrating humility and reverence toward their congregations and toward those who are struggling to simply survive. Many think their lavish lifestyles discredit Christ. First Peter 3:3 seems to allude to this issue. But I’m curious, what other texts of Scripture speak to this? And where do you stand on it all?”
Well, there’s no question where I sympathize here. My sympathies have been made clear over the years with regard to simplicity and wartime lifestyle. I get angry when I see pastors flaunting their luxury as if it were a compelling testimony that Jesus is more satisfying than what money can buy. Baloney. It’s appalling.
So let me say loud and clear, right off the bat: nobody is drawn to Jesus as the spiritual, saving, satisfying treasure of their souls by the luxurious lifestyle of those who supposedly preach the word — nobody. What people are drawn to in preachers who make much of their luxury is the hope of luxury. That’s what they’re drawn to — the hope of luxury.
Go and Tell
This is not Christianity. Christianity is to be drawn to a crucified and risen Savior whose greatness and beauty and worth in himself are so admirable and so satisfying that the heart cries out with the psalmist in Psalm 63:3, “The steadfast love of the Lord is better than life.” Yes, and everything in this life. You cannot commend the truth that Jesus is better than money by giving the impression that you live for money.
“You cannot commend the truth that Jesus is better than money by giving the impression that you live for money.”
A decisive turn happened in redemptive history with the coming of Jesus that makes it invalid to use the lavish temple of the Old Testament, the priestly robes, the gold-plated utensils, and the lavish curtains as a model for contemporary church buildings or Christian living. It’s invalid. The Old Testament was by and large a come-see religion. The Queen of Sheba was breathless at the wealth of Solomon. But the New Testament is largely a go-tell religion.
Unlike the Old Testament, the Christian church has no temple, no geographic center like Jerusalem, no ethnic identity like Jewishness, no theocentric civil structure that puts people to death for impieties. We are a pilgrim people, exiles and refugees scattered among the nations with the grand mission given by the Lord Jesus to make disciples of all the peoples of the world. And we’re not done with that.
Not All That Glitters
This revolutionizes the way we think about money and use our resources. It all tends toward the simplicity of wartime living, where we strategize to glorify God by finishing the Great Commission and evangelizing our cities and showing love to our neighbors. The New Testament is relentless — it’s just amazing; just read it — in pushing us toward simplicity and economy for the sake of Christ and away from luxury and away from affluence and finery. For example:
- Luke 6:20, 24: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. . . . But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.”
- Luke 8:14: “They are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life.”
- Luke 9:58: “The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”
- Luke 12:15: “One’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”
- Matthew 6:19: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth . . . but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven.”
- Matthew 6:25: “Do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?”
- Luke 12:31: “Seek his kingdom, and these things will be added to you.”
- Luke 12:33: “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.”
- Luke 14:33: “Any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.”
- Luke 18:24: “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”
- James 2:5: “Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom?”
That’s the refrain over and over and over throughout the whole New Testament, and even in those places — and there are only a few — where wealthy Christians are directly addressed, like 1 Timothy 6:17. The message is to be thankful to God for all of your legitimate enjoyments, and be filled with good deeds for those who have greater need than you.
In other words, there’s just no encouragement anywhere in the New Testament that we should accumulate and accumulate or increase the symbols of our wealth by what we wear, what we drive, and where we live. The man who builds bigger barns for what he doesn’t need is a fool. He’s a fool, Jesus says (Luke 12:20–21). The gist is this: be content with a relatively simple lifestyle. (And I say relatively because I know that virtually all Americans are rich, because the rest of the world — or two-thirds of the world — lives so close to the edge.)
“Be content with a relatively simple lifestyle.”
So, I’m talking about a relatively simple lifestyle. Make as much money as you please, and give what you don’t need for the sake of the glory of Christ and the spread of the gospel and the care of the suffering. Most of the New Testament revolves around three main concerns when it comes to teaching on money: (1) how to display the value of Christ and the gospel, (2) how to meet the needs of the lost and the suffering, and (3) how to avoid the soul-destroying dangers of wealth. So, just a word about each of those.
Treasure in Toil
First, how to display the value of Christ and the gospel. Paul said in Philippians 3:8, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing [value] of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” He wanted to live in such a way as to show that his heart was satisfied with Christ and not captured by the idol of greed. So, he worked with his hands rather than give any impression that he was fleecing the churches. First Thessalonians 2:5 says, “We never came with words of flattery, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed.” We weren’t using our ministry as a cover-up for our love of money.
To the elders in Ephesus, he said, “I coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel. You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities and to those who were with me” (Acts 20:33–34). To the Corinthians, he said, “We are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word” (2 Corinthians 2:17). To Timothy, he said, “If we have food and clothing, with these we will be content” (1 Timothy 6:8). And then he just laid it down for all pastors that they must not be lovers of money (1 Timothy 3:3).
Now the point of all those words was to remove every obstacle to believing the gospel, and to show the superior worth of Christ over all earthly possessions, and to set an example for the believers of self-denial and a happy embrace of sacrifice for the sake of love. Because, as Jesus said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). Anybody who’s been walking with Jesus for any amount of time knows you’re going to be happier and sleep better at night the more generous you are — the less selfish you are.
Live to Give
The second main concern of the New Testament and possessions is how to meet the needs of the lost and the suffering. Jesus said, “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” (Luke 12:33).
Paul said, “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need” (Ephesians 4:28). Isn’t that amazing? In other words, don’t steal, and don’t just work to have — work to have to give. There are three levels. You can steal, you can work to have, and you can work to have to give. And he says, “Go there, Christians — go there. Live there. Live to give.”
Christians are going to inherit the entire world and everything in it. We could spend a whole session on 1 Corinthians 3:21–23. You have everything, Christian. You don’t need to grasp for it now. You’re going to get it in a vapor’s breath. This little world’s going to be over. The present world is lost without the gospel. Millions are suffering. This is the age for radical generosity and sacrifice, not the age for luxurious living.
Finally, number three, the last concern with possessions is how to avoid the soul-destroying dangers of wealth. Jesus says it’s hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of God (Luke 18:24). Paul said, “Those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction” (1 Timothy 6:9). Oh, goodness. How clear can Jesus and Paul be about the dangers of accumulation and accumulation?
So, I say it again: it is appalling that those who claim to be faithful ministers of the word of God would flaunt their luxuries — just appalling. It turns Christ from a beautiful, all-satisfying Savior into a broker who gives us what we really want — money and comfort.