Any review of apostolic mission must consider the way money is used. There are just so many ways in which the use of money can perpetuate structural power imbalances in the global Church. In this post, I seek to frame the conversation positively by proposing three questions which apostolic teams could use to interrogate their stewardship of God’s money for God’s mission.
- The Narrative Question: Which story is this gift perpetuating? – what habits are being reinforced? – what is the cumulative effect of this money?
Sri Lankan theologian DT Niles wrote “We must break the cycle of pride in the giver and humiliation in the receiver.” Harvey Kwiyani said “the Western Church is good at giving but not good at receiving.”
Habits are like grooves in your neurones. Think about a smoking addiction. Every time you light up, it reinforces the groove and exacerbates the problem. Good feelings reinforce behaviours. Every time money flows from North to South, it reinforces pride in the givers and humiliation/dependency in the receivers. The status quo is perpetuated. The narrative is unchallenged. Western Christians feel happy that they have sent money to solve a problem. They may fail to zoom out in their perspective to see that they are actually exacerbating a far more serious issue. To act locally whilst thinking globally means that we must stop to consider, “what story is this financial donation telling?”
I’m not saying that in individual instances this is not the right thing to do, or the expedient thing to do, or the loving thing to do. I’m saying that teams must zoom out and survey the wider scene. Money is not always the solution.
In wealthy societies there is such a prevailing belief that “money will fix it” or “cash is king”, it’s in the air and the water. And it’s not always true. Mekdes Haddis, who is an Ethiopian Christian, helpfully distinguishes between vertical generosity, which perpetuates power distance, and horizontal generosity, which expresses mutuality, give-and-take, togetherness, friendship:
“Vertical philanthropy offers the giver legacy, elitism, even huge tax credits, while horizontal philanthropy offers deep satisfaction, a sense of belonging, and a collective responsibility to help those around us. As believers we desire a relational legacy over a transactional one and must work our way back to God’s heart for giving. Western philanthropy, which is mostly vertical, can be dangerous when it moves into communities without contextualization. It tends to champion top-down charity, which exalts white saviorism. This approach makes its focus a sense of satisfaction for the giver, which is a selfish motivation of self-actualization. It comes at the cost of the receiver, which is a sure way to destroy the relational aspect of money and its ability to foster connection with others. “This kind of reciprocity is characteristic not only of American missionary work, but also of American philanthropy more generally. Donors require recipients. The more appreciative and grateful that recipients are, the more successful donors feel. And the more visible this success, the more the donor’s own status is advanced in the eyes of both peers and beneficiaries.” It is in fact very American to pursue personal happiness even while performing selfless acts such as giving to the poor.” Haddis, Mekdes. A Just Mission.
- The Patronage Question – What is the liberative effect of this money? Does this gift create Freedom or Control?
Paul, in I Corinthians 9:15, writes essentially “I would rather die than take your money.”
Peter Marshall comments, “The offer of a gift constituted an offer of friendship. While in theory it was voluntary and disinterested, it was intended to place the recipient under an obligation to repay. Acceptance was conditional; the recipient must respond with a counter-gift or service, immediately or at some later time, and numerous and popular conventions governed the behaviour of both benefactor and recipient.”
So if Paul accepts financial support from the wealthy in the Corinthian church, they will become his patrons, and he will become their client. He will be honour-bound to represent their interests. His freedom will be gone. Note, too, that Paul is not modelling the apostle as a wealthy patron, but as a dependent client.
Ciampa and Rosner explain; “Paul would no longer be free to be all things to all people, but would be expected to be what his Corinthians patrons wished.”
Richards and James, in their helpful book, “Misreading Scripture through Individualist Eyes” go into a bit more detail. “Patron-client relationships are just that, relationships. They are joined by the glue of reciprocity, just like all other relationships. But the relationship is socially or economically lopsided.”
Remember, we are talking about an honour-worldview that many in the world hold today. Reciprocation is not optional – Paul would feel honour-bound to the Corinthians as patrons, but also, however he feels, the wider world would see him as Corinth’s client. A gift to Paul is not just suggestive to Paul, but suggestive to the watching world. He is our client! We own him.
Friends tell me that this feeling of patronage obligation is very real. When churches from the West give them money, even if they are told “no strings attached, use it how you want,” recipients may feel honour-bound to use it in a way they will understand or approve of, because they see things through a patronage lens. This can rob them of contextual freedom, without the donors even being aware of it!
Sometimes donors are not aware of this dynamic: not aware of the pressure an honourable local recipient might feel, the pressure to perform, to do well, to produce the outcomes they think you want to see, to say what they think you want to hear.
Sometimes donors are aware of this dynamic: but are using money the way a dog uses urine – to demarcate territory, to say “this church is mine, this leader is mine,” to buy loyalty.
So with patronage, the core question is around freedom vs control. Is it possible to make this gift in a way that the recipient preserves their freedom, within their conscience, to do ministry as the Spirit leads?
- The Envy Question – what is the effect of this money on others in the context?
Gifts create envy. How can we mitigate this and protect one another spiritually and relationally?
One of the ugly outcomes of Western money into particular pastors, or ministries, or churches, is the imbalance it creates between the recipient and their peers. Previously non-capitalist, content communities are infected by foreign funds washing into a situation. This is widely considered one of the most destructive outcomes of foreign aid. We really, really need to think about this when making gifts of money, or funding a pastor, or even paying someone for a project or bringing them to a conference.
Money has a unique spiritual power to bring out the worst in people. So often we have seen the “survival of the fittest,” where leaders who speak English, or are good at building relationships with Westerners, or are able to travel to Western churches somehow attract funding and prominence, whilst many, many other faithful servants of Christ never have this opportunity.
I believe it is the responsibility of the Givers to think about this, to talk to others on the ground, to be more cognisant of context. The instinctive 1+1=2 of Western Christians, the assumption that giving money is always good, must be critically re-evaluated.
The recent widely celebrated response of British churches to the Ukraine crisis, in hospitality for refugees, in aid money, has also created tensions in other parts of the body of Christ. What about Syrian refugees? What about the war in Yemen? Or the Kenyan drought? Whilst this is not a reason not to respond, perhaps the volume of celebration via social media could have been toned down, so that other dear brothers and sisters who would dearly love such a response would not be caused to stumble. Perhaps Jesus’ warning, “do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,” was designed to help mitigate against envy in situations of generosity.
I appreciate that there is a danger of thinking so much about these kinds of things that it paralyses us and we don’t do what is right.
We won’t ever let idealism trump apostolic advance because we need to get on and plant churches, train leaders and break new ground, and money is a part of that.
However, what I am begging for is this:
- Slow down – expediency or problem-solving is not the only thing in play.
- Zoom out – think about the context not just the individual situation
- Consult widely, especially with local people in that context.
- Let’s help one another. Let’s interrogate one another’s decisions. Let’s find ways of being accountable, of overcoming our own blind spots. Let make sure money is not creating tensions within the wider body.