On a Sunday morning last year, I met a visitor named Obadiah who is a homeless preacher in the South Austin area. He came in about halfway through the class I was teaching and stayed to talk with me afterwards. He railed against the materialism of the ancient Romans and the educational elitism of the ancient Greeks, arguing that both adversely affect churches everywhere today. He advocated a radical departure from culture as we know it, leaving everything behind and just following Jesus. I agreed to a point. What bothered me about Obadiah’s diatribe is not that it was against materialism or intellectual elitism; it was anti-materialistic and anti-educational.
Anti-Materialism. It is true that the Bible contains numerous warnings about the dangers of materialism (Matt. 13:22), ranging from over-dependence (1 Tim. 6:17) to obsession (Luke 12:15; 16:13; James 5:1-3). Materialism proves a dangerous cause of discontent that ever seeks to keep pace with, or outdo, others (cf. Ecc. 5:10). The Bible teaches that true riches are immaterial in nature (Romans 2:4; 9:23; 11:33; Eph. 2:6-7; Phil. 4:19; cf. Matt. 6:20). But we cannot dismiss the fact that numerous wealthy individuals in Scripture were also righteous. OT examples include such figures as Abraham, Joseph, and David, while the NT includes individuals such as Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus, and Lydia.
God requires the responsible use of resources, not the total rejection of them. The Bible encourages the proper acquisition and appropriate use of material possessions. Paul says that God loves a cheerful giver (2 Cor. 9:7), which implies that a person has some means from which he or she can give to others. The Bible expects a father to save his resources for his children as an inheritance (Prov. 13:22). It fascinates me that these types of individuals reject most material things when it comes to their own possessions but do not reject them when they can benefit from the same items in the possession of others (asking for donations to their causes, for instance).
Obadiah said that the Bible never claims that ministers should be paid for their work. Paul, he said, gave everything up, illustrating it by pushing his Bible away from him (I found his gesture, ironically, telling). A few people today agree. Yet in 1 Corinthians 9 Paul makes an extended case that the minister deserves support. Some might point out that Paul worked with his hands in order not to be a burden to the Corinthians, but we cannot miss his statement that while he did not accept money from the Corinthians, he did accept money from other churches so that he would not be a financial burden on those in Corinth (see Phil. 4:14-16).
Both materialism and anti-materialism are preoccupied with wealth. The difference between the two is that the former is consumed with acquisition and worship, the latter with rejection and demonization.
Anti-Intellectualism. One of the greatest challenges facing the church today is anti-intellectualism. Obadiah implied that he had been dismissed by others because he did not have a seminary degree. He dismissed the value of a formal education, thereby standing in a long tradition of anti-intellectualism in American churches everywhere. He criticized the educated, pointing to Jesus and his host of fishermen disciples as examples of unlearned evangelists. Again, this is true to a point. What is far more disturbing is that the rejection of education often seems to include the attitude that the less-educated a person is, the more godly he or she is. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
Was Jesus seminary-trained? Of course not. Did he astound the Jewish religious elite with his breadth and depth of knowledge? Absolutely (John 7:15). Jesus expected others to be familiar with Scripture also (cf. Matt. 19:4; 21:16, 42; 22:29, 31; John 5:39). We must also add the fact that Paul was extremely well-educated, enough that he could stand toe-to-toe with the Greek philosophers at Mars Hill (Acts 17). In his address, Paul uses well-constructed arguments and cites Greek authors. Had he not demonstrated a knowledge of Greek culture, he would not have won a second hearing from some of those who gathered to hear him (Acts 17:32).
Most basic Bible students understand that the Bible was not written in English. How do we have accurate translations? Because scholars spend many long years of preparation in ancient languages (not merely the biblical languages of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek but others also), ancient history and culture, and other fields necessary simply to render the biblical text into the English language accurately. In other words, an immense amount of scholarship–the very kind of scholarship the anti-intellectual rejects–is required to have a translation.
The Bible says nothing about earning degrees at a seminary or graduate school, but it has quite a lot to say about education and formal training. Jesus called people to love God with their minds (Luke 10:27). We might say that this could mean to not only learn the truths of the Bible, but to understand them and be able to articulate them clearly and with precision (cf. 1 Pet. 3:15). What is wrong with learning to do this effectively in a context of formal education? There aren’t many jobs where a person trains primarily through trial-and-error or an apprenticeship. Other occupations of all kinds require a great deal of training and formal education. The real objection here should not be that a person has received formal training, but how he treats others who have not had the same privilege–not against education, but against using education as a bludgeon.
I was disheartened by Obadiah’s message. We had to end our talk abruptly because worship was beginning. He left before the sermon, and I doubt I’ll ever talk to him again. I can only hope that he finds a more balanced and informed position. Obsession with material things and education are wrong-headed, but so is their radical rejection.
Image courtesy of Sira Anamwong / FreeDigitalPhotos.net