Judging According to the Flesh

A recent blog post (at a site to which I will not link and will not name because it thrives on drawing attention to itself with trumped up stuff like this) attempted to make the case that the financial health of a ministry is a good barometer of the compromise or fidelity of that ministry. The author crudely labeled his categories “winners” and “losers” based on whether a financial website showed them having more revenue than expenses (the winners) or more expenses than revenues (the losers). In his simplistic view of things, losing money is the result of compromising in some way and “making a profit” was the result of remaining faithful.

When I first saw the post, a few things went through my mind: (1) not surprising; (2) more of the same “throw the kitchen sink” stuff; and (3) I hope someone points out the folly of his argument. I was glad to see the basic argument was challenged, but again not surprised to see the point of that challenge dodged. In fact, not only was it dodged by the lame excuse to be looking at it from a businessman’s perspective (rather than theologically), the author added to the problem by insinuating that people should be wary of recommending a certain ministry because its financial position might become worse.

I really did try to set the blog post aside, but it touches on some ideas that have long been a concern to me, so I’m going to push back on it. I’m going to do it on the level of ideas, not specific people or organizations, because that is what I am concerned about. I’d like to offer three criticisms regarding the approach used in that blog post.

A Carnal Means of Judging
By looking at revenue versus expenses, the standard for judging faithfulness is shifted away from the Bible to the apparent prosperity (or lack of it) a ministry is experiencing. Increased numbers are assumed to be evidence of God’s blessing. Decreased numbers are assumed to signal the removal of God’s blessing.

The shallowness of this approach should be obvious. Many unbiblical, even heretical, ministries show abundant evidence of financial and numerical growth–something which God is allowing, but I hope we would never call it a sign of His blessing! Many solidly biblical, enduringly faithful ministries find themselves caught in a vice of demographic shifts and/or economic downturns, so their “numbers” are down–are we to assume that God is acting against these faithful brothers?

I wish the blog post which triggered this response were an anomaly, but the fact is that evangelicalism and fundamentalism have a long tradition of using visible results as a means of judging spirituality and fidelity. And we have almost as long a track record of terrible misjudgments based on such carnal standards–from J. Frank Norris to Jack Hyles it was too often assumed that a big church means some special endorsement of “God’s man” and his ministry. And it is not just Fundies who have erred like this. How many times was Mark Driscoll’s crudeness and arrogance defended because of how God was blessing the work out there?

To turn it around and critique the faithfulness of ministries based on shrinking numbers is still the same carnal approach. It assumes that it can read God’s mind and treats prosperity as the litmus test of fidelity. That mindset reveals an ignorance of the Scriptures. Isaiah and Jeremiah stand as examples of faithfulness called by God to serve Him in a dark, seemingly fruitless day. Jonah stands as a example of self-centeredness, yet saw the hand of God do something incredible. Faithfulness sometimes does not meet with great visible fruitfulness. Sometimes God blesses His Word in spite of the instruments who proclaim it. The only true test of faithfulness is the Word itself, not the visible results which accompany its ministry.

A Faulty Means of Judging
A second problem with the approach used in that blog post is that it is an incomplete picture of reality. Revenue versus expenses simply does not tell the full story of health for any organization, especially ministries. I’ll grant that nobody wants to have the numbers be negative, but the real questions have to do with what that negative number means and why it is there.

I’ll illustrate from our church and its ministries. Several years ago, the Lord graciously provided us with a very significant influx of money due to the sale of some property. In an effort to be good stewards of that gift from God, our congregation decided to set two million dollars aside in a fund designed to advance missions around the world. We call it the Next Step fund because its purpose is to help a few mission fields where we are heavily involved to take the next step toward full indigenization. The fund was set up as a 10 year project, so we are spending principal and interest from it.

Practically, that means that we incur more expenses annually from that project than we do revenue to pay for it–it’s like we’re spending from our savings account. That also means that the bottom line for our church doesn’t look too good unless you know what is happening. In fact, it makes for fun at most of our business meetings as we explain that we really didn’t overspend by that much money! Our revenue, thankfully, continues to meet and exceed the need of our regular operating budget expenses, but it doesn’t match all of our expenses (which include a six figure number each year connected to the Next Step program). To the uninformed eye it looks like we’re in bad shape, but to the informed eye there is a very easy answer for that.

Now, I don’t now the details of the ministries which the blog author had declared losers because their revenue was short of their expenses, but I do know that a couple of them have reserve funds like we do. That means that there is a good possibility that simply showing revenue versus expenses misrepresents the true state of their financial condition. They, like us, may have temporary expenses which are already paid for by reserve monies. In other words, the author has used a very inaccurate means to draw very dogmatic and potentially deceptive conclusions.

A Sinful Means of Judging
My third problem is that the whole tenor of the blog’s argument is innuendo and serves functionally as spreading rumors about the ministries which he targets. That became apparent when he insinuated that students and parents should think twice before enrolling at one of the schools that he targeted. Of course, when you only “suggest” that there might be problem or that the school might not be able to continue, you can always run to hide behind the fact that it was only a suggestion.

Let’s be honest here. “Suggestions” like that are innuendos intended to harm the reputation of their object. It is a coward’s device used to spread negative news while acting like you’re not. It happens in our culture all the time, but it shouldn’t happen among God’s people. The people and ministries that are being targeted by these suggestions deserve better. They deserve to be evaluated squarely on the Scriptures and their continued existence should be left in God’s hands, not be influenced by the dirty tricks of people who don’t agree with or like them.

The specific occasion for my post is the illegitimate criticism of ministries found in one blog post, but the fact is that I have seen this same kind of thing done for years. Men and ministries too often suffer marginalization by innuendo and unbiblical means of evaluation. The idea seems to be that if you can’t make the case from the Bible definitively, then whisper a few tidbits that will raise doubts about the integrity or validity of their ministry. Brothers and sisters, that approach should not be acceptable or tolerated.

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