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The Success of Wisdom

Posted Thursday, December 28, 2006 by Brian Beers

I have just read the powerful ideas put forth by Dan Edelen in We Need a Gospel That Speaks to Failure and advocated by the iMonk. Their contention is that the church shuns people who experience failure and elevates people who experience success. The following excerpt captures the conflict they describe:

Your church is looking for new elders. Which of these two 40-year old men has a better chance of becoming an elder, the self-made man who runs his own company OR the fellow who works the night shift as a convenience store clerk? In the split second (Blink!) you thought about that pair, did class distinction enter into your assessment? Has anything been said about the spiritual maturity of those men? Don't we assume that one is more spiritually mature simply because he runs a successful business, while the other only makes $8/hr.?

The question of how we measure success is compelling. Most of us have been offended by judgments both shallow and wrong –whether we were the one judged or just a bystander. But Edelen confuses three distinct issues in one guilt-inducing post.

 The first and primary issue is the rejection of “The Failure.” In James 2, James chastises his readers for shunning the poor. We are to care for the poor. The world will know that we are followers of Christ by our love for one another. We show this love profoundly when we come to the aid of the person who has fallen on hard times. This is the ingredient that we should actually be ashamed of.

The second issue is how we select leaders. The paragraph quoted above challenges our first impressions of what makes for a spiritual leader. Dan does not like spiritual success being profiled with the same criteria as financial success. He is right that you can’t know someone’s maturity by their employment history, but neither should we be selecting leaders from those whom we don’t know. If we have to infer their spiritual maturity from their employment or from the questions they raise in Sunday School, we do not have sufficient grounds to put them in any place of authority.

This is not to dismiss Edelen’s point. We follow leaders who will help us achieve success. However this motivation works itself out in our churches, we find that those who have achieved success financially have the character qualities we want to follow. This is not the terrible tendency that Edelen made it out to be.

This leads me to the third issue which is how we measure success. Dan sites Job as a “riches-to-rags” story compelling us to welcome catastrophe as a sign of God’s sovereignty, a sign that failure can come by something other than the fault of the person bruised by hard times. The iMonk goes farther, wishing that something could happen to us nationally to teach us this lesson. “You see, Jesus doesn’t just want us to have a theology that deals with failure. He wants to overturn the tables of our success and call us to an entirely different way of living in community. “


This unspiritual, materialistic view of success is not completely foreign to Scripture. Job and the rest of the wisdom literature attach worldly success to “spiritual” success. By the end of the book of Job, his fortunes were restored “And the LORD blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning.” (Job 42:12 ). This blessing was with financial success and more children. And then there is the fact that God’s bragging about Job started the whole mess. Perhaps God likes success. Job was rich. Abram was rich when God called him.In other wisdom literature, the point of Proverbs is to live a successful life. Avoid loose women, pick your friends carefully, work diligently, and, above all else, fear God, and you can live a successful life. The proverbs don’t teach you how to recognize success. They teach you to recognize the difference between wise methods and foolish methods for achieving success. Dishonesty in business dealings will ruin the benefit of success. Familial harmony is essential for the enjoyment of your wealth. The acquisition of wealth is not impugned – only unrighteous means are condemned.

So does financial success have any relevance when selecting church leaders?The answer lies in the universal nature of wisdom and the measurability of financial success. The wisdom that it takes to be a successful businessman has much application in the church. The ability to evaluate risks, the willingness to act, the capacity to handle stress are all of great benefit to a church. These administrative and leadership kinds of wisdom (or success) can contribute to the Godliness of the church. Unfortunately, the church has embraced the marketing kind of business success. The brash, over-inflated confidence of a few salesmen has garnered all of the attention the church can squander. And many churches have been enjoying the success of the 90’s dot.com boom. They over-promise effortless spirituality and many uncritically accept it because they so desperately want it to be true. This is the shopping channel Christianity that Edelen and the iMonk despise. But not all business is marketing, and genuine, complete business success is not contrary to Biblical Christianity. The gullibility of consumerized Americans for slick marketing does not mean that all business success should be shunned. The question of how good business sense (wisdom) can contribute to the Godliness of a church has been poorly answered.

We should not lightly esteem the value of a wise business-man in church leadership. We do need to keep in mind all of the criteria Paul laid out for church leadership, but financial success can be an indicator of a man worthy of church leadership.Edelen began his post concerned about the church’s treatment of the downtrodden, but he (and the iMonk) went on to champion the idea that financial hardship is in some way virtuous. If we want to actually help the downtrodden, those who are in difficult straights, we need financial resources. Those who are financially responsible and therefore successful can provide for those in need and teach  others to be faithful with what God has entrusted to them.

Friday, December 29, 2006 10:05 AM

Charlie wrote:  Good thoughts, Brian. I few other thoughts on the same line include the importance of providing for one's family. If a man is not providing for his family, then he is not worthy of leadership. We also want leaders who are are leading, and leading involves action and taking initiative. While a person could have lots of initiative and still work a mininum wage job at 40, the chances are against it. Once again, the explicit directions of Scripture are more important, but all of a person's life should be considered when they are being examiend for leadership.

Monday, January 01, 2007 6:30 PM

Brian wrote: 

I thnk you are exactly right, Charlie. The whole context of a persons life will turn out to be consistent. The way they provide for their family reveals how they will care for the church. If a man is content with mediocrity in how he provides for his family, he will be satisfied with mediocrity in how he leads the church.

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