by Rod D. Martin
June 5, 2011

There is no such thing as materialism; or at least, it’s not what you think.

Oh, I don’t mean there’s no such thing as philosophical materialism, the idea that there is no supernatural and we’re all just matter in motion, random atoms bumping off one another. Feuerbach’s materialism is alive and well, foundational to socialist thought and practice from Mao Tse-Tung to Maxine Waters, and to general atheism everywhere. Nor do I mean that man never makes an idol, or worships the creature rather than the Creator. Of course he does.

But there’s no such thing as the materialism we speak of in the vernacular, that very pernicious “ism” that seems to infest so many Baptist books and Bible studies. Despite too many sermons to the contrary, no one has ever made an idol of their big-screen TV, or their bass boat, or their favorite football team.

No one worships these things. No one worships having these things.

It may seem a pedantic distinction, but it’s actually quite important. If a man is guilty of what we call materialism, then, like all other sinners since Eve, he’s actually worshiping self. He is not on his bass boat this Sunday morning because he’s made a god of boats: rather, he’s set his right to “know good and evil’ – to define it – above God’s. He is supplanting God’s right to make law, and in so doing, he is making himself his own god, at least in that small thing.

It doesn’t matter whether the man loves boats or hair shirts or positions in the church: he is making himself his idol. And we do him no favors by denouncing his symptoms instead of treating his disease.

Indeed, in attacking his “materialism”, the church strains out a gnat and swallows a camel: what matters it if we get a man to renounce the whole world but he still loses his soul? If he lacks saving faith in Christ, he makes himself his god; if he has saving faith but little more, he lacks the deep relationship the Father has for him. He lacks trust in Matthew 6:25-34’s promise of God’s perfect provision. He lacks belief in God’s sovereign ability to keep His Word in Romans 8:28. Whether through pride or fear, he is out of fellowship with a Father who loved him so much that He sacrificed His only begotten Son not just to save him but to adopt him.

Talking about TVs and bass boats not only misses the point, it actually obscures it.

Now of course there are real physical idols in the world. The Bible is full of them; so is India. But a real idol is not merely something we like, even excessively: it’s something we wrongly endow with the attributes of God. The chief among those attributes, the one which truly defines it, is its alleged right to make law, to bind out consciences, to state what’s right and wrong. A man may worship Baal or Moloch, Pharaoh or the Communist Party, but he does not merely prostrate his body: he accepts its moral and legal code as well, or at least the code attributed to it by its priests.

Failing to grasp this distinction – or perhaps I should say, overindulging the easy metaphor of idolatry in a culture full of real ones – leads us to misdiagnose life and death problems. And this first error leads inexorably to more.

The teacher railing against “materialism” can rarely help but rant against ownership itself. Like Jefferson, he takes scissors to the inerrant inspired Word and cuts out the Parable of the Talents. He ignores the pages upon pages of God’s law both affirming and defending private property. He makes God’s material blessing of so many heroes of the faith all strange inexplicable “exceptions” to some manmade ascetic rule. He twists the lesson of Ananias and Sapphira (and for that matter of 1 Tim. 6:10) from a warning against deceit into a deceitful false teaching.

God condemns asceticism. Yet what we call our opposition to materialism is really just our adoption of asceticism, and even more ironically, our placing of an undo importance on matter (Feuerbach’s and Stalin’s philosophical materialism) rather than on the spirit. God is not concerned with how much or little you own: He is concerned with the contrition and humility of your heart, something the poor and the rich lack in equal measure.

One might joke that pastors rarely engage in these rants just before the offering. But if anything it’s the opposite: thinking in this distorted vein, otherwise sound pastors sometimes guilt themselves into avoiding preaching God’s tithe.

Worse still, they tend to reinforce a false secular-sacred distinction that exalts the work of the clergy (and its nonprofit, gift-based funding model) over the callings of the rest of the church.

Other callings? Indeed: most of us are called to other, non-clerical work, outside the church building and out in the world. The Creator God created us in His creative image, an image reflective of His nature and character. We were born creators! Adam was assigned to be God’s co-worker in creation from the very beginning, first naming (classifying) the animals and tending the new Garden, and then assigned to “be fruitful and multiply”, to spread out and make the whole empty world like that spot, that template. The Fall did not disrupt this vision: God restates it after the Flood, and indeed we see in Revelation’s New Jerusalem the shadows and fulfillment of Eden, the garden which becomes the City of God.

Man is meant to create, and thrives on creating. Our work may well look like that of a five year old “helping” his daddy in the garage – actually, it is exactly like that – but that diminishes none of its significance. God is teaching us, nurturing us, helping us understand more of His perspective, shaping us more in the likeness of His begotten Son.

Does it matter whether this finds expression in building a great missionary enterprise like Hudson Taylor, versus a great business empire like Truett Cathey? Does it matter if it leads a man to be a great youth pastor, or a woman to be a great seamstress? No: these all glorify God together and are strongly to be encouraged, just as God praised Ruth alongside Boaz the great farmer and Abraham the great sheik and Isaiah the great prophet.

But it does matter if the church falsely teaches that profit is evil. It matters a great deal if our implicit (and often explicit) teaching is that the sinner given the one talent did right by burying it – or that he might even have done better by giving it away – and that the faithful servant who finished with eleven really ought to be ashamed of himself.

We’re trying to be holier than God. And this is itself idolatry: an enthroning of self, of our word over His.

This is an error of great consequence. If a man’s church demeans the importance of his work, and worse, leaves him striving after mere things because it fails to model how to trust fully in his Savior’s promised provision, why should we be surprised to find him in his office or on the golf course Sunday morning? And if it won’t call him to any higher purpose than pop asceticism, than feeling bad about his kids’ new Xbox, might he not honestly be better off listening to Dr. Phil?

What began with sloppy usage and evolved into a modern form of a Biblically-prohibited Greek philosophy ends in its own, real materialism: pastors more concerned about our stuff than our soul, and bashing the productivity and creativity God both models and commands.

It’s time to quit railing against the family’s second car. It’s time for the church to preach total faith in God’s provision, contentment in His timing, but also that striving Paul modeled for excellence in all things, creating the world anew. This is not merely Christians’ mission but man’s created nature. It’s also a calling worth sacrificing for.

That excellence will produce profit, by the way: a lot of it, both spiritual and material. Stop being ashamed of it. Instead, glory in what God has done. Like any Father, He requires our love and obedience. But He has given us the means and the mandate to multiply whatever we start with, and to delight in the fruit of our hands. We shouldn’t demean that. We should share it with all the world.