zero sumEver had this happen to you? You are attending a worship service and the pastor gives a special welcome to Mr. X who happens to be one of the following:

1. A senior politician.

2. Very rich.

3. A successful sportsman

4. A professional highly regarded in his field.

5. Some combination of the above, but definitely rich and powerful.

There were other people visiting but only Mr. X is given a special and warm welcome. How do you feel?

I squirm and want to scream: “No, no, no!!! This is wrong. Don’t give people special recognition in church just because they have clout out in the world.”

I have been a pastor/church leader before. I know how this works. If Mr. X joins the church it means:

1. What a great church we have. See, even Mr. X worships here. Don’t you want to worship here too?

2. Boy if we ever had a fund raising programme Mr. X could cover the whole budget with his small change.

3. Hey, if ever the local authorities hassle us in our building programme I am sure Mr. X has enough connections in high places to help us cut through the red tape.

So what’s the big deal?

1. It puts the focus on what Mr. X can do for the church rather than on what the Lord has done, continues to do, and will do, for Mr. X. If down the line, Mr. X wants to bless the Lord and His work out of his resources as an act of gratitude, great. But let’s keep a sense of proportion. The focus is on helping Mr. X understand how much God has already done for him. Hey, he needs God. God doesn’t need him.

2. It makes Mr. X feel that he is welcomed and loved only for what he can give not for who he is. Mr. X gets this all the time in the world. He thought that the church would be different. He thought that the church would be the one place where people, and God, love him for who he is. There goes our chance to help Mr. X understand God’s unconditional love. Instead we want to use him, just like everybody else.

3. It reveals to Mr. X, the rest of the church, and the world, the true value system of the church. It shows that under a spiritual veneer the church is not much different from the world. In the church and in the world, the rich and powerful are the really important people. In the church and in the world there are 1st and 2nd class citizens.

4. It shows the world that the whether God really exists or not is up for grabs. After all the church seems to mainly trust the rich and powerful, just like them.

The danger of according the rich and powerful special treatment and rights denied to others is so serious a matter that James specifically warns against this. James 2:1-4 reads:

“My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favouritism. Suppose someone comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor person in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the one wearing fine clothes and say, ‘Here’s a good seat for you,’ but say to the one who is poor, ‘You stand there’ or ‘Sit on the floor by my feet,’ have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” (TNIV)

To discriminate along the lines of money and social status is evil! Yet I know of churches where special pews near the pulpit are reserved for certain special members. (I am not referring to the worship team for the day.) These members are ushered to those seats and do not have to wait in line. I am not sure how those churches square their practices with verses like those above.

Is God anti rich? On the contrary God wants the rich, like everyone else, to know that He loves them for who they are, not for what they have. I know of so many rich folks who are so lonely because they are surrounded by people who only want them for their money and their influence.

God is not like that. God doesn’t need your money! He loves you. Period.

Paradoxically this gives hope to the poor as well because the message then is consistent. God loves you and died for you and how much money and fame you have in this world is totally irrelevant. We are all sinners saved by grace. That is the gospel.

If anything there may be some advantages to being poor because you approach God knowing full well that you have nothing with which to buy His love. And He gives you the kingdom anyway (Luke 12: 32-34). Indeed you receive the kingdom through faith or not at all.

The rich may have to work harder to really believe this. Which may have been one of the reasons why Jesus asked the rich young ruler to give up all his riches as a prerequisite to following Him (Luke 18: 18-30).

No, God is not anti rich. But He is pro-everybody. I guess life in a fallen world is a zero sum game. If there are to be winners there must be losers. But in Christ everyone is a winner.

So let us give Mr. X a warm welcome by all means. But let us also accord the same warm welcome to Miss Y and Mr. Z as well, irrespective of the colour of their credit cards. Or if they have any credit cards at all.

Your brother, Soo-Inn Tan