I am a recent graduate of Denver Seminary, having completed an M.A. in New Testament Biblical Studies and am in the final stages of completing a second M.A. in Christian Apologetics and Ethics/Philosophy of Religion.
Now there is great gain in godliness with contentment, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs. (English Standard Version)
A Basic Confusion
The above verses are from 1 Timothy 6:6–10. Many people who have read this passage have come away convinced that money is evil and that being rich is wrong. Who would want to fall into such temptation and risk so much? Who wants to face ruin and destruction? Yikes! It’s probably best to just stay away from money altogether, right? Well, no of course not. If we read Paul carefully, we note that he says that the love of money is the root all kinds of evil, not money qua money (and the desire to be rich is wrong, not simply being rich). Hmm, this makes things more complicated doesn’t it? Perhaps money isn’t intrinsically wrong, but we definitely shouldn’t love it. But just what is money anyway and why do we need it? If the love of money is so risky, wouldn’t it be better just to do away with money altogether? Is this possible?
To understand why Paul says that the love of money is the root all kinds of evil, and not money itself, we must explore what money is, its origins, and function. (Note: I’m not saying Paul had the below in mind when he wrote 1 Timothy. I don’t pretend to know his understanding of economics).
The Origins and Necessity of Money
Money is a medium of value exchange. It arises from the inefficiency of bartering. In basic societies that have not yet developed (or modern societies whose currency has collapsed), the basic means of acquiring what you need to survive is to either create it yourself or trade with others (or perhaps, unfortunately, steal or kill for it). Since no one is completely self-sufficient and thus unable to create for themselves every single thing they need to survive, trading become paramount and inescapable. Trading in this case takes the form of bartering as two people directly trade their goods with each other, assuming that each has what the other wants. The best way to describe this is through an example. Say that I own an apple orchard and you are a carpenter who specializes in making elegant chairs. It just so happens that I’ve been eyeing your handiwork and really want one of those chairs, and happily for me, you just love apples. So we talk one day and decide that you’ll make me one chair and I’ll give you 100 of my best apples. In this deal, we have assigned subjective value to what we own and what we want. I have judged that acquiring a chair is worth giving up 100 apples; you have determined that gaining 100 apples is worth the time, energy, and resources it takes to make a chair. Notice that this is not an objective value—meaning, we didn’t consult some pre-existing Divine Trading Value Scale that told us that 1 chair = 100 apples. It is a subjective valuation and particular to both of us and the mutual decision we came to as to the value of the chair and apples. It very well could be that had I decided to trade with Amy down the street who also makes chairs—but of a different kind and size—then she would have wanted 150 apples for one chair. And it very well may be that once I see the quality of her chairs, I might even be willing to fork over 200 apples.
So back to the story. We have decided that you will give me one chair and I will give you 100 apples. So you whip up a chair and I go and pick 100 of my best red, shiny apples. We make the exchange and we are both happy! At least for a while. However, two weeks later we run into each other and strike up a conversation. Eventually we get around to discussing the trade we had made a while back. You ask how I like my chair. I love it, I say! I ask you about how you are enjoying the apples. You tell me they are some of the best apples you’ve every had . . . except there is one problem. What’s that? I ask. You proceed to tell me that even though you just love apples and eat about one a day and bake one pie a week that uses five apples, over the last couple weeks you’ve only been able to get through about twenty-five or so apples, one-fourth of your supply. Unfortunately, over that time the rest of the apples went bad—75 of them! You complain to me that you were cheated out of your end of the deal because even though I’m still able to enjoy the chair you made me, you were only able to utilized a fraction of what you received. I tell you too bad. It was a mutually agreeable deal when it was made; perhaps you should have thought ahead as to how long the apples would have lasted and made fifteen extra apple pies to use up all the apples before they went bad. However, you are still dissatisfied (because who really wants to make 15 apple pies?) and decide you won’t trade with me anymore.
From this example we can see that while direct trading of goods and services in a bartering economy might seem like a good thing up front, it can create problems and dissatisfaction, which can lead to strife and tension. There are many other problems with bartering; I will just briefly mention two. First, what if there is no mutual interest to begin with? Say I want to trade you apples for your chair, but you don’t like apples. Instead, you like bananas—and again, you want 100 of them. Thus, I am forced to first find a banana farmer and make an exchange with him (apples for bananas) in order to give you the bananas you want for your chair. This kind of third, fourth, fifth, etc., party exchanging quickly becomes extremely complex. Or perhaps you go directly to the banana farmer yourself and make a direct trade with him because he also likes chairs; this allows you to skip a step and simply exclude me and now I’m left out to dry. Or say when I go to the banana farmer he doesn’t want apples, but he does want some milk from the cow farmer down the street and he just happens to know the cow farmer does like apples. Then, in order to get the chair from you that I want, I have to go barter apples for milk, then milk for bananas, and then bring the bananas to you—and all this assumes that I will be able to get the 100 bananas you require. If it turns out I’m only able to get 50 bananas from this first trade, I will have to repeat this process with different traders all over again. This is exhausting and very inefficient. The second problem with bartering is what if instead of a chair-maker, you craft wagons and raises horses. I want a horse and carriage, but we decide that such fancy transportation is worth at least 10,000 apples. This places a heavy burden on me to grow 10,000 apples. And of course you don’t want, nor could you use, 10,000 apples. Thus I am forced to determine what else you want and then trade my apples for those things so that I can bring to you an assortment of goods that you would be willing to take in exchange for the horse and carriage. As you can see, bartering simply isn’t conducive for efficient exchange, let alone the fact that it fails to provide people with what they really need in a timely fashion. When you multiple such complexities by millions of people in a society, the problems become overwhelming.
This is where money comes in. Money, in a sense, serves as a middleman between the two goods being bartered. We decide that we will mint coins—or dollar bills—and one coin will be valued at one apple. Thus, 100 apples = 100 coins. This way, I am able to grow 100 apples, sell them to various customers who will pay me in coins and once I have 100 coins, I can give them to you for the chair. This eliminates the direct exchange and all the problems that comes with it. If everyone does this, if everyone uses the same kind of money as a medium of value exchange, then many of our bartering problems will be solved. I am free to grow and sell apples as fast or as slow as I want as I will continually be saving coins from which I can then buy chairs or a horse and carriage as I desire. And you are free to make chairs and sell them then use some of that money to buy apples and some to buy bananas. Money, as a common-denominator exchange medium, is the universal lubricant that allows the gears of trade to turn endlessly and painlessly for all people in a society (and internationally). Without money, society would grind to a halt and all of us would be in a world of pain. Money is a gift from God, a creation of humankind that is a necessity, and a resources that should be used wisely.
The Love of Money
Those who think money is the root of all evils simply misunderstand what money is. Money is not evil in and of itself; it is just a medium of exchange that makes trade—the buying and selling of goods and services—possible. In addition, those who accumulate, horde, and lust after money are throwing their pearls before a perilous resource. Monies come and go; currencies rise and fall; and often, entire countries and civilizations with them. Those who value money above all have actually confused money with wealth. Real wealth consists of the goods and services that are being exchanged with money. And if we dig even deeper, we find that goods and services don’t exist—and can’t exist—without humans to create, innovate, problem solve, and learn and perfect their skills. Wealth? Wealth is humanity—a human being created in the image of God who has intrinsic value, worth, and ability; a human being who has been given the command to subdue and cultivate the earth (Genesis 1:28) and all that the earth’s resources have to offer us. From humanity’s productive (and collective) efforts we create goods and we render services. And these goods and services are traded in mutually-beneficial exchanges with the medium of money. The lover of money has severely lost his or her way; they are worshipping the created instead of the Creator who has endowed his most special creation with the mark of the divine: the ability to create wealth, and from that wealth to share generously and provide for those in need so that all may be blessed and flourish.
Thomas Sowell’s eminently accessible and powerful read, Basic Economics: A Common Sense Guide to the Economy, 4th ed. (New York: Basic Books, 2011), discusses money and wealth in chapter 16 on the money and banking system (pp. 386–413).
Samuel Gregg covers the issue of money in two of his books. First, Economic Thinking for the Theologically Minded (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2011), pp. 113–117. Second, in Banking, Justice, and the Common Good (Grand Rapids: Acton Institute, 2012), Kindle location 505–617.