Podcast episode 1
Abolish the Jesus-Trade - Introducing a Biblical Response to the Commercialization of Christianity
Our purpose here is to highlight and exalt the radical generosity of God’s heart, confront the commercialization of Christianity, and promote the biblical teaching that ministry should be supported but never sold. We want to explore the history of how we’ve gotten to the point where it’s the respectable default to monetize ministry, and take a deep dive into the Scripture’s teaching on the subject. We believe our evangelical cultural moment has a serious blind spot in this area, and we hope to be a voice of reform. Overall, we seek to take seriously what Jesus commanded in Matthew 10:8: “Freely you have received; freely give.”
I remember a number of years ago when The Hunger Games books started coming out and the whole world was ablaze with excitement. Copies of the books were stacked at the front of every bookstore, and Hollywood was scrambling to exploit the hype with some movie versions. Since then the world has become fascinated by and enamored with the idea of a dystopian future. So I’ve wondered, “What would a Christian dystopia be like?” Let me describe a possible scenario.
In a Christian dystopia the first thing you might notice is that it’s considered normal to pay for your friendships. If you want someone who seems trustworthy, will listen to you for hours, offer advice, make you feel loved, point you to Christ, and encourage you with the truth of Scripture, you have to pay for it…by the hour. You quickly realize that in this Christian dystopia everything is done for money, and everyone has a thousand seemingly good reasons for maintaining this status quo. There is nothing too sacred to be sold as merchandise. The peddling of God’s Word has become so standard that no one would ever question it. The sale of the gospel in all forms is highly respectable. A limited number of rich Christians hoard their abundance of biblical resources, tools, and teaching, refusing to share with the rest of the Church unless they sign agreements and pay fees and do not share with their neighbors. The words of the prophet Micah ring more true than ever when he says, “Its leaders give judgment for a bribe; its priests teach for a price; its prophets practice divination for money; yet they lean on Yahweh and say, “Is not Yahweh in our midst? No disaster shall come upon us.”
Christians are constantly threatening each other with lawsuits for using each other’s artwork, writing, or music. Beautiful songs written to exalt Jesus are bought and sold as investments and monetized like any other secular hit. Churches cannot even sing these songs without risking legal action against them unless they pay. Men even go to court against their own brothers over the printing of the words of a hymn without permission. Meanwhile, Christian blogs, websites, podcasts, YouTube channels, and other media are constantly monetized with ads. God’s translated word is claimed by men as their property and then restricted from being shared. Even ancient manuscripts of the Bible are greedily monetized and forbidden from being copied and displayed. Every spiritual thing and every ministry that leads to Jesus is blocked by a paywall. If you’re too poor, you’re denied access. And so most of the world’s marginalized cultures who can’t understand English or who don’t have a credit card are told to make do with less. They are not important enough to share in the bountiful theological feast rich westerners enjoy, simply because they’re poor. They are not important enough to grow from robust commentaries and discipleship resources, because they’re poor. The Jesus trade is for the wealthy, and it’s not allowed to be criticized because it’s so comfortable and convenient. Anyone who dares challenge it is immediately silenced by a barrage of twisted interpretations of Scripture and excuses born out of pragmatism and expediency. The words of our Master, “Freely you have received; freely give,” are explained away as irrelevant. We claim Jesus as Lord but treat him as commodity. We’ve cleverly turned our greeds into needs. Christ has become our great high product.
So is this dystopian hellscape really just imaginary? No. I say with deep sadness and regret that this is a portrayal of our present reality. I say all of this by way of introduction, to explain what this podcast is going to be about. Our purpose here is to highlight and exalt the radical generosity of God’s heart, confront the commercialization of Christianity, and promote the biblical teaching that ministry should be supported but never sold. We want to explore the history of how we’ve gotten to the point where it’s the respectable default to monetize ministry, and take a deep dive into the Scripture’s teaching on the subject. We believe our evangelical cultural moment has a serious blind spot in this area, and we hope to be a voice of reform. Overall, we seek to take seriously what Jesus commanded in Matthew 10:8: “Freely you have received; freely give.”
Spoiler alert: we’re not going to be telling people they should be poor if they serve God. And nothing we’re going to share is new, nor is it some kind of fringe bigotry or legalism. We simply want to encourage people to do what the local church has done to support ministry for centuries–rely on the free generosity of God’s people. It’s simple and beautiful. Christian ministry of all kinds has been supported in this way since the time of Jesus. We know it’s possible, but people refuse to follow that biblical model for various reasons, which we’ll be tackling one at a time.
It’s important for you to know that at the core of all of this we want to take the time to revel in the beauty of God’s generous heart! The very fabric of Scripture sings with the glory of a God so radically generous that he freely gave us life, a universe of splendor, rain and sunshine, the laughter of children, the sweetness of his word, and even his only Son. All without charging us a subscription fee. We want God’s example to be our north star. He is our joy and treasure.
And just to clarify, we’re not here to tell people they’re going to hell and burden people with the traditions of men. Rather, we want to tell our own stories of how we’ve failed and learned along the way as we sought to reflect God’s heart and love him. We totally understand that most people have simply never thought about these things.
Also, we’re not here to address the prosperity gospel and the more extreme forms of manipulating believers and Scripture for the sake of getting rich and buying private jets. That’s been confronted already by a lot of good people, and we’re grateful for that. Instead, we’re here to ask hard questions of what most of us perceive to be the normal faith-based market. Questions like, “Should the Gospel Coalition podcasts run ads or sponsors? Should the Word of God be sold for profit and locked down by copyright? Should people from the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors charge fees for helping people find healing in Christ? Was it biblical for Tim Keller to sell his digital sermon recordings? Is it biblically permissible for a scholar to profit from a commentary they wrote on the book of Luke?” These kinds of questions and much more.
There are two main categories of people who engage in the sale of Christian ministry: those who have bad intentions and those who have good intentions. In our experience, many if not most have good intentions, so we’ll be focusing mainly on those people and the different ways they’ve been deceived.
Let me take a moment to unpack what “Selling Jesus” actually refers to. First, let me define what I mean by “selling,” and also what I don’t mean. We all know that to sell something is to exchange it for money. This means that you deny access to it unless someone pays you. This is not the same as giving it to someone with no strings attached and no expectation of remuneration. This is also not the same as receiving donations to enable you to freely give as much as possible to others: that’s what’s typically called support, not selling.
Now, let’s talk about what I mean by “Jesus.” I’m referring to Jesus here as the end goal of all Chrisitian ministry. We sing songs like, “It’s all about you, Jesus” for a reason. The spiritual gifts that God bestows on his children are designed to build up the body of Christ. Their end goal is to magnify Jesus and extend his reign over all the earth. So if I offer someone biblical counseling, ultimately my goal is to point them to Jesus, to lead them to him as the only healer and fountain of all the riches of wisdom and knowledge. If I write a book about the gospel, my ultimate purpose is to lead people to Jesus, to trust him, abide in him, treasure him. If I teach someone biblical Hebrew, my goal isn’t just so that they can parse verbs as an end in itself. No, my goal is to get them to Jesus through the deeper study of his Word, because I believe that learning Hebrew helps people see Jesus better, more clearly and accurately, and with more certainty. Again, if I write a worship song, my ultimate intention is to offer a means to exalt Jesus, to enter into his presence with thanksgiving and praise. So Christian ministry of all sorts has that end goal: get people to Jesus, to know him better, to magnify his name, to be closer to him, to walk and talk more like him.
So when we sell Jesus, we put a paywall between others and whatever blessing God might have in store for them through our spiritual gifts. In other words, we deny people access to the ministry we are called to bless people with, unless they pay us for it. To sell Jesus is, by extension, to turn him into a product, a commodity, that can be bought, sold, controlled, and kept from those unable to pay.
As disciples of Jesus we believe that one of the most fundamental joys we have is to imitate him, even when it comes to how we fund ministry. To copy him is to honor him, especially since he had more to say about money than love and heaven and hell combined. It was a big issue to him, so we believe we should think carefully about it as we follow him. Jesus got deeply emotional about mixing commerce with spiritual things when he drove people out of the temple, so we think this issue is something that should move our hearts to zeal in the same way and cause us to speak up and make radical changes.
This podcast will also be dedicated to answering people’s common objections and burning questions, and to address all the issues around the sale of the good news of the Son of God. We’ll take a look at how misinterpretations of the apostle Paul have muddied the waters around money and ministry, and discuss how many people have completely misunderstood the verses about not muzzling the ox when it treads out the grain.
This podcast and the companion YouTube channel by the same name will take a while to develop because there’s such a huge amount of confusion around the commercialization of Christianity. So think of this as a kind of long term podcast for those who want to detox from the deep seated deception that has settled upon the Western evangelical Church concerning the marketplace of faith. We’ll also be building out a suite of further resources to read and learn more over at sellingjesus.org. We pray that this will start a movement to decommercialize Christ, and make it unthinkable for future generations.
So who exactly is “we”? There are three of us collaborating in this mission: Jon, who created the helpful website copy.church, Conley Owens who wrote a biblical response to the commercialization of Christianity called The Dorean Principle, and myself, Andrew Case. You can read Conley’s book for free over at thedoreanprinciple.org and even order a paper copy for free with free shipping. There’s nothing to lose, so I highly recommend giving the book a chance. Also, make sure to read as much as you can over at copy.church. And we’ll be sharing more of our backstories in future episodes.
Once again, our purpose will be to help people understand the difference between selling ministry, which Scripture condemns, and supporting ministry which Scripture commends. Increasingly I’ve found that American Christians seem to be caught in a stranglehold or dark cloud of misguided ideas regarding the commercialization of Christianity. In my conversations about this within the scholarly world I’ve found a shocking level of poor thinking in this area, even to the point that some people say that the Bible has nothing to teach us about money and ministry, and that it’s wrong to look for biblical principles to guide us in this area. Others have gone so far as to say that every ministry can be monetized—such as the selling of prayer and baptism—and that it would be biblical and glorifying to God. Things like this have revealed to me the desperate need for more concerted efforts toward promoting reform and abolishing the Jesus-trade in our cultural moment. It’s become increasingly clear that we are living in a time like the pre-civil war United States, where the vast majority of ministers of the gospel regularly defended slavery from the pulpit, and even great men like Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield were not without their own blind spots in this area because of its ubiquity and pervasiveness in their cultural moment. If you read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which is actually one of the most beautiful books ever written and one of my all-time favorites, Harriet Beecher Stowe paints detailed portraits of a broad sampling of people who justify the slave trade in different ways, with very complex reasoning in order to make themselves feel better about the status quo. Most of them are well-meaning, many of them are Christians, but they all have one serious blind spot in common, and that is that economic expediency triumphs over biblical principles. Let me say that again. Most people back then were influenced by the belief that economic expediency was more important than biblical principles. In other words, we must do everything in our power to make the Bible bow to or cater to the economic forces of our day, lest we be forced to live lives of less comfort and wealth. Antebellum slaveholders simply couldn’t give up the convenience and labor saving comfort that the slavery system provided, which gave them a higher standard of living. And we are in exactly the same position today regarding the Jesus-trade. We sell ministry because it’s too convenient, too ubiquitous and pervasive, and promises a standard of living many can’t give up. We must find complex and clever ways to make the Bible bow to and support economic expediency, because in our heart of hearts we believe that money is more powerful than God for getting things done and spreading the gospel.
One of the things I appreciate about Uncle Tom’s Cabin is that it doesn’t paint cartoon, two-dimensional portraits of people who were deceived by the culture around them into defending the slave trade. Instead, the author brilliantly depicts the real complexity that you find in real people who had mixed emotions, complex and varied resources of self-justification, across different social classes, both men and women, and how deep and nuanced people can be who are often full of good intentions but also carry their own inventory of respectable sins. Which is exactly what we find in people involved in the Jesus-trade today who monetize ministry in different ways with the best intentions, but who ultimately compromise the sincerity of ministry and go against biblical principles.
Anyway, our intention is to unpack all of this and more on this podcast, the website, and the YouTube channel. We now live in a world where we find it impossible to imagine anything else than a vast evangelical industrial complex with shiny products of all kinds ready to meet our consumerist mentalities. But this is a relatively recent development in history, and we want to know why and how we can fix it. Modern western countries are the richest, most materialistic countries in all of human history by an order of magnitude, so we think it’s no surprise that the Church has suffered a series of compromises in the area of money and ministry, and cannot see its sin because the Jesus-trade is the ocean it’s swimming in.
In order to pull this off, we need your help to spread the word and review the podcast and pray for us. We simply want to see Christ exalted and no longer belittled as a commodity. And we will never ask for money on this podcast, not because we think it’s wrong to make needs known, but because of the nature of the topic. We don’t want to risk any confusion or cast any doubt on the sincerity of the message we’re trying to share. Thanks for listening, and we’ll catch you in the next episode.