When it comes to biblical views on wealth, finances and prosperity, Rabbi Daniel Lapin is an expert. The Orthodox Jew, known as America’s Rabbi, serves as the host of the Rabbi Daniel Lapin Show on San Francisco’s KSFO, but he’s also a rabbinic scholar and a best-selling author whose works include Thou Shall Prosper: Ten Commandments for Making Money. As founder of the American Alliance of Jews and Christians, he also frequently partners with churches to offer biblical guidance and wisdom. In November 2014, he appeared alongside such renowned Christian thought leaders as Max Lucado, Howard Dayton and Pastor Pete Wilson for the Stewardship Conference in Nashville, Tennessee, hosted by Dave Ramsey.
Pastor Chris Brown, a ministry veteran and speaker who joined Dave Ramsey’s team earlier this year, sat down with Rabbi Lapin to talk about the rabbi’s focus at the conference—along with what it means to take our life, money and finance cues from Scripture.
Pastor Chris Brown: We really want to talk about where we are in America when it comes to stewardship. We define stewardship as God owning it all, and we’re just managing God’s blessings God’s way for His glory. In your view, what does biblical stewardship look like?
Rabbi Daniel Lapin: Money is not why we work—it is the consequence of our work. We work in order to serve God’s other children. That awareness changes everything. We don’t pray for more money to help pay next month’s mortgage—we pray for more opportunities to help other people, to serve other people. We don’t look forward to retirement because that would mean we stopped serving other people. We don’t work just until we have enough money. We work for the sheer joy of taking care of God’s other creatures.
Brown: I see retirement as a goal for most Americans, but the underlying motive can sometimes be laziness. You know—it’s time to sit back, relax and be served instead of serving, so I’m glad you hit on that. Outside of that, where do you see poor stewardship hurting America?
Lapin: The obsession with entertainment, which has a synonym, of course—amusement. And the word amusement is very interesting. The word muse in English actually means to be introspective and to contemplate. Amuse means the opposite of that, in the same way that saying something that’s not symmetrical is asymmetrical. So if muse means to be introspective and contemplative, then amuse means to avoid doing those things. And that’s precisely what entertainment does. It prevents us from having to confront some of the serious questions that life brings to us. It prevents contemplation of the seriousness of stewardship and instead distracts us.
Brown: What is the greatest need in the North American church today? What do you think is holding the church back?
Lapin: One of the problems confronting the church is diffidence. I would like to see diffidence transformed into determination. I speak in many churches, a lot of which are sometimes fatally handicapped by an excess of diffidence and timidity. It’s almost as if the church is being conditioned to believe the squalid message of secularism, that somehow the message of the church belongs only in the four walls of the church, and, perhaps if it’s a particularly aggressive church, maybe in the home as well. Somehow, people are overstepping their religious boundaries should they dare to take the values of the church out into the village square. I think God’s people feel a lack of leadership in that respect, that somehow when we are in church, then God and our pastor are with us and everything is good. But the minute we step outside, we are kind of on our own, because the church doesn’t leave the church.
Brown: What are the biggest obstacles to a stewardship mindset for leaders?
Lapin: I think it’s the limitation mentality, especially in the area of finances. It’s this idea that somehow having “too much” would imply that I’m a bad or greedy person. But the capacity of a leader to lead independently is dramatically diminished when he is forced to be preoccupied with how he’s going to get the next dollar.
In Numbers 16, Moses very emphatically tells Israel that he hasn’t taken a single thing from them. Not a donkey, nothing at all. Here we see the value of independence, which is important in leadership. And clearly what Moses wanted to convey to Israel was that they shouldn’t think that anything he did was to enrich himself. Everything was always for the good of the people and the good of the Word of God, not for his own personal interest. Stewardship is a very important part of that, in the sense that resources are responsibly stewarded rather than squandered. That has to be a reality, and it also has to be a perception because if a leader stewards responsibly but is perceived differently, then for all practical purposes his leadership is undermined.
Brown: Why do you think it’s important to talk about money in the church?
Lapin: There was once a brokerage house called E.F. Hutton. Their slogan was, “When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen.” And to adopt that aphorism just a little bit, when people have a few dollars, others listen to them. Scripture tells us that wealth is a crown upon the head of the wise. And that’s not just a casual statement of Solomon; it’s a very important point.
It is very difficult in general, but particularly in our culture, to influence people and to change hearts if you have a life in which you’ve obviously not made any money. And it doesn’t have to be conspicuous wealth. In Deuteronomy 20, where Scripture speaks about going to war, the sequence for ordering your life is very specific. We understand that the wise way is establish a livelihood, and then only after that build your home, and only after that marry. The way of God here is not to turn your back on the material, but to make it your foundation. You’ve got to be able to make a living, and then after that you have the capacity to build a home and establish a family. Doing it in the wrong order means you can never actually get out from under it. This is the way to avoid debt: to prepare yourself first.
Now if this is a message for the individual, then so much more so for leadership and the church. This happens to me so many times a year: I arrive at a church to teach, and within 10 minutes, I know whether the church is following God’s biblical plan for finance and stewardship. It’s heartbreaking when it isn’t because I look around the church and I see deferred maintenance. It’s just clear they haven’t been able to take care of the plot. I see the pastor’s wife looking stressed, and I know exactly what is stressing her out.
It’s bad and not surprising. These churches are not the churches that are growing dramatically, and neither are they sowing into the lives of their people. For me, the most gratifying thing is when I do a heavy-hearted training program, sometimes several days, and then I come back a year later, and I see the fruits. I see that there is money there now. They are contributing to the entire community because there is no way to make money without serving God’s other people. So if the church is now made up of a membership that’s making money, then clearly the neighborhood has benefited from that. It’s very hard for a church to be effective if it doesn’t have a successful financial stewardship plan laid out, and I think perhaps one of the most important things we can do in November is provide a hands-off, step-by-step set of spiritual and financial strategies for achieving this level of effectiveness.
Brown: What would you say is one of the biggest things you want to see happen in leaders’ minds in November? What’s the big takeaway?
Lapin: I would like to see leaders going away with a commitment to being engaged in improving the lives of the people of the church in the two areas of money and marriage because those go hand in hand to a far greater extent than most people recognize. As leaders, if we’re not helping people build themselves financially, and we’re not helping them build stable, sanctified, fulfilling marriages, then all the heavenly pleasures and delights we promise them are meaningless. The most reliable corresponding value for financial success in America is a stable marriage. I’ve got the most remarkable figures from Fortune 1000 companies and numerous other sources, including the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics. Marriage is primarily what distinguishes financially successful men from men who are struggling financially.
Marriage is very much a necessary function. There is a verse in Genesis that says, “And to Abraham, God was good, on her account.” Ancient Jewish wisdom explains why we know that God was good to him on Sarah’s account. Men prosper financially when they have a great wife. We also know that we don’t need riches for a successful marriage, but financial stress is one of the prime reasons of marital breakdown. So we’ve got to treat them together, and these things lie at the forefront of our obligation to those who look to us for leadership.