Avarice is hardly a word we hear every day! It even sounds like it could be the name of a great yacht or a prize-winning race horse or a villa in the mountains of the Andes.

While some people may associate avarice with these things, the early church fathers recognized it as much more. They saw avarice as one of seven sins that had a destructive power on the human soul.

Avarice is more commonly known as “greed” or  “covetousness.” It is an insatiable desire to acquire more material possessions. It evidences itself in a love for money that becomes a life passion.

As a kid growing up I was told that it’s not bad to desire, need, and acquire money but, rather, it was the love of money that constituted greed. After all, Paul warned Timothy that the “love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Timothy 6:10). We tend to put the emphasis on that phrase “love of money” when it really should be put on the phrase “root of all kinds of evil.” Paul recognized the domino and stealth effect of avarice. It is the mother of more sin. But we know this, too. After all, greed and covetousness are condemned in Scripture, beginning in the Law.

The psalmist recognized its pull on his heart when he entreated God, saying, “Turn my heart to your decrees, and not to selfish gain” (Psalms 119:36). The Old Testament prophets, starting with Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, Habakkuk, and Malachi, all spoke against this sin. Proverbs speaks about the consequences of greed at great length. In the New Testament, Jesus warned of the difficulty for rich men to enter into the Kingdom. Later, both Paul and James addressed this issue in letters to the church. So the Scriptures are not silent regarding avarice. While we know this, many youth workers and ministry leaders still succumb to this deadly sin.

Money from Ministry
At one time it was believed that ministry professions were not a lucrative means of support. Pastors were paid in chickens or eggs, and youth pastors … well, they just starved to death. Wealth and ministry never converged. Today that isn’t true.

While many still struggle, depending on the economic area where they minister, many ministry icons of the day are doing quite well. Some megachurch pastors have six-figure salaries, sailboats, BMWs, million-dollar homes, private planes owned by their ministries, and more. They rationalize their wealth with rhetoric about “living at the level of their constituency,” “effective stewardship,” or “prosperity theology.” While ministry needn’t always lead to poverty, it certainly isn’t God-honoring to mimic the ideologies of a constituency. That ideology may reflect a deep-rooted, deadly sin.

Avarice is also played out in stinginess. Good stewardship and shrewd business practice become the disguise of this form of greed. I have a friend who went on staff (upper management) at a large church. During the candidating process he was amazed at the financial package, benefits, and perks he would receive. He and his family would be well taken care of. He had sufficient time for his kids whenever he needed. He was making bank compared to any church where he had ever worked before. (Truth was, he was making bank—period.) The staff did Sabbath retreats to very nice places. There were golf outings on some of the finest courses in the world, vacation houses for effective family time, entertainment allowances to build relationship with elders and other ministry personnel; in short, he was “cared for.”

Some years later, one of my students accepted a position as the youth pastor on staff at the same church. The story was grossly different. He didn’t have the amenities that the managing pastors had. He didn’t have the perks, the benefits, etc. This church that boasted of caring for its staff modeled a top-down hierarchy that justified avarice under the cloak of “effective stewardship.”

Greed can also be the cause of other sins, or so the early church fathers believed. St. John Cassian said that avarice “gives rise to a multiplicity of incitements to sin.” He compared it to spiritual leprosy that covers the soul of the greedy person. Aquinas believed that covetousness was often followed by the sister sins of gluttony and envy.

But one interesting theme emerges from the teachings of the church fathers as well as the writers of Scripture regarding this sin. All allude to the fact that greed is also evidenced as a lust for power. Those great church leaders who preceded the age of materialism and capitalism recognized that the accrual of material things often was done on the backs of others. They saw greedy people acquire their wealth by powering up and lording over others. Kings went to war to acquire the wealth of other nations. Land owners kept people enslaved for their own gain. Today it is evidenced in everything from cutthroat competition to corporate takeovers.

Fortune 500 Fellowships?
This mentality has also crept into the leadership ideation of our churches, which are built on corporate top-down structures. They aspire to be Fortune 500 corporations with marketing strategies, efficiency- and quality-control policies, projected outcomes and strong bottom lines that yield a soaring profit margin (in heaven). Pastors and youth workers read more books on leadership than they do on being a servant. Jesus is described as a CEO, not a shepherd, and most ministry leaders aim to be that CEO. At the end of the day people get chewed up and spit out; but we cut our losses in the name of stewardship, radically impacting ministry and passionate leadership.

Let’s call it what it really is: avarice. And the reason it has crept into the fabric of the Western church is that we all want to be that kind of pastor. We want the power. We want the stuff that comes with the power: the entitlements, the salaries, the material gain. We covet the luxuries that come with the power and influence of those leaders. Cicero, the great Roman orator and politician wrote, Avaritiam si tollere vultis, mater ejus est tollenda, luxuries (If you wish to remove avarice you must remove its mother, luxuries). We covet the extravagant lifestyles of those we hold to be successful.

Avarice breeds other sin, but it also begets avarice. Thus it is never fulfilled. This deadly sin conditions one to always be taking and rarely giving. Giving only occurs when it yields a return. This creates an insatiable entanglement, a leprosy of the soul that leads to destruction.

Does avarice have its roots in you? Ask yourself these questions: Do you calculate the cost of giving in the name of stewardship, or are you a hysterical giver? Do you give away ministry, or do you need to control it? Would people see you as empowering or powerful? Do you daydream about being part of a megaexperience as the payoff of faithful ministry? Do you find yourself concerned about the poor or worrying about your poverty? Remember, Jesus gave us the antidote for avarice when He said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 21:35) .

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STEVE GERALI is director of the Youth Ministry Undergraduate Degree Program at Azusa Pacific University in Southern California. In addition to over 25 years of youth ministry experience, Dr. Gerali is a clinical counselor, author, speaker, and educator. 

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