David Green is the Forbes 400 billionaire whose family owns Hobby Lobby. Along with the Cathy family of Chick-Fil-A fame, Green is one of the few prominent evangelical Christian billionaires. The Green family recently deposited their entire business inside a trust where it will be used exclusively to fund Christian ministries.
As I think about my own family’s significant wealth and succession planning, I think there are some lessons, positive and negative, to glean from the Green family’s decision. I recently read his latest book about the experience, called Giving It All Away. Green thinks seriously about his wealth and about the Kingdom, but unfortunately his theology leaves him ill-prepared for the burden of wealth.
In the book, we see a glimpse into Green’s psychology, as his parents were dirt poor Pentecostals, his father a preacher and his mother a preacher’s wife. Pentecostalism is perhaps the purest expression of the low church Protestant impulse towards evangelism at all costs. Green’s mother in particular drove this into him and his siblings, such that David was the “black sheep” of the family while all of his brothers became ministers. As Hobby Lobby expanded and Green’s success developed, his mother withheld approval of her son, constantly asking, “Yes, but what have you done for the Lord lately?” His mother believed that all unnecessary activities outside of evangelism were wasteful.
This pietist impulse is in my view one of the most insidious forms of legalism in the church, and as a Christian with a legacy to give to my children, it is so dangerous that I have been working for several years on a book to counter the propaganda. For there is an entire Christian and non-Christian philanthropy industrial complex that seeks to separate the wealthy from their money. It says something about our age that even the secular wealthy cannot handle the burden, with prominent billionaires pledging to give it all away.
While Green calls himself a steward, in essence the plot of the book is his wanting to move away from the shoulder of responsibility and pass that on to a self-perpetuating board, initially consisting of his family members, that will give away the profits of Hobby Lobby in perpetuity to Christian ministries. I see several problems with this approach:
First, children have a right to an inheritance, a legal claim on the family fortune if they remain loyal and faithful to the family and faith. This is a Biblical concept. In my view, no family steward has the right to squander the family fortune, whether through profligate spending or profligate charity. One redeeming facet of Green’s action is that he got the permission of all his children and grandchildren to place their inheritance in the trust.
Second, there is no escaping the need for leadership and possession. We cannot “give” anything to God, for God has appointed us as His agents. Thus, the eventual result of Green’s actions will be the capture of his fortune by political players on his trust board, who have no skin in the game. There is a whole industry of Christian deceivers out there, like Randy Alcorn, who convince wealthy Christians to part with their fortunes “for the Kingdom.” If you read Alcorn’s books about the necessity of living like a pauper to maximize evangelism, and become convinced of his case, he conveniently already has a 501(c)(3) setup in which you can deposit your guilt-inducing cash. Of course, if it were theoretically possible to give one’s fortune to Christ directly, we would. But God delegates this task to us, the control and use of wealth. Green’s actions are simply him passing stewardship from one fallible human (himself), who at least has business sense and skin in the game, to other fallible humans purporting to represent Christ more directly due to their involvement in massive Christian charity bureaucracies. The Green family trust can do nothing with its money other than donate to these bureaucracies, and eventually these bureaucrats will control the trust as well.
Third, I believe Green’s plan will fail. Eventually, someone outside of the Green family will come onto the board of the trust, and through political influence will dilute the mission of the organization. This has happened numerous times – see the Ford Foundation, etc. Whenever there is a huge pile of money controlled by a board of people with no skin in the game, political players emerge to seek control for other ends. Liberals in particular are very skilled in using deception to worm their way into positions of influence. Green’s trust, by being explicitly Christian, is particularly vulnerable to judicial interference. If and when, for example, opposition to the homosexual agenda becomes “against public policy,” federal judges can and will dissolve the Green family trust or appoint alternative trustees to subvert the mission of the organization. Green’s trust documents are arguably already in violation of official public policy since he requires all trustees to have a “credible written testimony” of faith in Christ. By giving up possession of the Hobby Lobby fortune to an entity that is not the Green family, eventually it will be captured by the political process.
Wealthy people around the world cannot handle their wealth, and the desire to escape it, to annihilate it with philanthropy, is part, in my view, of the general death wish of modern civilization. No one has any true hope or vision for the future, whether the secular pessimism of a materialist like Bill Gates, or the premillenial, “waiting for the Rapture” variety held by many evangelicals like the Greens. The Gates Foundation is founded on the premise of humanism, that the highest use of a great fortune is to relieve human suffering before we all die a meaningless death. The Green family’s premise seems to be that of the fireman, who sees a building burning down and his sole mission is to rescue those inside. Neither can conceive of an optimistic future, of the necessity of building capital for the long haul for a glorious future in partnership with God.
My prescription for wealthy Christians? Grow your fortune as large as you lawfully can, retain control of it, discipline your children in its proper use. Give away 15% or so of the income as a long-term average, but never let a John Piper, Randy Alcorn or any other pietist who never created a job in his life anywhere near the principal. Don’t feel guilty for living well, for the tithe and a bit more is all God requires of you. The management of wealth is a multi-generational skill and God requires specialists – stewardship means bearing the burden required, not shrugging it off to be squandered by ministers, missionaries, “fundraising professionals” and other bureaucrats ill-equipped in its growth and management.