Dave Ramsey: great debt advice, not so great theology

Today I watched Dave Ramsey’s Great Recovery video. I think I feel something akin to what the Calvinist bloggers felt when they saw the trailer for Rob Bell’s Love Wins. I’m physically sick at my stomach. Whenever I’ve ranted about the self-worship of American middle-class evangelicalism in the past, I always thought in the back of my head that I was attacking a straw man. Well I met the straw man today; and he’s a real person and very much in the mainstream of evangelical thought.

My problem with Dave Ramsey is not with his straight-forward, old-fashioned financial advice applied within a specific context which makes perfect sense to me. Don’t spend beyond your means. Take manageable baby steps to get out of debt once you’re in it. It’s common sense. There’s nothing to oppose about it, but there’s nothing really earth-shattering or “Biblical” about it either, despite the fact that Ramsey parades out a series of truisms and platitudes from Proverbs.

Ramsey goes far beyond advice that is appropriate to individuals in debt to rearticulate the tired-out modernist claim that our society and economy are made up of free, autonomous individuals whose socioeconomic circumstances are always the consequences of their own choices rather than powers and principalities. Ramsey’s ideology is really a defense of Enlightenment-era individualism against postmodern skepticism.

One of his key points was to say, “You fix the economy when you fix the individuals.” He claimed that before the Great Depression, Western governments never meddled with the economy. It floored me that he could make such a brazenly historically false statement. Capitalism has never existed in the pure laissez-faire form that people like Ramsey fantasize about. 200+ years ago, most Western society was held together by feudalism in which the economy was very much a top-down affair. Even during the darkest days of the industrial revolution in Britain, the least socialist European country, there were poor laws and some recognition that the state should provide a workhouse for everyone who was willing to work but had no job and a pension for everyone who was incapacitated from working.

The other thing that blew my mind was when Ramsey equated “self-reliance” with “God-reliance,” putting both in contrast with “government reliance.” He all but said the familiar anti-gospel platitude that “God helps those who help themselves.” He did say, “The normative way that God provides for me is through the work ethic and ingenuity that he pours into me. He uses me to provides for me.” Notice how these words have been manipulated. Our work ethic and ingenuity are not derived from ourselves. We are taught these qualities by mentors and teachers in a community of people. To recognize God’s prevenient grace in our lives is to recognize that we have always relied on other people to help us along the way. We are in no way self-reliant. It is only by twisting up language that you can make reliance on God and self-reliance the same thing.

Why does it make a difference to recognize our lack of self-reliance? Because the delusion of self-reliance is precisely what makes us unmerciful, ungrateful people. The main financial attitude problem among American Christians right now is not a pervasive lack of responsibility but a lack of gratitude. When you’re grateful for what God has given you, you will use it responsibly for God’s glory. When you view your property as the product of your own responsible choices (and not God’s unmerited gift to you), then you will feel justified using it selfishly, giving perhaps the leftovers to God after you’ve saved for your kids’ education and retirement (or blown it all on cocaine as long as it doesn’t get addictive). The privatization of wealth is what makes irresponsible spending a conceivable choice.

Ramsey says, “It’s your job to take care of you so you should act in your own best interests… This is not a bad thing… It’s Biblical.” It’s as if Ayn Rand and Jesus have become the same person! Two words that never appear in Ramsey’s entire 50 minute video are the two most definitive words for framing Biblical economics in my opinion: kingdom and mercy.

The gospel is about creating a kingdom. What God has given us is not ours to squander; it belongs to the kingdom and its purpose is to build the kingdom. Individualizing wealth is what makes irresponsible expenditure plausible to us when we see our money as ours and not God’s so we can do with it what we damn well please. It’s when we understand ourselves to be part of a team with a real mission to alleviate suffering in the world through our financial resources that we are chastened from frivolous decadence for the right reasons. We let the kingdom down when we’re wasteful. But if we don’t acknowledge a kingdom other than some world of harps in the clouds where we go after we die, then the only incentive to be frugal here on Earth is greed.

The other aspect of Biblical economics is mercy. Individual responsibility when it’s not rooted in gratitude is antithetical to mercy (I’m taking care of me so you should be responsible for you; don’t come bother me when you waste your money and can’t pay your bills). There are a lot of reasons people are poor. It’s not just because they’re lazy or irresponsible or “don’t have a brain” (as Ramsey said in explaining why poor people fall victim to pay-day loan companies).

When we’re grateful for what we have, we share with others without judgment hoping that they can do likewise when their gratitude brings them to a desire to be good stewards of God’s gifts if they ever gain the mental clarity and divine providence to achieve financial stability.

It is certainly worthwhile to desire to use all of God’s gifts to His glory. We should absolutely be frugal so that we can experience the joy of sharing God’s bounty with others. But our frugality becomes a tool of Satan the minute it becomes the reason that we can judge others and find them unworthy of our love. We don’t deserve anything we have. We earn nothing; our skills, our creativity, our work ethic, and every other faculty we use to make money are themselves gifts from God and a reason to be grateful rather than feel individually responsible.

Dave Ramsey may be good for financial advice but when he turns contextually appropriate advice into an all-encompassing one-size-fits-all ideology, the result is Pelagian heresy. He actually goes so far as to say that “wealth is the witness of Biblical financial management.” His gospel is little different from Gordon Gecko’s despite the qualifications he tries to put on it.

Bottom line is that gratitude is the foundation we need for all Christian living. Whatever we do without it for the sake of asserting the delusion of our self-reliance, we do to our damnation.

About Morgan Guyton

I’m the director of the NOLA Wesley Foundation, which is the United Methodist campus ministry at Tulane and Loyola University in New Orleans, LA.

  • http://www.wjhamilton.com wjhamilton

    This is the gospel as preached at the local megschurch here with political and social extensions

  • http://www.impededstream.tumblr.com Kurt Boemler

    Brilliant. I’m adding you to my Google Reader.

  • lewansa

    Excellent interpretation. I’ve appreciated Dave Ramsey’s financial advice for a while, but was lost on his theology. Thanks for putting it so well.

  • http://www.emergingchristian.com Peter J. Walker – EmergingChristian.com

    Completely agree. Dangerous theology, and dangerous economics.

  • Mark Eldridge

    Ramsey’s arrogance is a real turn-off. I appreciate you standing up to a bully.

  • Cynthia

    One of my friends who grew up in and has done a lot of work with people in generational poverty as well as recent poverty has tried to contact Ramsey’s office to see if she could rewrite FPU in those terms. Hasn’t gotten anywhere yet. Most of what I’m assuming she’d have to write takes into account what you’ve said very well here. He’s a shock jock in many ways, just like the rest of them.

    • Morgan Guyton

      I think that’s one thing that’s important to remember. He’s deliberately being controversial as a tactic. I do that too in certain scenarios. In other words, he may not have been using his debt program as a front for propagandizing for the Tea Party so much as he was draping himself in Tea Party propaganda for the sake of getting the crowd excited about tackling their debt. Certainly if I had a homogenous Republican crowd, I would make gestures to their values as a way of getting them primed to hear the gospel. But regardless, self-reliance is absolutely not the gospel of Jesus Christ. We are reliant not only on God as individuals but on the body of Christ that was created for us to be a part of.

  • Jeremy

    A great entry! I also have added your blog to my google reader; I look forward to reading your future entries.

    I agree that it is important to be aware of our means and to do the best we can to live within them. Thanks, though, for illustrating with the words that I could not find the unease I feel whenever people use an almost religious zeal to talk about Dave Ramsey and his plan. It seems to me like Ramsey bends over backwards to help “middle-class” christians not feel guilt over knowing how much they have compared with the poor. Too many stereotypes about why people are poor (undisciplined, lazy, etc.) are implicitly enforced using Ramsey’s logic. Too many people in my life have argued that anyone who expresses doubts about Ramsey’s ideology “just sounds like someone who plans on being poor”. I don’t remember Jesus Christ arguing to, “store up everything possible on Earth” where. “earned interest and the 401k prosper” so that we’ll be ready for the probably dark future that lies ahead.

    From a different perspective, Jesus’s ministry is about the emptying and humbling of the self. It’s about letting go of earthly pleasures and being grateful for the blessed community of believers. Jesus did not spend his time growing his savings account as much as possible during his short time on Earth! He used his one true capital, time, to help as many people as possible.

    -Jeremy

    • Morgan Guyton

      Yup. The problem with most ideologies is that their underlying purpose is self-justification. There are plenty of middle-class “liberals” who have this problem too. Their coping strategy for dealing with their privilege is to attend enough marches for the right cause that they can wag their fingers at their less “compassionate” neighbors. The problem is self-justification. When we’re grateful for what Jesus has done for us, we 1) use our resources frugally so that we can 2) help people who are struggling without judgment. There’s no need to have a victory parade for capitalism if all you’re talking about is Biblical stewardship. When the Ayn Rand stuff starts coming out, that’s when I suspect that Dave Ramsey has a different agenda.

  • Rusty Shackleford

    Morgan,

    You have a good point when you talk about the need for gratitude, and the consumerism of the American evangelical church (AEC). Amens for those. Furthermore, I’m a little creeped out by the cultish behavior of some of Dave’s fans. (But we in the
    AEC love being celebrity worshippers so that’s unsurprising.)

    But sometimes the goalposts you set for Dave are a bit unreasonable. He didn’t mention your “two most definitive words”? (By the way, how come “love” didn’t make the cut?) I haven’t seen this video, but in some of his books he does write about the concepts. There he does stress the importance of giving to the needy and helping those who need help, so he does cover the principles even if he doesn’t use your preferred terminology.

    More importantly, I get the impression that your version of “kingdom” and “mercy” may have the government involved. In that case, it’s a non sequitur to go from “Jesus commands us to be merciful and generous to the poor” to “Therefore, giving money and power to the government is the best way to be merciful and generous to the poor.”

    Furthermore, it’s a straw-man argument to claim that political conservatives in the AEC believe poverty only comes from bad choices. Maybe I’m sheltered, but I’ve never heard that said with sincerity. People know there are natural disasters, acts of war, diseases, etc, etc. What I have heard, and agree with, is that lots of times, not all or not even most, but lots of times, Americans who are in poverty have made some unwise choices. It’s an uncomfortable truth, but the percentage of Americans in poverty who a) have a high school education, b) have stayed away from drug and alcohol abuse, c) stayed out of jail, and d) have waited until marriage to have kids, is low. That doesn’t mean we don’t help people who have made these bad choices, and it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t love them. If not for God’s grace, any of us could have done the same. But it does mean that we should encourage behavior that gets them out of that trap, and, even better, prevents them from falling in in the first place.

    What I find frightening, and unbiblical, is the implication that arises from “[t]he privatization of wealth is what makes irresponsible spending a conceivable choice”. Maybe being an economist is coloring my reading, but 100 million people died violent deaths in the last century because some leaders hated the “privatization of wealth” and took great pains to eliminate it. I love how the believers in Acts 2 shared everything, but there’s no evidence that the government was involved and no evidence that any leader used the threat of force among these believers.

    I hope that both you and I will, by God’s grace, be grateful and merciful, and give help and love to the poor like Jesus did. But I’m totally unconvinced that giving the government present-day levels of money and power is the way to do so.

    Blessings,

    Rusty

    • Morgan Guyton

      I don’t disagree with much of what you’ve said except for where you misinterpret me. What I have a problem with is any form of theology which is self-justifying and a lot of the “family values,” “individual responsibility” gospel of AEC is basically about patting ourselves on the back and reassuring ourselves that we don’t need to change a thing about our already attained perfection as God-fearing, middle-class Americans (since being middle class and “God-fearing” are basically synonymous).

      The way that private property was justified in the first place in medieval Christian discourse was to argue that a million stewards are going to use God’s property better than one king. I agree with that principle. Somewhere along the way we forgot that it all belongs to God and we’re just stewards of it.

      It’s not that I’m a responsible, generous, magnanimous person whenever I give to the poor. It is simply obedience and gratitude for what I myself don’t deserve to have but have received as a gracious blessing with the hope that I will be a blessing to others.

      There’s no justification for the secular state to seize God’s property any more than we should. It is much better for our discipleship if we voluntarily share what we have and participate directly in helping other people. The fact that government social services exist is a testimony of the failure and abdication of responsibility on the part of God’s people.

      • summers-lad

        I’m coming late to this one as I have only just seen this thread, but I’m afraid I disagree with your last sentence. I think, rather, that the existence of government social services is a testimony to Christian values of helping the more disadvantaged of us being accepted as good and right, and therefore the whole of society, Christian or not, should share in it. I agree that voluntary sharing would be better, but compulsory sharing is far better than none.

        • Morgan Guyton

          Fair enough. I agree with your last sentence.

  • Angela

    I am so glad I am not alone in this viewpoint. I feared I was the only one who believed this way as my church and many of the churches around are all on the Great Recovery bandwagon I just couldn’t get comfortable with the idea. I was first suggested to look into the Financial Peace program years ago and felt very strongly led to stay far away from it. It is so conflicting because Dave Ramsey really has some great ideas but the program is exclusive to certain situations only, one that I and my husband have never fit into, which is fine and I never had a problem with other people getting involved up until this point. My problem is not the pragmatics of the program, rather my concern is of worship and the shady theology. I googled critics of this program and only found yours and one other person’s. That’s not what bothered me as much as the countless sites I saw singing the praises of Dave Ramsey as if he were the second coming. Biblical truths are being twisted and manipulated to package this attempt to re-direct complete worship from Jesus. It would have been better if he would have just left his theology out of it altogether. I view it as a “weapon of mass destraction” especially when I hear people talk about it with more zeal than they do for the Lord. In reality, that is a real shame because on the one hand it is a useful program that can help people, but on the other hand it is now falling into the category of another idol to be worshipped. I had no problem when the church wanted to offer the seminar at sometime during the week for whoever wanted to do it. My problem is now when it has become the primary focus of worship services and its message has become scripture. It would seem that Dave Ramsey has now written the 67th book of the Bible! I truly believe that if the church would stick to the teaching of the true Gospel as Jesus and later the Apostles presented it, Financial Peace University would not be necessary. I personally would like to know when the message of the Gospel stopped being enough that it is now offered as only a garnish or seasoning instead of the main course? What was being taught during the times of Acts that set people right and why have we obviously gotten so far away from that? This is such a difficult thing to write because I know people, good Christian people who have gone through this program and have been helped, and I know my thoughts will be be misconstrued as your thoughts Morgan have been misconstrued. My guess is that people who are firmly rooted in the Lord will be able to take the good parts of Financial Peace and utilize them without forsaking their first love. My hope is that there are churches out there presenting this Great Recovery movement with great discernment and not allowing it to be a stumbling block as they seek first the Kingdom of God, sadly I’m not sure how this is even possible apart from intervention by the Holy Spirit. Lastly, I am a firm believer that God is my provider based on my own personal experience, when I have put my complete faith in Him I have never been disappointed. Yet I have been disappointed by the ways of this world my college degree, the American Dream, and all the other “formulas” for living the world’s definition of the “abundant life”. When we start to truly believe that our God the creator of all the universe is really bigger than any problem we may ever have, including the economy, only then can we find true peace. I laugh to myself when I read Dave Ramsey’s mission that we as individual’s are going to “fix the economy”. I’m sorry to tell him that God will be the one to “fix” the economy if that is His will, we would all be best to go stand behind Him and follow His lead rather than tell Him what we think we’re going to go do. In my experience, when I have been “money focused” I had no peace regardless of my financial situation. When I am Kingdom focused I have peace regardless my financial situation. Don’t take that to mean that I would tell anyone to not get their finances in check if that is how they feel led, we all have our own paths, but do not allow that to become you’re idol.

    • Morgan Guyton

      Amen! Biblical stewardship must always start with the premise that God is the source of everything we have. That way of looking at the world is incompatible with the libertarian self-reliance gospel that Ramsey is preaching. Ramsey’s teachings sound a whole lot like the atheist Ayn Rand who many free-market enthusiasts have idolized. Feel free to share these thoughts with others.

      • Angela

        Thank you for your feedback. I have been debating should I bother to share my thoughts? Would it matter anyway? I don’t know, but at this time I can’t help but speak up. Maybe I’m just getting restless in the body of Christ, I don’t know. What I do know is this whole subject is drawing me to these verses in 1 Corinthians 3:1-4
        “Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly—mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans? For when one says, ‘I follow Paul,’ and another, ‘I follow Apollos,’ are you not mere human beings?”

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/mercynotsacrifice Morgan Guyton

    Yup. Many Christians today would rather follow celebrity pastors, financial gurus, and Christian rock stars than Jesus himself. Of course if you speak out against this, expect that people will be nasty in response because they will.

  • Dave

    I don’t know anyone who looks to Ramsey for their theology. I know many people, myself included, that have benefited from his financial advice. Much of his advice is Bible-based.

    “Poor” is a subjective term. In the US the poverty level is 11,000 in most states, as you know in most parts of the world you would be rich at that income. 

    “When Ramsey gives the advice of quit being lazy and work hard, you claim it is being self reliant. Dave Ramsey claims the principle comes from the Bible, verses like Eccl 9:10, Prov 6:6, and Prov 20:4. Since those verses are in the Bible and you can choose to follow or ignore those in your life, it seems to me by choosing to work hard as unto the Lord you actually are being God reliant.

    God is the one who gives us the power to get wealth according to the Bible. The idea that Ramsey’s teachings are not not used to spread the gospel or causes a lack of gratitude or somehow doesn’t give God glory is a matter of personal opinion. I’ve heard Ramsey give God glory for teaching him, allowing him to teach others, and for numerous other things. I know people personally who are in a full-time ministry now when they wouldn’t have been before because of their poor handling of money. Most people I know that take personal responsibility for the stewardship of what God has given them are more grateful to God and others, not the other way around. A person is never the problem, sin has always been and always will be the problem. I certainly don’t think Dave Ramsey is perfect but he is a Christian business man.

    • Morgan Guyton

      Thanks for your thoughtful response. I’m glad he was helpful to you. I’m concerned about the ethic of self-reliance invading Christian thought because to believe that Christ paid it all means I’m not at all self-reliant. I’m simply a grateful, redeemed sinner who tries to honor God the best I can with the blessings He’s bestowed on me.

      • Dave

        I know pride is a major issue in our church culture today. I struggle with it on a regular basis. :) Thanks for allowing me to chime in with my two cents. I always enjoy reading other Christians points and views.

      • Joel

        It seems to me that the two ideas are not mutually exclusive. I don’t think it is impossible to acknowledge that God is our provider and without Him we have nothing while also recognizing that we are responsible to work hard and take responsibility for our own actions. As stated earlier, Proverbs contains reminders both directions (that God is our provider, and we need to work hard and blessings come to those who do). Also did not Paul remind his readers in several places that he worked hard and provided for himself so as not to be a burden to those around him? I get the perceived arrogance of Dave Ramsey, because he is a no bs guy. But the fact is his ministry has helped MILLIONS get out of debt, which is a very biblical concept, and he often gives glory to God. He is not attempting to major in theology. He bases his ministry around the sole idea that by taking responsibility for our own actions and living within our means, we can attain financial peace, which then better positions us to bless others. That’s very biblical if you ask me! And he is ministering to millions of non-believers who do not search out biblical wisdom. I call that wise stewardship of biblical principles about finances. I doubt he would argue that we need to be humbly reliant upon God all along the way. I also would argue the premise that was stated earlier that he is ministering only to middle class white Americans. As a daily listener to his show, I would argue that just as often as he talks to a middle class family, he talks to those who we would consider to be in poverty and in truly desperate situations. Dave Ramsey certainly is not perfect, but I think your claims about the danger of him are overblown.

    • Rachel

      You write: “Poor” is a subjective term. In the US the poverty level is 11,000 in most states, as you know in most parts of the world you would be rich at that income.

      this is true but something that is constantly overlooked in these statistics is how much less housing costs in most developing nations. My husband and I were missionaries in the mountains of southern Mexico. Our rent was $150 USD for a 3,000 square foot house. Now that I am widowed and living with my two children in Colorado we are paying $1250 in rent for a 2000 square foot house. Food is more in the states, housing costs more, and it is nearly impossible to not own a vehicle. In Mexico we never owned a vehicle because the little combi buses went by our house very 20 minutes. We could ride into town for a few pesos and never had to worry about car payments or car insurance. Also, in other nations people are much freer to earn a meager living creatively. In the states there are so many health laws and zoning laws that it makes the little home bakery or tortilla shop impossible to run. The point of this is, it is VERY difficult to be poor in the States because this is not a country that functions well for the poor. This is why we have so many homeless because there are not homes that the poor can afford. The jobs that a poor person will work hard at will NOT pay any rent in Colorado-none, nowhere. So this is a much more complex issue than just stating that the poverty level in the States would be wealth in developing nations. This is a very subjective statement.

      • Morgan Guyton

        Very good point. Thanks for sharing!

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  • http://whosesideareyouonanyway.wordpress.com jmobeox6

    I basically agree with your evaluation of Ramsey who seems to align modern pragmatic financial responsibility with being Christ like. I do believe it is Godly to pay your bills and not be greedy. But at the same time the New Testament church in Jerusalem tried the non capitalistic means of selling all and spreading the wealth around and it was a monumental failure due to human nature. Human nature will always fall to its most base level if left on its own. It was not long before all the churches in the surrounding regions were having to support the church in Jerusalem because apparently many had stopped working and embraced the handout entitlement mentality that comes with blanket wealth redistribution without accountability. Finally they had to implement the rule that if you are not working, you will not eat. A rule of this nature would serve out country well since 50% of us are nursing at the government’s “breast”.

  • Brady Mayo

    I believe that Dave Ramsey’s advice has helped a lot of people, but almost every time I listen to him speak I get turned off by his arrogance and one-upness. We are to have the same attitude of Christ. And that attitude is very different than the attitude that Dave has toward those brainless poor people that deserve what they get. Christ “made himself nothing, taking on the very nature of a servant”. This idea that God wants his flock to be financially rich (as opposed to being rich in mercy and love) is an idea that is not biblical.

  • http://gravatar.com/jessicalkelley1 Jessica Kelley

    “The privatization of wealth is what makes irresponsible spending a conceivable choice.” This is a profound and convicting statement. Thank you for this post.

    • Morgan Guyton

      Are you the Ministry Matters-affiliated Jessica Kelley or a different one? Great to discover your blog.

  • http://gravatar.com/jessicalkelley1 Jessica Kelley

    No, not currently affiliated with anyone :-) I came across your blog through Twitter/T.C. Moore.

    • Morgan Guyton

      Cool. TC’s a great guy.

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  • John

    Morgan, you are positively RIGHT ON in your assessment of implicit harmful errors in Dave Ramsey’s financial/theological advice. I have heard Dave on radio frequently, and have attended two of his live in-person “Total Money Makeover” public tour seminars in past years in my area. Yes, he can be funny and likable, I’m sure he means well, and I admit that at least a fair amount of what he teaches is good, sensible, and usable. But his ideas, especially when he seems to “baptize” or “Christianize” Ayn Rand-isms, must be discretionally filtered through the Word of God

    • Morgan Guyton

      Exactly. I know his stuff is helpful situationally but the baptizing of radical libertarianism not so much.

  • sevines

    Thank you so much for writing this article. Thank you.


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