Written by Josh Tiessen
It was Easter Sunday in Beverly Hills. Pastor Erwin McManus walked on stage donning a yet-to-be-released Fear of God suit, gifted to him by high-fashion designer Jerry Lorenzo. The following Monday, Erwin posted pictures of the Easter service at MOSAIC church on Instagram. He summarized his message of pursuing the Eternal One and how it providentially converged with Lorenzo’s new “Eternal Collection” he wore.
When journalists caught wind of this, they bemoaned yet another example of celebrity pastor privilege. Once again, the question was asked: are pastors justified in endorsing luxury goods?
When it comes to the acceptability of procuring costly commodities, society often draws arbitrary lines. Most in the West wouldn’t think twice about the ethics of buying an iPhone or a 60-inch TV for $1,000. For many living in the developing world, these expenses would be extravagant. Seniors fork out $5,000 per person for a luxury cruise. With the inflated housing market (especially here in Canada) it’s commonplace to own a home worth half a million to a million dollars.
Curiously, other luxuries land on the “naughty list,” especially among Christians. These include high-end original art, fashion, and sports cars.
I commend the popular Instagram account Preachers n’ Sneakers for exposing the hypocrisy of celebrity pastors decked out in Gucci and Prada. However, the more I’ve thought about it, the more I realize that judging someone solely based on a price tag is too simplistic.
While this isn’t a list of “to-buy” or “not-to-buy,” I hope the following suggestions will be helpful as we discern how to best steward our resources.
Jesus clearly embodied a life of simplicity as a travelling preacher without a home. In the Sermon on the Mount he cautioned, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth… [since] “where your treasures is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). In the same passage, He further exhorted not to worry about having enough possessions, like to clothes wear. There is a marked difference between His words and our culture’s consumerist message, which induces anxiety and stress. Before making a purchase ask yourself whether you really need this product. If you are a Christian, is this purchase in danger of replacing your true treasure, Jesus Christ?
Don’t buy for status
In The $12 Million Stuffed Shark, art market economist Don Thompson explains how many collectors buy art and luxury items as “positional goods.” Essentially, they are buying prestige, often in exchange for seats of cultural power on art museum boards. This dubious practice can apply to the average young adult. We need to examine whether that purchase of the latest Apple Watch or Louis Vuitton purse is to project a “bougie” lifestyle and impress friends.
Often luxury goods cost more because they are ethically produced, paying employees fair wages and providing good working conditions. This is usually what sets apart high fashion brands like Gucci from cheaper fast fashion brands like H&M and Zara. Research your favourite brands to see whether their values for labour match the ethic of loving our (global) neighbours. As Christians, we are called to stand up for the poor and oppressed. This includes “the worker [who] deserves his wages” (1 Timothy 5:18). I have increasingly realized how unethical it is to support most mainstream clothing brands when they are one of the leading drivers of modern-day slavery and child sweatshops, according to the Global Slavery Index).
Coming from a Mennonite and missionary background, I grew up in a frugal home and am not ashamed to admit that I still like to score a good deal. But as Erwin McManus said on the Battle Ready podcast, since Christians are told they can’t create (or buy) luxury goods, they have inadvertently contributed to a culture of disposable goods justified by cheap price tags. Your local pastor may think he’s doing better than the celebrity pastor by buying cheap clothes at Walmart, but those inexpensive goods are doing more harm than good, especially to the environment.
According to the United Nations, the fashion industry accounts for 10 per cent of global carbon emissions, with 85 percent of textiles ending up in landfills. This is overwhelming, especially as almost all our clothing is made from polyester derived from petroleum (oil). God’s grace covers us in our ignorance and complicity, but that doesn’t mean we are to be complacent. You can check out websites that list sustainable brands like Canadian-based My Green Closet. If you’re not up for hefty price tags and have an eye for style, consider buying second-hand from thrift stores like The Salvation Army or Poshmark (online). My brother and I purchase most of our clothes and shoes from the tightly curated Plato’s Closet consignment stores, and in turn pass on gently used items to mission thrift stores, thus spreading the love and reducing landfills.
Wealth itself isn’t the problem
During Jesus’ ministry, there is a story in Luke 18 where he called a rich young ruler to forsake all his possessions and follow him. The man worshipped wealth and wasn’t ready to accept this call. Yet looking at the entirety of Scripture, this wasn’t a universal command. Wealth can be a blessing from God.
In the Old Testament we read about the riches bestowed upon Abraham, the father of the Hebrew people and King Solomon who abounded in gold. In the New Testament we read of a wealthy cloth merchant named Lydia who offered her home for the early church to meet. To be clear, I am not supporting the heretical prosperity gospel, which promises wealth in exchange for good works or faith. What I am saying is that we are called to use our wealth for good, such as financing generational excellence in artistic craft, not buying the fleeting pleasure of unethical and unsustainable goods. A price tag alone doesn’t define whether something is good or bad.
What people may not know about Erwin McManus is that over the years he has financially sustained MOSAIC church from the success of his multiple businesses, including a luxury hand-bag brand. In 2020 he launched a new fashion label called Erwin Raphael McManus, guided by his philosophy of leaving “nothing wasted” through repurposing vintage clothes, stating that “elegance & beauty are a reflection of God’s created design.” Whatever you think about the ongoing conversation regarding luxury goods and high-profile pastors, let’s all endeavour to take steps toward becoming conscientious consumers and creators of excellence in the hopes of building a more just and beautiful world.
Josh Tiessen is an international award-winning fine artist, speaker, and writer based in Stoney Creek, ON. In 2020 he graduated with a Bachelor of Religious Education in Arts, Biblical Studies, and Philosophy. He has had solo exhibitions in galleries from New York to LA. In fall 2021, he released his second art monograph book, Streams in the Wasteland. Find out more about Josh’s work at www.joshtiessen.com