Paul is trying to warn Christians about the danger of having a love for money. He is not saying that having a lot of money is evil, but that loving money is going to motivate various kinds of evils in your life. By evil, Paul is referring to morally reprehensible behavior.
In fact, Paul’s warning is very serious, for he says in the rest of the verse that by craving after money, some people have left the Christian faith and caused themselves a significant amount of pain.
Why Is Love of Money the Root of All Evil in 1 Timothy 6:10?
It is of utmost importance to understand clearly what this verse does not say. I’ve heard 1 Timothy 6:10 cited as saying “money is evil.” That’s not what Paul said. I’ve also heard it cited as “the love of money is evil.” That’s also not what Paul said.
The first part of the verse says, “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (CSB). This is very different than the two ways this verse has been cited above. The first statement is an absolute declaration that money, in all its forms, is evil in itself. The second statement claims that loving money is a sin. While it is true that our affections should primarily be directed toward God, that is not Paul’s point in this verse.
The very first word in the verse is significant: “for.” This indicates that the contents of verse 10 are explaining what Paul said in verse 9: “But those who want to be rich fall into temptation, a trap, and many foolish and harmful desires, which plunge people into ruin and destruction” (CSB).
Verse 9 is not a statement claiming that rich people will be destroyed or that rich people are, by default, sinful. The word translated “want” (CSB) or “desire” (ESV) refers to desiring to have something and it implies that the person has a plan to accomplish the goal of their desire.
Paul is not rebuking a Christian for being rich, Paul is warning about the desire to be rich. The desire, if fed over time, can lead to various kinds of temptations. So, how does verse 9 connect to verse 10? The desire to be rich leads to a love for money.
The consequences of desiring to be rich are very serious (similar to the danger of having a love for money). Paul says that this desire will cause the offender to fall into temptation and a trap. The word for “trap” refers to being surprisingly brought under the control of something.
The result of the temptations and trap is that they will have foolish and harmful desires. Desires can be good or bad, but here the modifiers “foolish” and “harmful” make it clear that this is a bad desire. These foolish and harmful desires then lead to ruin and destruction. This is the context for 1 Timothy 6:10.
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What Was Paul’s Point in Telling Timothy This?
Paul is warning Timothy (and therefore the church in Ephesus) about the love of money, not money itself. Paul says that this love for money is a root of all kinds of evil. The word for root literally refers to the part of a plant that is below ground. Here, Paul uses a figurative extension that refers to the reason or cause of something.
Love for money is a cause of all kinds of evil. Notice that Paul refers to “a root,” not “the root.” He isn’t saying that all evil in the world can be traced back to the love for money, but that many different evils can find their root in someone having a love for money.
When people are craving money, it leads to some very negative consequences. First, some who have a love for money forsake Christianity. Second, they cause themselves a lot of pain and grief. But how does a love for money lead to such horrible consequences?
Money magnifies someone’s character. If someone is arrogant, being rich can magnify their arrogance. It can make them believe they are invincible, untouchable, and unassailable. If someone is lustful, being rich can magnify their lust, providing them with endless opportunities to indulge in sinful desires. And some people have such a deep love for money, that they can never get enough.
Just a taste of being rich causes their character flaw of greed to overtake them.
How Should Christians View Money and Wealth?
A few verses later, Paul gives Timothy instructions for rich Christians. One thing that is important to recognize is that Paul does not tell Timothy to command them to get rid of their riches. Some interpreters have understood Jesus’ command to the rich young man in Matthew 19:21 (“go, sell your belongings and give to the poor”) as a command for all Christians today.
Instead of giving that command, Paul wants them to know how they are to live while they are rich.
Rich Christians are warned against arrogance. It could be easy for someone who is rich to think less of those who are poor. They could conclude that since they were able to become rich, everyone should be able to become rich. Paul wants them to avoid this temptation of pride.
Rich Christians must place their hope on God, not wealth. It can be tempting for someone with wealth to conclude that they don’t need God anymore, they can rely upon themselves since they have riches. This was a trap that the Christians in Laodicea fell into:
“For you say, ‘I’m rich; I have become wealthy and need nothing,’ and you don’t realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked” (Revelation 3:17). They had ceased depending on and fellowshipping with their Savior, Jesus Christ, and instead they leaned upon themselves.
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One particular sin that the love of money can lead to is stinginess. Many years ago I was listening to a Christian finance radio show. A fifty-year-old man called up and explained how he and his wife had been very frugal and saved as much money as they could.
The radio host asked him how much money he and his wife made in a year. He answered, “About fifty thousand dollars.” Then the man stated that they had already saved about 1.5 million dollars. The radio host praised the man, telling his audience that this man was the example for them, that they should all be like him.
But the man had called to ask a question, for he was struggling with something. He said that they had trained themselves so diligently to save that they were having a difficult time giving money to support Christian ministries. He said that they didn’t have a desire to be generous with their giving. He even claimed that they had a “mentality of hoarding money.”
To my shock, the radio host ignored his concern and praised him for how much he had saved. This man was literally confessing that he had a love for money and, instead of rebuking him, he was praised. His love for money prevented him from living in obedience to God’s commands to give generously and cheerfully ( 2 Corinthians 8:2-3; 13; 2 Corinthians 9:7).
If all Christians ceased the desire to be rich and cast off their love for money, so much more money could be used for evangelism and missions to the glory of God.
Two Extremes of Money
Finally, two extremes need to be avoided. There are some false preachers of the gospel that proclaim that God desires for every Christian to be wealthy and that personal sin prevents that from occurring. There is no place in Scripture where it says that all Christians should be rich.
There are others who believe that truly spiritual Christians will sell all they have and give it to the poor. Ascetic Christians are examples of this. God permits some Christians to be rich, some to be middle class, and some to be poor.
The main concern of Scripture is not your economic standing in society, but your attitude toward your money and possessions. Christians in any economic status can have a sinful attitude toward money that leads to their spiritual destruction.
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David A. Croteau (Ph.D. Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary) is Professor of New Testament, Associate Dean, and Director of the PhD program for the Seminary and School of Ministry at Columbia International University. His publications include Urban Legends of the Old Testament (co-author with Gary Yates, B&H, 2019), Urban Legends of the New Testament (B&H, 2015), Tithing After the Cross (Energion, 2013), and You Mean I Don’t Have to Tithe (Pickwick, 2010).