by Jonathan Conner
If you’ve ever been flipping through radio channels and heard people yelling, “WE’RE DEBT FREE,” then you’ve no doubt encountered The Dave Ramsey Show.
Host and financial guru Dave Ramsey based both the show and his nine-week personal finance course, Financial Peace University (FPU) — a popular program offered by many churches around the country — on the astute premise that “Personal finance is only 20 percent head knowledge. The other 80 percent … is behavior.” Ramsey, an entertaining and engaging speaker, is clearly qualified to motivate course participants to act on the expertise he offers in financial areas ranging from budgeting to insurance, retirement plans to home buying/selling and more. The course format (a highly polished video presentation followed by small group discussion and accountability) is also well designed to maximize lasting behavior changes, leading to “financial peace.”
As the radio show’s callers will attest, Financial Peace University offers a lot to shout joyfully about, including being debt-free. Further, it’s wonderful to have available to us a financial program developed by a Christian businessman who emphasizes the Gospel as well as tithing and giving. Yet Scripture repeatedly exhorts us to preserve sound doctrine (Acts 20:28–31; Titus 1:7–11 and 2:1, 7–8; 2 Tim. 1:13–14, 3:12–17, 4:16), and so we are called to examine Ramsey’s use of Scripture and lovingly offer cautions where needed.
Here’s a brief overview of FPU’s strengths and potential pitfalls.
Perhaps the greatest strength of FPU is Ramsey’s list of “7 Baby Steps,” which offers beginners a financial plan broken down into concrete, achievable milestones. In summary:
- Save $1,000 for emergencies.
- Use the “debt snowball” to pay off debt.
- Save three to six months’ expenses for emergencies.
- Invest 15 percent of income into tax-favored retirement plans.
- Save for children’s college.
- Pay off your home early.
- Build wealth and give.
These steps, along with the budget (next paragraph), form the backbone of FPU.
“You will either learn to manage your money or the lack of it will always manage you,” Ramsey says. He insists on a written cash flow plan — a budget — that must be done “on purpose on paper every month before the month begins.” He emphasizes the benefits of budgeting not only to achieve personal financial peace, but also to strengthen relationships and generous giving.
Scripture, especially through the proverbs, provides wise counsel for daily living. Ramsey leans on biblical proverbs throughout FPU, regularly citing wisdom such as “My son, if you have put up security for your neighbor, have given your pledge for a stranger … save yourself like a gazelle from the hand of the hunter” (Prov. 6:1,5), and “The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower is the slave of the lender” (Prov. 22:7).
FPU’s potential pitfalls
The proverbialization of Scripture
Ramsey makes a clear presentation of the Gospel in Session 9, even grounding our giving in the giving nature of God. He clearly believes that true peace (even financial peace) cannot be achieved apart from the Prince of Peace. Yet it must be lovingly pointed out that, in his motivational enthusiasm to make a point, he consistently misuses Scripture. His aforementioned strength of relying on proverbs at times becomes a weakness, as he lifts verses from their context and transforms into financial advice verses that simply aren’t. For example, Ramsey repurposes Jesus’ words in Luke 14 about counting the cost of discipleship — a passage that has nothing to do with money management — to teach the necessity of making a budget.
Ramsey boldly proclaims that FPU presents “God’s ways” of handling money, a method for “being biblical in finances.” Charitably, Lutherans would interpret this as an overstatement that tests the limits of accuracy. Particularly after the cautions above regarding misquoted biblical texts, it would be more accurate to assert that the course offers “wise ways” of handling money — and of that there is no doubt.
Unqualified statements and buzzwords
A dynamic stage personality, Ramsey often caps verbal crescendos with energetic exclamations: “God thinks you’re awesome!” “That’s how you win with money!” “That’s God showing up!” These statements play well, but they can all too easily veer into error. God is indeed favorably disposed toward us — because of Christ. We “win” with money — when we see it through the lens of vocation, as a means through which God provides for us and our neighbor. God indeed “shows up” — not because we do something to unleash His blessing, but because He has graciously promised to be with us in His Word and Sacraments.
Despite these concerns, Ramsey nonetheless offers an outstanding, proven resource that can help you get your finances in order, to the benefit of yourself, your neighbor and the Church!
The Rev. Jonathan Conner is pastor of Zion Lutheran Church in Manning, Iowa.
This article originally appeared in the September 2018 print edition of The Lutheran Witness. For a more thorough review of FPU, along with a thoughtful positioning of FPU and an in-depth theological evaluation, download “Financial Peace University: Preview and Review,” a free resource from LCMS Stewardship Ministry.