A Missionary Ethic of Economic Affluence
by Jayson Georges
The author seeks to create a larger ethic for the issue of missionary affluence that allows others to make redemptive decisions in particular contexts.
Should I pay the “bribe”? Should we finance national ministries? What should be our standard of living? Do I keep giving money to the beggar? Should I lend money to the desperate believer who probably cannot repay? How can I disciple locals who have less than I do about stewardship and money? Are my evangelism methods financially reproducible?
During my first years in Central Asia, I asked myself the above questions, which all stemmed from my relative affluence as a westerner. No issue caused more stress or occupied more thoughts than my personal wealth. Although I was aware of the problem before arriving, it was more severe and complex than I had anticipated. I also did not expect the emotions of confusion, guilt, superiority, outrage, pity, relief, arrogance, or hopelessness; in fact, I often wondered for each of those situations what a proper response would be.
The whole issue of my financial affluence is difficult for two reasons. First, I went overseas with the intention of proclaiming great spiritual truths, but instead was often confronted and consumed by material matters. Second, I felt the sacrifice of material losses (career, close family, American lifestyle, etc.) by becoming a missionary, but then found myself as the rich foreigner with money.
This article seeks to formulate a biblically ethical response to issues resulting from missionary affluence. The goal is not to formulate specific steps for each question resulting from missionary affluence, but to create a larger ethic for the overall issue of missionary affluence that allows others to make redemptive decisions in particular contexts. In order to provide a practical ethic, we must diagnose the problem by assessing the historical context of affluence.
Western Affluence in the Historical Global Economy
Since missions have always existed in the larger context of the world’s economic history, one must understand the general causes and effects of the West’s current economic advantage. While economic imbalances have existed throughout history, the gap separating the rich from the poor has increased exponentially with time. From A.D. 1000 to A.D. 1800, “there was…perhaps a fifty percent increase in per capita income” (Sachs 2005, 27), yet from 1820 to 2000, the United States’ per capita income increased 2,500 percent! Unfortunately, the gigantic leaps forward have not been taken by all global citizens—some have benefited much more than others. Drastic economic imbalance and affluence have been unavoidable realities in the global economy in the last two hundred years. Despite the promises of “globalization,” economic inequality and its related problems are not going away.1 It seems fair to conclude that culture, geography, political might, and technology have all worked together to produce the world’s inequality, which has been exacerbated by the sin of both rich and poor.
Not surprisingly, such drastic economic changes on a global scale created a mentality of superiority and separation among the affluent. Before 1500, Europeans respected and were impressed by non-Europeans, as evidenced by Marco Polo’s narrative descriptions of life in the Far East and Columbus’ favorable initial journal entries regarding the natives of the Americas. With the passing of time, Europe became financially superior and adopted a mentality of cultural superiority, as reflected in the ransacking of Latin America in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and of Africa in the nineteenth century. Also, the historic changes in Europeans’ perception of non-Europeans transformed how they lived among local cultures. Rather than living in the houses of nationals as guests (as Marco Polo did), Europeans established islands of European culture within colonies. The already large gap between the standard of living in London and Africa in the 1800s made it seem unrealistic for westerners to leave their European lifestyle and economic paradigms in order to adopt the living standards found in the colonies.
The Nature of Missionary Affluence
What is meant by the word affluence? The concept of affluence should not be limited to money, but understood within the broader notions of wealth, access, and non-material desirables. Missionaries are not affluent simply because their income can be from two to twenty times higher than locals, but also because they have knowledge, access to credit, personal connections, fluency in the English language, American citizenship, and prestige as westerners. In brief, affluence implies access to a greater amount of choices. Since I have greater control of the world around me, I am affluent.
Interestingly, my level of affluence depends upon my identity as an American, and not at all upon my identity as a Christian. When missionaries enter a culture, they are often identified based upon geo-politics instead of religious conviction or character, regardless of their intended self-identity. Such a geo-political identity is strengthened when missionaries use the affluence afforded them by that geo-political identity to aid their religious work, such as teaching English. One must realize that the affluence acquired by one’s geo-political identity will inevitably affect one’s religious work.
Affluence has characterized the Protestant mission enterprise since its inception. The Great Century of Protestant Missions is so named because of the large missionary expansion that occurred in the 1800s. However, the century was made great because missionaries were sent primarily from one country, Great Britain—the economically and politically dominant country of the century. Countries of Western European origins (e.g., the United States, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa) account for eighty percent of all missionaries, but only fifteen percent of the global population (Barrett 2007, 31). The inevitable link between affluence and missions is further solidified by the fact that the countries experiencing a boom in missions (Korea, China, India, and Brazil—the only four countries of non-European origins with more than five thousand missionaries abroad) have also enjoyed notable economic growth in the last fifteen years.
The Protestant missionary movement is synonymous with affluence because only affluent societies are able to release missionaries on a large scale. In reality, the culture from which a missionary originates must be affluent enough to support a non-producing member of society. Missionaries tend to be the most affluent Christians (in a global sense), because only their cultures can afford to send missionaries.
The Consequences of Missionary Affluence
One must properly understand the social consequences of such affluence before offering a remedy to the problem. There are three things we can say about this.
1. Affluence has created notions of superiority, arrogance, and ethnocentricism among missionaries. Sadly, Christians have not been exceptions to the general principle that “when a society is economically dominant, it is easy for its members to assume that such dominance reflects a deeper superiority” (Sachs 2005, 39).2 In this case, missionary affluence is not itself a wrong, but can become the source of wrong and sin when coupled with missionary pride. Although one rarely encounters unabashed ethnocentrism in modern writings, superiority and arrogance still hinder the mission enterprise (Elmer 2006).
2. Affluence has led Protestants to adopt a methodological model of mission that separates the missionary from the local society and people, creating an “us-them” (westerner-national) mentality. Because of the large income gap between the countries of origin and ministry, it was (and still is) considered infeasible for a missionary to live self-sufficiently within the economic system of the host country like Paul, medieval monastics, and the Moravians; instead, we rely on funds sent from the Western mission agency. Also, missions became a profession in and of itself because of the mission agency; we are no longer doctors, farmers, or merchants in the community, but carry the social identity of missionaries—a sizable consequence since profession is so central to identity. This is not so much a critique, but a candid examination of the consequences.
3. One also hears of how missionary affluence is counter-productive and harmful to the missionary task. Jonathan Bonk attempts to establish the counter productivity of missionary affluence on four grounds: relational, communicatory, strategic, and theological (2006). Each of these areas is marred by the missionary’s wealth. Often overlooked is the significant point that the modern mission enterprise owes its existence to such wealth. Money has been the fuel of missions in a very practical sense. First, it has given missionaries the money necessary to travel to and live in another country. Second, affluence has facilitated virtually every facet of the missionary task. It has provided Bible translation, physical places for believers to gather, Bible and literature distribution, a livelihood for national workers, projects of economic development, airplanes that access otherwise unreachable places, schools and clinics for developing peoples, inspiring and strategic conferences, etc. Third, the affluent lives of missionaries allow missionaries to remain comfortable and healthy, and therefore more effective. Although westerners’ needs for affluent lifestyles to avoid stress and burnout are neither ideal nor free from any judgment, it is a realistic consequence of living in a fallen world. It is worth asking what the spiritual state of Africa, Latin America, and Asia would be today without the benefit of Western affluence to support missions in those locations in the last 200-plus years.
Biblical Teaching of Wealth and Affluence
The process of summarizing the Bible’s teaching on wealth and affluence is complicated by the wide diversity found within the biblical canon. The contrasting, often contradicting, views of wealth between liberation theology and the prosperity gospel (both of which appeal to scripture) illustrate the complexity of the biblical evidence. Richard Hays warns, “The New Testament’s direct commands and general rules about possessions are embedded in a canonical context that complicates simple literal application” (1996, 467).
Wealth in the Old Testament is generally viewed favorably and always understood in the context of Israel’s covenantal relationship with God. In the Pentateuch and Proverbs, wealth is a good blessing from God, often resulting from obedience. Job and Ecclesiastes present wealth as a blessing to be enjoyed, but not a reward to be deserved or expected since it is always in the hands of the God who gives and takes according to his will. However, the prophets, who wrote during the monarchy when wealth was increasingly concentrated in the hands of the few, speak boldly against economic injustice by often connecting it to idolatry and the cause of the exile.
The New Testament is consistent with the Old Testament on the teaching of wealth, with one exception: wealth is never promised for spiritual obedience or hard work. This is because the Church no longer consists of one ethnic group living in God’s Promised Land. Generally speaking, the portions of the New Testament formed in a Jewish context (Jesus, Acts 1-12, James) critique the rich and advocate justice for the poor, while the writings addressing issues in a Greco-Roman context (Acts 13-28, Paul) are more favorable toward the rich by calling them to a life of generosity.
Such biblical diversity is a result of contextual diversity; that is, the biblical authors were required to contextualize the core theological tradition to address the needs of various contexts. As we face ever new contexts, our task remains the same. Despite the diversity, there are several unifying elements to the Bible’s theology of wealth (Blomberg 2001, 243-246). Material possessions are a good gift from God meant for his people to enjoy; poverty, on the other hand, is contrary to God’s will and never idealized in the Bible. However, material possessions are one of the primary means of turning human hearts away from God; therefore, transformation in the area of finances is central to redemption.
Nevertheless, there remain certain extremes of wealth and poverty which are inherently intolerable.
The biblical purpose of wealth and affluence is best expressed as “Blessed to be a blessing” or “To whom much is given, much is expected.” God’s material blessing was never intended to enhance one’s personal satisfaction, but as a means of redemption. A proper understanding of missionary affluence must view wealth as an instrument for the purposes of God. Wealth is not an inherent evil to be repented of (see Bonk 2007), but a divine blessing to be righteously handled. How such blessings and redemption are embodied in particular contexts will range widely, yet should always remain the intended vision of wealth. Missionaries do not encounter issues of affluence on the historical or theological plane, but in their personal contexts. Therefore, it remains to consider how we ethically respond to the concrete issues often faced.
Biblical Virtues: The Foundation of the Ethic
The Bible is not a rule book or instruction manual that tells us what to do in each situation; it is a story that inspires one to creatively and imaginatively express God’s redemption. In the face of economic inequality, we must seek to embody the virtues of thankfulness, contentment, justice, mercy, love, generosity, stewardship, and faith. (Note that “independence,” despite being a controlling value for westerners, is not included as a biblical virtue.) These are the biblical foundations upon which we build our ethic of missionary affluence. It is worth noting how these virtues relate to missionary affluence.
Thankfulness is the first. Examples of and calls to a heart of thankfulness are scattered throughout the Bible. Often, biblical writers express their own thankfulness to God for the salvation he provides, but a heart of gratitude is a proper response to all of God’s blessings, spiritual and material. Thankfulness affirms the believer’s dependence upon God and acknowledges God as the source of all good things.
Contentment is a willful decision to be satisfied with one’s material possessions instead of coveting and desiring more. A believer’s contentment demonstrates his or her valuation of God above all things and his or her trust in God’s wisdom and sovereignty in providing such a life.
Justice is the demand for fairness and equality in the face of abuses of power and wealth against the poor. This theme is common among the Old Testament prophets, who demanded that the politically, religiously, and economically powerful act according to God’s design for humanity. The call to justice is a call for the end of the oppressive human systems that alienate and disenfranchise the poor. Justice illustrates God’s heart for all people, regardless of wealth, age, gender, or race, because of their inherent worth as God’s creatures.
Mercy (also, graciousness) is the gracious meeting of a need, giving to the poor what is not earned. This biblical principle is best understood in light of God’s mercy toward us in salvation. The spontaneous, superabounding love of mercy comes when a believer experiences the radical grace of God (Keller 1997, 63). Mercy is both a means for recreating the humanity originally intended by God and a sign of a believer’s grasping the gospel of grace.
Love, the highest Christian virtue, is consideration of others above oneself. Love can be tangibly displayed by the sharing and giving of material goods for the blessing and enjoyment of other people. On a balanced note, mercy and love are sometimes better expressed in the withholding of an object instead of the giving of an object.
Generosity is the free and unhindered sharing of resources (time, money, food, etc.). A lifestyle of generosity acknowledges God as the source of wealth and is a tangible expression of love and care toward others.
Stewardship is the proper use of the resources God has entrusted to us. This virtue reminds the believer that material possessions provided by God are not primarily for personal consumption or satisfaction, but for his kingdom purposes (i.e., blessing others, providing for the poor, or establishing healthy relationships).
Faith (also, trust) is utter reliance and dependence upon the character and promises of God. Faith is manifested by not worrying or becoming anxious, but committing one’s future material state to God, who has already promised to provide.
The difficulty of resolving the concrete issues arising from missionary affluence comes from needing to know (1) how these virtues are communicated in the local culture and (2) which virtue to apply to what degree at what time.
Grief without Guilt: The Heart of the Ethic
The fact that a select few are privileged to consume many times more resources than the majority of the almost seven billion people on earth is unfair, wrong, unjust, and contrary to biblical principles. The radical economic disparity and wide gaps in standard of living on a global basis is a result of sin. However, the affluence of missionaries resulting from this wide gap is not the result of a sin (a specific, incorrect action or attitude of one specific person) per se, but of sin (the general, destructive force active in the world that is thwarting the purposes of God). Such an approach is similar to the evangelical understanding of physical sickness: it is wrong, not desired by God, and the result of sin in general, but not directly attributed to personal sin. Affluence is an inevitable aspect of life in a fallen world.
In response, the missionary should grieve this consequence of a fallen world, but not feel personally guilty. Christians should rightly feel a sense of pity, anger, frustration, and grief; the tragic realities resulting from Western and missionary affluence should be protested against. As a result of such emotions, the missionary should be naturally inclined to work within his or her power to limit further injustices, correct wrongs, and realign the world with God’s intended purpose, similar to how a doctor works within his or her power to limit the undesirable consequences of a physical problem and restore the patient back to full health.
On the other hand, missionaries should not feel personally guilty for the problem, as though they are personally responsible for it. Various forces (e.g., natural causes, the decisions of prior people, and God’s sovereignty) have worked together to create the current world into which we were born. This approach does not absolve all responsibility in the name of determinism, but does acknowledge that individual missionaries themselves play a limited role in the cause of the larger problem of economic inequality. For example, a large part of missionary affluence is determined by their country of birth—a fact for which the missionary carries no personal responsibility. I should not feel guilty for God’s decision to make me a white, male American.
Along with the fact that missionaries are not the direct cause of Western affluence, missionaries should not consider themselves guilty because of the relativity of wealth. For example, I never felt guilty for my education and access to knowledge until I compared myself to Central Asians. However, I would never feel guilty about my access to higher education if it were universally enjoyed, just like I do not feel guilty about my access to breathable air. That is to say, the benefits resulting from missionary affluence are not considered wrong until they are compared to something else, and would not be considered wrong if the something else did not exist. It is impossible to determine what is normal and needed without comparisons, which in turn render conceptions of normal and needed relative. Many elements resulting from Western affluence are very good: quality health care, safety regulations, insurance systems, high standards of education, government programs, free press, daily stability, and law enforcement agencies. Such expressions of affluence should not be considered sinful, be disposed of, or produce guilt.
A balanced approach to missionary affluence navigates a path between the two extremes. On one side are the minimalists whose complete rejection of wealth fosters crippling levels of guilt. On the other extreme are those whose complete justification of missionary affluence excuses them from any responsibility to remedy the ills of economic disparity. Minimalists compare missionaries with locals, leading to paralyzing guilt and condemnation; the other side compares missionaries with other westerners who are not missionaries, leading to numbness of heart and self-justification. However, it seems prudent to avoid comparison when possible.
The Western missionary will inevitably encounter financial and relational quagmires resulting from affluence. Although not responsible for causing the issues stemming from affluence, the missionary does share responsibility for resolving the issue when appropriate and possible. “Grief without guilt” summarizes this author’s position on missionary affluence.
Affluence as a missionary problem is both a major and a neglected issue. Western missionaries have been and will be (for the foreseeable future) affluent, and thus constantly encounter specific issues resulting from affluence. This article has intentionally steered clear of offering rules for responding to the issues of bribes, beggars, standard of living, loans, financing national ministries, outreach methods, etc., since the factors and context surrounding each encounter are complex and unique. A general ethic (i.e., biblical virtues and grief-without-guilt) has been put forth that will hopefully equip and empower Western missionaries to navigate specific issues as they are encountered. The goal is always to respond to each situation in a way that is good (as defined by the cultural context) and biblical.
The ideals expressed above are hardly present in my personal character, but do represent the direction I ask God to move me toward. These biblical virtues and grief-without-guilt ethic has by no means made the issues any less difficult to face, for no theology or ethic can make poverty and economic imbalance less gruesome or grievous than it really is. Yet it has provided some framework for moving out to redeem and transform the world around me.
1. Global unemployment rose from 1990 to 2002, and only five percent of the world’s population lives in countries with declining inequality. Even in India (the poster-child of globalization) only twenty percent of the country has experienced an increase in income since 1990, while the income of the remaining 800 million Indians has decreased or remained even.
2. For example, four of the five practical impediments to missionary activity which William Carey had to overcome in his Enquiry in 1792 reflect notions of superiority and ethnocentricism: their barbarous and savage manner of living, the danger of being killed by them, the difficulty of procuring the necessaries of life, and the unintelligibleness of their languages. The last was their distance from us.
Barrett, David. 2007. “Missiometrics 2007: Creating Your Own Analysis of Global Data.” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 31(1): 25-32.
Blomberg, Craig. 2001. Neither Riches nor Poverty. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.
Bonk, Jonathan. 2007. Missions and Money: Affluence as a Western Missionary Problem. Revised and expanded. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books.
Elmer, Duane. 2006. Cross-Cultural Servanthood. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.
Hays, Richard B.1996. The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics. San Francisco, Calif.: Harper.
Keller, Timothy J. 1997. Ministries of Mercy. 2nd ed. Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R Publishing.
Sachs, Jeffrey. 2005. The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time. New York: Penguin.
Jayson Georges (pseudonym) lives and works in Central Asia.
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