My reading gives me the impression that sustainability is being taken more seriously by Christians, particularly the ‘millennial’ generation. Sustainable living is a Christian calling, declares Calvin College. Tearfund and the Jubilee Centre have produced five Bible studies on Christianity, Climate Change and Sustainable Living. There is even a network of Christian leaders advocating sustainability: check out their webpage.
Basically put, sustainability is the belief that there are enough resources on earth to provide for its population, if only these resources could be used wisely and equally. This clip from the Breathe Network will give you a flavour – read the comments too.
So, is this a new fad? Could it be that sustainability is in the New Testament mandate? It is certainly the thought behind 2 Corinthians 9:8. God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that you may always have enough of everything and may provide in abundance for every good work.
But there is a much stronger tie-up with the monastic community vision. Basil, bishop of Caesarea (c.330-379), wrote at some length on this issue. In his sermon “To the Rich”, he writes:
“But how do you make use of money? By dressing in expensive clothing? Won’t two yards of tunic suffice you, and the covering of one coat satisfy all your need of clothes? Is it for food’s sake that you have such a demand for wealth? One loaf is enough to fill a belly.”
If you have been blessed with more money and goods than others, it is so you can meet the needs of those others, he argues.
‘It takes wealth to care for the needy; a little paid out for the needs of each person, and all at once there is sharing. Whoever loves his neighbour as himself [as Christ taught], will not hold on to more than his neighbour has.’
Basil inveighs against those “who leave grain to rot but will not feed the starving”, who choose ivory sofas and silver tables when ordinary wood is just as suitable. This is more than cheap swipes at material wealth. For Basil, a man steeped in the Christian community vision of the Desert Fathers, the inherent sin of such behaviour is its refusal to accept simplicity for the sake of sustainability. It is as much a sin against the earth as it is against the poor.
This is the context in which Basil in his day, and concerned Christians today, saw the devious lie of consumerism and turned against it.
Over the last four centuries, various church congregations have chosen to write down certain pledges of commitment in the manner of a legal covenant – and publish it. In today’s western society, however, ‘easy come, easy go’ is so often the keynote. Political parties, churches or local clubs all lament that they can’t get people to sign up. ‘Quickie’ divorces can end marriage vows in weeks. Life is impersonal and everything must be “now”.
But there is a curious phenomenon here. Men who baulk at demands and commitments, even in their own marriage and family, can also be inspired by movies like Shawshank Redemption or Braveheart, with their ‘band of brothers’ flavour and ‘loyalty to the death’ message. Maybe women do the same with Paradise Road?
The implication seems to be that intuitively we recognise the strength and desirability of loyalty, faithfulness and commitment, but life’s experience has taught us that we’re all too weak and it doesn’t work – so leave it enshrined in films, don’t try to live it.
But there is a reaction. Interest in covenants is growing. In churches in America, there is a mushrooming of interest in ‘fireproofing’ the marriage vows, born of the film Fireproof, which is popularising the term “covenant marriage” and offers specific rubrics for marriage re-dedications along this line.
A covenant is a statement of the basis for, and conditions of, a relationship, writes Julia Faire in “Covenant People“. Covenants have the purpose of both defining and strengthening commitment and setting forth a particular course and vision for those that participate in them to follow. They have a strong biblical basis and a history of heroic observance, notably the Covenanter martyrs of Scotland.
There is a battle to be fought and won, Faire concludes, a lost generation to be won for Christ, a solid church to be built within a fragmented and unstable society. There is a need for a drawing of the lines, consolidation and fresh vision if the church is not going to largely disappear amidst the fog of confusion and disarray that characterises our present [western] society.
I note that I omitted to conclude my series of posts on the Serampore Covenant (or “Form of Agreement”) drawn up in 1805 by pioneer missionary William Carey. You can find the start of the series here.
The document ends with three shorter sections. Numbers 9 and 10 deal with the spiritual side of the mission. Here we are on known ground. The ‘Serampore Trio’ pledge devotion to the Bible and to religious education. We consider the publication of the Divine Word throughout India as an object which we ought never to give up until it is accomplished.
This meant translation (in time, Carey and his team would translate the gospels into forty Indian languages and dialects, in addition to Christian tracts) and publication, for which they had their own printing press, run by William Ward. Over and above this, the missionaries covenant to explain and distribute, and to excite attention and reverence for, the Word of God.
Free schools for Indian children were seen as a priority. The progress of divine light is gradual, so religious education for children was a vital tool. The missionaries should establish, visit, encourage and recommend these at every opportunity.
Section 10 is a commitment to fervent, believing prayer, both individual and corporate.
The concluding section 11, however, is anything but traditional missionary fare! It is a passionate recommendation of common purse Christian community living (the Bible, Acts 2:42), and a withering blast against any lessening of covenant commitment or a turning back to selfish, independent ways. Let us give up ourselves unreservedly to this glorious cause. Let us never think that our time, our gifts, our strengths, our families, or even the clothes we wear, are our own.
The Serampore team had embraced a shared purse around 1804, so they are able to testify: No private family ever enjoyed a greater portion of happiness, even in the most prosperous gale of worldly prosperity, than we have done since we resolved to have all things in common. This book looks at the biblical and historical evidence for Christian community living; this one looks at its relevance for today.
Having renounced self-centred living for the sake of the gospel, and having reinforced this by a pledge of loyalty and accountability, Carey, Marshman and Ward warn severely against turn back from it. Woe to that man who shall ever make the smallest movement towards doing things on his own. The moment it is admitted that each brother may act independently, a worldly spirit, quarrels and every evil work will succeed.
It is this formal, solemn and very human pledge of covenant that makes the Serampore mission both different and compelling. High standards indeed, but they were crowned with success. If we are enabled to persevere [in these principles], we may hope that multitudes of converted souls will have reason to bless God to all eternity for sending His gospel into this country. And succeed they did, as these links eloquently show.
For previous posts on the Serampore Covenant, follow these links: part 1 , part 2 , part 3 and part 4. Section 8 of the 1805 covenant made by William Carey, Joshua Marshman and William Ward is the longest of all. It covers long-term vision and short-term goals for their mission. There is plenty here that is relevant for today.
In a clear swipe at Baptist traditions back home in the UK, where only one man was “the Minister”, Carey states: If the practice of confining ministry of the word to a single individual in a church be once established among us, we despair of the Gospel ever making much progress in India by our means. It is only by means of native preachers that can we hope for the universal spread of the gospel throughout this immense continent.
Carey’s vision is clear: a body of native missionaries, used to the climate, acquainted with the customs, language, modes of speech and reasoning of the inhabitants, able to become familiar with them, enter their houses, sleep on their floors or under a tree, and who may travel [far and wide] almost without any expense. This page shows how such a vision is being implemented today, with great effect.
Where does this leave Western missionaries? Basically, to be fathers, mentors and enablers. Carey writes of forming usefulness, fostering every kind of genius, and cherishing every gift of grace in them. As the first generation of native evangelists begins to form, the incumbent Western missionary’s task is to superintend their affairs, give them advice in cases of order and discipline, and correct any errors into which they may fall – but also to enjoy the partnership with them, their steadfastness in faith, and keep pointing them to new openings for church-planting. Books like this show that this quality of spiritual fathers and mothers is a desperate need in churches today.
An interesting decision made by Carey’s team was not to change the names of native converts when they got baptised. Other missionary organisations either gave completely new, ‘Christian’ names or added one. For Carey, the New Testament was evidence enough not to do this; the Apostle Paul saw no need to change names like Epaphroditus or Sylvanus, even though they were derived from pagan gods. For the ‘Serampore Trio’ it was essential to avoid alienating their target audience by suggestions of superiority or judgementalism. Far more important was to foster, by all means at their disposal, a new heart, a moral and divine change in their conduct.
Here ends this fascinating, courageous and visionary document. It shows how timeless are many of the issues raised in the proclamation of the gospel, but also how each age and culture is unique and will require particular sensitivity and research. Carey and his team were bold to put in print their own considered strategy, which history shows to have been remarkably effective. Today’s students of ‘missional‘ communities and methods could do a lot worse than starting with the Serampore Covenant of 1805!