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.
The Plough, published by Church Communities International, has announced a bold and very welcome move: to publish, for the first time in English, the works of two remarkable men: Johann Christoph Blumhardt (1805-1880) and his son, Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt (1842-1919).
“What do such wildly diverse movements as religious socialism, neo-orthodoxy, Pentecostalism, and such Christian thinkers like Karl Barth, Eberhard Arnold, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jacques Ellul and Jürgen Moltmann, have in common?”, writes one of the series’ editors. “They all trace their Christian understanding of the world and God’s kingdom to Johann Christoph Blumhardt, a humble pastor in Germany who lived in the 19th century.”
Johann Christoph was pastor in Möttlingen, a village in South-West Germany as unremarkable as Blumhardt himself. Until 1842, that is, when circumstances plunged him into the realm of ‘deliverance ministry’, exorcism and healing prayer. A young woman exhibiting the classic symptoms of demonisation, as shown in the Gospels, was released after an intensive season of prayer, spiritual battle and exorcism.
“Möttlingen was swept up in an unprecedented movement of repentance and renewal. Stolen property was returned, broken marriages restored, enemies reconciled, alcoholics freed, and more amazingly still, an entire village experienced what life could be like when God ruled.” People started arriving from miles around, drawn by the manifest power of God and the possible hope of freedom in their own lives. Such ‘success’ was, in fact, embarrassing for Blumhardt, who was a solid and unflamboyant character and freely admitted that he was no expert in these matters.
Even so, “Blumhardt’s parsonage eventually could not accommodate the numbers of people streaming to it. He thus began to look for a place with more room and greater freedom. He moved his family to Bad Boll, a complex of large buildings which had been developed as a spa around a sulfur water spring. His biographer [in German] recounts in vivid detail one story after another of how through the small circle at Bad Boll, desperate individuals of all stripes— burdened with mental, emotional, physical and spiritual maladies—found healing and renewed faith.”
Blumhardt had the courage to work through the ideological issues (and plenty of opposition) and to conclude emphatically that the Kingdom of God was perennially able to break into everyday life, with whatever manifestation of the divine or miraculous that the Holy Spirit might choose.
Blumhardt was not a theologian and did not attempt a reasoned theology of his stance. He was a practical man, full of compassion, who was wise enough to realise that the damaged, the sick and the demonised need compassion and hope in their damaged souls every bit as much as healing or exorcism. His sermons pleaded, cared, pointed to a God who is love and who wants us to know it.
But Blumhardt also offers hope to Christians who long for the transcendental, for God’s power to be seen in today’s world. He was convinced that the Old Testament prophecy of Joel, quoted by Peter when the Holy Spirit was first outpoured (Acts 2:17) had only been partly fulfilled; that the generous and saving God in whom he believed had so much more for the Church to discover and to use for God’s glory and the blessing of multitudes.
In the wake of Gottlieben Dittus’s exorcism (see previous post), with a whole neighbourhood paying attention, he took deliberate steps to dampen any thrill-seeking tendencies. He refused anything that smacked of sensationalism or a personality cult.
Blumhardt was also conservative in his ecclesiology: he firmly believed in the established church. He was familiar with developments across the Channel in England, which by this time had seen the Quakers, then the Great Awakening, the powerful movings of God associated with the Wesleys and George Whitefield (an overview of which is given here). These times of the in-breaking of God’s power had led to large numbers leaving the Anglican communion to found new groups and movements.
By contrast, Germany had always been resistant to sectarianism – look how it treated the Anabaptists. But in Blumhardt, the message of renewal and the manifest power of God with signs and wonders came from a solid son of the church who had no intention of seceding from it. This resonated far and wide, and Blumhardt’s parsonage welcomed thousands of visitors, including author/parson Eduard Mörike and novelist Hermann Hesse.
A number recorded their reactions.
1. FAITH. “He really does believe! It isn’t magic!”, wrote Blumhardt’s bishop. Real faith, “the faith that pulls the fire from heaven” (Salvation Army hymn) has always fascinated and attracted. People want to believe in the miraculous. Blumhardt made it seem quite ordinary.
2. LOVE. “Love is his religion”, wrote a noted painter. Blumhardt’s God was compassionate, offered hope, gave repentance and a new start even to the most damaged and dirty, and any manifestation of healing or the miraculous was a signpost to that nature in Him. This too is timelessly attractive, especially to Christians stultified by habit – what Blumhardt called “religion”.
3. HOPE. Blumhardt’s heightened understanding of light and darkness (through the exorcism of 1842) made him see that God was ready at any moment to invade the darkness of human life with the light that is the real Jesus – not of “religion” but of life . Darkness, he wrote, is contrary to our nature if we are of God, so there will always be a way to escape from it if we put our trust in Him.
All of these, Blumhardt believed, were available within the orbit of the church. But because of much encrusting of habitual “church-ianity”, God’s lavish heart in these areas had to be actively and strongly preached, which is what Blumhardt gave himself to doing – while resisting any temptation to cast the church aside in favour of ‘freer’, individual spirituality.
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!