The Protestant Work Ethic, Prosperity Theology and Cape Town’s Response

Paul Miller


The Global Consultation on Prosperity Theology addresses poverty through the Cape Town Commitment’s rebuttal of the Prosperity Gospel and through “Calling the Church of Christ back to humility, integrity and simplicity.” This is highly commendable, when viewed broadly; when viewed more critically, however, it raises five fundamental questions or issues.

First, the issue is not whether the “prosperity gospel” as presented by the Consultation is objectionable; the issue is whether the Consultation fairly presents the prosperity gospel – i.e., whether other more biblically congenial forms of the prosperity gospel are possible.

Second, the issue is whether the Consultation/Cape Town has overly narrowed the biblical responses possible to the prosperity gospel by implicitly suggesting that only two options exist: either “simplicity” or an exaggerated “prosperity gospel.”

Third, the issue is whether Cape Town has confused “simplicity” – a vocation to which some Christians are called – with “generosity” – a virtue universally required of all Christians; and whether, as a result, an unhelpful legalism is thereby being introduced.

Fourth, the issue is whether this Cape Town statement actually undercuts what it wants to achieve – effective solutions to poverty – both by its silence on the necessity for pragmatic, profit-driven business and by its undermining a chief engine of such pragmatic business: self-interest.

Fifth, the issue is whether the four questions above are being driven not by theology “as such” (if there is such a thing!) but rather by ideological/factual assumptions about the nature and role of “justice” in our world – assumptions which again may detract from an effective response to poverty.

As there is not sufficient time to tackle all five issues adequately in the time allotted, my oral presentation shall tackle the first four issues; my written submission will additionally address the fifth issue concerning justice.

All these issues are fundamental to my theme of “The Protestant Work Ethic and Prosperity Theology” as they go right to the heart of the creational norms which drive the so-called Protestant Work Ethic. The Protestant Work Ethic was originally a sociological concept developed by Max Weber to explain Northern Europe’s economic advance from the 16th century onwards. Weber argued this advance was caused by a new form of capitalism motivated by the new Protestant moral viewpoint then emerging. This new moral viewpoint saw business as a “calling”; it was a “worldly asceticism” in which the money earned was almost an accidental by-product.1 Hugh Trevor-Roper agreed with much of Weber’s argument2 but disagreed that it was fundamentally Protestant, seeing it instead as broadly Christian and operative in earlier Catholic societies.3 In engaging this theme, I will accept generally Weber’s thesis; however, rather than entering the sociological debate surrounding his thesis, I shall be approaching it biblically. Specifically I shall examine how Cape Town/Sao Paulo’s focus on the Prosperity Gospel and Simplicity impact this work ethic.

Issue One

The Cape Town Commitment presents, and then responds to, only one version of prosperity teaching – and the very worst one, at that. Its presentation of the Prosperity Gospel is so extreme that no discussion here in Sao Paulo as to its substantive merits is really even necessary. What right-thinking Christian would hold that God can be “manipulated,” or that God’s power is “automatic,” or that “spiritual welfare can be measured in terms of material welfare”?4 Such a stance is indefensible; the only discussion needed here would not be substantive but communicative – how best to alert and warn the wider church against this error.

That said, I would suggest that a substantive discussion of the merits of prosperity teaching is actually necessary. Specifically, a discussion is needed on how to relate a more balanced, biblical version of the prosperity gospel to Cape Town’s “simplicity principle.” Before the relationship of “the prosperity principle” to “the simplicity principle” can be discussed, however, some initial comments on a proper prosperity principle are necessary.

Issue Two

The Consultation/Cape Town implicitly suggests that one must choose between either an exaggerated “prosperity gospel” or “simplicity. However, it is quite clear from the Cape Town Commitment’s own theological stance, that other options are possible. That is, Cape Town affirmed its own form of a prosperity gospel when it held, “We affirm that there is a biblical vision of human prospering, and that the Bible includes material welfare (both health and wealth) within its teaching about the blessing of God.”5 A vision for “human prospering” is only another way of saying “human prosperity.” The legitimacy of material wealth is explicitly affirmed. This, then, is a “prosperity gospel,” but of a different kind.

However, this principle of human prosperity is given the barest of mentions. It is mentioned only once in the entire document and its implications are never explored.6 Moreover, how it relates to Cape Town’s enunciated simplicity principle is not explored. Specifically, the tension between embracing “human prosperity” and “simplicity” is not once even raised. How these two principles can co-exist must be explained. Initially, certainly, they seem in total contradiction. One cannot logically affirm both that material wealth is legitimate for Christians and simultaneously require simplicity of them. It is vital that we get this right.

One could, of course, escape any contradiction by adopting the weaker version of Cape Town’s commitment to simplicity; i.e., when it stated, “We affirm Lausanne’s historic call for simpler lifestyles.”7 Calling for a “simpler” lifestyle relativizes and softens the call to a “simple lifestyle.” That is, one could live affluently and yet still satisfy this “simpler”-call by merely giving up one or two cups of coffee a week; that would be “simpler” relatively speaking. But this weaker option is not really an option; it is not, of course, what the Lausanne Covenant asserted. Its call was more absolutists: “Those of us who live in affluent circumstances accept our duty to develop a simple lifestyle.” (Para. 9) Cape Town echoes this stronger version in its heading for section IIE, “Calling the Church of Christ back to … simplicity.” Here the strong version: not merely simpler but the duty of a simple lifestyle, of simplicity.8

It is the seeming contradiction between Cape Town/Lausanne’s affirmation of the stronger version of the “simplicity principle” and its affirmation of human prospering that demands exploration and explanation. In addition to this contradiction, the “simplicity principle” itself with its affirmation of “the duty of the simple lifestyle” needs challenging, which leads us to the next issue.

Issue Three

The Lausanne Covenant calls the simple lifestyle a “duty.” The Cape Town Commitment follows suit by portraying it, in section IIE, as one of the biblically mandated five ways9 Christians should “walk” (citing Ephesians: “Seven times in Ephesians Paul speaks of how Christians should, or should not, walk.”)10 Paul’s instructions to the Ephesians on walking are not optional; they are requirements of Christian living. The question, then, is whether Lausanne/Cape Town in posing “simplicity” as a “duty” and as a required way of “walking” has confused a vocation with a virtue. That is, has it confused a vocation to which some are called with a virtue universally required? I would suggest it has. Simplicity is clearly a valid and important option for those called to it; but it is not for all.

The basic problem with requiring simplicity/“simple lifestyle” is the silence of Scripture as to such a duty. Nowhere does Scripture unambiguously command that Christians live with a bare minimum (this being the most common-sensical definition of simplicity).11 Certainly, none of the scriptures cited in the Lausanne Covenant did (see earlier footnote). And when the apostle Paul addressed the rich, he required generosity, not simplicity. He instructs Timothy how to deal with the rich thus: “Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share.” (I Tim. 6:17-18) Generosity to others was the focus; not the need to divest themselves in order to do so. Such generosity mirrored God’s generosity, here portrayed as “richly provid[ing]” for us.

Similarly, to the Corinthians Paul wrote: “And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work….You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God.” (I Cor. 9:8-12) Once again, generosity is the required virtue. Moreover, to enable such generosity, preserving these Corinthians in a simplified lifestyle is precisely not what God was up to. Rather, Paul says, God would make them “rich in every way.”

The book of Acts similarly puts the focus on generosity, not on simplicity. There is, for instance, the well-known description of the early church in Acts 4:32-35 (“they shared everything they had … there were no needy persons among them” etc.), sometimes interpreted as an experiment in communal living. Intriguingly in light of the “simplicity” argument, here the givers were not living in simplicity. That is, they had “possessions”; what was key was not the abundance of their possessions but the fact that they held onto them lightly (v. 32). Quite clearly, some were giving out of their abundance Acts notes that they “owned land and houses” which they sold “from time to time.” (v. 34)

The very next chapter in Acts gives us, in Ananias and Sapphire, and example of some of these land-owners. The apostle Peter is quite clear that their wrong-doing did not consist in their owning land nor in having abundance.  He recognized the legitimacy of their ownership rights when he said, “Didn’t it [the land] belong to you before it was sold?” (Acts 5:4) He also recognized the legitimacy of them choosing either abundance or simplicity when he said, “And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal?” (Acts 5:4) Their error was not here, but in lying to the Holy Spirit.

What about Jesus? Jesus, once he started his public ministry, did indeed live a simple lifestyle. He had “nowhere to lay his head” and he did not even control the common money purse for his traveling team. Is not Jesus the perfect, sinless embodiment of the gospel, whom we should then imitate at every step, even here in his simplicity? I answer with a clear yes/no! Complicating this question is that Jesus, as both man and God, combined two realities: as the Perfect Man he lived out the universal virtues to be copied by us all, and as the divine Savior he exercised his own unique and inimitable ministry and vocation. So, as the unique Savior, he alone could provide an atoning sacrifice. We cannot follow him there. But even in his lifestyle he had unique vocations. He was celibate, for instance. While the Roman Catholic Church makes this a universal requirement for its priests, Protestants do not so require it – they categorize his celibacy as unique to his own personal call (and others who are similarly called to celibacy). The question then becomes whether Jesus’ simple lifestyle is like his celibacy: a special vocation not required of all Christians, or is it a general virtue required of all? I think the silence of Scripture elsewhere as to any such requirement shows that Jesus’ simplicity was a special vocation and not a universal requirement.

If the analysis above is correct, then the Lausanne Covenant/Cape Town Commitment could, inadvertently and with the best of intentions, be introducing a new legalism into Evangelicalism. Someone once commented that “liberalism is taking away from Scripture while legalism is adding to Scripture.” Legalistic measures, while immediately useful in redressing the concrete problems they always address, are never helpful in the long run. “The duty of a simple lifestyle” is, I fear, just such a legalism in the making.

Issue Four

The fourth issue is brought nicely to a focus by G. K. Chesterton’s adage: “There is more simplicity in the man who eats caviar on impulse than in the man who eats grape-nuts on principle.”12 In other words, GKC’s caviar-eater does not over-complicate; he eats according to his basic human likes and dislikes, not according to abstract theories. His simplicity is found precisely here, in his embrace of his concrete human nature. Man is no mere abstraction to him.

The Cape Town Commitment is in danger of over-abstracting, of losing man’s concrete human nature, of complicating in the name of simplicity! This danger, I would suggest, arises from its one-sided rejection of all forms of self-interest as, for instance, in its section addressing poverty. Here the Cape Town Commitment states:

Where prosperity teaching happens in the context of poverty, we must counter it with … action to bring justice…. Above all we must replace self-interest and greed with the biblical teaching on self-sacrifice and generous giving as the marks of true discipleship to Christ. We affirm Lausanne’s historic call for simpler lifestyles. (IIE.5.a)

Of concern here is not Cape Town’s exaltation of selflessness and generosity. Of concern here is rather Cape Town’s refusal to recognize any place for self-interest (self-interest is only mentioned negatively in the entire document) and then its assumption that the resultant selfless charity will solve poverty. Surely it is unarguable that poverty can only be tackled when generosity is supplemented by pragmatic job creation; but equally, job creation will only happen when legitimate self-interest is embraced without a guilty conscience (more on this in Issue Five)

To acknowledge a place for self-interest is not simply a concession to unprincipled pragmatism. One would hesitate to accuse the apostle Paul of unprincipled pragmatism when he wrote, “Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” (Phil. 2:4) Rather, Paul embraced a biblical anthropology firmly based not merely on redemptive categories but on creational ones. He understood from the biblical creation narrative that God himself built into man self-interest drives.

God is not super-spiritual! When we look at how he has ensured the survival and spread of the human race, we see he has not left it to pure command and pure altruism. He could easily have just said, “I decree, order and command that you eat for survival and procreate for my glory, and if you don’t, tough beans for you.” Yes, well, he augmented that command with inner drives so powerful that the mandates of procreation and eating13 are two spheres where the human race has no problem fulfilling the will of God – they snap to attention saying, “Yes Sir, right away… with gusto!”  They’re motivated!  God has set it up that way. C.S. Lewis once wrote a book about the four types of love he found legitimated in Scripture; one of these types he called “Need loves.” To have need loves is no disgrace; it is part of our humanity. It is part of being a created being. Lewis, when defending the fact of humanity’s more prosaic “Need-loves” existed cheek-by-jowl with our more exalted “Gift-loves,” pointed out, “The highest does not stand without the lowest. A plant must have roots below as well as sunlight above and roots must be grubby.”14 Christianity fulfills and exalts our humanity; it does not deny it or hide from it.15

God is not super-spiritual; he does not, that is, deny human nature. Why should he? He created it! We should not attempt to be more spiritual than God. Why, then, try to improve on God’s technique and go all super-spiritual on the issue of self-interest? Doing so in the economics sphere reminds me of the 18th-19th century New England theologians who did so in the theological sphere. These theologians:

stressed that selfishness or self-interest is the essence of sin and any religion that had personal benefit at its root was regarded as spurious. [One theologian, Samuel] Hopkins [1721-1803] went so far as to state that the godly are willing to be damned if the glory of God required it.16

This, of course, is absurd. A deep sense of our personal need for salvation (salvation being the ultimate personal “benefit’) is not “selfishessness,” but rather reflects a healthy sense of our creaturely need for God. But such are the conclusions one can arrive at if one denies any version of self-interest. Self-interest, which the Bible legitimates, must be differentiated from selfishness, which the Bible condemns.

All this becomes of enormously practical importance when we turn our attention to rolling back poverty. Will it be rolled back by charity alone? – by hand-outs to the poor? I doubt it. Not only is this demeaning to the poor; it is ineffective. Solving poverty is a complicated affair; but one thing is clear – that employment and job creation is central to it, and this, in turn, entails a vigorous acceptance of the profit motive and the self-interest which actuates it. This must be part of a Protestant Work Ethic for the future. But more of this in the next section below.

Issue Five

A fifth issue concerns the theology/ideology undergirding and driving the four views above: Are they being driven by ideological/factual assumptions about the nature and role of “justice” in our world – assumptions which need challenging because of their important impact on our ability to effectively respond to poverty.  Lausanne correctly states:

We fall into syncretism, enticed by many idols such as greed, power and success, serving mammon rather than God. We accept dominant political and economic ideologies without biblical critique. (I.2.a)

Lausanne is alert to a real danger, but not to its own assumptions about these dangers. That is, in its critique of syncretism – more specifically, in the way it applies this critique – Lausanne/Cape Town is perhaps being driven by its own unconscious ideological commitments when it states:

Where prosperity teaching happens in the context of poverty, we must counter it with authentic compassion and action to bring justice and lasting transformation for the poor. Above all we must replace self-interest and greed with the biblical teaching on self-sacrifice and generous giving as the marks of true discipleship to Christ. We affirm Lausanne’s historic call for simpler lifestyles.17

Much of this is fine. But its “above all” draws my attention. It signals the document’s identification of the chief contributor to poverty: greed, self-interest and a resultant injustice to the poor. While this may be the case, my only observation is that this is something that cannot simply be assumed. It is not self-evident; rather it must be argued and demonstrated. That Lausanne/Cape Town nowhere feels the need to argue this case suggests the presence of an ideology, and an unconscious one at that.

The Cape Town Commitment’s statement here is based on the assumption that poverty is essentially a matter of faulty distribution and re-distribution (caused by self-interest and greed); the issue of wealth creation is dismissed as simply not a primary concern. This redistribution, when orchestrated by governments, takes us into the field of political ideology. Exactly this field was entered by the gifted, early-20th century Anglican archbishop William Temple who wrote, “Socialism is the economic realization of the Gospel.”18 Again, while Temple may have been right in equating socialism with the-gospel-applied, he cannot be assumed to be right; his case must be argued. Equally, Temple’s assertion betrays the adoption of a dominant political and economic ideology – the very thing Lausanne warns against.

My reading of past WEA/Lausanne statements on social/political-economic matters – not just at Cape Town but in a long series of such pronouncements – leads me to suspect the influence of political/economic ideology (as well as clearly biblical concerns). These past statements emerged largely as a result of the efforts of a group of solidly Evangelical theologians sometimes called the “radical Evangelicals.”19 Primarily from the non-Western world – Samuel Escobar, Rene Padilla, Vinay Samuel, Ron Sider etc. – they agreed with the importance of evangelism voiced in the 1974 Lausanne Covenant but remained unsatisfied with its portrayal of the relationship between evangelism and social responsibility. In a series of Lausanne Committee (LC) and/or World Evangelical Fellowship (WEF)-sponsored international consultations they sought to redefine this relationship, one important gathering being held in 1982 in Grand Rapids.

1982 Grand Rapids (LC & WEF)

One of the important early gatherings of this nature – in 1982 in Grand Rapids, Michigan – was sponsored jointly by the Lausanne Committee and the World Evangelical Alliance.  Over 50 theologians from around the world (the usual suspects: C. Rene Padilla, John Perkins, Vinay Samuel, Ronald Sider, Tom Sine etc., etc.) discussed and agreed on a statement as drafted by Gottfried Osei-Mensah (Africa), Bong Rin Ro (Asia), David Wells (USA), Samuel Olson (Latin America) and John Stott (Europe).  Social responsibility was very clearly affirmed but evangelism remained as a distinct category and priority (while noting that one did not generally have to, in reality, choose between the priorities).

Regarding “justice,” what is particularly pertinent is that the first clear leanings of a social theory and economic preference begin to show through.  That is, when social problems of poverty are concretely and particularly mentioned, they are aligned with a certain view of justice and a certain economic theory.  So, in the “Guidelines for Action” section under “Resources,” these LC-WEF papers, for the first time, if only fleetingly, touch more concretely on the issue: “If Christians are going to take seriously the double challenge to take the Good News to all nations and to enable the poor to become self-reliant, a major redistribution of resources will be necessary” (LC 1982, 7.C.vii ).  Rather stunningly, a sweeping answer is proposed, “redistribution,” with no consideration to what others would identify as the clearly prior question of “income generation.”20  What is so stunning here is not necessarily that their proposal is wrong, but that it is so complacently and completely assumed and nowhere argued (I admit: my biases are now beginning to show!).  Redistribution is not part of the answer; it is THE answer.

1983 Wheaton Statement (WEF)

The year following the Grand Rapids gathering, a group of international theologians met for two weeks in Wheaton under the auspices of the World Evangelical Fellowship and under the chairmanship of Vinay Samuel.  They agreed upon a statement as drafted by Arthur Williamson, Andrew Kirk, Tito Paredes, Paul Schrotenboer, David Bosch, Max Chigwada, and Rene Padilla.  Rene Padilla later called this document “the strongest evangelical affirmation of commitment to integral mission in the last quarter of the twentieth century” (Padilla 2001).

But again, what is most interesting for purposes of this paper is not how it spelled out the relationship between evangelism and social responsibility, but a) how it understood the problem of poverty and b) how this was once again simply assumed and never argued.  That is, when the statement grounds itself in actual economic analysis or problem identification it always speaks in terms of the following:

Western political and business leaders [urge] … “developmentalism” … [which] is intrinsically related to a mechanistic pursuit of economic growth that tends to ignore the structural context of poverty and injustice and which increase dependency….  [T]he unspoken assumption that societies operate best when individuals are free to pursue their own self-interests needs to be challenged…. We … reject the cultural and social forces of secularism which so often shape our idea of a good society….  Belonging to one Body involves sharing ….  To the extent that this standard is obeyed, dire poverty will be eliminated….  The meaning of transformation is that … we do justice, striving … to have resources redistributed (WEF 1983, secs. 6, 8, 10, 16-17).

We have here an analysis of poverty which adopts exclusively a “victimization” scenario, which sees poverty’s causes (and hence solutions) solely in terms of structural oppression by the powerful, dismissing economic development tinted with self-interest as “secularism.”   No other factors are even considered relevant.

2001 Rene Padilla’s Micah Network Address

A similar theme was struck by Rene Padilla when giving a seminal address at the Micah Network’s 2001 conference in Oxford, the Micah Network being a global network of (upon last looking) 290 Christian relief, development and justice organizations and churches of which Padilla is the president.  His message, entitled “Integral Mission and its Historical Development,” surveyed the various Lausanne-and-onward Evangelical gatherings around this theme.  At one point in his address, after discussing the theological wrestling by the 1978 Willowbank Consultation [to which Padilla was a contributor] over the relationship of evangelism to social responsibility, he then moved on to comment:

Even more significant is a paragraph on “power structures and mission”.  After referring to the poverty of the masses in the Two-Thirds World, it [the 1978 Willowbank report] says “their plight is due in part to an economic system which is controlled mostly by North Atlantic countries”… call[ing] for solidarity with the poor and the denunciation of injustice… [and a rejection of] “western-style syncretism’ … mix[ing] a privatized gospel of personal forgiveness with a worldly (and demonic) attitude to wealth and power”  (Padilla 2001).

Padilla admits, of course, other factors into his analysis (saying, their plight is “in part due”), but what is revealing here is his comment, “Even more significant.”  More significant than what? than what he has been describing in the preceding sentences concerning the need for getting it right theologically.  Padilla is saying, “Enough time for talk and fine-tuning our theological worldview; now is the time to act.”  Padilla wants, quite rightly, for the church to roll up its sleeves and get down in the trenches to start doing something about the problem.  This is a priority “even more significant” than more reflection, now that the theological groundwork has been done.

But it is not simply the call to action that Padilla finds “even more significant,” rather it is the direction in which that action should be propelled that he finds highly important.  That is, if the church is going to act, then immediately the question of, “What precisely shall we do and in what direction shall we go?” becomes determinative.  And here it is that one’s view of justice and one’s particular economic analysis becomes determinative.  And here, according to what Padilla explicitly states and also by what he does not say (i.e. his failure to list any other sources of poverty), the two evils which are his chief focus are: the North Atlantic economic systems and western Christianity’s attitude to wealth.  That is, the basic problem of poverty is its injustice, with this injustice embodied supremely in the West and specifically in its economic systems.  Padilla may, of course, be right, but my point is that once again all this is simply assumed and nowhere argued, or even thought to be arguable.  He has assumed that the careful theological work by past consultations on the relationship of evangelism to social action suffices as a guide to economic and social action, without pausing to examine whether the intermediate step of reflection on how these theological principles apply to current economic and social reality is also necessary.  My own thought is that this intermediate step of economic and social analysis – an analysis where we clearly identify and then discuss our various economic/social presuppositions (and yes, biases) and theories – is crucially important.

Undoubtedly, Padilla also knows this intermediate step is important … it is probably more that he is convinced he is right on his own particular economic/social analysis and, as an activist legitimately concerned to do more than talk, talk, talk, he wants to bypass endless discussions which would forestall the concrete action he particularly favors.  That is fair enough for a group who are like-minded and who come together around agreed pre-suppositions; it is quite another thing for a group like Lausanne with various schools of thought (some, clearly, completely agreeing with Padilla – nothing wrong with that in itself; my point being not that it is impermissible to hold Padilla’s view, but only that legitimate counter-arguments exist and that these must be fairly brought to light).

Oxford Meetings

It is this intermediate step of deliberate economic and social analysis which Vinay Samuel initiated later in the 1980s. Samuel, who had chaired the meetings leading to the Wheaton ’83 Statement (a statement which he said was crucial for launching the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies), feeling that economic issues demanded the involvement of economists, assembled both Evangelical theologians and economists with both right-leaning and left-leaning tendencies for meetings which came to be known as Oxford I in 1987, Oxford II in 1990, and Oxford III in 1993.

The result, to the surprise of the actual participants themselves, was the discovery of areas of significant agreement.  But of more relevance for purposes of this paper, were the resultant disagreements in two areas, both equally significant.  The first centered on the question of whether “redistribution” or “capital formation” was the chief problem; the second centered on the very definition of justice itself.

Disagreement #1 – wealth creation

In a book of reflections on Oxford I, II, and III edited by Herbert Schlossberg, Vinay Samuel, and Ronald Sider, Herbert Schlossberg, one of the participants (rightward-leaning, clearly), made the following observation:

It is astonishing that the Oxford Declaration on Christian Faith and Economics … says virtually nothing about capital formation….  This question is of central importance because without capital there can be no economic life…. Thus in the Declaration of Oxford II we have a significant oversight (Schlossberg et al. 1994, pp. 108-09).

Another one of the participants, William Taylor, economist and assistant director of the United Nations Development Bank and the Caribbean Development Bank, wrote in a similar vein in an early edition of the Oxford Centre of Mission Studies-related magazine Transformation :

… a rather intensive debate [emerged] at the first Oxford Conference between those who favoured “wealth redistribution” and those who recommended “wealth creation” as the most effective weapon to eradicate poverty from the face of the earth.  Aside from the debate it has been my observation that the “wealth redistributionists” have monopolized the world-wide public debate in Christian circles; or at least, they have been far more vocal and persuasive in proclaiming their point of view….  In the absence of a better understanding of the realities of economic life or of more practical alternatives, is it any wonder … that many preachers tend to equate social justice with economic equality which can be achieved quite easily and swiftly by the simple transfer of wealth (money?) from the rich to the poorer countries, and from the rich to the poor people in any one country?… Would that the alleviation of poverty was that simple (Taylor 1990, p. 13-14) (emphasis in the original).

The “wealth creation vs. wealth redistributionist” debate (of course, it need not be set in terms of an absolute contrast, as different combinations of these themes with various parties having various shades of emphasis are possible, but to highlight the issue I set it out here as an absolute contrast) is not just a question of practical “how-to’s” but it is also a question about justice, what people “deserve” or “have a right to,” and here is where the blood can begin to boil, because here is where one’s particular view of justice enters the picture.

Disagreement #2 – justice

Some of the participants of the Oxford meetings also registered that there was, on the economic question of economic justice, no real meeting of minds, despite the fact that overwhelmingly the participants were Bible-believing Evangelicals.  P.J. Hill, Wheaton College professor of economics who had obtained his Ph.D. in economics from the University of Chicago, observed:

[T]here are serious differences between the two camps … the pro-market advocates … [and] the pro-government group … [but] those differences are more at the level of perceptions of how different policies play out rather than in substantial disagreements over fundamental values….  An exception to this statement is in the area of defining biblical justice.  It became clear at Oxford II that there were fundamental differences among the participants as to what justice is, and these differences were left largely unresolved (Schlossberg et al. 1994, p. 102).

Another participant, E. Calvin Beisner, Associate Professor of Social Ethics at Knox Theological Seminary (Florida), wrote:

The Oxford Declaration … tells us that “Biblical justice means impartially rendering to everyone their due in conformity with the standards of God’s moral law”….  Immediately following[,] … the Declaration offers another view of justice … [that] there is a sense in which “justice is partial” because it “requires special attention to the weak members of the community because of their greater vulnerability”….  The thesis of this chapter is that the Declaration thus presents two mutually inconsistent views of justice and that the former is biblical and the latter unbiblical (Schlossberg et al. 1994, pp. 57-58) (emphasis in the original).

After these mighty efforts and the considerable intellectual firepower brought to bear, these consultations from this point forward essentially petered out. That, to me, seems rather significant. There was an Oxford III  in 1993 but it was much smaller (22 participants) and quite narrowly focused, addressing, “The Impact of the Market Economy on Central and Eastern Europe and a Christian Response” (still sponsored under the rubric “Oxford Conference on Christian Faith and Economics”) at Schloss Mittersill, Austria (OCMS library 261.85).  That it petered out is no great surprise.  How do you move forward if you, in P.J. Hills’ words above, have “substantial disagreements over fundamental values”?21

Illustration: Why the wealth creation debate of practical importance

The crucial aspect, however, of these substantial disagreements over the fundamental issues of how poverty is alleviated and how justice figures into the equation, is not, of course, that it upsets the trajectory of a series of consultations, but that it makes a real difference in the real world.  It is not just theory.22  That is, if the “wealth creationists” are right, then we will never be able to realistically tackle poverty without tackling this area of wealth creation and the nest of values/practices which surround and enable it.  And, more pointedly, if “profit and self-interest” is one of the values enabling wealth creation in poorer countries, then we Evangelicals with our high-minded statements denigrating this value (a test here: do you choke in even trying to call it a “value”?) are actually performing a disservice to the very cause we claim to espouse: the alleviation of poverty.

Makonen Getu

One sees, for example, this awkwardness about self-interest and profit in a fascinating and educational article by Dr. Makonen Getu, the Director for Strategic Alliances at Opportunity International.  He asks, in Transformation magazine, “Does Commercialization of Microfinance Programs Lead to Mission Drift?”.  First of all, he is clear that the genius and reason for the success of the microfinance programs, which stoutly refuse to simply give money to the poor but rather insist on a business rate of return, is precisely that they are not charity.  It’s business; that’s why it works.  Now granted, the motive is charitable; the “social investors,” as he calls them, want to help and “empower the poor through access to credit” (Getu 2007, p. 171), but the mechanism is business.  At least it is business on the client end: the poor’s motive is to make a profit so that they can live.  So far, all straight sailing.

Then, Getu gets to his central issue: is it legitimate for Christian microfinance institutions (MFIs) to commercialize, given that they are “driven by transformational mission and not by personal gains” and given that their owners are “social investors which do not seek to make a profit and share dividends” (Getu 2007, pp. 176-77)?  Getu answers this question in the affirmative, saying that it is legitimate with one crucial caveat: “provided that the owners are social investors not driven by profit maximizing for personal gain but ready to run … non-loss making social businesses” (ibid., p. 178).  This could be read to mean that to be motivated by profit sullies the “social” purpose, though in a personal talk I had with Dr Getu at OCMS on 21 October 2008, he assured me that this was not the case. His intention was simply to say  that “if profit maximization is the sole goal,” then in that case its social purpose is sullied.

Additionally, Getu could also be pointing out here (and he well might) that the non-governmental organizations running these MFIs may be non-profit organizations who are prevented by their very corporate bylaws from operating for profit and such that engaging in profit-making would exceed their legally-sanctioned purpose, then well and good.  The suggestion that the presence of a self-interested profit-motive per se spoils the mission calling and prevents one from being “transformational” and hence a “social investor,” is wrong, I think, as is clear even from simply looking at the very nature of these NGO MFIs. That is, by nature they are partnerships, not of the “public-private” sort of Blair fame, but of “benevolence-profit”.  That is, microfinance operates not simply by adopting business structures (lending versus giving, guarantors for loans being required etc.) but by business motives: profit-driven!  That is, the original lenders back home are benevolently motivated, the middle-man microfinance lender on the field is both benevolently motivated but business-marked in his/her practice, while the end-user, the borrower, is both business-marked in his practice AND profit-motivated (he/she is there not firstly for the welfare of “society” but for his/her spouse and children, that they would survive and then thrive).  If the presence of the self-interested, profit motive in the poor borrower, does not spoil the rightness of the entire system – indeed the entire system DEPENDS on it for its success – why should its presence in the lender spoil it?  That is, while there are legitimate MFIs which act without an ultimate profit motive, surely it is legitimate for other MFIs to act with it.

To deny this would actually be to paternalistically adopt a double standard for the poor; it would be to pat them on the head saying that they “can’t help it” and “the poor are like that,” so we accept it in them.  Have the poor lowered their spirituality because they are not working for “society” but for themselves and their family (for me and mine)?  It is all very well for these NGO MFIs to wash their hands of a profit motive given, as Getu rightly points out, they can afford to because, “they do not suffer any personal losses in the event of business failure/collapse” (ibid., p. 175).23

I am not arguing here that benevolence is wrong.  I am simply arguing that a) the presence of a self-interested profit motive is not necessarily wrong either and, moreover, b) that we need to make theological room for it.  We need to make room for it because benevolence alone will only take us part of the way in the serious issue of tackling poverty.  This is demonstrated by the very fact that many benevolently-minded NGOs discovered the limited results of outright giving and began moving in the mid-1970s into microfinance for the poor – lending expecting a return on investment.  I am arguing that the very poor themselves who are involved in these microfinance programs are a model to us: and they show both the productive power of a self-interested, profit motive as well as demonstrating its legitimacy.  It is not the only value out there, but it is one valid one when in the right context, and it is a value Evangelicals need to come to grips with, especially those in the relief and development field, a field where profit can often be considered a dirty word, as the story of Compartamos in Mexico illustrates

Compartamos, Mexico24

Compartamos, which means “let’s share” in Spanish, is a microfinance lender to the poor of Mexico which was started as a nongovernmental organization in 1990 by a Catholic social action group whose inspiration was Mother Teresa. In 2000 it became a for-profit company and then in 2007 went public, selling 30% of its shares on the Mexican stock market, thereby raising $458 million in capital, with $150 million going to private investors (including top bank executives), and bringing in such a high rate of return that one NGO, the Boston-based Acción International that had invested $1 million in 2000, sold half of its 18% stake in the 2007 public offering for $135 million (Malkin 2008). Truly profitable!

Despite the fact that Compartamos’s customer base has grown from 60,000 to 840,000 in 2007 – which would seem to represent people who are voting with their feet … or their pocket book, thus showing they actually want Compartamos’s services – criticism has been strong, especially from within the microfinance industry itself.  The reasons for the criticisms seem varied: some think not that profit itself is wrong but that “too much” profit is wrong, even “obscene”; some dislike social investors mixing the profit-motivation with what was formerly a purely benevolent motivation; some might suspect Compartamos of fraudulent dealing.  At any rate the strength of feeling is evident, “Not only are they making obscene profits off poor people, they are in danger of tarnishing the rest of the industry,” says one microfinance consultant (ibid).  Muhammad Yunus, Nobel laureate for his work in establishing the microlending Grameen Bank, blasted Compartamos’s “market-oriented model, with its emphasis on investor returns” saying, “They’re absolutely on the wrong track; their priorities are screwed up….  When you discuss microcredit, don’t bring Compartamos into it.  Microcredit was created to fight the money lender, not to become the money lender” (BWO 2007).  Sam Daley-Harris, director of the Microcredit Summit Campaign, worries that, “Microfinance started in the 1970s with a focus on using this breakthrough to help end poverty.  Now it is in great danger of being how well the investors and the microfinance institutions are doing and not about ending poverty” (Malkin 2008).25

This last comment by Daley-Harris illustrates, I think, the struggle many in the microfinance industry have at this point in time (2008) with envisaging the legitimacy of trying to combine a benevolent purpose (helping the poor) with a self-interested, profit motive (i.e. not just the practice of making a profit, but the intention of profiting personally from the transaction).  Daley-Harris sees their relationship as an either-or.  You have to choose either between microfinance as a benevolence model where others get all the benefit or a you-profit/I-profit model where both profit.  He does not have room for both models which a person could choose according to their own sense of calling.

My own feeling as we look at both Makonen Getu’s and the Compartamos story above, is that we Christians need to develop a “gritty spirituality” that has a place for self-interest (call it “sanctified self-interest”, whatever) along with other values. While there is much to be admired in the nonprofit lending approach of a Muhammad Yunus, why should we insist that it is the only legitimate or uniquely Christian approach?  Without making a place for the profit motive, I do feel we will shut ourselves away in theological cloud-cuckoo land and not solidly with real people as they lead their real lives.  I mean, even in our spiritual lives there is room for this self-interest; our very first question at the onset of our Christian lives was usually, “And what must I do to be saved?”  We were concerned with our own salvation, and rightly so.  Indeed, it was our duty to ask this question.  We of course move on from there to add other concerns, but we never truly leave this question behind.

Appendix – Yves Simon on the Common Good & Self-interest

Professor Yves Simon (1903-1961) was a French social thinker, who, having trained in the Thomistic philosophic tradition at the Sorbonne and the Catholic University of Paris, taught philosophy at the University of Notre Dame until 1948 and then at the University of Chicago as a member of the Committee on Social Thought until his death in 1961.26 Of particular relevance to this essay (see Issue Four) is Simon’s defense of the complementary nature of both the common good and private interests. On the one hand, he insisted on the priority and reality of the Common Good, unashamedly invoking the “principle of the priority of the common good.”27 He wrote, “That virtuous people, as a proper effect of their very virtue, love the common good and subordinate their choices to its requirements is an entirely unquestionable proposition.”28 He insisted that the common good was more than simply the sum of all private interests combined. He disagreed that society was merely a contractual arrangement for the protection of individual rights and private goods. He held that society was based on the communal nature of man, fixed in natural law through God’s very creation.

On the other hand, he absolutely insisted on the importance of the pursuit of “private, particular goods,” pointing out that it was “harmful to ignore the laws of the one and the many.”29 He described as a nightmarish “waste land” theories in which the common good consumed and obliterated the pursuit of the “particular good”:

A society in which none intends … a particular good is like a dead world…. Far from being genuinely exalted, the common good has become a mere appearance. Common good cannot exist unless it does exist as the good of a multitude; but there is no good “of a multitude” unless particular goods are intended by particular appetites and taken care of by particular agents.30

He further detailed this nightmare, writing:

Imagine a multitude in which all intend the common good … and refrain from any particular good…. [N]o woman is more of a wife to me than any other woman, no old man is known to have the distinction of being my father, no man is known to be more of a brother to me than any other man, and no boy is known to be more of a son to me than any other boy; permanent grounds for the love of the particular are destroyed. A man may happen to have a special affection for a certain old man but the common good has a monopoly on permanent grounds for love and devotion.31

Of particular interest to this paper is Simon’s defense of the following conundrum: the propriety of the individual pursuing his or her own “particular good” … even if it stood in opposition to God’s willing the “common good”! He began by noting that “God, who takes care of the common good of the universe, holds me responsible for some particular goods and wants me to discharge my responsibility.” He then went on to observe:

God may want my father to die tomorrow, but he certainly wants me to do all I can to prolong the life of my father; and if I were told by special revelation, under circumstances making for absolute certainty, that the definite will of God is that my father should die tomorrow at noon, it would still be the will of God that I should struggle against the death of my father until it has become a fact.32

Simon developed this conundrum further by looking to Thomas Aquinas’ defense of the wife who, concerned with the private good of her family, willed her criminal husband to survive in opposition to the judge who, pursuing the common good, willed his death:

Thus the wife of a murderer hates the prospect of her husband’s being put to death; she is normally and virtuously concerned with the good of her family, and from the standpoint which is and ought to be hers, the death of the murderer is an evil. On the other side, the judge, who stands for society, sees in the death of the murderer elements of the common good; justice and determent from crime. The common good, of course, shall prevail, but, significantly, Aquinas considers altogether sound and honest the opposition made to the requirements of the common good by the person in charge of the particular good. The common good itself demands that wives should want their husbands to survive even though the latter happen to be criminals. That particular goods be properly defended by particular persons matters greatly for the common good itself. The wife of the murderer, as she fights for the life of the man whom the common good wants put to death, does precisely what the common good wants her to do. It is in a merely material fashion that she disagrees with the requirements of the common good; by doing what the common good wants her to do, she formally desires the common good. The common good formally understood is the concern of every genuine virtue, but it is the proper concern of the public person to procure the common good materially understood, which the private person may virtuously oppose.33

The point here is that while a biblical approach to social ethics will hold vigorously to the concept of the “common good” and will engage energetically in its defense, it must do so with the sort of nuance which equally advocates for the pursuit of particular goods – what has been referred to as “self-interest” in Issue Four of the main essay.


1Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism , transl. Talcott Parsons (London & New York: Routledge Classics, 2001), 53-125

2Trevor-Roper, Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford University, agreed with Weber that religion was central to European progress from1600 onwards: “[R]eligion is deeply involved in this shift [with progress shifting to northern Europe]. We may state the case summarily by saying that Renaissance was a Catholic, the Enlightenment a Protestant phenomenon. Both economically and intellectually, in the seventeenth century, the Protestant countries (or some of them) captured the lead from the Catholic countries of Europe.” (H.R. Trevor-Roper, “Religion, the Reformation, and Social Change,” in Religion, the Reformation and Social Change and Other Essays (London: Macmillan, 1967), 1-45, 2. Trevor-Roper disagrees with Weber that the 17th centuries entrepreneurs’ Calvinism was their chief motor for capitalist innovation – he considers their “local origins” to be more important (see Trevor-Roper 1967:19). That said, he agreed that “this is still largely a problem of religion,” noting that the émigré entrepreneurs responsible for the progress were “expelled for religion” from their home countries. (Trevor-Roper 1967:23)

3Trevor-Roper writes, “[A]lthough Weber was no doubt right to see in the idea of ‘the calling’ an essential ingredient in the creation of capitalism, he was undoubtedly wrong in assuming that this idea was a purely Protestant idea…. [T]he idea was a commonplace before Protestantism.” (Trevor-Roper 1967:25) He also disputes Weber’s claim that a totally new type of capitalism emerged with the 16th century Protestant Reformation, arguing instead: “The century from 1520 to 1620 is singularly barren of new processes. The techniques brought by the Flemings to Holland, Sweden, Denmark, by the Italians to Switzerland and Lyons, were the old techniques of medieval capitalism, as perfected on the eve of the Reformation, and applied to new areas.” (Trevor-Roper 1967:23) See too Paul Johnson’s coverage of the extensive economic and agricultural development brought to medieval Europe by the work ethic of the Benedictine (from 400-800 AD) and afterwards the Cistercian (1100 AD f.) orders, whereby “the great and increasing part of the arable land of Europe passed into the hand of highly disciplined men committed to a doctrine of hard work.” (P. Johnson, A History of Christianity (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1976), 138, 148-151).  The Benedictine monastic rule, which was well known in the seventh century and became the exclusive rule in the ninth-tenth centuries – as well as being the fundament of the Cistercian monastic order – had as a keynote that “Idleness is the enemy of the soul.” So begins its chapter 48 enjoining manual labor.

4The Cape Town Commitment states: “We define prosperity gospel as the teaching that believers have a  right to the blessings of health and wealth [#1, a heart stance toward God issue] and  that they can obtain these blessings through positive confessions of faith and the ‘sowing of seeds’ through financial or material gifts. [#2, a technique issue] …. However, we deny that God’s miraculous power can be treated as automatic or at the disposal of human techniques, … manipulated by human words, actions [#3 manipulation issue] …. However, we deny as unbiblical the teaching that spiritual welfare can be measured in terms of material welfare, [#4 an issue of giving God no room to be God]  or that wealth is always a sign of God’s blessing. [#5, an issue of denying the devil/evil any room]….   [W]e believe that the teachings of many who vigorously promote the prosperity gospel … that their practices and lifestyle are often unethical and un-Christlike.” [#6 Lifestyle vs. teaching issue] Yes, yes, yes, on all counts. But that is not the main question; or at least it is one that can be settled rather quickly.

5Cape Town IIE.5. See

6This is perhaps only natural given that Cape Town is highly reactive in form (indeed, all documents are reactive to their historical contexts), reacting to what it perceived to be the shortcomings of the evangelical movement then needing addressing. Specifically, it was reacting to and countering the “entice[ment of] … many idols such as greed, power and success”.  (Cape Town Commitment I.2.a)

7Cape Town Commitment IIE.5.a

8John Stott observed that the Lausanne Covenant’s (1974) commitment to a “simple lifestyle” (“Those of us who live in affluent circumstances accept our duty to develop a simple lifestyle in order to contribute more generously to both relief and evangelism.”) (paragraph nine) was “the most anxiously debated clause in the Lausanne Covenant.” (Church Times, 23 March 1978, cited in Timothy Dudley-Smith, John Stott: A Biography (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 216) While 2,000 of the 2,400 delegates in Lausanne signed the covenant, Ruth Graham – wife of the chief organizer of the conference, Billy Graham – did not. She argued to Stott, “If it said ‘simpler’ I would sign it. But what is ‘simple?’ You live in two rooms; I have a bigger home. You have no children; I have five. You say your life is simple and mine isn’t.” Graham decided “she could be a quite acceptable Christian without signing something she regarded as a bit self-righteous and precious.” (Dudley-Smith 1999:216)

Para. Nine of the Lausanne Covenant committed itself  to a “simple lifestyle” and cited in support the following scriptures:  (John 9:4 (As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent us); Matt. 9:35-38f (Jesus went through all the towns … good news of the kingdom … saw crowds he had compassion on them); Rom. 9:1-3 (I myself could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers….); I Cor. 9:19-23 (Though I am free … I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible); Mark 16:15 (Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation); Isa. 58:6,7 (Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen … loose … injustice …set the oppressed free … share your food with the hungry….); Jas. 1:27 (Religion … pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows); 2:1-9 (But if you show favoritism [to the rich], you sin…..); Matt. 25:31-46 (separate the people … for I was hungry and you gave me something to eat … thirsty and you gave me something to drink); Acts 2:44,45 (selling their possessions … they gave to everyone as he had need); 4:34,35 (There were no needy persons among them. From time to time … own[ers] … sold them)) (See )

These scriptures clearly assert several important Christian responsibilities: firstly, that Christians have a responsibility not just for what they believe but for what they do and, secondly, that Christians bear a responsibility to the poor. None of this is in dispute. What is not so clear is that these scriptures assert Lausanne’s simplicity principle. It is one thing to assert that one is responsible to God for one’s actions to the poor; it is another thing to assert that the nature of this responsibility is that of simplicity. “Simplicity” is one of a range of responses possible to the poor, but it is not a response specifically mandated in any of the scriptures listed.

9The five ways are walk “in distinctiveness,” “in love,” “in humility,” “in integrity,” and “in simplicity.” Each of these is taken to be a biblical imperative.

10The Cape Town Commitment in footnote 82 cites Paul’s Ephesians texts mandate our walking: Ephesians 2:2, 10; 4:1, 17; 5:2, 8, 15.

11Defining “simplicity” is another, though secondary, problem. Even if one adopts the common-sensical, straight forward definition of simplicity to be “living with the bare minimum,” then comes the question of the bare minimum for what? – mere survival? for carrying out our vocations? for a “reasonable comfortable” lifestyle (which then raises the question of what the standard of reasonability should be)?

12Chesterton, G. K., Heretics, in The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton, ed. D. Dooley, vol. 1 (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), 111

13The biblical creation narrative records God, in Gen. 1:28-29 and 2:15-16, addressing both man’s duties (to multiply, to work) and man’s needs (to eat). Intriguingly, God never commands man to eat. God simply assumes it will happen. But how can God assume this? The answer is perfectly straightforward: because God knows that man will be driven to eat by the very desires and drives he has put within man. God gave man an appetite, and this would lead him to eat. The apostle Paul uses this common-sensical human fact in one of his arguments for Christian marriage, observing, “After all, people have never hated their own bodies, but they feed and care for them.” (Eph. 5:29)

14C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves (London: Fontana, 1977), 14

15To recognize that Jesus has come to fulfill our humanity is not to deny that he also as commanded that we “deny ourselves” of the very privileges and comforts that our humanity craves.  To say that God does not deny our humanity but fulfills it is merely to indicate the overall direction of where God seems to be going, that he sends Jesus so that we “may have life, and have it to the full” (Jn. 10:10)  It is to say that for every John the Baptist who God turns slightly strange by leading him off into the desert eating locusts and clothed with the wildest sort of non-fashion, he seems to make ten Gerasene demoniacs (Mk. 5:1f.) who are led in the opposite direction of John: where John wandered off into the wilderness alone, the demoniac was brought back from his seclusion in the graves to rejoin society; where John had his dress sense destroyed (or, more positively, “sublimated”), the demoniac is specifically noted as now being “dressed” – that it was deliberately noted, surely must indicate its importance as a sign of his having now joined normal and natural human society.  That is, it was not simply his inner state nor his vertical relationship with the transcendent God in eternity that was restored; no, his normal humanity was restored as well.

16J.F. Thornbury, God Sent Revival (Welwyn, Herts.: Evangelical Press, 1977), 44


18Temple’s fuller quote runs, “In the epistle to the Ephesians, where St. Paul achieves the completion of his doctrine, he preaches the fullest scheme of evolutionary socialism. Socialism is the economic realization of the Gospel…. The alternative stands before us – Socialism or heresy; we are involved in one or the other.”  (1908 article in the Economic Review, quoted in Bernard Murchland, “The Socialist Critique of the Corporation,” in The Corporation: a theological inquiry, eds Michael Novak, J.W. Cooper (Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute, 1981), 152-171, 157) His raising a political stance to the status of a theological view is clear; he calls the rejecting of a socialism a “heresy.”

19So-called “radical Evangelicals” because they called themselves that: that is, even at the Lausanne Congress itself there was a group calling itself the “Radical Discipleship Group” concerned to overcome the “divorce between the kerygma and the diakonia” and the “superficial equation of the Christian mission with the multiplication of Christians and churches,” thus “getting over the ‘Church Growth’ syndrome” (Padilla 1976, p. 12).

South American Evangelical theologian Orlando Costas described “radical Evangelicals” as those who “call into question the accommodation of today’s culture and churches to affluence, militarism, and unjust social and economic structures” (cited in Tizon 2008, p. 3). This description, in its apparent even-handedness, is clearly not specific enough, not specific in two ways: first, it does not simply question but comes to some firm conclusions; second, it does not aim at all cultural accommodations but has one particular one in mind.

This is evident when we seek to apply this description to the world around us.  For instance, would or do radical Evangelical critiques condemn the cultural accommodation reached by, say, Sweden’s militarism or Norway’s unjust economic structures?  Doubtful.  Costas’ real point emerges when he describes the radical Evangelicals’ emergence in the U.S. as voicing “criticism of North American religious culture and socio-economic policies … and [voicing] their solidarity with the Two Thirds World” (ibid.).  To be “radical” then is to have a certain attitude and a certain set of convictions: in attitude one must be pro-Two Thirds World and in conviction one must be anti the prevalent “religious culture and socio-economic policies” of America (by “anti” I mean “critical,” but critical in the right sort of way, i.e. when Jerry Falwell declared that the Twin Towers tragedy was God’s judgment on America for its sins of abortion and promiscuity, this was clearly the wrong sort of criticism to qualify him as a radical). It is U.S. cultural accommodation with which they are especially concerned, and, more particularly, with its positive accommodation to a system of market capitalism. Costas’ opposition to market capitalism, unless he later changed his mind, is crystal clear from Clark Pinnock’s note concerning “Orlando Costas … says that the poor can only receive justice ‘in a socialistically organized society.’ Costas, Christ Outside the Gate (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1982), 95).” (Clark Pinnock, “A Pilgrimmage in Political Theology,” in F. Schaeffer, ed., Is Capitalism Christian? (Westchester, ILL.: Crossway Books, 1985), 311-25, 324 n.7)

My own feeling is that the questions the radical Evangelicals ask are important while their answers are themselves questionable.

20True, the consultation hurriedly assures the reader that, “We are not now pronouncing on the controversial macro-question of how to redress the economic imbalance between rich and poor nations” (LC 1982, 7.C.vii) but clearly they are.  They have, in the midst of a formal statement and one dedicated in this section to the subject “resources,” taken a position on what needs to be done globally to right the situation.  This is nothing else but a pronouncement on a macro question; it is an incomplete pronouncement, but a pronouncement nevertheless.

21These scholars’ inability to find agreement over the nature and contents of economic justice is no great surprise, since it simply mirrors the confusion in the wider body of Christ (and certainly mirrors the even greater confusion in the non-Christian community), a confusion emphasized by the Revd Dr Andrew Hartropp whose book What is Economic Justice?: Biblical and Secular Perspectives Contrasted quotes the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre as to society’s “incompatible” answers to the question of “What is justice?”: “Some conceptions appeal to inalienable human rights, others to some notion of human contract, and other again to a standard of utility” (Hartropp 2007, p. 3). Hartropp, who holds doctorates in both economics and theology, examines in his a book a wide range of justice offerings, engaging along the way insights rooted both in biblical and economical theory sources.

22Without wholly deriding theory, as per social scientist Kurt Lewin’s comment that “there is nothing so practical as a good theory.”

23When I put this very point to René Padilla as a “question from the audience” during the Thinking Mission Forum sponsored by “Global Connections” at Oxford, UK on 8 October 2008, he responded by saying (and here I paraphrase from memory), “Well of course the self-interest you describe in the poor borrower is totally legitimate and natural.  Nobody would dispute that.  But whether ‘self-interest’ is defensible depends totally upon the definition.  I am not talking about the type of self-interest of your poor borrower but of the globalist capitalist for whom money is king and profit is the only value.  This is what I am denouncing….  It is like the difference between ‘consumers’ and ‘consumerism.’  We are all consumers; we cannot help it.  But consumerism where we are driven to have more and more and the latest of everything cannot be defended and cannot be reformed.  It is simply wrong.”

But this answer strikes me as totally unsatisfactory.  In admitting the legitimacy of the self-interest motive in the poor, Padilla has admitted it as a legitimate principle in human transaction.  Therefore, its expression in the human transactions conducted by the rich cannot automatically and immediately be dismissed as illegitimate greed.  Each rich-to-poor transaction has to be judged on a case-by-case basis and examined in its own right.  But I don’t see any of this factual examination going on in the WEA/WEF and Micah Network statements in the text.  I just see a leap to pronouncements of the “people are poor so it must be the rich West’s fault” type.  It assumes illegitimate self-interest is the main engine corrupting the whole affair, and never gives a standard for judging when does self-interest move from being legitimate (as in the case of the poor) to being illegitimate.  Surely it is not enough to say, “When the poor do it is okay but not when the rich (relatively) act from this motive.”

Moreover, the standard by which these rich-to-poor transactions are to be judged is equally unclear. Now, I rather suspect that the assumed standard under which Padilla operates is the principle of “enough is enough.”  That is, self-interest is valid up until one has enough, and after that it is illegitimate greed.  This would explain why self-interest in the poor is legitimate but not in the rich.  Again, this is certainly a standard worth considering and evaluating.  I would want to ask questions not only like “when is enough, enough” but also, “How is this to be applied: woodenly and legalistically such that we have a sort of objective standard (one is only permitted to have homes of x square feet, own one wedding ring and perhaps a ring for going out, women’s ornamenting of their hair is out, etc., etc.) of the type in an earlier and grimmer Evangelicalism that many current Evangelicals are determinedly trying to escape) or flexibly according to motive and calling?”  My critique of Padilla is that he simply assumes the answers are clear, and the answer always is: the West is wrong.

Similarly with consumerism; I have not seen any helpful standard produced in the statements above to help us distinguish legitimate consumer activity from illegitimate.  Again, it cannot simply be the case that when it is practiced by the poor it is right, and when by the rich wrong.  Or, perhaps, Padilla would say this; I am not sure.  I suspect at this point we are back to our issues of “justice,” with the question being here, “When is it just for the rich to keep the fruits of their labor in light of others’ lack and when does justice demand you give up your fruits?”  But this question is far more complicated to answer than Padilla seems to assume, and cannot be fairly answered as Padilla seems to: “I don’t know, but I know the West passed the point of justice long ago.” (I have not heard Padilla say this precise statement, I am simply paraphrasing his pronouncements above.)

John C.H. Wu – former President of the International Court at Shanghai, principal author of the Chinese constitution in the mid-thirties, Professor of Law at Seton Hall University School of law, personal friend of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes and Chinese convert to Catholicism in 1937 – provides some argument which could be used to support Padilla’s case. He criticizes late 19th century American jurisprudence’s tendency to include extreme individualism and laissez-faire market capitalism as part of the law of nature which was basic to the common law. This, in Wu’s mind, was an erroneous interpretation of natural law. Also, “their conception of justice was inadequate. They knew only one form of justice, namely commutative justice: they did not seem to know distributive justice.” (Wu, Fountain of Justice, p. 141).

Wu was motivated by an “underlying Christian philosophy of the institution of private property. Christianity steers a middle course between communism and capitalism. On the one hand, it holds that private property is not unlawful as against the natural law. On the other hand, it holds that private property … is not made by the natural law but devised by positive law…. [T]here is no reason why we should not consider all private property as charged with a trust for the common good. That this idea is implicit in the Christian philosophy of life will be clear to us…. All things … are held in trust for this ultimate purpose of law[the well-being of man]. They belong to the field of distributive justice.” (Wu, Fountain of Justice, pp. 146, 148-9).

In a footnote to this section, Wu adds: “The reader will be interested to know that the idea of trust which plays such a vital role in the common law, originated in the thirteenth century in England when the Franciscan friars positively refused to own any property, so that their benefactors had to resort to the ingenious device of conveying

24I thank Dr Makonen Getu for pointing out this story to me.

25Some of the criticisms against the Compartamos group was not simply the presence of a robust profit motive but the high interest they charged, the fact that these profits were then disseminated out to investors instead of ploughed back into the business, and that it manages its business to benefit its investors, not its borrowers.  Defenders of Compartamos point out that though their interest rates were high, they were not particularly onerous, as demonstrated by the fact that even compared to one of their critics, the nonprofit microlender Pro Mujer, “their rates were only a few points higher” (Malkin 2008).  Moreover, when the New York Times correspondent reporting on the story went out to interview a group of Compartamos borrowers in the village of Valle de Vázquez, she reported, “the interest rate was not a great concern. Indeed, several women said they had left another microfinance institution because it charged more” (ibid).  Presumably the defense to the other criticisms would be that there is no necessity to choose between benefitting borrowers or investors, both are possible… and necessary.  Thus, to say that that some of the profits are being disseminated to investors is not really an objection that sticks.  Moreover, disseminating profits to investors does not undermine the goal of benefitting the borrower given that the primary benefit to the borrower is not the additional benefit of a shareholder-like dividend (dividends being a dissemination of the profit) but rather is the affordable loan in the first place.  While sharing the profit directly back with the borrower certainly is an option, it is difficult to see that it is absolutely required by Christian ethics.

26See “Yves R. Simon” The Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture. Found at: < ?

27Y. Simon, Philosophy of Democratic Government (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1951), 50

28Simon 1951:39

29Simon 1951:51-53

 30Simon 1951:54

31Simon 1951:54. Simon likens this eating up of particular goods by the common good to theological systems in which God’s causality eats up all secondary causality: “In not a few systems of metaphysics or theology, God alone is the genuine efficient cause, and his sovereign power confronts a universe deprived of causality, of life, of liberty, and perhaps of reality. Contrasting with this picture of a waste land, the God of the living, who does not need to lay things waste in order to assert his power, is powerful enough to cause every things and every act and every modality of every act in a world whose law is one of plenitude and superabundance, in a world full of reality, of autonomy….” (Simon 1951:53-54)

32Simon 1951:42

33Simon 1951:41-42. Simon, following Aquinas, uses the categories “formal” common good versus “material” common good. To desire the common good formally, The Oxford Handbook of Aquinas explains, “is to be attracted to a single final cause or goal precisely under its aspect of having many effects, though these many effects remain unspecified or unenumerated; and to will a particular good materially is to be attracted to a single final cause or goal precisely under its aspect of having some particular effect on some specific individual or individuals…. [T]his does not require the wife and son to engage in any self-contradictory willing; that is, they are not required to will both in favor of some particular action and against the same action in the same respect. However, it does require that they subordinate their material willing of the particular good to their formal willing of the common good, and thus that they be willing to risk losing some particular good that they cherish (e.g., the life of a loved one, their wealth and possessions, or even of their own lives) for the sake of the common good, in the event that it becomes impossible in some particular situation for both the common good and the particular good to be preserved.” (Michael Baur, “Law and Natural Law,” in B. Davies & E. Stump, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Aquinas (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 238-254, 242-3)


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This is a paper presented by the author at the 2014 Lausanne Global Consultation on Prosperity Theology, Poverty, and the Gospel. You may find a video version of this paper in the Content Library. The views and opinions expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the personal viewpoints of Lausanne Movement leaders or networks. For the official Lausanne Statement from this consultation, please see ‘The Atibaia Statement on Prosperity Theology‘.

Date: 02 Oct 2015

Gathering: 2014 Prosperity Theology