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.” This concluding sentence of article nine of the Lausanne Covenant has often been quoted since 1974. The time has come to think about its implementation.

North America is affluent. In a world of hunger, we live with an abundance of food. Restaurants everywhere boast of the “generous portions” they offer and indeed deliver. We eat too much. And we throw away too much food. The opulence of our meals is matched by the extravagance of other expenditures.

The theme of a simple lifestyle leads to the more basic question of how we use our possessions. For centuries we have been subject to much false teaching concerning wealth. Since the Reformation there has been a distinct move, seldom observed, to the morality of the Book of Proverbs with its praise of possessions, rather than that of the New Testament. In addition, some mechanism of thought in the Calvinist tradition seemed to say that material riches were the indicator of God’s blessings.

Worse still, the last three hundred years in the West witnessed the victory of the Roman Law concept of property, which is highly individualistic and adjudges the owner the right to dispose of his possessions to the exclusion of any outside consideration and to the extent of the destruction of the property. This philosophy of property paved the way for the horrors of early capitalism, and it still determined the alternative given by Karl Marx: the replacement of the obviously inhuman individualistic concept by a more human collectivist one.

The fathers of the early church, however, understood and proclaimed that the Roman Law concept ...

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