The Perils of Prosperity

Both in America and western Europe we are enjoying prosperity on an unprecedented scale. This challenges Christian believers to evaluate their awareness of responsible stewardship. In a recent article in Gereformeerd Weekblad (Dec. 22) Prof. G. Brillenburg Wurth signalizes some of the problems and perils which arc involved.

Ours has become increasingly a consumption-economy. In contrast with other and earlier societies the emphasis is no longer laid on production. Over-production is the fear which haunts many businessmen, economists, and politicians. Thus by every known gimmick of the advertising world we arc urged to buy, so that the wheels of industry may continue their relentless whirl. The result is immeasurable waste on every hand coupled with the demand for more luxuries and increased leisure.

These the world accounts purely economic problems. The believer who takes the Scriptures seriously, however, acknowledges that these are inextricably intertwined with a life of responsible love to God and fellowman.

It is more than time that we learn to take a healthy look at ourselves in the mirror of the Bible.

Too many within the churches never give the rising standard of living which characterizes our post-war world much more of a thought than how they can possibly “keep up with the Joneses.” With this in mind Brillenburg Wurth analyzes what he considers the two chief spiritual problems. There is first of all the “vertical” problem. In our concern for money, things, and passing pleasures the tender plant of belief-full reliance upon our God begins to shrivel. So quickly we become this-worldly in the most devastating and God-dishonoring sense of the term. But there is also the “horizontal” problem. Luxury and leisure seem to be predisposing factors to egoism. A self-centered life soon stifles all loving concern for our fellowmen. As we withdraw increasingly into the enjoyment of our “blessings,” we instinctively shrink from any thought of the suffering and starving masses who make up the overwhelming majority of the world’s population. To consider their plight seriously would make us too uncomfortable amid the prosperity which literally overwhelms us.

The writer recognizes that within the scope of a brief article he is hardly in a position to outline a solution. With him we agree that pricking the conscience of Christian believers is already of inestimable value. It is high time that we begin to see what damage prosperity is doing to us every day, how soft and selfish we tend to become even while mouthing pious platitudes about our duties to God and others. In season and out of season tIle pulpit should sound warning against these perils, even though many people and not a few preachers are loath to bring the subject into the open. It does make us feel uncomfortable, but this is precisely what the Christian gospel seeks to do.

Often we pride ourselves on the gifts for churches and schools, missions and benevolences which seem to flow so freely among us. Much of this, indeed, may be praiseworthy. But so much of this we spend on self in an effort to keep up with the church or school a few blocks down the street. Meanwhile the Board of Foreign Missions pleads week after week for help to meet acute needs, and the Board of Home Missions reminds us of synodical orders not to expand its program at a time when fields are white unto harvest. Are such lavish homes, churches, schools, and institutions of mercy really as necessary as we suppose, while millions know not the gospel and lack daily bread? Let’s be a little more realistic. A few bombs can blow up the whole show. Above all, let’s be more consistently Biblical. Christ has commanded us to preach his gospel together with feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and showing love to strangers.


Day after day, by means of newspapers, magazines, and radio commentators, we arc reminded of the pressing needs of the world. One agency after another releases statistics which stagger our minds and sharply wound our hearts. Tens of thousands of orphans in dozens of lands arc being cared for by secular and Christian groups. We read of starving multitudes in China, India, and the Congo, while the bins of United States and Canada bulge with surpluses.

Millions shiver in their pitiful rags and go shoeless in the coldest weather, while our closets and attics aren’t big enough to contain our wearing apparel. We are reminded that the majority in not a few lands rejoice when they are assured of one scanty meal a day. No wonder we dare not think of our garbage pails. All the facts and figures dinned into our ears, however, fail to impress us as much as one picture.

Such a picture was drawn recently in words by Dr. A. T. VanLeeuwen in a pamphlet on the Christian ministry of mercy in its relation to economics and ecumenical concern.

The family of mankind is like twelve children sitting around a table with twelve sandwiches. The first child takes four. Three other children quickly take two apiece. This leaves but two sandwiches for the eight remaining children to divide among themselves.

It takes no speculation to figure out who these children are. The United States and Canada between them control about a third of the world’s wealth and use up almost that much food. Western Europe and a few other well-favored sections of the globe possess half of the goods and food produced. Two thirds of the world’s population has to be satisfied until now with only a sixth. Irrespective of the causes of these inequalities, they challenge the Christian community to do something constructive. Many individuals and groups have learned to give until it hurts. But many, many more seem to be oblivious to their responsibility. Possibly thinking about the twelve sandwiches, of which the Christian world gets by far the most, may shake awake some drowsy diaconates and churches who so glibly say that the church hasn’t any poor that need to be ministered to in the name of the blessed Saviour.


During December the National Council of Churches’ Division of Home Missions met in annual assembly. At the gathering in Atlantic City, N.J., more than two hundred workers from twenty-two denominations were present.

Lofty themes were treated. Learned papers were read. A great deal of discussion addressed itself to “the real mission and purpose” of Christ’s church. Dr. Kutsuo Morikmwa, the keynote speaker, urged that the churches face up to the “crucial issues in American life,” of which some of the more Significant are revolutions throughout the world and in our lands, sit-ins and freedom rides. Another speaker, the Rev. Robert W. Spike of the United Church of Christ, in much the same vein listed proposed solutions. He called for a theology which would have some “meaning” in today’s world, since the obstacle to the church’s advance lies not in lack of method but in the “unintelligibility” of the message itself. At the same time he urged support for new experimental institutions to train laymen, an enlargement of the theological training course to embrace five years, and the development of specialized ministries of all sorts.

Much of the speaking and discussing dealt in glittering generalities with the churches’ failures. Many were insistent that the churches were “practically irrelevant” in the upheavals which characterize today’s world. Some insisted that they were “altogether useless as allies in the great struggle today,” while others opined that they were “out of touch with God’s own work” and “failures in the world.” Throughout it was apparent why these leaders laid such serious charges at the door of the churches. The sins which must be fought, according to one denominational official, are the “social and corporate sins of racial bigotry and narrow nationalism.” The concern with personal salvation was berated as one of the chief reasons why social sins continued unabated and the churches remained so weak.

Atlantic City certainly must have seemed like a big wailing wall.

Yet before we add our tears, it may be well to reflect for a moment. Characteristic of so much of this talk is the seeming ease with which many leaders can divorce themselves from responsibility for the life of the church. This seems common among those who occupy positions of influence and trust. But even worse is the complete failure on their part to understand the true nature of the church as the witness to salvation by faith in Christ Jesus alone. It is patent that the old liberalism with its interest in social sins at the expense of personal reconciliation to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is far from dead in the National Council. The gospel of sin and grace is an affront to many of these leaders; hence they dare to speak of the “unintelligibility” of the message. Such wailing is prompted largely by the church’s lack of success in human terms. It is not only fruitless. It is God-dishonoring.

As never before the church must get back to the fundamentals. She must understand her calling to proclaim the unsearchable riches of the gospel. Sin and grace must be defined in terms of the inspired and infallible Scriptures. This alone is “the power of God unto salvation.” The church true to her commission may not be a success in the eyes of man; she will be found faithful by her Lord. This is really all that matters.


Religious journals in recent weeks have been filled with comments on the assembly of the World Council of Churches held at New Delhi, India. For some this was regarded as among the greatest moments in church history. For others it was a bitter disappointment.

One of the major issues facing the Council speaks directly to us. It concerns the basis of membership.

Prior to New Delhi this was the short and simple affirmation: “The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches which accept our Lord Jesus Christ as God and Savior.” By an overwhelming majority this was changed to read, “The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches which confess the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Savior according to the Scriptures and therefore seek to fulfill together their common calling to the glory of the one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”

In even so brief a revision we are confronted with questions of profound theological significance. This all the delegates apparently realized.

Several vocal objections were raised, largely by delegates from. the Netherlands and the United States. Some insisted that the more elaborate the basis becomes, the more exclusive will be the council. Others claimed that the phrase “according to the Scriptures” was misplaced. Largely this argument involved the question whether the New Testament clearly affirms Christ to be Cod or not. Any tendency to elaborate the basis into a creedal position was resisted by some. The Netherlands Reformed Church (Hervormd) urged that to proclaim Christ as God without correspondingly stressing his manhood and especialJy his position as Messiah of Israel was a serious defect. The Remonstrant Brotherhood of the Netherlands maintained that in its opinion the basis failed to express the heart of the New Testament witness.

All the discussion surrounding the baSis of the council exposed the trend within tho movement.

Often the complaint was registered by some of the delegates, be it unofficially and privately, that open discussion was impossible. “Politicking by members of the staff and the officers of the Council during the debate on the Basis,” so Christian Century openly affirms, “was so open. so flagrant as to be disarming…The craving for untested unity expressed itself in a rigid control of legislative and deliberative procedure.” The conclusion from the reports seems warranted, “One arrives at the unhappy conclusion that in the business and deliberative sessions of the council delegates are considered a necessary nuisance—necessary to the facade of democratic process but a nuisance to the smooth operation of plans carefully thought out in advance.”

Though judgment will have to be reserved until the official reports are released and analyzed, the drift of the council has become increasingly plain.

Here is an attempt at organizational unity of one kind or another which regards no price too high to produce a unified voice for all Christendom. Yet the lack of real oneness is painfully apparent. Even a teaspoonful of theology is too much for many of the churches and their delegates. We may well wonder whether we are witnessing the taking shape of an ecclesiastical steam-roller comparable in many respects to the Roman Catholic hierarchy. How sincerely and consistently the new basis expresses the convictions of the constituent churches may well be asked. It looks pretty much as if anyone may interpret the high-sounding basis as he pleases.