Preaching to Those Called to be Consumers
Twenty-first century North American believers face challenges unique in the history of God’s people, for we have an abundance of the material gifts of God unparalleled in human history.
s we move into the season of the church year when the pericopes often guide us toward preaching on new obedience, we need to remember a largely forgotten calling of all Christians. Luther was perhaps the very first to call attention to the fact that within the medieval concept of the walk of life practiced by most of his contemporaries, the oeconomia—life in the household—there are two distinct roles or functions: Those involving family life and those producing economic services. In the Table of Christian Callings in the Small Catechism he differentiated between the responsibilities of parent and employer, between the callings of children and servants in the household. In many sermons and treatises the Wittenberg reformer expanded at length on his thoughts on responsible economic activity in the callings of those who produce, service, and sell economic goods. He often voiced harsh criticism of the abuses of peasants in the marketplace, artisans in their production of necessary goods for daily living, merchants in their pricing policies, and courtiers in their imposition of unjust taxes on the subjects of their governments. He reflected much less on the responsibilities of consumers, probably because in his day one purchased what one needed and was thankful to be able to do even that.
Contemporary North American preachers often complain about the redefinition of our humanity in economic terms. They protest, “We are more than simply consumers,” but the topic extends further than that. God calls us also as part of our human life to be responsible consumers. In a thought world governed by the bombardment of advertising which wants us to be compliant and obliging consumers, in the midst of sophisticated marketing techniques luring us into the sphere of the manufacturer’s power rather than God’s, our people need to be called to repentance for irresponsible consuming. They need absolution for their economic transgressions of God’s plan for their lives, and they sorely need guidance in godly purchasing and use of His rich economic blessings. For unlike the vast majority of people in Luther’s world, most of our hearers have a good deal of “disposable” income. They certainly have an array of choices for products and services offered to them which boggles the minds of the older among us who can remember the Eisenhower era; when we thought we really had it good. This array of economic choices constitutes both a blessing to be dedicated to godly care of self and others and a temptation to idolatry and abuse of what God gives.
In the midst of sophisticated marketing techniques luring us into the sphere of the manufacturer’s power rather than God’s, our people need to be called to repentance for irresponsible consuming.
Recognizing that our role as consumer is part of God’s structuring of the life Adam and Eve were created to share together (Genesis 2:18), Christians view their purchasing power as a special gift of God. They begin its use with thanksgiving and praise for our God, who has revealed His beneficence to many of us in North American at the beginning of the twenty-first century in ways experienced or imaginable by very few in ages past. Wise economic decisions take shape within the framework of this thanksgiving.
Responsible exercise of our callings does not demand a vow of poverty. Luther had experience with asceticism. As a young Augustinian friar, he had practiced the life of self-deprivation to a fault. He had tried to use hunger along with surrender of his earthly possessions as means of convincing God how he loved his Creator. He found that asceticism simply turns a person’s concentration inward, focusing on self. Striving to win God’s favor by dispossessing oneself and disposing of as many of the material blessings God has freely and richly bestowed subjected him to an idol of his own making, his own self-sacrifice. But Luther uttered just as scathing condemnations of building more and bigger barns and accumulating more and better goods, especially when such amassing of blessings created idolatrous ways of life. These ways of life neglect our neighbors near and far. They abuse God’s material creation. They ignore His command to exercise His kind of loving, supporting dominion over His creation. For we are called to treat all creatures, all aspects of what He has made, in the same manner our God treats them as He preserves and protects them.
For we are called to treat all creatures, all aspects of what He has made, in the same manner our God treats them as He preserves and protects them.
Responsible exercise of our callings as consumers pays attention to ourselves. Food purchases which enhance the care of our bodies provide what is necessary for our being able to carry out most of our other callings. What goes into our mouths comes out in ways that either promote or weaken our service to those whom we are called to love and serve. Decisions on leisure time activities enhance our living according to God’s will and do not set our bodies or our dispositions up for other than godly use.
Responsible exercise of our callings as consumers pays attention to others. Our economic decisions have impacts on those employed in the manufacturing and distribution systems, on those who sell and service the things we enjoy. All of them God includes in the neighbors whom we are to love as we love ourselves, to whom we are to do as we would have done to us.
Responsible exercise of our callings as consumers pays attention to God’s created world. Believers neither worship nor misuse minerals, plants, and animals. We recognize God has given us the natural resources of our world to share not only with those of our time but also with future generations and, therefore, we abhor waste and squandering.
Responsible exercise of our callings as consumers pays attention to God. We give thanks to God for those things He channels through systems of production and distribution which give us sustenance and satisfaction. We consciously consider those things we claim to possess as His possessions and respect them as loans for our use and benefit, and we reject the temptation to let them take possession of our desires and our plans. We devote all God’s gifts to Him through proper use and godly consumption. And we are grateful God permits us to acknowledge His goodness and demonstrate to those around us the love we experience in our material blessings.
Truly sacrificial giving is difficult for many of us since we have so many material blessings and are so well provided for, with some left over, that actually identifying something truly necessary to give up requires not only a giving spirit but lively imagination. We must pray ardently for the insight to sort out how best we can be freed from dependence on His blessings and stop ourselves from idolatrous clinging to those blessings, so they can be truly blessings instead of falling into Satan’s hands as his instruments to divert us from Christ-like love for others and a spirit of praise which permeates our lives.
Responsible exercise of our callings as consumers recognizes how our financial life is caught up in economic structures and strictures that do not always leave us the choice between two good decisions. Those with the means to indulge their fancies by being the first to buy some new electronic toy do bring down the price for later customs who could not pay the full price at the initial offering. Choosing products from manufacturers with policies that reflect concerns to promote the welfare of the unfortunate can contribute to mitigating injustices which flaunt God’s plan for human life. However, some decisions are more complicated. We may protest the exploitation of garment factory workers in Bangladesh by refusing to buy the clothing they produce from their abusive employers, but in doing this we cut them and their families off from even the pittance they receive. There is no just option left in the decision to purchase or not to purchase. Only forgiveness won by Christ can give us peace of conscience in such situations. But imprecatory prayers and pleas to God for the working of social justice in Majority World lands will not be in vain, and protests delivered to producers, whether we purchase or not, are not wasted as we lend our voices to the voices of those who suffer under the exploitation that makes inexpensive products available to us.
Naturally—by sinful nature—most Christians do not want their preachers to be telling them how to use their economic blessings.
Naturally—by sinful nature—most Christians do not want their preachers to be telling them how to use their economic blessings. Repentance is never welcomed by the old Adam who is quite comfortable living with the law of sin. All the more reason preachers should, with understanding for the power of the temptation to consume idolatrously, bring their hearers to consider again God’s calling to love Him with heart, soul, strength, and mind, and their neighbors near and far as they love themselves.
Twenty-first century North American believers face challenges unique in the history of God’s people, for we have an abundance of the material gifts of God unparalleled in human history. The Holy Spirit is calling North American preachers to the proclamation of repentance, forgiveness of sins, and biblical counsel for mortifying the idols which we have fashioned out of God’s good, earthly blessings and for dedicating them to the welfare of all God’s creatures. God’s calling to responsible consumption sets in place a part of our lives that gives Him praise and serves our neighbors as His faithful stewards.
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR
Robert Kolb (PhD, University of Wisconsin) is mission professor of systematic theology emeritus at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri. He is the author and co-author of numerous books.