“Reflecting on our Wealth.”
A Review of
Missions and Money (2nd Edition),
by Jonathan Bonk.
By Chris Smith.
Missions and Money.
Paperback. Orbis Books. 2007.
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Since its original release in 1991, Jonathan Bonk’s Missions and Money has proven itself to be a classic study in missions. However, even if you have read (and possibly even re-read) the book’s first edition, it will still be well worth your while to get your hands on the recent second edition, which refers to itself as the “revised and expanded” edition, quite an understatement since the book is now almost twice as thick as the first edition. The content of the book has indeed been revised and updated throughout, but perhaps the most significant additions are reflective essays by Christopher J.H. Wright and Justo Gonzalez, on “Faith and Wealth in the Hebrew Scriptures and the Early Church,” and Bonk’s own reworking of the book’s final chapter in which he proposes an ethics for missionaries that steers clear of the problems of affluence that he describes in the first six chapters of the book.
Just as this new edition is a valuable asset even to those who have read Bonk’s first edition, it likewise is just as valuable to those church members who view “missions work” from afar as it is to missionaries – or missionaries in training. This review will eventually get around to elaborating on this claim that this is a book for the Church at large, but first it will be useful for us to overview the book’s contents.
The book’s first chapter which establishes the “fact” of western missionary affluence is perhaps the driest chapter and the one most specifically targeted at the missions community. If one can trust Bonk’s research and take Western Missionary affluence as axiomatic, he or she can skim (or even skip) the first chapter and find more engaging material in the chapters that follow. Chapters Two and Three provide a history that describes how such an affluence evolved and an examination of the “rationale” that had been used to justify such affluence. Although the chapters up to this point do become increasingly more interesting, they remain in the realm of description. In contrast, Chapter Four marks Bonk’s launch into an analysis and critique of this fact that has been documented in the first three chapters. In Chapters Four and Five, Bonk delineates the costs that have been paid as a result of the wealth of western missionaries. Not only does the wealth of missionaries create a social gulf between themselves and those to whom they are bringing the Gospel, it also generates difficulties in communicating the Gospel. Bonk elaborates these points in great detail in these chapters and they deserve our reflection. Chapter Six, which considers theological, ethical and biblical perspectives on missionary affluence, is the heart of Bonk’s argument, and the vast majority of this chapter is spent examining the scriptures. Bonk looks at the Old and New Testaments and passages in each that the wealthy find reassuring, as well as those that they find troubling. The latter category of “troubling” passages in the Scriptures is, by far, the larger one. Concluding his biblical survey, Bonk notes: “It is clear that Christianity was never designed to make people comfortably at ease with wealth and power. Nor, predictably, has genuine discipleship ever been widely popular among the rich” (156). Bonk proceeds to note that that the scriptural teachings on wealth, leave us with three possible courses of action:
a) ignore these passages
b) justify why they don’t apply to a specific individual or social setting
c) “repent and be converted” (156).
In his final chapter, Bonk presumes that it is preferable for us to choose the final of these options and starts to flesh out what it might look like to embody a “missiology of the righteous rich.” He offers some practical steps in the direction of repentance for individuals, families and mission organizations, and offers some frank reflections on the obstacles to repentance. He concludes by examining three scriptural images that should define the mission of the church, particularly when we are coming from a position of wealth and power: incarnation, the cross and weakness.
The three essays by Christopher J.H. Wright and Justo Gonzalez, that have been appended to Bonk’s work are a perfect compliment, and they provide some valuable insight into how the people of God have dealt with the problem of wealth in other times and places, in particular the Hebrew peoples in the era of the Old Testament, the era of Jesus and the New Testment church and the era of the early church that immediately followed the New Testament period.
I made the claim at the outset of this review that this book deserved an audience in the wider church, to which I now want to return. First, Missions and Money is a valuable resource for churches to reflect upon as they send missionaries abroad. In light of our great affluence in contrast to the rest of the world, how should we send messengers of Christ’s Gospel to the uttermost parts of the earth? It seems to me that serious consideration of Bonk’s work would radically change both the ways in which we send out foreign missionaries and indeed out own hearts as united by the Spirit with those who are going out into other parts of the world. More importantly, however, Missions and Money deserves the reflection of churches that see themselves as missional communities. Perhaps someday someone will write a book that reflects on Bonk’s work from the perspective of missional church communities within the western world. For example, one type of missional community is the “new monastic” community. One of the twelve marks of the new monasticism (see newmonasticism.org for the full list) is “relocation to abandoned places of empire.” To my knowledge, however, there has not been much in the way of reflection upon HOW new communities form and persist in these abandoned places, especially with regard to their shared economy. From my own experiences of relocation, there is a strong temptation to make a comfortable life in such places, instead of trying to live on a similar economic plane as our neighbors. Similarly, such communities would have much to learn from Bonk’s ideal of “the righteous rich,” and how that might shape their life together in urban or rural (or other sorts of) abandoned places.
In short, Bonk’s work is a classic that all brothers and sisters in Christ should read, and even if you have read the first edition, now is a good time to track down the newer edition and read and reflect upon it.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com