Some think we should emulate Jesus’ lifestyle: “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20, NIV).
Critics speak out in magazine articles, books, and sermons against today’s materialistic Christians. Much of what they say is accurate, but they sometimes make faulty assumptions about the biblical texts.
There was a striking difference between the itinerant ministry of Jesus and the apostles as seen in the Gospels and the settled communities of Christians reflected in the later books of the New Testament.
Do Christ’s followers have a right to own land and possessions?
Jesus called his first four disciples to leave their fishing business:
"One day as Jesus was walking along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew throwing a net into the water, for they fished for a living. Jesus called out to them, “Come, follow me, and I will show you how to fish for people!” And they left their nets at once and followed him. A little farther up the shore Jesus saw Zebedee’s sons, James and John, in a boat repairing their nets. He called them at once, and they also followed him, leaving their father, Zebedee, in the boat with the hired men." (Mark 1:16-20)
Abandoning their possessions was part of answering the call because Christ’s ministry was itinerant, requiring regular travel on foot. To follow Christ, the disciples simply had to leave their boats and nets. The central point isn’t that they left their boats but that they followed Jesus.
But even these apostles didn’t irreversibly divest themselves of all possessions. In Mark 1:29, just ten verses after they’ve left their nets, “they went to Simon and Andrew’s home.” These disciples who left their home to follow Jesus still had a home.
The Gospels repeatedly refer to Jesus and the disciples traveling by boat on the Sea of Galilee. Most likely, the boat belonged to one of the fishermen-turned-apostles.
Peter says to Jesus, “We have left everything to follow you!” (Mark 10:28, NIV). He doesn’t say, “We have sold everything,” though they may have liquidated many of their possessions (Luke 12:32-33). When Jesus entrusted his mother, Mary, to the care of John the apostle, John himself writes, “From that time on, this disciple took her into his home” (John 19:26-27, NIV). After three years of following Jesus, John still had a home, and Jesus’ mother went to live with him there.
Levi the tax collector represents the kind of disciple who utilizes possessions for Kingdom causes rather than walking away from them. “Follow me,” Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him (Mark 2:14). In the very next verse, a dinner party in Levi’s house is used to introduce people to Jesus. Given his profession and the number of people at the party, Levi’s house was undoubtedly nicer and larger than average. We’re never told that Jesus called Levi to sell his house. Maybe he did; maybe he didn’t.
Although large crowds followed Jesus, he chose only twelve apostles to join him in his itinerant ministry, traveling and preaching (Mark 3:13-19). Others from the crowd also followed Jesus. They weren’t chosen as apostles but served as disciples. When they weren’t with Jesus, where did these disciples go? Back to their families, homes, fields, livestock, and jobs. Just as for most of his life Jesus had served God working as a carpenter and living in a house on a piece of land, so most of his disciples served God as faithful stewards, raising their families and working in their own communities.
Clearly, the majority of Christ’s followers never divested themselves of all their possessions, nor did he expect them to.
Should we go out, leaving possessions behind, or stay home and support others?
When Jesus chose the Twelve, he did so carefully, after much prayer. “Afterward Jesus went up on a mountain and called out the ones he wanted to go with him. And they came to him. Then he appointed twelve of them and called them his apostles. They were to accompany him, and he would send them out to preach, giving them authority to cast out demons” (Mark 3:13-15). Undoubtedly others would have been delighted to be chosen. They may have been disappointed at having to return to their houses and jobs to serve Christ in a “normal” life. But it was his choice, not theirs.
After Jesus healed him, the Gerasene demoniac wanted desperately to leave everything and follow Christ. “As Jesus was getting into the boat, the man who had been demon possessed begged to go with him” (Mark 5:18). The next verse is significant: “Jesus said, ‘No, go home to your family, and tell them everything the Lord has done for you and how merciful he has been.’” Although Christ called some to leave their homes, he instructed this man to go to his home. Christ knew that God’s Kingdom could be better served if this man made his home his base for serving God.
Was this an inferior calling? Judge by the results: “So the man started off to visit the Ten Towns of that region and began to proclaim the great things Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed” (verse 20). Christ called this transformed man to settle back in his own community, steward what possessions he had, and be a powerful witness there.
When Jesus sent his twelve disciples out two by two to minister in villages, he told them to take nothing for their journey except a walking stick—no food, no traveler’s bag, no money. He allowed them to wear sandals but not to take a change of clothes. “‘Wherever you go,’ he said, ‘stay in the same house until you leave town’” (Mark 6:10). Traveling missionaries take nothing except what facilitates their travels (in the case of the twelve disciples, this included only a staff, sandals, and the clothes on their backs). Others are “settled-in” disciples who provide shelter, food, and supplies for traveling missionaries. In order for the first type of disciple to survive and succeed, the second type of disciple must possess and provide.
There are two callings: one to leave behind family and possessions to further the cause in full-time ministry, and the other to serve Christ’s cause in a home and community and to earn an income to support those whose calling means they can no longer generate sufficient income on their own. To determine which calling of God is ours, we should ask him for wisdom and guidance (James 1:5), realizing that he intends for us to know what his will is for us (Ephesians 5:17). We should seek wise counsel, knowing that the most important aspect of our lives is our closeness to our Master, not the specific places we go.
Both callings serve exactly the same purpose: glorifying God and furthering his Kingdom. Just because they have different lifestyles, one kind of disciple is neither more nor less spiritual than the other. (We should be careful not to discourage one another from either of these callings.)
Nowhere in Scripture, however, do we see a third kind of disciple who hoards and uses money and possessions as he pleases instead of for God’s glory and Kingdom purposes.
What is expected of both goers and stayers?
Those who choose to follow Jesus aren’t choosing an easy path: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Mark 8:34 37, niv).
The number of economic terms Jesus uses here is striking: save, lose, gain, forfeit, give, and exchange. All disciples of Christ receive a radical call to view and handle our money and possessions with an eternal perspective.
We shouldn’t be preoccupied with God’s plan for others. When Peter asks Jesus about his plans for John, Jesus tells him, “If I want [John] to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? As for you, follow me” (John 21:22).
Nor should we make unhealthy comparisons. Paul made this clear: “Pay careful attention to your own work, for then you will get the satisfaction of a job well done, and you won’t need to compare yourself to anyone else. For we are each responsible for our own conduct” (Galatians 6:4-5).
In God’s Kingdom, there’s no room for comparing and judging others. We should recognize that God leads his children into differing spheres of Kingdom influence.
How much can we safely keep?
There are some things that no Christian should do—such as hoard money, live in opulence, or fail to give generously. But there are other things that some Christians can freely do that others may sense God’s leading not to do, such as own land, a home, a car, or a business; go on certain vacations; or set aside significant retirement funds.
How much money and how many possessions can we safely keep? Enough to care for our basic needs and some wants, but not so much that large amounts of money are kept from higher Kingdom causes. Not so much that we become proud and independent of the Lord. Not so much that it distracts us from our purpose or leaves us with the illusion that we are owners rather than managers of what God owns.
Those who happen to be rich—simply as a result of circumstances, hard work, or wisdom—have done nothing
wrong. They need not feel guilty—unless they withhold their riches (which are really God’s) from Kingdom causes, including helping the needy, or their lifestyles are self-centered and excessive.
John Piper says in Desiring God, “The issue is not how much a person makes. Big industry and big salaries are a fact of our times, and they are not necessarily evil. The evil is in being deceived into thinking a $100,000 salary must be accompanied by a $100,000 lifestyle. God has made us to be conduits of his grace. The danger is in thinking the conduit should be lined with gold. It shouldn’t. Copper will do.”
What’s the difference between a simple lifestyle and a strategic one?
Scripture says we’re at war—it’s a spiritual battle against unseen but very real enemies. “We are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).
With this in mind, we should adopt lifestyles and make sacrifices commensurate to this crisis, so we may win the war.
Ralph Winter, founder of the U.S. Center for World Mission, used the term “wartime lifestyle.” We might also call it a “strategic” lifestyle. I find that description more helpful and precise than “simple” lifestyle. If I’m devoted to “simple living,” I might reject a computer because it’s modern and nonessential. But if I live a wartime or strategic lifestyle, the computer may serve as a tool for Kingdom purposes. In my case, I use it daily to serve God in my writing. A microwave oven isn’t essential. But it’s handy and labor saving and can free up time to engage in Kingdom causes. Simple living may be self-centered. Strategic living is Kingdom centered.
Is it alright to own certain possessions for personal enjoyment?
A wartime mentality can be taken to such an extreme that we feel it’s unfaithful to enjoy any possessions, pleasures, or special activities. I’m thankful that in the midst of his command that the rich be generous, Paul tells them to put their hope in God, “who richly gives us all we need for our enjoyment” (1 Timothy 6:17). Even in wartime, soldiers take leave when possible.
Our battle lasts a lifetime, so I’m grateful to have recreational items, including a bicycle and a tennis racket. Our family spends money on vacations that aren’t “necessary” but serve to renew us. My wife and I sometimes go out to dinner, enriching our relationship. These things aren’t essential, yet they contribute to physical health and mental and emotional refreshment. By God’s grace, we’ve found that we can give away most of our income yet still have breathing room for legitimate recreational spending.
With a wartime mentality, we will not look at our income as God’s call to spend more but rather as his provision to invest more in the cause. Why not set a financial “finish line,” determining to live on a certain amount of money each year, an amount that allows some room for discretionary or recreational spending and reasonable saving? Then why not give all income beyond that to God’s Kingdom purposes?
Nanci and I have sought, for the most part, to live that way the past twenty years. I know others who have made similar choices, while yet others have made far greater sacrifices. What may strike us as radical, when compared to those around us, even in our Christian culture, seems not to be radical at all when compared to the teaching of Scripture.
The above article is an excerpt from Randy's book Managing God's Money. Scripture quoted from the New Living Translation unless otherwise noted.