Whatever happened to the sin of conspicuous consumption?

The other evening my wife and I were watching HGTV and saw part of a show about RVs–recreational vehicles. They were showing off the latest and best motor homes. One had a price tag of over $700,000. The inside looked to me like a fancy gambling casino on the Las Vegas strip (which I’ve only seen on TV). It was, to say the least, gaudy. But even those with price tags in the $200,000 range were over the top in terms of what was inside them. One had three 42 inch LED TVs–one on the outside (so when you’re “camping” you can enjoy your TV experience rather than God’s great outdoors).

Norwegian economist Thorsten Veblen coined the phrase “conspicuous consumption” in 1899 while living in Minnesota. (I’ve been to his homestead site south of the Twin Cities.) When I was a kid growing up in conservative evangelicalism in the Midwest I heard several sermons preached against the “sin of conspicuous consumption.” I remember when a family in our church bought a brand new Cadillac which was then (in the 1950s) a symbol of affluence. They were harshly criticized by fellow church members because nobody (the church members and pastor believed) needs a brand new Cadillac and the money above what a new Chevrolet would cost could have been given to missions.

While I’m not in favor of ostracizing church members based on their purchase decisions, I do think it would be appropriate for evangelical Christians (and others) to reflect more deeply on what Christians should do and not do with discretionary income.

Is it appropriate for a Christian to buy a $200,000 mobile home in a world where children in Haiti and other places are dying due to lack of clean water, life saving medicines and even food?

Oh, I know the typical, trite answers. I’ve heard them all my adult life–especially since the rise of the prosperity gospel and evangelical Christians joining in the race for affluent lifestyles (and regarding them as God’s blessings).

People will say it’s nobody else’s business what a person, even a Christian, does with his or her money. And, so long as they are giving a portion to God’s mission, they should be congratulated if they can afford some luxuries. And, of course, Jesus never condemned wealth, etc., etc., etc.

In fact, however, the Bible, including Jesus, clearly speaks about the spiritual toxicity of wealth. And Jesus did warn against living luxuriously when there are starving people around you.

Then someone will say “We Americans all live luxuriously compared with most people in Haiti.” True enough, but is that reason not to consider ethical limits to luxury?

I will go out on a limb and say that, in my best opinion as an evangelical theologian, Christians ought not to spend their disposable incomes or savings on $200,000 plus recreational vehicles. That’s conspicuous consumption and it’s a sin. Whether it’s a sin that offends God so much that it destroys a person’s relationship with God is not my decision to make. I won’t go that far. But it is a sin. Period. Churches ought to warn their people against it (conspicuous consumption).

Have I sinned this sin? Of course. That time I bought a shirt and paid $20 more than a nearly identical shirt just to have a certain brand displayed on it. Am I going to hell for that? No. But I think we evangelicals have simplistically divided acts between three kinds–those for which you will go to hell (if you don’t repent) and those that are morally neutral and those that make God smile. What about those that make God frown but don’t destroy relationship with God? What about those that put a dent in your relationship with God and/or may case a weaker Christian to stumble?

By and large we American evangelicals have discarded all ethical, moral, spiritual and theological consideration of money and what should be done with it. I think we need to get back to an emphasis on relatively simple living and eschewing the American “dream” of getting rich. And if I hear of a brother or sister in Christ buying a $200,000 RV, I will put them on my prayer list, asking God to convict them of the sin of conspicuous consumption.

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  • One man’s luxury is another man’s normal is the main problem in confronting this sin. I live fairly sparse, but I also spent a thousand bucks on a pair of binoculars. But those binoculars are another man’s conspicuous consumption, who knew binoculars could cost that much? Are they really better than a $100 pair? (they are, by the way!). I’m sure I could return the favor to the man judging me for binoculars and find conspicuous consumption in him. I agree with you, but it’s an issue that will never gain traction in any sort of balanced way because of so many factors playing into it. I think your application of praying for them is a good one rather than making a scene out of it.

    • rogereolson

      I think the question comes down to this. What is your need for binoculars? Do you use them for work? For a hobby? Or you just wanted them because buying expensive binoculars gave you a rush? (As in “Look what I can afford!) Also, are $1,000 binoculars really better than cheaper ones? Did you look into that? Again, this is hardly comparable with spending $200,000 on a luxury RV with three 42 inch LED TVs. Somewhere there must be an identifiable line between justifiable expenditure and sheer reveling in conspicuous consumption. By the way “conspicuous” in “conspicuous consumption” means buying something just to show off (“keeping up with the Joneses”).

  • J.E. Edwards

    Subtle isn’t it? This battle is one all American believers face. David Platt’s book “Radical” is a good one that puts this into a good perspective for us.

  • Jeff Martin

    I say a hearty Amen! to this Dr. Olson. I think the Gospel of Luke is the best material for what you are saying, esp. Luke 12 – One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions….then later as a solution it says – Sell your possessions, and give alms and notice even more interesting where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Most people preach that verse the opposite way. But it basically says that if one were to look at what you have in your driveway and house one can see very clearly where one’s devotion lies!!

    Also Luke 16 says if you have not been faithful with unrighteous wealth who will entrust you to the true riches? What is Luke’s suggestion to do with this wealth? Make friends for yourselves through this wealth. The only way Luke shows how to do this throughout the Gospel is by helping those who are poor.

  • ME

    Agree 100%.

    Heard a podcast from Bishop Will Willimon recently. He said he and his wife decided to give 40-50% of their ~$120k income to the church. As Christians I think it’s good to be open with how much we make.

    • rogereolson

      I recently saw a documentary on the History channel about Victorian England and quite a bit was devoted to Charles Gordon (“Chinese Gordon”). Apparently he lived on a minute portion of his income and gave the rest to orphan care. He spent most of his free time wherever he was going around picking up orphans off the streets and finding them homes or orphanages and paying for their care. Many of them he supported well into young adulthood.

  • I think that we can find stinginess within the framework of poor and rich. I know a few wealthy people who are extremely generous in their giving and living, and yet have no qualms in having a nice home, car and holiday house….Items which I have seen them freely lend to others for their use.

    I don’t know about America, but here in Australia, many who have retired will sell their home, buy a RV and travel around this great country of ours. I suspect the same is in your country also. While that kind of RV that you mentioned is top of the range and I suspect not many are sold – is it really a sin for a Christian who has given much of his wealth to throughout the years to purchase a RV. I think it is one of those issues which is what ever you do or don’t do, do it for the glory of God.

    • ME

      A second home definitely crosses the line.

  • Buks

    Even as a Calvinist/Monergist I can wholeheartedly agree with this post!

  • Beaver

    ” Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” Luke 12: 15. The old Pentecostals would also sometimes say, “You can’t take your treasure with you when you die, but you can send it on ahead of you.” Whatever good things a Christian sows, that will he also reap, because God is no man’s debtor. Thanks for a timely reminder of the importance of responsible stewardship, and the dangers of over-indulgence ans waste. I hope you won’t have to use your censure list !

  • Steve Rogers

    Where would you draw the line, Roger? Would a $175,000 RV be okay for a Christian who can afford it? Should I forgo the tires with the 80,000 miles warranty and buy the 40,000 miles so I could give the $400 I will save to missions? Should I withhold my contribution to the church’s building program (believers around the world function with very simple or no facilities) and send it to Haiti instead? Should I send my young theology student to an expensive university when most of what they will learn is available online at little or no cost with some disciplined effort? I agree with your central point but think it unwise to establish arbitrary definitions of what is and isn’t conspicuous consumption.

    • John Inglis

      Calling specifics “arbitrary lines” is a cop out. It is useful and aproppriate to “draw lines”.

      More important, is to decide where the onus lies. I contend that it lies with those doing any level of consumption to justify the consumption. Jesus only promised to give what we need daily–and that with a heavy emphasis on what we need spiritually to get through the day. Paul, perhaps the foremost Christian of all time, sets the example of consumption for us: he was beaten, shipwrecked, hungry and worked for his food rather than taking pay for his ministry.

      And what does “afford it” mean? Making payments doesn’t count. Perhaps if a multi-millionaire can give half of his/her income away and still pay $175,000 cash for the RV then it might be acceptable. Or if they sell their house and live only in the RV.

      Yes, forego the 80,000 mile tires. There is usually no savings on a per mile basis, especially when one factors in the likelihood of getting a flat.

      Yes, send the money to Haiti. I hardly think that it’s ever write to support a church building program.

      Yes, the student should learn on line. Unless the student is bright enough and called to be a PhD.

  • Alex

    As another commenter already said, there are so many factors at play here. So far we’ve discussed ammassing great wealth and living in excess – okay, but does that look the same in every situation? Is the desire for wealth a sin for struggling parents looking for provide for their families? There’s some good thoughts in the original post, but let’s not get carried away. What matters more is the heart of the person – are you generous with your time / money / resources?

    • rogereolson

      I do disagree. I think Scripture (especially Jesus) teaches that money is spiritually toxic; it takes a special grace of God to amass wealth and not allow it to corrupt you spiritually and morally. I would say the same is true of power although the Bible doesn’t speak directly to that. But we see it in the kings of the Old Testament.

    • John Inglis

      The heart of the person is evidenced by their possessions. Lots of possessions, poor heart.

      “Desire for wealth” is always inappropriate. Desire to serve God and depend on him and bring one’s needs to him is not. “Needs” means asking God for provision for one’s family.

      And yes, it pretty much looks the same in every situation.

  • John C. Gardner

    I myself am a bibliophile and have to remind myself about book purchases at too high a level. We do tithe and give above that but we need to remember that consumption(not just conspicuous consumption)can be a sin. For example, do we eat out too much or do we spend unnecessarily on other items? Thank you for writing this post.

  • Phil Miller

    I agree with the spirit of this post, but I guess I saying what exactly is “extravagant” or “conspicuous” can be a hard thing to define. You give the example of a $200,000 RV which is more visible way to spend that money, but there are other ways in which it could be spent “inconspicuously”. For example, my wife and I recently moved to a new city, and in doing so, we bought a new house. It’s not a big house, but it is a part of the city that’s a bit nicer. We generally don’t have to worry crime or violence in our neighborhood (other than the occasional theft). Because of the neighborhood it’s in, the house is probably 50-75% more expensive than a similar-sized house in another neighborhood. Is investing the extra money in this house sinful. Personally, I don’t feel conviction about it. But I suppose a case could be made that with a smaller mortgage, we would have more money to put towards other things.

    Similar cases can be made about all sorts of products. Often buying the least expensive thing isn’t always the best financial choice. I’m a guitarist – not professionally, but I do play in a working band – and I’ve made a point to invest in mostly American instruments that cost more than their foreign-made counterparts. I do this because they are generally better made, and I know they will retain their value if I ever need to sell them. Yet, I could how some people could see these purchases as extravagant. There not really a need – I don’t have to play guitar, after all. But, to me it just seems like a better way of handling my money in this area.

    • rogereolson

      My point was that most churches, in my experience, never even wrestle with the issue of consumerism and conspicuous consumption.

    • John Inglis

      The amount of interest that goes to the bank over the course of a mortgage should always be a serious consideration. Those costs, plus the costs of moving, real estate fees, taxes, etc. are all reasons why my wife and I have chosen to remain in a 1,000 sq. ft. house and raise 3 boys, rather than move up (even at those times when we could have afforded significantly higher mortgage payments) and why we remain a one car family in a neighbourhood of two car families.

  • David Anfenson

    I have struggled with how to approach this subject with people in the church. When I graduate and am in full-time ministry, I intend to be open and honest about my finances with the church I work at. Maybe that will help people to be genuinely honest about theirs? Or maybe people will just be glad that I am living a simple lifestyle for them…who knows.
    Some of my closest friends and I have looked to John Wesley for advice. We realized that we could live off 10,000 a year pretty easily as single college students. Now that we have real jobs and have adjusted for families, we shoot for that same 10,000 or so and give the extra 20, 30, 40, or 100,000 dollars away. Of course its going to look different for everyone, but following Jesus always has.

  • Very well said…thank you Dr.Olson!

  • Steve Dal

    The point in all of this is how do you ‘hold’ these things. Tightly or lightly? The main thing is your focus and what it is you want to achieve. Lots of stuff will not get me where I want to go in God. If you are focussed on aquisitiveness then you will suffer in your relationship with Jesus. Israel became aquisitve and paid the price. The shopping mall is the new ‘church’ We go there to ‘worship’. Not good. etc etc

    • rogereolson

      I disagree. I believe Scripture and the best of ancient Christian teaching (e.g., Chrysostom) communicate that money is spiritually toxic such that it takes a special grace from God to handle large amounts of it in God-honoring and pleasing ways.

      • Steve Dal

        I just think there are so many exceptions to this. Too many relativities. How much is too much? I am relatively poor compared to many people I know but defintiely relatively rich compared to others. I am defintely not aquisitive. I am challenged constantly about my giving etc. So where is the line?

        • rogereolson

          We could ask the same about pornography, for example. Should we not deal with it (when we know about it) among Christians (e.g., in a congregation) just because it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference between “art” and “pornography?” I was talking with a friend the other day and somehow the movie “Titanic” came into the conversation. He had never seen it. I said he ought to; it’s a great film. He said he considers it pornographic. I asked if he had been to his city’s art museum where I know there are paintings and statues that show more than the fleeting nudity scene in Titanic. He indicated that he would not go there either if that is the case. I respect him for that. But, most of us, most of the time, think there is a difference between a fleeting glimpse of nudity in a great movie or in an art gallery and pornography. But where? Nobody can draw than line absolutely. That doesn’t mean we don’t think there is a line or that we don’t deal with pornography in our churches. I’m saying the same about conspicuous consumption. I don’t think there has to be a litmus test for us to talk about it as a problem.

          • Steve Dal

            Yes but by definition we are talking about a problem or soemthing inconsistent with Christian conduct. I’m all for talking about the problem and a few changes might occur incrementally but in essence, as usual, its going to be each person that has to see what changes they need to make and to make them. Even with pornography, as you point out, the line is murky. Pretty soon you are making all sorts of rules about what is considered pornography and what is not. Thats what legal people do. They think they can legislate inot being people’s conduct in these areas and it fails constantly. People have to SEE in themselves that something is right or wrong and for that they have to recognise some kind of absolute. They have to want to change. Also, I think our idea of what is pornography is woefully limited. We confine to nudity or lurid sexual acts when the scripture uses the word for all sorts of idolatry. I think the church becomes fixated on narrow definitions whilst overlooking bigger and wider issues. I would possibly consider conspicuous comsumption as pornographic in the Biblical sense.

        • John Inglis

          I think that there are very few exceptions, actually. Indeed, I cannot think of any.

  • Allan Burgess

    Dr Olsen,
    it takes “special grace” to handle any aspect of life so singling out rich christians for rebuke is unfair and arbitrary. It also takes “special grace” to not judge those whose life situations you lack full transparency into – including their heart.
    Perhaps if you edited the following statement: “And if I hear of a brother or sister in Christ buying a $200,000 RV, I will put them on my prayer list, asking God to convict them of the sin of conspicuous consumption” to say instead “asking God to protect them from sin, including the possibility of conspicuous consumption”. Only God knows who should be convicted of what. Your statement sets you up as judge and jury of the buyers heart – a rather lofty place that last I checked was reserved already.

    • rogereolson

      So you don’t think we should ever pray that God would convict a person of something because that makes us judges of their hearts? I simply disagree and think we evangelicals all believe it about sex sins (for example) but somehow exempt sins of consumerism and conspicuous consumption.

      • Steve Dal

        my point exactly

    • Steve Dal

      what on earth is ‘special grace’ and where is it in the scripture?

      • rogereolson

        How about when God sent an angel to free Peter from prison?

  • Ed Franklin

    Dr Olson,
    I just re-read your article because I have been challenged elsewhere for supporting your thesis …..now I want to take this moment to add another calvinist/Baptist voice to the amen! chorus here. Your specific point that churches will not engage the matter is spot-on. When the churches and pastors are themselves prima facie evidence of conspicuous consumption in the church world, what can they say?

  • Brian W

    Instead of toxic, I like to use the word dangerous. An abundance of money and possessions tempts me to forget the Lord my God (Deut 8; Prov 30). But Gods word provides counter measures to resist such temptations. This is such an important subject for Gods people in America; sadly I never heard this message growing up in the church. Wealth and abundance have always been labeled Gods blessing only. Yes, it is quite challenging to label certain purchases and amounts as sinful, but that surely hasn’t been the predominant error of the church with this topic.

  • me

    It is not money that is the root of all evil it is the LOVE of money. Material things are just that material yet can also be loved and desired and purchased for the same reason; love of money; seeing your expensive items gives the same RUSH or feeling of being rich. If you have been faithful with your money as God has instructed YOU then a purchase of such measure can be seen as a blessing. I am one whom would NOT have such a large expensive item which seems crazy to even create let alone buy. What if a person whom was faithful through out life with their income saved enough of the income they had faithfully given from over many years saved 200,000 dollars and was able to pay for the item without going into debt? Can not also telling others from a puplit that you are giving 40-50% of your income be more like bragging drawing attention to yourself and saying look at me Im a better christian then you for I scarifice more. Yes this does occur among the christian/church community. These are just some of the things that came to mind as I read the article I am no expert and no special saint but a saint just the same because of the love, grace and mercy of Jesus. Im thinking out side the box(or should I say inside the box Im typing in)(little humor) that there are many ways to look at this. Are you praying for the person whom made such a luxurious purchase because God is telling you too or is your attitude motivated by jealousy. Man looks on the outside God looks on the heart. The item in question seems very extreme to me because the cost of the item is 4 times the cost of my house; Our family has lived on a budget by choice to meet goals that are important to us; IE pay off our home( which was done within 3 years of budgeting and now met) giving our children the opportunity to attend college without accuring emorous debt. Now am I bragging here; I dont believe so; others may think so yet my purpose in sharing this information is to show where my priorities lay. I was once asked by a friend whom received an ENORMOUS deal on a large screen TV if I thought it was too big for them to have? Dont you believe that if the question has risen in your mind that it may not be what God you would not be questioning about it. Just writing down thoughts thank you for listening; I do understand the concept of the article and why it is necessary to look at these aspects as a christain.

  • DRT

    I struggle with this all of the time. I did not appreciate how I should live and how I should give until I have already invested in a house, 3 kids, vehicles, life style expectations etc. It is one thing to preach (appropriately) that we need to look at conspicuous consumption, and quite another to unwind a life style already there, and yet another to simply avoid going there in the first place.

    A very delicate matter, but that does not mean it should not be addressed.

    • John Inglis

      Yes, unwinding is hard.

  • Carl

    I should begin by saying that I fully agree with your post.
    I would just add that it can be an equally destructive and un-Christian habit to purchase only the cheapest product. In fact, many times the cheapest products are the most destructive for all involved. I am not talking about “extreme couponing” or some other interesting obsession (although that is another issue that needs to be dealt with) but about purchasing the cheapest shirt, toaster, car, coffee, TV etc. because “its a good deal.” Who doesn’t want a $ 14 toaster? The problem is that in the process we are exploiting other people and God’s good creation through improper business and manufacturing practices. I think it is AT LEAST as big a problem in our culture (although arguably a bigger one) to demand low, unfair prices for our goods and services just so that I can get a good deal. Meanwhile, children and adults in Haiti, Taiwan, China, etc. are being oppressed and enslaved so I can have an unsustainably low price on goods. This is not to take anything away from what you said in your article. But at the end of the day, prices are not always very good indicators of either value or healthy purchasing habits. It seems to me that the question we need to ask is, what does it mean to live simply AND responsibly as followers of Christ?

  • steve

    I can’t imagine preaching this stuff in church. I would probably go with a little more subtly in approaching the topic of wealth but maybe that is because I am often a coward when it comes to talking about the kind of real change that may be necessary for kingdom living. I am reminded that the only person ever to walk away from Jesus sad is the rich young ruler. That is quite telling. Shane Claiborne says that just as there is something called the ghetto of poverty, there is also something called the ghetto of wealth. I wonder how many of us struggle as disciples of Christ with the ghetto of wealth. I know I do. In the ghetto of wealth, we are called to discern the difference between needs and wants. That is hard work for one who has lived a life of privilege. But it is necessary work too. I do believe that. Thanks for the challenging words Dr. Olson.

  • Joel

    I struggle with this too, especially since I am relatively rich compared to the rest of the world or even most Americans at my stage in life (I’m not wealthy, but my job pays well for my age). I try to avoid excessive luxury and give a lot of money away.

    But here’s another thing to think about: in a capitalist society, the livelihood of others sometimes depends on our spending. Now I certainly don’t want people to take that as warrant to say “spend as much as you want and the magic of the free market will fix everything.” But being extremely tightwadded with our money may well hurt others around us even if we donate it to help those overseas.

    If everyone always eats at home because it’s cheapest, the people at the deli on the street will lose their jobs. Most artists (in any medium) are poor and can’t make a living if others don’t sometimes buy things that aren’t necessities. I think you see what I mean.A lifestyle of “never buy anything you don’t absolutely need, always buy the cheapest version of what you do need, and give everything else to missions and poverty relief” (I’m not saying this is what Roger is advocating) isn’t necessarily as charitable and pious as it sounds on the surface.

    Again, let me emphasize that I think this is just one factor to consider and definitely not a blank check to throw our money around as we please. A Christian treatment of possessions a difficult and multifaceted issue. For a long time the church has said “God has blessed you, enjoy it!” with a little lip service towards tithing and not being materialistic, and I fully agree this is a shallow and flippant answer.