“The Poor” - Helping without Hurting

Bryan Chappell of Covenant Seminary asks the question: “How can a local church make a difference, and how do individual Christians meaningfully reflect Christ’s grace when the disparities of wealth and power in our world are so great?”1 As our leadership team begins to lay the groundwork for church planting in Philadelphia, we have had to try to wrestle with this question in a practical way rather than the typical way of theorizing from the relative safety and comfort of middle-class suburbs and seminary classrooms. Located in a transitional urban neighborhood where urban blight meets white flight, we are confronted by challenges regarding our biblical responsibility to the poor. We are not experts in urban ministry and poverty alleviation. We recognize the complexity of the causes of poverty and confess the failure of many Christians, including ourselves, to address and to engage this issue. Some people are born into poverty through no fault of their own and find themselves trapped in an inescapable and infernal cycle. Others fall into poverty as a result of calamity including natural disasters, unemployment, health problems, or traumatic experiences. No easy solutions are forthcoming. Our response must be rooted in the Bible as we seek to lay a theological foundation for our engagement in dealing with societal problems which in reality are spiritual problems.

We are not utopian dreamers with illusions about what we can do to relieve misery in its many forms with our meager resources and limited wisdom. Yet we remain compelled by the Gospel to not cast a blind eye toward those in need since we are also needy even if in different ways. We cannot ignore the Old Testament prophetic voices and the New Testament witness “to do good to all men” (Gal. 6:10). Poverty is about broken relationships, and we are all broken in some ways. Those materially better off than others still face brokenness and impoverishment whether spiritually, economically, or socially. And even if we have much to offer as a church to our community, we also declare that we have much to learn from our community. We do not enter the community with pat answers. We enter to listen and learn from the experience and wisdom of those who live in poverty and of those who serve their communities.

It is easy to fall on one side or another of extreme perspectives on the reasons for poverty. Does poverty result from a lack of individual responsibility (a standard conservative response), or unjust social structures (a standard liberal response)? The answer is not either-or. It is both-and. There are those in poverty due to wrong choices, lack of discipline, skewed priorities and wasteful habits. But that description fits many who were born with a silver spoon in privileged conditions and yet have abundant resources for which they did not labor and which they squander. There are also those in poverty due to systemic political, economic, and social inequities or ill-conceived social programs which hinder more than help the impoverished.

Whatever the causes for poverty, it may be time to re-examine our responses in light of Scripture in order to guide our uneasy consciences and to no longer remain captive to the particulars of history which have led us astray in this domain.

In declaring the Gospel we must declare that it touches and transforms every area of life. It will no longer suffice to neatly divide and compartmentalize the human condition as if the Gospel has no power beyond the saving of souls. The power to save souls is the greatest and most important aspect of Gospel proclamation. However, word proclamation and deed proclamation cannot be separated.

The appearance of the social gospel in the early 20th century continues to haunt Bible-believing Christians. They are often unaware that evangelical Christians who lived before the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversies did not hold to the stark dualism that characterizes and paralyzes many Christians and churches today who live in the shadow of the social gospel boogeyman. It is true that there were theological aberrations among those who replaced proclamation of the Gospel with deeds of mercy. There were many who did good works under the banner of social justice which replaced the banner of the cross. In reaction to that drift there was a wholesale abandonment of “word and deed” ministry and the unfortunate and unbiblical emphasis on verbal proclamation minus deed engagement. In the name of separation from liberals who no longer preached Christ, many Christians avoided being associated with any whiff of social gospel influence, escaped neighborhoods in the throes of change and disruption, and fled to safer communities and fortress churches.

Apart from occasional forays into cities for relief efforts to distribute sandwiches to the homeless or assist at rescue missions, enough to soothe troubled consciences, there has been a tragic absence of long-term engagement with the oppressed and downtrodden. The common retort that “we just preach the gospel” must be seen as an incomplete and truncated understanding of the gospel. Tim Keller, in his assessment of Jonathan Edwards’ “Christian Charity” from 2 Cor. 8:8-9, argues persuasively “that if you grasp substitutionary atonement in both your head and your heart, you will be profoundly generous to the poor” and that “all sinners saved by grace will look at the poor of this world and feel that in some way they are looking in the mirror.”2

There is a yearning in our hearts to serve others and to make a difference in the lives of people through planting churches that preach the glorious Gospel of salvation and effectively engage and minister to the community. We’ve experienced God’s rich grace toward us and want to confront others with the claims of Christ. At the same time, however, we acknowledge our inability to bring about lasting transformation through human endeavors. Our best efforts may be well-meaning yet misguided. But we are confident that the Gospel which brings forgiveness and spiritual liberation also provides the power to transform lives and to enable believers to live life as God desires. New life in Christ may not bring about immediate release from poverty.

Yet with the restoring of broken relationships which exist between individuals and God and between individuals and their community, a new direction can be set in motion that impacts every area of life.

We are cognizant that not everyone will respond to the Gospel and that not all who respond to the Gospel will immediately or necessarily experience dramatic changes in their economic situation. Moving from poverty to material prosperity is not the goal and cannot be promised, although material betterment may take place. The end in view is spiritual transformation in recognition of the lordship of Christ in every area of life and the extension of that lordship, however imperfectly, into our communities. While we look for that eternal city whose Builder and Maker is God, we labor and serve in our city that we and others might experience by grace a foretaste of what God has prepared for his people.

Notes

1 Back cover endorsement of When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor…and Yourself by Steve Corbett & Brian Fikkert.

2http://thegospelcoalition.org/publications/33-3/the-gospel-and-the-poor


Dr. Stephen M. Davis is associate pastor and director of missions at Calvary Baptist Church (Lansdale, PA) and adjunct professor at Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary (Lansdale, PA). He holds a B.A from Bob Jones University, an M.A. in Theological Studies from Reformed Theological Seminary (Orlando, FL), an M.Div. from Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary (Lansdale, PA), and a D.Min. in Missiology from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Deerfield, IL). Steve has been a church planter in Philadelphia, France, and Romania. He and his wife Kathy recently moved back to Philadelphia to plant Grace Church with his brother John and his wife Dawn and three other couples. Steve’s views do not necessarily represent the position of Calvary Baptist Ministries.

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Ted Bigelow's picture

Steve,

Have you considered making a distinction between the Christian individual's responsibility, vs. the church's responsibility?

In Matthew 6:1ff, Jesus teaches His followers to care for the poor, but to do so in such a way that it is in secret. It must be so private that my two hands don't even know about it! This is individual responsibility.

But in 1 Timothy 5:9ff, the local church is told to care for a limited group of widows, which means there are widows the church is NOT to care for. We are not to, as a church, provide assistance to those widows who do not meet the qualifications given. If we do (as a church) we disobey God (see the imperatives in 5:9 and 5:11).

In quick summary then, the church is to care for its own, who meet Scripture's strict qualifications, but we are not called to care for the world's own. Yet, the individual believer is to have a great heart of compassion toward the poor of this world, and indeed, to even give alms.

If then, I am not to let my right hand know what my left does in the matter of caring for the poor, how can I care for the poor of this world as part of a group - i.e., the church? If I do, my Lord tells me that I lose the secret reward My Father gives when I do care for the poor in secret (Matthew 6:4).

schaitel's picture

This distinction is my understanding as well Ted.

Jason E. Schaitel MCP

co-founder FrancisSchaefferStudies.org

student at Veritas School of Theology

Rob's picture

A great book that deals with this subject is "When Helping Hurts_ How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor and Yourself" by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert.

Becky Petersen's picture

Rob wrote:
A great book that deals with this subject is "When Helping Hurts_ How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor and Yourself" by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert.

Where can you buy this book?

BryanBice's picture

Ted Bigelow wrote:
Steve,

Have you considered making a distinction between the Christian individual's responsibility, vs. the church's responsibility?

In Matthew 6:1ff, Jesus teaches His followers to care for the poor, but to do so in such a way that it is in secret. It must be so private that my two hands don't even know about it! This is individual responsibility.

But in 1 Timothy 5:9ff, the local church is told to care for a limited group of widows, which means there are widows the church is NOT to care for. We are not to, as a church, provide assistance to those widows who do not meet the qualifications given. If we do (as a church) we disobey God (see the imperatives in 5:9 and 5:11).

In quick summary then, the church is to care for its own, who meet Scripture's strict qualifications, but we are not called to care for the world's own. Yet, the individual believer is to have a great heart of compassion toward the poor of this world, and indeed, to even give alms.

If then, I am not to let my right hand know what my left does in the matter of caring for the poor, how can I care for the poor of this world as part of a group - i.e., the church? If I do, my Lord tells me that I lose the secret reward My Father gives when I do care for the poor in secret (Matthew 6:4).

Ted:

I think you may be reading more into both passages than the texts warrant. In Matthew 6, Jesus was essentially condemning charitable acts done for self-glory. I don't believe the "in secret" should be interpreted any more literally than "don't let your left hand know what you're right hand is doing." Hendriksen suggests the latter statement means, that "as much as possible a person must keep his voluntary contribution a secret, not only to others but even to himself; that is, he should forget about it, instead of saying in his heart, 'What a good man...am I.'" And the "in secret" idea should be understood as a contrast to seeking self-attention through the fanfare described in vv. 1-2. A good, recent example of this kind of giving is seen in the generous donor who dropped a krugerrand in a Salvation Army kettle at Christmas. Nobody knows who gave that coin, but someone saw him putting a donation in the kettle--it's virtually impossible to drop your coins without being seen at all. The donor's entire manner of giving is the exact opposite of what we see in our local paper when Walmart makes a contribution to a local charity. The store manager and representatives of the charity are photographed with a big check for the amount of the donation and everyone knows how generous and giving Walmart is to the community. Concerning this text, I remember a church member who objected to passing an offering plate in church because others could see when he contributed. He also didn't like offering envelopes and the fact that someone kept record of people's giving. In response, I asked him if he knew how much he put in the offering. Of course, he did, so I was able to help him see that perhaps the passage means something other than the strictly literal application he was making.

The 1 Timothy instructions on caring for widows seem to be related to an ongoing financial support structure in which the widows would respond perhaps by active ministry in the church (ESV Study Bible suggests the possibility of a pledge to remain unmarried). However, it would be a mistake to infer from 1 Tim. 5 that a needy elderly woman in the church shouldn't be helped with her need if she doesn't meet the qualifications of vv. 9-10. I've never in my life met a widow that washed the feet of her brothers and sisters in Christ, for example. I guess, though, that would get us off the hook from helping anyone. Bleah

I concur with the general principle that the church should first care for her own, but we are also to do good to all men (Gal. 6:10).

Ted Bigelow's picture

Dear Bryan,

I'm not sure the point of your post. Perhaps you will clarify.

Either you agree there is a distinction to be made between individual and church responsibility in the texts I cited, or not. You question my exegesis, but leave the entire point of my post unresolved.

Concerning your mention of the widow in the church who does not meet apostolic qualifications for ongoing support, I wouldn't be too glib about helping her out. The same passage that teaches us on who to care for in the church also teaches us to help that widow's family to care for her, if at all possible (5:8). But this I will say. If we support her through church funds, and she is not qualified, we disobey Christ, for He reveals His will through the word. The same holds true for those outside the church.

You quote Gal. 6:10 at the end of your post with the pronoun "we." Is that "we," as in, us individual Christians?, or "we," as in, "we the local church?" Is Galatians 6:10 is a command to the church, as the local church, or to the individual, to do good to all men?

And if you believe it is the church's responsibility to "do good to all men," how specifically would the apostles teach us to do this, as the local church, I mean? Not us as merely individuals. Or can my church just do whatever we feel like, and claim to have fulfilled it. So is Gal. 6:10 a command to the elders to make financial distributions, to "all men?"

Weigh your answer carefully, for the resources we have in our churches do not belong to us to use as we see fit, but the Lord Jesus Christ. We must use them as He directs through His word. If He wants them going out to all men, then kindly show me from His word where He says we should do that and we will obey it, and be eternally grateful to you for showing us His ways.

Steve Davis's picture

Ted Bigelow wrote:
Steve,

Have you considered making a distinction between the Christian individual's responsibility, vs. the church's responsibility?

In Matthew 6:1ff, Jesus teaches His followers to care for the poor, but to do so in such a way that it is in secret. It must be so private that my two hands don't even know about it! This is individual responsibility.

But in 1 Timothy 5:9ff, the local church is told to care for a limited group of widows, which means there are widows the church is NOT to care for. We are not to, as a church, provide assistance to those widows who do not meet the qualifications given. If we do (as a church) we disobey God (see the imperatives in 5:9 and 5:11).

In quick summary then, the church is to care for its own, who meet Scripture's strict qualifications, but we are not called to care for the world's own. Yet, the individual believer is to have a great heart of compassion toward the poor of this world, and indeed, to even give alms.

If then, I am not to let my right hand know what my left does in the matter of caring for the poor, how can I care for the poor of this world as part of a group - i.e., the church? If I do, my Lord tells me that I lose the secret reward My Father gives when I do care for the poor in secret (Matthew 6:4).

Ted:

I think I understand what you are saying although I also think you set up a false dichotomy, selected texts based on your pre-understanding to support an already firmly held position, and fail to consider the life and ministry of the Lord Jesus, the ministry of the Apostle Paul (Gal.2:10), and the practice of the early church. There is a priority if caring for needs of believers (Gal. 6:10) and the priority of gospel proclamation. However, the appeal to individual responsibility toward the poor is too often a facile escape from any responsibility and may often result in not much ministry to the poor. Could not individuals minister to the poor as a loving community? I don’t see an individual vs. church responsibility compartmentalization in Scripture. There is both/and.

I’ve re-read your following comment several times and it still sounds disturbing. “The church is to care for its own, who meet Scripture's strict qualifications, but we are not called to care for the world's own.” And you got all that from Paul’s comment to Timothy about how to treat widows? On the contrary I find that we are to give food and drink even to our enemies (Rom. 12:20). It is mere quibbling at some point to ask whether this is done by the church or individuals since the church is composed of individuals in a new covenant community. Certainly Paul meant in Gal. 6:10 that churches not only individually but corporately should “do good to all people.” What a great testimony that would be for a church which says in effect – we take care of our own members not outsiders! I’m not sure what you mean by the “world’s own.” The truth of the imago Dei provides a sufficient basis to care for those created in God’s image whether they are part of our little world or God’s big world.

I would encourage you to read the essay by Tim Keller with the link at the end of my article. Here are a few quotes from Keller which I think are helpful:

"Some conclude that while individual Christians should be involved in caring for all kinds of poor people, the church should confine its ministry to the poor only within the church. Again, there are many texts that militate against this view. Both Israel (Lev 19:33–34) and the new covenant community (Heb 13:2; 1 Tim 5:10) are directed to show hospitality to strangers and aliens, those not of the believing community. The main thrust of Jesus' famous parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37) is that the ministry of mercy should not be confined to the covenant community, but should also be extended to those outside. Also, Jesus in Luke 6:32–36 urges his disciples to do deed-ministry to the ungrateful and wicked because that is the pattern of the common grace of God, who makes the rain to fall and the sun to shine on the just and the unjust (Matt 5:45). This final exhortation cannot be read to mean that we give to anyone who asks, even if the gift would make it easy for them to sin. Nevertheless, these texts clearly warn the church against restricting its mercy ministry only to its own community. Perhaps the most useful passage is the brief statement by Paul in Gal 6:10 (written to be read to a church as a body, not just as individuals), which explicitly sets up a prioritized list for ministering to practical and material needs. First of all, we are to minister to "the household of faith" and secondly, "all people" without regard to distinctions of ethnicity, nationality, or belief."

Joel Shaffer's picture

For several years, I've kept reading from people on Sharper Iron who make the distinction between individuals and the church in their charitable giving. I think we Christians have to be careful when we make the jump from what the early church did to what Christians should do in the 21st century, especially when giving to the poor was done quite differently in 1st century Greco-Roman culture. Back in the first century, the social-economic needs of cities were taken care of by rich individual benefactors. They not only helped provided food and clothing to those that were poor and couldn't provide for themselves, but these benefactors also did quite a bit of community development, such as widening and paving roads, selling large quantities of food below market value during a famine to avert scarcity of food during a crisis, and erecting public buildings. In return, those who were the object of the Benefactor's charity were to lavish praise upon their benefactor in public. Cities that received help from Benefactors were to publicly honor the benefactor with the erection of an inscription commemorating the event, public words of praise, being crowned with a crown of gold......you get the idea. Of course Jesus exposes the motives of these Gentile public benefactors that desired the praise and to lord over others. However, In the book of I Peter, Christians are repeatedly told to be holy and good works (in public) as a response to the public ridicule that they were receiving.

I say all of this because it was a individual benefactor culture, therefore, most giving, even by the church (except for when Paul collects the offering for the Jerusalem church) was done by individuals. Even public giving/good works were to be done for the Glory of God (I Peter 2:11-12) rather than for the praise of men, yet the recognition of doing good works by pagans would cause them to glorify God and silence foolish talk......not every act of charity should be done in secret....... I believe we need to make sure that we don't confuse something descriptive (doing good, helping the poor, etc...) with prescriptive. When we make such a distinction between individuals and churches when it comes to helping the poor, I believe we make a grave error when we confuse something that was only describing what was done with something that we are sure that the New Testament is Prescribing.

Also, as one that has been ministering to the urban poor for 20 years, to truly help a person that is trapped in chronic, generational poverty is easier done by the church, rather than an individual. Some of the crisis interventions that I have been involved with takes thousands of $, even when I am networking with government, non-profits, other churches, and etc....to help a person/family not become homeless. There are a few individuals that I know that can foot the bill, but a community of faith can do it easier and can get involved in the person's life by bringing their gifts and skills to help the person/family. Some people can help the person create a budget, some can help with watching their kids so they can work, some can teach job interviewing skills, etc...and basically get intimately involved in their life.

The book that is mentioned (Helping without Hurting) is a great resource because it helps people/churches that want to help the poor in a way that doesn't create dependency. I also want to mention that I have had more opportunities to proclaim Christ through helping the poor and getting involved deeply in their lives. Some have repented and trusted Christ, while some haven't. And for those who are worried that this will cause us to somehow have to choose between evangelism and social acts of mercy/justice....I have never, ever, ever had to choose between the two.......Anyway, this is a topic that means alot to me so thank you Steve bringing it up in relation to your urban church planting work and your heart for the poor.........

Steve Davis's picture

Quote:

Also, as one that has been ministering to the urban poor for 20 years, to truly help a person that is trapped in chronic, generational poverty is easier done by the church, rather than an individual. Some of the crisis interventions that I have been involved with takes thousands of $, even when I am networking with government, non-profits, other churches, and etc....to help a person/family not become homeless. There are a few individuals that I know that can foot the bill, but a community of faith can do it easier and can get involved in the person's life by bringing their gifts and skills to help the person/family. Some people can help the person create a budget, some can help with watching their kids so they can work, some can teach job interviewing skills, etc...and basically get intimately involved in their life.

Joel:

Thanks for your insights on the complexity of helping the poor. It's much more than a hand-out. It's a hand-up and takes time and resources. I think people who emphasize individual responsibility to the detriment of corporate responsibility might be accustomed to the occasional handout to the nameless poor, a meal, some clothes, a check rather than truly investing time, prayer, in a real person they come alongside of.

Steve

BryanBice's picture

Ted Bigelow wrote:
Dear Bryan,

I'm not sure the point of your post. Perhaps you will clarify.

Either you agree there is a distinction to be made between individual and church responsibility in the texts I cited, or not. You question my exegesis, but leave the entire point of my post unresolved.

Concerning your mention of the widow in the church who does not meet apostolic qualifications for ongoing support, I wouldn't be too glib about helping her out. The same passage that teaches us on who to care for in the church also teaches us to help that widow's family to care for her, if at all possible (5:8). But this I will say. If we support her through church funds, and she is not qualified, we disobey Christ, for He reveals His will through the word. The same holds true for those outside the church.

You quote Gal. 6:10 at the end of your post with the pronoun "we." Is that "we," as in, us individual Christians?, or "we," as in, "we the local church?" Is Galatians 6:10 is a command to the church, as the local church, or to the individual, to do good to all men?

And if you believe it is the church's responsibility to "do good to all men," how specifically would the apostles teach us to do this, as the local church, I mean? Not us as merely individuals. Or can my church just do whatever we feel like, and claim to have fulfilled it. So is Gal. 6:10 a command to the elders to make financial distributions, to "all men?"

Weigh your answer carefully, for the resources we have in our churches do not belong to us to use as we see fit, but the Lord Jesus Christ. We must use them as He directs through His word. If He wants them going out to all men, then kindly show me from His word where He says we should do that and we will obey it, and be eternally grateful to you for showing us His ways.

Ted:

Frankly, I wasn't addressing your "distinction" point because I believe the interpretation problems are more important. My purpose was to deal with the texts you appealed to. Those interpretation problems persist in your reply as you're attempting to apply 1 Tim. 5 to contemporary benevolence opportunities. To apply 1 Tim. 5 accurately, I would recommend doing a thorough study of the text and seek to understand it in the original setting.

As far as Gal. 6:10 is concerned, I don't find a legitimate basis for trying to limit "we" to either individual Christians or the local church. After all, the local church is comprised of individuals. Sometimes our "good" will be done individually. Sometimes we pool our resources together as a church so we can help more effectively (as in the Macedonian churches collecting relief funds for Jerusalem).

As far as specific apostolic guidance for the church's benevolence ministry, I really don't find much. That doesn't disturb me. There are a whole bunch of things in life we don't have specifics for, but we do have principles for making wise decisions.

Concerning " the resources we have in our churches do not belong to us to use as we see fit, but the Lord Jesus Christ," the same is true with the resources we have as individuals, isn't it? Yet, does the Bible give specific instruction for the use of every dime we have at our disposal? Or does the Bible give us principles to live (& spend) by, and thereby we attempt to make wise spending decisions? Likewise, in reality, isn't that also the way we make many spending decisions in the church?

Ted Bigelow's picture

Thanks, brothers, for your comments. I'm grateful.

But your position, i.e., that the church is to be involved in caring for the poor of the world, as a biblical ministry of the organization called "the church," suffers a fatal flaw, for us who look to Scripture for guidance on the church.

There is no example, or command, in Scripture for the church, as the organized local church, to do this. Yes, we do this individually, and yes, we do it collectively. What we aren't commanded, or shown in Scripture is the local church, as an organization under elders, that practices baptism and communion, and cares for its members, caring for the poor or indigent of the world.

In this regard, there is as much support in Scripture for the organized church caring for the poor or indigent of the world as there is for infant baptism.

In our church we are involved in works of mercy both individually and collectively to those outside our church (both regenerate and unregenerate), but such works are not part of official church ministry, nor are church offerings used to support these.

Now, c'mon. Dismissing the distinctions between individual vs. church responsibility blurs the issue. Example: it is not individuals who keep a list of dependent widows, but the organized church (1 Tim. 5:9). Or do you think each individual should as well? To claim that a distinction between the individual and the organized church "compartmentalizes Scripture" only dismisses what is apparent in these texts.

Bryan, thanks for your thoughtful post. But I am a bit concerned by your approach to Scripture:

"As far as specific apostolic guidance for the church's benevolence ministry, I really don't find much. That doesn't disturb me. There are a whole bunch of things in life we don't have specifics for, but we do have principles for making wise decisions."

Our Lord would have none of that: Matthew 4:4. There is a reason why an omniscient God would leave out of His comprehensive revelation such guidance to a local church on this matter either a command, or an example, of caring for the poor of this world. It should disturb you. I trust you understand the Macedonian collection went to the church of Jerusalem, not the Jewish temple leadership in Jerusalem? The approach you advocate would make sense if there were apostolic command to care for the poor by the church as an organization. Then we would apply decision making strategies to how to carry out that command. But without the command, we are left to our own wisdom.

Steve, honestly, I'm not cherry picking texts. I'm just reading them. Some texts are written to different folks. Wives are called to submit to their husbands. Would you say I am hand-picking texts if I claimed that submission in marriage was directed at wives, not husbands... and cited Eph. 5:22-24? The texts I cited had to do with giving to the poor and caring for the poor, both in and out of the covenant community. As I understood, it, this was the matter under discussion.

Allow me to press the point with you a bit on the individual and the church. Does your church plant collect an offering on Sunday? I imagine probably so. Do you also allow individual involved in the plant to make their own collection on Sunday as well? Probably not. Why not? Because some practices and commands in Scripture are for the organized church, and others are for the individual.

This is why Tim Keller needs to make a distinction between "the church as a group of Christians doing mercy works together" (which is not a biblical definition of church) vs. "the church as an organization under mandate to serve the poor" (which is also not a biblical mandate for the church, I believe ). As it is, to simply say that the distinction between the individual and the organized church is imposed on Scripture is simply not true. If you want to claim the church is to care for the poor of the world, you must give us Scripture that explicitly teaches that. This you have not done.

Joel - love your post, and I intend no offense to the work you do. I love the social backgrounds to the NT, and am a big fan of reading NT texts in light of this neglected area. However, making a link between the good works of believers and those public works of the 1st C benefactors is probably too great a stretch. I doubt the phrase, "good works" takes on that cargo. Nor are the good works in the epistles qualified as "public good works." We could quibble about what "public" means, but we will probably come out at the same place. However, I will maintain that in the epistles, good works are those that come from a regenerate heart and accomplish righteousness, not general social relief. This is why the lead people to glorify God, because they display the gospel of righteousness in Christ, thus helping convert sinners. This may be seen by the repeated use of the phrase in the book of Titus, where regenerate behaviors preceded the necessity for good works (2:7, 2:14, 3:1, 3:8, and 3:14). The phrase "glorify God" in 1 Peter 2:12, which you cite, is a glorification in the day of Christ's return, and is best understood as salvation. This would confront your interpretation that "God glorified" is Him being publicly praised by the 1st C public good works of Christians, even as benefactors were in the 1st C were. Instead, the context of Christ's 2nd coming maintains the consistency that good works are those that display redemption from sin, and are often used by God to lead sinners to salvation - and thus God being glorified in the day of visitation.

Again, brothers. You must adduce Bible texts that specifically display apostolic example, or command, that the organized church is to care for the poor if you are to be a good servant of Jesus Christ and of His children. Otherwise, you have imported an agenda that is non-revelatory, and are claiming it is binding on the church.

Errata: Gal. 2:10 - "the poor" - Despite being the apostle to the Gentiles, Paul was to preach the gospel to the poor Jews, and provide care for the poor of Jerusalem, as later occurred. Few see this a command for Paul to care for the poor of the world.

BryanBice's picture

Ted:

Thanks for your concern re. my approach to Scripture, but I believe it's accurate. The Bible doesn't give me as an individual very many specific directives concerning what I should spend my money on...whether or how much I should save...planning for retirement, etc. It gives me some guiding principles, and I desire to live by them and make wise financial decisions accordingly. Likewise is this true with the local church. This evening, we'll be finalizing our church budget for presentation to the church at the annual meeting on Sunday. I've got to tell you, there are a whole bunch of things in that budget that are not specifically addressed by Scripture. The Bible doesn't command the church to have a media ministry or give any specific directions regarding such a ministry. So should we spend money on new recording equipment, or not? Scripture doesn't say anything about setting up a parking lot fund...building maintenance...capital improvements, etc. I do find some principles in Scripture that tell me as an individual that I am to be a good steward of what the Lord has entrusted to my care. As a church, we apply those principles given to individuals to the organization.

Likewise, there are plenty of texts that exhort individual believers to have compassion on the poor. It's not inappropriate to conclude that the church as an organization should be marked by the characteristics called for in the individual. That is not to say that the church needs to establish a formal benevolence ministry any more than I must as an individual. However, the church as an organization should have a compassionate attitude toward the needy and should, as it has opportunity, do good "unto all." How specifically that's done in a given church, I suggest, is a matter of "freedom." Each church has the responsibility to apply wisely the whole range of biblical principle and precept, but also the freedom to discern the best application in their particular context. To illustrate, again using the less volatile subject of building maintenance: When I pastored in VT, our church had a gravel parking lot, and it fit very well in the context of the community. To be a good steward of what the Lord entrusted to us, every couple years we had to pay to replenish the gravel. Cost us maybe $1500 each time. Where I am now, however, a gravel parking lot is out of the question. Our asphalt parking lot, though, is deteriorating rapidly and a total replacement is necessary. Should we do another asphalt parking lot for $80k, or go concrete for $100k? Should we borrow some funds to do the project now and offset rising oil prices? Or should we establish a parking lot fund and let it accumulate until we can pay cash, even though it may take 4-5 years? The biblical principles for both churches are the same, and each is responsible to live by them; however, each church has the freedom to apply those principles differently depending on their context.

Regarding benevolence, our small church with limited benevolence fund almost never provides assistance to those outside the congregation. The demand--both in the church and in the community--is simply too great for us to do much of anything. A previous ministry where I served, however, had megabucks...beautiful facilities, flashy people with nice cars, plenty of resources. For that church to restrict benevolence to the membership would've been a joke--there was rarely a need! But hurting, homeless, impoverished people made their way in that church at least once a week seeking help. How utterly preposterous to think it acceptable to sit down with such a poor creature, share the gospel with him, imploring him to be saved, only to send him away empty. For the life of me, I can't imagine that being a Christ-like response--especially not when the church is sitting on $2 million in the bank! To its credit, that church did have gas card and grocery store vouchers available for such situations.

Joel Shaffer's picture

Ted,

I think I Peter is pretty clear that these good works were for the public to see. Holiness produced good works. These were not just having a good testimony, although this is an essential part of good works (that produce righteousness) Most commentators see a variety of good works displayed in I Peter. In civic life (including serving the poor), (I Peter 2:12-17), in daily round for slaves towards their masters (I Peter 2:18-21), in the difficult marriage (I Peter 3:1-7), and in situations where they were under threat (I Peter 3:8-16). By the way, I agree that good works cause pagans to glorify God on the day of Christ's return....that God uses it to "grease the skids" to convert sinners (a case both evangelism-social responsibility which I have seen happen so many times in our ministry).

You still haven't dealt with my question, why are you making something that was descriptive in Scripture (individuals helping the poor rather than the church), something that is prescriptive? You title your response "keeping Tethered to Sola Scriptura," yet when you make the jump from descriptive to prescriptive, you run the risk of going beyond Sola Scriptura. Actually I could use your argument for individuals rather than the church and apply it in the area of evangelism. I could say, "Only apostles and leaders of the church should evangelize." All the evidence demonstrates in scripture that the normal person in the pew should only live good lives that adorn the gospel. Descriptively I could make that argument. In the New Testament, we only see the Apostles and other leaders of the church proclaiming the gospel publicly. Therefore, if I were following your logic of making something prescriptive rather than descriptive, I should teach the ones that I am discipling that they cannot proclaim Christ, only live out their faith in Christ. Or how about what deacons do in the 21st century? In the first century they were the first social workers, helping the widows in the church. They were not doing all of the other things that deacons normally do nowadays, whether that is keeping track of the money and caring for the building (some have created trustees for this), or helping the congregation make decisions concerning ministry and even staffing. I could insist that deacons should only take care of the widows and serve the needs of the hurting in the church because that is what we find them doing in Acts 6 and nothing else, because I would then be unbiblical. Again, taking something that is descriptive in Scripture and making it Prescriptive. Most Christians and serious readers of the Scriptures would think I was being ridiculous, yet you are doing the same thing in regards to the poor. By the way, your belief on this subject goes against almost 2000 years of history of how the church responded to the needs of the poor. I even say this as a dispensationalist, although I am probably not where you are on its spectrum.

By the way, practically your belief about the poor in the New Testament is one of the reasons why church planting by dispensational fundamentalists primarily among the urban poor in North America has not been fruitful. How in the world are you going to develop a church that is self-supporting, self-governing, and self-propagating when your congregation is all poor? You have a few choices. You could develop a church that combines the middle-class and the poor (which I can't in my neighborhood because it so impoverished, unless we had a bunch of people from outside the community driving in...which has proven to hurt the development of indigenous leadership). Or to have lay pastors or house churches, both of which I have been involved with in the 'hood and they are quite alien to the people I work with or it creates severe burn out for its leaders. Or they can stay dependent on one or more supporting churches for many many years, turning into a mission rather than a self-supporting, self-governing, and self-propagating church. However, if part of my responsibility in discipling the poor is teaching a man how to get a job, keep a job, and even helping them furthering their education so they attain a living-wage job along with teaching them to be a godly man, I can help that person be someone that can even tithe from his living-wage income so that the church becomes more self-supporting, self-propagating, and self-governing. By the way some of the people I am discipling come from such brokenness, it blows the mind. One of my students who is now in college came from a family where his dad fathered 25 children from about 15 girl friends. It is only by God's grace that he is where he is today, and God used the ministry of UTM to disciple him into a man that is growing in Christ, taking care of his kids from two different mothers, and about to start a business in our neighborhood. In many cases, those within our church have helped in such a way by teaching all these things that were supposed to be taught by their parents growing up. This should be enough red meat for you Smile

BryanBice's picture

Excellent post, Joel. God bless you in your labors for Him!

Alex Guggenheim's picture

Ted Bigelow wrote:
Thanks, brothers, for your comments. I'm grateful.

But your position, i.e., that the church is to be involved in caring for the poor of the world, as a biblical ministry of the organization called "the church," suffers a fatal flaw, for us who look to Scripture for guidance on the church.

There is no example, or command, in Scripture for the church, as the organized local church, to do this. Yes, we do this individually, and yes, we do it collectively. What we aren't commanded, or shown in Scripture is the local church, as an organization under elders, that practices baptism and communion, and cares for its members, caring for the poor or indigent of the world.

In this regard, there is as much support in Scripture for the organized church caring for the poor or indigent of the world as there is for infant baptism.

In our church we are involved in works of mercy both individually and collectively to those outside our church (both regenerate and unregenerate), but such works are not part of official church ministry, nor are church offerings used to support these.

Now, c'mon. Dismissing the distinctions between individual vs. church responsibility blurs the issue. Example: it is not individuals who keep a list of dependent widows, but the organized church (1 Tim. 5:9). Or do you think each individual should as well? To claim that a distinction between the individual and the organized church "compartmentalizes Scripture" only dismisses what is apparent in these texts.

Your distinction here is a very important qualifier and one I have noticed is met mostly with antagonism and not appreciation though it is clearly marked out in Scripture. It seems as if such boundaries are in the way of the objective and if so they will realign Scripture to support their cause and vilify in some form those taking issue with the proposition(s). And for anyone reading this is not to be construed as a comment on the topic itself, rather the construction of subsequent arguments.

I read thoroughly your response to the issue, Ted, and want to take time to recognize your avoidance of rationalism and pragmatism to the injury of theological boundaries and distinctions. I find too often appeals in such forms (with less adherence to the dictates, both implied and explicit, of Scripture and the assigned hierarchy and boundaries of divine institutions along with their organizational intent and limits) are too commonly employed today and accepted with little recognition of their use by those utilizing them. As well it is somewhat surprising to hear these coming from many who arrive from a background that at one time was marked by capacity to audit and recognize such tendentious curves in their own arguments and give the appropriate nod when effective counters manifest such weak elements of their case.

Ted Bigelow's picture

Thanks for your wonderful posts, brothers.

Alex, obviously you and I agree, and I trust that where and when I veer from Scripture, you will be there to correct me. Ultimately, this comes down to a question of authority in the church, no?

It is especially hard to comment on this topic during the events of the past days. My heart, and tears, are in Haiti. We have two families in our church from the DR, and this strikes close to home.

Joel, I really agree that good works are seen by others. They just aren't intentionally public works. But that is such a minor point. The heart of the issue is individual response to the word of God, and the church response to the word of God. Some Scriptures are prescriptive to the church, and others are prescriptive to the individual. You, and others in this debate, wish to claim that the church is obligated to care for the poor. But to this I am simply asking for either an example, or a command to that effect from Scripture. I have yet to receive one. In my mind that in itself is telling.

Your critique of prescriptive vs. descriptive is pithy and strong. Thanks, it made me think. But perhaps you have missed my point because you have not seen my prior distinction between responsibilities laid on the church by the apostles, vs. those laid upon individual Christians. I have supplied several examples above that I think are fairly easy to understand.

BTW, Joel, there are many instances of believers doing evangelism, or being instructed on how to do it in Scripture - 1 Thes. 1:8, Phil. 2:14, Col. 4:6, 1 Peter 3:15. Perhaps you might consider these passages, and other like them, for you wrote, "All the evidence demonstrates in scripture that the normal person in the pew should only live good lives that adorn the gospel."

But apart from that, I'm greatly privileged to be on the same team with you, and you have my heart felt prayers in your ministry.

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