Poverty: Why Should We Care?

Should Christians work to relieve the suffering of poverty? Near the end of the 19th century, proponents of the social gospel proposed a new answer to that question.1 Part of their answer wasn’t new at all—the idea that Christians should help the poor and bring the gospel to them. But the social gospel effectively claimed that relieving suffering in the world is the gospel.

Naturally, Christians who understood their Bibles ran in the opposite direction, aiming to bring the true gospel into sharp contrast with this new distortion. But in the process, many eventually embraced an attitude of total indifference to the poor and, worse, became habitually hostile toward any organized Christian effort to fight poverty.

In recent years things have gotten messier yet. In their haste to reject unbiblical reactions to the social gospel, many evangelicals (and some fundamentalists) seem to be over-correcting (“anti-anti-social-gospelism”?). They are rejecting the central error of the social gospel while accepting other components of the social liberalism that bred it.2

This series aims to help readers recognize and properly reject not only the social gospel but also other errors that have become ubiquitous assumptions of our times.

So far, we’ve briefly considered three questions:

It’s about God

Christians should seek to relieve poverty because (1) God designed mankind to be productive and because (2) God has called believers to love their neighbors as themselves (see Part 3). But a third reason appears as a theme running throughout Scripture—a reason linked directly to God’s character. Here’s a sample (emphasis added).

For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality nor takes a bribe. 18 He administers justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing. 19Therefore love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (NKJV, Deut. 10:17–19)

He who oppresses the poor reproaches his Maker, But he who honors Him has mercy on the needy. (Prov. 14:31)

You shall not pervert justice due the stranger or the fatherless, nor take a widow’s garment as a pledge. 18 But you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this thing. 19 “When you reap your harvest in your field, and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be for the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. 20 When you beat your olive trees, you shall not go over the boughs again; it shall be for the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow. 21 When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not glean it afterward; it shall be for the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow. 22 And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I command you to do this thing. (Deut. 24:17–22)

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich. (2 Cor. 8:9)

The message of these passages is powerful. Believers must be generous people because their God possesses the attributes of goodness and love. In the words of David Martin Lloyd-Jones, “the goodness of God is that perfection of God which prompts Him to deal bounteously and in a kindly way with all His creatures.” God’s love is closely related. Again, Lloyd-Jones says it well: “love is that attribute in God by which He is eternally moved to communicate Himself to others.”3 Christians are bearers of God’s name and own the solemn duty and privilege of expressing God’s abundantly generous, out-reaching character by our response to needy people.

Implications

This principle makes me squirm. What Christian doesn’t rejoice that God is lavishly, almost recklessly, generous? But His generous nature doesn’t call me to merely behave generously; it demands that my affections mirror His—that I actually be generous, that I desire to give what I have to others.4 The act of giving is the easy part!

Though the goals of productivity and love of neighbor demand true, long-term effectiveness in our poverty-relief efforts, the calling to be generous in our affections means a Christian should never find himself confronted with a needy fellow man, feel reluctance to help, then rationalize the reluctance on the grounds that giving is unlikely to truly help in the long run. Rather, the sequence ought to be that we are people of generous character first, encounter a need, desire to give, then wrestle with the question of what will truly help.

The call to mirror God’s generous character also has powerful implications for the problems of greed and materialism. The Deuteronomy passages in particular indicate that being generous is therapeutic: “you shall remember…therefore, I command you to do” and “therefore, love the stranger.” A generous spirit counters the problems of greed and what we loosely call “materialism” because, in reality, these are problems of the affections. If generosity isn’t exactly the opposite of greed, it is certainly incompatible with it. And though the act of giving can be as materialistic as the act of hoarding, loving—in the sense of reaching out to “communicate ourselves” to another eternal soul—is profoundly anti-materialistic.

The social gospel errs in redefining or ignoring holiness, sin, wrath and redemption. Social liberalism errs also in asserting that we should fight poverty in order to right the “wrong” of economic inequality. Popular sentimentalized and sloganized social liberalism errs in insisting that helping the poor is simply a matter of wealth transfer. But Scripture reveals that the causes of (and solutions to) poverty are complex and rooted in human sinfulness. Scripture also reveals that the reasons for Christian involvement in poverty relief are rooted in the will and character of God.

Many important questions remain. What do “greed, materialism and consumerism” have to do with the poverty problem? What did Jesus really teach about wealth and poverty? What kind of continuing threat does the social gospel pose? How does our understanding of the kingdom of God relate to our views on poverty and social justice? What’s the role of the church in poverty relief vs. the role of the believing individual? Lord willing, we’ll explore these and others as the series continues.

Notes

1 Primary sources include Walter Rauschenbusch’s Christianity and the Social Crisis and Theology for the Social Gospel. The work of Harry Emerson Fosdick (e.g., Hope of the World) is also representative.

2 A couple of recent evangelical examples: Tim Keller and “Social Justice,” Evangelical Left Leader. Though he isn’t saying all the same things as these others, I would also put David Platt’s book Radical in this category.

3 Both quotations are from Great Doctrines of the Bible, vol. 1, p.74.

4 Maybe the spiritual gift of giving (Rom. 12:8) includes being wired this way by default. My default wiring is to want to keep my stuff.

[node:bio/aaron-blumer body]

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Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I should probably clarify that one of the really big distinctives of the social gospel was/is viewing society as a separate entity from individuals. So there was a big spike in interest in trying to bring what they saw as the kingdom of God to social institutions and society as a whole rather than bringing repentance and faith to individuals.

A couple more early representatives:
The fiction of Charles M. Sheldon (e.g., In His Steps)
Washington Gladden's speeches/sermons and writings.... e.g., The Church and Modern Life. (I haven't perused this one, but probably also Applied Christianity: Moral Aspects of Social Questions)

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Mike Durning's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:
This principle makes me squirm. What Christian doesn’t rejoice that God is lavishly, almost recklessly, generous? But His generous nature doesn’t call me to merely behave generously; it demands that my affections mirror His—that I actually be generous, that I desire to give what I have to others.4 The act of giving is the easy part!
Though the goals of productivity and love of neighbor demand true, long-term effectiveness in our poverty-relief efforts, the calling to be generous in our affections means a Christian should never find himself confronted with a needy fellow man, feel reluctance to help, then rationalize the reluctance on the grounds that giving is unlikely to truly help in the long run. Rather, the sequence ought to be that we are people of generous character first, encounter a need, desire to give, then wrestle with the question of what will truly help.)

Well said, Aaron. I will be quoting this one for a while to come.
Our hands must be open – and our minds must engage the issues you have brought up in this series. To often, it’s an either/or, but not a both/and.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

As I read more on the subject and ponder it more, the challenge is finding a way to clearly communicate how vastly different the biblical rational for fighting poverty is compared to the social gospel rationale (and it's close cousins).

I just finished doing a fast walk-through of a couple of books and my blood pressure rose noticeably (a. because of seriously messed up kingdom theology and b. because of seriously messed up economic theory.... it's a bit off topic at this stage, but think about it: if everybody above the global median income level gave 90% of their income and stuff away rather than buying things, well over half of the world's economy would dry up because vast quantities of giving do not employ anybody in productive labor! Trade produces a net reduction in poverty. Giving produces no change in the global level of poverty because as one got less poor another got more poor. Giving is great when responding to short term crises, and great as an expression in inner generosity of spirit, but will never relieve worldwide poverty as trade will--and already has to a vast degree.)

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Charlie's picture

Aaron, have you read Generous Justice by Tim Keller? I'd be interested in your thoughts on that one. If not, I'd advise you to check out http://thegospelcoalition.org/themelios/article/the_gospel_and_the_poor This article by Keller in Themelios. It is a digest of his views on poverty. One thing that Keller notes, speaking of Edwards, is that Christian concern for the poor is old, not new, and that, historically, Christianity has discussed it apart from questions of eschatology.

My Blog: http://dearreaderblog.com

Cor meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere. ~ John Calvin

Rolland McCune's picture

Aaron:

I definitely agree in principle with your analysis of believers' social sensitivities toward others. My concern through the decades began with the proposals for Christian sociopolitical activism by the New Evangelical experiment. My question is regarding the implementation of a distinctly Christian, church-age program of social involvement. God's concerns for the poor, needy, downtrodden and disenfranchised in ancient Israel was to be remedied by the theocratic state with its divinely revealed legal instrument (the Law of Moses) that included a divinely enforced civil religion (Yahweh worship). NT Christianity obviously is not a continuation of OT Mosaism in this regard but in fact mandates a separation of institutional religion from the civil state.

So, how is a church saint to implement his social generocity beyond the borders of the institutional (local) church? There is no such mandate that I can discern for the organised church to be a social watchdog and/or guardian of the civil community at large except through its proclamation ministry. The local church's social activism appears to be towards its own (Rom 12:13; 1 Tim 5:3-16; Jam 2:15-16; 1 John 3:17) or other believers (Acts 11:27-30; Rom 15:25, 27; 2 Cor 8-9). This then seems to limit the venue for an individual believer's sociopolitical activism to his personal role in the civil community. Yet today the organised fundamental/evangelical or Bible-believing church is getting, or is constantly urged to get, actively involved in he general culture through its personnel, general and/or missionary budget, and such.

Any thoughts on this?

Rolland D. McCune

Rolland McCune

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

RM wrote:
There is no such mandate that I can discern for the organised church to be a social watchdog and/or guardian of the civil community at large except through its proclamation ministry. The local church's social activism appears to be towards its own (Rom 12:13; 1 Tim 5:3-16; Jam 2:15-16; 1 John 3:17) or other believers (Acts 11:27-30; Rom 15:25, 27; 2 Cor 8-9). This then seems to limit the venue for an individual believer's sociopolitical activism to his personal role in the civil community. Yet today the organised fundamental/evangelical or Bible-believing church is getting, or is constantly urged to get, actively involved in he general culture through its personnel, general and/or missionary budget, and such.

Any thoughts on this?

Yes... lots of thoughts. But just a couple for now. I believe that even without a firm commitment to dispensationalism (though I personally have one), the differences between the order under Moses and the situation today have huge implications for how we understand texts that describe the response of God's people to poverty... and from what I've seen those differences are not generally well enough accounted for in the popular lit. One book in my pile that I've only sampled a bit so far is Neither Poverty nor Riches by Craig L. Blomberg (a volume in the "New Studies in Biblical Theology" series edited by D.A. Carson). I'm interested in seeing if they do a better job of working through that than most of the books I've seen so far.

As for the church, I often hear views that emphasize the difference between individual responsibility in living the Christian lifestyle vs. church responsibility working corporately. Even more often, I hear/read that idea being dismissed (not usually counter-argued, just dismissed) as kind of a too convenient way to get the church off the hook (as though getting off the hook was the goal vs. the goal being to understand what Scripture reveals as the mission of the church!).

Anyway, eventually I hope to explore those questions but I want to work through some other stuff first. If what we normally think of as helping the poor doesn't really help them anyway, it puts the whole thing in a different light. I suspect that by the time that part is sorted out, even views that see the church as having a global poverty relief responsibility would no longer find taking that work on all that appealing. It doesn't look anything like In His Steps.

Charlie: thanks for the link. I'm definitely interested in the idea of how poverty relief looked to believers historically and especially if they were looking at it non-eschatologically.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Mike Durning's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:
Trade produces a net reduction in poverty. Giving produces no change in the global level of poverty because as one got less poor another got more poor. Giving is great when responding to short term crises, and great as an expression in inner generosity of spirit, but will never relieve worldwide poverty as trade will--and already has to a vast degree.)

That's why Haiti will always be a quagmire. The attempts at relief fail because nothing improves that fact that they have insignificant resources and means of production. Fixing that will never happen by feeding the hungry. But...we feed the hungry anyway, and try to prevent more nations from turning into a Haiti.

Mike Durning's picture

Rolland McCune wrote:
Aaron:

I definitely agree in principle with your analysis of believers' social sensitivities toward others. My concern through the decades began with the proposals for Christian sociopolitical activism by the New Evangelical experiment. My question is regarding the implementation of a distinctly Christian, church-age program of social involvement. God's concerns for the poor, needy, downtrodden and disenfranchised in ancient Israel was to be remedied by the theocratic state with its divinely revealed legal instrument (the Law of Moses) that included a divinely enforced civil religion (Yahweh worship). NT Christianity obviously is not a continuation of OT Mosaism in this regard but in fact mandates a separation of institutional religion from the civil state.

So, how is a church saint to implement his social generocity beyond the borders of the institutional (local) church? There is no such mandate that I can discern for the organised church to be a social watchdog and/or guardian of the civil community at large except through its proclamation ministry. The local church's social activism appears to be towards its own (Rom 12:13; 1 Tim 5:3-16; Jam 2:15-16; 1 John 3:17) or other believers (Acts 11:27-30; Rom 15:25, 27; 2 Cor 8-9). This then seems to limit the venue for an individual believer's sociopolitical activism to his personal role in the civil community. Yet today the organised fundamental/evangelical or Bible-believing church is getting, or is constantly urged to get, actively involved in he general culture through its personnel, general and/or missionary budget, and such.

Any thoughts on this?

Rolland D. McCune

Sorry to leap in the middle of your thing with Aaron. I just want to raise the point that if this is true, we Christians who lean to the conservative politically should consider stopping complaining about "government welfare programs". It has a good Old Testament basis, and the church doesn't have a mandate to help the poor (if you're correct).

I also ask for clarification. When you say the church has no such mandate, do you mean the "organized local body of believers as an institution" or "the believers", or something else entirely?

HTBman's picture

I am a missionary serving in Zambia. One thing I would caution is the definition of poverty. The large majority of those living in developing countries are "poor" compared to our American standards. This does not necessarily make them poor by their own standard. Everyday I see men and women asking for handouts. Men and women who could be working and trying to make a go of it. My Bible students have often asked about this and we have discussed this at length in my Apologetics class. The bottom line is first noting the basic needs of an individual. Do they have food, water, clothing, and shelter? If they do not and have no means of getting them then we need to step in and do something about it. Giving to those on the streets etc... should be done with discernment and should be controlled by the moving of God in your heart for that person. If it feels right then you should do something. You will not regret that. We should be wary to create dependency when a person has the ability to do something about their current state. If it is someone in the local church then I believe the church should be the primary care giver in this situation because in the multitude of counsellors there is safety. Creating a social welfare system in countries that we do not understand will often not help the people. USAID spends over $360 million dollars in Zambia this year. Where is that money really going? Who is being helped by it? The average person in poverty sees no help from this.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

HTBman... appreciate your thoughts on that. Good example of relative vs. absolute poverty. A lot of the evangelical rhetoric is predicated on relative wealth guilt. That is, it looks at how well off we are compared to say, Zambia, assumes that this is morally wrong, then appeals to American Christians to "obey" cherry picked verses by transferring their wealth to places like Zambia (or to an American neighbor who has less).

So what I'm trying to say is that we should be generous people who are eager to help, but wise people who realize that what really helps may be counterintuitive (and people who recognize that inequality is not, in itself, wrong). One reason is the dependency you mentioned. Scripture upholds a work economy not a sharing economy/giving economy. Some of the literature openly aims to bring in a new order (often termed a "kingdom of God" order) in which everyone gives vast amounts of their income. The problem with this is that if their new order actually happens, there will be rapidly decreasing income to give (because production and trade are decreasing). But from a Christian point of view, the problem with this order is that it is not work based (or, as I've been saying it, productivity based)--because people live off of what others arbitrarily give them rather than by trading their labor for what they receive.

Mike, this is why American conservatives are still right to be down on social welfare programs. On the surface they seem to resemble the OT arrangement, but in reality they do not. In the Mosaic economy, the poor--as a group--had to work the fields and vineyards to glean what was left behind. This was the systemic "program." Individuals would give to a. the Levites, who redistributed to the poor on a case by case basis and also b. directly to needy people as an act of generosity. But the Law was designed to avoid dependency and encourage productivity of some kind... a strong labor-reward relationship.
Our welfare programs have not really worked that way! (And our tax code works the opposite way: redistribution toward you is automatic solely on the criterion that you are not making enough money and with no regard to whether you are producing).

But I agree with your argument that the concept of government led and funded welfare programs in a setting where there is no theocracy makes sense. The problem has been one of a. properly valuing productivity/work and b. intelligently designing programs to discourage long term dependence.

On a positive note, I am seeing more writers recognize the latter in the books I'm reading also--some in surprising places. That's encouraging to me.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Mike Durning's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:
Mike, this is why American conservatives are still right to be down on social welfare programs. On the surface they seem to resemble the OT arrangement, but in reality they do not. In the Mosaic economy, the poor--as a group--had to work the fields and vineyards to glean what was left behind. This was the systemic "program." Individuals would give to a. the Levites, who redistributed to the poor on a case by case basis and also b. directly to needy people as an act of generosity. But the Law was designed to avoid dependency and encourage productivity of some kind... a strong labor-reward relationship.
Our welfare programs have not really worked that way! (And our tax code works the opposite way: redistribution toward you is automatic solely on the criterion that you are not making enough money and with no regard to whether you are producing).

Aaron, my point was primarily made in response to Rolland McCune's post. Many times...seriously, many many times, I have heard Fundamentalist preachers say that government welfare is wrong and before the FDR era, such things were handled by the church. They usually add that it can be better handled by the church, closer to the people in question, more able to right-size the aid and evaluate the willingness to work. They seem to advocate a return to those days -- and that if social welfare programs were gone, taxes would be lower, and giving to churches would increase so they could do these charitable deeds. It appears that he would disagree with their suggestion.

Rolland McCune's picture

Mike...Aaron's post #10 addresses the government welfare thing very well. The organized (local) church has no social mandate as an organizsation. Individuals of the (body and local) church participate in sociopolitical activism as citizens of the state, since there is a separation of church and state, ideally a free church in a free state, unlike theocratic, ancient Israel. Since the church's commission is to preach the whole counsel of God and organize local churches, it would appear not to have an instutional social agenda for the poor in general, but toward its own. By the same token, the local church should not have an organizational niche in the local police, water, and sewer departments, for example. These obligations belong to Caesar and are incumbent on all of Caesar's citizens. I would not support using Christ's local church's personnel and funds for Caesar's projects.

Rolland McCune

rogercarlson's picture

Here is a quick question. Why is it wrong to use social things in the local church when it is tied to the Gospel when we do it anyway in other areas? Or more pointedly, Why is it OK for a church with a school to build a 5 million dollar gymn but not to build a 2 million dollar one but then spend 3 million on say transitional housing where the residents that participate in the transitional housing be required to be in church? In our circles, the former would be fine, but the latter would give pause.

Roger Carlson, Pastor
Berean Baptist Church

Rolland McCune's picture

Roger. . . I don't see a problem for a church to build such a facility if it is to serve the needs of its people. When you say "in church," I presume you mean what I understand to be members of the church or truly Christian people of other churches (as in the NT examples). I know of more than one such ministry.

Rolland McCune

rogercarlson's picture

Dr McCune,

I was not clear with my question. I am saying let the facility be available to the local church. But I am also saying use it as an outreach. IMO, we are already doing this with schools and VBS programs (people in my community see VBS as a babysitting service, we see it as Gospel opportunities). So if we targeted a need in a community and tied to the Gospel, I don't see it as anything more than an expanded roll. Just like missionaries having an orphanage tied to the Gospel in a local church setting, maybe a church could have a facility where they are meeting a need, but requiring church attendance as part of the program. Initially, I was uncomfotable with this idea, but as I started thinking about some of the things we do as local churches, why not do something that will help the community and give direct contact with the lost in order to make disciples? I see a danger here, but the danger is removed when the Gospel is kept front and center. Please tell me where I am going wrong.
Thank you!

Roger Carlson, Pastor
Berean Baptist Church

Rolland McCune's picture

Roger . . . I fully identify with your earlier concerns about using essentially social instrumentalities as an evangelistic, or simply as an ecclesial, "outreach" for the Gospel and the local church. I too see a danger here that seems unavoidably to occur. Many look to Jesus' miracles of feeding and healing the multitudes or the social concerns of the OT Law and the preaching of the OT prophets in this regard as some sort of justification for the local church to use its resources in the community and world at large as a testimony to Christian charity and "opportunities to give out the Gospel." I am still not persuaded of those proposals; I cannot find in the NT where anyone (especially the apostles) used those methods. The social needs of the 1st century were as great as, if not greater than (e.g., the institution of slavery), today, yet the NT barely reflects its social and cultural downside, if at all. Paul mentioned a few words about the treatment of a slave by the Christian community through the Philemon/Onesimus episode, but that is hardly addressing the local church to take the slavery issue head-on. The Gospel came to people in their culltural settings and addressed their lostness not their hunger, social injustices, and the like.

So, you are definitely correct, in my view, to note that some of the things local churches do appear to have pragmatic motivations, even as noble as reaching the unreached. I am still uncomfortable with those ideas. Some of these efforts eventually become what seem like purely humantarian ministries; others appear to be such from the very beginning. I raised these concerns in Promise Unfulfilled, chaps 18 and 19.

Rolland McCune

Joel Shaffer's picture

Quote:
The organized (local) church has no social mandate as an organization.

Rolland, I am curious what you think of Gal. 2:10 as a form of a social mandate (albeit primarily within the community of the church) In the context of this passage, the apostle Paul gives his testimony of his salvation and then his calling to preach the gospel to the Gentiles. It was then agreed to by other prominent apostles (James, Peter, John) that they would preach to the Jews and that Paul and Barnabas would continue preaching the gospel and planting churches among the Gentiles, but with one other mandate: that is

Quote:
"To remember the Poor, the very thing that I was eager to do.
" Later on in Gal. 6:10, Paul qualifies how to do good, which would include helping the poor. "
Quote:
“So then as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, especially to those who are the household of faith.”
That there is to be a pecking order when helping those in need. First to those who are believers in Christ, then to everyone (others).

Also, if you leave out those outside the church community, how do you interpret the parable of the good Samaritan? It seems as if "Loving Your Neighbor," especially those we'd rather not love is an essential aspect of Christianity that the church was to emulate, especially if we are to "teach them all that I have commanded You...."

By the way, I get that the over-realized kingdom view as the church's calling to help the poor and wrong the rights of society has some major flaws. Missionary historian Stephen Neill once quipped that "when everything is mission, than nothing is mission" which seems to be the fruits of an over-realized kingdom mission theology. I find it quite humorous that some of these churches end up with ministries that line up with their pet social causes. I've seen saving the environment and climate change, I've seen third world debt forgiveness, and I've even seen building peace initiatives to counter the "myth of redemptive violence." This is not just a problem on Christian evangelical left, but it is a problem in the Christian evangelical right as churches organize and take up the culture war and fight against, for example, gay marriage.

I also get that in the Old Testament with Israel's theocracy and it's covenanted, land-based, tribal society is quite different than the church communities that Paul was planting in the New Testament. And that it is quite a jump to imply third world debt forgiveness from the Year of Jubilee or the elimination of poverty because Duet. 15:4 states that "there shall be no poor among you."

My problem with your social action chapters in "A Promise Unfulfilled" is that you seem to make the Kingdom Theology or misinterpretation of O.T. passages as the main reason that evangelical churches slide towards the social gospel. Now an over-realized kingdom or a misinterpretation of O.T. passages certainly is part of the equation. However, in my 21 years of doing urban ministry where I have actually seen several churches and para-church ministries slide into the social gospel, it was their changing views on original sin and total depravity, the atonement, final judgment, authority of Scripture, and etc.. that did them in. It wasn't because they opened a food pantry for the poor in their neighborhood to fight hunger because they wanted to demonstrate a present reality of the kingdom.

Rolland McCune's picture

Joel...I will give you the short answers since Aaron will cover these types of Q's with a wider context in his further presentations.

1. The Galatians texts are not sufficiently clear so as to necessitate a "mandate" for the collective church to aid the poor of the general populace; i.e., outside the "household of faith" becomes a personal salt and light concern. And, there are probably scores of commands Jesus gave that the church cannot fulfill; e.g., the expression of Good Samaritan neighbor love would become a personal, individual wisdom issue and not a corporate universal commission.

2. Promise Unfulfilled dealt with the New Evangelicalism's call for sociopolitical activism based on Carl Henry's, and others', realized eschatology and their adamant rejection of dispensationalism. Many others morphed into the social gospel for different reasons, to be sure.

Rolland McCune

Mike Durning's picture

Rolland, it is possible that you are correct. I know I can't think of a verse that directly gives benevolence ministry responsibility to the church as opposed to individuals within the church. Being dispensationalists (as you and I seem to be), we can't mis-apply OT structures to the church. I'm still thinking, but provisionally, I accept the premise. But I would submit that much like Missionaries have to act in ways that might seem unusual to us due to cultural considerations, our culture imposes on us a practical need for the church to do this. Let me demonstrate it this way...

A person calls my church. They need $20.00 for baby formula, claiming they were robbed the night before, and won't get more "cash assistance" from the state until Monday. I answer "I'm sorry. We're a church. We don't do that kind of thing. You'll have to ask one of our members directly."
They then say "How can I find out who a member is?"
I reply "We're not allowed to release member lists to non-members."

I have acted in a way contrary to Christian charity. The expectation of the culture and Scripture is "Christians ought to help." I have let a procedural distinction prevent me from helping, rather than cutting the red tape for the needy person who doubtless would not understand that distinction.

Let the conversation, though, continue...

They say "Aren't you a member?"
I say "Oh, OK. Good point. I'll help you."
I then do the Christian thing and give them $20.00.

The problem is that I get 10 calls like this per week. All credible. So I'm losing 1/4 of my pay to helping the needy each week. I can't afford it. The fact is that since I am a pastor, and the most visible Christian within our particular assembly, a disproportionate percentage of the benevolence requests come directly to me, rather than being evenly distributed by chance throughout the congregation. So I meet with the board, set up a fund to reimburse me for my aid to the poor. And the effect is that I'm still doing church-level benevolence -- but as a pastoral reimbursement.

Now, let us imagine that the 10 calls per week also represent substantial investment of time in evaluating the reality of the claims, delivering the assistance, etc. So, once again, I approach the church board, and ask for help. Now, in order to fulfill the book of Acts' model, the deacons take on this burden from me, so that I can give myself to prayer and the ministry of the Word. Now, I'm really doing a benevolence ministry, just out of practicalities.

Rolland, I argue that in a culture where the needy call the church asking for help, we cannot practically fulfill the demand of Scripture that we give to the needy and turn those requests away.
I suggest that your distinction, while almost certainly technically and Biblically correct, has less real-world relevance than you might think. The only way to implement it is if all Christians everywhere were so lavish in their giving that people stopped thinking of the church as the place to call for help, and started contacting individual believers down the street from them.

I assume that we could think of other examples in which a mandate given to the individual believer actually, practically, requires a heavy investment of time/money by the church to assist believers in this happening. I have one friend who believes and argues convincingly, for instance, that the Great Commission is given to individuals. But nobody would argue that churches cannot do evangelism as a corporate enterprise. Even my friend wouldn't argue that.

To take an individual believer's responsibility and "institutionalize it" into the church has clear risks. We wouldn't do it with private prayer or personal devotional activity. And one lady's backyard Bible study for neighborhood children need not become an official ministry of my church in order for us to approve of her work. But in cases where believers are commanded to interact uniformly with the world in a particular manner, per Scripture, the church can (and perhaps will) become involved in it.

dmicah's picture

Can you elaborate on this?

Quote:
And, there are probably scores of commands Jesus gave that the church cannot fulfill; e.g., the expression of Good Samaritan neighbor love would become a personal, individual wisdom issue and not a corporate universal commission.

Can the individual response of a believer to the commands off Jesus be divorced from the corporate context of His body? Rom. 6:1-23 1 Cor 12:24-26, Gal. 5:13-6:10.

If the characteristics of the followers of Jesus are X, Y & Z, then the church will demonstrate those characteristics. A specific "collective mandate" regarding meeting the needs of the poor is not necessary for the church proper if compassion for the poor is an individual characteristic of a disciple. In other words, i don't need a command to go to the poor, it's biblical.

To me the question is not whether Christians, and therefore the church show compassion for the poor, the question is whether the church should install programmatic features or official ministries that funnel church members, their energy and resources into formal "justice ministries." And that answer is probably found in autonomous discretion of each body.

Rolland McCune's picture

Mike...Again, I will give a short answer; Aaron's series will doubtlessly uncover these kinds of questions. I would only suggest that there surely is a way to collect private funds which you could dole out according to pre-arranged, biblical, prudent rubrics without going through the missionary budget or deacon's fund. These $$ probably would not be "tax deductible," but why should that retard the Samaritan principle of neighbor love? The practical Haldeman/Ehrlichman question pops up often: "will it play in Peoria?" or, in Goodells, or anywhere?

I am a more than a little jumpy at the idea that churches at home and abroad "have to act in ways that might seem unusual to us [unbiblical? ] due to cultural considerations our culture imposes on us" to carry out its mission practically." That would be very frustrating I would think.

Rolland McCune

Rolland McCune's picture

Micah...I don't follow your thinking as to how commands regarding individual obedience thereby automatically or simultaneously necessitates the corporate (local) church's participation, thus obviating the need for a "specific corpotate mandate." Further, the idea of the installaltion of "programmatic features ... into "formal justice ministries" is a purely "autonomous discretion of each body" seems far too pragmatic and open-ended. I can't quite grasp your notion of church polity in either proposal. Again, hopefully these question will surface more fully as Aaron develops his series.

Rolland McCune

Mike Durning's picture

Rolland McCune wrote:
Mike...Again, I will give a short answer; Aaron's series will doubtlessly uncover these kinds of questions. I would only suggest that there surely is a way to collect private funds which you could dole out according to pre-arranged, biblical, prudent rubrics without going through the missionary budget or deacon's fund. These $$ probably would not be "tax deductible," but why should that retard the Samaritan principle of neighbor love? The practical Haldeman/Ehrlichman question pops up often: "will it play in Peoria?" or, in Goodells, or anywhere?

I am a more than a little jumpy at the idea that churches at home and abroad "have to act in ways that might seem unusual to us [unbiblical? ] due to cultural considerations our culture imposes on us" to carry out its mission practically." That would be very frustrating I would think.

So, I'm going to collect funds through another entire operation -- not "tax deductible" (by which I guess you intend them not to be funnelled through the church at all) -- for purposes of benevolence? I suppose I could go beyond what you're saying and establish an entirely different non-profit for donations to help those from outside the church, allowing them to be tax-deductible. But is this not merely a simple ruse? A lawyer could easily pierce the corporate veil and reveal that our new entity to help the needy is just an arm of our church.

I still stumble over the practicalities here. We have a single benevolence fund. It is supported by designated giving for that purpose only. We give emphasis to those who are "of the household of faith" first. You would desire, then, an entirely seperate fund for believer and unbeliever?

I also would note that those in the "household of faith" and those not in it can sometimes be a fuzzy boundary. One of our most common calls for benevolence are from people who were associated with our church as children or teens, and left as they entered adulthood. My personal position would suggest that the vast majority of these are unbelievers, not merely backslidden. But the fact that they turn back to us, now, tempts me to do the 90&9 thing and grant them provisional sheep status in my mind for a little while so I can determine what's going on .

I get what you're saying, though. I understand your concern about going beyond the strictly defined church mandates.
You've got me thinking.

I know that there are many for whom this would only be an excuse to keep their hands closed to others. So I would strongly urge that those who adopt this position should heavily emphasize personal benevolence by believers.

Charlie's picture

I don't know of any place where the institutional church has a mandate to educate children, especially in math, science, etc. Almost all agree that the command is given to families, who delegate that responsibility as they see fit. Yet, conservative Christians of widely varying polities have embraced church-run Christian schools, entities that are ever so slightly organizationally distinct from the churches that run them. I have never heard a Fundamental Baptist say that those schools are illegitimate. In fact, I have sometimes heard the opposite, that all "para-church" organizations must be under the direct supervision of the church to be legitimate.

So why schools, but not local benevolence programs? I suppose I could ask similar questions about Christian camps whose activities extend beyond the purely spiritual, or about church bookstores.

My Blog: http://dearreaderblog.com

Cor meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere. ~ John Calvin

Rolland McCune's picture

Mike..."provisional sheep status" sounds like one prudent way in many cases. There is no simplistic path through the minefield between Scrooge and Christ on this complicated issue.

Rolland McCune

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I've lost track of the conversation but a little catching up..

Mike wrote:
Aaron, my point was primarily made in response to Rolland McCune's post. Many times...seriously, many many times, I have heard Fundamentalist preachers say that government welfare is wrong and before the FDR era, such things were handled by the church. They usually add that it can be better handled by the church, closer to the people in question, more able to right-size the aid and evaluate the willingness to work. They seem to advocate a return to those days -- and that if social welfare programs were gone, taxes would be lower, and giving to churches would increase so they could do these charitable deeds. It appears that he would disagree with their suggestion.

I understand. I can't speak for Dr.M, but I've never really been a big fan of the "government is doing this because the church failed to do it" reasoning (well, OK, not "never"... but it's been decades since I entertained that idea). I'm also not a big fan of the whole "faith based" linking of government to charities that Pres. G W Bush promoted.

I do agree with the logic that says "local is better," though. It's just that I'm not yet convinced the mission of the church has much to do with this, though what I'm doing the last couple months (and still in progress) is taking a fresh look at it all. I haven't re-examined the ecclesiology yet. But my bias is toward a much narrower focus for "the church acting as the church." Not that it can't be involved in ministries of compassion, but it's important how we sort out why they should be involved and how much (the latter tends to be answered in part by the former I think)

Roger, I think wrote:
Here is a quick question. Why is it wrong to use social things in the local church when it is tied to the Gospel when we do it anyway in other areas? Or more pointedly, Why is it OK for a church with a school to build a 5 million dollar gymn but not to build a 2 million dollar one but then spend 3 million on say transitional housing where the residents that participate in the transitional housing be required to be in church? In our circles, the former would be fine, but the latter would give pause.

I'll take quick stab at this one. I think the question is a good one but not really answerable without asking more basic questions first. That is, "why not?" is not a good place to start. A better place is, "What has God told the church it's mission in the world is?" And then go from there to consider the why's and why not's.
The subject of what business a church has building a school is another topic, really, but suffice it to say that churches that do that tend to have a rationale that is pretty closely connected to their understanding of what the church's mission is... and those would "give pause" on the housing project tend to do so because they have trouble seeing how it connects to the purpose of the church in the world.
By the same token, there are church's a plenty that would jump at the housing project and hesitate a great deal on the school... also because of their understanding of the mission of the church in the world.

(FWIW, I think it's better for schools to be independent of churches as board operated non profits)

But there's a second layer even where understandings of mission are similar, and that has to do with beliefs about how mission is best accomplished. So sometimes even very similar views of mission have very dissimilar views of how to use resources.

micah wrote:
Can the individual response of a believer to the commands of Jesus be divorced from the corporate context of His body?
In a way, yes.
There are commands that are clearly addressed to the body and commands that are not. For example, Jesus said to pay taxes. Do we believe the church should pay taxes?
I often hear people express the idea that there is no difference between believers acting individually and "the church" acting, but there is. An analogy (imperfect as all analogies are) might be the difference between all the members of a ball team attending the funeral of a coach who died vs. "the team" attending the funeral. The difference may seem subtle, but it becomes important when deciding how team resources will be used... and what the team does when other team members die. The team's purpose is to win ball games not to attend funerals. So the players may or may not attend either the former coach's funeral or a fellow player's funeral. It would be a bit weird for the team to add "funeral attendance" to it's purpose statement or require everybody on the team to attend one.
It probably happens, but it's kind of strange and some on the team would probably rightly object.

So questions of purpose apply to "the church acting as the church" differently than they do to individuals. There is overlap of course, but church purposes are best identified by looking at texts that are about the church and its purposes. Certainly they are not identical to family purposes/responsibilities, for example, and individual purposes/responsibilities.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Joel Shaffer's picture

Wow.....alot of ideas have been presented since this morning. I will have to tackle these one at a time. I definitely resonate with Mike because of the lack of practicality that the individual view presents. After 20 years of doing ministry among the urban poor, you realize that genuinely helping the poor in a way that does not create dependency takes both lots of time and money. Lots of time building relationships and getting in people's business to properly diagnose the issues that are going on and the right remedies for solving those problems that are contributing to their poverty, whether it be debt reduction, financial management, job training, and etc.... With the urban poor, the Christians who have relationships with them (usually poor or lower-middle class) are ones who can get in their business and some level of accountability, but do not have the skill resources to actually help them. However, those who have the skills set and resources (more upper middle class and rich)to actually help them do not have the relationships and accountability which they need. That is why you need a group of people, rather than just one-to-one individual.

The question that comes to mind is: is helping the poor individually prescriptive or descriptive in the New Testament? I find it quite inconsistent that we can celebrate holidays that are not described in the New Testament but draw a line in the sand when it comes to helping the poor as a body of believers "doing good to all, especially the household of faith." I know Dr. Bauder deals with this, but I still found it inconsistent.

When I have time, I will share how the church plant that I am part of deals with this because they are partnering with our ministry UTM (which is a para-church) allowing our ministry to take the lead when it comes to helping the poor in our community in a way that adorns the gospel so that they can really concentrate on their mission to make disciples.............

Kent McCune's picture

Charlie wrote:
I don't know of any place where the institutional church has a mandate to educate children, especially in math, science, etc. Almost all agree that the command is given to families, who delegate that responsibility as they see fit. Yet, conservative Christians of widely varying polities have embraced church-run Christian schools, entities that are ever so slightly organizationally distinct from the churches that run them. I have never heard a Fundamental Baptist say that those schools are illegitimate. In fact, I have sometimes heard the opposite, that all "para-church" organizations must be under the direct supervision of the church to be legitimate.

So why schools, but not local benevolence programs? I suppose I could ask similar questions about Christian camps whose activities extend beyond the purely spiritual, or about church bookstores.

Charlie --- There was a good discussion on this very question between Doran, Bixby, and others a few years back on Chris Anderson's blog. I don't have time to find the exact thread, but it occurred during the time of Katrina when Bixby's church was heavily involved in mercy ministry there. Doran gave a very good rationale for why his church has a school, mainly centered in the discipleship mandate of the Great Commission. He also wrote an article available here, http://www.dbts.edu/pdf/shortarticles/Local_Church_and_Christian_Educati....

Kent McCune I Peter 4:11

dmicah's picture

Aaron, at the risk of straining at a gnat...you wrote:

Quote:
There are commands that are clearly addressed to the body and commands that are not. For example, Jesus said to pay taxes. Do we believe the church should pay taxes?

Churches do pay payroll taxes, taxes on purchased goods and certain municipality taxes & fees, i.e. water runoff fees, vehicle taxes. Further, wasn't Jesus' larger point more along the lines of "follow your governmental regulations and the laws of the land." So churches do so by becoming non-profit organizations. Would there be another command you can think of that should not be demonstrated in a corporate context?

Roland...

Quote:
Micah...I don't follow your thinking as to how commands regarding individual obedience thereby automatically or simultaneously necessitates the corporate (local) church's participation, thus obviating the need for a "specific corpotate mandate."

The church proper does not need a mandate because the body will act according to the characteristics of its members. The characteristics of Christians include love, compassion and tenderness for the poor. What I mean by "programmatic features" is essentially a formal ministry in a local body created from a collective burden to minister. Therefore they express this burden, which began as an individual response, by collectively sharing resources.

What i am sensing that may be the disconnect in our discussion is in how we approach the term "command." In you guys' line of reasoning, there seems to be a measure of simply following commands as if issued by a drill sergeant..."if Jesus didn't tell the church to do it, the church doesn't do it. That command is applicable only to individuals." This appears quite formulaic and subject to a very wooden hermeneutic in ecclesiology.

I believe we, individuals, respond to His commands, not as a list of rules or guidelines, but as a way of life. That is, our sanctification, a process best described as organic rather than systematic, is reflective of our response to Jesus' teaching. Yet this teaching that we adhere to individually is delivered primarily in a corporate context full of gathered individuals. Those maturing individuals will reflect the characteristics of sanctification, and will by nature act both singularly and in manners of plurality. The leaders of the assembly are charged with directing the resources of the body and guiding those pluralized activities. But they will happen because a good tree will produce good fruit. So a group of Christians who have individual compassion on others, will in some manner show corporate compassion.

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