i’ve had several experiences since i’ve been “in the ministry” that have shaped my views on this subject. i appreciate the comments on my last post and i think we pretty much all agree. my basic issue is with the apparent societal assumption that the church is responsible to hand out funds, supply lodging to transients, buy gas for stranded travelers, pay utility bills for people who have come on hard times, and basically act as community welfare agency (as defined by the people who see themselves as needy). it seems clear to me that we have created a culture of enablement that helps absolutely no one in the long run. before i launch into my dissertation, let me establish a couple of provisos:
1. i think scripture is clear that we (the church) are to appropriate charity as a means for sharing the gospel–not under compulsion but as an expression of god’s grace toward us (i.e.: as recipients of such amazing compassion, how can we not be compassionate?). still, the gospel of social action is meant to be undertaken as we are going. that is what jesus is teaching in matthew 25. as i go/do/reach out to “the least of these” i am representing jesus. and when the indigent come to the church with their hand out…a symptom of the culture of enablement.
2. i am dubious of the common assertion, “I don’t want someone to take advantage of me.” if we are following the example of jesus, we will accept mistreatment as part of our mission. part of the “led like a lamb to the slaughter” mentality that jesus adopted and modeled for us. when we truly “in humility consider others better than (ourselves),” we will never feel put upon. “servant” is the highest human position in the kingdom. i can’t recall who said it but its true: the way you know whether or not you’re a servant is by how you respond when you’re treated like one.
when it comes to charity, my most basic contention is that it begins in the church. as far as i can tell, the passages about caring for people in need (with the exception of the “as you go” passages such as luke 10 and matthew 25 cited above) refer to “brother” or “widow” or “orphan.” i just can’t find where we are mandated in scripture to solve the problems of the unregenerate.
personally, i speak to every person who calls or comes by the church office asking for help. we don’t have a “policy.” i try to investigate and understand each situation on a case-by-case basis. i often give people what i have in my pocket, but i very seldom give money out of church funds. i do invite people to come to church meetings and share their need with the body, thereby giving other believers a chance to get involved. i am told that many churches have a standard response (committee, voucher, outright refusal…some people just don’t want to get their hands dirty) but, again, i believe social compassion is to be used as an evangelistic tool.
i also believe that the lord sometimes allows people to stumble into hard times for their own benefit. i’ve told many who have come to me for help, “what if god wants you to go through this difficulty? if i rescue you i’ll be undoing the good work the lord is doing in your life.” this truth certainly applies in the church. paul wrote to the church at thessalonica, “keep away from every brother who is idle and does not live according to the teaching you received from us…for even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: ‘if a man will not work, he shall not eat’.” does that teaching apply to the homeless “brother” who has a christian fish painted on his sign?
finally (i’ll bet you thought that word was not forthcoming), many of my views on this subject were forged by the lessons i learned while acting as primary caregiver to my younger brother during the last few years of his life. he was a drug addict who had contracted aids and used up all his options. i did my best to be a “good brother” (although i had no idea what that meant at the time) and i bailed him out of trouble more times than i can count. he was so sincere and filled with remorse when he screwed up. i learned the hard way that sometimes real love does not rescue. in our dealings with people in need, whether genuine need or perceived need, our behavior must be governed by love.
my problem is that often my love does not look like god’s love.
i’ve got so much to learn.