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I am a 1967 graduate of The Citadel (Distinguished Military Student, member of the Economic Honor Society, Dean's List), a 1975 graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (M.Div., magna cum laude, member of the Phi Alpha Chi academic honor society); I attended the Free University of Amsterdam and completed my History of Dogma there and then received a full scholarship from the Dutch government to transfer to the sister school in Kampen, Holland. In 1979 I graduated from the Theological Seminary of the Reformed Churches of Holland (Drs. with honors in Ethics). My New Testament minor was completed with Herman Ridderbos. I am also a 2001 Ph.D. graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary (Systematic Theology) in Philly with a dissertation on the "unio mystica" in the theology of Dr. Herman Bavinck (1854-1921). I am a former tank commander, and instructor in the US Army Armor School at Ft. Knox, KY. I have been happily married to my childhood sweetheart and best friend, Sally, for 43 years. We have 6 children, one of whom is with the Lord, and 14 wonderful grandchildren.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

How Do We Do Social Justice? (IV)

What Can the Local Church Do?

In the March 20th issue, we noted that Scripture delineates four noteworthy characteristics or reasons of what often leads to poverty: laziness (or sloth), greed, being foolish (as opposed to being wise), and shortsightedness (or poor or no planning). The upshot of all these reasons for poverty is the adage that a poor man has poor ways.

As we reflect upon poverty and what can be done, there is an excellent opportunity for the Church to become engaged in reducing poverty, if only the Church will think and act biblically; Christianly. One of the greatest detriments to aiding the poor today is that far too many churches have an ineffective, non-functioning, or underfunded deaconry—or, all three taken together.

The purpose of biblical charity, as we shall see, must be to combine, wherever possible—scriptural charity with evangelism and discipleship.[1] Please note: evangelism and discipleship (equipping the saints cf. Eph. 4:11) belong together. As often as not, this is not being done in modern Christian churches. One of the biggest reasons why churches are not functioning as they should is due to the fact that they have no biblical plan of how to deal with biblical charity, which is more than just a little ironic.

For those of us who still believe that the Old Testament applies to the Christian life—and I do—, we can apply the following principle to our discussion: God promises prosperity and blessing to individuals and societies that abide by his Word (Deut. 4:5-9; 30:19-20; Ex. 23:25-26). Conversely, those who reject or ignore his Word should expect misery and judgment (Deut. 11:26-28; 28:15-68; 2 Chr. 24:20; Isa. 65:11-14).[2] Not surprisingly, the poorest nations on the face of the earth are those where there is not a noticeable Christian presence. Cal Beisner writes, “Un-biblical worldviews, seeing reality as disjointed, the gods as capricious, and power and wealth as achievable through luck or magic or karma rather than through hard and wise labor and cooperation, underlie the poverty of the Third World.”[3] Beisner adds, “…in general, the poorest nations are those least Christian and most spiritist, animist, Buddhist, Confucianist, and Hindu—the worldviews most radically inconsistent with Christianity.”[4] If this is true—and it is—then Christian churches should be hesitant, reluctant about sending a lot of money to Third World countries without a great deal of accountability. Without good accountability, a lot of money suffers under the law of unintended consequences, i.e., it never gets into the hands of those who need it most.

But rather than setting our sights across the globe, we’re interested here with what the modern Church can do about poverty in her specific, local setting. There are, in reality, a large number of things that she can do, but let me begin by giving you a basic, elementary outline.

First, the local church must decide and act on the fact that helping the poor through charity is not, in the first and foremost place, the government’s job. Despite the fact that hundreds of billions of dollars have been thrown in the direction of poverty over the course of several decades, the average rate of those who are at the statistical poverty level has remained steady somewhere between 13-15%. Lyndon Johnson’s “war on poverty” did nothing—nothing—really and tangibly to change the percentage, even though his utopic “Great Society” spent billions of taxpayer dollars attempting to remedy the problem. Extraordinarily large amounts of taxpayer dollars were placed in the budget of various bureaucratic welfare agencies only to see the percentage rates of poverty remain—for all intents and purposes—the same. The American taxpayer worked long and hard yet received little, if any, bang for his or her tax buck. Government aid is not the solution; in fact, it is the problem.

The next step, after deciding that charity is not the government’s job, is for church leadership to determine, according to Scripture, who is actually eligible for charitable aid. For some, this will sound somewhat odd, since we are accustomed to giving aid to anyone and everyone, especially the scam artists who make their rounds and prey on the sensibilities of the local churches or the druggies that take church food boxes and sell the contents for drug money.

This is not to say that we should turn people away who are genuinely in need, but we should be wiser and more circumspect about how we use God’s money. We are called to be good stewards with it and not to be accomplices in promoting irresponsibility or in squandering what God’s people have provided. Whatever particular need confronts us in the local church, we need to ask ourselves this: Are we being good stewards with God’s money? If we’re not, we are, in all likelihood, following the worn out paths of the secular government or an ill-devised scheme of doling out money willy-nilly.

We shall take a look at some of the biblical tools at our disposal to do this in just a moment. For the present, it should be noticed that typically charity and service are quite often—but not always—linked in Scripture. Moreover, there are texts that limit those who are to be the immediate recipients of Christian charity.

Once it is decided that there is a general outline in place about who specifically will receive charity from the deacons, the next question to be answered is: How much should the qualified recipients be given? 1 Timothy 6:6-8 provides us with a helpful guideline. Verse 6 speaks to us about Christians and contentment. The same principle should apply universally to mankind. Verse 8 states that the essentials in life are food and clothing. Interestingly, there is nothing alluded to here about money changing hands, but Scripture does speak about providing two necessities: food and clothing.

In a more fully-orbed explanation, Beisner offers the following: “The standards of churches’ charitable giving, then, are three: (1) It should go only to those who cannot support themselves and cannot be supported by their families. (2) Its aim is to provide food and covering sufficient for basic survival and health. (3) Recipients must serve the church in return for charity insofar as they are able.”[5]

Therefore, with this basic outline in mind and in place, we want to ask ourselves how the Church can genuinely participate in the biblical war against poverty. We are called upon to reflect on what it is that we want to achieve as we actively, practically follow the commands of God vis-à-vis the poor. Clearly, our reflections must include various levels of how the Church of Jesus Christ can begin to administer true, biblical aid to those in need. This will necessitate us having a plan in place for those who are not truly in need, but who want us to believe that they are.

For example, the leaders of a local congregation should have thought through, and have in place, a plan for the ubiquitous “scammers” who prey on churches with their lies. At my home church, we make it plain to callers that the pastor or secretary has no cash in the building and that the caller will need to speak personally with one of our Deacons. The best way to do that is to attend worship with us and to speak with one or more Deacons afterwards, who will then make a decision whether or not the request is legitimate. This initial response typically ends the call, although not always.

If the scammer persists, their next ploy is to plead that they need the money immediately, and would love to come and worship with us, but they are from out of town and need the money to continue their journey. At this point, we suggest that in the case of an immediate need they should contact the Salvation Army. The usual reply is that they have already tried that and that the Salvation Army said that they cannot help. If you have taken the time to contact the Salvation Army by phone previously, the good folks over at the SA will inform you that they can always help someone in immediate need. At this point, it’s important to impress upon the caller that they are lying to you because you have talked with the Salvation Army and they will help. If they persist even further, tell them they need to go to the closest police station and they will help them in some way. That will terminate the conversation.

From time to time, we can get an odd assortment of druggies who drop by for a handout. You can usually see that they are on drugs by looking at their eyes and listening to their speech. I know because I’ve had a lot of practice with my Session. Just kidding. This is always a situation that I handle and not my secretary. With the rampant use of PCP and Meth these days, this type of caller can be particularly dangerous and the pastor must remove a woman from such a person’s presence, even if the person is a female druggie. Our standard operating procedure for this person—remember: you’re talking to a drug and not a rational, reasonable, cogent person—is the same for the previous example: come back Sunday, worship with us, and talk to a Deacon. If they come back and need food, of course we give it to them. What we’re thinking about now, however, is having the person receiving the food do some work around the church, such as vacuuming, cleaning the restrooms, arranging chairs, or dusting to earn their food rather than simply having them be accustomed to receiving a “freebie” handout.

I have also had it where a person came to our congregation and said that they needed money for food. We don’t do that. I did offer to take the person to a restaurant and buy them a meal. One person took me up on it. We went to a restaurant and I paid for their meal and got a cup of coffee for myself. While they ate and enjoyed their meal, I presented the gospel to them. And that is precisely what we are looking to do: combine our Christian charity with a presentation of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Regeneration as the Foundation for Social Stability

While the secular government may have its myriad, multi-tiered welfare programs, our belief is this: “Regeneration is the only foundation for social stability and growth. Quiet, private piety that makes no difference in outward behavior and society is not the goal of the Christian life.”[6] This seems to be the clear injunction of Jesus’ Great Commission (cf. Matt. 28:20) and what Paul teaches in 2 Corinthians 10:5. As I mentioned above, we are aiming at evangelizing the person seeking aid and not merely giving them something for nothing.

There is at least a two-pronged approach here. The pastor, his fellow-Elders, and the Deacons have the task of making personal and family financial counseling a part of their regular ministry—both within as well as outside the congregation. Far too many churches today have nothing in place in this important area of the Christian life and in Christian stewardship. We have programs and support groups out the wazoo, but little or nothing for our members or outsiders dealing with hard work, budgeting, saving, investing, comparative shopping v. impulse buying, tithing, staying out of debt, and biblical contentment with what God has given you.

This is one of the reasons that so many church people’s finances are in enormous disarray. We’ve been so busy entertaining them and making them feel good about themselves that we have failed to instruct them about what Scripture has to say about financial stewardship. It is an all but forgotten biblical maxim that people cannot prosper financially over the long haul by accepting handouts and “freebies,” especially if the handouts are taken coercively by the government and given to others. There will be no sense of “ownership” and we see this constantly in the way subsidized government housing is abused and trashed. Why should people care a great deal about something that is not theirs; about something where they have no sense of ownership?

Our caring social engineers and some evangelicals have worked hard to create the impression that people have a “right” to basic sustenance. In the process, however, they have not adequately—and in the case of the evangelicals, biblically—defined precisely what constitutes “basic” sustenance. Does everyone have a right to a car? To health insurance? To subsidized housing? Why or why not? What are the criteria we use to make such a judgment? Who decides? If we disagree with the decision is our money taken from us coercively anyway? Scripture is clear that throwing money at a situation irrespective of the other person’s productive activities is not caring; is not biblical (cf. 2 Thess. 3:10).

In other words, when people accept charity without rendering service in return, to whatever extent they are able, they choose a life of dependency that will impede their spiritual and economical growth. The modern Church in particular must be taught that it is a part of basic Christian maturity to be as self-supporting as possible and that they share in government’s violation of the eighth commandment when they accept government subsidies—whether to the poor or to the wealthy.

There are a number of ways that the local church can give to the poor, but they must all comport with biblical principles and not with pragmatic, secular solutions. In our next installment, we will begin to examine some of those forgotten principles and their application for Christian stewardship in our time. It is essential that we reflect upon these matters as members of Christ’s Church because the mega-church is imploding as we speak. Even its strongest proponent, Bill Hybels, has admitted that his “experiment” was a failure. Just think of the number of people that invested their lives in a Madison Avenue style of congregation only to hear the pastor say after thirty years, “You know, I think we did it all wrong.” That’s comparable to our governor out here in California looking at a $14 billion budget deficit and saying, “I think we’d screwed up a little,”—which he did. Thanks Bill and Arnold, but it’s just a little too late and the harsh reality of bankrupt souls and bankrupt state coffers has set in.

The Emergent church movement has zero to offer, unless you’re interested in becoming a Marxist. If the mega-church was satisfied with being entertained and amusing themselves to death, they passed that wonderful, rich spiritual legacy along to their children, many of whom are in the Emergent church if they haven’t jettisoned the faith altogether. If the mega-church constituents came away with precious little in terms of spirituality, the Emergent church has even less!

Does the Bible have guidance for us about financial stewardship? Yes, it does. Next issue, Lord willing, we’ll begin by examining the Old Testament concept of gleaning and what biblical principles we can deduce from that for our purposes in the New Testament Church today.

[1] E. Calvin Beisner, Prosperity and Poverty, (Eugene, OR, Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2001), pp 205-207.

[2] Ibid., 197.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 198.

[5] Ibid., 205.

[6] Ibid. Italics mine.

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8 Comments:

Blogger wordsmith said...

Your description of the freeloaders is spot-on. I used to work as a church secretary, and every once in a while somebody'd come by looking for a handout. We heard all the same sob stories that you mentioned, and gave basically the same response: we don't have cash in the office, we don't have the authority to disburse funds like that, so-and-so would have to talk to the pastor, try the Salvation Army or other local rescue mission. Most wised up that we weren't an easy mark and left us alone, but one or two became abusive and threatening - as if we were under obligation to provide $$$ for anyone who just waltzed in off the street and claimed that they needed assistance.

3:57 PM  
Blogger SolaMeanie said...

Excellent, Ron. Well done.

In my younger years when I was in Long Beach working at a Christian radio station there, I had a drifter or vagabond come to the station and ask for money to buy a meal. I gave him $10 because I wanted to help him.

I reported this to the general manager the next morning, and he told me in no uncertain terms not to do it again. He commended me for wanting to help, but he said the first thing the guy did was go out and buy liquor or drugs, not food. The station had long experience with these guys before I began working there.

It's good to keep meal coupons on hand for such a purpose also. That way, they can get a meal and the coupon can't be used for cash.

4:08 PM  
Blogger Randy said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

4:14 PM  
Blogger Rattlesnake6 said...

While Jesus was hanging out with the outcast of society, did he leave them there or did he point them to a different, better life?
When we examine gleaning, we're going to find that it was not meant to leave the gleaner where he or she was.
For example, he didn't want the prostitutes to remain prostitutes, did he?
In a very real sense, the emergent church isn't worth our time. The very fact that it is teaching such pernicious doctrines it needs to be corrected and those who want to remain true and faithful to the scriptures need to be warned. The international list of contributors shared my views.
I would not vote Republican, Randy, if one of their "holy houses" was abortion. Are you willing to abandon voting for Democrat because of abortion? Or was Jesus too busy hanging out with the outcasts to say much about abortion?

8:07 PM  
Blogger Randy said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

5:59 PM  
Blogger Rattlesnake6 said...

Randy,
Your (il)logic is tortured. So anyone who wants to keep more of the money he or she earns is making money an idol. I would prefer to give it to God and not the government, since they are not quite the same. If you want, you can give the government your whole paycheck if you want, because that's precisely what the left wants. You work for it, they take it from you, and maybe give you some back.
You know the difference between me and you as Americans, Randy? You live for April 15th, because you get to file your taxes. My favorite holiday is July 4th.

9:26 PM  
Blogger Matt J. said...

Randy,

The commandment "Thou shall not steal" implies a biblical concept of private property. I would think that someone who claims to be a student of scripture would have automatically assumed that with the most cursory of readings. It is "your money" in the sense of personal stewardship before God and not the "secular government's money". If you believe that Jesus calls for Christians to help the needy, then I suggest that you fight for your personal right to use "your money" to those biblical and spiritual ends.

Telling the government to keep their hands off of "our money" is simply to say that we don't want our money taken and spent involuntarily (and frankly, unaccountably) and it assumes that you (Randy) know how to better spend your money than a politician does (do you?).

Private citizens can get together and form charitable organizations, give to their church's "mercy" programs, or even give directly to the needy in their families or society - politicians get together and make lots of empty promises and form wasteful bureaucracies with high administration costs, low output, and weak distribution systems that are subject to massive fraud. After all, what's it matter whether or not it actually works when the goal so often is simply for re-election? Nevermind the fact that there is no discipleship or evangelism involved in this mechanism, and so even if a material need is met (barely), the person is still left in spiritual poverty, nakedness, and destitution.

When was the last time you saw an honest and independent analysis of the spending of some government program that was established, say in the 1970's? Yet, there are several watchdog groups out there that rate private charitable organizations and can blow the whistle way more easily on a bad one than they can on Big Brother.

Is that how you want to spend your money? Is that your idea of biblical stewardship? If so, write a personal check to your State Franchise Tax Board and the IRS on any day you wish (why wait for them to ask you for it?), but don't tell me that I have to do it.

I'm not sure what you're problem is with Ron's essay. You didn't say much about it with any sort of detail or specificity and I'm seriously having trouble believing that you actually read the whole thing. It seems like you merely skimmed it lightly - looking for something to use as a launching pad for a rant - stopping only long enough to try and make sure that your weird diatribe seemed to contain some sort of connection to the article you're posting a comment about (fail).

What other explanation can there be for your total disconnect with the content of this essay when you seem to be insinuating that Ron is not for spending money on the needy? Didn't you even read this paragraph?:

"This is not to say that we should turn people away who are genuinely in need, but we should be wiser and more circumspect about how we use God’s money. We are called to be good stewards with it and not to be accomplices in promoting irresponsibility or in squandering what God’s people have provided. Whatever particular need confronts us in the local church, we need to ask ourselves this: Are we being good stewards with God’s money? If we’re not, we are, in all likelihood, following the worn out paths of the secular government or an ill-devised scheme of doling out money willy-nilly."

That amounts to making an idol out of money in your mind? Was that supposed to be some sort of clever philosophical "stunner", because it came across as a lazy, bitter, and desperate reach for some kind of pious-sounding accusation. You are not doing much to sell me on your "humility".

Honestly, several times during the writing of this I have debated with myself as to whether or not I should even address you because I feel as though this must be some sort of joke.

Randy, make a relevant point or don't comment at all.

3:31 AM  
Blogger jazzact13 said...

--The thing that seems to be overlooked is that Jesus preferred hangin out with those who are theives, lazy, whores, and less than excellent employees.--

And I suppose you have some scripture to back that up?

11:48 AM  

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