Sunday, May 20, 2007

Should Churches Care for the Poor?

Earlier this spring the pastors of my church distributed a document they had produced on the church's approach to caring for the poor. You can download the whole thing through the link at the bottom of this page.

It's obviously not inerrant, but it's been quite helpful to me in laying out the biblical data and raising some questions I hadn't considered. I don't expect everyone to agree with it completely. I do expect anyone who needs a good resource and is willing to take the time to find it helpful. Though it's impossible to summarize this 36-page document in any concise way, the two paragraphs quoted below more or less provide the fulcrum—the pivot point between pastors' conclusions about the biblical data and the specific application of it to the life of the congregation as a whole and as individual believers:
So to summarize, we are not saying that we understand Scripture to teach the regulative principle in such a way that denies our right or ability as a church to care for the physical needs of non-Christians in our area. Nor do we understand the teaching of Scripture to require our congregation to alleviate the physical needs of non-Christians in our community. Rather our conclusion is that congregations have a call to preach, display, model, and express the good news of Jesus Christ. And in obedience to that call we have both the liberty and responsibility to prudently take such initiatives in our community.

While Capitol Hill Baptist Church does have the freedom and prerogative to give financially to help the poor outside of the church if it is deemed wise and prudent to do so, we understand that the best way to help the poor is to teach them the gospel. The best way to fix their situation is to tell them of Jesus. As a local church devoted to Christ, we understand that spiritual needs have priority over physical needs. If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. If you tell him the gospel, you could be used by God to save his life for eternity.
(pg. 26)

4 comments:

Brian said...

Ben,

I think this is really an excellent study of the biblical passages. While I would have minor disagreement on the two extremes presented, I think the case is made with careful attention to the texts. For myself, the mandates in the Sermon on the Mount are most compelling and most convicting.

Bruce said...

From page 2: “Although Scripture speaks to the physically poor, we find that the physically poor were to point us to the spiritually poor. Jesus did not come to earth to ultimately remove physical sickness. Instead, the physically poor are a parable of the spiritually poor. Whenever Jesus healed, He then taught about the kingdom of God or taught others to believe in Him. Scripture gives us many examples of this.”

Was Christ’s ministry to the poor merely a “parable” pointing to ultimate spiritual realities? This seems to underestimate the way in which sickness, disease, physical impairment, catastrophic impoverishment, and death are in fact directly connected to the sin problem. Not in the simple cause and effect relationship of personal sin and its consequences, but in the bigger picture of Original Sin and the resulting Curse. In mercy, God has made life hard for those who are living between the Fall and the New Creation, so that we will not be able to escape the fact that something is dreadfully wrong with our world and with us. We need a Messiah.

Thus, when Jesus healed people, he wasn’t doing it to draw a crowd to listen to his sermon, or to take away a distraction so that the healed person could pay attention to his abstract doctrinal points. Even though it could be more accurate to say that Jesus was demonstrating his power through his miracles so that people would see him as divine, or that he was fulfilling prophecies so that knowing observers could connect the dots, he was doing much more even than that. Jesus was revealing, even as he was proclaiming, that he was King who was bringing the promised Kingdom—a kingdom that was to be one where the trials and pain of this world would be not just alleviated, but removed.

In this light, it makes perfect sense that Jesus would heal people in powerful and dramatic fashion, because the kingdom was beginning with his arrival. Yet, the kingdom would not yet be established in its fullness, because the road he was traveling would end with a cross. I believe it is a poor reading that sees Jesus’ miracles of healing, feeding the multitudes, etc., as a warm-up to his preaching, rather than signs of the kingdom. This is why it is faulty to conclude that we can bifurcate gospel preaching from mercy ministry. We may not be doing miraculous signs to announce the kingdom, but we should be able to demonstrate mercy, not just talk about it. In so doing, we follow Christ’s example in ministry by giving people a taste of the coming kingdom even as we proclaim it.

It seems that we Evangelicals so focus on the core of the gospel, that is, justification, that we have a hard time seeing anything beyond it. The gospel is about more than justification, just as salvation is about more than forgiveness. We need to remember the cosmic ramifications of Christ’s work that will not just save forgiven souls to eternal life, but will resurrect the bodies of those who have trusted this King to live with him in the New Heaven and New Earth. This perspective is just as Christ-centered as the CHBC paper, but not as Gnostic.

This isn’t a denial of justification. It is simply to say that sanctification matters. Working out our salvation is essential. We were created to be a people zealous for good works. If we can’t talk about good works without breaking out into a sweat, we really don’t understand the New Testament’s teaching on the whole picture of the Christian life. Grace teaches us that we should live godly lives in this present world.

Another tendency we have as Evangelicals is to individualize matters. Of course, we affirm individual responsibility, but the author seems to contrast this with a notion of societal sins (as on page 4 under “Social Gospel”). I am in agreement that we cannot understand guilt and salvation in terms of society or culture, but that does not mean that there is not sin in society, such as unjust laws, unfair trade practices, bad schools, exploitive corporations, and corrupt political organizations. Using the label “Social Gospel” is an easy way for conservative Evangelicals to write off any good works that Christians should be doing to promote righteousness in the world. I’m not sure that what we should be doing is all that different from what the Social Gospellers are promoting; it’s just that we understand our activism differently. We do our good works knowing full well that we are not saving anything. We do what we do because it is right, and because it gives witness to Christ and the kingdom.

I also get frustrated at the need to “prioritize” proclamation ministry, especially when it seems to be a rationalization for not doing any mercy ministry at all. I don’t hear that in this paper, but it seems to come close, and I know others like to follow this rationale. I am actually sympathetic to the author’s discomfort with the “two wings of an airplane” analogy (p. 8), because even though both doctrine and practice should be present, they are not equal. One flows out of the other in a way that cannot be seen vice versa. Again, we have a parallel to the relationship of justification and sanctification. One is primary (not in importance, but in an organic sense), but that does not mean that we can do with the primary alone. Even if we could quantify them as greater and lesser, it doesn’t justify ignoring the lesser, if it is also essential.

I’m still working through the issue of to what extent we care for the poor as a church. I do have a problem with the “used car lot” parable (pp. 18-19). This only makes sense if we equate “church” with “elders.” Of course, the pastors/elders/overseers should devote themselves, as the apostles did, to the ministry of the Word and to prayer. But that does not mean that we don’t do any other practical ministry-- that’s why we have deacons. So, I can agree wholeheartedly that the elders shouldn’t be giving a significant portion of their time to mercy ministry, but I have a harder time concluding that the church (i.e., congregation and even certain leaders) shouldn’t be doing mercy ministry.

Keith said...

To Ben's headline question the answer is -- YES.

To Bruce's comment I say -- Amen, well said.

Bruce said...

Also from page 2: "Although our Lord says that we will always have the poor with us, we should not be complacent because of this. Instead, it should lead us to compassion."

I appreciate the author's comment that the ubiquity of poverty should not lead to complacency, because I have heard that conclusion drawn from that verse. I think it was probably a reaction to the Social Gospel, LBJ's War on Poverty, etc. But it falls so far short of really dealing with the original context, even the context of that one verse!

This comes from Mark 14:7, where Jesus says, "For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me." When Jesus was on the earth, it was appropriate to offer lavish, extravagant worship to him. But he says that there will be plenty of time and opportunity to give generously and sacrificially to the needy when he has gone from their presence. That time is now. The fact that we will always have the poor with us is because the King is the one who will abolish all need in his coming kingdom, not because Christians are to maintain the status quo in the meantime.