Dan Popp
Christian giving: Saints, then strangers
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By Dan Popp
October 8, 2011

The New Testament, without going into details, gives us a pretty clear hint of what a fully Christian society would be like. Perhaps it gives us more than we can take. It tells us that there are to be no passengers or parasites: if a man does not work, he ought not to eat. Every one is to work with his own hands, and what is more, everyone's work is to produce something good.... — C.S. Lewis

I introduced this short series by saying that Christian giving is centered on Christ. It flows through us as Life; it isn't imposed as Law. Then I wrote that before we even think about alms or charity, believers should make sure their own family members aren't going hungry.

In this article I'll extend the principle of family first to our "brothers" and "sisters" in Christ. The tangible resources available to the church should meet the needs of those in the church before they go to outsiders. You'll remember that, at the birth of the church, "All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need." (Acts 2:44-46 NRSV, emphasis mine) These Christ-followers shared virtually everything — but not with everybody.

At least until Jesus returns, there will always be more needs in the world than available resources. He told us that Himself. That means that priorities have to be set. "So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith." (Galatians 6:10) "Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers." (Romans 12:13) "Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it." (Hebrews 13:1,2) Notice the pattern: saints, then strangers. Jesus Himself followed this principle by restricting His personal ministry to "the lost sheep of the house of Israel." (See Matthew 10:6 and 15:24.) The rest of us would be helped as well — that was a major part of His plan — but not ahead of those in the "family."

However, there's a big potential problem. Any system offering financial security based on mutual commitment invites freeloaders. Jesus took drastic measures to head off this entitlement mentality in His ministry. And the apostles tried to make sure that there were no "parasites" leeching off the Body of Christ. Paul testified, "For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living." (2 Thessalonians 3:10-12)

The government church doesn't have such a safeguard. Though everyone bemoans the multiplied billions of dollars of "waste, fraud and abuse," no one in power cares enough to end it — and it could be ended quite easily. Apparently it's more important that free money goes out, than that we get too particular about who gets the money, what they do with it, and what it does to them.

Since we mentioned the church's care for widows last time, let's go back to 1 Timothy 5. Again we'll see the principle that mere need is not necessarily a moral demand on resources. "Let a widow be put on the list if she is not less than sixty years old and has been married only once; she must be well attested for her good works, as one who has brought up children, shown hospitality, washed the saints' feet, helped the afflicted, and devoted herself to doing good in every way." This solves the problem of "Rice Christians" — people pretending to believe in order to get material benefits. If we keep reading in this passage, we'll see more evidence that God's primary solution to poverty is the family: "I would have younger widows marry, bear children, manage their households, so as to give the adversary no occasion to revile us. For some have already turned away to follow Satan. If any believing woman has relatives who are really widows, let her assist them; let the church not be burdened, so that it can assist those who are real widows." (1 Tim. 5:9,10; 14-16)

As giving flows outward from the Center to family, then to church family, then to our human family, both the giver and the recipient are responsible at each stage. If giving is not done this way — if plundered money is shoveled to unaccountable strangers — then the "gift" often becomes a weapon, wounding both the benefactor and the beneficiary. Damaging lives is not what giving is supposed to do. Indifference to that damage is not "compassion."

Now, when thinking about the responsibilities of the giver, it's fair to ask whether some churches have outsourced some of their support duties to the government while they've built big, beautiful facilities with every possible amenity. I can't answer the question, but it's a matter for the elders of each church to address, prayerfully.

Christian giving requires faith. To the natural human mind, this kind of giving seems exclusive. "Us Four and No More," disbelievers will charge. They imagine that the poor outside the church won't be helped. Yet the Christian church has fed, clothed, housed, liberated, protected and educated more people outside its circle than any other group — by far. It works. The state church's model doesn't. Maybe because robbery is the opposite of charity.

"Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy." (Ephesians 4:28)

© Dan Popp

 

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