I have been involved in Christian apologetics for a little over 20 years, with about 7 years of ‘professional’ church work under my belt. I’ve had many, many conversations with unbelievers, online and off. Many, if not most, were not raised as atheists, but were former Christians. We tended to focus on argument and evidence (ie, the merits or demerits of Christianity), but in many cases, it was clear this had very little to do with their falling away. It usually had to do with some unloving thing some Christians, or perhaps their whole church, did to them, or those they loved. You can guess the most common word heard: “hypocrites!”
Notwithstanding the fact that the inability of Christians to live up to their own worldview is not only predicted by Christian doctrine, but is the point of Christianity, it never occurs to them that if their problem is the hypocrites (people espousing a standard that they don’t live up to), that is testimony to the fact that they have high regard for the ‘standard.’ Rather then discrediting Christianity, they affirm its power; rather than walking away from the church, maybe they should instead show all of us ‘sinners’ how it is to be done! Think: “There has been only one Christian. They caught him and crucified him–early.” (Mark Twain)
Twain’s remark reflects a common sentiment. I hear things like it all the time. But it isn’t a fair characterization in the slightest, and doesn’t do justice to reality. In point of fact, there wouldn’t be Christians today, at all, if not for the undeniable historical fact that for nearly three hundred years, in the face of intense, frequent persecution, Christians put their faith into action in a powerful way, especially in reference to the poor of the Roman Empire. Castigate the Church Institutional for drifting away from these profoundly inspiring roots all you want, but there is no denying the impact of Christian charity on the growth of the Christianity prior to Constantine.
At an apologetics conference this weekend, I was delighted to hear a speaker addressing such issues. He referenced the ‘apologetics of love.’ (Ie, ‘Love’ persuades when reason and argument fail). This is certainly been something that I have been sensitive to for many years now. But, knowing a little about his politics, I thought a short conversation would be in order. 🙂
This essay is not a rebuttal to him, per se, but since it is the first time the topic has come up since I penned a lengthy essay on this very point, I wanted to take the occasion to re-visit it.
So, I asked him if he had heard of Julian the Apostate. I was pleased to hear that he had, which is itself somewhat rare in the Church, but sad that he was not aware, or had not yet related the significance of Julian’s approach, to Christian charity. Julian complained:
Whilst the pagan priests neglect the poor, the hated Galileans devote themselves to works of charity, and by a display of false compassion have established and given effect to their pernicious errors. See their love-feasts, and their tables spread for the indigent. Such practice is common among them, and causes a contempt for our gods.
In response, he launched government philanthropic programs in an attempt to render the Christian message impotent. In my lengthy essay, “How Julian the Apostate Defeated the Church in America,” I argue that what Julian the Apostate attempted to do has been achieved in our day… with the active help of Christians. Ironically, Christians like this speaker at the apologetics conference, who by all appearances, ought to know better.
His argument was that part of the reason why the Gospel proclamation doesn’t get a fair hearing these days is because of our ‘lovelessness.’ By ‘lovelessness’ there was the sense that he meant, among other things, not supporting massive government entitlement programs, managed by experts. He seemed to be unaware of the fact that prior to FDR, there were Christian charitable endeavors in abundance. In fact, they were so abundant, that this was raised as an argument against Christian charities, and for the bureaucratization of ‘charity.’ He did not know that Christians themselves were among those who made such arguments, and Christians themselves that backed efforts to put ‘experts’ in charge of society’s altruism. The Church, and the multitude of local organizations that formed to help the poor, was deemed ‘inefficient.’
This gentleman’s own apparent ignorance about this (he looked at me with disbelief and made some comments about the Church lacking the expertise that ‘case managers’ have) proves the point of my essay: “The fact that Christians displayed their generosity in this way has been completely forgotten, such that they get no credit for it, now.”
If even this gentleman, who has thought about such things and is a stout Christian, who almost certainly was aware of the vast impact of the ‘Social Gospel’ movement, did not connect that movement’s success in institutionalizing charity with the impression today that the Church is loveless, what of the multitudes who get their information from Twitter?
The institutionalization of charity has had several profound consequences that I don’t think the Christians from 1900-1930 anticipated.
1., The taxation to support ‘government charity’ sucks funds away from individual Christians who obviously then do not have it in order to express their own altruistic desires.
It’s all there in Bastiat:
[This is seen,] The fifty millions expended by the State cannot be spent, as they otherwise would have been, by the tax-payers. It is necessary to deduct, from all the good attributed to the public expenditure which has been effected, all the harm caused by the prevention of private expense, unless we say that James B. would have done nothing with the crown that he had gained, and of which the tax had deprived him; [… ] He would have become a member of the Mutual Assistance Society, but now he cannot; this is what is not seen. On one hand, are the enjoyments of which he has been deprived, and the means of action which have been destroyed in his hands; on the other, are the labour of the drainer, the carpenter, the smith, the tailor, the village-schoolmaster, which he would have encouraged, and which are now prevented – all this is what is not seen. 
2., Christians aren’t the only people subject to taxation; since non-Christians are taxed as well, and the taxes of each group go to the same government programs, there is no particular reason why anyone would suppose that the Christians are any more ‘generous’ than anyone else. There is no particular reason… and so, no one supposes it.
3., There is no end or limit to the ‘charitable’ impulse of the State, such that the taxes always go up to pay for an increasing number of services, administered by a continually growing number of experts (who are more likely to be secularists, than Christians), with the result that there is very little for the individual or small group of Christians to do, even if they wanted to.
The example that the gentleman gave was of bringing meals to the sick. I have been both the recipient and giver of such a kindness, and I don’t mean to diminish it. But, if you happen to be thinking, “Non-Christians do that, too… and/or …county services has been known to do that, too… what does it possibly say about the veracity of Christianity?” you’re starting to get the picture. The early Church went above and beyond, which is precisely one of the reasons why their testimony had the impact it did. Today, ‘above and beyond’ is handled by the State, and Christians have only the ‘altruistic scraps’ that fall from the table… that anyone can do. Christians helped set that table… which no one remembers.
4. With very little left to practically do that large institutions (eg, the State) aren’t already doing, with diminished resources to do even those things, what it means to be ‘loving’ has been reduced to attitudes, words, and sentiments.
In other words, your Christian witness is evaluated based on whether or not you raise your voice in a conversation. I am convinced that many of the atheists I’ve talked to, if we could cut through the crap, have an argument that amounts to basically this: “The resurrection of Jesus did not happen because if it did happen, then I would have to be an ass like you, hating on gays and depriving women of abortions. And I don’t want to be an ass.”
5. And homosexuality and abortion are almost the only issues left for Christians to take a stand on, since much of the other things we are concerned about have been handed over to the State.
With the final result that Christians come across as legalistic bigots.
In a whopping case of beautiful irony, the Christians of a generation or two ago joined forces with non-Christians to give governmental backing to the ‘social Gospel,’ in the name of all that is best about Christianity, in view of the pure grace of the Gospel, but the eventual (inevitable?) effect was that the Christians that would come would be left without a leg to stand on.
Our apologetic for Christianity fails in large part because people do not believe that we ourselves really believe what we are saying. In the meantime, the types of activities that would validate our testimony are being carried out by the State (which many Christians support). It’s a recipe for… well, exactly what we’re seeing. The greatest ‘crimes’ in our society now consist of things like “he looked at me wrong!” and if you did ever suggest that maybe people could better administer their own money, you’ll be assailed as ‘selfish.’ Not exactly the motivation for generosity that Paul had in mind in 2 Cor., I suspect.
So, what to do about it?
That would probably be another 5 blog entries, but honestly, it would be more productive if you thought it out yourself. What I will say is that if we don’t do anything about it, all the evidence and argument in the world is not going to persuade most of the people that we talk to. An ‘apologetic from love’ is, indeed, probably the most powerful defense of the Christian faith that we can make. Consider for yourself what that might look like in your own life, and the life of your congregation, or the Church in general, and then contemplate whether or not you think you could actually pull it off, even if you tried.
And then I think you have a measure of the problem.