I had a series in mind about freedom, government, taxation, and Christianity but discussion over the first of those entries has led me to take a detour and cover some preliminary ground. The original post was titled ‘The Christian Church shouldn’t use the Government to do THEIR good deeds.’ I posted it to my blog but it received attention and criticism on my facebook page.
I drew some flak even from conservative Christians who ostensibly abide by ‘limited government.’ It appeared to me that there is some important ground that needs to be covered. The following is in part a response to the criticism of the original note but also worthy in its own right.
Important caveat: the following is written BY A CHRISTIAN and pertains ONLY TO CHRISTIANS, and then, ONLY THE CHRISTIANS THAT TAKE THE BIBLE AS THEIR FINAL AUTHORITY. I hope that is sufficiently clear.
1 Peter 4:17: “For it is time for judgment to begin with the family of God; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God?”
Sprinkled throughout the Scriptures is evidence of God’s fondness for a certain order of interaction with the human race. The idea that judgment begins with the family of God is not isolated to Peter and the idea that there are stages in judgment is not isolated to the apostles. For example, Jesus himself alludes to it in Mark 7 when he at first refuses to minister to the Syrophoenician Woman, saying, “First let the children eat all they want.”
Out of all the peoples and nations on the planet, God chose to work his plan through one particular person, Abraham, and then one particular nation, Israel, until such time that he revealed himself personally. At that point, his goal was to reach the world through the Church. The Gospel came first to the Jews because it was only appropriate that it do so. Paul warns in Romans 11:13-21 that there was a pattern to God’s work, beginning with the Jews: “For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either.”
There are many, many passages that discuss or illustrate this pattern but the easiest perhaps is to just read the book of Acts and watch how the disciples conduct their affairs: first for the Jews, then for the Gentiles. Over and over again. Even Paul, the ‘apostle to the gentiles’ begins with the Jews whenever he gets the chance. See for example, Acts 11:1-18, 14:1, 17:1, and illustrating God’s pattern nicely, Acts 18: 5-6
I am not a dispensationalist. I am not saying that God gives different rules to different groups. But there are different expectations that seemed to be based largely on the degree in which a person or group has witnessed God’s mighty acts. This pattern can be discerned all over the place. For example, Jesus said, “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains.” (John 9:41)
Understanding God’s pattern of interacting with us and noting how he holds those he reveals himself to to a different and higher standard of scrutiny, and giving these same the ‘firstfruits’ before moving on to others, is important to detect. Why? Because it is evident that the mantle currently rests on the Christian church. “For it is time for judgment to begin with the family of God…”
It seems a bit absurd that God would delegate to weak humans the task of spreading the word of salvation but this is again part of God’s pattern of using the weak rather then the strong to accomplish his will. It is a great honor and compliment that God chooses to use us in this way. But what happens if we stop doing what God wants us to do? Will he leave the task simply unfinished? Will he intervene to make up the gap?
For example, if there is some tribe in South America that never hears the Gospel because some missionary group was unable to receive the funding for it, will God step in to personally help that tribe?
Will that tribe pay the consequences for the failure of Christians to bring the message to them? Will God hold Christians accountable for that failure?
These are hard questions meant only to illustrate the principle. I am not saying they are easy to answer. Nor am I saying that God might not make exceptions here and there. I am saying that according to the Scriptures, God tends to use means to carry out his will, and the current means for bringing salvation to the world is the Church, and the Church will be held responsible for how it stewards this responsibility. It appears the Church is the last stop in the chain of responsibility before the End.
With this behind us, we understand that it is important for those of us in the Church to pay special attention to what responsibilities have been given to the Church. Bringing the Gospel to the world is certainly high on the list (Matt. 28) but the New Testament is filled with other responsibilities, and these seem to be associated with the Great Commission (in Matt 28, which I just cited):
Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.
Here we see a plank in God’s methodology: he aims to transform the world by having disciples made. Or, to put it bluntly, the goal is to create more Christians whom you can then instruct regarding obedience rather then to legislate obedience. The Great Commission is not the Great Conquering.
Though I am adamantly opposed to abortion and homosexual ‘marriage’ my claim is not on those in the world. My claim, the Church’s claim, is on those in the body to obey the things commanded to us. We cannot demand that the world conform to Christian notions of morality but we can demand that Christians do! This isn’t to say that there won’t be judgment for the world. See again 1 Peter 4 which clearly says there will be, but after judgment for the Church. Nor is it to say that we should be indifferent to moral issues in the secular sphere. It is to say, however, that how we approach those issues needs to be informed by God’s preferred methodology for redemption.
For example, rather then outlawing sexual immorality, make every person a Christian who willingly obeys the Scriptures and aims to express their sexuality in the ways that God intends. This would make the laws superfluous, but more then that, even if you had the laws on the books and people were obeying them, it would be for all of the wrong reasons. They would still be ‘in their sins.’
As an illustration of all of this, I submit the whole fifth and sixth chapters of 1 Corinthians.
But consider especially: “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside.” 1 Cor 5:12
It is unfortunate that I hear so many nonChristians and Christians say that we aren’t supposed to be judging people. It just isn’t so. There are some parameters to our judging and we should have the other person’s interests in mind when we do it, but it is not expressly forbidden in our lives. That is an aside from the principle I mean to document here which is that the Church’s task is to disciple those within the Church and leave those outside the Church to God. And we are supposed to grow the number of people inside the Church. The logic behind the whole approach is that within the Church the claims of Christ on us are shared and mutual and on that basis we can appeal to each other (1 Cor 6:9-11, 6:19-20, Philemon 8, Phil 4:2, etc)
The Church will be judged, it will be judged before the world is judged, and it will be judged according to a different set of expectations.
It is imperative, then, that we Christians pay attention to the whole of the mission given to the Church. This is where my contention that it is wrong for the Christian to give to the government the duties assigned to the Christian to do ties in. Most of us would agree that we wouldn’t give to the government the task of preaching the Gospel, but the passages about caring for each other come just as often and on the same basis.
To illustrate, consider this passage in Acts 2:43:
All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods they gave to anyone as he had need.
We note the following. 1. The Christians didn’t elect their own people to political positions in Jerusalem at which point they forced nonChristians to sell THEIR possessions to help those in need. 2. The Christians didn’t dismiss their obligation to one another by simply saying, “Don’t worry, God will provide for your needs.” God certainly will provide for our needs, but just as he used mere mortals to bring his message of salvation to the world he uses mere mortals to provide for our material needs. At least, that is how it ought to be within the Church.
It is absurd to say (as I have heard many, many, times) that ‘God will provide’ as though the provision will come out of nowhere like Elijah’s ravens as a rule. One may as well say that we need not send missionaries to the South American tribe. God will provide, right? Yes, of course he provides, but he provides through people. In particular, he aims to provide through his people, the Church.
Was John joking when he said, in 1 John 3:17, “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?” ?
John is essentially wondering aloud if you are a Christian at all if you have the means but do not help out your brother in need. (See also 1 John 4:19-21) Paul is just as blunt in 1 Tim 5:8 when giving advice for what should be taught to believers, “If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”
Ouch. Worse than an unbeliever? This is pretty clear language. There is no dancing around it.
As Christians, we are supposed to tend to the needs within our personal sphere’s of influence. We are accountable for that which we see, not that which we are blind to. Nor are we given a mandate to hand off to others the duties given to ourselves to do. This is illustrated again in 1 Timothy, a little later then the passage already given:
If any woman who is a believer has widows in her family, she should help them and not let the church be burdened with them, so that the church can help those widows who are really in need. 1 Tim. 5:16
If we extended the principle further, for those who think it is a good idea to use the government to do our charitable works, we might say that any church who has needy people in their midst should help them, and not let the government be burdened with them, so that the government can help those who are really in need.
Of course, one wonders if there would ever really be anyone in need if the American Church was enthusiastically practicing these principles.
The point here is that the principle is that we each tend to those within our immediate sphere of influence, working outwards. This is not to say we should not care about those in the world or outside our immediate sphere. It is to say that working in this fashion you will indeed eventually get to all of those people.
This is illustrated in part by Galatians 6:10
Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.
Clearly we are concerned about all people, but the guidance is ‘as we have opportunity,’ ie, that which we come across in our daily lives, with a preference to those in the family of believers.
Given the vast wealth of the American Church, that there is a needy Christian anywhere within it is a great scandal.
(We know of course that some people by attitude or action or refusal of help will remain needy no matter what we do. Since people will no doubt read into this more than I have written, I will hasten to clarify that I am not saying we should do nothing even for these or assume that any person who is needy belongs in this category. My point is quite the opposite, that there are needy people in the Church precisely because local congregations are very often not doing what they can or ought).
Jesus’ words in John 13:34-35 I think have been misconstrued both within and without of the Church.
A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.
It is frequently alluded that Christians will be known by their love, and this means to many that Christians walk around with some sort of benevolent air. The passage is more specific than that. The command is to love one another. More than that, the love that Christians have for each other is the sign to the world. It isn’t our love for the random person on the street or some fellow half way around the world, per se. The sign to the world is our love for one another. And we know from other passages that love, true godly love, dies. One who loves another lays down their life for him. (John 15:13, Eph 5:25-33, 1 John 3:16)
I do not believe that Jesus is joking here.
Evidently, it is not our general attitude towards the outer world that is the ‘sign’ to the world but rather our attitude towards each other, and our conduct towards each other, that is the sign to the world.
Which again, is not to say that we don’t have a concern for the world. But it is to note that God apparently has a preferred method by which he intends us to display it.
It actually makes sense when one looks at it more closely. John said that we cannot say we love God whom we can’t see if we do not love our brother whom we can. (1 John 4:20) How can we say we love people of the world whom we cannot see if we cannot love those in our own families? In our own local congregation? In our own community?
Is it any surprise then that Paul counsels that leaders of the Church prove their ability first of all by being sound, godly, leaders of their own homes?
He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him with proper respect. If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church? 1 Tim 3:4-5
It’s the same principle.
On the view of some Christians, if we can delegate to the government or other secular entities the care for the needy within us, why not go further and suggest that fathers and mothers turn over the care of their children to other entities? Why not? It certainly seems as though other entities are ready and willing to pick up that duty and of course experts know best, right? (“It takes a village…”)
Let others believe what they may, we Christians must conform ourselves to what the Scriptures say. These passages I have provided are the tip of the iceberg and they all remain pertinent today.
It is common to hear Christians opine that caring for the poor or dealing with other ‘social’ issues is not the task of the Church, preaching the Gospel is. This is not supported by the Scriptures.
Consider for example Acts 6 where the disciples were getting bogged down with ministering to the physical needs of their fellow Christians. They appointed seven men from among them to take on the task. They were worried that the ministry of the word would be neglected- they did not think that the ministry of the word was the only ministry that was the church’s responsibility. They clearly believed that this ‘material’ ministry was their responsibility (see vs. 3). (Nor did they ask the secular authorities to tax everyone ‘their fair share’ and turn over the task to the government). See also Galatians 2:10.
No, the ‘social’ issues are just as much part of the Church’s mission as preaching and presenting the Gospel. The Great Commission is to make disciples, preaching and teaching ALL that is commanded, and teachings regarding how to tend to the variety of needs within the church and without are also teachings.
This might be the first time you’ve ever heard anyone present the Scriptures in this way. You might feel convicted, as I was, when these principles began to soak in. You might feel overwhelmed. And yet these principles bring with them an element of comfort: the problems of the world are overwhelming, true, but we are not called to solve all of them; we are called to do good as we have opportunity, right in our own midst, right where we have the most influence. You cannot control how the world, or even the Church at large behaves and conducts its affairs… but you can control how you interact with the world and fellow believers.
Nothing prevents you from seeing your immediate family in a new light, or your fellow Christians as within your area of responsibility. Nothing prevents you- in fact, God stands ready to empower you for the task.