The Church and Benevolence

The facts are clear: with welfare reform, the cuts made in current social programs will net $54 billion. However, there are really no fewer poor people, nor hungry children, than before the cuts were made. These people have been the focus of heated argument in the halls of Congress. The argument now shifts to the states, where already, many governors are seeking to divert federal money away from the poor and into other programs (in Texas, Governor Bush is planning to underwrite his proposed property tax cut with this money).

Eventually, and we are seeing the first signs of it even now, the argument about what to do with the poor will land at the doorstep of the church. The question, which needs to be answered well before the problems develop, is what will the church do to respond to this challenge?

The answer is probably two-fold: First, we must continue to hold the line against any and all scripturally unauthorized programs, organizations or cooperations set up for the church to handle this issue, and second, we must do further study, teaching and application of New Testament principles directed toward the individual Christian concerning his responsibility to the poor.

Sadly, we are most likely more comfortable with the first part of the answer than with the second. It is clear that we are to stand on scripture, and whatever the proper term of the moment, be it “society” or “adjunct” or “brotherhood program” or “campaign,” anything which goes beyond God’s plan for local, autonomous churches is simply against scripture. We have fought this battle, and will continue to fight this battle, for when it is lost, the church loses sight of its mission.

It is my opinion, and strictly opinion, that most brotherhood benevolence programs, and indeed most government programs for the poor, arise from our refusal to deal with the second part of our two-fold answer. We do not like to look at the poor, we do not like to associate with them, and if the church (or a collective of churches) or the government can do something to alleviate their circumstances without my having any personal involvement beyond my wallet, so much the better.

The scriptures, however, stand in direct contrast to this idea. Our responsibilities regarding passages such as Galatians 6:10 or James 1:27 call out to us, requiring more than our wallet alone can provide. While it is true that Jesus did not come to end poverty, it is also clear that He summons us to practice compassion (see Lk. 10:25-37). Do we actually believe we can be so cavalier about the physical needs of others, yet profess to love their souls unendingly?

James wrote about those who professed faith, but had no actions which proved faithfulness, using compassion as an example: “If a brother or a sister is without clothing or in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself” (Jas. 2:15-17).

If our very faith may be called into question by our refusal to deal with those in need, is there any question that our love of others can be questioned as well? We cannot ignore the poor and expect God to have compassion on us.

Paul, in his letter to the Galatian churches, admonished us to “do good to all men.” It is certain that we are to bring others to Christ, but it is just as certain that Christians, as individuals, are to be merciful and compassionate to the point where people know that we and care for the souls of others as our most fervent mission.

No amount of brotherhood programs (even if they were not wholly unauthorized by scripture) can’take the place of individual people of God who care.