Now, this is easily shown true from the Torah, the prophets, and the NT. Jesus certainly demonstrated it in his ministry, and he taught it in his parables.
In modern church life, we tend to reduce this to the benevolence program, and figure that the key question is whether the church does benevolence at some minimally acceptable level. That is, while we see evangelism as what converted people should be all about, we see benevolence as merely a means to an end, that is, evangelism. We measure the effectiveness of our benevolence, not in terms of people helped, but baptisms.
And that means we’re guilty of objectivizing or instrumentalizing non-members, treating them as conversion prospects rather than fully human, God-beloved individuals to be loved for themselves rather than for what they can do for us. And so we violate one of the underlying themes of the Sermon on the Mount.
On the other hand, we should do all our benevolence in the name of Jesus. It’s not good enough just to feed the hungry. We should feed the hungry for the sake of Jesus, because of Jesus, in Jesus, through Jesus, by Jesus. Pick your preposition. Our benevolence should be Jesus saturated — because we want to bring glory to him. To Jesus, and therefore not to our congregation, our denomination, or ourselves. We are not competing with the Baptists. We’re competing with hunger — and Satan.
Because we see benevolence as a means of evangelism, we don’t emphasize benevolence for our own members. They already know Jesus and so aren’t objects for our manipulation. On the other hand, in the scriptures, benevolence is always first for those in the church. It’s never only for the church, but we take care of our own.
(Acts 2:44-47 ESV) 44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45 And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.
Not a word about the church helping non-Christians in Acts 2. And Paul sees things the same way —
(Gal. 6:9-10 ESV) 9 And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. 10 So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.
So, obviously, the early church did not see benevolence as a way of inducing people to read a tract or attend a Bible study. They acted out of a singular, undivided love for one another. After all,
(1 Tim. 5:8 ESV) 8 But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.
And if the church is our spiritual family, the family we’ll be with for all eternity, the same principle applies.
But dealing with the members of your own church is a rather (forgive the French) icky process. I mean, the most thankless, difficult job in any church is not teaching middle schoolers (which I am not holy enough to do) or diaper changing duty in the nursery (other people’s babies stink much more than your own, you know). It’s dealing with financial needs from the church’s members. I mean, you get to see people’s worst side, and it’s hard to lay down objective guidelines so that you’re being both generous and responsible.
I don’t buy the argument that we give to our own members even when we know they don’t deserve it. Paul wrote,
(2 Thess. 3:10-13 ESV) 10 For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. 11 For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. 12 Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. 13 As for you, brothers, do not grow weary in doing good.
But, Paul, it’s just so hard to say “no” to one of our own members!
I most certainly do not have this figured out, but here are some thoughts —
- The avoidance of confrontation is not a good reason to say “yes.” We are specifically commanded not to enable laziness. If a member can work, they may not sponge off the church. Period.
- Teach regular classes on money management. We’ve done this several times, and it’s amazing the mess some members get themselves into. Helping our members become better money managers will save many marriages. It may even avoid a suicide.
- One condition of charity is that the member agrees to take the steps necessary to avoid the problem in the future. Maybe they should be required to buy renters insurance (if their apartment was stolen from). Maybe they should be required to do a budget. (I’ve refused help to a family in deep need because they refused to budget their money. It’s not negotiable.)
- Don’t pay off a member’s debts unless the member demonstrates a willingness to make the necessary changes so it doesn’t happen again. Obviously, we can all run into unexpected losses or expenses — but some people just routinely outspend their income and then expect the church to pay off their bills.
- Bankruptcy is not a sin. When it’s abused, it can be sinful. But the Torah provided debt relief for the poor every seventh year. It’s not wrong and can be the only way for a Christian to escape debt. But, again, they have to make the lifestyle changes needed to be responsible going forward.
- Welfare is not sinful. It is when it’s an excuse to be lazy, but it can also be every bit the social safety net it was meant to be. The Torah required that a portion of the tithe be paid to the government to support the needy. Again, we should not tolerate abuse of the system, but sometimes the best benevolence program is getting a member on food stamps, in subsidized housing, on disability benefits, or on Medicaid. We pay for these services, and it’s not wrong to use them when they aren’t being abused. Don’t let members become a burden on the church when there’s a government program designed to help them. And help them figure it out and sign up. Most churches have social workers who are expert in these things. Let them use their talents to honor God.
- I would have one person as the first point of contact, overseen by a single elder, so that most requests can be handled in confidence. I’ve been at more than one elder meeting where the hat was passed to help an unnamed member pay a power bill or repair a car. I’m happy to trust someone to make those calls. I don’t need to know to be generous.
- This one person should be a highly differentiated personality who loves helping people — a rare and precious find. “Highly differentiated” means he or she doesn’t much care what other people think of him or her. They care more about meeting their own, internal standards than the standards of others. These people (I’m one) often come across as unsympathetic because they aren’t trying to win anyone’s approval. But some in this category can be very passionate about helping those in need. They won’t express it the way others do, but that’s okay. This position requires someone who can say “no” to a friend who is in need but won’t make a budget. Enabling sinful behavior is sinful — and it takes a specially gifted person to make these hard calls without becoming so cynical that she never helps anyone.
- Having one person as the point of contact insures a consistent and fair outcome. There may be a committee or other volunteers involved, but the request should always be made to the same person — or else members will ask for help from the person they are closest to and create a risk of inconsistent treatment.
- Put it in the church budget. And expect to go over budget. Don’t worry. Your church has members who will be glad to replenish the funds when needed. God will provide.
Now, once you’ve set up a way to handle internal needs, then you should turn to serving the needy outside of your congregation.
(2 Thess. 3:6-8 ESV) 6 Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. 7 For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, 8 nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you.