The Elders of Christ Church (Moscow, ID) on Charity

Posted: February 11, 2010 by Scott Kistler in Ethics
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One of the hard things to sort out in the Christian life is how one should respond to need.  At what point does giving to someone actually do harm?  At the one extreme, you can take Matthew 5:42 [“Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.” ESV)] to the limit and say that there are no conditions for giving, ever.  On the other, you might say that a person has to earn the right to charity.  Kevin and I were discussing this last year in the comments on this post, and I hope to get back to that discussion this weekend (this time I mean it, Kevin).

Here’s an attempt by Doug Wilson’s church elders to explore the issue of mercy in a recent document that they produced that explored a range of issues of Christian social responsibility, posted on Wilson’s blog.  The relevant section for this discussion:

We affirm that the basis of our charity is to be our recognition of the mercy we have received from God (2 Cor. 4:1).We do not extend mercy because others have earned it and may demand it of us, but rather we extend it with the knowledge that we received it when we did not deserve it (Eph. 2:1-7). Freely we have received, freely we are to give (Matt. 10:8), and we are to give in this way without thought of repayment (Luke 14:12-13).

We deny that men must earn their right to be shown charity. No one can disqualify himself from the realm of mercy ministry by rebellion or sin. While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Rom. 5:8). Those who are merciful shall receive mercy (Matt. 5:7). In mercy we give nothing but what was given to us. At the same time, rebellion and sin do distort a person’s sense of what he needs to receive (Prov. 23:35). But we are called to give, as far as it is possible with us, what a person actually needs and not necessarily what he thinks he needs (Acts 3:6).

We affirm that charity should extend equally to the “deserving poor” (1 Cor. 16:1) as well as to the “undeserving poor” (2 Thess. 3:10). Charity makes a distinction between them, but only in what is given, not in a willingness to give. The deserving poor receive, for example, gifts of money (1 Cor. 16:1), clothing (Matt. 25:38), food (Matt. 25:37), and shelter (Matt. 25:38). The undeserving poor receive accountability (Prov. 6:9), a work ethic (2 Thess. 3:12), and godly teaching (Eph. 4:28). The gleaning laws of the Old Testament recognize this distinction plainly. The poor are defined as those who are “without,” and these different categories exist because people go without different things. Some are without Christ, and are spiritually poor, while others are without food, and are physically poor. Some, in danger of starvation, are absolutely poor, while others in First World countries are relatively poor because they have an older car. Charity should be extended to all, but intelligent charity requires a knowledge of what it is they are going without.

  1. The administration of benevolence is a great challenge for the Church.

    I spoke with a fellow pastor who had noted that there was a gentleman in his Church that was selling his guns and some other prized possessions to meet his payments. He wouldn’t ask for the Church’s help until he disposed of all his assets.

    At the same time, you can get a request from a family to help on their water bill when you know that they still have premium cable and high speed internet and recently bought the new iphone.

    The challenge is in how and when you dispense “charity” to the family who should really pay their water bill before their cable bill and acquiring a new phone. People have enough common sense not to ask a Church to purchase their iphone, but if they purchased the iphone knowing they would be short on their bills and they then ask the Church for help, should you pay out?

    Our policy is to allow the deacons the discretion to pay out, but if there is a repeated request, they would then notify the elders that this might be a situation requiring some counsel.

    For the man who sold all of his possessions and then asks, there’s a sense in which he has “earned” charity, which is an oxymoron, but the likelihood of helping such a person long-term would likely increase because of a trust in the person’s responsibility.

    I do think that the Church needs to be willing to show lifelong charity in some situations, namely Orphans and Widows. The first line of care should come from immediate family. The Church should then step in when all other means have been exhausted.

  2. Scott Kistler says:

    Rick, I think that you have a good line of reasoning on those questions. I like the idea of requests being handled first by deacons and then by the elders as a spiritual matter when it may be developing into a pattern. The man who sold his possessions seems to have a firm grasp on his responsibilities, while others may not. And widows and orphans need to have a special place in our concerns, as they do for God.

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