Sometimes when people talk about the responsibility of church leaders to help the church care for the poor, they think what’s being said is that church leaders have the responsibility to organize institutional strategies and programs for the church to reach out to the poor in their community.
I don’t think however that is necessarily true.
I know it is not true at least for me. It should be obvious. But if a church as an institution never has a feeding program or clothing distribution center or an orphanage, it still can be a church. Now, if the church as a church, stops preaching God’s Word and the gospel, it is no longer a church.
Where communication may break down a bit however, is that I don’t think that principle means the leadership of the church has no responsibility when it comes to helping Christians care for the poor. When Jesus told us to go and make disciples, he taught us to teach them to obey all that God’s commanded, and therefore, part of our responsibility as disciple-makers in the church is to help the church learn to obey what the Scripture teaches about our individual responsibility to the those in need. We have a responsibility after all to help our people learn to live righteous lives, and God’s Word makes clear that part of living a righteous life is having a concern for the poor.
While I do not doubt that the writers of Scripture could look at a church that has no organized way of caring for the physically needy and still see it as a church, I do doubt that these same writers would look at an individual who says that he understands the gospel and yet has no concern for the needy, and especially of course needy believers and think they are actually a Christian.
Ken Jones has said, “If the church never offers a single hot meal but preaches the gospel, then she is true to her calling.”
I don’t really have a problem with that statement, I don’t think, given that he’s talking about the church as an institution.
But I just wonder, if the same could be said about an individual Christian. Could we say of an individual Christian, as long as he says the right things, but never actually moves out in love to those in need, he is true to his calling?
I don’t think so.
“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith, but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to him, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things need for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”
“By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him.”
Now, I know people say that’s just talking about other Christians in need. O.k., sure. (Though if everyone who made this argument loved Christians like this, I don’t think we would really have much of an argument at all.)
But how about this then, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven…For you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even Gentiles do the same?”
It may be helpful I think in conversations about the church and the poor to recognize that not everyone who is saying the church is not required to help the unbelieving poor means by that it is acceptable for individual Christians to be compassionless or to opt out of helping those in need. On the other hand it would also be helpful to recognize that not everyone who says leaders of the church need to be concerned about helping their congregation think through how to show Christ’s love to the poor means by that it is required for the church as an institution or organization to have programmed mercy ministries.
In other words, sometimes when people seem to be saying the church should do less for the poor, they don’t actually mean individual Christians should stop caring as much for those who are in need but instead that the church as an institution is unique and exists to express God’s love and mercy in a unique way through the proclamation of God’s Word and the worship of God. On the other hand, sometimes when people seem to be saying the church should be doing more for the poor, they don’t actually mean primarily that the church as an institution should begin all sorts of different programmed social justice kinds of ministry, but instead that the individual Christians within the church need to be pushed and encouraged and discipled to care deeply for and love sacrificially those who are hurting around them.