Briefly

  • Scripture describes the church family as engaged in providing for basic needs of other Christians within the community. But, over the last 100-150 years, this role has been migrated to the government, para-church organizations, NGOs, and other social service groups.

  • Because basic care has been mostly removed from the church family, many Christians are no longer exposed to caring for others in need, particularly financial need.

  • Caring for the needs of others is a core Christian discipline, no less important than worship, prayer, or confession. When it is absent from our lives (or delegated), we may find our love is not challenged to grow. We may be stuck in a mode of loving money, rather than progressing toward loving our neighbor and God.


Introduction

Families work together to develop health in four areas: emotional well-being, care-giving, provision of basic needs, and rearing and socialization. There is, of course, another layer of family called the family of God. The goals here are similar to that of a family raising children. That is, Scripture describes Christian brothers and sisters working with one another in all four of these areas.

Today’s message is going to focus on the third item in that list, which is providing for the basic needs of others within the church. This is not a major activity within most church families in America simply because this activity has migrated over the last 100 years to the government and private social service organizations (some secular and some Christian).


The Church and Those in Need

There was a time when the church was the source of providing for basic needs. We ran orphanages, cared for widows and the elderly, provided health care facilities, and provided food and housing.

A lot has changed over the last 100 or so years. Today, the church dabbles in such things, and occasionally writes a check like an altruistic person drops a coin in a beggar’s cup, but most of us are not engaged with helping others with their basic needs.

Many in the church are likely to spend more on pleasures and pampering like Netflix, Starbucks, vacations, movie theaters, dining out, spa treatments, and pet grooming than we are on helping someone who is suffering. I’m not saying that we make such a stark choice. I’m not saying that we face a Starbucks our left, and a hungry family on our right and then go in and get a Caramel Frappuccino.

We simply live our lives in such a way that we don’t have suffering pierce through our day, to encounter pain, or to experience a contrast between wealth and poverty. Who wants more on our plate? It is better to pay someone to do it for us.

And besides (here’s a real perspective), we think we’re covered because we are paying someone else to do it on our behalf. Our social security and medicare taxes go to help the elderly and disabled, other taxes provide food stamps (SNAP) and assistance to families in need, our church offerings pay pastors and others to handle church family issues, and our contributions to non-profits are used for overseas disasters and local aid.

But for us to do it? Well, that is better left to the professionals, so we think. And since we think it is all being handled, we can swipe our hands as if it is done, and ignore passages from Scripture that describe us being involved in such things.

But I wonder.

Is it good that the government does this instead of us?
By not helping brothers and sisters in need, are we missing spiritual health?


The City of God

Throughout the history of the Church, up until the last 100 years, charity was practiced as a regular discipline of the spiritual life, no different than prayer or worship or confession. More than 1,500 years ago, St Augustine of Hippo described how this was essential to our spiritual health. Augustine viewed our life on earth as a journey from The City of the World to the City of God. The goods of this world, or our possessions, are used along the journey toward the City of God as we aid others, but if we instead over-indulge (spending wealth on more pleasure, pampering, luxury, privilege, etc) then we are really not moving, stuck at the City of The World. For Augustine, approaching the City of God is marked by people who forgo earthly power, security, and pleasure to dedicate themselves to the eternal truths of God, now revealed fully in the Christian faith. The Earthly City, on the other hand, consists of people who have immersed themselves in the cares and pleasures of the present, passing world.

Another way to look at Augustine’s metaphor is to consider how success is measured.

“Christianity has often been presented as a solution to the problem of success: everyone needs to succeed and God offers success to those who will believe. Success, in turn, tends to be defined in terms of power, financial security, and possessions. Presentations of this sort, parading as Christianity, abound in American culture. Augustine, like the New Testament itself, has no such “gospel.” [Keith Yandell, The City of God, Christian History & Biography, Volume 15]

For Augustine, the pursuit of worldly success is abandoned as we progress toward godly success, and this is like a journey from the City of Earth to the City of God. A key part of this success will be our relationship with money and those in need.

Who was Augustine?

Augustine of Hippo was an early Church theologian who lived 354-430 AD, and he is one of the most influential people of the early church.

He claims that his early life was marked by the world and high living. Though his mother was a Christian, he dismissed her guidance. Instead, he pursued philosophical studies at a school in Carthage, and eventually became a professor of rhetoric in Rome and then Milan. But the Spirit of God continued to pursue him as he wrestled with self-control, and eventually he had a conversion experience and healing of these desires. In response, Augustine abandoned his professorship, and eventually became a monk and then the Bishop of Hippo.

As Bishop, Augustine found himself in debate with other religions and the philosophies he had once pursued with zest. His training and experience prior to his conversion helped him to navigate the controversies.

Much of his thought was written down in 22 volumes over the course of 12 years, and helped provide guidance for the church over the next 1000 years. Within these volumes, he describes a contrast and journey between the City of Earth and The City of God, and collectively we call this work The City of God. He covers hundreds of topics in this expansive work.


A Message of Success from Scripture

In the New Testament, there wasn’t government provision for a person who fell on hard times. For example, if a woman lost her husband, she also lost her source of support. But the church operates out of love, and the notion of provision that Jesus described in Matthew 6:25-34 is given efficacy not in manna falling from heaven, but in God moving hearts to adopt and help others. And this shared responsibility for basic needs is seen in the communal nature of the church in Acts 2:45, in the ethic of religion expressed in James 1:27, or in the demonstration of the Great Commandments which is found in 1 John 3:16-18.

16 By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. 17 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? 18 Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth (1 John 3:16-18)

That is, the church provides for its people just as a head of household is expected to ensure that his nuclear family is provided for (1 Timothy 5:8).

In mentioning this, I want to point out that this practice is not modeled to us as an obligation, but as an activity from the heart. When Paul writes about giving to those in need, he is clear:

7 Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. (2 Corinthians 9:7)

That is, we aren’t helping our brother or sister as if we are a social service, but because God has filled us with love. We give because we love. That’s success.

Some Context: The Affliction in the Church of Jerusalem

When Paul is writing about giving in 2 Corinthians 9:7, it is to address a need that has become known about the Church in Jerusalem. Paul is making an appeal to the Corinthian Church to come to the aid of the Jerusalem Church. This topic of giving begins in 2 Corinthians 8:1-5 as Paul describes how the Macedonian Churches responded to the crisis . Even though the Macedonians were in a state of poverty, they joyfully gave to the Jerusalem Church. They did this not because of obligation, but because of love.

Using Augustine’s metaphor, you might say that the Macedonian Churches were close to the Kingdom of God, for they were willing to give up their possessions even though they themselves were in poverty. I imagine that the Corinthian Church is not quite as advanced, and so as Paul makes a direct appeal to the Corinthians in 2 Corinthians 9:6-15, he wants to make it clear that this is to be done out of love.


Participate in Helping Others in the Church

I am frequently asking you to help out others, to use your wealth and treasures for the benefit of others. I’m not trying to make you poor. I'm trying to challenge your love.

Many years ago when I was a teenager, there was a wise man in my life who challenged me to love. He told me that whenever I encounter something in the church that needs my energy, time, or (yes, I’m going to say it), money. Always contemplate giving joyfully, to whatever level I can.

Even if it is a minute, give.

Even if is a dollar, give.

He cautioned me to not give out of obligation or manipulation, for if I were to do this often it will eventually lead me toward bitterness, negativity, and cynicism. Give only what I can give joyfully and with love, not expecting anything in return. In addition, years later I learned that I am not to be like the tree in Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree, where I give and give until I am nothing but a smoldering stump. I am limited, and I am part of a larger community that is giving as we journey together toward the City of God. So, my giving needs to be part of an orchestra of aid as I love together with others.

And, what if I don't give? If I don't want to give out of my abundant resources, understand that this indicates how far my love needs to advance, or more importantly how much closer I need to draw toward God. For, if I’m holding onto my time and my money too tightly, spending it mostly on myself, my pleasures, and my security, then I am close to the Kingdom of the Earth. So, this is like a big flashing warning light, telling me that I need to have a greater focus and pursuit of God so that love grows within me.

But, as I’m able to joyfully love and give of my time, money, and energy toward others in need … increasingly over time … then I can see that I’m getting further away from loving money, and closer to loving God.