The older I get, the more I appreciate the law of unintended consequences. It posits that every time you act, there will be a result that you anticipated and a result that you didn’t anticipate. The members of the human race tend to focus so hard on what they want to accomplish that they don’t see what they will accomplish without intending to.
I think this principle has been at work in the non-institutional churches of Christ ever since the brotherhood controversies of the 1950s and ‘60s. In that time, many preachers argued—correctly, I think—that churches are not authorized to provide for the needs of the world’s poor. As the saying goes, general benevolence is to be a work of individuals, not a work of the church.
In many churches, this preaching and teaching accomplished its end. Even now, I am part of a congregation that does not go beyond what has been written in the way it spends the Lord’s money. However, I believe it also accomplished something its adherents did not intend—a neglect of the individual Christian’s responsibility to care for the poor.
When I was growing up, I heard countless sermons on “the issues”. These sermons relied on texts ranging from the familiar (“Let not the church be burdened!” in 1 Timothy 5:16) to the obscure (“Hock their horses!” in Joshua 11:6). I learned that James 1:27 does not authorize the church to act, but I heard much less about what it meant for my actions. When it came to the poor, “If a man does not work, neither should he eat,” received much more play. I wonder if, even as brethren were careful to separate the work of the church from the work of the individual, they conflated the work of the individual and political activism.
As I have written before https://hisexcellentword.blogspot.com/2020/02/voting-and-christian.html , it is difficult to know how to apply the law of Christ in the voting booth. It is simple to know how Christians should care for the poor and vulnerable. James 1:27 is a good start. So is Luke 12:33. So is everything that the Bible says about mercy.
Honestly, this is a struggle for me, as I think it is for many Christians. I don’t want to get played by a con artist. I struggle with the extent to which many poor people are responsible for their own problems, and therefore may not deserve help (Note: if you are giving something to someone who deserves it, that is justice, not mercy). By God’s grace, though, I think I’m making progress.
I assemble with many Christians who are better at this than I am, but I think we all have room to grow here. We have to be more concerned with showing compassion and less concerned about looking foolish. We must learn to see more clearly the value that Christ places on everyone.
This has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with His call to discipleship. No, general benevolence is not a work of the church, but it has to be our work as individuals—filling the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of everyone we encounter. There are lots of ways for us to do this, but every one of us needs to be doing something. When God has been so merciful to us, we must show mercy to others.
O Lord, do not rebuke me
Nor in Your anger speak,
But come to me with mercy,
For I am worn and weak.
O Lord, I need Your healing;
My bones are filled with fear;
My soul is greatly troubled;
How long till You appear?
Turn back, O Lord, and rescue;
In lovingkindness, save;
The dead do not remember
Nor thank You from the grave.
My sighs have made me weary;
I drench my bed with woes;
My eyes have swelled with sorrow,
Exhausted by my foes.
O sinners, leave my presence;
O foes, depart from me;
My prayer has been accepted;
The Lord has heard my plea.
He hears the supplication
I offer to His name;
Their scheming will be baffled;
Their plots will end in shame.
In 1 Timothy 6:17, Paul embarks on a familiar New Testament theme. Don’t trust money; trust God instead. However, his reasoning is different here than elsewhere. Unlike Jesus, he doesn’t warn us that we can’t serve both God and Mammon, nor does he repeat his claim in Colossians 3:5 that greed is a form of idolatry. Instead, he warns rich Christians away from trusting in riches because riches are. . . uncertain.
Uncertain? That doesn’t sound so bad! However, once we recognize how large a problem the uncertainty of wealth truly is, we will be far less inclined to entrust ourselves to it.
First, wealth is uncertain in prospect. I know Christians who always have some new get-rich-quick scheme every time I talk to them. So far, none of these schemes have resulted in riches.
Sometimes, people’s hopes for wealth founder because of foolishness. At others, they founder because of chance. In 1993, some of the brightest minds in finance, including a Nobel Prize winner, founded a hedge fund called Long-Term Capital Management. They thought they had discovered a way to get great returns without risk. However, the wrong combination of financial crises in 1997 and 1998 destroyed LTCM. It lost billions and was liquidated in 2000.
Similar dangers beset our hopes of holding on to the wealth we already have. Ecclesiastes 5:13-14 comments on the tragedy of holding on carefully to one’s money, only to lose it through a bad investment. This often is a modern tragedy too. Con artists, needy relatives, negligent subordinates, and economic shocks all can part us from what we’ve earned.
Worse still, just as we can’t rely on getting wealthy or on keeping our wealth, we can’t rely on wealth to protect us either. “Money is the answer for everything,” the Preacher scoffs in Ecclesiastes 10:19, and so it seems to the people of the world. As long as you’re rich, your riches will keep you safe.
That’s not the case. Many things can separate us from our wealth, and there also are problems that no amount of wealth can solve. Money might buy the pretense of love, but it can’t purchase the reality. God is more impressed when we give away our riches than when we accumulate them. Some diseases remain stubbornly incurable no matter how much money we throw at them, and in the end, “rich dead man” is as much an oxymoron as “jumbo shrimp”.
Basically, money is good for the little things in life, but it’s worthless for the big ones. When we’re dying, none of us will look back in satisfaction on the things that money bought. The people who build their lives around money, though numerous, are foolish.
God is a much better investment. Wealth is known for betraying those who love it, but He is known for being faithful to those who love Him. He will never leave us, and there is no challenge too great for Him to overcome. Ultimately, the treasure we lay up in heaven is the only treasure that matters.
The other day, I got a text from my brother. It read in part, “If you want a mental exercise, compare and contrast Christianity, Stoicism, and the “Dokkōdō”. See any commonalities?” I’ve read my Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, so I have a handle on Stoicism, but I’d never heard of the “Dokkōdō”. Turns out it’s a set of 21 life precepts written down by the Japanese master swordsman Miyamoto Musashi shortly before he died. It’s basically Buddhist in outlook.
There certainly are similarities between Stoicism and the “Dokkōdō”. Both are suspicious of earthly pleasure, indeed of earthly attachment of any sort, and warn that it leads people astray. Marcus Aurelius counseled that when you put your children to bed at night, you should tell yourself that they will be dead by morning. Similarly, the fifth precept of the “Dokkōdō” reads, “Be detached from desire your whole life long.” Both are essentially ascetic philosophies.
However, despite many ascetic outgrowths of Christianity through the centuries, Biblical Christianity itself is not ascetic. Instead, its perspective on both fear and desire is much more nuanced. This begins with Christianity’s understanding of the physical universe as the good creation of a good God. Though creation has been broken and marred by sin, it has not become fundamentally evil.
To the Christian, physical enjoyment is basically good as well. Every good thing given comes from God. He satisfies our hearts with food and gladness. He has provided these things so that they can be gratefully shared in by those who know and believe the truth.
Similarly, the Bible celebrates the joys of human love and relationships. Your family, friends, and brethren are supposed to matter to you. If they don’t, that’s not wisdom. It’s a spiritual problem.
This is true even of the supposed bugbear of Christianity, sexual pleasure. An entire book of the Bible, Song of Solomon, is a frankly erotic celebration of married sexuality. Sex is a good gift too!
Problems arise when these pleasures, basically good as they are, begin to lead us away from God. Sin is never an invention but rather a corruption and a distortion. Sex is a blessing in marriage, but outside of marriage it becomes an expression of selfishness that harms all involved. It’s good to enjoy the fruits of our labors, but when we forget God and are unwilling to help others, those gifts have become a trap.
More fundamentally, any blessing becomes a trap when we set it up as our god. This distinction is most apparent in Ecclesiastes. The Preacher spends the last ten chapters of the book encouraging his readers to enjoy themselves: let your clothes be white, don’t let oil be lacking on your head, and so forth. However, in the first two chapters, he describes all earthly pursuits as the height of vanity.
The problem is not pleasure. It’s trying to make your life about pleasure. In the end, such efforts will prove to be empty.
Interestingly, the Bible says the same thing about human wisdom. It too has its place (the Preacher notes that all proverbs are given by one Shepherd), but it doesn’t provide the answers to existence either. Death proves human wisdom to be vain (Is dead Musashi any better off than a dead medieval peasant?), and such wisdom also is likely to dismiss the spiritual wisdom of the gospel as foolishness. Biblically speaking, asceticism is no better than pleasure-seeking because it too is focused on the wrong things.
Rather than focusing on severe treatment of the body, Christianity focuses on Christ. He is the lens through which we see everything else. With His help, we can savor what is good and shun what is not. However, our hope is not in the savoring or the shunning but in His promise and His mercy. We look for new heavens and a new earth, set free from this present corruption, and we anticipate the resurrection of our bodies into conformity with the body of His glory. Once all these have been purified from sin and its consequences, only what is holy will remain.
Last Monday, I posted a bulletin article in which I argued that we should understand the “elder texts” in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 as elder portraits rather than elder checklists. Not surprisingly, I collected some pushback. Primarily, it came from those who were concerned that I had converted requirements into recommendations and muddied the clear truth of the text.
I will acknowledge that applying the elder portrait to a man requires a great deal of judgment from the congregation. Unless he flatly does not possess a character attribute (the lifelong bachelor cannot be said to be a one-woman man), analyzing his spiritual strengths and weaknesses is not a black-and-white matter. Instead, we ought to consider all of them in order to determine whether he rises to the overall standard of blamelessness.
Philosophically, I’m OK with that. God calls us to develop and exercise wisdom and good judgment, and brethren frequently are too quick to convert the judgment calls in Scripture (modesty is one example of such, but there are others) into bright-line rules. We too often prefer clarity to uncertainty, even when clarity is the result of us seating ourselves in the chair of Moses.
Additionally, I believe that whatever brethren may teach, in practice they make all kinds of judgment calls when appointing elders anyway. Even if we read these passages as binary checklists, where’s the breakpoint between Y and N? Is a man who lost his temper on Facebook five years ago still self-controlled? Does a man who has strangers in his home twice a year qualify as hospitable? And so forth.
This is true even of the “math qualifications”. Take “husband of one wife”, for instance. In theory, this seems simple and straightforward. In practice, it proves to be anything but. It can mean A) married, B) married, and not a polygamist, C) married only once, or D) known to be faithful to his wife.
I believe D) is correct because it’s the only interpretation that speaks to a man’s blamelessness. However, short of adopting the elder-portrait position, I’m not aware of any way to distinguish among the four. There are no relevant Scriptures, and the extrabiblical evidence is a morass. There’s even a case to be made for C); the Romans believed it was virtuous to have only one spouse throughout life.
In short, we are forced back on intuition in interpreting “husband of one wife”, and if our intuitions are not influenced by our convictions about a man’s overall character, we’re probably not human. Of course, this is to say nothing of “faithful children”. Entire forests have been slaughtered in vain efforts to prove what that means!
What we are left with, then, is not a contrast between confusion on one side and clarity on the other. Instead, it is between one judgment call about blamelessness and a whole bunch of judgment calls about every item on the two lists, any one of which can mean the difference between qualified and not. We have a great deal of inspired guidance in determining whether a man is blameless; we have very little in determining what “faithful children” means. 2/2? 2/3? 1/2? 1/1? Not necessarily Christians, but personally devoted to Dad? We can claim any of these answers for our own, but once we start insisting that it is the only right answer, we run into that chair-of-Moses problem again.
Rather than heading down such a fraught path, we should frankly admit what we’re doing. We’re deciding whether it would be a good idea to make a man a leader over the local congregation. What do we know about this guy’s character? What do we see in his family? Does he have flaws that will crack wide open under the stresses of eldership?
The elder portraits are meant to guide and shape our inquiry, but they do not make the decision for us, and we should not pretend that they do. We would be fools to ignore the Holy Spirit, but neither does the Spirit deprive us of the opportunity to be wise. Is a man blameless? Once we answer that question rightly, we have what we need.