“You--Yes, You!--Are Responsible for Caring for the Needy”

Categories: M. W. Bassford, Meditations

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 , 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.