This blog records my transition from the Churches of Christ to Eastern Orthodoxy.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Christian Benevolence

Is general benevolence part of the Christian mission? Does showing benevolence to non-Christians have a spiritual value in and of itself? Should the church consider feeding the hungry, clothing the poor, etc. part of its basic and fundamental mission?

This is yet another N.T. Wright-inspired blog (and won't be the last, i'm sure), and he believes that such benevolence is the church's mission. Now, i grant you it seems the obvious answer is "yes" given the way i've asked the questions. But let me elaborate.

N.T. Wright does a fine job, in my view, criticizing those religious groups that act or teach as though the church's mission is fundamentally and (more importantly) entirely immaterial in nature. In other words: We're just supposed to be "saving souls." --making sure that people's ghosts "go to heaven when they die." Their material conditions in life are really beside the point. Our own (Christians) material conditions are really beside the point and not each other's business. We're not in the business of just feeding and sheltering people for the sake of it. If we ever do such, it is *merely* a means to try to persuade them to believe and accept certain theological facts and tenets and then behave accordingly (where "behave accordingly" often means showing up to church and paying your contribution).

Granted, the above is a rather extreme representation of such IMmaterialism; and in all fairness, most religious groups fall along a spectrum between such an extreme and the opposite end, which has been called the "social gospel," which acts or teaches as though the sole nature of our mission is to improve people's material conditions (for instance, you might get the impression from, say, Al Sharpton that God's greatest concern is the cost of healthcare premiums). Wright rejects both extremes and rightly so in my view. But it is his criticism of the immaterialist (or as he calls it "dualist") view that has caught my personal intrigue.

Among various congregations, i've often encountered people who taught openly that the church had absolutely no obligation toward non-Christians other than to preach to them the gospel. And i've definitely experienced in many churches the strong lack of concern for taking care of our own congregants material needs. Again, in fairness, many congregations do SOMETHING along both lines--a food pantry for the community, and service projects for widows or shut-ins in the congregation. What interests me about Wright's comments is that it seems that even among congregations that do something along those lines, there seems to be an underlying impression that such activities are still at best peripheral to the work of converting the lost.

Wright makes a particular argument i find interesting: Why do we have the information in the gospels that we have? If our work is merely about saving souls and getting people "saved," meaning ensuring that they're heading for heaven when they die, then why the piles of information about Christ's benevolent work during His earthly mission? What purpose does it serve us Christians to read that Christ healed people who were sick or dying? Why did Christ feed the five thousand people who were hungry? Why did Christ supply wine for a party? Why did Christ help blind people see and paralytics walk?

i know many people leaning toward the immaterialist side of the church's mission are likely to say (just as i can hear myself saying several years ago) that such were just miracles that were meant to prove and demonstrate Christ's identity and to buttress His largely immaterial mission. But really, such divine power and authority could be proven by other miracles, right? Christ could've had purple lightning shoot from the sky and write on the ground and say "Yep, He's the Messiah alright. Your Friend, YHWH." Christ could've picked up dirt and turned it into a zebra. Christ could've taken some bare law of physics and broken it (like flying or levitating or walking through solid objects). i think, that from an immaterialist point of view, these miracles would have demonstrated His divine power and authority just as much. But what is striking is that the actual miracles Christ performed seem to have a common theme: improving material conditions. If the strict dualist/immaterial or even those who heavily lean in that direction are correct, then why did Jesus heal blind people? Why didn't He just tell them, "your blindness or paralysis doesn't need fixed because this world and life doesn't matter anyway; you just need your soul saved, and I can do that"?

Wright argues that it is just because the nature of Christ's mission does have a material nature, and that this dualistic view that the "spiritual" and "physical" worlds are separate and distinct and the "spiritual" one is the one that counts is erroneous and foreign to the Bible. Wright argues extensively that God's eternal purpose involves the redemption of the world--the physical, created world. That the material world as we know it is in dire need of healing from the effects of sin. Christ's own resurrection, Wright argues, is the firstfruits of that redeemed world yet-to-come. Christ's body was transformed into a new creation. And on His return He will do the same for us and for the earth.

Wright explains that Christ's resurrection proves His present Lordship over the world--even over death. Wright also explains that we (Christians) are those who have accepted such to be true, and have through conversion experienced a present redemption from sin which is a foretaste of the future redemption we will enjoy--the complete transformation of our own bodies and of the world, made impervious to sin and its effects. Because we announce Christ's resurrection as proof of His present lordship and because we proclaim and anticipate His return, and because we enjoy a present redemption and present lived-out-acknowledgement of Christ's present lorship, we ought to be working in the present to bring real, concrete examples of this new creation. And this includes feeding, clothing, and sheltering the poor, treating the sick, even arguing for their sakes in parliament (Wright is a Brit), and even working to care for and heal the environment.

Now it's plenty convincing enough to me that part of a Christian's mission is to care for the material needs of other Christians. There is no shortage of textual evidence that the first century church took care of its own materially speaking--widows were fed, money was given to whoever needed it, etc. And there is no shortage of passages which instruct Christians to do as much--pure religion is caring for widows and orphans, a roll of widows to be cared for by the church is to be kept and scrutinized, and John and James especially equate Christian love with material concern for one another.

I'm less though sufficiently convinced that it's part of a Christian's mission to care for the material needs of non-Christians. "Do good unto all men, especially those of the household of faith" (Galatians 6:10). i don't see how you can escape from Paul's words implying that a Christian is obligated to aim his good works toward non-Christians (though maybe the word "especially" means the quality or quantity of my good works should favor fellow believers). i think there has been less disagreement on this point among The Church of Christ and far more dispute over how it's appropriately carried out (individually vs. collectively being the prominent debate).

For me, the troubling part comes in where benevolence toward non-Christians is seen as an end in itself. Wright speaks as though my handing a starving man a sandwich has spiritual value even if i never breathe a word to that man about the gospel or needing to submit to Christ's authority personally. Wright never says it as bluntly as that, but i don't think i'm misreading him in the least to say he thinks the church should be carrying out benevolence toward non-Christians as an end in itself. And even if all the non-Christians we feed, shelter, heal, and clothe never convert and are ultimately lost eternally, we have nevertheless accomplished (at least part of) the Christian mission by feeding, healing, sheltering, and clothing them. To be even more clear, i understand Wright to be saying that we are accomplishing the Christian mission through such benevolence toward non-Christians even if in that benevolence we never intended nor sought nor tried to convert them into Christianity. Even if we left them where they are in their unbelief (not that we were deliberately withholding the gospel and conversion, but that such wasn't our intended nor additional goal in such benevolent acts) and fed and clothed them anyway, we have still done Christian work.

That is the bit i can't really wrap my mind around. i'm not prepared to say i think Wright is categorically wrong. But i can't see how there's spiritual or Christian-mission-value in merely improving the physical conditions of non-Christians. Do you think you've accomplished the work of Christ if you gave an orphan a home but didn't aid at all in her learning the gospel or believing it? Do you think you're working the Christian mission by getting an atheist alcoholic into rehab but never in anyway challenging his atheism? If a church were to send giant amounts of care packages to a town in India full of Hindus with absolutely zero mention of the Christian faith or challenge to Hinduism, has that church engaged in the work of the gospel?

Now i think Wright is likely correct that such benevolence and seeking to improve material conditions is not merely a means to get them into the baptistry. And i also think he's likely right that improving material conditions should not be seen as a separate, air-tight compartment from dealing with people's personal need for personal conversion. (And it is these two admissions which make me realize i'm not ready to disagree with him flatly, and all i've got is skepticism.) But i don't see how benevolence, even if it is done out of Christian motivation (imitating Christ, or displaying Christ's love and lordship), when done with no view toward evangelism has any spiritual value for accomplishing the Christian mission, and especially any spiritual value for the recipients of such benevolence.

In all fairness, i need to grant that Wright could come back and say he thinks all benevolence should be done with an ultimate view toward evangelism (although i still don't think he would; he says plenty to suggest he thinks that raw benevolence toward non-Christians is qualitatively on par with evangelism). And, of course, there is such a thing as long-term benevolence with an eventual goal of evangelism (missionaries may come to an area and spend a great deal of time caring for the needs of native and learning their language before they speak one word about the gospel--and such relationship building is terribly valuable to that eventual evangelistic work). But these facts don't change the question: Is benevolence toward non-Christians with no view toward evangelism a legitimate part of the church's work? i personally can't see how to justify answering "yes." Can you?


MrsHonea said...

So far, you're best post. I would have to agree basically with you. I think the situation merits more attention. As you mentioned, when missionaries visit foreign lands and build those relationships first, they're goal is to talk to the people about Christ. When I give a man money that is homeless, but he has no clue that I'm a Christian and I don't tell him any different, then that was not a part of the mission. There are many of those instances though where you work as a church under the name of the church to help others, and people remember and recognize that benevolence. The biggest problem with that is, many times the church doesn't take the opportunity to invite or study with these people. And basically, those in these needy situations may have the chance to pick which church they want (if at all) to study with...if other Christian "organizations" are involved. But I gaurantee that if somebody comes to a church asking for help and are turned away, there will never be a second chance with that needy person. They won't care what you later have to share concerning Christ. The world believes Christians are supposed to help the needy (and I believe they're right) so when they don't see some fundamental things like this, then to them the religion thing is a hoax.

MrsHonea said...

you're = your

they're = their
(in first and fifth sentences..can't believe I did that!)

reborn1995 said...

i think Wright is right that maybe we've over-emphasized the individualistic nature of salvation, but this position of his seems to me to under-emphasize it. while i might be sympathetic to his position that many have seen raw evangelism as the be all and end all of church work, and if we engage in benevolence at all it is merely a tool to get people into the baptistry--while i might tend to think he's got a point and that benevolence can be seen as carrying its own weight as valuable, it nevertheless seems just as erroneous to me to then treat benevolence as a separate, air-tight compartment from evangelism by saying that social activism is perfectly good "Christian work" even when apart from evangelism.

i will add i think those churches who say we have absolutely no obligation toward the lost but to preach the gospel are dead wrong and probably won't do a ton of converting. interestly, in my personal experience, the couple of congregations who taught such didn't do much of anything for one another materially speaking either.

Matthew said...

How is the new studies going?

n2voodoo said...

You wrong, wrong, wrong. It's more important to help the person than to preach your religion, period.

If you goal is to promote a religion over promoting humanity, then you have no business being there, period.

reborn1995 said...


Why? Based on what evidence?

Do you believe the New Testament teaches something contrary to what i have argued here?


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