In the midst of my various activities lately (finishing my own book, finishing books for review, etc) I have been contemplating and discussing what the proper attitude and conduct should be among Christians towards things like oppressed workers in China and things of that sort. In the current climate that pits left versus right, even among Christians, I believe that I have a unique view that deserves a hearing.
Here it is in a nutshell: The Bible calls Christians to reach out first to their own family, than the family of believers, and then the outside world. It is my view that most of the emphasis on social affairs, from both the left and the right (speaking here only of the Christians on that spectrum), is on the outside world. Like for example, oppressed workers in China. Like for example, the Alaskan tundra. And yes, even issues like gay marriage and abortion on demand.
But the New Testament is clear about the scope of our efforts and I’m afraid we’ve failed dismally about what we’ve already been told. In short, even if the Christian ought to be concerned about some of these other larger issues, until they’ve done the duties that have been clearly set before them, it is dubious how much effort they should place on doing the things that are extended from principles derived from what is clearly set before them. If you should like a direct example of what I mean, it is nonsense for the Christian community to be heavily involved in pro-family initiatives while the Christian community itself endures a divorce rate as high as the non-Christian community.
It might be argued that something like Jesus’ words in Matthew 23 applies:
“But you have neglected the more important matters of the law- justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.”
I am calling attention to the former things that have been neglected, notwithstanding the fact that in some of these issues what we attempt to strain out may not be a gnat anymore, but a ‘camel’ in its own right.
So, first some Scripture passages to justify the principle I referred to about the progression of our attention.
In the first place, consider this passage out of 1 Timothy 5:
Give proper recognition to those widows who are really in need. But if a widow has children or grandchildren, these should learn first of all to put their religion into practice by caring for their own family and so repaying their parents and grandparents, for this is pleasing to God. 1 Timothy 5:3-4
If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. 1 Timothy 5:8
It seems difficult to believe that this is some sort of temporary principle applied only to the NT church and lest anyone thinks it the sort of thing one could negotiate about, Paul asserts that it is an utter denial of the faith, making one worse than an unbeliever, if they do not follow this principle. So, if you donate $100 a month to United Way but you have an elderly relative just barely making ends meet, it is time you redirected your funds.
One can almost see the wisdom of tending to one’s own family first as a means of pragmatics, but the passages above make it clear that tending to one’s own family is a ‘baby step’ if you will. That other steps will follow is not prohibited. But the book of Timothy uses the same sort of reasoning in another instance, too:
An overseer must be above reproach….. he must manage his own family well … If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church? 1 Tim 3:1-5
The logic is plain enough to see: you have no business meddling in the affairs of the wider church if you don’t have affairs in order where you have direct control. I submit that the same logic applies to the wider world: if you cannot manage the church, what on earth are you doing inserting yourself and your views outside the church?
As I said, one almost sees instinctively that they should tend more directly to the affairs of their own family, but, the logic of 1 Tim 3:1-5 notwithstanding, it seems odd that Christians should be concerned first of all for their own brethren. However, the principle can be derived from a number of passages, and the purpose of the principle understood from others, including the 1 Tim 3 passage mentioned above.
In the first place, let us establish minimally that there is even a general difference between the ‘outsider’ and the Christian community. Take, for example, a passage from 1 Corinthians:
“I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people- not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat. What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside.” 1 Corinthians 5:9-12
Here you see in clear terms that standards and expectations on behavior are different for the brethren, indeed, more rigorous, than our expectations regarding behaviors of non-Christians. The passage is a tacit admission that a ministry to the outside community exists and yet it is an explicit call to limit our judging to the Christian community. The distinction between our conduct betweenst believers is further clarified in the very next chapter, 1 Corinthians 6:1-11, and 2 Corinthians 6:14-18 provides some more of the rationale.
Leaving aside other passages I could invoke to establish the point (if the above didn’t establish it) we turn our attention to the more specific question as to where we are to invest our charitable resources (time, money, energy, etc).
I begin first with the observation that the NT almost uniformly discusses charitable behavior in the context of Christians caring for Christians. There are many, but one famous passage will do to illustrate:
All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify fo the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all. There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need. Acts 4:32-35
Other examples: 2 Corinthians 8:4,13-15; Romans 12:13; 1 Thess. 4:9-12; 2 Thess. 3:15; 1 John 3:16-17; 1 John 4:19-20; Acts 6:1-7; and this one, which I think illustrates the principle nicely:
Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people especially to those who belong to the family of believers. Galatians 6:10
Doing good to all people is clearly on the agenda, but there can be no question that the overall pattern in the NT was that special attention was paid to the ‘family of believers.’
So, not only does judgment begin with the family of God (1 Peter 4:17) but also our charitable efforts.
Does this seem like a recipe for cloisterism? Does it seem like following through on this would make men scoff at how the church favors its own? Yet in the New Testament, the opposite true, as any reading of the book of Acts will demonstrate. And why? It is not difficult to understand. When you see people banding together and making the kinds of sacrifices seen in the book of Acts (as in 4:32 above), that is proof positive to the world that there is real conviction behind the beliefs. And since what was being given up so freely and joyfully was the sort of thing that most people don’t believe is humanly possible, the very fact that it was happening spoke volumes about the power of God to move hearts and do something new.
Nothing that I have said should be construed as utter indifference to the plight of our neighbor as opposed to our brother. If perhaps we as Christians were spending our time and resources to meet our brother’s needs the way we look to the non-Christian neighbor’s, I wouldn’t be writing this post. If ‘conservative’ Christians spent less time critiquing the behavior of our neighbors and ‘liberal’ Christians spent more time with those with dire need right in their home congregations I would not be writing this post.
Moreover, I believe a return to these principles would probably accomplish the very things that the ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ Christians hope to achieve. For example, if we focused on reaching out to pregnant women in need, going so far as to sell property to make it happen, in due time we’d have such a crop of Christians- and therefore, people with the Christian world view, and therefore almost certainly pro-life, that the ‘law of the land’ would eventually change from the sheer weight of where people are. Or, for example, if we focused on the people who were poor within our very midst, not entrusting them to government welfare programs, instead of the poor far away, it wouldn’t take very long before our poor, inspired by charity and having acquired the Biblical work ethic, were working together to produce so much wealth that the poor in distant lands couldn’t help but be effective.
And there will be someone who reads this and says that this is not the ‘church’s job.’ Hogwash. Acts 6:2 makes it plain that the ministry of the word ought not be neglected- but not the ‘waiting on tables’ either. Similarly, when Paul reports his meeting with the disciples in Galatians 2:10, Paul notes that the disciples “only asked” that Paul “remember the poor,” the “very thing” that Paul “was eager to do.”
The upshot is this: each individual Christian needs to get their own house in order, and each individual congregation needs to get its ‘house’ in order. Then, and only then, with the plank removed from our own eye, will we see clearly to remove the plank from our brother’s eye… and our neighbor’s.