Caring for those in need is good, admirable, and biblical, but the Christian is also called to participate in discerning charity. Some assistance produces results exactly opposite of what is desired. For this reason, sometimes the Christian is called to not help someone in need (1 Tim 5:3-5; 2 Thess. 3:10).
In his book What’s Wrong with Benevolence, David Stove warns that some types of benevolence harm rather than help. While Stove doesn't write from a Christian perspective, I believe he makes some excellent observations about benevolence that echo biblical teaching.
Stove argues that by providing some types of assistance in certain circumstances, our benevolence actually causes harm. He gives three characteristics of “dangerous” benevolence.
The first characteristic of dangerous benevolence is universality. Instead of targeting an individual in need, unhealthy benevolence “has for its object all present and future human beings.” Most of the entitlement spending in our government is universal. It is not designed to target needy individuals but rather large (voting) blocs.
A second feature of dangerous benevolence is disinterestedness. As Stove puts it, when Karl Marx plans for “universal happiness, there is ‘nothing in it’…for Marx himself. Whereas, of course, when a father plans his child’s happiness, or a teacher his pupil's, or a friends his friend’s, there is something in it, should the plan succeed, for the father, teacher or friend….”
A politician or government entity has no relationship with the ones they are giving aid to. What happens with the individuals who receive this money is of little concern to them on a personal level. This, too, is a feature of much of the state-run benevolence structure currently in place.
The third aspect of dangerous benevolence is externality. As Stove notes: “That is, it [dangerous benevolence] is proposed to bring about the happiness of others, not by changing them, but by changing their circumstances: by giving them money, for example, or better surroundings, or legal rights which they did not have before.”
This, too, is a dominant feature of the benevolence practiced by the state. There is a belief that the difficulties that an individual faces are primarily caused and solved by lack of or access to financial resources.
The benevolence characterized by these features produces a culture in which individuals are dependent upon the aid of others. I think Stove is on to something here and it highlights why the church is such an effective means for practicing benevolence.
The benevolence the church practices is not universal. God's call for the church is to meet the needs of the receptive disenfranchised.
The benevolence the church practices is not disinterested. The church deals with individuals with whom it has a vested interest in bringing in to the community of faith. Within that community comes help that transcends the immediate physical needs.
The benevolence the church practices is not focused on externals. The church seeks total life-transformation of those it helps.
The church should not be discouraged from its benevolence efforts by the state. Rather, it should have renewed gospel-centered focus on continuing to meet the needs of the least of these for the glory of our Heavenly Father.