Monday, February 27, 2012

The Danger of Benevolence: Church vs. State

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.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Orphan Care Bible Study

This Sunday, we begin our six-week orphan care Bible study.  We will be using my favorite book, A Passion for the Fatherless, by Daniel J. Bennett.  The study is not just for those who are considering adopting but for anyone who desires to think through how they can help our church care for the fatherless. 

As I was preparing for the study this week, I read an article by Dan Cruver, the director of Together for Adoption, that has implications for our ministry to orphans and others who are in need.  In “Caring for Orphans as the Exiles We Are,” Cruver writes: 
One of the challenges for Christians in the Western world is that we are often guilty of trying to dry up our profound “sense of exile” with the nonabsorbent paper towels of the incomplete joys of this world. That’s not to say that it is wrong for Christians to enjoy themselves in the here-and-now. God gives His children many good gifts to enjoy now with gratitude in our hearts. But our here-and-now enjoyment was never meant to be the way we deal with our deep ache of exile. When we deal with our “sense of exile” by using God’s good gifts to self-medicate, we’ll find ourselves moving away from the world’s most needy rather than to them. Self-medicating people are not easily mobilized for self-sacrificial service.
The reality is that all Christians are in exile, whether we recognize it or not. Eden has been lost. As a result, we are exiles in the here-and-now (1 Peter 1:1). The period of time in which we live as exiles is deeply marked by suffering, brokenness and unrest (Romans 8:18). The presence of 163,000,000 orphaned and vulnerable children in the world is irrefutable evidence of this very fact.
Cruver goes on to observe that the gospel provides the answer to the longing we feel as exiles.  “Only when we rest in what Jesus has already done to one day bring us back home (Romans 8:19-23) are we able to move toward our world’s most needy now.”

My hope is that our church continues to embrace “exile living.” A worldly discontentment seeks fulfillment in material things.  Godly discontentment finds hope in the gospel then proclaims that hope to others.  To think through how the gospel impacts our ministry to the fatherless, plan on joining me this Sunday at 9:00 A.M.  

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Athanasius has Left the Building

The recent controversy over T. D. Jakes and his supposed trinitarian confession has surprised me.  It's not surprising that good, well-meaning Christians have a hard time articulating their understanding of the Trinity.  It's also not surprising that many believers would hear Jakes' comments at the Elephant Room conference and think that he had been "won over."

What is surprising to me is how leaders within the church have failed to understand the significance of what Jakes said or have decided that the distinction between what he believes and what we believe about the Trinity is not important enough to quibble over.

How important is our description of the Trinity?  Is it a doctrine that church leaders must understand precisely or is there "wiggle room"?

The fourth-century church leader Athanasius believed that our articulation of the Trinity was so important that he was willing to face the wrath of an emperor rather than budge one little Greek mark--literally.

Arianism was a fourth century heresy that taught Jesus was not co-equal with God but rather created.  In The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition and Reform, Roger Olson describes how Athanasius stubbornly held on to the biblical, orthodox understanding of the Trinity:
Athanasius served as archbishop and patriarch of Alexandria for forty-five years until his death in 373.  He spent approximately one-third of that time in forced exile due to his steadfast defense of the key terminology of the Nicene Creed in the face of imperial oppposition.  With good reason he has come to be known as the "saint of stubbornness" because of his uncompromising opposition to anything that smacked of Arianism--even when emperors threatened his life.  It may not be much of an exaggeration to say that all Christians have Athanasius to thank that the theology of Jehovah's Witnesses is not the "orthodoxy" of most of Christendom (161).
Emperor Constantine's son, Constantius, wanted to see the controversy over trinitarianism done away with.  He believed that the Nicene Creed presented an obstacle to unity and believed that one, tiny, insignificant change to the creed could allow all Christians to live in peace with one another.
The emperor wanted peace, and uniformity was its path.  He came to believe that the term homoousios...should be replaced in the Nicene Creed with homoiousios, which means "of a similar substance" and would be acceptable to the semi-Arians and even many trinitarians.  If accepted, the new terminology would have made orthodox the belief that the Son and the Father share a "similar substance" or a "like being" instead of the belief that they are of the same substance or being.
Athanasius stubbornly resisted the change and even condemned it as rank heresy....  [H]is concern was not merely to defend some sacrosanct wording but to defend the gospel itself.  For Athanasius and his supporters, salvation itself depends on the Son of God being God and not merely a great creature "like God." For him "the fundamental issue is that only very God can unite a creature to God" and "salvation is not...possible through an hierarchical chain, from the Father through an intermediate Son to creatures...."  
One modern critic of early Christian orthodoxy has suggested that Athanasius played a role in the downfall of the Roman Empire because of his obstinacy over one tiny letter that in Greek is only a diacritical mark over a vowel (164-5).  
As is so often the case, little things matter when speaking of the Trinity.  Athanasius was absolutely right and his brave defense of clear articulation of the Trinity protected many from heresy.

But where is Athanasius today?  Are "manifestations" the same as "persons" when speaking about the Trinity?  Do little things still matter?

The answer to the last question is "yes" and I'd encourage you to keep this in mind when reading these excellent essays: Carson and Keller on Jakes and the Elephant Room and Thabiti Anyabwile's 11 Things I'm Thinking in the Wake of Recent Events.