December 11, 2011

Defining the Goals, Priorities, and Extent of Christian Giving

I've never heard a pastor preach on this verse:

2 Corinthians 8:13-15  "Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality, as it is written: 'The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little.'"

I'm sure some have.  I've just never heard it.  In these verses, Paul is encouraging the believers of Achaia to give money to bless the other saints who are in need elsewhere.  The key word here is "equality".  Paul doesn't just ask them to give some.  Paul doesn't just ask them to give whatever they can.  He asks them to give enough so that there will be equality.  In other words, if you have 50 pieces of silver and another brother only has 30, you ought to give him 10 of yours.  Then, at some point in the future, maybe he'll have more pieces of silver and he'll be the one giving to you.  If you think about it, this is a radical message that Paul is preaching--EQUALITY.  He is giving these instructions in the 1st century to a relatively small group of Christians that all live within the Roman Empire.  Ideally, he would like all those who are followers of Jesus to share one another's possessions and maintain equality among one another.  What about today?  There are now 800 million evangelical Christians spread all over the world.  Our incomes range from $100 a year to $500,000,000 a year.  Are we still suppose to have a goal of equality?  Should wealthy Christians in America be sharing half of their wealth with poor Christians in Africa?  Let's examine this...

In Acts 2 and Acts 4, the goal of equality seemed to come naturally.  "All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had." (Acts 4:32)  This was among the first believers in Jerusalem.  They saw those in their midst who had needs, so they helped them and they shared everything they had.  When you actually see the people in need, it's fairly easy to help them.

Now, let's skip ahead to Acts 11.  Here, we find that the new believers in Antioch want to help their fellow brothers in Judea, because a famine is about to hit them.  So, they send money to help them.  The giving is not just among the Jerusalem believers anymore.  We now see Christians in different locations sharing with one another.

Continue in your Bible to Romans 15.  Here we find that the believers in these places make donations to help the poor believers in Jerusalem.  "I am on my way to Jerusalem in the service of the Lord’s people there. For Macedonia and Achaia were pleased to make a contribution for the poor among the Lord’s people in Jerusalem. They were pleased to do it..." (Romans 15:25b-27a)  It's incredible if you think about it.  The believers in Macedonia and Achaia have probably never seen their brethren in Jerusalem.  They did not see pictures of bloated stomachs and ribs showing.  They did not watch a video clip about the hardship of the believers in Jerusalem.  They did not see statistics of unemployment in Jerusalem.  They were simply told that they were going through rough times financially, so they gave willingly.

Let's continue in our discovery of giving in the early church.  In 1 Corinthians 16, we also learn that the Galatian churches have been giving to the needy in Jerusalem as well.

We now have evidence that Christians from 4 different regions gave to the needy among their fellow Christians.  The sharing started with the small group of Christians in Jerusalem.  However, as Christianity spread, they did not cease to share with one another.  From all his travels, Paul indicates that he saw the believers in Jerusalem as the most needy.  As an outward expression of love, Christians from all over the eastern end of the Empire gave to the brethren in Jerusalem.  They did not let language barriers prevent them from sharing.  They did not let regional boundaries prevent them from sharing.  They did not let ethnic barriers prevent them from sharing.  They were one in Christ and shared accordingly.

2,000 years later, my question to you is, at what point did the believers in Achaia stop giving to the believers in Jerusalem?  As Christianity has now spread to millions of people and to all countries of the world, what reason do we have to stop giving to the neediest among us?  Why do we let proximity, political boundaries, language barriers, and ethnic differences prevent us from striving to reach equality?  Are we no longer a family?

Am I really advocating that with such a differential in worldwide incomes that Christians worldwide should strive to reach material equality with one another?  Absolutely, yes!  Am I a crazy Christian Utopian Socialist? Absolutely, no!  I'm a crazy Christian Utilitarian Capitalist. XD

A genius software designer deserves to earn millions of dollars.  He deserves the right to keep it too.  However, as a Christian, he should be willing, out of the goodness of his heart, to give to those in need.  1 John 3:17 says, "If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?"  Similarly, Luke 3:11 says, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”  We should strive for equality.  Please don't let the appeasably soft Christian messages about wealth that we hear so often in the West, blind us from the reality of what is written in God's Word.  If love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, then by all means, let's get rid of it, so we can turn that evil into blessings.  Why in the world would you want to hold on to potential evil?  That's kind of like walking around with an old Soviet land mine in your back pocket.  It's cool to have, but it's not helping you any spiritually.  What's worse is that it could go off at any second.  You might have time to repent, but by then you'll only have one leg.

So if equality is the goal, what's the method?  Do we just collect money from the wealthiest and give to the poorest?  No.  If you do it like that, it will bring a lot of chaos, epidemics of greed, dependency, squandering, and welfare.  If I can quote a line from The Barber Shop, "That won't do nothing but make Cadillac number-one dealership in the country."  Anyways, we certainly don't want half the world receiving handouts.  If you study Paul's teaching's elsewhere, you'll clearly see that he believes every man should do his fair share of work.  (2Thessalonians 3:6-15)  To strive for equality and bring people out of poverty, the best strategies seem to involve micro-enterprise, education, sanitary conditions, access to technology and training, etc.

But can we even talk about reaching material equality at this point?  Nope.  We are sooooo far from reaching that point that we can't even begin to talk about material equality.  At this present time, it's a pipe dream.  In fact, given what Jesus said about always having the poor with us, one could argue that it's anti-prophetical.  (Funny side note: Anytime a Christian organization tells me that they are trying to eliminate poverty, I look at them with a serious face and say, "But that's non-Biblical."  And then I bust up laughing as they scramble to find a response.  You should try this sometime.)  Equality is the ultimate goal, but for the present time, we just need to establish our first steps.

So what should be our first steps?  What should we give to first?  What are our priorities?  If we look at the present situation of the world, I believe our priorities, which will dictate the designation of our giving, should be in the order as follows:

1) Every person on earth should be introduced to Jesus in their own heart language.  (world evangelism)
2) Every person on earth should have easy access to God's word in their own language.
3) Every believer on earth should have access to a minimal amount of discipleship materials for spiritual growth.

4) Every person on earth should have access to relatively clean drinking water and adequate food nurishment.
5) Every child should be removed from prostitution and fighting as a soldier.*
6) Every child should be removed from slave labor.*
7) Every person should be removed from slavery/human trafficking.
8) Every person should have basic shelter for living
9) Every person on earth should have access to basic medical care.
10) Every person should be able to live in basic sanitary conditions.
11) Every child should be able to live in a loving family-type atmosphere.
12) Every child should have access to a basic education.

(* Some of the numbered items above are not always projects that you can simply fund with money to fix.  A lot of times it is a governmental, law enforcement, or communal issue.  Other items not listed above would fall into that category even more so, such as freedom of religion and freedom of speech.  Whenever funding can effect change in these situations, we should pursue that course, but it doesn't always, so we need to use our best judgement.)

Items number 1, 2, and to some extent, 3 are non-negotiables.  They have to be our priorities.  What good is it if you feed a man, but he still goes to Hell?  Jesus always placed spiritual needs first.  We should too. In our philosophy, our giving, and our actions, we need to put the spiritual needs of the world before the physical needs of the world.  This is often hard to do, because we have a natural tendency to react to the tangible needs.  Tangible needs are easier to recognize.  However, if we are in-tune with the spiritual state of the world, we will realize the spiritual needs not only outnumber the physical needs, but they are infinitely more important.  (see previous blog) Furthermore, the spiritual problems of the world are often the root of so many physical needs of the world.  If the God touches the heart of a child prostitution brothel owner, he's going to repent of his ways and set them free.  If all of the Taliban got saved, the people of Afghanistan would be able to live, love, and prosper economically.  If corrupt, tyrannical rulers in Africa were softened by the Gospel, their whole countries would be changed for the better, both physically and spiritually.  If animists turn to God, they will realize that they no longer have to sacrifice their best animals to feed the appetites of the gods, while they themselves go hungry.  As the Gospel gets to the masses, people will begin to practice abstinence, which will reduce the amount of new HIV cases and unwanted births.  The list goes on and on.

As a rule of thumb, we should only give to items 1 through 3, the 'spiritual priorities', until those needs are met.  Once those needs are met, we can give toward items 4 through 12, the 'physical priorities'.  (Although, if you are aware of the prophecy in Matthew 24:14, one might think Jesus will return once needs 1 through 3 are met, so perhaps we would never get around to funding items 4 through 12.)  There are some exceptions to this rule, which I will explain in a moment.

Within the physical priorities group, I do not believe that we need to fully meet the needs of the top items before moving on to give towards the subsequent items.  For example, we don't have to fully fund and meet all the needs of item 4, before giving towards items 5 through 12.  Opportunities will present themselves, where it is convenient and cost-effective to meet some of the needs in the lower priorities.  In those instances, we just need to use our best judgement and give towards the most worthwhile projects that have been identified.

There are also going to be situations where giving toward a lower priority item can expedite meeting the needs of a higher priority item.  For example, there might be an instance where meeting the needs of item 10 (sanitary conditions) might increase the availability of clean water and edible food (item 4).  Even though food and water is a higher priority, increasing sanitary conditions first will be the wiser path.  Another example would be how equipping believers with Bibles and discipleship materials (items 2 and 3) can help them reach more people for Christ (item 1).  In the real world, these situations often make themselves obvious.  They are not always obvious, though, which leads me to an exception to the rule of thumb mentioned earlier.

Even though the needs of the spiritual priorities group should be met before we give toward the physical priorities group, there may be instances where giving to the physical priorities group will expedite meeting the needs of the spiritual priorities group.  In that case, it is wise to engage in the lower priority items in order to meet the needs of the higher priority items.  An example of this could be a situation where peoples' hearts are hard and not ready to receive the Gospel message.  This is usually from some prejudice.  Usually, the people just need to experience the love of God in a tangible way and then they will be open to hearing the Gospel message.  I know of a mission organization that has sent missionaries into an area and the ground was completely hard.  No one wanted to hear the message of Jesus.  So, the mission organization changed their strategy.  They decided to open a children's center in that area.  The children received an education, some clothes, a meal each day, medical check-ups, and they learned songs and games.  The poor community loved it and the parents were ever so grateful.  The hearts of the people changed as they saw how these Christians actually loved them.  As a result, they shared the Gospel and multiple churches were planted.  It wasn't just a fluke either.  This ministry has seen the same thing happen in hundreds of locations.  So, though this mission organization has the primary goal of evangelizing the world (item 1), they discovered that in order to do that, we sometimes need to meet the needs of physical priority items first.

If meeting a physical need is the best way to navigate to meeting a spiritual need, then by all means let's do it.  I must clarify an issue here.  Please don't misunderstand this philosophy.  Meeting a physical need is not a 'necessary evil' so that we can meet the spiritual needs.  As Christians, we need to see this as a wonderful opportunity to love people in two different ways at the same time.  I believe that God, in His infinite wisdom, creates situations like this where we have the opportunity to love people both physically and spiritually.  It is an opportunity, not a necessary evil.  In the case of the children's center operated by the missionaries, I'm sure they were thrilled by the opportunity to love the children and community in a tangible way in addition to meeting their spiritual needs.

However, this doesn't mean that in every situation we will need to love people physically first, before they are ready to hear the Gospel.  In most cases, it is not necessary.  Christians shouldn't use this as an excuse to always love people physically first.  There are a lot of Christians in this world that have a strategy of loving people physically and waiting for the people to ask, "Why are you doing this?" before they share the Gospel with them.  Or worse, waiting for the people to actually ask about Jesus, before they share the Gospel with them.  Ummm, show me the numbers on how many people are getting saved that way?  How many church planting movements are started that way?  When Christians do need to meet the physical needs first, they need to always remember what the priorities are.  How many mission stations have started out with passion to disciple the nations, but over the decades have degraded into schools or hospitals that have completely forgotten their initial purpose?  It can even be a slippery slope for an individual in his/her ministry.  A missionary might start out with the intent of reaching lost souls, but over a period of time, he can forget his real purpose and end up spending most of his time just meeting the physical needs of the poor.  We have to be careful and always put things in perspective according to our priorities.

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