Might the looming financial downturn (to be optimistic) or economic meltdown (to be extreme), offer the church a unique opportunity to bear witness to a watching world? I think so.
Throughout history there have been extraordinary events in which the Christian community has stood in stark contrast to the world, offering hope and pointing to the truth of a providential God. Such a time may be upon us and so the question occurs: will we be ready?
If we are to be ready, we must first come together in consciously Christian community—mutual cooperation—to prepare and plan, the way God used Joseph to prepare and plan for the coming famine. Mutual cooperation of a sacrificial nature may be the American church’s greatest challenge.
Modern Americans are so radically individualized that we scarcely comprehend much less embrace the corporate and communal nature of being Christian. The apostle Paul stresses that the Gentiles, who were once alienated from “the commonwealth of Israel,” have been brought near “by the blood of Christ” that “he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross” (Eph. 2:12–13, 15–16, ESV). (Emphasis mine.) There is a corporate sense to God’s redemptive plan that carries forward from national Israel to form a new covenant people (the church) out of both the Jew and Gentile into the new Israel.
At the conclusion of chapter two Paul writes, “Built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (Eph. 2:20–22, ESV). (Emphasis mine.) Again, Scripture emphasizes the corporate nature of God’s redemptive plan.
I have mentioned before—and it bears repeating—this community is not merely the social gathering of a people with common values, but rather a people who display proof of God’s redemptive work in the world. This proof flows forth from converted individuals whose supernatural transformation is authenticated through their interaction with each other. This community, the church, is intended to bear testimony to the truth of Jesus by demonstrating fellowship with God and each other—a community of self-sacrificing love and support that stands in contrast to the fallen world by living under the radically different values of the kingdom. Jesus himself established this as the authenticating fact of our faith when he said “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35, ESV). Was this not the preeminent testimony of the first century church in which “they had all things in common?”
When the Bible speaks of having “all things in common” and giving to “each as anyone had need,” the writers were referring to material provisions (see Acts 4:32, 35). All earthly things are the possessions of God: “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein” (Psalm 24:1, ESV). Men are mere stewards of what belongs to the Lord and should share the gifts of His creation with one another as much as they can. Some may suggest that in this, the Bible advocates socialism; however socialism is a compulsory redistribution of wealth coerced by government, whereas Christian charity is voluntary, done out of love of neighbor and in obedience to God. Christianity is completely opposed to the forced redistribution of wealth.
What are some practical ways in which the modern church might prepare for and live out these principles? Certainly the establishment and maintenance of a mercy fund is essential for meeting the needs of the congregation. However, today such funds often represent meager giving out of our abundance, spare change thrown in the plate. But the Christian is called upon to share what he has with the needy in the same way as the poor widow of the gospel—not out of his abundance, but out of his need. And he must do so cheerfully and not reluctantly, secretly and not for the praise of men.
Mercy funds are the modern equivalent of almsgiving to provide for the poor and needy, and this, of course, would include the unemployed. Giving alms, therefore, must be a sacrificial act if it is to have any spiritual value. One cannot give merely what is left over when all his own needs are satisfied. One must take from oneself and give to others. In the tradition of the church it is the teaching that what one saves through fasting and self-denial should not be kept for one’s own security but should be given away to help those in need. This is what the Roman world saw among the first century Christians. So strange was this generosity that the Romans referred to these Christians as the “third race.”
Such was the command of Mosaic law as well: “If there is among you a poor man, one of your brethren, in any of your towns within your land which the Lord your God gives you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him, and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be” (Deuteronomy 15:7–8).
As modern Christians—perhaps the wealthiest in history—are we prepared to make such sacrifices, to pool our resources and give freely to those in need, perhaps in greater measure than ever before in our lives? This may be what we are called upon to do and should be preparing for.
This preparation should include practical steps for the building up of our mercy funds and ministries. Perhaps churches could set up and manage their own online eBay stores. This would facilitate the selling of donated items from the congregation with proceeds being deposited into the mercy fund. Food pantries could begin to receive and store nonperishable food items. More faith-based credit unions could be established by various churches and denominations, offering cooperative banking services at typically better interest rates and more conservative financial practices than commercial banks.
Think of the collective creative potential in the church that could be brought to bear on meeting a multitude of needs if we made such ministry a priority. In addition, our preparation should include preaching and teaching on the words of Jesus, which remain forever valid and true:
. . the poor you will always have with you. But you will not always have me . . . if you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, and follow me. (Mark 14:7, NIV; Matthew 19:21, ESV)
The Christian who seeks perfection—as the Father in heaven is perfect—is the one who gives all for the sake of others, in the name of Christ, with Him, and for His sake. This is the radical nature of the kingdom. May this kingdom come forth as the one built on sand begins to crumble!
© 2008 by S. Michael Craven
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S. Michael Craven is the President of the Center for Christ & Culture. Michael is the author of Uncompromised Faith (Navpress), which is scheduled for release January 2009. (You can preorder your copy today on Amazon.com.) Michael's ministry is dedicated to renewal within the Church and works to equip Christians with an intelligent and thoroughly Christian approach to matters of culture in order to demonstrate the relevance of Christianity to all of life. For more information on the Center for Christ & Culture, the teaching ministry of S. Michael Craven, visit: www.battlefortruth.org
Michael lives in the Dallas area with his wife Carol and their three children.