Monday, March 25, 2013

When the Church Gets Taken Advantage Of

The youngest and I are reading through the book of Acts for our Bible lessons these days.  For those not familiar with scripture, Acts is the book that describes the birth of the church.  It begins with Jesus' ascension and ends with Paul in Rome, under arrest for preaching the gospel.  It's a great study to understand what the church was meant to be and to evaluate how far we've wandered from that.

One of the things that stood out to me: from the very beginning, it is emphasized, many times, that the people who followed Christ "had everything in common".  When someone in the community had a material need, others in the community sold property and brought the money in to the apostles to be distributed to those who needed it. 

I've heard it accused that the early church was a communist institution.  But not so.  Everyone still owned their own property.  Everyone still had a choice about whether or not they gave it up for someone else.  But the people were so full of love for each other, and so committed to and trusting in God and his provision, that they freely gave the material things up. 

Now, here's my question as I read this.  Scripture says that the early believers "enjoyed the favor of all the people" (it was only later when the religious authorities got on their case that everyone turned against them).  So, apparently, the general public was impressed with the character of these early believers.  They probably saw the way they cared for their own and realized that this is exactly what love and charity is supposed to look like, how it is to be practiced.  Presumably, this is partly why the church's numbers increased so dramatically in those early days -- the lives of the "preachers" validated the truth of their "sermons".

But, surely the early church attracted the posers as well.  Surely there were lazy, unscrupulous folks back then, too -- people who would have no qualms about faking a faith in a risen Messiah if that meant rich people would sell their beach house to buy them food.  People who were really good (we all know people like this) at spinning a sob story to make themselves always seem the innocent victim so that they don't have to take responsibility for themselves and their foolish actions or lazy ways.

Surely, someone tried to take advantage of the early church's generosity.  How did they handle that?

There's no record of such an event, but human nature hasn't changed that much over the centuries.  What did they do when someone made a "public profession of faith" and they questioned its veracity?  Did they confront them?  Reject them? Were they always confident in their suspicions, or did they worry about turning someone away that was for real?  Did they welcome them into the group getting distributions of bread and just hope they would eventually come around and legitimately believe? 

It's an important question, because the church today DOES get taken advantage of (as do the state and all non-religious charities as well).  How do we protect against that, and how strenuously do we make that effort?  I think even many political discussions these days are really centered on this issue.

The state's charity efforts are one thing . . . but as far as the church goes, or at least as far as individual believers go, I think we have to decide that if we err, we will err on the side of love and generosity.  We give.  We try to give wisely, but we continue to give.  That is our part.  We are not responsible for how it is received.

Easier said than done, I know.  But that's the state of the heart that we are aiming for, at least.


Sherrill said...

Tell me once when jesus questioned someone's veracity of faith before healing, feeding or ministering to them. Those that came, he took in. And I don't remember him questioning anyone's profession of faith. I hear you say that we "err" on the side of love, but I think that to even use the word "err" sets up a false dichotomy. There are no "worthy" or "unworthy" poor in Jesus's doing "right" or "err"ing. He simply ministers to everyone. We, if we follow his footsteps, can do no less.

Marshall Webber said...


I can think of a number of cases where Jesus did exactly what Gwen describes. Here's one right out of the box : John 6. After having been fed miraculously, many pursued Jesus, not because of their faith in him, but because he fed them out of compassion. Jesus tells them, "You have been searching for me, not because you believed the evidence of the signs I performed, but because you filled your bellies then and you want me to keep doing the same now." Jesus then gave them a parable to chew on that really blew them away.

The early church had the same leech problem then as modern societies have now. (Humanity doesn't change in that respect.) Paul addressed it in 2 Thessalonians 3: Tell the lazy, if you don't work, you don't eat.

This is not at odds with compassion for those who wish to work but cannot. You'll notice that neither Jesus nor the apostles ever told a beggar, "Get a job." This bears more looking into than we can do here. Suffice it to say, there is a moral component to working for your own keep if you can that is supported throughout the Bible.