Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Stories Behind the Story: Free Lunch - Should Christians Help the Self-Chosen Poor?

Read or purchase the series at The Gifted Book Series!
One of the first scenes in The Gifted: In the Beginning (a Christian science-fiction novel written by myself) shows Marshall, Lucy, and newborn Gretchen Davis attending a free lunch ministry at God’s Love Christian Church. The inspiration for this scene comes from a similar ministry called God’s Table performed at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Piqua, Ohio, where I served as the Children and Youth Ministries Coordinator for a time. The scene in the book shows God’s Love providing this lunch every week. Westminster did it once a month. And as at God’s Love, there were all kinds of different people who would show up. Many of them were elderly or handicapped and in understandable financial need. Some of them, unfortunately, were more like Marshall and Lucy Davis. These people weren’t poor because they had to be. They were poor because they continued to make unwise decisions. They let their passions and addictions govern their spending and work habits, rather than logic and prudence.
Later in the book, we see Pastors Shawn and Pastor Frank arguing about the validity of this type of ministry. Shawn thinks it’s a waste of time. “I mean, what are we doing here?” Shawn asks. “Nothing. We’re just spinning our wheels!...You’ll open your doors like the church does every Saturday and everyone’ll come and get a free meal like they do every Saturday. But then what? The church will still be empty Sunday morning and those same people who were just here for a free lunch will be out on the streets again or doing drugs or whatever and completely ignoring God and His Church until next Saturday when it’s time for the next handout…If we want to help these people, we’ve gotta stop making it easy for them to keep doing what they’re doing. No more handouts. Tell ‘em to suck it up, get a job, and get in church!”
Frank, however, has another perspective: “But at least the people are coming here for something, right? I mean, at least they know this is a place where they can come get help when they need it. And who knows? Maybe at some point someone will want to take it to a deeper level. We just have to wait for God to give us that opportunity.”
Shawn wants to show tough love to the able-bodied poor, but Frank sees the ministry as a way of showing people that the church cares for them and that, ultimately, God cares for them. So which one of them is right? How should the Church and Christians respond to those people who are poor by their own actions?
The Bible clearly instructs God’s people to help the poor, but what kind of poor is it referring to? Does Scripture ever draw a distinction between those who are poor by circumstance and those who are poor by choice?
The only example of such a distinction being made is found in 2nd Thessalonians chapter 3, where the Apostle Paul writes, “In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers, to keep away from every brother who is idle and does not live according to the teaching you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone's food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to make ourselves a model for you to follow. For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: ‘If a man will not work, he shall not eat.’ We hear that some among you are idle. They are not busy; they are busybodies. Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the bread they eat. And as for you, brothers, never tire of doing what is right. If anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of him. Do not associate with him, in order that he may feel ashamed. Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother” (vs. 6-15, NIV).
“If a man will not work, he shall not eat,” Paul says. And Pastor Shawn says Amen. But note who the Apostle is talking to in this passage. He is writing to the Church, not to the public at large. He’s giving instructions to those who are in the Church and saying, in effect, “If you claim to be a part of the Church, if you say you’re a Christian, here are the standards. If you’re not living up to the standards, the Church has a responsibility to put some pressure on you to bring you back into a right way of living.” In another letter, Paul writes, “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. ‘Expel the wicked man from among you’”(1 Corinthians 5:12-13, NIV).
So it seems fairly clear that Paul (and Shawn)’s tough love is only for those “brothers” who have already made a commitment to Christ and who need to be reminded of the lifestyle that they’ve been called to. Those people who are outside the Church, those people who have not accepted Christ, Paul sees as having no reason to adhere to God’s moral standards. People need to be reached before they can be expected to live a certain way and this is Frank’s point. If Christians can reach out to the poor, regardless of how those persons became or remain poor, then there is a chance of introducing them to Christ and transforming their lives. If Christians do not reach out to the poor or if we reach out to only select groups of the poor, we will have no chance of winning them to Christ.
So the question is, Is a free meal worth a soul? How about ten free meals? How about a lifetime’s worth? Everything is worth it. There is no activity more worthy than investing in another’s salvation, no matter how long or how much of us it takes.

Read or purchase the series at The Gifted Book Series!

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