The Christian's Life in Our Culture
by Dave Brown
Part 1 -- Christians, Governments and Benevolent Institutions
We want to be clear from the outset that this article is about honesty, integrity and the sin of theft -- it is not intended to promote any political party or ideology. There are good ideas in all of our political parities; and honest people recognize that many are corrupting their parties to serve their own self interests. This might be the reason that the New Testament does not take any position with regard to what is right or wrong as far as governmental policy is concerned. There was no voting in the first century, and Christians had to just make do with the circumstances. So Paul said: "I exhort therefore, first of all, that supplications, prayers, intercessions, thanksgivings, be made for all men; for kings and all that are in high place; that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and gravity" (1 Timothy 2:1-2). This is the Christian's responsibility whether the government be as evil as Rome was in Paul's time or as good as some of our government officials purport to be today. The instructions given in the New Testament are to the local churches and to individual Christians, not to governments. Of course, we would hope that our rulers, as individuals, would follow biblical principles, and we know that their ability to lead and govern would be greatly enhanced if they did.
If the government is persecuting Christians or discouraging us from serving God according to our consciences, then, as Peter said: "We must obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29). However, in all matters that do not violate God's law, "Let every soul be in subjection to the higher powers: for there is no power but of God; and the (powers) that be are ordained of God" (Romans 13:1-7). As individuals, Christians may be involved in politics to try to obtain the best environment for the Lord's church in our society. However, to bind the support of any political action or party on every member of a local church goes far beyond what is taught in the New Testament and is condemned (2 John 9).
What happens on this earth is secondary -- we are strangers and pilgrims here, and our true citizenship is in heaven (Heb. 11:13; 1 Pet. 2:11). For most political matters there is no biblical edict or matter of morality involved, and we must out of love for our fellow man, do what we feel to be in the best interests of society. In this regard, each of us will be responsible for our individual actions before our God in the day of judgment: "Who art thou that judges the servant of another?" (Romans 14:4). Do your best to have your opinion heard, but when you do that, do not suppose that you are acting in behalf of the Lord. The bible gives us no governmental edicts or policies, and these things are considered to be a far second to the Christian's primary responsibility, which is to follow Jesus in all things.
God's Law Regarding Benevolence
Our economic system is closely coupled to our government, as is true in all countries. These systems of industry and government working together depend on a certain moral fiber of the people to make them succeed. When that moral fiber breaks down in a wholesale way, it becomes quite difficult for the country to be productive, or for its legitimate leaders to govern. The long term result is distrust, dissatisfaction, and ultimately rebellion that leads either to anarchy and/or total oppression.
God's law with regard to church benevolence is quite clear. The apostle Paul writing to the Thessalonian Christians made a very simple statement in 2 Thessalonians 3:10: "For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, If any will not work, neither let him eat." Churches in the first century took care of those of their members who were needy and had no means of support (Acts 2:44-45, 4:34-37). This will be true of scripture-based churches today. However, the care that the needy was given was not unqualified. There had to be a willingness to work. In some cases widows were "enrolled" and were given tasks that they could accomplish on behalf of the church. Even in these cases, the widow's family had the primary responsibility for her care, and the church was not to be burdened in cases where the family was able to provide (2 Timothy 5:9-16). It is absurd to think (as some would assert) that the church somehow seized the assets of the rich and split them among the members -- such would have been exceedingly revolutionary for the first century (or any century), and had they been able to pull such a thing off, it would have been documented not only in scripture but in secular human history. The church treasury was at the local level, and it was maintained by the free will offering of the local members.
The 2 Thessalonians passage above makes it clear that there have always been those who would take advantage of the church as opposed to working and earning their own way. Notice it does not say: if a man does not (or cannot) work, neither let him eat. It says if he will not work -- the will indicates the desire, the willingness. Many disabled people would do anything if they could work -- they want to work, but they are unable to for a variety of reason. These are the ones that the church was to provide for, and they were specifically commanded against catering to anyone who was able to work but refused to do so.
The churches and synagogues were about the only provisions made for the needy in the first century. The family had primary responsibility and the church and synagogue took care of what the families could not. While Jesus taught the role of individual responsibility toward men of all races and nationalities in the story of the Good Samaritan, we find no references to any institutionalized efforts as are common today, either by the religious establishments or the government. This is verified by the special efforts that were made among the gentile churches to deal with the famine in the area of Judea (Acts 11:27-30; 12:25; 1 Cor. 16:1-4; 2 Cor. 8, 9). Clearly these were special efforts for a limited duration (until the famine was over), and they were not attempts to establish any permanent institutions to address the problems on a continuous basis. There is no reason that churches today cannot follow this pattern. If Christians (as individuals) feel that other charitable institutions need and warrant their support, they do not violate God's laws in contributing to them -- this is their choice just as it would be their choice to engage in any other good work.
Governmental and Private Benevolent Institutions
The idea of the government being responsible for the poor is of relatively recent origin, and it is not seen to be an ongoing governmental function in many countries even today. We can see no scriptural reason that benefiting from a government or private institution's efforts to help someone would be contrary to God's law. Christians may have contrasting views of the benefits or the harm of governmental benevolence programs without this causing them to break fellowship with one another, just as they can support any benevolent effort as their respective consciences dictate. Clearly there is no absolute answer as to the optimal level at which government programs should operate, and like most such issues, the ideal lies somewhere between the extremes. We recognize the value of the various institutions within our society to do good, and we know of no Christians who for religious reason speaks out against them or refuses to take advantage of their services when they are needed.
The responsibility of the individuals who participate in such programs is the subject of concern, which we are calling "economic morality." The citizen of a country has every right to participate in that benefits that the government provides by these programs so long as s/he is breaking no law in doing so. However, to make any false claims in order to take advantage of government programs breaks God's laws even if it technically does not break man's laws. Apparently this is not recognized by many people today who feel that they are entitled to whatever they can get from the government, and will use any means that they feel they can get away with to milk all they can from the government. We are not at all restricting our concern to the poor -- there are many millionaires who have gotten where they are by taking advantage of a weak and often corrupt system.
Part 2 -- The Individuals' Responsibilities to Society
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As an example of what we are calling economic immorality, let us consider the person who is fully able to work and is offered a decent job, but decides that it is just as profitable to take unemployment. Obviously the government might never know that he turned down a job, and they might not even care. But good moral people should recognize that this person is stealing from society just as surely as if he stole the unemployment money from a bank. In fact, we wonder: would these people have any problem in stealing the money from a bank if they knew they would get away with it? I think we all know the answer.
We are not at all saying that people who have lost their jobs and are actively seeking employment are stealing when they accept their unemployment checks -- accepting this when truly needed is consistent with both man's and God's laws, and therefore they are not doing anything immoral. That is what the unemployment system was set up to do. Please do not misunderstand us in this regard.
But the person who could be working but decides to take what the government offers is stealing because (among other things) that was never the intention of the law. It is impossible for the government to totally police these programs, and in many cases it appears that the government has no desire to crack down because of the political benefit of enrolling as many people in these programs as possible. The fact that the government does not (or cannot) enforce the requirements, however, makes the deceitful act of taking of something for nothing no less stealing -- it is a violation of God's law.
Why are so many in our society not able to see this? A major part of the answer is that they have no understanding of how our economy works, a problem that seems to pervade even some of the top echelons of our government. There seems a refusal to understand that working people are contributing to the benefits that are obtained by all others. Those who refuse to work are not contributing. (Why is this so hard to understand?) It does not matter how lowly the job may be, as long as it is an honorable occupation, it will be benefiting someone -- perhaps many other people. When someone refuses to work, he still receives the benefits from the work of others -- food, shelter, clothing and quite possibly many of the luxuries of our society. These things are not produced by magic -- they are obtained by the hard work of our fellow citizens. It is only right that, if at all possible, we all contribute to this production to help others in the same way that they are helping us -- by doing what we can do best. And it is terribly wrong and sinful -- stealing -- when we refuse to do this and take advantage of the weaknesses in the government enforcement to benefit ourselves at the cost to society. The fact that anyone can get away with it makes it no less stealing.
Some imagine that because it is the government that there is an infinite amount of money there, and it really has no effect on anyone. Well, if it were just a few it would have a negligible effect on the rest who are working hard to make a living. Those who are truly in need are relatively few in number, and they could easily be taken care of without it causing any perceptive hardship on anyone. But in our society today it is not just a few who are taking advantage of the system.
Let us recognize this fact: when the percentage of those who are taking from the government more than they are contributing to society reaches a critical mass, the entire country will stop functioning. People seeing others living high without working will feel entitled to do the same (this is an expected natural reaction). This produces a leveraging effect, to the point that the standard of living goes down -- it has been going down over the past few years in the U.S. because fewer goods and services are being produced. The fact that our standard of living is going down attests to the validity of this problem. Ultimately the entire economic system will collapse as it did in Russia and in many other places where there was not economic morality. Of course, when this happens, those who are stealing from society will be the first to blame those who are working, which generally includes the rich.
The same principle holds true of those who would rationalize that it cannot hurt to steal from a large company. All honest people pay for the theft that goes on daily in many of our largest merchants, often by their own employees. We all pay the price for identity theft. Big companies do not just absorb these losses -- then cannot do that and stay competitive. The pass these costs down to the customers and as a result we all have to pay more for the goods that we purchase.
Many are able to hide their theft from the government and the larger companies, but it is impossible to hide it from God. Let those of us who have a regard for God and our fellow man not fall into this trap of greed and laziness.
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Part 3 -- Blaming the Rich
Those of us who lived through the 1950s can see an obvious change in attitude in many parts of our culture. One of the worse aspects that has changed is the development of this idea that you can get something for nothing without the perception that this as stealing. This accounts for the exponential rise in legalized gambling (often promoted by government agencies) among many other societal ills. One reason for this is the failure to see the victim in these types of crimes and immoral actions against society, and the feeling that the government and the rich are fair game
Some feel justified in this type of Robin Hood morality, blaming the rich for all of society's ills. When I was in early grade school the teachers read many Robin Hood stories in. How I wish they had spent the time explaining the very simple concepts of how our economic system works. Perhaps not in Robin Hood's time, but today the rich are fully invested in their companies, and if they are not, they will not be rich for long.
The poor might perceive that the rich spend all of their money (doesn't everyone?), but in most cases this is virtually impossible for them. For example, if Bill Gates sold masses of his stock in Microsoft, the entire company would go on the rocks in a panic. There is only so much he can "cash in" and spend, and while he lives quite well, confiscating what he has and giving it to the government to dole out is not going to increase the wealth of others. It will only ruin his company. It is impossible to acquire something that is not produced. Money is just paper -- it does not produce anything unless it is spent for such production. Capital investment does just that -- it enables new companies to be formed and existing companies to acquire the assets that they need to function. Confiscate this part of our economic system and we are headed for a depression that will make the 1930s look like prosperity.
And yet, this is what is being espoused by some of our major "thinkers" today in academia and government. The Robin Hood morality today is one of stealing from those who have legally acquired their wealth. As is the case with any other practice of theft, it will be extremely counterproductive to the victims and ultimately to the perpetrators. Practically speaking, we see the value to our society in economic morality, which includes: "thou shalt not covet." Cashing in what the rich have and distributing it to everyone will not make us all rich. It might give the poor a few thousand dollars to play with, but there would not be much that they could purchase with it, since everyone would be out of work and on the streets at that point.
This is not to say that the rich are any more virtuous than any of the rest of us. Some (but not all) of them have obtained their wealth by sinful means of taking advantage of others, e.g., drugs, alcohol, gambling, prostitution and gangsterism. Some inherited it (which is neither good nor bad). But many in our society today, especially those who own small businesses, earned what they have through extremely hard work, and they were able to succeed because their competitors were unwilling to make the sacrifices that they made.
We should not make the mistake of the conventional wisdom of the first century, when Jewish tradition held that people got rich by the providence of God, and thus they must have been doing something virtuous. Consider: Mattew 19:23-29: "And Jesus said unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, It is hard for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven. And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through a needle's eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. And when the disciples heard it, they were astonished exceedingly, saying, Who then can be saved? And Jesus looking upon (them) said to them, With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible. Then answered Peter and said unto him, Lo, we have left all, and followed thee; what then shall we have? And Jesus said unto them, Verily I say unto you, that ye who have followed me, in the regeneration when the Son of man shall sit on the throne of his glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And every one that hath left houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or children, or lands, for my name's sake, shall receive a hundredfold, and shall inherit eternal life."
The disciples were surprised because they felt that a man's riches reflected his standing with God. Jesus quickly dispels this notion and then goes on to show them that there are far more important things in this life than attaining wealth. The teaching of Jesus was that those who put all of their faith in their riches will have a very difficult time "entering into the kingdom of God" with the redirection of their faith toward God, and all that that entails. But let us not have a negative view of rich people just because they are rich. Our view of them should be no different from the view that we have of all other people -- neither better nor worse. To continue the Bill Gates example that we gave above, consider all of the benevolent work that he has used his wealth for to solve many problems of health in Africa -- he has saved thousands of lives. Would this work have been accomplished had his wealth been placed in the hands of any government?
But it is not a social or a political problem -- clearly it is a moral one. Legalized stealing is still stealing (morally). But just like all thieves, greed takes over -- if you can get something for nothing, why not more? And then even more? And ultimately it has to cave in on itself -- nothing is more inevitable, and most attempts at altruistic systems have suffered the same fate.
This is not to make a political statement. Your soul can be saved regardless of what type of government you espouse as long as you are not driven by greed. As Christians the actions of the government are secondary to assuring that we are right with God and following his law. If Paul could serve the Lord under the Roman government (see Romans 13), surely we can do it under ours. But our souls depend our our being in compliance with God's will for us. It is not really a large jump to recognize that to the extent that we all work for what we get as we are able, that this not only satisfies God's law for us, but it will also built the strongest nation possible. To the extent that we get something for nothing we erode the very foundations of our society, and we will pay the price for this at the judgment, if not before.