Friday, July 30, 2010

Foolish Generosity (more from my work on Paul's Spirituality)

Paul believed the church was home, where no one operated with a sense of entitlement and everyone knew they were needed. Paul believed his converts were family, where every member worked for the good of everyone and no one could afford to be selfish. That’s why he chose to “work with his own hands.” Although he was entitled to receive pay for preaching the gospel, he set aside the privilege so he wouldn’t be a burden to the Thessalonians (2 Thess. 3:8-9). Even while Paul was in Thessalonica, he accepted financial support from the Philippians (Phil. 4: 15-16; evidently, Paul didn’t find enough work in Thessalonica to support himself, even though he worked “night and day,” 2 Thess. 3:8). So, the Philippians—Christians of some means—sent money while he was laboring in Thessalonica. Evidently, the Thessalonian believers were poor and relied upon each other for economic support. In fact, Paul described the Macedonians (the province that included Philippi and Thessalonica) as churches that had endured a “severe ordeal of affliction” and gave to the relief offering in spite of their “extreme poverty” (2 Cor. 8:2). Obviously the Philippians were not the impoverished ones; when the Thessalonians were persecuted by their neighbors, it must have included economic reprisals (1 Thess. 2:14; 3:3-7). Ostracized by their community, the Thessalonians looked to each other for food, work, help, and support—they were family. To refuse to work would mean that others would have to work harder to supply bread for the family. Therefore, by refusing to exercise his rights, Paul modeled what church family is supposed to look like: a group of selfless people who put everyone’s interest above their own, just like Christ. It’s no wonder hospitality thrived in an environment like that; and it’s no wonder early Christians were so vulnerable in their generosity. They worked hard and gave much. It would be easy to take advantage of a group like that.

I wish the church today had the same reputation: a group so generous it would be easy to take advantage of us. But, I don’t see that happening for several reasons. We don’t rely upon each other like the church in Paul’s day. That’s because we’re convinced what happened in the early church should never be repeated (Acts 4:32-37). The Acts experiment only created needy people; selling possessions to help others didn’t last long. Isn’t that why Paul had to collect a relief offering in the first place? Second, we believe in self-sufficiency. We’ve been taught the only person you can count on is yourself. To rely upon others for personal resources is failure. Being needy is foolish. But Paul saw the church as a family of needy people, which is why he believed it would take every single one of us to make it through life together—something I learned in the middle of an ice storm. We’ve also lost the first gift of the church: hospitality. The earliest church was “forced” to discover the power of hospitality because they met for worship in homes. “Welcome to church” was the same as “welcome to our family.” But in our day hospitality is something you pay for; those who own hotels are said to be in the “hospitality business” (I owe this insight to Jan Peterson). We’ve limited hospitality to welcoming visitors to our worship services with a smile and a handshake—anything more you have to pay for. Finally, our sense of entitlement steals away any chance for us to be foolishly generous. We are entitled to the money we earn. So, only those who are entitled to our help receive it. How soon we forget that most jobs require able-bodied persons, there are no guarantees to good health, and no one owns their daily bread—all are gifts from a very generous God—something we call “grace.” Indeed, if the power to work is a gift from God, how much more the fruit of our labor?

Monday, July 12, 2010

Focus on which family?

Everyone knows you shouldn’t take marital advice from a single man. But it is an undeniable fact that both the founder of our faith and the apostle to the Gentiles were single men. And, to make matters worse, Jesus had some pretty harsh things to say about family relations (Lu. 9:57-62; 12:51-53; 14:26). In a radical departure from the norms of his day (where family identity meant everything), Jesus redefined his earthly family in light of his kingdom mission: “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it” (8:21). His behavior proved he meant it; he treated his disciples more like brothers than his own family. Paul certainly believed the same. He acted like his converts were his family; he was especially fond of using familial terms to describe their relationship (“Though you might have ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers. Indeed, in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. I appeal to you, then, be imitators of me,” 1 Cor. 4:15-16). So, when Paul gave advice to his converts about marriage, he thought he was acting like their family father, arranging marriages (or discouraging them) for their own good—being completely devoted to Christ. Marriage that compromised such devotion would be nothing but trouble, “and I would spare you that” (7:28). One more reason why he sent his “son” Timothy to remind his Corinthian children of “his ways” in Christ, “as I teach them everywhere in every church” (4:17).

But what would Paul say to us, two thousand years later? Would he give us the same advice? Some might say, “absolutely, because the American family has become an idol in the church,” and in certain respects, I can see why. We know families have been in crisis for quite some time: Christian marriages end in divorce about the same rate as the national average. One can draw the startling inference that our faith makes no difference when it comes to husbands and wives living together (or could it be Paul was right? Perhaps these Christian couples should have remained single). This led some, especially in the evangelical world, to “focus on the family,” to save the institution from adversarial forces, making it our number one priority. Parachurch ministries were launched, political alliances were formed, enemies were targeted, problems were addressed, and resources were gathered to preserve family values. Marquis issues (abortion, euthanasia, ERA, teenage pregnancy, public versus private education, school curricula, gay marriage) came and went in order to rally the troops during the battle to protect the family. Other countermeasures were installed to make sure the church was doing everything it could to make Christian marriages strong: pre-marital counseling, pre-school programs, parenting classes, marriage seminars, men’s ministries, women’s ministries. The implication was unmistakable: the American family was under assault and we should do whatever it takes to save this sacred institution. But, in our attempts to make Christian families ideal, we forgot our most important obligation: devotion to Christ (not the family) is what makes a man or a woman a Christian.