How Can Poor Christians Give?


In my Sunday preaching, I am deep into a quest to cover each book of the Bible in a single sermon. I started preaching this single book series over one year ago, and I have now reached 2 Corinthians.

Child GivingIn listening to 2 Corinthians, I was struck by a paragraph at the opening of chapter 8. The Macedonians became an example which Paul used to inspire the church at Corinth to give generously toward helping suffering saints. At first, I was struck by the unimaginable generosity of the Macedonians. Later, I was struck by something even more astounding…

First, notice how generously the Macedonians gave. Though poor, they were wealthy in giving.

We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints… 2 Cor 8:1-4, ESV.

Second, ponder the striking paradox between their poor circumstances and their generous giving.

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But there is more to the story than simply generous giving.

Third, notice the intense desire the Macedonians possessed. Paul says—even though they lacked the means—they begged earnestly to participate. Poor Christians begged for the opportunity to contribute to a love offering! I’ve never seen anyone–rich or poor–begging to give an offering to help suffering saints.

Fourth, –and most surprising honestly–get a grasp of what kind of an example these Macedonians really are in Paul’s mind. We would expect Paul to use the Macedonians as an example of giving so that the Corinthians would be encouraged—almost shamed—into giving, right?. After all, the Corinthians were far better off than the Macedonians, and the Macedonians gave generously!

But Paul doesn’t use the Macedonians as an example of generosity. But of grace. Speaking of the Macedonians, Mark Seifrid points out,

“Yet they are an example, not of generosity, but of the grace of God.”

For Paul, the appeal to the Corinthians is not guilt, but grace. God’s grace empowered the poverty-stricken Macedonians to give. Likewise, God’s grace would also empower the church at Corinth to give generously.

If Paul had tried to shame them, the Corinthians may have been able to put up a defense against guilt. But what church would ever defend herself against grace? We love to receive grace from God. And Paul says, in effect, that receiving grace means giving grace.

Listen to Seifrid’s exposition of this profound reality about God’s grace and Christian giving:

“Paul also makes it clear that he understands the Macedonian act of giving as the reception of a gift from God. God is present and active in human giving in such a way that human givers are finally mere receivers.”

Amazing grace from an amazing God! The poor Macedonians were made rich enough to give away generously. May God’s grace make us so rich!

Why Caring for the Persecuted Is a Christian Priority


So our friends and family back east—especially in Kentucky—are experiencing one of the toughest winters on record. Even now, there is snow on top of ice on top of snow. Out here in California, we are experiencing a drought, although we got a few sprinkles overnight (and snow in the mountains). And, so far, the drought has not caused a famine in the land.

Christian needs ministryImagine if it had. Imagine a drought so bad that it caused a famine in which food became scarce and lives were being lost (like the 2011 drought—and famine—suffered in the Horn of Africa, from which thousands died, and 90,000 kids are still in danger). In a situation like that, would a Christian be obligated to share food with others? If not obligated, then wouldn’t the Christian at least want to share food with others to keep them alive?

Feeding the poor is an on-going ministry need and a need which nearly everyone agrees ought to be met. What’s more basic than food and water, right? And Christians—where possible—are obligated to help secure these necessities for those in need.  But there is a Christian hierarchy for meeting physical needs. Consider the severe principle Paul lays down to Timothy:

But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever (1 Timothy 5:8).

In its context, this verse is speaking of caring for widows in your own family. Don’t have the church (or the government!) provide for your widowed mother, grandmother, or aunt—take care of her yourself because you are her family. If you don’t take care of the need in your own family, then you don’t understand the faith.

This idea of taking care of family first is found throughout Scripture and throughout the New Testament. In fact, it is such a basic notion that to fail in this regard would be not just falling below the gospel standard of morality—but below even the standard recognized by the pagan culture. Everyone knows that family comes first.

Because family comes first, Paul actually views caring for poor and needy Christians as a priority over caring for poor and needy non-Christians. Does this sound strange? Harsh? It shouldn’t.  This principle is woven from the fabric of basic familial priority: Feed your family first. Paul says it this way in Galatians:

“So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith” (Galatians 6:10).

Returning to our hypothetical drought and famine, we can think of the matter this way. If we were living through a famine, we would naturally feed ourselves and our own families first. It would be neither heroic nor laudable to feed our neighbors’ kids, while allowing our own to starve. Each father must provide for his own.

In Galatians 6:10, Paul is not intending to drive a wedge between serving the needy church and serving the needy pagans. The command is “do good to all.” So, there is no diminishing of social justice, feeding the poor, or loving our neighbor. Yet, there would be something terribly dysfunctional if we were to concentrate our care on those outside the faith, while we left our own faith family to starve, suffer, and die.

The world will not be sure that you are Jesus followers if you simply love the poor and feed the needy.   Jesus made this point plainly for His disciples in John 13:35: “By this,” Jesus says, “all men will know that you are my disciples, that you love one another.” The need hierarchy of the New Testament demands that we take care of our brothers and sisters suffering on account of Christ. Loving one another will itself witness to the world that we are Christians.

As Tom Schreiner writes in his commentary on Galatians: “A hierarchy is established, so that a priority is assigned to those who are fellow believers.” Our persecuted brothers and sisters around the world are fellow believers. How do we make them our priority?

2 Dangers of Putting “Para” in front of Church


Prefixes are fascinating little pre-words. Kids studying for the National Spelling Bee learn prefixes in order to quickly unlock the meaning of words. The prefix para can help a contestant unlock the meaning of the more than 11,000 English words which employ it.  The only problem is that English is notorious for its exceptions.  Not all para prefixes are created equal.

Para comes from a Greek word meaning “to come alongside.”  Most likely, it’s the Greek word which folks had in mind when they determined to put the para prefix ahead of the church.  Para-church, then, would mean, “come alongside the church.”  Para-church ministries would be those designed to come alongside church ministries.

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Courtesy FreeDigitalPhotos.net

But what if the para prefix used were the French version instead of the Greek?  Instead of meaning “to come alongside,” the French prefix para means “to guard against/protect from.”  (A parachute protects from a fall.)  In this prefixed arrangement, Para-church organizations would be designed to guard against or protect ministry from the church. Surely, para-church organizations aren’t guarding against the church, are they?

Some Christians have dismissed para-church ministries altogether as evil parasites.  I don’t think they are. Para-church organizations are obviously successful.  Mack Stiles points out that there are more than 91,000 para-church organizations operating in the U.S., with assets exceeding $4 billion.  Obviously, lots of folks think they are worthwhile.  And they are.  Para-church organizations often are able to gain access to prisons (Prison Fellowship) and to other populations which are difficult for churches directly to enter.  So, para-church ministries do have a role to play in the church.  But there are a couple of dangers which must always be kept in mind.

Dumbing Doctrine
First, Para-church organizations have an identity problem. If they don’t belong to a particular church, then to what church do they belong?  The most obvious answer is the “church universal,” the Church which in its early years was called “catholic.”  But the catholic (little “c,” meaning universal) church is difficult to define.  Does it include the Catholic (big “C,” meaning Roman Catholic) Church?  Does it include the Russian Orthodox, Mormon, or Jehovah’s Witness churches?  Any effort to answer such questions also slices off potential funding sources.

Photo courtesy FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Para-church organizations by definition must appeal to churches outside of their local and denominational frameworks for support.  Many will appeal to government agencies and secular humanitarians as well for financial support.  This broader appeal for financial resources demands a broader (in the sense of more generic) appeal to biblical doctrine.  Doctrine divides.  Emphasis on doctrine inevitably leads to shrinking the population of the giving groups.  So, para-church organizations become generic.  If they had a doctrinal flavor, it would be vanilla.

Many para-church organizations present themselves as unisex jeans—able to fit whoever is putting them on.  They promise to work regardless of the true identity of those who use them.  Broad appeals for cash lead to narrowing appeals to Scripture. Para-church organizations often end up wearing doctrinal dunce caps.  It’s at least a danger.

Disengaging Church
A second danger to consider with regard to para-church organizations is the danger of increasing the tension between church and para-church.  Neither wants to be controlled by the other.  Because the para-church organization is not anchored in a particular church, it is run independently of all churches.  There are usually boards which control the organization, but boards are not churches.  Churches are better than boards at holding people accountable to Christ (or at least they are supposed to be).

What happens often is that the para-church group begins to drift away from accountability to Christ.  Christ is deemphasized on behalf of the work supposedly done in His name.  The homeless shelter that once shared the gospel simply becomes the homeless shelter.  Or, worse, it may become merely a gym or recreation center.

Mack Stiles illustrates this second problem brilliantly and succinctly:

The standard cliché for parachurch is that it’s not the church, but an arm of the church. Yet historically, that arm has shown a tendency to develop a mind of its own and crawl away from the body, which creates a mess.

A dismembered arm is certainly a mess.  So, it’s best—insofar as it is possible—to keep ministries within the church, holding the body together in unity.  On occasion, it will be beneficial for the church to partner with a para-church organization, but when it does, the church must keep these two dangers in mind in order to avoid them.

Given the dangers, it might be best for us to think of the prefix para to represent neither its Greek nor its French roots, but, rather, to refer to its Italian meaning when put in front of the church.  In Italian, the prefix means “to protect,” as a goalie parries away a shot toward the goal he is defending.  Both church and para-church organizations would be best served if our main interest were protecting and defending the Bride of Christ.