Mr. and Mrs. Winters,
Thank you for your interest in using our building to host your weekly soup kitchen. I fondly remember Saturdays as a child helping my father at a local church’s soup kitchen. Those were always good times with him, and they stoked my compassion for others during years that are often wasted selfishly.
I took your request to the elders, and we have decided to deny your request. Instead of simply saying, “no”, and writing you off, I wanted to give you some explanation as to why we have denied your request, out of love and respect.
First, as a local church, our Christ-given mission is to make disciples. Period. Christ says in Matthew 28:19-20, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
What does Christ specifically want us as local churches to do in order to make disciples? Well, when we look at the rest of the New Testament to see how the apostles sought to obey this commission, and instruct churches to obey this commission, we see that making disciples involves preaching the gospel and rightly observing baptism and the Lord’s supper. When the gospel is preached to elect unbelievers, they repent and believe, and profess their faith and commitment to Christ, and their commitment to Christ’s people, through baptism. Baptized believers meet together regularly for more gospel preaching and Bible instruction, being reminded of God’s salvation and instructed to obey all that Jesus commands. As they walk in faith and obedience, they regularly remind themselves of the gospel and recommit themselves to Christ and one another through the Lord’s Supper. This pattern is repeated around the world for the display of God’s glory until Christ returns.
As a local church, we only want our church-owned resources to be used for efforts and activities directly connected to the work of making disciples. Not only do we believe that to do otherwise would make us less effective in this eternally significant work, but we know that to do anything that we are not authorized to do by our King, King Jesus, would be to act unfaithfully. This we must be diligent to avoid.
Now, I imagine that, upon reading this, you might be asking, “Well, doesn’t Jesus command his followers to care for the poor, the least of these, the widows and orphans? If making disciples includes instructing Christians to obey all that Christ commands, doesn’t that mean it is good to help facilitate obedience in caring for the poor through things like soup kitchens?”
That is a great question to ask, because it draws attention to an area of great confusion among Christians today. Jesus does command local churches to care for the poor and widows and orphans. He does command Christians to care for the needs of “the least of these”. But these commands are only in reference to those belonging to the household of faith. Nowhere in the New Testament does God require local churches to tend to the physical needs of unbelievers. Let me make some key observations from the relevant passages, and then summarize by stating how local churches are to address need.
In Matthew 25, Jesus gives us a look ahead at the Day of Judgement, when all mankind is resurrected, divided between the righteous and the unrighteous, and either ushered as sons to dwell with God, or cast away into hell forever. The righteous are commended for caring for “the least of these”, while the unrighteous are condemned for failing to do so. What is plain is that caring for “the least of these” matters, as it marks all the righteous people of God. But who are “the least of these”? Are they the poor generally, the destitute, the prostitutes, homeless, sex trafficked, refugees, etc.? Jesus tells us in verse 40. “The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’” The “least of these” or the least of Christians, the most lowly and needy Christians. The people of God are marked by a sacrificial love for the people of God, even the least of them. This passage is not a call to support IJM or soup kitchens, it is a call to loving church membership and a sacrificial meeting of the needs of the brethren.
In James 1, James tells us that there is a religion that is pure and undefiled in the sight of God. This religion strives for holy living and caring for orphans and widows in their distress. But, again, we must ask, “Who are these widows and orphans?” Well, in reading the New Testament letters, in which the apostles instruct the churches in what to believe and how to conduct themselves, we only find repeated example/instruction in caring for those who are belong to the society of faith. The office of deacon is established to care for Christian widows. Paul spends a whole section of 1 Timothy instructing the church in caring for the widowed members. So James says precisely what Jesus says in Matthew 25. Care for the needs of Christians, even the least of Christians who can’t pay you back.
But what about Galatians 6, where Paul instructs Christians to do good to all, especially to those who belong to the household of the faith? Well, the verse itself does not define the specific good that is to be done. It simply charges Christians to live righteously, especially doing good to fellow Christians. The context of the verse is dealing with such good works as helping others to fight sin and giving support to gospel ministers. It would be an unwarranted stretching of the verse to use it as justification for general, humanitarian charity.
I would argue that Paul views the local church as an embassy of the heavenly realm, here as salt and light in a world dominated by wicked darkness. If anyone wants to know what the creed of heaven is, what the culture of heaven is, the smells, sounds, and sights of heaven on earth are, they are to look within this embassy. Whereas the world is full of sin, poverty, hunger, and injustice, the church is marked by holy living, mutual love, and the sacrificial, joyful, willing meeting of one another’s needs. This stark difference, sadly not expected by Christ or Paul to be flattened before the end, is actually intended by Christ and his apostles to be a powerful aid in evangelism, as unbelievers see the alien love of the saints, like the difference between a lush oasis and the parched desert sand.
None of this is to say that Christians are not at liberty to individually meet physical needs of unbelievers. It is good and right for Christians to use their personalities and abilities to graciously bless those made in the image of God. With an ethic affirming the goodness of loving Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, of course it is good to love the unbelieving bloke right in front of you. But love is not something that is left to us to define. As we desire and seek the good of others, God defines what it means to do someone good.
As an elder board, we caution the members of the church away from soup kitchens, as we do not believe soup kitchens do substantive good. I’m sure this is a surprising belief, but allow me to explain.
First, it is not good to facilitate someone else’s sin, and a soup kitchen significantly increases the likelihood of facilitating someone else’s sin. How so? Paul makes it clear that if someone with the ability to work lacks the willingness to work, for whatever reason, he is not to eat (2 Thessalonians 3:10). It is good for there to be hunger where there is idleness. But a soup kitchen establishes a concrete, regular avenue for food for the idle.
In the West, it is almost a statistical certainty that adults suffering from hunger are so suffering because of personal irresponsible and immoral decision making. The Brookings Institute, a leftist think tank in America, not known by any stretch of the imagination for its conservative and family values, has recently come out with research showing that if you follow three simple rules in America, it is 98% likely that you will not be poor. What are the rules? 1. At least finish high school. 2. Get a full-time job. 3. Don’t have kids outside of marriage; and when you get married, stay married. What does this show? In America, if you are responsible and generally “moral”, you will not be suffering from an empty stomach. Here in Scotland, where socialist policies provide income for those who do not work, only those irresponsible and immoral with the substantial government pay check will be suffering from an empty stomach.
It is not good for a man to be given help in his sin, and God has designed the stomach to be persuasive. It is good for the pain of hunger to be a reforming tool, leading to a change of course that leads to hard work and productivity.
Second, while a soup kitchen does something, in that it puts food into an empty stomach, it does not do anything substantial. In about two hours, that digestive system will have emptied itself yet again, and the man is in the exact same situation as before. More effective in addressing his needs is asking, “Why is this man hungry?” If he is hungry because he is wasting his money, invite him to our church on Sunday. In every sermon, every week, we intentionally and specifically call sinners to repentance. He needs to repent of his sin. Until he does that, he will stay hungry. Or maybe the man is hungry because, in the past, he blew off chances to make himself more employable. If you are intent on helping him, why not point him to existing job opportunities for men with his competencies, and/or help him to become more employable by training him in a practical skill? Is this not what we all learned in primary school: “Teach a man to fish.” Recently, I moved to a new city. I needed to find a way to pay for housing, food, and school. So I applied for and got a job as a furniture delivery. I had zero previous experience or training in the area. But because I showed up on time and wanted to learn, I was able to get full time hours at the job, increase my responsibilities on the team, and could have made a fine career out of it. I was taught what I knew not, and as a result became more productive and able to provide for myself and others.
Thank you, Mr. and Mrs. Winters, for wanting to help folks in the community. I wish more people were like you. But please do consider what I have written, as I want to see you become as effective as possible in really helping people.
If this has raised any more questions for you, feel free to shoot me another email. God bless; and I hope to see you around next Sunday morning at 11am.