I have not been reading Galatians in my current studies, and to be quite honest I have not read Galatians in some time. But, I have had one particular verse in Galatians ringing in my mind lately. I thought at first that my involuntary mental recitation of this verse was something akin to not being able to shake a catchy tune that repeats over and over in the halls of the mind like a broken record, nothing more than a mental glitch.
Yet, it persisted beyond the normal mere annoyance should:
“So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith” (Galatians 6:10).
It was really the last bit that was the loudest: “especially those of the family of faith.”
After about three days of waking up with this verse on my mind, I finally asked God if He was trying to teach me something. Yes, I am stubborn that way. It took me three days. As soon as I asked that question, I was struck with another question: “What do you think about this verse?”
I paused, what do I think?
To be honest, once I thought about it, I realized the verse did not sit well for me. I was a little perplexed. Perhaps this is why I could not let it go.
According to Jesus, His gospel is “good news to the poor.” His gospel is “release to the captives.” His gospel is “sight to the blind.” His gospel is “freedom to the oppressed.” Full stop (see Luke 4:18-19).
If Christ’s target audience is the poor, the captive, the spiritually blind, and the oppressed, and it is His injunctive to us to spread His good news, it seems to me that the ripest harvest would not be in the church were everyone is already, as we in the church would put it, saved. Sure, we should, when we have time, check in on each other, but shouldn’t we especially, to use Paul’s word, focus on the lost, the needy, and the dying. The saints already have eternal life don’t they?
Paul has it all backwards. He says help all, but especially those “in the household of faith.” I fretted over the question for a few more days, and prayed about for even more, and I finally began to feel a sense of clarity. I thought about my hypothesis a bit more, and grew more and more encouraged by what I found to be a prayerful, biblically consistent conclusion.
As my thoughts were beginning to set in my mind, I wanted to make sure I was not chasing a white rabbit; so, I ran to five of my favorite commentaries to see if those theologians I so admire had come to the same conclusion I had. If so, I would know I was in good company.
To my frustration, it seems that there has been some small debate upon what Paul means by “the family of faith.” Some notable Christians, namely a few of the Magisterial Reformers like Luther and Calvin, claim that Paul is referring back to an earlier comment he made about support for the ministers of the church (see 6:6). Others suggest that this phrase might have been an early church expression for one particular church, the church in Jerusalem. So, Paul is somehow talking about smaller churches paying apportionments to their leaders or their home base in Jerusalem.
Both of these arguments are unsatisfying. It is much more plausible to think that “the family of faith” means the whole family, all the believers, the universal church. While there are some theologians who think otherwise, it seems that the majority of theologians lean in on this more universal interpretation. So, the straightforward interpretation I have been working with seems to also be, according to majority consensus, the right interpretation. But, this direct interpretation does not answer the deeper question, “Why?”
If Paul had, in fact, a more particular group in mind, we could more easily extrapolate the why. For example, if he was speaking of ministers, we might say, he says take care of all, but especially your minister, because Paul believes the minister’s job is of utmost importance to the mission of God. Paul could be making a subtle argument here, one that a lot of ministers might like if it were true, that ministers are the linchpins for success in a church’s mission.
Likewise, if Paul would have been speaking of the Jerusalem church, we could have assumed that Paul had a more centralized and institutionalized view of the church than we might have assumed, and he would be explicitly arguing their import. While we might have a satisfactory answer to the why, if Paul were here being more specific, it seems he was not.
However, if he were being universal, as I am presently arguing he was, why would he tell us to care for all people, but especially the already saved? Again, shouldn’t our largest efforts go to “saving souls”? That seems to be the suggestion of the evangelical church today, but my question here exposes my prejudiced notions that I am importing into the text, prejudices I have developed as a product of the evangelical movement (a movement, mind you, of which I am proud to be a part, and that is why I offer critique).
I had been assuming a dichotomy between the primacy of taking care of the family of faith and evangelism to the lost. But, is that a necessary assumption? Are they really two separate things, having little to do with one another? Paul does not say, “When God gives you the opportunity to help whoever needs help, do so, but before all else, help those who are saved.” Instead, he says, “Help all, and especially tend to the needs within your own community. The conjunction shows that Paul does not see these two in conflict, but in direct relation.
What might that relation be? Let’s explore:
In my last blog, I went into detail about the cultural nature of the church; so, I won’t go into as great a detail here. Suffice it to say that I find in Christ’s vision for the church a culture making community. According to Jesus vision in Matthew 5: 14-16 and elsewhere, Jesus sees the church as a community who lives together in such a way that people leave the culture of the world for the culture of the Kingdom (see this practically expressed by the early church in Acts 2:42-47). Blessing comes to the many who are lost when they see a new alternative embodied by the church and they repent from their worldly ways in order to become a part of the family of faith, an alternative community.
Although this is Christ’s model for effective evangelism, I grew up learning and witnessing a somewhat different paradigm, one that made a clear distinction between the gathering together of the saints (going to church) and the proclaiming of the good news to the lost, (evangelism), perhaps, for example, telling a coworker about God. Our mission to save souls was something we were merely preparing for and learning about in church. Real change happened when individuals found themselves applying what they learned out in the “real” world.
The modern church that I grew up in had, at least to a large degree, lost it cultural calling, and moved to a new model of church, one in which congregants attended programs to learn how to evangelize. However, for Jesus, it is precisely by being the church that people come to know the Father. In the modern model, the church’s job is merely to critique the world, to tell them where they are going wrong, but in Jesus model, not only is the world challenged to face their own sin by the church, they are then provided a cultural alternative to leave the world and join a new movement, the church.
(I must brag that my home church, where I first saw this as a real issue, is now becoming the church Christ envisioned. They have a robust understanding of outreach, which invites people to the community to hear the good news, while taking care of their physical needs, which is not in addition to, but is the physical manifestation of the good news.)
As it stands now, the churches in America are often not a culture themselves, an opportunity for others to leave the world for a completely new way of living. Instead, the church is just one cultural product of many within the larger American culture. We do not see ourselves as set apart. If we only tell people where they are going wrong, but leave them to figure out how to change in their current context, never giving them a chance to join a whole new community that is going in the right direction together, we leave them in their guilt with little knowledge of where they might find hope. The world sure won’t help them out. They will try to live holy all on their own if church is nothing more than a set of programs. So, what is the church supposed to look like? I think it is to look something like China Town.
The Bible tells us that Christians are to be a community in, but not of, the world. We are told that we are citizens of a Kingdom in which we are not yet fully living as we find ourselves in this present world. In the meantime, we are to represent our Kingdom to the nations we find ourselves in. Like China Town, the church cannot but help finding herself in a larger context, a larger community, that in some ways, she must live and cooperate with. China Town is physically a part of New York City, but it is very much not culturally synonymous with the American town.
The residents of China town have a deep sense of belonging to a place that they no longer find themselves in, a homeland. They have a deep longing to provide for themselves and represent for any visitors the culture of home. The “city upon the hill,” the “holy nation,” known as the church likewise finds itself longing, driven even, to provide a sense of home, a sense of the place of our citizenry, the Kingdom of God.
Through providing our unique culture, we challenge the ways of the culture around us, the ways of the world, and our critique is not in what we say, but simply in how we live our lives. We are a people called to provide new hope, Kingdom hope, to the most marginalized of the world. If this is so, we must embody such a reality within our boarders, so to speak, as to provide real tangible hope.
James asks what good is it if we tell people that they can have peace, but we do not then provide that peace. How many times have people been promised a better life if they would simply accept the invitation to come to church. They walk in the door and are greeted with countless smiles, handshakes, and hugs, but no real practical day-to-day help. Sure, people ask about their eternal security, and when the person says they are willing to follow Jesus, we make sure they receive baptism, and we pat ourselves on the back with a job well done. Mission complete. They go home to face the same miseries they had before coming to church. The promise of hope largely echoes empty in their mind.
This should not be so. If we are going to call people out of the world and promise them a better life, a life where your neighbor will look out for you, we must be in line with James. We cannot say, “Now have it.” We have to provide it.
Could this be why Paul implores us to take care of everyone as the opportunity arises, but especially those within our own community? Could it, instead of preferential treatment, which is what was disturbing me when I first explored this verse, be about practicing what we preach? If we were demonstrating that within our own culture, those in need find true, practical help, both physically and spiritually, could it be that more of the poor, the captive, the blind, and the oppressed would believe us when we say we care, that God cares, and come running to the body of Christ to find themselves wrapped in the arms of Christ?
(Note: I do not want to prolong this blog any more than I already have, but I do anticipate a complaint I want to address. If you are thinking, “Your model of the church seems to deny the need to “go and tell” the good news, I want to speak to this, if not, skip this parenthetical. When I analogize the church to China Town, I might mislead one to think I see the church as stationary, a place people pass through or by to see the truth embodied. The analogy does fail me there. When I say the church is itself the central testimony of Christ, what betrays us here is the modern model of the “come and see” church, instead of the “go and tell” church. As it stands, for people to see the church as a cultural community, they often have to walk into a building. But, the directive from Christ is “go and tell.” This is not for individuals alone, as if they are to receive training in the walls of “church” to evangelize, and then they are to leave the “church” in order to do so. This was a directive to the group of disciples. The church is not stationary. It is the community itself, wherever the community finds itself. We have a means to collect together in very public ways, and we are not confined always to our building. If we switch from a “come and see” model to a “go and tell” model, living as a community very much in the public sphere, this rebuttal becomes irrelevant.)
The charity we express at home often gives people on the outside a reason to finally come home too. We are to help all we can. Inviting them to taste and see the Lord is good, inviting them to be a part of our family, but we must be sure we are actually practicing being a family so that they can see value in accepting our invitation.
Hope is a wonderfully amazing thing, and it can change lives.