Last week, we discussed the issue of sovereignty and what it means for modern Christianity. We made the assertion that much of what passes for Christianity these days is nothing more than baptized statism,i.e. 21st century Christianity has less of a problem with an omnipotent government than they do with an omnipotent God. Similar to the church in Ephesus (Revelation 2:4), American Christianity has “left its first love.” Rather than viewing the Church as the change-agent for modern civilization, we have traded away our ecclesiastical birthright for a steaming pile of tax-exempt pottage. The governmental usurper willingly took over the church’s divinely-given task of caring for the “widows and orphans,” thereby becoming their “Daddy.” The government never had to take away forcibly one inch of sovereignty; the church more than willingly handed it over.
I can hear the howls of protest already: “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Blah, blah, blah. Yada, yada, yada. Yet another article about how weak and ineffective the church has been. You guys sure are quick to point out the problems with everything, but how about giving some answers once in a while. We can all admit that the church isn’t doing much to stem the tide of cultural rot, but what exactly do you propose we do about it?” Well, I’m glad you asked. What I propose we do about it is as radical a plan as has ever been devised in the history of mankind. It will take stamina, bravery, and endurance. It will take courage to stand up and a willingness to be ridiculed. It will take a resolute faith and a strong determination to do what’s right. But most of all, it will take a radical realignment of our priorities and desires. It will require us to look differently at the world and our place in it. And what exactly is this radical plan? Well, if you’ve been reading carefully, you should already have an idea about what it might be (hint: think “widows and orphans”).
James 1:27 informs us that “pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” If there was ever a simpler statement about what the church should be doing with its time, I have yet to find it. But how many churches have you visited in the last ten years (or fifty) that have James 1:27 incorporated into their mission statement? I have made it something of a habit to read as many church bulletins and pamphlets as I can get my hands on, and I can assure you that this verse is seldom, if ever, referred to in public church literature. However, there is almost always something about being “a light to the community,” or being “Christ to the neighborhood,” or other similar catch phrase. While these are great and noble visions—ones that certainly need to be accomplished—the question of how we become a light or become Christ to the community is seldom answered. However, James 1:27 provides the how in one short sentence. This verse tells us that the Church’s privileged position as the “Bride of Christ” requires her to become a husband to the widow and a father to the orphan. In other words, the heavenly matriarch must act as an earthly patriarch.
Care for women caught in the clutches of poverty, homelessness, abandonment, widowhood, and distress is a central sign of faithfulness to God. According to Scripture, God Himself is their advocate. “The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the sojourners; God upholds the widow and the fatherless” (Psalm 146:8-9). But God doesn’t simply leave it at that. He expects His covenant people to take up that advocacy as well: “You shall not afflict any widow or orphan” (Exodus 22:22). “Seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:17).1
James further tells us that pure and undefiled religion is one that is “unstained by the world.” While this can (and does) get interpreted to mean everything from abstaining from alcohol to women not wearing pants, the reader must keep in mind the context of what James is talking about before and after verse 27. Verse 26 reads: “If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man’s religion is worthless.” What immediately follows James 1:27 is the beginning of Chapter 2, and remembering that the chapters and verses are not original to the text, we read this in verse 1 of Chapter 2: “My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism.” It becomes clear that James defines for us what he means by keeping oneself “unstained by the world.” First, if we deceive ourselves into believing that we are Christians because of what we say—because of what we claim as our creed, we are stained. Second, if we regard other people, regardless of their social status, as being beneath us, or as a means to an end of glorifying ourselves, we are stained. We can be stained by the world not only through what we do, but also through what we don’t do. If our motivation is one of selfishness or personal gain, we have become stained.
The Bible consistently speaks about the need for a representative head in all governmental structures. Three governments have been ordained by God so that righteousness may prevail among His people: family, church, and civil. Each of these three has a proper jurisdiction and each one of them is dependent upon the other for a society to properly operate as God has designed it. Each of these three is ultimately dependent upon the fourth level of government: self-government. When a society is no longer self-governed, the entire governmental structure—at every level—begins to break down. The classic example of this is recorded in the Book of Judges when “every man did what was right in his own eyes” (17:6; 21:25). A lack of bottom-up self-government will always result in a tyrannical amount of top-down civil government. The family and the church will become casualties in this tyrannical takeover, until self-governed individuals begin to take up the slack and start to rule their families and churches well. By assigning the church to the role of husband and father in families that lacked them, James is reiterating this strategic and practical point. The apostle Paul also highlights it when he writes: “If anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8; see also 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15).
This is where the real work of the church on earth becomes so simple, and yet so complicated. We have become eloquent at defining what the mission of the church should be, yet we have forgotten what the mission of the church really is. The primary mission of the church is not Sunday morning worship services, but ministering to and disciplining the lost and the hurting that we see around us. Corporate worship is an important reminder of the mission, but it is not the totality of the mission. The church doesn’t cease having responsibilities or being a unified body the other six days of the week. It’s impossible to be a husband to the widow and a father to the orphan for only one hour a week; it’s a 24/7 job. The overwhelming responsibility of caring for the widow and orphan is what has contributed to the church gladly handing the job over to the civil government. Who has the time? Most fathers and husbands (not to mention mothers and wives) are working their tails off just to provide for their own families, let alone anyone else’s. It may not be an ideal situation, but at least those government programs are there, right? Wrong. Those government programs are there BECAUSE the church is not fulfilling its God-given responsibility. The church cannot possibly make a dent in the civil government’s dramatic overstepping of its jurisdiction armed with nothing more than well-crafted worship services. It’s not just what we do that makes us stained, but also what we don’t do. And the longer we allow the federal government to take financial care of the widows and orphans in our communities, the longer we can expect to see the civil tyranny grow deeper and wider.
This simple formula, what James later refers to as “faith with works,” is drilled into us week after week from pulpits across the nation, but how often is it acted on by the pew-dwellers? Truth be told, most of us are really not as busy as we make it sound, and if we are really serious about “working out our faith,” we could identify at least a few activities that occupy our time that could easily be eliminated. I can think of one right off the bat that wastes a substantial amount of time that could easily be discarded and used for caring for widows and orphans: the Wednesday evening church service. Rather than imposing yet another worship service on a congregation in the middle of the week, how about making a conscious effort to devote Wednesday evenings to our neighborhoods and communities? Instead of corralling the faithful inside the church walls to hear a Bible lesson, how about taking them outside to live one? Just like a family needs leadership from the father, a church needs leadership from its elders. Most Christians don’t take the initiative to care for the widows and orphans around them because it has never been modeled for them. There are the rare exceptions that seem to be “naturals” in this capacity, but that doesn’t get the rest of us off the hook. The government’s solution is to send a check; the church’s solution should be to send a platoon—a group of workers led by an officer.
This is only one idea of course, the possibilities are endless because the needs are always present. Every community has its own unique set of challenges and needs, but it cannot be argued that any community is without “widows and orphans.” We have allowed the government to do our job for far too long and it is time for Christians and churches in this country to begin taking back what is rightfully theirs. During the first Great Depression, the church in America was essentially silent as FDR’s New Deal made great strides—in the name of recovery—to make Americans dependent upon federal money. “One of the surest means of enslaving another person [or a nation] is through dependence.”2 As millions of federal dollars flooded into towns and communities across the nation, Americans began to realize that their Daddy wasn’t in Heaven; he was in Washington. They still believe this today. The stimulus money from Obama’s massive attempt at a 2009 version of the New Deal has been a dismal failure, but this all the governmental Papa has at its disposal.
Obviously, money isn’t the answer. Hospitality and direct and personal care is where the answer lies. God has told us this all along, but we weren’t listening. It’s time we begin. Some economists are surmising that Obama may be moving us from recession to depression. If this is true, perhaps God is giving us a second chance to undo what was done during the first great Depression. If this generation of Christianity does nothing else, it will be remembered as the age of mega-churches—big, sprawling churches with loud worship services and great coffee, yet did next to nothing for their neighbors. Shouldn’t we want to be remembered for doing something greater?