Many of my Christian friends think I am a heathen, because I would answer the above question by saying that Christ is not served in a government welfare check. They say that Christ’s purposes are served when Christians convince the government to take care of “the most vulnerable.” I contend that Christ can only be shared by Christians who are baptized into his body, the church, and who are acting and speaking in service to Christ.
Many of my Christian friends believe that Christ is shared when Christians persuade the government to collect money from everyone, including non-believers, and then persuade the government to make grants to Christian ministries who happen to be doing social work the government also wants done. I agree that if the recipient ministry continues to share Christ in the course of performing the work funded by the government grant, then Christ is shared. I part company with them in my conviction that this is not the way Christ intends for us to bring the kingdom of God near to people.
How are we to understand the whole notion of bringing the kingdom of God near? In the gospel of Mark we read that at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near you.’” (Mark 1:14-15) The words “the time is fulfilled” obviously express the fact that Jesus is the fulfillment of prophecy. The important words “the kingdom of God has come near you” express what happened because the Holy Spirit fell into Jesus at his baptism. Jesus was fully God and fully man from the moment of conception by the Holy Spirit, but when the Holy Spirit fell into Christ at baptism, it was a picture of what happens to each of us as well. When we receive Christ, the Holy Spirit indwells us, too. Paul wrote about that in his letter to the Corinthian church:
Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?
(1 Corinthians 3:16)
Paul was saying that every Christian is sacred space and can never be secular, because the Holy Spirit dwells within. When Jesus came near to people, God’s kingdom came near, and the same thing happens when any Christian comes near to someone. Paul reinforced his statement when he said, “God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.” (1 Corinthians 3:17) The delivery of a welfare check does not share Christ with anyone. Christ can only be shared by someone in whom the Holy Spirit dwells.
Government social services, therefore, do not represent the work of Christ on earth. They are well-intentioned, and may do a kindness to many people, but they are not the work of Christ on earth. Government is not the agent by which the kingdom of God draws near to people. Government is not the agent God has ordained to perform his ministries to people.
This is the reason I do not advocate for any government social program. Government has its own agenda with regard to social programs. We who serve Christ have not served his purposes if we use government to provide social services. If we want to serve Christ, we must do it ourselves. The government is not going to do it for us.
Paul wrote “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.” (Romans 13:1) He wrote further that the government’s big job is to keep good order. That is the same principle embodied in the US Constitution. The God-given role of government is not social service; it is to protect the safety and prosperity of its citizens. The protection of government makes it safe to do the work of social programs, and the protection of citizen prosperity is God’s provision for the means to finance the programs.
Christians are not the only people who have charitable instincts. Because the creation story tells us that we are created in God’s image, it seems reasonable to conclude that he himself implanted these instincts. Those who write about secular thinking explain that kindness and concern for others is one of the qualities of a mature human being. Increasingly, secular voices are heard both in the culture and in the government demand more and more social programs while simultaneously saying that religion must not be expressed in programs funded by the government. When religion is forbidden to be expressed in a program, no Christian testimony can be expressed there. Christians cannot and must not tell themselves that Christ’s purposes are served when the government feeds the hungry.
Christ’s purposes are served when a living temple, a person who is sacred space, draws near and serves someone in the name of Christ. Any human being can be kind to another human being, but only a Christian can bring the kingdom of God near. We are not working for minimum human standards of living; we work for the kingdom of God.
Christians ought to resist the growth of government in the area of social services for several reasons. The first and most important is that the government not only does not serve Christ when it provides social services, but the most common outcome is that govenment programs demean rather than lift up the people who are the beneficiaries. The outcome of government services is usually the opposite of the intention. There is also the fact that government services generally become so enmeshed in regulations and forms and processes that more money is spent in administration costs than in benefits. Government program administrators are subject to political pressure and political necessities that overpower their commitment to serve the clients. There are numerous reasons that Christians should work to end government involvement in social services. I’m not suggesting any refusal to pay taxes or to engage in civil disobedience. I am suggesting simply the actions any citizen would take to express his opinions and vision for government to his elected representatives. The evidence in American culture is that private organizations in general, and Christian programs in particular, are better stewards of funds and achieve better outcomes than government programs. However, for Christians, the real measure of any activity is whether it draws people near to the kingdom or not.
Christians have a call to help people individually and via well-organized and faithfully-administered programs. Jesus said we should share what God has provided to us and to love our neighbors as ourselves. We are called to follow him and copy his behavior in our behavior. The first thing he did in his ministry was to proclaim that the kingdom of God had drawn near to people. The last thing he did was tell us to go out and take the kingdom of God near to everyone in the world. We can never do this work as part of any government program, and we cannot pretend we are serving God when we accept government funding out of a lack of faith that God will sustain the work he calls us to do. Nothing must trump our call to be little Christs to everyone in the world. We have one job.
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.