You may have read some recent articles and commentary about what happens when atheists attempt to volunteer for Christian charities or donate money to them. Christian charities are rejecting both the service and the money atheists are prepared to give. Atheists find this behavior quite weird, and those who pass for journalists in contemporary culture appear to find it equally dismaying. They cannot imagine that it makes any sense to reject money from any source if the intent is to do good. They cannot imagine why an atheist who counsels a pregnant teen not to abort her baby out of respect for life isn’t doing the same thing a Christian is doing in that setting.
These same people are completely baffled when Christian photographers refuse to photograph a same-sex wedding ceremony, or when Christian innkeepers refuse to rent a room in a bed and breakfast to a same-sex couple.
They are baffled, because they do not understand that for Christians, there is no such thing as some aspect of life and work that is not sacred. There is no such thing as a secular element in the life of a Christian. It is a failure to understand this truth that motivates the federal government to claim in court that when someone enters into commerce, he loses all rights to claim a conscience exemption from a law that conflicts with Christian teaching.
Atheists who want to give money to a Christian charity almost certainly would protest if they thought their money was being used for “proselytizing.” The atheists who speak up in public all express at least mild distress at Christians who cannot keep their religion to themselves. Those who want to participate in Christian charity seem not to recognize that Christians regard every moment as a moment subject to the call of Christ to share the good news. The reason that neither the atheist nor his money is welcome to participate in what Christians regard as service to Christ is that the atheist is not serving Christ and has no good news to share.
An increasingly secular culture in the US has lured even a significant number of Christians into the belief that it doesn’t matter who hands out soup at a soup kitchen or who folds blankets at a homeless shelter. The secular culture sees serving meals and tidying space as secular endeavors. The culture asks, “Who cares?” about the credentials of service not related to “proselytizing.” The culture simultaneously scorns the very act of “proselytizing” associated with helping people in need. Secular thinking is able to classify some acts as “religious” or “spiritual” and some as “secular.” Christians cannot do that.
Christians learn from the example of Christ that life is like a seamless garment. Everything is integrated. In fact, biblical teaching says, “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” (Matthew 5:48 ESV) but a deeper translation of the Greek says, “You will be integrated,” or perhaps, “You will be fulfilled.” The usual translation of the statement sounds like a command, but it might better be viewed as a goal, because the verb is in the future tense. This statement of Jesus in his paramount sermon sets a high goal for Christians – don’t even think about separating the sacred from the secular. You are sacred beings, and you cannot live schizophrenic lives with one toe in the church and one in the marketplace. Be like God – one fulfilled and perfectly integrated being.
When we understand what Christ taught, we understand why an atheist cannot do Christian service. A Christian serves soup as part of the good news that God loves the hungry person and provides for him. An atheist serves soup as a good deed that “gives back” to the culture. A Christian folds blankets at the homeless shelter as part of the good news that God loves the homeless and cares for them. An atheist folds blankets as an expression of obligation to the community in order to “give something back.” The two objectives are mutually exclusive. Furthermore, when the recipient of the charity offered by a Christian asks, “Why are you doing this?” a Christian will respond, “Because God loves you and me, and because Christ died for both of us.” An atheist might respond, “I just think everyone should give back.” That is not the good news of Christ.
As for atheist money, the same standard applies. If an atheist gives money without strings, it might feel good to accept it and use it any way the charity wished. However, there is no guarantee that the atheist or the government or any other non-Christian source of funds will always be silent about the use of the money. The government already asserts guidelines for use of government money in faith-based operations. How can a charity that believes its reason for existence is the good news of Christ operate with integrity and abide by rules that forbid the use of the money in “proselytizing?” To non-Christians, every mention of Christ is “proselytizing” and to tell the truth, to Christians, every mention of Christ is part of telling the good news, so there is no disagreement on that point. Where atheist donors and Christians part company is at the point where atheists or government or anyone else insists that the charity separate secular services from sacred teaching.
A Christian must be fully integrated, just as God is fully integrated. A Christian is not sometimes sacred and sometimes secular. Christian charities are meant to be full expressions of Christ’s love and grace. They are intended to tell the good news of Christ to everyone at all times. That is why atheists must be rejected whether they try to volunteer or donate money. Christian charities must reject their attempts to participate, but it is to be hoped that the charities find loving ways to share the good news with rejected volunteers and donors as well. A new Christian is as welcome in the service of Christ as one who has served for fifty years.