Do What Is Right and Be Accepted
The Church Is Ethical
How do you feel about the statement that the Church is ethical? Perhaps you have a story to tell about injustice or corruption in the Church. Perhaps you have been badly treated. It seems like a contradiction; Old Testament Israel was called God’s holy people, but much of the time their behaviour contradicted the call. Listen to what Peter has to say:
Therefore, prepare your minds for action; be self-controlled; set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed. As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.” (1 Pet. 1:131–6)
Let’s clear up a misconception about holiness. Holiness, in the first instance, is not about behaviour—that’s righteousness. God is holy. That means He is totally distinct and different from everybody and anything else. We are holy by association. He has called us and chosen us to belong to Him. Our holiness is derived from Him. Everything about God is good; He is a moral God, and now we take our nature from Him. Holiness is our fallback position, but the goodness that proceeds from it has to be embraced and lived out. This is what we call ethical holiness. The Church by nature is ethical, but we need to choose ethical holiness in all that we do. It comes from the inside and has to be worked out. Let us take some time to consider some of the areas in which our ethical response is required.
Behind the systems of this world, there are unseen (Col. 1:16) organized structures that are opposed to the Kingdom of God (Eph. 6:12). These are fallen powers, and they find their external expression in government, education, commerce, monetary systems, and even sectors of the Church. They have the ability to inspire devotion, and so money is desired for itself. Jesus says, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Mat. 6:21) and “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money” (Mat. 6:24).
“Money” is properly “Mammon,” a derivative from the Hebrew for “trusting in treasure.” Here Jesus personifies Mammon: money is not impersonal or neutral. It is a power that seeks to dominate us; otherwise it is only a method of exchange, and there would be no need for a conflict between serving God and Mammon. Jesus speaks of two masters (lords who exercise power); they are rivals for power and devotion. As Christians, we are not to be conformed to the system of this world, that is, compromised by it, nor under the power of other lords. Salvation includes victory over Mammon; therefore, we must learn to take authority over it and divest it of its power.
Jesus, in prophetic symbolism, drove out (cast out; reminiscent of the expulsion of demons) the money-changers from the temple (Mat. 21:121–3). Messiah was purging Israel of Mammon worship. He was demonstrating that the issue was not about a method of exchange or business practices, but, rather, it was a question of lordship. There was no indication of corrupt practice; the issue was that sacrificial worship had developed out of all recognition into big business, which was self-serving. The “house of prayer” had become a temple to the false god Mammon. Both the buyers and the sellers were cast out as Jesus symbolically declared His own lordship as Messiah.
Without doubt, manipulation of world economies is a major strategy of the enemy. The most influential and wealthy political powers use economies to oppress other nations. National leaders use the economy to oppress or manipulate their own people. God has delegated authority to governments for the management of society, the priority being law and order (Rom. 13:17–, 1 Pet. 2:131–4). Increasingly, governments see the economy as being their prime area of activity. When this occurs they are neglecting their God-given responsibility and, as such, are more and more manipulated by principalities and powers.
Here we need some further understanding of Satan’s strategy. The chaos and oppression that he inflicts upon the world is ultimately directed against the Church. Of course, his methods affect the whole of humanity, but for him that is of no concern, as his purpose is to bring the Church into defeat. This strategy is exposed in the book of Revelation. In particular, John records his vision of the beast out of the earth (Rev. 13:111–8). This beast is elsewhere identified as the false prophet (Rev. 19:20), and his function is to deceive through false religion or false philosophy. He works hand in hand with the beast out of the sea, which represents antichristian government, in order to oppress the Church. We need to recognize that this unholy alliance is active throughout the whole of the Church Age and is not something that is reserved for a few years at the end, just before the return of Christ. In John’s day, the church at Smyrna suffered poverty because of their stand for Christ. They would not take the mark of the beast; that is, because they did not belong to him, they would not adopt his philosophy (forehead/mind) or lifestyle (right hand/professional ethic). In our present day the most influential philosophies are those concerned with economies, and so Mammon is the chief religion, inspiring absolute devotion.
As a good Pentecostal boy, I was brought up on tithing. I tithed my pocket money and did so happily. I did it because that was the normal expectation; it was also taught that if we tithed, then we would never do without, that our finances would always be enough. Those who did not tithe were robbing God and could expect to come under His wrath. However, as I began to study God’s Word for myself, I discovered that the reference to robbing God was found in Malachi. Malachi was an Old Testament prophet speaking to Israel. His message was in the context of an exclusive covenant with the Jewish people. Point number one: I’m not Jewish; my family did not enter into the Sinai Covenant. Point number two: that covenant is now obsolete. Tithes, schmithes!
Having realized that tithing could not be taught from the Sinai Covenant base, some teach that because Abram gave a tenth to the priest-king Melchizedek of Salem, and that being before the practice of tithing under the Sinai Law, then tithing is mandatory for Christians. As a matter of fact, the tenth was actually given before Abram entered into a covenant with the Lord and so has no bearing upon Abram’s relationship to Christians. Note, also, that the tenth was given while he was still Abram, not Abraham, which is his new name under the covenant relationship. Furthermore, this example relates to Abram’s acknowledgment that Melchizedek was of a higher status than himself and reflected the common practice of the day. This relationship is developed in Hebrews 7, where the issue is a comparison between the nature of the Mosaic priesthood and the priesthood of Christ and is not concerned with instructions on giving. It is important to be consistent in our interpretation of Scripture; perhaps those who use this incident to teach tithing should also teach circumcision, since Abraham is our spiritual father.
As New Testament people, the principle of covenant remains the same. Through repentance and faith, we have entered into a binding agreement with God. Whereas in the Sinai Covenant the dominant feature was law, now it is grace. Grace is the determining factor by which we understand our responsibilities to God and, in particular, should determine how we view and handle money. The Old Covenant required a portion; the New Covenant requires the whole. Our understanding of the Sinai Covenant is that it was a type of better things to come. Now that the better has arrived, the former is redundant. Under the Old, one day was kept as a Sabbath to the Lord; now that we have entered into God’s rest, every day is a Sabbath. One tribe was dedicated to the priesthood; now all are priests. Likewise, a tenth was demanded in giving; now God requires the whole. The principle is that a portion in the Old represents the whole in the New. This is part of God’s more excellent way. Jesus said, “In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33).
A key issue to consider in determining how we deal with the practicalities of grace is ownership. We live in a society where individual rights have become a god. Sadly, this is often reflected in the Church with the assertion of the individual over the corporate. The Sinai Covenant was an agreement with a people as a whole. So also the New Covenant is an agreement with the Church, even though we are included as we come through personal faith. Often our churches are dominated by individuals with their statements of “I will” and “Nobody has the right to tell me what to do.” Nowhere is this attitude more strongly expressed than in the area of money. As God’s people, our money becomes His. If we believe it is ours to do with as we please, we deceive ourselves and become servants of Mammon. Remember, wealth is not necessarily to be taken as an indicator of God’s approval. Wealth is not given for its own sake but rather for what it can achieve for the sake of the Kingdom of God; neither is it accumulated on the basis of some formula, which in the end is no different from magic. In the Kingdom of God, giving and receiving (not taking) are equal. Jesus illustrates the principle in His teaching on prayer when He says, “Forgives us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Mat. 6:12). Also, “Freely you have received, freely give” (Mat. 10:8).
Under the Law a legal response was required, but now, under grace, a different, more appropriate response is needed. The framework in which we can understand that response could be expressed in terms of freedom and responsibility. This is much more demanding than legalistic tithing; it places the responsibility firmly upon the individual: moral choices have to be made. The legalistic tithe can be a cop-out for the wealthy who, having contributed their meagre tenth, believe that they have fulfilled their obligation and remain comfortable in being proud owners of nine-tenths, while the poor, who cannot afford one-tenth, can feel forced to neglect their family obligations and come under condemnation. That is not to say that there is not a time for sacrificial giving (incidentally, if that kind of giving is bound to produce an economic return, then it is not sacrificial in the first place; it is speculation). The poor widow living under the Law demonstrated her sacrificial New Testament attitude.
How then should we give under this New Covenant principle of grace? What should be the determining factors in the principles of freedom and responsibility? Paul supplies the answer for us: “This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of God’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God” (2 Cor. 9:12).
In other words, need and thanksgiving.
Here is the amazing truth: we are free to give. This is the basis of ethical giving. We do not find our security in money. Even when we find ourselves in a place of need, we are blessed, because our treasure is in heaven as we place living for the Kingdom of God first in our priorities.
Justice and Mercy
Some of us are highly motivated by the desire for justice. So, let us start by deciding to act justly in every circumstance, even when we are treated unjustly. The words of the prophet Amos strike a chord: “Let justice roll on like a river” (Amos 5:24).
This cry is echoed by the martyrs under the throne in Revelation, but sometimes, justice waits. However, it is no excuse to hold back justice when it is required from us. We are called to do justice if we are to see the justice of the Lord. Justice and mercy are bedfellows. Justice requires the right response, to balance the books. Mercy takes justice into account but delays or mitigates its response. God is a God of justice; therefore, He is a God of mercy. The delay that sometimes takes place affords an opportunity for repentance to take place. Mitigation allows the whole picture to be taken into consideration. If God is just, so should we be. If God is merciful, so should we be. The question has been asked from early times: why does God allow injustice if He is just? It is because He is merciful and desires all to come to repentance. If you are unjustly treated now, then be patient a little longer; there is a higher cause. God will ultimately do what is right. Justice and mercy will be satisfied, and all will be given opportunity to find their peace in Christ. This question of God being a good God in the face of injustice is called theodicy and applies equally to the problem of suffering.
The answer to the problem of suffering is essentially the same as to that of injustice, but we will press the point further. Mostly, those of us who would align ourselves with the Protestant Church do not have a highly developed theology of suffering. Suffering is a reality in a fallen world. Here we need to define what we mean by suffering. It is suffering for the cause of the Gospel. In this world we are called to carry our cross daily and to participate in the sufferings of Christ. Sickness is not a cross to bear. Everybody falls sick at some point; Christ heals some, but we will all die. This is normative to life in a fallen world. People, good and bad, rich and poor, suffer under natural disaster and warfare. Circumstances outside of our control cause suffering to many. Let us be careful not to call the general suffering of mankind “suffering for the sake of the Gospel.” Let us not be too quick to cry “persecution” when things do not go our way. I remember an incident with a young man who was testifying of persecution at work after losing his job. The fact was that he was spending more time reading his Bible at work than doing the job that he was paid to do. Peter explains the whole position:
Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering…But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ…If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed…If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer [i.e., because of your own doing]…However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.” (1 Pet. 4:121–9)
Suffering teaches us to identify with Christ, as He suffered for the sin of the whole world. It entitles us to a better place in heaven. This is a difficult truth to grasp hold of; Christ continues to suffer through the Church, His body, until the end of the age, when He will return to put all things, finally, under His feet, and the eradication of evil will be complete. The work of the cross is complete in itself. There is nothing more that can be achieved for salvation, but suffering allows us to participate with Christ until we can be made perfect in and through Him. It is because of this that Paul can say, “Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body” (Col. 1:24).
Without doubt, for some this is a special calling.