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Saturday, May 14, 2016

John Piper, Social Activism and ‘Doing Good’

Debt in the Americas by % of GDP
(hint: black is not good)
Extracted from their original context, many verses may be stretched to the point where they say almost anything we’d like them to.

John Piper, for instance, finds social activism in scripture in places where, try as I might, I just don’t see it:

“It is right and good to pursue obedience to Galatians 6:10, which says: ‘So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.’ ”

With you so far, John. But now things get dicey. In Mr. Piper’s view, “doing good” is a pretty broad term.

Unborn Babies and Deficit Spending

Piper continues:
“Well, doing good to everyone would include encouraging lots of people not to kill unborn babies and putting restraints upon people who think they should kill unborn babies — just like we put restraints on people who kill born babies. Caring about doing good for everyone would include not saddling the next generation with unbearable debt by selfish spending in this generation with a ‘go-to-hell-as-far-as-I-am-concerned attitude 30, 40 years from now, I don’t care. I am getting what I want.’ That is sinful. Christians ought to speak against those kinds of attitudes and policies.”
Now, hey, I’m all for not saddling the next generation with unbearable debt, and I’m certainly very, very anti-abortion. So Mr. Piper and I are agreed about where we’d like to get to. I just don’t think you find either of these ideas in Galatians 6:10.

‘Doing Good’ in Context

Verse 10, after all, has a context:
“Let the one who is taught the word share all good things with the one who teaches. Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.
So Paul doesn’t start by telling the Galatian believers to “do good to everyone”; rather, he finishes with it.

Roses on Valentine’s Day

As I say, “good” means all kinds of things to all kinds of people. To get anything practical from the passage and to discern the author’s intent, we need to ask what sort of good Paul is referring to here. Is he talking about walking little old ladies across the street? Is he talking about driving at the speed limit or paying your taxes in full and on time? Is he talking about bringing your wife roses on Valentine’s Day? All these are “good” things. Is Paul simply making a broad, general statement about making sure we do lots of good stuff?

Well, the idea that Paul may be including a solitary, pithy truism — a distinct and separate thought given him by God — is not completely crazy. Sometimes in scripture you get a string of verses in a row that address a whole bunch of unrelated topics. Proverbs is like that: you can go from bitter hearts to wicked houses to going your own way all in the space of three verses. Attempting to find some connection between such unrelated sayings is a fool’s errand. The same sort of thing happens occasionally in the New Testament, often at the end of letters: in 2 Timothy 4, “Greet Prisca and Aquila”, “Erastus remained at Corinth” and “Do your best to come before winter” are unrelated thoughts.

Such occasions are rare, but perhaps Mr. Piper has stumbled on onto one and is free to apply it as he pleases.

Or not.

Linking Statements

It turns out Paul’s statement does not stand on its own. It is inextricably linked to the previous verses: “So then,” he says, “as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone ...” The “so then” tells us that the next statement depends on what has come before, just as the word “therefore” links cause and effect. So the “good” we are to do to everyone (and especially to those who are of the household of faith) is of the sort found in the preceding few sentences, which begin with “Let the one who is taught the word share all good things with the one who teaches”. It is the sharing of our worldly goods for the purpose of advancing the spread of the gospel. Paul suggests that those who preach and teach the word of God to us earn a quid pro quo, if I may put it that bluntly.

I Want Some Benefit from You

This is not the only time Paul mentions such a thing. He also appeals to Philemon, saying, “Brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ”. Having taught Philemon the way of salvation, he makes the point that Philemon owes him “even your own self” in order to ensure Philemon will reciprocate by attributing the debt owed him by another to Paul’s account.

It’s a principle that echoes the Old Testament teaching that the ox that treads out the grain ought not to be muzzled; he ought to have some practical benefit from his labour. As Paul puts it to the believers in Corinth, “If we have sown spiritual things among you, is it too much if we reap material things from you?” Clearly not.

Now of course Paul did not generally take advantage of this principle, as he tells the Corinthians, but he certainly establishes that it is perfectly acceptable for others to do so and that, more importantly, it ought to be normal Christian behaviour for those of us who benefit from the teaching of God’s word to make it our practice to share with those who teach us.

(It should probably be unnecessary to add here that such sharing is not a salary, nor is it limited to occasional cash gifts, but I’ll say it anyway. Paul tells us the beneficiary of spiritual truth is to share “all good things”. That might be a dinner invitation, a week of hospitality, a ride to another town, a cup of cold water, a gift of clothing, a pair of shoes, or anything material and practical by which the teacher may benefit for his service and be helped along his way.)

To the Flesh or to the Spirit

Paul then goes on to suggest the believer has a choice: he can either hang onto his material possessions, sowing “to his own flesh”, or he may sow “to the Spirit”, using them for the benefit of others and to gain heavenly reward:
“Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.”
Here I think he is speaking of quality of life: life that keeps on coming, if I can put it that way, as opposed to the short-term benefit of enjoying the things of this world for ourselves and then ultimately losing them when we die, or even before. This too is not a new idea. The Lord said much the same thing:
“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Paul makes it clear that the proper use of wealth in this life is sowing “to the Spirit”. God is diligent to ensure that those who fail to use their goods appropriately do not derive any lasting benefit from their selfishness, while those of his servants who are generous can be sure their choice will be of eternal value. God is not mocked. The inevitable consequences of our choices cannot be avoided.

Persistence Pays Off

Next, Paul reminds us that benefits of our generosity do not necessarily appear immediately, so it is necessary to persist in “doing good”:
“And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.”
And finally, we come to Mr. Piper’s little statement about “doing good to all men”:
“So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.”
It should be crystal clear that all five verses in our English Bibles are related to one another, each is essential to Paul’s thought flow and that they all deal with a particular sort of “good”, that being generosity.

Things That Aren’t There and Things That Are

Paul is not contemplating whatever “good” may be done by the picketing of abortion clinics (though undoubtedly there is some), or by the writing of articles decrying the violation of the unborn, by the casting of a vote for a politician who may work against “freedom of choice” within the system, or even by the adoption of a baby that might otherwise have been summarily disposed of by its mother. Neither is he concerned with the “good” that is done by a society that lives frugally and avoids burdening its children and grandchildren with debt incurred from selfishness, or the “good” that is done by managing costs within the system.

These things are indisputably good. They are also indisputably NOT Paul’s subject. We can find support for these fine causes elsewhere in the word of God. Some verses may be more elastic than others, but they’re not THAT elastic.

Why does it matter? Well, when we insert things into scripture that are not there, we fail to take away the lesson that IS there. If the apostle went to the trouble of penning a number of sentences on the subject of generosity, we ought to at least hear what he has to say on the subject and, I trust, put it into practice.

Fair enough, Mr. Piper?

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