Charity: The Covenantal Way

March 08, 2013

A supposedly "Reformed" author recently declared that the sign of a "just" society is that the "material needs of the poor are taken care of." He said this in the context of the supposed "inner contradictions of capitalism." The message was, "Capitalism is unjust because it doesn't take care of the material needs of the poor." And he claimed this in the name of the Bible, from his position as a "Reformed" author.

The meaning of the word "capitalism" is a matter for a different article. Still another article could be devoted to the issue of whether true capitalism leaves anyone truly poor in the society. It takes no deep research to figure out that societies that made the expansion of capital-which is the true meaning of "capitalism"-the foundation of their economies raised the material standard of living of everyone to levels which can't be compared to anything that the Bible calls "poor." The Biblical standard for "poor"-one who has only his cloak left as his only asset (Ex. 22:26-27), or who has no food or clothing whatsoever (James 2:15)-is completely forgotten in our society where the poorest have ten times more in monetary terms than the upper middle class in Europe just 300 years ago. (Their real purchasing power would be immeasurably higher.1) If "capitalism" should be blamed for any "inner contradictions," abandoning the poor certainly isn't one of them. It's been long since any truly capitalist society had any really poor people.

But, as I said, these are topics for different articles: not about charity but about economic systems and their success or failure. Our interest with the above statement is theological, and therefore ethical and judicial: Is it true that a genuinely just society will be known by whether the material needs of the poor are taken care of?

A Wrong Definition of Charity

The answer is no, as far as the covenant theology of the Bible is concerned. Such a definition, focused on man, his material needs, and his physical actions apart from covenantal considerations, is an essentially humanistic definition, with a humanistic focus, and based on a humanistic worldview. It ignores the ethical/judicial nature of the covenant of God, and it ignores the fact that before the question of the material needs of the poor, another question must be asked: "What is the revealed will of God?" It defines "justice" on the basis of material factors-economic affluence and poverty-rather than on the basis of ethical factors. It divides society along economic lines-poor and not poor-instead of covenantal lines. It ignores the fact that the issues of good and evil, justice and injustice, are resolved on the basis of God's moral character rather than on the basis of perceived human needs. And it almost always ends up subsidizing evil under the disguise of doing good.

I call this kind of charity "ritual" charity. It is characteristic to ritual or liturgical religions where man's connection to God or to the gods is determined by the correct performance of certain rituals or ceremonies, to the exclusion or neglect of real ethical issues. In many of these religions, charity is one of the rituals. In the pagan temples of the ancient world, many of the sacrifices included distribution of lepta to beggars outside the temples. Almsgiving is a religious rite in many pagan religions, including Hinduism and Buddhism. Hinduism, especially, has a very elaborate system of rituals of "taking care of the poor." In Islam, a highly ritualistic and liturgical religion, charity is the third of the five pillars of the faith (zakat). In Roman Catholicism, the "holiness" of a person is defined by his "care for the poor," whether that care for the poor is based on Biblical principles or not. (Mother Theresa's popularity among Roman Catholics and Hindus is a good example. The woman never publicly expressed the desire to preach Christ and His gospel.)

Of course, statism as a religion, being highly ritualistic and liturgical from as early as ancient Egypt to modern Communist and socialist states, makes "care for the poor" the mainstay of its policies and propaganda. In fact, some of the most spectacular liturgical acts in the history of humanity are the discussions and the signing of laws that "care for the poor." (Think Obamacare.) Rich liberal celebrities, when they want to look "caring," always take the route of caring for some poor people around the globe. Whatever the god or the gods are, caring for the poor is the ritual that wins access to the god's heart and the title of "most just" person or society.

There is one problem with this kind of charity: It is not mentioned in the Bible, and it is not commanded in the Bible. As I said above, it is humanistic to the core. The Bible never commands anything close to "taking care of the material needs of the poor"; where it says something similar to it, it is in a completely different context, and with a completely different focus than the poor or their material needs. In fact, in the only place where the "poor" are mentioned in a general way, Jesus seems to advocate voluntarism: "For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you wish you can do good to them" (Mark 14:7). "Caring for the material needs of the poor" is not mentioned as a virtue, nor as good works. The law of God contains no provisions nor commandments to either state, church, or individuals to engage in a promiscuous "caring for the poor" in general. As we will see, those provisions that mention the poor have a different focus, and a different context and meaning than the material needs of the poor per se. "Justice" is never defined in the Bible as "caring for the material needs of the poor," etc.

Instead, the Bible speaks about covenantal charity.

Covenantal Charity

Some theological background will be necessary here.

When we talk about the covenant of God, or about anything "covenantal," we know that it always revolves around two things: work and community. This principle is clearly expounded in the very beginning of man's existence, when God placed man in the garden. Man was just created, he had just received the task of the covenant, and there was no sin to pollute his mind, his will, and his actions. God took him and put him in the garden to do two things: work and protect the garden.

The first, work (or, more properly, in Hebrew, serve), had for its purpose the increase in value of the resources man had in the garden. Eden, for sure, had resources in abundance. Man's job was to put them together and make them productive and useful for mankind called to exercise dominion. In another article, I discussed the ethical value of work:

[W]ork is not only not a "worldly" thing, but it is the most spiritual and ethical activity of all activities mentioned in the Bible. Based on the number of verses, work is declared to be an ethical and spiritual virtue, it is more spiritual than prayer, church attendance, praise and worship, singing psalms and hymns, helping the poor, offering sacrifices, healing the sick, performing miracles, raising children, having the right relationship with other people, being nice to people, street evangelisms, etc. From beginning to end, man's very nature as the image of God is defined much more by the word "work" than it is defined by liturgy, relationship, or prayer. Man was created and put in the Garden, and the first task he was given was to work. The Law of God as given to the Hebrews, from beginning to end, presupposes a working culture, not a culture of religious observances. (Any religious observances were peripheral and temporary in nature.) The Promised Land was described as a place where work will be blessed, not cursed; the commandment for offering the first fruit presupposes they would work the land (Deut. 26:1-2) ...
Our modern interpretation of the Fourth Commandment often focuses on the Sabbath rest and we seldom stop to think that that commandment actually has two parts: work and rest (not work and worship). But Jesus challenged our modern interpretation and explained that the more important part of that Commandment is work; in John 5:16-17, he replied to the Jews concerning their interpretation of the Sabbath and their accusations, that "My Father is working until now, and I Myself am working." In Matthew 7:15-20 Jesus talks about the trees being good or bad according to what they produce. Immediately after that, He says that religious observances do not secure one's place in the Kingdom of heaven (vv. 21-23). And of course, that great parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30 declares that refusal to work and produce and increase wealth may cost a man his place in the Kingdom. Jesus there specifically calls the servant "wicked and lazy," indicating that laziness is a vice. Paul told the Thessalonians to "do their own things and work with their own hands" (1 Thess. 4:11), and in case they hadn't gotten the message, in his next letter to them he warned them that "if anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat either" (2 Thess. 3:10). (Seriously, Paul? You'll let a man starve just because he doesn't work?) The threat of starvation must be a convincing testimony to the ethical importance of work in Paul's thinking.
In general, work is considered in the Bible as more important and of a greater spiritual value than religious observances ...2

We may add Jesus' parable of the laborers in the vineyard, which presents the Kingdom of heaven as a landowner who puts people to work when he sees them idle (Matt. 20:1-16).

God's Community

The second, protect, was meant in two ways: to keep the outsiders from the covenant out, and the insiders in. Jesus explains in John 10:1-18 the function of the good shepherd: he is supposed to know his own sheep and be able to separate them from the others, and there is separation-a fence and a gate-meant to divide the sheep. The fence and the gate are that protection, or the separation line, that keeps the outsiders out and the insiders in. The community of God, the Holy Assembly of Israel, was protected as a community by sacraments and laws for cleanness; they established boundaries around Israel and the Temple, and they also defined the rules for the cohesion of God's community. Circumcision and the Passover were the most visible of these "separation rituals" in the Old Testament; baptism and the Lord's Supper in the New. While the principles and laws for righteousness and justice were to be the same for the Israelite and for the stranger, and while the strangers enjoyed the same judicial protection in Israel as everyone else (Ex. 12:49), strangers were excluded from participation in the community until they earned the right to be part of Israel. The descendants of certain nations were excluded from full participation in the community until a specific number of generations after their circumcision (Deut. 23:1-8). The church in the New Testament also had its own laws and principles for organizing and holding the community together, while keeping the strangers out.

Our participation in the covenant always falls under one of these two categories: work or community. Both are commanded and regulated by the law of God.

Covenantal charity is not an exception. In the Bible, we see the commandments of God concerning the poor being related either to work or to community, but never to a general concept of "caring for the poor."

In the Old Testament, there were several ways of helping the poor.

First, there was gleaning (Deut. 24:19-21; Lev. 19:9-10). Gleaning had to do with work. It didn't separate between Israelites and non-Israelites; strangers were also allowed to participate. But they had to work. While it was meant to help the "needy," gleaning did not involve an active distribution of goods to the poor. The poor were expected to make the effort of going to the field and working to gather what was left after the workers. Gleaning-together with the other laws for the poor-was not meant to create a system of "taking care for the material needs of the poor." Rather, it presented the poor with the opportunity to work and to earn their living.

Then there were the laws for debt and servitude. There is a multitude of such laws in the Bible (see, for example, Lev. 25 and Deut. 15), and they all have to do with helping the poor members of Israel. If Israel was obedient to God, they would have experienced economic prosperity as a nation, but individual Israelites could still find themselves in dire straits, economically. The law created no government organ to deal with this problem; neither did it create a church ministry to care for the poor. Outside the family, the solution to poverty was a well-regulated system of debt and servitude which was sufficient to address the needs of society.

While debt and servitude were means to address the needs of the poor members of the society, they were not meant to do it outside the two principles of covenant action, work and community. Debt was a form of temporary relief, but it did not involve a handout. The debtor had to work to return the money-and he had control over what work he was going to do, for how much time, and where. If he didn't work to repay the debt, the next step for him was to sell himself into servitude, where he would be put to work directly by his creditor, on terms defined by the creditor. Work was central to debt and servitude; there was no free lunch, even if the price the poor man had to pay for his lunch was not in money but in foregone freedom.

In the New Testament, Paul insists on the value of work by declaring that a person shouldn't eat unless he works (2 Thess. 3:10). This declaration may seem harsh but it is supported by Paul's words in 1 Tim. 5, where he instructs Timothy not to allow church support to a widow who hasn't met certain criteria, all of which can be summed up under "work." Paul contrasts a true widow who works to a false widow who learns to be idle. Even a starving widow, according to Paul, can't hope to get support unless she works.

All these were Biblical ways to help the poor by putting them to work. The focus was on work, not on their needs, and not on the fact that they were poor. Work was a virtue, and work was the ethical principle behind the laws for the poor. The fact that there were poor in the society whose material needs were not taken care of did not make that society "unjust." What made a society "unjust" was that there was no opportunity for work. According to the Bible, idleness was the true injustice, not hunger.

But there were other laws concerning the poor that had had the purpose to create not just work but cohesion in the community, as a covenant community.

Most of the laws for work, of course, were meant to provide relief for members of Israel. While some provisions-like gleaning-did allow access to strangers, others, like the seven-year debt and servitude limit, were limited to members of the covenant community. (There was no limit on the servitude of a member of a different religion.) Paul's instructions about the widows, of course, apply only to those widows who are church members; he would have hardly expected that a pagan widow would serve the saints.

The "celebration tithe" was a community event which had to include everyone living in the town (Deut. 14; 26). Aliens were invited if they lived in the town. But the feast itself was a feast of cleansing (Deut. 26:13-15), that is, of excluding uncleanness from the community. God was called upon to remember His covenant with Israel, and to bless Israel as a covenant community under Him. The focus was not on the poor and their needs but on the community of Israel. (The feast was held every three years; it wasn't a continuing system of support for the poor.) The celebration was meant to establish ritual borders around Israel as a nation blessed by God; if a person wanted the blessings of God, he had to participate in it.

We see this same principle at work in the New Testament, in the Lord's Supper. It is a celebration of the community (not a solemn, funeral-type, sober, individualistic self-examination), and all the participants are called to discern in the Supper not an ordinary supper but a feast of belonging to the community of God (1 Cor. 11:29). It is limited, indeed, to those who belong to the church, but within the church, it invites to the table both rich and poor, and people have to wait for each other so that everyone can participate. The very meaning of that waiting for each other is that all participants, rich and poor, are the same body, and therefore everyone eats an equal share, irrespective of the share they contribute to the community. And yet, the Supper's purpose is not to feed the hungry but to celebrate the covenant community, the body of Christ.

Who Is My Brother?

We see this principle again in James 2:15-16. While it is taken by many to mean that we need to supply the needs of the poor, the verse specifically talks about a "brother or sister." It is in the same sense that we should take the verses in Matt. 25:34-46, used by the Roman Church as the basis for indiscriminate almsgiving. Jesus specifically talks about "these brothers of mine." Not having a theology of the covenant, the Roman Church interprets these verses by postulating the "brothers of Jesus" to be the beggars and the poor. But the meaning of "brothers" here is those belonging to the community of faith; and the offering of a cup of water mentioned in Matt. 25 must be connected to the same in Mark 9:41: "For whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ, truly I say to you, he will not lose his reward." It is the belonging to Christ that matters, not the economic condition of the beneficiary.

The two non-Jews who benefited from Jesus' healing power-the centurion and the Phoenician woman-understood very well that Biblical charity was covenant-based and covenant-oriented. Therefore, the centurion insisted that Jesus wouldn't come to his house so that the sanctity of the covenant community remained inviolate (Luke 7:6-7). Even though as a stranger living in a Jewish city (and therefore eligible to participate in the community feasts), and having the Jewish elders testify well of him, he was still aware of the fact that Jesus' charity toward his servant would be a unique case. The Syro-Phoenician woman accepted Jesus' refusal on the basis that works of charity must remain limited to the covenant community; but she offered a solution that would satisfy the covenant requirements and yet make it possible for her daughter to be healed: "the dogs under the table feed on the children's crumbs" (Mark 7:28). The two were commended by Jesus for their faith, and there is much speculation among theologians and preachers today what exactly was it that Jesus commended. The unifying element that Jesus saw between the centurion and the Phoenician woman was this: They understood the nature of the covenant and the covenant community, and that charity should remain limited to it. They just hoped to benefit from it as dogs at least, if not as children.

Indeed, any charity extended outside the covenant community must be a special case and must fall under the category "crumbs for the dogs," rather than a special ritual designed to please God and create an image of a "just society." When charity is promiscuous, extended to the "poor" in general, it ends up with the dogs on the table, eating the bread of the children. It leads to God's resources being squandered for almsgiving instead of for the Kingdom of God. It leads to subsidizing evil. Eventually, such theology of indiscriminate charity leads to socialism and statism.

Of course, we have such a special case in Jesus' reply to the Syro-Phoenician woman; the crumbs from the table there were meant not to diminish the covenantal separation but to declare a person as already belonging to the covenantal community by the fact of her faith: "O, woman, your faith is great" (Matt. 15:28). A modern example of such special case would be the Salvation Army in its original mission of intent. R. J. Rushdoony comments on William Booth's book, In Darkest England and the Way Out,

In 1890, a remarkable book was written summoning Christians to save the lost and to remake their lives and all society in terms of Christ's mandate to seek and to save the lost.3

There was a specific goal for the gigantic charity project General Booth envisioned: the expansion of the covenant community, both in terms of numbers, and in terms of personal and corporate spiritual growth. That he didn't envision charity divorced from that covenant growth is evident from his own words in the book:

There is not one sinner in the world-no matter how degraded and dirty he may be-whom my people will not rejoice to take by the hand and pray with, and labour for, if therefore they can but snatch him as a brand from the burning.4

It is important also to observe that Rushdoony included his praise for Booth and his Salvation Army in a chapter properly titled, "The Community of Christ."

The church must oppose humanistic charity using the Biblical concept of covenantal charity, based on the covenant of God, focused on the covenant of God, and serving the covenant of God. True charity can not be concerned with a general "care for the poor." Even if we assume that the West today has any "poor" whatsoever-and it doesn't, in the Biblical sense of the word-we cannot afford to buy into a worldview that opposes the covenant. Biblical charity is not concerned primarily with the poor but with the idle; it puts idle men to work. And Biblical charity is not concerned with material needs but with the needs of the covenant community: keep the outsiders out, keep the members in, and provide a principle of community cohesion consistent with our Biblical faith. Charity is not a religious rite done to please God or to demonstrate a "just society." Justice and righteousness are based only on the law of God; and so should our charity be as well.

Note 1: The Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) can not be taken as an excuse for indiscriminate almsgiving. First, it must be read in the context of Jesus' words in Mark 7:27, "it is not good to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs." Second, it is a story of personal charity in a very specific, unusual situation. Third, both the starting question and the end of the story, "Who is my neighbor?" point to the fact that the story is about inclusion and exclusion, not about almsgiving per se. The lawyer wanted to "justify himself." About what? In the parable, Jesus gives the examples of a priest and of a Levite who refuse to show mercy to another member of their own community. Apparently, the lawyer wanted to justify his refusal to help his covenant brothers which made him worse than that Samaritan in the parable. At the end, Jesus declares the exclusion of the priest and the Levite from the covenant community and the inclusion of the Samaritan ("the one who showed mercy"); thus implying that the lawyer has excluded himself from being a "neighbor" by not obeying the laws of covenantal charity. It is in the same sense that Jesus interprets the charity shown by Elijah and Elisha in Luke 4:25-27 (see the context, and especially the reaction of the Jews). He interpreted those in terms of covenant inclusion and exclusion. It's about covenant, not about almsgiving.

Note 2: An objection may be raised based on Gal. 6:10: "Do good to all men, and especially to the household of faith." The word for "especially" (malista) is the same as in 1 Tim. 4:10: God is "Savior of all men, especially of those who believe." Gal. 6:10 teaches universal, indiscriminate charity no more than 1 Tim. 4:10 teaches universal, indiscriminate salvation. What both verses teach is bread for the children, crumbs for the dogs.

1. See Deirdre McCloskey, Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can't Explain the Modern World.


3. R. J. Rushdoony, In His Service: The Christian Calling to Charity (Vallecito, California: Ross House Books, 2009), 65-68.

4. Quoted in Ibid.

Topics: Biblical Law, Charity, R. J. Rushdoony