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The Diaconate, Charity, and Welfarism

Humanistic motives have often governed commendable causes within the church. Man seeks to gain an advantage over God even with his virtues and obedience.

R. J. Rushdoony
  • R. J. Rushdoony,
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(Reprinted from the new release In His Service [Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 2009])

Humanistic motives have often governed commendable causes within the church. Man seeks to gain an advantage over God even with his virtues and obedience. This motivation infects every area of thought at some time and in some form. In Mariolatry, for example, a significant aspect of devotion is the belief that Mary, a creature, can exercise a governing influence with God. Protestants are ready to criticize Mariolatry, and underrate the Virgin Mary, while themselves falling prey to a comparable error. Motherhood has been exalted to a somewhat sacred level, and a “mother’s heart” given undue emphasis. Some Protestant mothers are insistent that God will answer a mother’s prayer for her son; this is more a belief in the power of nagging than an example of Biblical faith.

In considering therefore the nature of Christian charity, it is necessary to remind ourselves that erroneous motives have entered in. The modern term philanthropy represents an example of this; it means, literally, love of man; whereas Biblical charity means, essentially, manifesting God’s grace because we have received His grace. As our Lord commands us, “[F]reely ye have received, freely give” (Matt. 10:8). Christian charity is indeed a godly work, but it is also essentially a manifestation of grace. We give because we have received.

When James tells us that faith without works is dead (James 2:14–17), he is declaring their virtual identity. A living faith reveals itself in a man’s work: no faith, no works, and vice versa. The work of grace is a fruit of grace. A false separation leads to bad theology. Works separated from faith is philanthropy, and it is also a fallacious view of salvation at times. Faith separated from works tends to mysticism, or at least the confusion of experience and feeling with faith.

The early church was remarkable in its practice of charity. This was in part its inheritance from Judaism, but it went far beyond Judaism in the scope of its practice. We cannot underrate the importance of its work here. At the same time, this practice was not error free. For example, St. John Chrysostom declared:

Are you unable to practise the virginal life? Then make a prudent marriage. Are you unable to do without possessions? Give, then of what you possess. Is such a burden too heavy for you? Divide your goods with Christ. Are you not willing to cede Him everything? Make over to Him at least the half or third part. He is your brother and co-heir; make Him your co-heir even on earth. How much soever you give to Him you give that to yourself.1

The Neoplatonism and asceticism here is obvious. A life of marriage and the possession of property is the lesser way of spirituality, and amends can be made by living meagerly. God requires the tithes; gifts were possible only if more than a tithe were involved. Chrysostom urged “at least the half or third part” be given to Christ and His work. This is being holier than God!

With reference to true almsgiving, Chrysostom said:

Charity is, indeed, a great thing, and a gift of God, and when it is rightly ordered, likens us to God Himself as far as that is possible; for it is charity which makes the man. Some one, at least, wishing to characterise man, did it in these words: Man is great, and the merciful man is honourable. Kindness is better than raising up the dead. For it is a much greater thing to feed Christ in His hunger than to raise the dead in the name of Jesus. By feeding Christ you confer a benefit upon Him; in the other case He is benefiting you. And the reward is for doing, not receiving. As to the signs, you are under an obligation to God, but with regard to the almsgiving, you put God under an obligation to you.

It is an alms when you give willingly, generously—thinking that you are rather taking than giving; when you give as if you were receiving something, as gaining rather than losing, otherwise there would be no thanks in it. He who helps his neighbour should be in gladness, not in gloom. In truth, is it not foolish that in removing the despondency of another you yourself should be despondent. You will not suffer it to be a real alms.2

In these words, a great impetus for subsequent charities is in evidence: “[W]ith regard to the almsgiving, you put God under an obligation to you.” This is a far cry from our Lord’s words,“[F]reely ye have received, freely give.”

This view of Chrysostom’s is different from the emphasis of St. Ephrem of Syria, who said of Christ’s birthday, “On this day to us came forth the Gift, although we asked it not! Let us therefore alms bestow on them that cry and beg of us.”3 Ephrem said also:

He the Lord of all giveth all to us. He that enricheth all, requireth usury of all. He giveth to all things as wanting nothing, and yet requireth usury of all as if needy. He gave us herds and flocks as Creator, and yet asked sacrifices as though in need.4

This is closer in spirit to “[F]reely ye have received, freely give.” Grace is stressed rather than putting God under an obligation.

Both views were widely prevalent, but, in time, the view of Chrysostom (not original with him, no doubt) prevailed. Centuries later, the Spanish picaresque writer Mateo Aleman wrote: “[T]o the rich are given temporal goods and to the poor are given spiritual goods, so that in return for distributing earthly possessions among the poor, grace is bought.”5

This does not mean that good did not flow out of this theological error, not necessarily because of the error but the faith still present with it. Maureen Flynn’s study of Catholic confraternities in Zamora, Spain, 1400–1700, is a remarkable account of the Christian organization of life. The confraternities were mutual aid brotherhoods and sisterhoods; they included most Zamorans. Their work included mutual insurance, charitable activities, hospitals, burials, redeeming captives, maintaining bridges, providing dowries, preventing vengeance, and more. They owned land and properties to further their work. They had their own priests and were a lay-operated church outside the church. The French Revolution abolished all such organizations, among other corporations.6

Confraternities declined for a number of reasons. First, the plague made labor scarce, and this helped destroy the medieval attitude towards “holy poverty.” Second, this went hand in hand with a changed attitude towards work, “and its value in the material development of nations.”7 Work was now more sanctifying, especially to Protestants, than was poverty, and able-bodied beggars were now regarded unfavorably.

There was also, third, the rise of statist charities, quickly becoming welfarism, as the state gained power, and as crisis conditions in the economy made the burden of charity too great for sometimes weakened church agencies.

Some legislation against begging followed in many countries. In Spain, a Dominican friar, Domingo de Soto, opposed such legislation on both theological and practical grounds. “He considered begging a fundamental human right of which no government should deprive its citizens.”8 Even more Soto saw begging as closely tied to property freedom. “As long as private property remained the foundation of the economic order, the poor could not be deprived of their private right to appeal for sustenance.”9

At the same time also the Council of Trent began to alter the confraternities from lay control and lay concerns to ecclesiastical ones. In fact, in Flynn’s telling words, “The universal brotherhood of brothers in Spain posed almost as great a threat to Catholic clergymen as the universal priesthood conceived by the Protestants,” since the confraternities were administering sacraments and arranging their own services of worship.10

Calvin, meanwhile, was giving a renewed emphasis to charity. In his Institutes, Calvin declared, in terms of Acts, that

The invariable custom, therefore, was, that no assembly of the Church should be held without the word being preached, prayers being offered, the Lord’s supper administered, and alms given.11

Charity was thus made inseparable from worship. Very soon, Geneva saw the needy cared for. It was a cooperative task of church and state, as was the case in Spain. The work was under the jurisdiction of the church’s diaconate. A paid, full-time deacon administered the charity.12 Calvin believed that charity had to be an aspect of the life of faith and dependent on “the voluntary spirit.”13 He also held that work was essential, and, in a sermon on Deuteronomy 24:1–6, declared, “If a man is deprived of his work he is degraded.”14 Thus, efforts were made to provide work for the poor. Calvin’s Geneva provided a pattern in Milan for Cardinal (later Saint) Charles Borromeo.

When the earlier, medieval, view of holy poverty gave way after the plague to a growing dislike of beggars, and a belief that able-bodied men should work, society was ready for a theology of work. Calvin laid the foundations for this in holding that poverty, instead of giving holiness to a man, degraded him.

Wallace said of Calvin that his program for Geneva could be described as one of social sanctification, and as having two aspects. The first was to be the personal transformation of the people. The second was to be through social discipline, “and through the sacramental power of the word of God.”15 The “social discipline” included the work of the diaconate.

Calvin’s vision of society was one of church and state alike in the service of the triune God. Another concept was in the process of developing, however. In Flynn’s terms, in describing its Spanish manifestation, in the new temper, “religion was conceived of as at the service of the state.”16 This meant social discipline for the peace of the state, not for peace with God. It led to a transition from godly charity to philanthropy and welfarism.

Humanistic advocates of welfarism would to a degree give their approval to Calvin’s statement, but with a difference. First, for the humanistic statist, it is powerlessness more than worklessness which is degrading to a man. As a result, entitlements and aid replace work as the remedy for the poor. Second, Calvin saw man’s degradation and prosperity in terms of man’s status before God, not in terms of cash and material goods.

As a result, welfarism has degraded a man far more than poverty has, because its damage has been to the spirit of man.

1. Mary H. Allies, trans., “Homilies on St. Matthew,” Leaves from St. John Chrysostom (London, England: Burns & Oates, 1889), 73.

2. Allies, “Homilies on St. Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians,” Leaves from St. John Chrysostom, 70.

3. J. B. Morris, trans., “Rhythm the First,” Select Works of S. Ephrem the Syrian (Oxford, England: John Henry Parker, 1847), 9.

4. Morris, “Third Rhythm,” Select Works of S. Ephrem the Syrian, 25.

5. Maureen Flynn, Sacred Charity: Confraternities and Social Welfare in Spain 1400–1700 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989), 76.

6. Ibid., 247.

7. Ibid., 86.

8. Ibid., 95.

9. Ibid., 96.

10. Ibid., 118.

11. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Bk. 4, Chap. 17, Vol. 2 (Philadelphia, PA: Presbyterian Board of Christian Education, 1936), 705.

12. Ronald S. Wallace, Calvin, Geneva, and the Reformation (Edinburgh, Scotland: Scottish Academic Press, 1988), 90.

13. Ibid., 96.

14. Ibid., 124.

15. Ibid., 31.

16. Flynn, Sacred Charity, 107.

R. J. Rushdoony
  • R. J. Rushdoony

Rev. R.J. Rushdoony (1916–2001), was a leading theologian, church/state expert, and author of numerous works on the application of Biblical law to society. He started the Chalcedon Foundation in 1965. His Institutes of Biblical Law (1973) began the contemporary theonomy movement which posits the validity of Biblical law as God’s standard of obedience for all. He therefore saw God’s law as the basis of the modern Christian response to the cultural decline, one he attributed to the church’s false view of God’s law being opposed to His grace. This broad Christian response he described as “Christian Reconstruction.” He is credited with igniting the modern Christian school and homeschooling movements in the mid to late 20th century. He also traveled extensively lecturing and serving as an expert witness in numerous court cases regarding religious liberty. Many ministry and educational efforts that continue today, took their philosophical and Biblical roots from his lectures and books.

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