So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith. Galatians 6:10
Among those in need, can Christians prioritize their brothers and sisters in Christ? The United Methodist Church teaches that it is not only permissible to do so, it is officially required. The General Rules we inherited from John Wesley direct those who want to belong to the Methodist societies to do all the good they can, specifically:
By doing good, especially to them that are of the household of faith or groaning so to be; employing them preferably to others; buying one of another, helping each other in business, and so much the more because the world will love its own and them only.
Wesley is alluding to Paul’s writing in Galatians 6:10. Paul’s word “especially” (μάλιστα) could also be translated “most of all” or “above all” or “to the greatest degree”.
The General Rules demand that members of Methodist societies help the poor, spread the gospel to everyone and live within their means, all while at the same time giving preference to their Christian brothers and sisters. The Rules are one of the United Methodist Church’s unalterable standards of doctrine.
Wesley made the same point in his sermon on The Use of Money.
First, provide things needful for yourself; food to eat, raiment to put on, whatever nature moderately requires for preserving the body in health and strength. Secondly, provide these for your wife, your children, your servants, or any others who pertain to your household. If when this is done there be an overplus left, then “do good to them that are of the household of faith.” If there be an overplus still, “as you have opportunity, do good unto all men.” In so doing, you give all you can; nay, in a sound sense, all you have: For all that is laid out in this manner is really given to God. You “render unto God the things that are God’s,” not only by what you give to the poor, but also by that which you expend in providing things needful for yourself and your household.
Wesley expected those in his societies to be exceptionally frugal in providing for their own needs, and not to ruin their children by spending any more than was strictly necessary on them. In providing for oneself, one’s family and (presumably) one’s fellow believers, Wesley would not have favored going beyond what is essential for health, safety and strength. Still, Christians are especially obligated to help the members of the household of faith.
While Wesley saw this as a financial responsibility, I wonder if there are not also other ways in which Christians owe each other a qualitatively unique loyalty that belongs to the family of faith.
Our brothers and sisters in many parts of the world are facing martyrdom and persecution every day for the sake of Christ. They face beatings, beheadings, sexual exploitation, enslavement, financial ruin and imprisonment because they confess the name of Jesus.
These are members of our own family. How can the church in the west – especially the progressive, mainline church in the United States – not speak up on behalf of the persecuted church?
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom lists country after country where Christians are denied basic human rights. Just last year, the U.S. Department of State recognized that Christians are targets of genocide in places like Syria and Iraq. Federal law recognizes a well-founded fear of persecution based on religion as a legitimate basis for granting refuge in this country.
It’s impossible for me to see Ethiopian and Coptic Christians beheaded on a beach in Libya and simply view it as just another injustice in the world. I can’t hear about churches being bombed in Nigeria and Egypt and not feel sick at my stomach. I can’t read about Christians being given life in prison for helping the poor in Sudan or consigned to labor camps in North Korea or receiving the death penalty in Pakistan, and not recognize that these are my brothers and sisters.
In the United States, who is going to speak up for the world’s persecuted Christians, if not the church? Hollywood celebrities? The press and the media? Progressive academics? Anarchist crowds in the street? It doesn’t fit their common narrative. Ultra-nationalists or racists who rank their cause above Christ? There’s little interest in different-looking foreigners. Multinational corporations? There’s no financial upside. As Wesley wisely noted, “the world will love its own and them only.”
Fortunately, there are still people working in government and non-governmental organizations who care about international religious freedom for all, including Christians. As a member of Christ’s body, however, I don’t advocate for my brothers and sisters as a distant third party. The persecuted church is not “them”, it’s “us”. My concern is ultimately and deeply personal.
If my biological children were living in a region devastated by an earthquake or hurricane, I wouldn’t think, “Well that’s just too bad for them, but their lives aren’t any more important than the lives of others. I’ll just help everyone in the disaster zone by donating money to relief agencies and volunteering my time for the general emergency response. The kids will just have to take their chances with everyone else. No need to see how they’re doing, encourage them, advocate for them or help them in particular. Maybe they’ll get lucky, or maybe not. Oh, well.”
I think it might be possible to help all those in need while paying special attention to my own flesh and blood. And by the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ, all Christians are family to me.
All lives matter, but as they say, if you use that fact to minimize the specific life in question, you’ve committed an injustice.
But shouldn’t Christians step back and let others to the front of the line? Certainly, Christians should take up the cross and be willing to suffer and die for Christ. That’s part of the same General Rules by which Methodists live. But I can only do that for myself. I can’t give away someone else’s life. Christians, sitting safe, fat and happy in Virginia or Georgia, seem like pompous hypocrites when they volunteer their brothers and sisters in Iraq or Libya for martyrdom. If Daesh marches into your village, feel free to surrender yourself to the executioner’s sword, but for Christ’s sake don’t stay silent when they take your daughter as a sex-slave.
I see Christians of all stripes stepping forward to care for immigrants and plead their cause. Good for you. That’s doing good for “all people” as the apostle commanded. What I don’t see, especially from the progressive and mainline side of the family, is a lot of concern for suffering and dying Christians in the lands where persecution is widespread. Could you march and carry a sign for them? Could you write an open letter for them? Could you insist that governments entrusted with the sword of Romans 13 defend them?
As reported by the Book of Acts, the apostle Paul demanded that the Roman government offer him the protection afforded by Roman law. Can the church today not also demand that governments follow their laws and live up to their ideals, for the protection of persecuted Christians?
Many Christians in the early church bravely faced martyrdom, but the church also pled its cause before the imperial powers and challenged the government to act justly. It honored its martyrs and kept their memories alive. Today, the western church is not even paying attention to their brethren’s suffering.
Of course, the church in the west needs to listen to its suffering members scattered like seed throughout the world. There are some courses of action that do not actually help our brothers and sisters in need. We can’t presume to know what is best for them without asking and paying attention to the answer.
Whatever actions we commend in public, we should always keep the martyr church in our thoughts and prayers – literally. How long has it been since I have actually attended a worship service where the congregation prayed in a meaningful way for vulnerable Christians around the world?
[UPDATE: As I am publishing this, the Assyrian Church’s Fast of Jonah is taking place. In remembrance of how the people of Nineveh repented when they heard Jonah’s preaching, the church fasts and prays for Christians now living in the shadow of Nineveh. What a wonderful way to pray in solidarity our Christian brothers and sisters in the middle east.]
And there are steps we can take to help those most at risk, both privately and publicly. We should keep the persecuted church in mind when we plan our giving and when we exercise our sovereign power as citizens.
Most of all, we should remember our oppressed brothers and sisters because the Lord does. From the first pages of the Bible to the last, the Lord delivers his chosen people and vindicates them in their oppression.
To Moses, he said:
I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt. I have heard their cry because of their taskmasters, for I know their sorrows. Exodus 3:7
And John the Seer reports:
Now when the Lamb opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been violently killed because of the word of God and because of the testimony they had given. They cried out with a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Master, holy and true, before you judge those who live on the earth and avenge our blood?” Revelation 6:9-10
In Matthew 10, Jesus tells his missionary disciples that he is sending them out like sheep among wolves. They will sometimes face persecution, and whether their hosts respond with hospitality or hostility is a matter of eternal significance. In their acts of kindness or cruelty to Jesus’ disciples, the villagers of Galilee and Judea will actually be dealing with Jesus himself.
Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me. Matthew 10:40
For the places that reject and mistreat Jesus’ disciples,
I tell you the truth, it will be more bearable for the region of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town! Matthew 10:15
In Matthew 25, Jesus extends that judgment to the church in mission to the entire Gentile world.
And the king will answer them, ‘I tell you the truth, just as you did it for one of the least of these brothers or sisters of mine, you did it for me. Matthew 25:40
Here, again, Jesus is speaking about the world’s treatment of his disciples more than he is speaking about the disciples’ treatment of the world. On the basis of this judgment, the Son of Man will say to some:
Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire that has been prepared for the devil and his angels! Matthew 25:41
God will not hold those who mistreat his chosen ones blameless on the day of Christ’s appearing. Nor will he, I believe, think kindly of Christians who ignored the suffering of the persecuted in the household of faith.