James and the Giant NGO

James 2:1-7

     1My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism. 2For if a man comes into your assembly with a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and there also comes in a poor man in dirty clothes, 3and you pay special attention to the one who is wearing the fine clothes, and say, “You sit here in a good place,” and you say to the poor man, “You stand over there, or sit down by my footstool,” 4have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil motives? 5Listen, my beloved brethren: did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him? 6But you have dishonored the poor man. Is it not the rich who oppress you and personally drag you into court? 7Do they not blaspheme the fair name by which you have been called?  (HCSB)

In church, one should not show favoritism. One should not give special status to those with money… those who can fill the church coffers. I was a member of one church long ago in which the top layperson was also the richest (by far) member. But, in truth, he was a godly man. I was a member of another church (also long ago) where the top layperson was also the richest member. When he did a big moral error… he was allowed to remain in his high position in the church without repercussion. But, in truth, he was a diligent worker in ministry. I was a member of yet another church long ago, where the top layperson in the church was the richest member. But later leadership changes led to his having lesser influence… and he moved to another church to have more influence.

I feel that I have seen enough of this pattern to identify it. There are people of wealth who will seek out a church and use their financial power to encourage the membership to give them special power and influence in the church. I believe doing such is a clear violation of the above passage in James… noting that doing so is based on evil motives. However, the passage arguably draws from Leviticus 19 and verse 15 makes it clear that one should not show favoritism to the poor over the rich either. Both are corrupt behaviors. We treat all classes of people as being equal before God and before the church.

This is difficult when it comes to missions. Years ago, when I was working in Virginia Beach, I had a “grunt job” in one of the largest Christian organizations in the world. One time I was helping out as a server for a gathering of the top 100 donors for this organization. These people were treated like royalty. Is this right or wrong?

When we did medical missions here in the Philippines, we would seek financial donors. Those who were donors were given special honor on the banners and reports, even though they did far less ministerially (usually) than the hosts and the team members. Is this right or wrong?

We set up our organization here, Bukal Life Care. When were were getting ready to put together the Board of Trustees, we were told that we should select rich people and people with power in the community. Actually, we did not follow that advice. We sought people of common heart but of diverse backgrounds. I think that was the right decision. But our group has always been on a “shoestring budget” (American slang for VERY little money). Actually, we would need to borrow shoestrings to be on a shoestring budget.

So what is right? Should mission agencies seek DEEP POCKETS? Should they give the rich prominent roles in their organizations? Should material prosperity be honored over a servants’ faithful attitude of service? (I don’t buy the argument that prosperous people are more godly than nonprosperous people. Both the Bible and observable reality contradict this.)

I do think that many organizations do things wrong… seeking money over godliness. Still, it seems like there is an important and godly place for fundraising. Additionally, receiving money should also mean accepting a certain amount of accountability from those who give. I don’t have the answers. I suppose, truthfully, I hope we stay small enough never to really have to face this issue. Being small, however, won’t necessarily solve this problem. As James noted, the problem comes from selfish, evil motives. All organizations can fall into that trap. Every organization, I believe, must examine its own corporate heart and motives first before addressing money (and vision) issues.

Money and Missions, Reprise

Corrie Ten Boom, in her book “Tramp for the Lord”, speaks of how she used to ask for financial support for her work. However, at a certain point in her ministry, she believed God told her to stop asking for money. She goes on to say that she got two letters close to the same time from others who told her that “God told them” that Corrie should not ask for financial support. So she stopped doing this, and God continued to provide for her work. It is not my interest to say whether her method was correct or whether God literally gave her this message (she tended to like to appeal to the mystical side of faith). It doesn’t matter because God used her the way she was and how she was working (be it based on divine message or from personal conviction).

Cover of "Tramp for the Lord"
Cover of Tramp for the Lord

One possible reason for not believing that the message came from God is on page 87 (1974 edition) of the same book she says,

“God takes his prohibition of asking for money very seriously, just as He means it seriously when He says He will care for and protect us. However, if we seek to raise our own money then God will let us do it—by ourselves. …. But we will miss the far greater blessing of letting Him supply all our needs according to His own riches.”

This passage suggests that Corrie Ten Boom believed that her decision is conforming to a universal law of God, rather than a personal message.

But what is the truth? Can a missionary ask for financial support?

Against…

  1. Stories like Corrie Ten Boom and George Mueller could be used as evidence against asking for financial support. (Of course, both did freely express their needs and vision to others and left the actual request unspoken. One might argue that there is not a lot of practical difference between expressing need and asking for help versus expressing need and leaving the request for help unspoken but clearly on the table.)
  2. Clear abuses in fund-raising by so-called “tele-evangelists” and mission organizations demonstrate that at least some fund-raising is deeply flawed, if not simply evil. Certainly greed can be poison to a missionary and his/her work. Such groups often develop a parasitic relationship with Christians resulting in harm to local churches and other organizations, as well as a bad reputation to the broader pluralistic society. <I had a relative who gave regularly from her meager pension and social security to several religious and political groups. After she died, my father and I literally had to go into her back room with shovels to dig through the piles of ridiculous requests for money, from a woman who was partly senile and could barely afford to pay her own bills.>

For…

  1. The Bible clearly has some places where support was asked for. The Old Testament practice of tithing was essentially a tax (a financial demand) for both civil government and religious leadership. Paul asked for financial support from churches to support Christians in Judea. The requests were quite direct. There are other examples in the Bible that appear, at least, to disallow the generalization of the mandate (of Ten Boom or Mueller) not to ask for financial support.
  2. Most missionaries (including those who might not ask for financial support) feel free to ask for prayer, time, and work from supporters. Should one separate money from these other needs? If we should not ask for money because God will supply all our needs, it seems like it would also be inappropriate to ask for prayer, time, or work from others because that would likewise be circumventing God’s provision.

Personally, I haven’t, up to this point at least, asked directly for money from others (except our supporting church… and only after they have asked us first). But I think it is ill-advised to generalize or moralize a rule regarding asking for money. I would like to suggest a middle ground of sorts.

  1. One should not set a universal rule regarding this issue. If one missionary has a conviction not to ask (directly) for financial support, that is fine. If another feels it is perfectly appropriate to ask , that is fine as well. I believe God can bless both and approve of both.
  2. One should always be careful about the sins of hubris and greed. Far too many have fallen because they began to choose money as their Master rather than God.
  3. Missionaries should ALWAYS be ready to express both needs and vision… regardless of their own opinion about asking directly for money.
  4. Missionaries should not be too quick to see money as distinctly different from other forms of resource support.
  5. Support should be linked more to partnership (building a relationship of joint work) with supporters rather than looking for cash cows. Missions may need money, but it needs people far more.
  6. All giving by Christians for God’s work should be given wisely. If that is so then missionaries should help others give wisely, not seek people to make rash, unwise decisions.

A good book that focuses on raising support (but not just in terms of money) is “People Raising:  A Practical Guide to Raising Support” by William Dutton. It was written in 1993 (not sure if there are updates), so it is a bit out of date due to technological changes… but many of its principles are still extremely valid.