But one of the things that happens during such trips is that we, who are relatively wealthy, are exposed to people who, by comparison, are relatively poor. This exposure often stimulates in us a sense of guilt, and one easy way to deal with that guilt is to “send money.” But money in general, and guilt money in particular, is fraught with critical issues.
The great Sri Lankan theologian, D.T. Niles, commented on the problem of “inter-church aid” and our need, along with Paul, to be “weak in Christ.” Niles observed that the churches in his Asian context operate many institutions. Those hospitals and schools do indeed render services to the community but they also provide patronage, control employment and sometimes make money. All of these activities, noted Niles, are forms of secular strength. He wrote:
The only way to build love between two people or two groups of people is to be so related to each other as to stand in need of each other. The Christian community must serve. It must also be in a position where it needs to be served (This Jesus … whereof we are witnesses, p. 25).
… in my view, one of the biggest problems to be solved in the years that lie ahead is how, … Inter-Church Aid can be given and received without destroying that weakness of the churches in which lies their inherent strength.
One of the remarkable points about the above reflection is that D.T. Niles was a part of a relatively poor church that was the recipient of “inter-church aid” and yet it was he who voiced this concern. Niles’ point is both well taken and reflected in the life of Jesus.
At the well in Samaria Jesus needs the Samaritan woman and consequently begins his conversation with her by saying, “Give me a drink.” We Americans with our entrepreneurial spirit are capable of saying to Jesus on such an occasion:
Yes, but Jesus, we can fund your ministry. How about buying you a donkey and paying for its upkeep? Furthermore, we will equip the donkey with four brand-new goat-skin water bags, and your ministry will have a wider scope. First, you can ride the donkey and thus will not arrive at your destinations weary, as you did at the well in Samaria. Second, you will be able to travel further without needing to worry about finding a well. This will also solve your water purity problem. Who knows what falls into those dirty village wells? You shouldn’t take risks!
Ah — but with a new donkey loaded with water skins, Jesus would have no need of the woman. And what would that do to her self-esteem? With new “transport and supply” would it be easier or harder for Jesus to relate to her? The woman has very little to offer anyone aside from her body, but she can honorably draw water for a thirsty stranger — that is, if he is so poor he doesn’t have a bucket.
What about the “weakness of the churches in which lies their inherent strength”? What about “needing to be served”? When does our mission giving strip away that “inherent strength” and who is to make such a call? There are no easy answers to hard, nearly imponderable, questions, but Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, offers “theological education” to assist in the search for elusive answers to these difficult questions.
Paul was a tentmaker and was proud of the fact that he paid his own way, making the gospel “free of charge.” At the same time, it is clear that Paul did not earn enough money sewing tents to cover all his expenses and, therefore needed, and indeed engaged in, low key “fund raising.”
In writing to the Philippians, Paul opens and closes his letter by discussing money and mission — his mission. He does not use the fund-raising language we are accustomed to, but on close examination, his intent is clear. In the opening verses of the letter he offers thanks, “for your partnership (koinonia) in the gospel.” This phrase no doubt refers to a number of things, one of which is obviously money. The reader knows this because, when Paul concludes the letter, he returns to the same subject and uses the same key word partnership (now as a verb). He writes:
And you Philippians yourselves know that no church entered into partnership [ekoinonesen] with me in giving and receiving except you only… you sent me help once and again. Not that I seek the gift, but … I have received full payment, and more, having received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God …
Epaphroditus was sent by the Philippians on a “short-term mission trip” to Paul, taking financial assistance for Paul’s ministry with him. In this same connection, the book of Romans was written in the hope of securing the church in Rome as a new base for Paul’s intended outreach to Spain. For such a venture he needed funds. Thus, he told the Romans that he hoped “to be sped on my journey there by you, …” This little phrase “sped on my journey” means “I need funding in order to travel.” He expressed the same hope when he urged the Corinthians to “speed me on my journey, wherever I go.” When translated into modern terms this means,
I need a bit of financial help and hope you can contribute. Making and selling tents is fine — but it doesn’t bring in enough money to cover my travel costs.
Returning to the Philippians, Paul thanks them for their financial contribution to his ministry. We have all responded to requests for donations to worthy causes and have all received letters of thanks when we contributed. But Paul’s “thank you letter to his constituency” is strikingly different. As he expresses gratitude for those gifts he writes, “And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more.” In the context of thanking them for their gifts this sounds like: I hope you will continue contributing and that your level of giving will increase.
But there is a surprise in store. Paul wants their love to abound “with all knowledge and discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent.” That is, he wants their financial contributions (a concrete expression of their love) to abound in knowledge (of that which they are paying) and all discernment.” In the entire New Testament, the latter term (aisthesis), is to be found only here. It is a big word that involves “moral understanding” and “intellectual perception” (Bauer, 25). They must discern what they are supporting, what their funds are actually accomplishing and whether their contributions are helping or hindering the cause of the gospel they are sincerely trying to support.
This is amazing! The recipient of funds writes to his contributors and in effect says:
Your knowledge of what you are paying for must widen and your discernment of the long-term effect of your funding must also constantly increase so that you may approve what is excellent. I want you to be sure you only fund those things that represent a high standard of excellence. The reason for this is that you may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruits of righteousness …
Paul urged them to:
Check the mirror of eternity. At the end of the age I don’t want you to regret the way you spent your mission money. Naïve romanticism will not do. Some preach the gospel out of envy, rivalry and partisanship, thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment (and I certainly hope you are not sending them any money!) Know what you are paying for, and discern the long-term effect of your giving. This responsibility must continue until the day of Jesus Christ.
These are wonderful guidelines for mission-funding committees. But to have the recipient of mission funding offer this warning and advice is truly astounding. Yet this is precisely what Paul does. Paul is on the same team with D.T. Niles while Peter has a few uncensored comments concerning those who engaged in pastoral ministry “for shameful gain.” (1 Peter 5:2) It’s an old problem!
At the same time, long-standing issues attached to funding are greatly intensified when giving is cross-cultural. Every church is born in and lives in a particular culture. And the Church is never immune from the sins of that culture. In the American Church, if racism can be found in American culture, racism will be found in the church. In the Two-Third’s World, financial corruption is endemic in many cultures and it is impossible to imagine that churches in Two-Third’s World countries are not infected with that particular deadly virus. Do any of us live before the Fall?
Rapidly proliferating short-term mission trips intensify the need to listen to Paul, who was receiving funds and, as a recipient, challenged his contributors to express love with knowledge and discernment and to approve only what was excellent. By so doing they could move in the direction of being “pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruits of righteousness ….”
Christian education takes many forms. This is one of them. May this age-old problem, under the guidance of the Spirit, find new answers in our day.
Kenneth E. Bailey is an author and lecturer in Middle Eastern New Testament studies living in New Wilmington, Pa.
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