Charity is an old word that typically stood for the word ‘love’ in modern bible translations. It was not, first and foremost, thought of as a feeling but an act of self-giving for the sake of our neighbour.
Charity is the manifestation of God’s grace in human kindness, mercy and generosity. It’s personal. It creates bonds and enables the formation of relationships.
A living faith reveals itself in charity. Charity, or love, is revealed in our good works for which we receive great joy and from which others are enriched socially, spiritually and physically.
Charity is deeply personal. Boaz did not send Ruth a cheque in the mail and we too should be careful to avoid a set-and-forget tithe mentality. While it might suit the treasurer, it is foreign to the concept of charity in scripture as the means by which we build the bonds of community (Acts 4:34-35).
Our salvation is not rubber-stamped in heaven. It is the result of God, coming into this world as a man, because he loved it, drinking our beer and dying as our friend in order that, by His Spirit, He might live in us and dwell with us forever.
The early church was remarkable in its practice and imitation of this charity. It provided daily care for widows and orphans, aided the poor in finding work and held courts where even the pagans chose to go in order to settle disputes.
They rescued abandoned babies and raised them as their own children and provided food and clothing for those in prison. They established hospitals, libraries, schools, houses of refuge and more.
Early church father, John Chrysostom (347-407 A.D.), mostly remembered for his fine sermons, lived in Constantinople. The Christian population which numbered 100,000 held themselves responsible for the maintenance of 50,000 poor folk through the tithes, offerings and charitable works.2
The charity of the early church was so remarkable that Roman Emperor Julian once remarked (in disdain and embarrassment), “No [Christian] Jew ever has to beg, and the impious Galileans support not only their own poor but ours as well.”1
The motivation for much of this charity was the understanding that the basic government of society was upon the shoulders of Jesus Christ (Isaiah 9:6), and so it was upon His people.
State welfarism, by contrast, robs a man of both personal responsibility and personal charity as it is entirely impersonal. It is there to foster loyalty to another father (Caesar) and another government (the state). Rome understood the threat of Christian charity to its power base and sought to eradicate it through persecution and ridicule, much like our own day where personal and institutional acts of charity by the church are squeezed out through legislation.
It might surprise some Christians to learn that the commission given to the disciples, to go into all the world and preach the gospel, is nowhere reiterated or urged in any of the New Testament Epistles. What is urged and commanded throughout, is the call to hospitality, godliness and works of charity as evidence of real and living faith (James 1:27; 2:14-26).
Where do we start? Well, we don’t start by petitioning Caesar to fulfil for us the glorious call to Christian charity.
If we believe the Gospel to be lovely, if we consider it beautiful (Isaiah 52:7), then we can start by making each place we go more lovely than it was before we got there.
And we do that by taking personal responsibility for charity, by bringing our good works into every room and every street. Whether it’s serving a meal, speaking the truth in love, lifting a burden or putting a rose in a vase beside an elderly widow’s bed.
Charity is doing just one thing, wherever you are, to make that place and the air within it more lovely than it was before you got there.
1 W. H. C. Frend, The Rise of Christianity (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress press, 1984), 25
2 J. G. Davies, Daily Life of early Christians (New York, NY: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1953), 167-68.