Sunday marked a historic milestone for the United States with the passage of healthcare legislation long championed by President Obama. There is more than enough political commentary on this subject. My focus here is on what this legislation may mean for a part of our society we at the DNA care deeply about – local churches.
The debate over the healthcare bill was actually a proxy battle over two deeper disagreements. The first relates to role and size of government. The second relates to the meaning of the word “equality.” In terms of the role and size of government, this is an issue of limited government with freedom and personal responsibility or larger government and diminished liberty. Here I have in mind Lord Acton’s dictum: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” As power is centralized, freedom and personal responsibility are diminished. As government grows, citizens move from being free to being dependent; churches are displaced from their God-given role by an ever more powerful central government.
The second disagreement is over the definition of “equality.” Our Founding Fathers operated from the Biblical premise that “all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.” One of the implications of this was that each citizen stands equally before the law. The law was to be colorblind -not to play favorites based on race, religion, sex, or color. Today the term “social justice” (a maleable and often indistinct concept) tacitly understands equality as moving towards equal economic outcome. Both of these deeper worldview issues animated the healthcare debate.
And yet the surface issue – access to healthcare for those who have great need and yet, for various reasons have difficulty accessing affordable healthcare – this is a real issue and ought to be a cause of concern for the church. Many cannot afford insurance, nor can they afford the medical expenses required to treat diseases, illnesses, and injury. These are largely people who are living on the margins and stuggling against poverty, and as we well know, the Bible has a tremendous amount to say on this subject. In short, we are called to be compassionate to those in need because God is compassionate. When God proclaimed his name to Moses on Sinai, the first word he used to describe himself was “compassionate” (Ex. 34:5-7).
This compassion was put on vivid display in the life of Christ who “went through all the towns and villages . . . healing every kind of disease and sickness” (Mt. 9:35). His compassion came into clearest focus on the cross, because compassion literally means “to suffer together with.” It involves getting directly, personally involved in the lives of needy people. This is what incarnation is all about. Compassion, by its very nature, cannot be done at a distance. It cannot be done impersonally. It cannot be done by a bureaucracy. You see where I’m headed.
Who does God call to demonstrate this compassion in our needy world? The church. Compassionate, sacrificial service in the lives of the poor and needy is near the top of God’s job description for the church, and if you don’t believe me, you can take it up with Jesus (Luke 10:25-35, Mt. 25:31-46), Paul (Gal. 2:9-10) and the early church fathers (James 1:27, 1 Jn. 3:16-18). The church throughout history, in understanding this duty and acting accordingly, established hospitals, clinics, and other community health services. As a reminder, just look at the names of the hospitals your city. They have names like St. Joseph’s, Good Samaritan, Baptist Hospital, Presbyterian Hospital, Christ’s Hospital, etc. It was Christians acting compassionately that started the modern profession of nursing, began the Red Cross, and worked in research labs to discover curses for diseases. For more on this, see chapters 19-20 of Darrow’s newest book LifeWork:A Biblical Theology for What You Do Every Day.
It was this sacrificial witness of love that caused the early chuch to grow so rapidly. During the plagues that swept through Rome, Christians sacrified their lives to help strangers who were sick. They did this because they worshipped a God who sacrificed himself for them. This compassion simply overwhelmed the Roman world, which had no answer for such love. For more on this, see The Rise of Christianity by Rodney Stark.
I’m jealous to protect this central role of the chuch. As Pastor Gary Skinner, senior pastor of Watoto Church in Kampala, Uganda said,
The problems are not the communities’ problems—they’re our problems! They’re not the government’s problems. The government can’t fix the problems because—although it may have a little bit of money—it has no love. Money does not solve problems. Love does! And if the government does it, God does not get the glory. But when the church does it with love, God gets the glory.”
If the church fails to fulfill this duty, if it intentionally or unintentionally allows goverment to take over, to control this area of privledged responsibility, then the church is weakened and her vital role in society is diminished. Worse, as Pastor Skinner said above, “if the goverment does it, God does not get the glory. But when the church does it witth love, God gets the glory,” and the church ought to be jealous for God’s glory.
We can see where this road leads by looking at the nations in Europe which have goverment controlled medicine. In these nations, the church has been marginalized. Simply put, the greater the power and authority of the central goverment, the weaker and less needed are “civil society” institutions like the family and church that play vital grassroots roles. Needs are no longer addressed personally in the context of local communities such as families and churches. They are addressed at a distance, impersonally, though a system and bureaucracy.
This is not compassion. This is, as Marvin Olasky has written so powerfully, The Tragedy of American Compassion. There is an appropriate, God ordained role for goverment, and Christians must understand and enthusiastically support this role. We have a duty to be faithful, engaged citizens. But the role of caring for the needs of the poor must fall first with the family, and second with local churches. If there is to be a role in this for the goverment, it should be to find ways to support and encourage these other mediating insittutions to filfill their roles, and in so doing, to strengthen them.
Of course I don’t expect that secularists would agree with me. Instead of bowing before God, they bow before the State. Hope for salvation, security, and provision comes not from God or from his Body, the Church, it comes from the State. As Al Gore recently reflected in a New York Times editorial while speaking on the role of goverment in combatting global warming, “what is at stake is our ability to use the rule of law as an instrument of human redemption.” If you don’t believe in God, you seek redemption from the State. The question for Americans is this: will we turn from “In God We Trust” to “in government we trust?” I sincerely hope not, but we will unless the church speaks out. It needs to remind the goverment of the limits to its legitimate role and responsibilities, and the Church needs to recover her God given role in society and begin anew to fulfill that role.
As I said, I’m not suprised when this perspective is shared by people who operate from a secular mindset. I am suprised when Christians promote it.
Perhaps you think that the problem of the medically uninsured is so vast and complex, that only an institution as large as the federal goverment can adequately address it. I would remind you that this was the mindset that gave birth to the massive “war on poverty” welfare system of the late 20th century – a war that utterly failed. When the Clinton Administraton sought to reform it in the 1990s, many lamented that if the goverment abandons its programs for the poor, nobody else could fill those shoes. Not true. In many instances, the church stepped up. A grassroots army was mobilized and began to help the poor in millions of ways large and small. As a result, many churches were revitalized.
Or how about the response to Hurricane Katrina. Who were the first responders? Local churches. Who ended up sticking with the people of New Orleans long after goverment and media attention subsided? Christians and churches from all over the country.
Could the church step up and make a significant difference in the lives of the poor who lack health insurance? Absolutely. World Magazine recently spotlighted the heroic efforts of one church in the article, “Patients & partners: Invisible to the healthcare debate in Washington, church-based clinics that help the poor could provide a model for helping the uninsured.”
Money does not solve problems – love does. If the goverment does it, God does not get the glory.When the church does it, God gets the glory.
– Scott Allen & Darrow Miller