Those whose memories are long may remember a short article that showed up in the November 1991 issue of The Examiner entitled "Who Done It?" In that brief article I remarked on how difficult it is these days to isolate an individual culprit and clearly identify him with specific crimes and misdemeanors, not to mention sins and transgressions. If you have the leisure it might be wise now to think further along those lines, though in the opposite direction. Here are a few thoughts I have had. They are not necessarily solutions or answers. They are merely some items I have "wondered" about from time to time.
Because of the organized complexity of modern society it is not always easy to determine exactly who is responsible for what happens here on earth. But if it involves us and our relationship with God, we need to know. So when it comes to evil deeds, "Whodunit?" is no doubt the proper question to ask. When it comes to good deeds the question "Who Did It?" is equally intriguing, and for the same reasons.
The Bible speaks often of the "good works" by which God is glorified. If a good deed is done here on earth presumably someone does it. In general there is no problem here, even for us. We observe the good deed, and pretty well know who is responsible for it. Or do we? In most cases there is one deed and one doer. My car breaks down and I start walking to town; you stop and give me a ride. A good deed was done and you did it. This is simple. Everyone can see it. Yet even in the Scriptures it can get a bit more complicated than this, for the following reasons.
More than one person can be involved in the same effort to do good. Just as Ananias and Sapphira "agreed together" to do an evil deed, so also can two disciples be "in cahoots" doing a good thing. Paul once said he had planted and Apollos watered, presumably the same crop of Christians (1Cor. 3:6). Several saints, indeed many disciples, can go together in doing a good work. It was not just Ananias and his wife who sold land and laid money at the apostles feet. "As many as were possessors of lands and houses" did likewise. So here we have a large number of Christians putting money in the same pile at the feet of the apostles. They in turn distributed this money to "every man according as he had need." Later seven special men were chosen to see after this business. Add these up and you have quite a few people involved, together, in this one undertaking. A casual onlooker back then might have had trouble knowing exactly who did what or how much. As a matter of fact, had the inspired Peter not exposed Ananias and Sapphira no one would have known about their lie. Everyone would have assumed they had done just as well as Barnabas and the rest.
Later on there was even a larger, more involved effort to help the needy in the case of the relief sent to the brethren which dwelt in Judea (Acts 11, 1 Cor. 16, 2 Cor. 8, 9, etc.). In this case an appeal was made among the disciples in many Gentile cities. They responded. Messengers came by and picked up the bounty (donations) and carried it to Judea where it was evidently distributed to the needy. When you add up these numbers, you have a LOT of people involved in this good work. In a case like this it might be very, very difficult for you and me to figure out just exactly who all should be thanked by the poor saints for having helped them in their need. I suppose in the end God will sort such things out.
Then there is the case of the good Samaritan PAYING someone to help him do his good turn. You remember the story (Luke 10). The Samaritan first took care of the robbed and beaten stranger himself. He bound up his wounds and took him to an inn and "took care of him." But when he had to leave on the morrow he gave the innkeeper two pence and told him to "take care of him, and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again I will repay thee." The question Jesus asked was, "Which of these three ... was neighbor to him that fell among thieves?" The innkeeper was not even in the running, was he? Yes, he took care of the man after the departure of the Samaritan. But we do not consider him a good "neighbor," or what he did a work of righteousness. Why not? Because he was paid to do what he did. I would presume that the service rendered by the innkeeper was still attributed to the Samaritan. If I am broke and hungry and you take me to the local cafe and "feed me," what happens? The fry cook prepares the meal and the waitress serves the table. Who did me a good turn? The cook? The serving lady? Or was it you, who paid the check? I do not think God will have trouble sorting this one out any more than we do. BUT...
In our complicated world it can get more complicated than this. The problem is not when two or more PEOPLE are involved in the same good work. Nor is the problem when I have to hire someone to help me discharge my duty to you. The dilemma we face is when righteousness is institutionalized; that is, when the good works are not attributable to any person or group of people on earth, but are instead accredited to - the program, the system, the organization, the institution that has an identity all its own. From a New Testament standpoint this is one of the problems that an institutionalized faith creates. It is the kind of problem that did NOT occur in Bible times.
To explain, let me give you a case in point. Judged solely on the amount of pure good done to those in real need, do you know who the most "benevolent" being on the face of this earth is? Why it's your favorite uncle -Sam. I am talking about dear Uncle Sam. You know "him" well don't you? He is the gentleman with the beard, pointing the finger at you. Think about this seriously. Is the United States a "benevolent" government? Absolutely, IF you determine this on the basis of dollars that go to those who are genuinely poor and needy. Yes, there is welfare fraud everywhere. Yes, there is bureaucratic waste falling through the cracks of every welfare department in the nation. But in spite of it all, there are thousands upon thousands Of elderly citizens in this nation who survive only because of their social security check, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps and similar programs. In addition, our government also sends out millions in foreign aid. Surely SOME of this "aid" gets through to some needy folks over there somewhere.
Our government, through its various programs, spends billions and helps millions of poor people. Here is the interesting question I would ask: From a strict Christian standpoint is there any "righteousness" in any of these programs? Remember, John said "HE that doeth righteousness is righteous." A lot of Christians live in America. They support the government with their taxes. Are THEY responsible for all this "visiting of the fatherless and the widows in their affliction" done by Uncle Sam? From what I see, hear and read, it is the U.S. Government that always is given the credit for all that is done. Not you. Nor me. Nor any other citizen I know. Look at it this way. Let us suppose that one million truly hungry children are fed each day by the Government's free lunch program. Now just WHO did this great benevolent work as far as GOD is concerned? I mean, WHO was responsible in the eyes of God. Was it you, or me? Our money certainly was used to pay the bill. But I doubt we should be praised, since our money was extracted from us on April 15 largely against our wishes. Was it those who dispensed all this food? I doubt it. They merely did the job they were employed to do. Should the benevolent congressmen be praised for being so benevolent? I do hate to sound negative, but they just "voted" to do this good work with our money. Was it the professional bureaucrat who was the architect of that particular program who should receive the credit, even though all he did was dream it up? You see the problem? It seems to me if the "benevolence" done by our nation is credited or even connected to ANY citizen in this country, it would have to be credited to EVERY citizen, including the biggest Scrooge of all. The truth seems to be that while much "good" is done by human governments, it is well nigh impossible to imagine that any of this good is recognized by God as acceptable "righteousness". At least I cannot imagine God saying to some American Christian on the Judgement Day, as a result of U.S. Government welfare programs, "Come ye blessed of my Father... I was hungry and YE fed me, I was thirsty and ye gave me drink...
All of this is interesting I trust, although I personally am not too interested in figuring out who in our nation is "benevolent" because the government is said to be. What is of concern to me is the fact that we as "Church people" have created the religious equivalent of the U.S. Government. That is, we have designed and developed a system of institutionalized righteousness. Instead of the Government and its programs, what we have is the Church and ITS programs!
Let's just stay with benevolence to make it simple. Today it is not a matter of two or more disciples joining together to help those in need. This is understandable, and I suppose scriptural, even when done in an organized way. For instance, if a tornado destroys a nearby town the disciples from all over would join in and work together to take care of the needy. This would be perfectly normal. What we have today, however, is not Christian people helping Christian people. We have programs helping people! We have organizations helping people! We have institutions helping people! And make no mistake about it. In contemporary terms the good deeds done are always attributed, not to any person or group, but to those various "entities" themselves. Think about it.
Let us take another case. Suppose one hundred bone fide robbery victims are fed and clothed each year by the Good Samaritan Indigent Inn, a venerable "benevolent organization" supported by donations from Churches of Christ throughout the nation. Now taking care of the indigent is certainly a part of "pure and undefiled religion" according the James. But the interesting question in this case is, WHO has practiced pure religion? A hundred hurting people were taken care of, but...
Was it the couple who put their "regular contribution" of ten dollars in the plate on Sunday morning back in Typical Town, USA? Maybe. In part at least, the money came from them. But consider this. They would have put the same ten dollars in whether any money was sent off to Good Samaritan Inn or not. When they move from Church to Church, their contribution is always the same ten dollars. They have been taught to give to the Church, so they give to the Church. At times they have gone to congregations that did not believe in supporting such "human institutions". Other times they attended where this has always been the custom. Did where this couple "attended" determine whether they personally were, or were not, truly benevolent Christians? Were they benevolent one year but not the next, depending on where they "went" to Church?
Was it the Elders of the Church, who decided to send a monthly donation to the Inn, who can be called benevolent? (Surely it would not be the Treasurer who wrote the check out for the Church.} Again I hate to be skeptical. But in reality all the Elders did was decide, after the money was collected from the congregation, how to spend money that was taken up from someone else. This sounds a little bit like good congressmen "appropriating" funds for a welfare program, doesn't it?
Was it the Administrators of the Good Samaritan Inn who did this wonderful work? One might say so, because, after all, aren't they the ones really in the benevolence business? But then one might also put them in the same category as the Innkeeper of Luke 10, someone who is merely employed to do a job.
Was it the spiritual visionary who "thought up" the organization in the first place who should get all the credit? Maybe so, since this Christian Inn certainly would not have existed without his initial efforts to build and promote it. On the other hand, other than "dreaming up" the idea and getting it off the ground, the original promoter has had nothing whatever to do with any of the actual work. Now, who should be responsible for this great work?
You see, what I am trying to figure out is WHO the "good deeds", done by this great Institution, are attributable to in the eyes of God? All of the above? None of the above? Some of the above? Truthfully I do not know how God will look at it, if He does at all. I feel reasonably sure that somewhere along any organized benevolent chain some saints will indeed have a genuine interest in helping those in need. No doubt others are simply "doing their job." Of one thing I am sure however. Regardless of how God views the situation, from the viewpoint of man all the "good works" that are done in this case are considered to be done by the INN. No doubt about it. The institution involved always gets, or gives itself, full credit! Yes, the "Churches" are dutifully thanked for their donations.
Yes, the generous brethren who support the Churches that in turn support the Inn are frequently mentioned with thanksgiving. But when "write up time" comes, the institution ITSELF is what is fully credited with all the righteousness in this regard. Check it out. When it comes to institutional works - good works done by "Christian'" institutions -you will discover there are no exceptions to this. As matters stand, although a few good deeds are still done by individual saints here and there, most all the "good works" done in Jesus' name today are attributed to the INSTITUTIONS of the Christian religion rather than to individual followers of Christ! Remember, it was the Good Samaritan Inn that took care of the indigents. Who did it? The INN! The Institution. Not the housekeepers in the Inn. Not the Administrators of the Inn. Not the Board of Directors of the Inn. Not the Elders back in Typical Town. Not even the "members" who originally gave all the money. It was and always will be the Inn - the Institution - that gets all the statistical credit!
The same kind of situation exists when "the local Church" becomes an organized entity, doing its own "good works" through its various agencies. Individuals are largely lost within the system. No question about it, in human terms many wonderful works are done by the Church. But WHO DID IT?. Why "the Church" of course. Whatever is done, THE CHURCH as such" is given the credit. All the members do is support the Church so it can do ITS work. Under this arrangement all righteous deeds are attributed to legal Institutions rather than to living individuals. Again, this never happened in Bible times.
There is no need to extend this overlong to make the point. I am merely raising the question of whether we have constructed a system of religion so concretely or corporately organized that either EVERYBODY is responsible for what the system accomplishes, or NOBODY is; therefore either everybody is pleasing God, or nobody is. I don't rightly see how it could be either way, yet these seem to be the only alternatives. Is there something I am not seeing? What I do see is this: In a system where the "good works" of the Christian faith are institutionalized it is well nigh impossible to know WHO DID IT, or (and this may be much more important) who did NOT do it. The system especially shelters the slackers from disclosure, even from themselves. This is the distinct danger and deceptiveness of institutional Christianity.
Unlike some, I am not sure I have the answer to all this. But I am reasonably sure of one thing: If we develop a "religion" consisting of high profile organizations that do all the work and in the process obscure or obliterate individual disciples, thus making it impossible to know who did what for the Lord, we have created a real mess. Maybe not for God. Perhaps God can figure it all out. But you and I have a problem. For we are in a situation where God's will is apparently being done on earth, but we can't tell who is doing it! And that includes us.