With each cultural crisis or natural disaster, our minds are freshly flooded with a litany of images and calls to come to the aid of our neighbors who have been the victims of an injustice or who have suffered loss. One of the downsides of living in a media-connected age is that we can't escape the constant barrage of information about all of the miseries of this life. Additionally, we have an overwhelming number of para-church ministries that, by virtue of the fact that they are specialty ministry organizations, often give the sense that their thing is the thing in which all should be invested. Many of us begin to feel undue guilt about not rising to the occasion, so to speak, when we become aware of all of the needs of those around us in the world. Surely, there must be guiding principles in Scripture that help us know when God expects us to help and when it is outside of our ability. Without wishing to fall into the ditch of undue guilt or the ditch of inactivity, here are three principles to keep in mind as we are daily confronted with global scale needs.
1. The moral proximity principle. In On Christian Doctrine, Augustine articulated what has become known as "the moral proximity principle" when he wrote:
"All men are to be loved equally. But since you cannot do good to all, you are to pay special regard to those who, by the accidents of time, or place, or circumstance, are brought into closer connection with you. For, suppose that you had a great deal of some commodity, and felt bound to give it away to somebody who had none, and that it could not be given to more than one person; if two persons presented themselves, neither of whom had either from need or relationship a greater claim upon you than the other, you could do nothing fairer than choose by lot to which you would give what could not be given to both. Just so among men: since you cannot consult for the good of them all, you must take the matter as decided for you by a sort of lot, according as each man happens for the time being to be more closely connected with you."
In short, Augustine suggested that we have a greater responsibility to assist those who live more closely related to us by time, place or circumstance. You have a heightened sense of responsibility to come to the aid of those who are "more closely connected with you." This means that we must start with our own family members (1 Tim. 5:8), neighbors (Luke 10:25-37) and residents of the community in which we live. The proximity we have to those with whom we are most closely connected determines the moral responsibility we have to assist others. As Paul Tripp notes, "A man...needs a clear sense of what God calls him to do as a husband, father, neighbor, relative, son, worker, and member of the body of Christ."
2. The ecclesiastical priority principle. "The moral proximity principle" paves the way for the priority that we should place on caring for the members of the body of Christ--those in the local church in which we worship, first of all, and then, Christians in the wider church. This is clearly articulated in Scripture when the Apostle Paul wrote, "As we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially to those of the household of faith" (Gal. 6:10). A believer is to have a desire/commitment to assist those in the household of faith. Since we have limited time, energy and resources, we are to first and foremost focus our attention on how we can spend these talents in coming to the aid of our brethren. When there is a hurricane, we should think about the needs of the saints in the churches with whom we have ecclesiastical affiliations prior to thinking about other churches/community needs. We often begin to feel undue guilty as we are bombarded with calls to give to charities/networks. Instead, pastors should help guide their congregations with well researched and tangible ways that members of one congregation can assist members of another. This principle was exemplified by the Apostle Paul who took assistance form the Macedonian and Corinthian churches to the impoverished church in Jerusalem (2 Cor 8:1-3; 1 Cor. 16:3; 2 Cor. 9:5).
3. The collective provision principle. As believers seek to care for those who, within their moral proximity and ecclesiastical priority, have needs, it is important for us to remember that we can do a great deal more if churches work together to care for the needs of others. One of the great tragedies of the church in America is that there is often a pernicious territorialism that hinders a more widespread caring for others and co-laboring for the advancement of the Kingdom of God. Each of our churches belong to Christ. Believers are members of one another on account of our union with Christ. Pastors should labor to create partnerships with one another so that collective care occurs in the hour of needs. This principle applies to supporting missionaries and should also help govern our efforts at local mercy and outreach.
While seeking to act on these principles certainly helps us narrow our focus, unburden our consciences from unnecessary guilt and walk in the good works for which Christ has redeemed us, a great deal of wisdom is needed in pressing forward. Additionally, caring for others costs time, energy and resources. Yet, as we remember that Christ poured out his soul and offered His body for us in order to care for the deepest needs of our soul, we too should be motivated to seek to assist those in need.