“Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers” (Galatians 6:10).
“Submit to every human authority because of the Lord, whether to the emperor as the supreme authority or to governors as those sent out by him to punish those who do what is evil and to praise those who do what is good. For it is God’s will that you silence the ignorance of foolish people by doing good” (1 Peter 2:13-15).
Both Paul and Peter encouraged believers of their day to “do good” in their communities. In these texts the apostles had in mind something more than being good people, as important as that was (“goodness” is a fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22). Nor do the texts suggest that believers should be “do gooders,” the type of folk who do things they think are helpful for others although the others may not think what they do is very helpful.
Doing good and social benefaction
The apostles’ exhortation echoes the words found in multiple inscriptions from the ancient Roman world that honored the deeds of those who were public benefactors.
One such inscription honors a citizen of Athens saying that it was resolved “to praise him because he is a good man, and he does whatever good he can for the people of Athens…it is resolved that Menelaus be considered a benefactor.” Another inscription honors a public benefactor since the person determined “to do whatever good he is able to perform for the citizens and to be a benefactor for all in the city.”
The inscriptions that honored public benefactors, those who “do good,” chronicled good deeds like helping supply grain in times of famine, pushing down prices so people could buy it, erecting public buildings or restoring old ones, widening roads, helping the city in times of civic unrest, providing medical care and other actions which brough benefit to a community.
In the absence of public social services, private benefactors stepped in to fill the gap by helping supply what a community needed. Peter and Paul call Christians to do the same.
We know the name of one benefactor in Corinth who became a Christian: Erastus. Paul mentions him in Romans 16:23 (a book written from Corinth): “Erastus, who is the city’s director of public works, and our brother Quartus send you their greetings.” A Latin benefactor inscription from Corinth reads, “Erastus pro aedilit[at]e s[ua] p[ecunia] stravit” (“Erastus in return for his aedileship laid [the pavement] at his own expense.”
Jesus’ teaching is the root of Christian benefaction. The Lord exhorted the disciples saying, “Do good to those who hate you” (Luke 6:27). But he also redefined benefaction as something any person could do, not simply wealthy citizens. Jesus saw the rich putting gifts into the temple treasury as well as a poor widow who gave two small copper coins. “Truly I tell you,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all of them” (Luke 21:1-4). A poor woman became the greatest benefactor.
When Peter recounted the story of Jesus to the Roman centurion Cornelius and those with him, he identified the Lord as a benefactor since “he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him” (Acts 10:38).
Seek the welfare of the city
We hear the same call to look out for those around us in Jeremiah’s words to the exiled Israelites: “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jeremiah 29:7). Benefaction resides within the second commandment of our faith: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 13:31).
Throughout our history, the early church has engaged in social benefaction. In the fourth century AD, the Cappadocian church was recognized for the way it cared for the poor through feeding programs. The Cappadocian Fathers – Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus – exhorted the church to be imitators of God who is the Benefactor for all. Through history Christians have sought to provide medical care where there was little or none, education to turn the tide of ignorance, care for orphans and the poor in their distress, and material relief at times of disaster. We have labored to bring social justice through the abolition of slavery and liberation for those ensnared by sex traffickers. The call to social justice was even integrated into one of the seminal documents on world evangelization, The Lausanne Covenant (the 5th and 13th paragraph are on “Christian Social Responsibility” and “Freedom and Persecution”).
The question of our day
The question put to every church and Christian today is: “What does being a disciple of Christ mean in our day? How do we live out the gospel in both word and deed?” Is the road that of the culture wars or Christian benefaction, polarizing politics or community-building lovingkindness? The question is large and vital at this moment of world-wide disaster brought by the pandemic and national social unrest around the issue of racism, to name just two of our pressing social problems.
We need to talk. Let’s start by attending service at the Synagogue in Nazareth. They give Jesus the Isaiah scroll; he stands and reads these words in our hearing:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Unsurprisingly Christ the Benefactor, “the One who Does Good,” was a title the early church gave him. We follow him.
Dr. Gene L. Green is the Dean of Trinity International University – Florida. Visit them at tiu.edu/florida