Christianity Is Not Oppressive
Last time we considered the reality of oppression and true liberation. In this final essay in the series we must consider what are the moral and ethical consequences for those who, by the grace of God alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide), have been liberated from oppression.
Under the Old Testament, the Lord who redeemed and liberated his church consistently instructed her (the church) to live in light of that gracious redemption. E.g.:
‘You shall not steal, nor deal falsely, nor lie to one another. You shall not swear falsely by My name, so as to profane the name of your God; I am the Lord. ‘You shall not oppress your neighbor, nor rob him. The wages of a hired man are not to remain with you all night until morning. You shall not curse a deaf man, nor place a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall revere your God; I am Yahweh (Lev 19:11–14; modified from the NASB).
The entire chapter is bracketed by the declaration: “I am Yahweh.” This was a declaration pregnant with meaning. To say, “I am Yahweh” is to say, “I am the sovereign God who freeely entered into covenant with your forefathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who elected and saved you unconditionally. Therefore, out of gratitude, you shall serve me.” We know this is what it signifies because the end of the chapter says this:
You shall have just balances, just weights, a just ephah, and a just hin; I am the Lord your God, who brought you out from the land of Egypt. You shall thus observe all My statutes and all My ordinances and do them; I am Yahweh’”(Lev 19:36–37; modified from the NASB).
The ground of Yahweh’s command to the Old Testament church was the same as his command to the New Testament church: the gracious salvation he performed for us who could not save ourselves:
- “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Ex 22:21; NASB).
- “You shall not oppress a stranger, since you yourselves know the feelings of a stranger, for you also were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Ex 23:9; NASB).
The Lord’s Old Testament people were redeemed by grace alone, through faith alone. They were to respond to that grace by being gracious to those within their midst:
“You shall not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your countrymen or one of your aliens who is in your land in your towns. You shall give him his wages on his day before the sun sets, for he is poor and sets his heart on it; so that he will not cry against you to the Lord and it become sin in you (Deut 24:14–15; NASB).
The prophets prosecuted the OT church for oppressing the poor in their midst: “The people of the land have practiced oppression and committed robbery, and they have wronged the poor and needy and have oppressed the sojourner without justice” (Ezek 22:29; NASB). See also Micah 2:2, Zechariah 7:10; Malachi 3:5.
Remember, the OT church was also a nation-state. The USA, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands or no other post-canonical state, not even the “Holy Roman Empire” is or has been God’s national, covenanted people since the expiration “of the state of that people” (Westminster Confession of Faith, 19.4). The command to relieve the poor thus was not a command that can be transferred from national Israel to post-canonical states.
The command to care for the poor and oppressed in their midst, however, was transferred from the Old Testament church to the New Testament church. We do not see any examples in the New Testament of the churches establishing soup kitchens or general poverty-relief programs but the NT is clear that the church is to care for the poor and oppressed within the church.
The same Lord who commanded that his Old Testament church care for the poor in their midst commanded the same in the New Testament:
For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’ Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me’” (Matt 25:35–40; NASB).
The “least of these” must be understood in context. If we start at the beginning of the chapter, we see that our Lord is talking to his disciples about their future life together as the visible, Christ-confessing, covenant community. The phrase, “the least of these” must be understood in that context. Jesus was not laying down civil policy for the Roman Empire nor was he giving instructions for civil governments in the USA. He was instructing his church about how they are to care for one another.
Jesus was not a social utopian: “For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you wish you can do good to them; but you do not always have Me” (Mark 14:7; NASB). He was quite realistic about life “under the sun” (Ecclesiastes). He understood the consequences of the fall better than anyone because he was going to bear those consequences unlike anyone before or since.
We know that the Apostle Paul worked for poverty relief in the church. He took up offerings (we used to call them alms) for that very purpose. We know that the Apostolic church shared their goods in order to relieve suffering among themselves, in the church.
Perhaps nowhere is the NT concern for relieving the suffering of oppressed Christ-confessors clearer than in the Epistle of James, where the apostle excoriated the Jerusalem congregation for confessing Christ with their mouths but contradicting that confession by refusing to love their suffering brothers and sisters:
My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism. For if a man comes into your assembly with a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and there also comes in a poor man in dirty clothes, and you pay special attention to the one who is wearing the fine clothes, and say, “You sit here in a good place,” and you say to the poor man, “You stand over there, or sit down by my footstool,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil motives? Listen, my beloved brethren: did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Is it not the rich who oppress you and personally drag you into court? Do they not blaspheme the fair name by which you have been called? If, however, you are fulfilling the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well (James 2:1–8; NASB).
James had no agenda for the broader culture. He was not instructing either the Sanhedrin or the Roman governor how to govern Judea. He was, however, furious with the visible, Christ-confessing covenant community for the way they treated the poor in their midst. That, he declared was a scandal. Refusal to relieve that suffering was a flat refusal to love one’s neighbor as one’s self.
Christianity is a religion, a theology, piety, and practice of liberation. It is not a religion of social liberation, nor a religion of the liberation of classes of people (e.g., “the oppressed”) from whatever oppression late-moderns have invented or discovered. It is not a religion of national liberation. It is, however, a religion of the liberation of sinners from the coming wrath of God. It is one that says, “Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27; NASB). Those who have been redeemed from sin and death, and (as we see in the gospels), sometimes even from demons, ought to respond gratefully by relieving the oppression of their brothers and sisters, who have also been redeemed by Christ’s blood.
R. Scott Clark, Escondido.