“And now, our ones must learn to lead in good works in which there is an urgent need in order that they may not be unfruitful.”
Indeed, we are created in Christ Jesus for good works (Ephesians 2:10) which by their very definition accompany godliness (1 Timothy 2:10). Indeed, while we are not saved by our works, our works testify to the salvation that Christ has worked in us; faith without works is dead (James 2:17). Good works are very simply part of the Christian life.
Yet, Paul is not simply insisting on good works in this passage, addressed toward the church leaders in Crete. He states that they must be leaders in good works. Many of our translations will render this as “to maintain good works” or “to devote themselves to good works,” but this is the same word as is found in verse 8 of this chapter — “to lead those who have believed in God.” Here, the same term is used in the context of leading the church in doing good works so that the church would not be unfruitful.
One of the ways that the early church distinguished themselves from the culture around them was in their selfless good works. They would take in unwanted babies, care for the sick and outcast, and provide for the poor. These are things that the Roman mind struggled to grasp — and at times, even considered a weakness. In the Roman model, the strong survived and they were happy to let everyone else perish; in the Christian model, we see ourselves called to serve others because Christ has served us in ways that we could never repay.
Today, the government does much of what the church is called to do. Sadly, churches have largely abdicated their role in such works as a result. Further, when Christians like myself suggest that this is not the government’s responsibility and that the church should return to the role of community caregiver, people panic and assume that people are going to be dying of hunger in the streets and there will not be funding for such tasks.
Let me paint a somewhat different picture. First of all, were government to extricate itself from the social welfare business and return it to the church, taxes would not need to be as high as they are. Further, instead of paying such high taxes, this would give people an incentive to be more generous with their local church. Churches, recognizing their task, would be forced to start focusing their labors outward rather than inward. Instead of building monstrous buildings used to feed only themselves, more of those funds would go toward caregiving in the community. In fact, if a church refused to pull its weight in the area of caring for the poor and needy, then public pressure would be such that attendance would wither to nothing.
Recognizing too, that a private institution always makes more efficient use of funding than does a government bureaucracy, the funds would go farther and would be used to do the work for which they are intended, not to pay the salaries of numerous “civil servants.” Lastly, such a practice, in private hands, would encourage innovation (something governments are never equipped to do!) and useful industries would be developed to give people who are able to work, but unable to find work, the dignity of earning their wages. Historically, Calvin established training in the art of ribbon-making so that prostitutes could earn a living in a moral way. While ribbon is no longer the industry it once was, the principle remains the same. New industries could be developed and thus wealth created. The government model is designed simply to keep the poor beholden to the government rather than encouraging them to lift themselves up by their bootstraps.
Remember too, in the Christian mindset, good works are also never an end unto themselves. We are to lead in good works and we use that then as an opportunity to share the Gospel with those we meet. The poor we will always have with us, Jesus says, and to that end, we must always be using our care of the poor as an opportunity to share the good news of Jesus Christ with such folks. This is our job, not the job of government. Sadly, the churches have not always led in good works and the government has usurped our responsibility and done it poorly because it isn’t designed to do such things. What a mess we make of society when roles and responsibilities get confused.