Last week, I began to evalutate Steve Shadrach’s book on raising ministry support, The God Ask. It is a how-to manual for Christian workers who need to secure personal funding for their ministry. I found it an interesting and engaging book, with a number of helpful suggestions that can make the efforts of a support-seeking Christian servant more successful. Last week, I pointed out the strengths of the book. However, I also found several things in the book that are cause for concern.
First, Shadrach overexegetes the Scripture in his attempt to ground his ideas in the Bible. I think his effort to find biblical support for fundraising from individuals is commendable, but he sometimes reads more into the biblical narrative than is warranted. In effect, he makes the Scripture teach what it was never intended to teach. This can be clearly seen in chapters 7 and 8. In chapter 7, “Nehemiah’s Vision,” the author walks the reader through the story of Nehemiah, the Persian king’s cupbearer, who was sovereignly placed in Artaxerxes’ life during Israel’s captivity. Because of his close proximity to the king, Nehemiah is able to ask him for certain favors on behalf of the exiled children of Israel. God grants the Israelites favor through the request of the cupbearer. For Shadrach, the story becomes a paradigm for seeking personal support from individuals. Nehemiah’s “tremendous emotion” moved the king such that his example is a model for the pathos of the support raiser. Nehemiah humbly lays his request before the king, who “knew a good investment when he saw it, realizing that Nehemiah was a man who planned his work…and then worked his plan.” As Nehemiah made his “God ask” to the king, “he not only walked into his appointment prepared with a series of carefully worded questions, he was fully determined to wait as long as he needed to allow the king to reply.”
As the Shadrach concludes this chapter, he offers “other lessons” from Nehemiah. Support raisers need to “set specific start and finish dates.” Nehemiah, readers are assured, “had prayed and thought out in advance every detail of his plan.” Support raisers need to “be open to taking gifts from non-believers”: “They all qualify—no matter their religious background. I refuse to reject anyone from the opportunity to invest in God’s eternal purposes—and possibly get personally impacted in the process. Just get them on your team.” Finally, Nehemiah is a model for “ask[ing] for appropriate amounts.”
The story of Nehemiah is certainly a rich Old Testament story of God’s providential supply for the nation of Israel. Seeing how God bent the mind and will of a pagan king to help Israel return to the land is in keeping with Proverb 21:1, “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will.” Many times in the Old Testament, the children of Israel found favor in the eyes of the Lord and received earthly benefits from the pagans around them. But I really wonder if God intended us to use the story of Nehemiah, directly or indirectly, to speak to the issue of a Christian worker raising personal support. The author, in reading the Old Testament story this way, actually uses Nehemiah to argue that the Christian worker should actively seek support from unbelievers. “Just get them on your team,” we are told. Is this really what God intended to teach by the story of Nehemiah? Is this a correct use of this Old Testament story?
Moreover, the notion of actively seeking support from an unbeliever with the goal of winning him to the gospel seems to contradict other clear Scripture. Paul taught that the believers are not to be unequally joined to unbelievers (2 Cor. 6:14) because light and darkness have no real fellowship. Having unbelievers purposefully “join my team” seems like forming a joint venture, the kind which Paul seems specifically to bar. Does this then mean that a Christian cannot accept funds from an unbeliever? Not at all. A Christian worker might have a lost parent or relative, a neighbor or a co-worker from his secular work who offers to help. One need not refuse this help, unless the individual in question somehow thinks that their act of charity makes them more righteous with God. Even if they do think this way, it may be difficult to refuse the gift. But accepting a gift given unsolicited is one thing. Purposefully requesting the money of unregenerate people is something else. We neither want to use unbelievers nor deceive them. If we persuade them that they are “contributing to God’s work” by their giving, we need to be reminded that no works which they do will earn any merit with God. They need to know this too. If we seek their money so that we may evangelize them, we run the risk of being deceptive. Shouldn’t we say at the initial interview, “John, you have been my doctor for ten years. I want to ask you for $500 per month and I want to win you to Christ in the process”? I wonder how John would feel about this request. By all means, seek the salvation of your unbelieving doctor, but forget asking for his money for the work of ministry.
A final weakness is Shadrach’s minimizing of the importance of the church in missions. A support raiser isn’t encouraged to seek the help of his local church until near the end of the book—chapter 26. The church isn’t quite an afterthought in the book, but it seems that Shadrach sees churches as having limited importance in the overall support raising process. At one point, the author even appears to belittle the notion of church support. “Jesus and His disciples received ongoing support from individuals. The monetary help they were receiving was not from foundation grants, local synagogue mission budgets, or even major donors.” This quote comes from chapter 8, “Jesus and Support,” which is a second chapter where the author overexegetes the Scripture. Jesus didn’t receive money from “local synagogue mission budgets”? Of course he didn’t! Local synagogues, or the church at Ephesus for that matter, didn’t support college ministries either! But what does this prove? The Jews weren’t missionary minded at all. However, Paul clearly accepted help from churches. Paul commends the Philippian church for repeated gifts that they sent to him while he was in Thessalonica (Php. 4:16). While the text does not suggest that it came from their “missions budget,” it clearly came from the church (v. 15) and not from individuals. Oddly, Shadrach addresses Philippians 4:11, 17, and 19, but omits any reference to verses 15-16 which specifically address Philippian church support. Paul’s other comments in verses 11, 17, and 19 are not rightly understood except in the context of local church support!
Does all this mean that I think that Christian workers should not seek support from individuals? Not exactly. As I said last week, I had many individuals who helped us regularly and occasionally. But if Christians generally were more faithful in the giving of their finances through their local church, churches would have more funds to distribute to support seekers. The author’s emphasis almost seems to bypass the local church, compounding the problem rather than working to solve the problem.
When considered as a whole, The God Ask is an interesting and engaging book with a lot of helpful material to guide Christian workers as they follow God’s will and prayerfully raise personal support. However, seeking support from individuals ought to supplement support from local churches, not be a substitute for it. Christians needs to be instructed and encouraged that more can be done in the Lord’s work if we faithfully support our churches’ efforts. There may be other opportunities to contribute to individuals on a personal basis, but shouldn’t a believer’s first obligation be to the work of his local church? If I don’t regularly support the work of my church, who will?
This essay is by Jeff Straub, Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
O Thou to Whose All-Searching Sight
Nicolaus Von Zinzendorf (1700–1760), trans. by John Wesley (1703-1791)
O thou to whose all-searching sight
The darkness shineth as the light,
Search, prove my heart; it pants for thee;
O burst these bands and set it free.
Wash out its stains, refine its dross;
Nail my affections to the cross;
Hallow each thought; let all within
Be clean, as thou, my Lord, art clean.
If in this dark-some wild I stray,
Be thou my Light, be thou my Way;
No foes, no violence I fear,
No harm, while thou, my God, art near.
Saviour, where’er thy steps I see,
Dauntless, untired, I follow thee:
O let thy hand support me still,
And lead me to thy holy hill.
If rough and thorny be my way,
My strength proportion to my day;
Till toil and grief and pain shall cease
Where all is calm and joy and peace.