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Protestants and Catholics agree that charity is needful—but theological differences underlie the reasons for charity.

Let’s start with what we can all agree on: Whether you are Protestant, Catholic, atheist, or none of the above, and whether you call it charity, philanthropy, or neither of the two, it begins with need. In a world of scarce resources and human fallibility, there is and always will be need in some form. Yet in order to take things even one step beyond this, the believer must already part ways with the non-believer in a significant way. Both the Christian and the secular materialist (and everyone in between) can fully recognize a need “out there”—poverty in Africa, human trafficking in Asia, homelessness in American cities, et cetera. But only the Christian fully ascertains his own need: the recognition that without God’s provision, none of our needs, material and spiritual, would be satisfied.

At first blush, this distinction may seem inconsequential for fundraising, and yet the difference between philanthropy and charity is central to Jeremy Beer’s The Philanthropic Revolution: An Alternative History of Charity. Without the backdrop of one’s own complete helplessness in the face of his own material and spiritual needs, the philanthropist easily reduces his giving to a kind of utilitarian calculus, focused only on alleviating the need “out there” in the most efficient way possible. Such cold math leads to the absurd juxtaposition, highlighted by Beer and others, of the homeless beggar outside of the Gates Foundation—with the latter too busy addressing the world’s systemic poverty to help the impoverished on its doorstep.

The Christian, on the other hand, approaches charity with a profound sense of humility. If I can’t even meet my own material and spiritual needs in my own strength, he muses, how can I possibly eradicate the world’s? Instead of setting unrealistic goals, the Christian is grateful for the opportunity to participate in God’s work of providing for others—a gratitude borne of his undeserved receipt of life itself, salvation, and daily bread.

The Christian, then, has a humble, realistic outlook on the impact of his giving. But what motivates the Christian to give? Here the Catholic and Protestant begin to part ways. Before we address this split, though, let us consider where the Catholic and Protestant accounts agree. It is one of two fundamental precepts of the Christian religion—together with the imperative to love God with heart, soul, strength, and mind—to love your neighbor as yourself.  

This establishes a charitable responsibility for every believer. Whatever the circumstances, the Christian is called to love his neighbor as himself, an imperative that in many cases must be met through works of charity. But mere obedience to a command makes for poor motivation. With eternal implications at stake, the motivation to give gains a new element. And in this, the Protestant begins to depart from the Catholic.

Whereas, for the Catholic, charity has salvific implications, for the Protestant it does not. The Protestant gives solely out of gratitude for what the Lord has done: for His provision of material and spiritual needs and the abundance of blessings above and beyond these. This gratitude engenders a further gratitude at the opportunity to participate in God’s provision for others. As Paul writes in his second letter to the Corinthians, “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”

While Catholic and Protestant alike subscribe to these words, the Catholic gives not solely in gratitude for God’s beneficence, but also out of fear of divine retribution and in anticipation of salvific merit. If eternal salvation is contingent on things like works of charity, it behooves the Catholic not to do the bare minimum. And these eternal stakes have the potential to erode the cheerfulness of the Catholic’s giving, to the point of reluctance to compulsion—as Paul warns in his epistle. This understanding of charity also introduces the possibility of self-interest accompanying all charitable acts, for each act is beneficial for both giver and receiver.

The Protestant, on the other hand, is susceptible to letting his charity fluctuate according to his felt gratitude and cheerfulness, since his very salvation is not dependent on his résumé of charity. However, when the Protestant does engage in regular, cheerful charity, his is purely for the sake of the beneficiary, as he has no concept of salvific merit related to charity.

So what does a genuinely Protestant, genuinely charitable conception of charity look like?

In his epistle to the Romans, Paul asks, “Shall we sin all the more so that grace may abound?” “By no means!” he answers. These words capture an ill-conceived and ultimately incoherent response to God’s provision of our material and spiritual needs: to act without seriousness or responsibility, since God has already bestowed an abundance of grace upon us. Instead, as we reflect on our inability to repay God for what He has done for us, we should be motivated to give what we can because of what He has given to us despite our own unworthiness.

We give cheerfully, balancing the knowledge that we will not be perfect on this side of glory, with the understanding that what we do in this life does matter. In a similar manner, we give not under the false presupposition that physical and spiritual needs can be fully eradicated, but to prefigure the transcendent hope of a world in which they will be. This is a vision of charity firmly in line with the Protestant tradition, and one—I believe—that can motivate generous and loving charity.

2 thoughts on “Toward a Protestant conception of charity”

  1. Alan G. says:

    Good explanation.
    Unfortunately, there are many protestants out there who don’t know what they’re protesting–trying to score points for the afterlife.

  2. Jennifer says:

    Beyond “theory” and stereotypes…here’s a Post article based on research/interviews as to why people give…”expression of God’s love”…feel good/community…not fear of divine retribution:
    “Why Give to Charity? What Muslims and Catholics Have in Common”

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