All Commentary
Monday, January 1, 1973

A Herculean Task

The Rev. Mr. Mahaffy served for twenty-three years as a missionary of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Ethiopia and is presently serving as a home mission pastor north of Chicago.

While serving as a missionary in Africa, I received a letter from a fellow minister in which he stated, “We have a responsibility for the welfare of all men.” I am sure that the author of this statement is a pious Christian who has a genuine concern for helping the poor in Africa and in the United States. Yet the philosophy behind such a statement is hostile to the Christian ethic. If generally applied, it would destroy Christianity and reduce the world to abject poverty. A more careful scrutiny of this cliche will reveal that it would destroy the very welfare it aims to promote. Yet to challenge such a pious-sounding statement immediately categorizes the challenger as lacking in Christian love. One writer described those who oppose the coercive redistribution of the Welfare State as a “bunch of coldhearted rascals.”

Nevertheless, I emphatically deny that I am responsible for the welfare of all men. Nor is the minister who made this assertion. Nor is anyone. Such a task is impossible of fulfillment. A scrutiny of the meaning of this all-too-popular cliche is very much in order.

Had my friend said, “I have a responsibility for the welfare of all men,” I might have considered him irrational and utterly unrealistic. Had he sought to fulfill this responsibility as an individual, he might amuse himself in the effort, with few adverse effects except on himself and his family.

But when he said “we,” he was seeking to rest this Herculean task on my shoulder and implying that, were I a devout Christian, I would naturally assume my responsibility. If all men are our responsibility, the task obviously must be a collective one with the we broadened to include all in our society acting through their representatives in the state. This can not be accomplished apart from legal coercion. The author of a recent book clearly indicates this when he writes:

But when people will not give voluntarily, is it wrong to make sure that they at least produce the external fruits of Christian love, even if this means legal enforcement? Is the freedom of people to give or not to give more important than the desperate needs of other human beings?…

The Christian himself must remain uncommitted to any human system, holding himself free to move where God leads him at a given time and under a given set of conditions…. The free enterprise system is best suited for an individualistic society where high value is placed on material gains; the socialistic system is best suited for a large, strongly interacting society where it is essential to retain some human values.¹º

This popular cliche seeks to fix responsibility for universal welfare. Responsibility, however, involves a higher authority to whom we must give an account. A child is responsible to his parents. Parents are not responsible to their children, but responsible to God for the care of their children. We have a responsibility to those in authority over us to obey the laws and not to interfere with the freedom of our neighbor. We do not have a responsibility to other people as such. If we did, they would have a just claim to our wealth, our care, or for whatever our responsibility involved. This is a popular concept but not a Christian one. For the Christian, charity and help must spring from love to God and must be voluntary in nature to be true charity.

Armed Hitchhikers

Sometime after I received the above-mentioned letter, I was on the way to preach in a distant African village when stopped by fifteen armed villagers who wanted a ride. When I declined because of lack of room and began to drive on, a gun was leveled at my head. Though my righteous indignation (a clerical expression for anger) was aroused, my respect for the power of the rifle impelled me to stop, to compromise my former refusal, and to “voluntarily” offer rides to two of the villagers. When ten of them squeezed into my Volkswagon Combi along with my other passengers, I refused to grant that I had a responsibility for the welfare (transportation to the next village in this case) of all ten. Keeping my eye on the many rifles to make sure none threatened me from behind, I was prepared to resist this claim upon my property. I won a partial moral victory when, after a protracted discussion, all but two of them backed out. (The added adrenalin put some extra punch into my sermon that morning.)

Shortly thereafter a boy from a neighboring village came to our house with a few eggs to sell. He looked ill. Upon inquiry we learned that the family of ten children with their parents were on their last bag of grain, reduced to one scant meal of coarse bread per day. We purchased a sack of grain and took it to the family as a gift to help tide them over until harvest. But we did not have a responsibility to the hungry family, nor did they have any claim on our charity. Our responsibility we deemed only as one to God to help the neighbor we meet in his need. This, while a much-needed Christian activity, is something far removed from the concept of a universal responsibility for all men.

My friend failed to define what the meant by the welfare of all. Just how well is each to fare? A good daily wage for common labor in the area in which we worked was about forty cents. Should our effort at assuming responsibility for all begin with increasing the increment of those in our employ or in giving aid to the vast majority who lived on far less income? It is easy to state a pious cliche; it is quite another thing to put it into practice. Even if all the wealth of the world were evenly divided, I am told, each individual would receive something like $50 —the outer limit of fulfilling this responsibility to all. The attempt to fulfill this “responsibility” for universal welfare would necessitate complete collectivization. But as numerous economists have demonstrated, the result of collectivization is always an increase in general poverty, never an increase in the welfare of all.²

Love Thy Neighbor

None of us is responsible for the welfare of all men. This demand is not only impossible to meet but also would destroy the very welfare it proposes to promote.

We do, however, have a responsibility to out Creator which includes a proper relationship with our fellow man. This, first of all, involves a refusal to interfere with his freedom. The Apostle Paul summarized this obligation clearly:

Love worketh no ill to his neighbor: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. Romans 13:10.

We are responsible for obedi­ence to the commands of God which forbid murder and all coer­cion, theft whether individually or the “legal plunder” of the collec­tive, dishonesty in our dealings with him, and even coveting that which belongs to him. It involves also the positive demand of volun­tarily lending a helping hand to the neighbor we meet in special need. One of the most effective ways of helping is to show him by example and precept that in this world the only way to improve­ment in welfare is by assuming our responsibility before God in refraining from coercive activity except to restrain violence, in us­ing and improving our God-given minds and abilities, and by peace­ful exchange of the fruit of our labor with others. Accepting a re­sponsibility for the welfare of all men is a task that even a Hercules could not perform. Let us rather accept the limited responsibility which God has given to us and not seek to lay upon our own and the shoulders of others an unbear­able burden.



1 Richard H. Bube, The Human Quest (Waco, Texas: Word Book Publishers. 1971) pp. 223-4, 236.

2 See Ludwig Von Mises, Socialism, F. Hayek, Road to Serfdom, and H. Hazlitt, Economics in One Lesson for examples.

  • A graduate of Wheaton College in 1941 and Westminster Theological Seminary in 1944, Mr. Mahaffy served as a missionary to Eritrea for twenty-three years. In 1968, he was appointed Evangelist for the Presbytery of the Midwest and served faithfully in that role, helping to establish Hope OPC, Libertyville, Illinois, Christ OPC, Janesville, Wisconsin, and Trinity OPC, Chicago.