Don’t You Dare Feed the Poor (Or Demonstrate the Gospel)

For almost as long as it has been around the Christian church has been up to its ears in helping the poor and needy, and providing all sorts of help in the social arena. And that is for a good reason: Jesus and the early disciples said much about the practical expression of the Christian faith.

I just penned a piece yesterday about the work of the Salvation Army in its early days, and how they knew that preaching the gospel must include meeting the very real needs of those they were ministering to:

So the Salvos were simply doing what the church has always done: showing the love of God by feeding the poor, helping the destitute, providing for the needy, and so on. And churches all over the world are doing exactly the same today.

Yet for some of these churches, it seems such charitable services are frowned upon by some governments and by some bureaucrats. As hard as it is to believe, some churches are actually being attacked by the state for expressing the love of Christ in tangible ways.

Consider this incredible case coming out of Perth. Indeed, consider this incredible headline: “Church faces $1m fine for meals”. The story goes like this: “A Scarborough church risked a $1 million fine last night by serving its weekly free Sunday meal, after the City of Stirling deemed many of the church’s activities were in breach of local planning regulations.

“Under the planning scheme, Scarborough Baptist Church is allowed to use its land on the corner of Westview Street and Brighton Road as a place of worship and child daycare centre. In a letter sent on September 18, the council identified activities such as serving dinner at weekly Sunday evening services, craft classes, band practice and preschool dance classes as unapproved use of the land.

“These activities mean the 65-year-old church risks a $1 million fine and a further $125,000 fine for each day it is found to be in breach of council regulations. The council said it was obliged to investigate after receiving complaints from residents over late-night noise and antisocial behaviour such as urination in public.

“Senior pastor Andre van Oudtshoorn said the church had held such activities for years with minimal issues, including the Sunday meal, which often fed the needy. ‘In the 10 years we’ve been running the meal, we’ve twice had an occasion of people who came who were inebriated and we had to ask them to leave,’ he said. ‘We have told the City of Stirling we have a protocol that if we find people like that, we call the ranger. Nobody’s ever caused a disturbance as far as we know’.”

Wow: a million dollar fine for feeding the hungry and helping the needy. Talk about bureaucratic bumbling. Talk about governments overstepping the boundaries. Talk about what seems to be a nasty vendetta against this church. Talk about more gross government incompetence.

In defending themselves the church has put out the following media release:

On 18 September 2012 Scarborough Baptist Church received notification from the City of Stirling requiring the Church to cease all activities (including feeding the needy and running craft and pre-school dance classes) not defined by the City as “religious activities”. The penalty for not complying is an immediate fine of $1,000,000 plus $125,000 per day that the Church fails to comply.

Many of these activities are central to the Church’s pastoral role within the community, and have been operating in the church for years; the craft group, for example, has been holding weekly craft meetings for 35 years, and the evening service and community meal has now been running for nearly a decade.

The City of Stirling has failed to provide any evidence that Scarborough Baptist Church has contravened any local by-laws. Through this Direction, the City has taken upon itself the right to define what constitutes a religious activity. According to the City’s correspondence, religious activities exclude, among others: funerals, weddings, Easter services, youth groups, quiz nights to raise funds for local schools, fêtes and fairs to raise funds for world aid, and the provision of meals and services to the community.

It is the position of Scarborough Baptist Church, in accordance with the separation of Church and State, that local government officials not take it upon themselves to define what a religious activity is, be it in the context of a church, mosque, temple, synagogue, or other place of worship.

It is absolutely mind-boggling that these aggressive bureaucrats could even say something as foolish as demanding the church immediately stop all non-religious activities. The church was quite right to argue that what the secular state regards as non-religious activity the church regards as absolutely vital to its very mission.

Feeding the poor and helping the destitute is of course a religious activity, and an essential one at that. The last thing we need is some secular bureaucrat deciding for a church just what is and what is not religious activity. The next thing you know these guys will be telling churches that preaching the Word of God is not religious activity.

This is nothing other than the beginning steps of sinister persecution of the churches. When the state dictates what a church can and cannot do in terms of its core ministry, then we should all shudder. Of course all totalitarian states have always attempted to do just that.

But the last time I checked, Australia in general, and Perth in particular, were free and democratic places where religious freedom exists. But it looks like some authorities at least are not big fans of either freedom or democracy. And sadly there would be many more like them.

We must pray for this church and for a good outcome here.  And we must all be alert to the reality that many more such clampdowns on Christian activity will likely be occurring in the near future.

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23 Replies to “Don’t You Dare Feed the Poor (Or Demonstrate the Gospel)”

  1. The thing that drives me bonkers is the sincere-sounding red tape that stops things from being done. I heard of a supermarket type venture that either gave away or sold food at drastically lower prices that poor people could afford. The government strode in and said “You can’t sell that, It’s past its best by date!” Mostly these were non perishables anyway, and I don’t see your average poor person looking a gift horse in the mouth. The church has many faults, but one thing she does do ten times better is care for the poor. The poor are just a number to the government – and especially this ridiculous government.

    Ben Mathewson

  2. What an idiotic action on the part of council. Even their own media release shows they have not understood the community expectations of them in this regard, which should be a default position that all longstanding Church activities are considered approved. They should have had a quiet word to the complainant about the certain negative reception his complaint would have.

    Francis Young

  3. I am a long way from WA (in QLD) but I messaged my Federal member. He spoke to me today and said that he would raise the issue with a WA counterpart. Don’t whinge. Act. Contact your MP even if you are in another state. Many will give a “not my electorate” or not a Federal/State issue. Occasionally, you will get a good one like mine (George Christensen, Dawson, QLD) who will do something.

    Graeme Cumming

  4. Dear Bill, You have to be careful of Council regulations. St.Vincent de Paul Society is always mindful of all government regulations.
    Regards, Franklin Wood

  5. Thanks Franklin

    Yes, but of course if councils start taking God-like powers onto themselves, and think they can tell a church what its proper activities are, that is quite a different matter, and one which should concern all of us.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  6. Isn’t this precisely an exercise in which the totalitarian state excels? Overlords telling us what is good for us! Who said the western world had rid itself of Communism?
    Such activity will only worsen if, heaven help us, SSM is legalised. Fortunately the Upper House in Tasmania has just voted against it 8-6 and so, for the moment, we have been spared. Deo Gratias!
    Dunstan Hartley

  7. I find it hard to believe in Australia, any part of it, that the Government, Federal, State or local, can tell the church not to feed the poor, or put together programmes to help the community, unless of course they have decided that the government will be supplying all the people’s needs. An increase in welfare payments, food vouchers, and don’t forget entertainment and training programmes that help to build self-esteem. Are we becoming a communistic country that stops God and His people from doing what has been done since time began? Are we being stopped from doing what Jesus Christ has told us to do (the great commission) which is the basis of Christianity? One needs to take a stand about this, because if the government is going to supply what this church has already supplied, then it is us, the Tax payer that will initially pay for it, or else the budget for it will have to come from some other port-folio and we loose anyway!! So stand up everyone, every worker in this beautiful free land and say, enough is enough. And for those that need the help, stand up and fight for your rights to have self respect. Vote this government and any other that has the same ideas out at the next election. Let them see that we are not going to take it lying down.

    Joan Hall

  8. Full of double standards. I wonder how many Greens are on that council with their slogan “making poverty history”?
    Double standards are an essential though when you are determined to suppress the truth.
    Reminds me of the Pharisees that didn’t want Jesus to “heal on the Sabbath”.
    Didn’t think it would come to Australia quite that soon though.
    Many blessings,
    Ursula Bennett

  9. Hi Bill

    This is a real worry. I am not a regular subscriber as you know I have some diverse views. However this one I DO agree with you. I was engaged to a man in England in 2001-2002. We met at Bible Study at his Church that I was visiting as a seeker of some Christian fellowship. Chris had severe Multiple Sclerosis and couldn’t weight bear and was fed by a tube into his stomach. Chris had 24/7 around the clock care. He was a faithful Bible listening (via a tape recorder due to losing his eye sight) Christian. He tithed and did everything he could to submit to the Church.

    Our Bible study was talking about doing some outreach work through the Church for disadvantaged people, be it those who are sick or disabled or families in need. When Chris’s carer suggested doing his council flat garden I agreed to ring the Church organisation linked to Chris’s church that he was a participant in. The Church replied, they needed to get permission from his flaming Health authority case worker, I replied, but are you not Christians? Chris is not your run of the mill charity case, he is your brother in Christ who tithes and attends Church. They said the government bound them to do this so they could get tax treatment from the council in the UK and avoid Chris (their own brother in Christ) suing them for any accidents etc. We ended up joining another Church that came and helped us with the messy garden unoffically and no we didn’t sue them!!!

    For the most in Australia we in Christian fellowships just naturally do things like this with St Vincent de Paul etc with no strings attached and that’s what it should be like. Sorry to take up your time Bill, but this imo is a real worry. The thought police should NEVER interfere with us helping our brothers and sisters in need.

    It sounds like something Christ spoke about.

    Tara Maree

  10. The council is obviously unaware of what their own regulations actually mean. This Church like all others practicing Christianity, use the Bible to define themselves. What are ‘religious activities’? The council doesn’t seem to know.

    We are clearly told in James “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” This is by no means the only definition for Christians but even this would include a lot of activities.

    Clearly all the Perth Churches should band together and go to court to prove the breadth of Christian expression and not allow any jurisdiction to falsely limit Christianity to only one of its modes of expression. This is a great opportunity to make this point in law before someone tries to pull the noose tighter.

    The fact that the Church attracts some anti-social behavior only proves the needs in this community. The council should be asking what they can do to help.

    Andrew Snowdon

  11. I never realised that having an Easter service is not religious activity. This is really stupid and I am praying that they lose this and the church can continue on with their ministry. For me the sad part is how close the council is to mine, since it the one right next to mine, so it is a scary thought that it might happen.

    Ian Nairn

  12. A culture is in deep trouble when its beaurocrats care more about narrowly interpreted protocols than they do about meeting the real needs of people. Their sense of identity is linked to their power over others rather than their common brotherhood with others. The fact that the church was feeding needy people shows that Stirling City Council was not meeting peoples’ needs. The council seems to have no understanding of what it means to be a good Samaritan and they, therefore, have no credibility when it comes to defining what is, and what is not, a religious activity.
    Trevor Walmsley

  13. Ian, That is why one council can’t be allowed to get away with this or it will spread. The whole region should see this is limiting their Christian freedom and should fight it now.
    Andrew Snowdon

  14. Dear Bill,

    Thank you for your splendid defence of people who are trying their best to live up to their Christian principles.

    Perhaps Franklin could tell me why, as well as being mindful of Council regulations, they decided to call their shops Vinnies instead of St Vinnies. As a Catholic I have always wanted to know.

    In my opinion there are enough indifferent people in society who are reluctant to commit to an active Christian ethos and practise because if they did it would mean they would have to give up some of their time and money to do it.

    Stirling council should be grateful that they have such generous Christian people in their midst.

    Patricia Halligan

  15. Maybe the Council are planning themselves to feed these hungry people in their premises each week. (Tongue in cheek).
    Andrea Mellor

  16. Hi Bill,
    amazing…but then again…not so amazing. The prayer I shot up to the Lord in response to this totalitarian move was Father, convict the minds and hearts of the authorities taking this action against the church, that if it has come to us (the city of Stirling authorities) telling the church they can’t feed the poor, maybe it’s time for we city authorities to ask ourselves, what are we here for and why do we do, what we do? What’s our motive in such a move as to ban the church from doing what the whole community reasonably expects them to do?
    Father, help them to take a reality check and repent of such either stupidity, or outright evil. In the Almighty name of Jesus the Messiah, who fed the hungry and helped the oppressed have dignity even in the midst of a (Roman) totalitarian situation. Amen

    Peter Magee

  17. From what I have learned it is about a zoning issue and getting the right paperwork for the council. This whole situation could be simply resolved by getting permits from the council to do what they are doing. This is from a Pastor friend who knows what needs to be done when getting a permit for the local councils. It would have saved so much hassle to work with the council than work against it.

    Ian Nairn

  18. Thanks Ian

    Actually not quite, from what I understand. It is not merely about a few small trifles like parking or noise regulations and permits. It is, as I wrote in my article, about the local council taking on the arrogant and god-like powers of determining what are and are not core religious activities. It is about a secular state’s incursion into church life in other words. So I would say it may be far more serious than you might be suggesting.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  19. Something is rotten in the state of Denmark here! For all this talk of regulations and permits and compliance ad nauseum, there is something else that we are not being told about this, ask yourselves, why, all of a sudden has this happened? Why have there not been incidents like this of note previously? All of a sudden, this just “pops” up? No, there is something else going on here but it might be a while before it all comes out, meanwhile, pray for the church and what it is doing as there are more than enough Christian haters out there who would be clapping their hands with glee over this incident, just another example of the stinking hypocrisy of those outside the church.
    Steve Davis

  20. How many of these councillors, have by-laws that allow them to hang out their washing, hold partys, supply alcohol to under age youth, cut their grass on Sundays, or help their neighbours in times of difficulty. The very idea of issuing a summons for helping people less well off than themselves, leaves me cold. May be one day their world will crumble, then where will they go for help????

    Ian Angliss

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