The "Free-rider problem" and Christianity

The story goes like this in some form or fashion. 

Humanity came the the realization that we could accomplish more by collaborating together rather than in isolation. Some people would farm and others would build homes. The farmer did not have to worry about building a home and the home builder did not have to worry about farming because they collaborated and worked together.

The idea that we can do more together than in isolation grew until there were more "collaborators" than individualists. But as the collaboration grew, there were some who did not contribute to society but were able to work the system and take advantage of the group's work without themselves having to work. These "free-riders" became a problem.  

If too many people become free-riders then it puts the whole system of collaboration in jeopardy. If word gets around that anyone can freeload the system, then more people might. And if they did then we would all have to go back to individual isolation. Thus the rise of the "punishers".  

Punishers are those who keep a vigilante watch against the free-rider problem and who may very well be motivated by the greatness of collaboration and do not want to see it in jeopardy. (Punishers will honk at you when you are driving like an a-hole because it compromises the collaboration of everyone on the road.)

And while an excess of free-riders can be a problem, we are in a time in which being a free-rider of any sort is demonized. There is stigma toward those on extended welfare or disability. There is an understanding that those who benefit from social services are those who pay into it, and to not do so is an egregious "unAmerican" sin. But lets face it, we all at varying times and reasons, are free-riders. 

But as we continue to demonize free-riders in culture, the Church faces a huge theological obstacle - namely the nature of Grace.

Christians have always said that God's grace is free. We cannot do anything to earn God's grace. You and I cannot earn salvation because we are saved by Grace and that Grace is free. We are all Grace free-riders.

Like human culture, many Christians are are uncomfortable with too many free-riders. Perhaps we feel Grace is free but if too many people have it, then we may not get our share. Or perhaps we really want to keep a check on it so that Grace does not run out for others. For whatever reason(s), Christians have found our own version of "punishers" to the Grace free-rider problem. 

And so, while we say Grace is free, the punishers among us do our part to put some requirements on Grace. 

  • "Grace is free but you have to accept it."
  • "Grace is free for those who accept Jesus."
  • "Grace is free but you have to have faith." 
  • "Grace is free for Christians."  

Whenever there is a stipulation, Grace no longer is free.

The church is full of free-riders.

It does not seem to bother God. 

Why does it bother us?