Most Christians today acknowledge that caring for the poor is a biblical requisite. The primary debate among them is over how we can best fulfill this mandate, which more than 2,000 verses of Scripture prescribe. For example, a group of evangelicals who call themselves “Red Letter Christians” contends that the charitable activities of individuals, churches and parachurch organizations are insufficient to accomplish what God expects us to do to aid the poor and oppressed. These mostly politically liberal Christians argue, therefore, that the government must partner with the church to help the poor in ways that go beyond the sacrificial giving of churchgoers.
They call for raising the minimum wage, providing universal healthcare, providing daycare programs, canceling Third World debt and alleviating AIDS in Africa – aims that individuals and faith-based organizations cannot achieve.
While agreeing that God cares deeply about the plight of the poor, politically conservative Christians counter that the Bible does not instruct churches to partner with the state to meet the needs of the poor. They also stress the dangers of strong governments, and insist that government welfare programs are wasteful and ineffective, create dependency, and ignore spiritual problems that often contribute to poverty.
Christians who want the government to play a major role in helping the poor contend that God established the state to enforce justice. The Bible teaches, they argue, that the government’s responsibility involves much more than restraining evil by providing police, a national defense and a court system. The state must also be God’s servant to promote human good (Romans 13:4).
Governments should create a climate that enables families, congregations, non-profit organizations and businesses to help the indigent. Only governments, they assert, can supply some provisions that benefit the poor, such as nondiscrimination laws, social security programs and minimum wage mandates. These Christians emphasize that the Scriptures repeatedly command rulers to insure that the weak and powerless are treated justly (Psalms 45:4-5, 72:1-4; Proverbs 31:8-9; Isaiah 1:10, 17, 23, 26, 10:1-3, 32:1-8; Jeremiah 22:2-3, 14-16). Finally, they maintain that individuals, congregations and parachurch organizations do not have the resources to adequately meet the needs of the poor. If alleviating poverty is left to these groups, many people will suffer.
While they also want to help the poor, politically conservative Christians contend that the Bible teaches that this is primarily the responsibility of individuals, congregations and Christian ministries. The Israelites had an individual responsibility to aid the indigent. The first-century church provided substantial aid for the poor and persecuted. The apostle Paul did not command members of a church he founded to assist afflicted fellow believers; therefore, he would not have advocated civil authorities taxing citizens to help the impoverished (see II Corinthians 9:7).
These Christians assert that those who cannot meet their own needs should first ask their families for help. In the Bible, God repeatedly assigns families the principal responsibility to care for their members. They best know the circumstances involved. They know why an individual is poor and what he can do to improve his situation. They know whether to help him by giving money, counseling him about budgeting or personal problems, or supplying him with a loan or temporary housing. Politically conservative Christians further aver that congregations and private charities have a secondary responsibility to assist the poor. Like families, they better understand the true needs of the indigent, and are less likely than government welfare workers to be deceived by the undeserving and slothful.
The Bible, these Christians also stress, teaches that all charity is intended to be short term; it should help people get back on their feet and take care of their own needs. Unlike the government welfare system, private charity does not produce social stigma or create dependency.
Rather, it aims to promote personal responsibility, diligence, self-respect and independence.
Some Christians denounce government welfare programs for forcefully redistributing wealth, lacking a personal touch and compassion, and supplying recipients with perverse incentives. They maintain further that the American and Western European welfare systems have created a class of permanently poor citizens and increased the gap between the wealthy and indigent. Fraud abounds. Many exploit the system. Others do not use it because of ignorance, pride or their refusal to lie to qualify.
The Coalition on Revival, a network of evangelical leaders belonging to many different denominations, protests, “The ever-expanding role of civil government in helping the hurting has been overwhelmingly ineffective.” It adds, “Many governmental agencies, institutions and programs are extremely wasteful, diverting funds to bureaucrats rather than passing them on to the needy.” Moreover, the “increasing demands for tax dollars” to provide human services prevents individuals from giving direct help and thus extending “personal concern, love and a Christian witness.”
While most politically liberal and conservative Christians agree that the Bible mandates them to help the world’s poor and oppressed, they disagree about the best way to do this. The government should ensure that all citizens are treated justly and have equal opportunities, and it should help the destitute receive the education and vocational training they need to support themselves.
However, the weight of biblical teaching and history favors families, congregations and private charities serving as the primary vehicle for dispensing aid. This method produces the best results and can furnish spiritual aid while meeting people’s physical and material needs.
Dr. Gary Scott Smith chairs the history department at Grove City College and is author of The Search for Social Salvation: Social Christianity and America, 1880-1925 (Lexington Books). Dr. J.D. Wyneken is associate professor of history at Grove City College.