Should We Help the Poor: A Biblical Understanding of the Extent and Limits of Christian Charity
Most Americans receive some form of financial assistance from the federal government. Direct assistance like disability, unemployment, mortgage interest deductions, or subsidized medical insurance are a few examples. Our founding fathers could not have imagined the America that exists today. Youth today will grow up not knowing anything except the welfare state. It may surprise you to learn that for the vast a majority of Western history, the local church was at the forefront of providing the “social safety net” and not the government.
In this short paper I want to show you the history of benevolence in western society, explore biblical principles of generosity, and identify limits of Christian charity.
A landmark book on this subject is Marvin Olasky’s “The Tragedy of American Compassion”. A review by Daniel Bazikian provides the background story we are exploring.
“The early American concept of charity, as expressed from both pulpit and printed page, stressed biblical themes. This established the cultural and intellectual framework for viewing the problem for at least the next 250 years. Charitable aid was encouraged to be given in a spirit of generosity (which in those days was associated with nobility of character, as well as gentleness and humility). Emphasis on a God of justice and mercy, and of man as a fallen, sinful creature, led people “to an understanding of compassion that was hard-headed but warm-hearted.” Those in genuine need would be helped, but those who were slothful were allowed to suffer until they showed a willingness to change.”
Of all people it was a theologian, Thomas Chalmers, who in 1819 organized his community into districts which his church members engaged with to know the plight and welfare of the citizens of his city. Soon there was a remarkable increase in charitable philanthropy, an increase in employment, and a reduction in poverty. Chalmers concept spread and charitable societies were established in every major American city by the mid 1800’s.
How did an effective grassroots, local church centered end up giving way to the bureaucrat welfare state we have today? Would it surprise you if the answer started with theology instead of politics?
Universalist Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune used his plat form to promote Unitarian ideas. These beliefs include that everyone had a right to eternal salvation and earthly prosperity. Wealth distribution was the key to accomplishing this utopian dream of universal prosperity. In the 1880’s theories of Darwinian evolution wedded social science and birthed Social Darwinism. Ideas have consequences the affluent had the moral obligation to protect and preserve their wealth. Aid to the poor became looked down upon as unnatural. The final blow to the Christian consensus was again from theology and not politics. By the turn of the century theological liberalism had become popular among intellectual elites. The Bible lost it's authority and people began looking for alternative philosophies to live by.
With personal generosity to the poor out of fashion, more people looked to the state as the answer. FDR’s “New Deal” in the early 1900's, Lyndon Johnsons “Great Society”, in the mid 1900's and most recently Obama’s “American Recovery and Reinvestment Act” have all advanced the cause of governmental welfare.
What have we earned for this revolution from Chalmers Christian ideals, to Social Darwinism? Today there are fewer people participating in the American work force than. A whopping 73% of all federal expenditures are spent on social welfare (compared to 15% on national defense). Former Treasury official Peter Fisher once said the federal government is basically “a gigantic insurance company,” albeit one with a sideline business in national defense and homeland security.”
Today the failure of the social state is clear especially where we live. Chronic homelessness, unemployment, and underemployment keep our community in the news for all the corresponding maladies that follow poverty: crime, gangs, and drug use. So once again we should ask, "what principles should guide the people of God in the expenditure of their time and resources in alleviating the suffering of the poor?" We can start by examining 7 marks of historic Christian compassion that Marvin Olasky discovered. In the seventh chapter of his book he write:
1) Affiliation – work to keep the individuals family, religious, and community ties strong to foster his sense of belonging.
2) Bonding – developing a close personal relationship between the charity volunteer and the recipient for the purpose of mentoring and teaching the poor how to become self sufficient.
3) Categorization – assigning individuals to categories of specific need instead of one size fits all government aid. This includes designating someone as unfit for relief due to an unwillingness to work.
4) Discernment – the willingness to separate worthy person of charity from fraudulent ones.
5) Employment – the goal of employing all able bodied heads of households as a step toward helping them achieve economic self sufficiency.
6) Freedom – the ability to work without government regulation that allowed a person to improve their lot over time with diligent work.
7) God- Christian charity pointed recipients to God who can meet their spiritual need just as charity was meeting their material needs.
In essence Christian charity was intended to not only meet the needs of the deprived by point them to God as the source of all their provision. There was very distinct goal of helping people live up to their potential as disciples of Jesus.
Today there is still massive opportunity to help the poor. For generations now many family have only known the financial and spiritual poverty that comes from being a member of the welfare state. The government can meet many physical needs people face. Yet, government can never address the spiritual poverty that is at the root cause of so much poverty. So what could a model of Christian charity look like in 2018? Besides to the seven marks of historic Christian compassion I would add:
1) First, Christians should be willing to give aid to anyone who asks for it! (Matthew 5:42) and be motivated in part by the understanding that giving to the poor is lending to the Lord (Proverbs 19:17)
2) Second, Christian charity is a theological work. We know that God is just and merciful. We remember that man is weak and sin curse. We are lead to compassion and tenderness at the plight of man. Our compassion attempts to bridge the plight of man with the provision of God.
3) Third, Christian charity comes with instruction for wise living. (Ephesians 4:28 & 1 Timothy 6:18)
4) Fourth, Christian charity is limited: if an able bodied person is unwilling to work they are to go hungry as a corrective experience (2 Thessalonian 3:10).
5) Fifth, Christian Charity is limited: aid is extended to all who ask barring those who refuse to work and is such aid would subsidize or fund wayward living (Proverbs 1:31-32)
With so many people needing help how do you focus on meeting the needs of people. The bible recognizes the priority of the family (1 Timothy 5:8). Secondly we are to be generous to the household of faith (Galatians 6:10). Last we are to do good to all people giving to those who ask and aren’t disqualified because of laziness or waywardness (Matthew 5:42). A general principle that will allow you to grow in generosity is to live simply. As theologian Carl Henry was famous for saying:
“Live simply so that others may simply live”