As we conclude our series on applying Jesus’ teachings to the modern political arena, I would like to share an illustration from a rather unlikely source: baby sitting. I was once helping to watch two young children, a boy and a girl, for some friends. While we sat in the floor playing with coloring books, the boy suddenly grabbed a handful of his sister’s crayons, which she loudly protested. As I thought about it later, I wondered which child was more at fault; the boy for taking something that didn’t belong to him, or the girl for refusing to share with her brother? On a larger scale, are these not the key issues in our modern debates over poverty and welfare? In this article, we will examine what the Bible says about the stewardship of our material possessions in conjunction with those in need, and how this affects our view of the modern political landscape.
Go to most any city, and it’s not hard to find the influence of Jesus at work in improving the lives of the less fortunate. Countless hospitals, homeless shelters and treatment centers are sponsored by churches and other Christian organizations. Any decent person would agree that these charitable organizations do great work. Where the issue becomes a bit trickier is when we enter the realm of partisan politics. When candidates attempt to gain votes by appealing to the Christian conscience of the voters, it is important to be informed and discerning in how we are to respond. No matter our political affiliation, our ultimate allegiance is to the Word of God, not party platforms or political philosophies. That being said, I believe that the Bible speaks some strong words to those at all points of the political spectrum.
Is it possible to be a faithful Christian and still follow the principles of the modern Democrat Party? I am not denying that there are genuine Christians who happen to be Democrats. In fact, it was not that long ago that Evangelical Christian voters were more likely to be Democrats than Republicans. But things change, and the Democrat Party has largely lost the Christian vote by default. How can we give our allegiance to Christ, yet follow an organization which openly promotes homosexuality, abortion and other policies that flagrantly defy God’s Word (1)? To support these sorts of people is to become a partaker of their evil deeds (see 2 John 9).
However, as I have made clear in previous messages, this criticism of the modern Democrat Party is NOT a wholesale endorsement of the Republican Party. Although the GOP has generally done a better job of addressing issues of concern to Christians, the cavalier disregard for the poor displayed by some (although not all) Republicans simply cannot be excused. Caring for the poor and needy is the single most frequently repeated command in the entire Bible, and how we respond shows whether or not our faith is really genuine (James 2:14-17). If we neglect the poor, God will not accept our worship (Amos 5:21-24), He will not hear our prayers (Proverbs 21:13), and we will ultimately come under His severe judgment (Amos 6:4-7). In the words of the great preacher and humanitarian, Dr. Lester Sumrall:
Have Christians by and large been faithful to biblical revelation? Have the teachings of the Bible been faithfully taught? Are they being practiced? …there has been a great sinful neglect of the needy and an almost total disregard for what the Bible teaches by multitudes of people who call themselves Christians. (2)
In the quest to form a consistently Biblical world view, the Christian voter is often faced with a significant dilemma. Pursuing a strong moral vision should not be at odds with bringing compassion and justice to those in need. How do we reconcile the two? When it comes to addressing these issues, it is important to remember that Scripture not only gives us the “whys” but also the “hows.” Jesus said that the poor would always be with us (Mark 14:7). Ultimately, poverty cannot be defeated through human means, political or otherwise. Despite more than a century of progressive reform, including the formal Progressive movement of the pre-World War One era, FDR’s “New Deal”, and LBJ’s “War On Poverty”, poverty is still a devastating reality to countless people. This fact alone should provoke us to seriously reexamine both our priorities and our methods. I am certainly thankful for those government efforts which have legitimately helped people and made better lives possible. However, in some cases, these programs have proven to be nothing more than political grandstanding. Caring for the needy is certainly the work of God, but God’s work must also be done God’s way.
Some have misinterpreted Jesus’ compassion for the poor to be a form of Socialism or even Communism. The fact is, however, that private property and free enterprise have a biblical basis. Remember the thesis for our study: Jesus’ teachings must be understood within the context of His Jewish world view, a view whose very patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, were all fabulously wealthy men, made rich by the blessing of God (Genesis 13:12; 26:14; 33:5). This can also be seen in the lives of Old Testament figures such as Joseph (Genesis 41:57), Solomon (1 Kings 3:13), Daniel (Daniel 6:28), and many others. If Jesus were, as some teach, indiscriminately opposed to wealth and prosperity, it seems that He neglected to read His own Scriptures.
The Hebrew Scriptures Jesus believed and cherished taught that, from the very beginning, God has given man property to tend and care for (Genesis 1:26; 2:15). Later, in the Ten Commandments, He reinforces these property rights by setting strict laws against theft and covetousness (Exodus 20: 15, 17). God takes pleasure in the prosperity of Hisservant (Psalm 35:27), rewards hard work and ingenuity (Proverbs 10:4) and declares that to enjoy the fruits of our labors is a gift from Him (Ecclesiastes 3:13; 5:19). Jesus’ future millennial reign will be a time in which every person will sit down on their own property under their own “vine and fig tree” (Micah 4:1-4).
Of course, this provides the setting for Jesus’ own life and ministry. In our previous study we established that, contrary to what modern traditions may tell us, Jesus was not poor, and He did not uphold poverty as an ideal. Unbiblical ideas about money, i.e. equating poverty with humility and spirituality, has kept countless believers from the fruitful, benevolent lives that God desires for all of us. In spite of all of the pious sounding clichés, there is nothing humble or spiritual about watching your children go hungry. Some would ask “…but isn’t prosperity more than money?” Of course it is. You can have lots of money and not be prosperous, but at the same time, you cannot call yourself prosperous if you cannot pay your bills. This is why it is importantly to not only help the poor, but to teach them how to get out of poverty entirely. As the adage tells us, Give a man a fish, you have fed him for today. Teach him how to fish, and you have fed him for a lifetime. This practical, whole-life approach is at the center of Biblical welfare and charity.
Looking at the economic framework of the Old Testament, we can see that the government which God set up for His people was certainly not a welfare state. It was basically a free market economy in which people could make as much money as they wanted to, providing that they did it within the confines of God’s covenants (see Deuteronomy 8:18). Their taxation system was not a “soak the rich” scheme of wealth redistribution. In fact, the Bible gives us vivid examples of how excessive taxation can have disastrous results. One example is seen in the breakup of the Kingdom of Israel into the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah following the death of King Solomon. This is directly attributed to burdensome taxation (1 Kings 12:4, see also Nehemiah 5:4; 2 Kings 23:35). For His covenant people, God established what we would today call a flat tax, built on a system of three tithes (tenths of gross income). An equal percentage was required of every Israelite, rich or poor (3).
Under this system, aid to the needy was available, but it was not simply in the form of handouts. God’s primary means of financial provision is the avenue of work (Ephesians 6:5-7; 2 Thessalonians 3:10), and ancient Israel’s system was no exception. For example, there was the law of gleaning. When a farmer harvested his crops, he was not to go back and gather the food he missed. Rather, it was left for the poor to come and pick up (glean) for their families (Leviticus 19:9-10, 23:22; Deuteronomy 24:19-22). Another form of aid was interest-free loans (Exodus 22:25; Deuteronomy 23:19-20). At any rate, all forms of welfare required significant responsibilities from the person or persons receiving it (4).
In the New Testament, we are obviously looking at a different scenario, as the people were no longer living under a Theocratic form of government. Rather, the focus shifts to the Church, the Body of Christ, but the same principles seen in the Old Testament remain. It is important to remember that need, in and of itself, does not move God. Rather, God is moved when we step out in faith to receive His provision (see Luke 4:25-27). As important as helping the needy is, it is a means to an end, not an end in itself. The church’s primary mission is to win the lost and to make disciples, and all other programs, including benevolence ministries, are to be aimed toward this goal. This requires stewarding financial resources soberly and responsibly.
I once had a part-time job as a security guard for a church. When I first started the job and the pastor was going over the various responsibilities, he made it a point to tell me about people who came by the church seeking financial help. Of course, the church was very willing to help people in need, but as he explained, there was a procedure they had to follow. For example, they would call other churches in the area to see if the people in question had been there first. The reason was that some people made their entire living panhandling from churches. While it is sad that this is the case, these people can quickly drain all of the resources from a benevolence ministry if proper precautions are not taken.
Interestingly, we see similar issues discussed by the Apostle Paul in his letter to his protégé’, the young Pastor Timothy. In this Epistle, we learn that Timothy’s church is establishing a program to care for its widows, which is certainly a noble effort. However, Paul gives some advice to his close friend which would seem surprising and even harsh by today’s standards. He tells Timothy that those widows receiving the aid must meet rigid requirements regarding age (1 Timothy 5:9), and they must have no family or other means of support (1 Timothy 5:3-16). They must also have a proven reputation for pure lives and service to the church (1 Timothy 5:10). Paul even goes as far as to say refuse the aid to younger widows, as they would abuse the privilege (1 Timothy 5:11-12).
This passage is strong medicine for those who advocate a welfare system devoid of responsibility or accountability, but it becomes more clear when we put compassion into its biblical context. God never intended for charity to become a lifestyle. No matter where we begin, Jesus desires for all people to live abundant, productive lives to His glory (John 10:10). To this end, His recorded teachings deal more with the subject of money than with any other single issue. This is why the church’s methods of discipleship must include teaching on how to acquire, manage and steward finances. Learning these principles will not only help people to rise above poverty, they will also learn to help other people get out of it permanently. As the Bible puts it, we are blessed, so that we can be a blessing (Genesis 12:2). This is why a proper understanding of biblical prosperity is so important.
I realize this may seem like a radical concept to many believers, as in today’s church, there is admittedly some controversy over this prosperity message. While some genuine abuses have fed the negative stereotypes, that does not discount the truth of the message itself. After all, how can we help anyone if we do not have the resources to do so? Why is it so far fetched to believe that God would want the wealth of the world in the hands of people whom He can trust to use it for Godly purposes ?
Biblical prosperity is not about being greedy, materialistic or self-indulgent. In fact, quite the opposite is true . God gives us the power to get wealth so that His covenant can be established on the earth (Deuteronomy 8:18). Establishing God’s covenant includes supporting the church, funding evangelism and missions, and yes,feeding the poor. Those who oppose the Biblical prosperity message are in reality stripping the church of the very resources it needs to be the church as God intended, to be “furnished in abundance for every good work and charitable donation” (2 Corinthians 9:6-11, Amplified Bible).
There is much more that could be said, but I will not attempt to overly politicize Jesus’ teachings. Ultimately, His Kingdom is not of this world (John 8:23). Regardless of the directions that governments and politicians may take, our own personal responsibilities remain:
[Rather] is not this the fast that I have chosen: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every [enslaving] yoke? Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house–when you see the naked, that you cover him..?”(Isaiah 58:6-7, Amplified Bible)
In this lost and dying world, the needs are many. None of us can do it all, but all of us can do something. Jesus’ instructions still ring true for His followers in today’s world: “Freely you have received, freely give. (Matthew 10:8)” “To whom much is given, much is required. (Luke 12:48)” Ultimately, He will hold us all accountable for how we respond to the cry of the hungry, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned: “Depart, ye cursed, into everlasting fire…For I was hungry, and ye fed me not…In as much as you did not do it for the least of these, you did it not for me…” (Matthew 25:41-46).
Although the needs are perhaps greater than ever, so are the opportunities. There are many outstanding ministries and organizations through which we can work to fulfill Jesus’ command to help the hurting, to be a “dinner bell” for the Living Bread, the Lord Jesus. This includes feeding the hungry (5), reaching out to those in prison (6), speaking out for victims of persecution and oppression (7), defending unborn children (8) and doing good wherever and whenever we find the opportunity. By doing this, we will discover that labels such as “Conservative” and “Liberal” will start to lose their significance, and the Name of Jesus will shine brighter and brighter. I will conclude with a stirring exhortation from the lips of Jesus Himself:
Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven (Matthew 5:14-16).
© 2005 JHB, DIP
NOTES & BIBLIOGRAPHY:
1-Although moral issues such as abortion are certainly important parts of this debate, I have intentionally kept discussions of them to a minimum as they have been addressed at length in previous posts
2-Sumrall, Lester. “The Dark Hole of World Hunger and the Christian Solution.” 1989 LeSea Publishing Company, South Bend, Indiana. 162-163.
3-This included one tithe to support the Priests (Deuteronomy 14:27; Leviticus 27:30-34; Numbers 18:24-26), a second tithe to finance the religious feasts (Deuteronomy 14:22-26) and a third tithe taken every three years for the needy (Deuteronomy 14:28-29).
4-As in the previous article, I acknowledge the late Dr. David Chilton’s book, “Productive Christians in an Age of Guilt-Manipulators.” (1981 Institute for Christian Economics, Tyler, Texas). as a source for some of the information presented in this study.
5-Two excellent Christian relief organizations are LeSea Global Feed the Hungry: http://www.feedthehungry.org/main/home.cfm and CBN’s Operation Blessing: http://www.ob.org/
6-See Chuck Colson’s ministry, Prison Fellowship: http://www.pfm.org/
7-See http://PersecutedChurch.org and Voice of the Martyrs: http://www.persecution.com/
8-See the National Right to Life: http://www.nrlc.org and Crisis Pregnancy Centers Online: http://www.pregnancycenters.org/