Economics 101 & Public Square & Theology 101

Christian History’s Radical Approach to Poverty


How can Christians learn from history how best to serve the poor?

The competing paradigms within evangelical thought on poverty alleviation can best be distinguished by the voluntary principle versus the principle of redistribution.

Evangelicals have historically embraced the voluntary principle, which relies on promoting the biblical doctrine of work, the interworking of free-market competition, and fostering wealth-creation. Thomas Chalmers and the Earl of Shaftsbury, who is quoted in the image to the right, were two prominent Christians who utilized this principle in the nineteenth century.

Today I want to share the biblical basis for the voluntary principle, and explore how it plays out in a market-setting.

The Voluntary Principle

The voluntary principle is a short hand way of describing a response to poverty based upon individuals and voluntary societies providing for the needs of the poor rather than the state. This principle lies at the heart of the evangelical response to poverty.

This principle is founded in several biblical passages, including the following:

  • I Chronicles 29:6-22, Luke 14:33, and II Corinthians 9:7 emphasize the importance of giving, and provide motivation for voluntarily providing for others.
  • Exodus 35:30-35 indicates the importance of enterprise and creativity.
  • II Thessalonians 3:10 affirms the importance of work.
  • Exodus 20:15 and Proverbs 19:14 support the idea of property rights.
  • Acts 16:14 provides an example of trade.

Putting these and other biblical passages together, a biblical approach to fighting poverty emerges. It is a picture of utilizing Christians in forming local, voluntary associations that promote enterprise, work, and free-market economic principles.

Since these bodies are local, Christians who participate in them are more likely to know those in need. They are also more able to assess what those needs really are, in contrast to the state’s remote, more bureaucratic, and less-targeted provision.

Additionally, these local associations encourage enterprise and personal responsibility to help people find ways out of poverty. The voluntary principle in action is usually full of programs from savings clubs and schools to emigration to new lives, all designed to replace welfare with enterprise.

The Voluntary Principle and the Market

The role of the market in dealing with poverty is frequently misunderstood.

For Christians, the market is an essential part of God’s provision for the world and a means to deal with poverty. This is because at the heart of the market is a paradox. Individuals pursuing their own self-interest together work for the common good. Human beings bargain and trade with each other naturally.

Sin complicates this. Not only might the market not work as intended, but also the individuals within it may be corrupted and act illegally, immorally, or in an exploitative manner. The market needs individuals who will bring values to the marketplace.

Thomas Chalmers was a professor of theology, prominent leader in the Church of Scotland, and a political economist who utilized the voluntary principle. He believed that human beings, while tainted with sin, also had implanted within them a moral compass. For the Christian, this is a consequence of a heart and a life that has turned to Christ. From this stems a basic assumption of the voluntary principle: that compassion stems from the heart, not the government.

Further, in economics, the market has proven to be the most effective tool for development. Utilizing self-interest to help the common good is an effective method for bettering society. The market uses incentives to promote hard work, catering to the cultural mandate. It marries responsibility with access to mobility, helping the poor help themselves.

When the creativity, innovation, and dynamism of human beings acting within the market are combined with the voluntary principle, the result is a radical approach that challenges poverty.

Editor’s Note: This post was adapted from IFWE’s forthcoming book, For the Least of These: A Biblical Answer to Poverty, due to be released in early 2014. 

What role do you see the market and the voluntary principle playing in alleviating poverty? Leave your comments here

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  • Roger McKinney

    “Sin complicates this. Not only might the market not work as intended, but also the individuals within it may be corrupted and act illegally, immorally, or in an exploitative manner.”

    This is an excellent post, but I have a small quibble with the passage above. The main point of Smith’s Wealth of Nations was that competition forces self-interest to align with public interest. Self-interest alone will not cause it to work for the common good. Something must direct it toward the common good and that is competition. With competition, corrupt and immoral businessmen will go out of business if they don’t change their ways. The state should take care of illegal activity. Competition in the market directs self-interest toward the common good and gets rid of immoral practices. The state takes care of illegal practices.

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