I’ve heard a thought-provoking statement repeated in some Christian circles:
Caring for the poor is too big for the church.
Is this true? How are Christians to think through this question from a sound biblical and economic perspective? We know the Bible teaches we are to care for the poor, but how can we do that most effectively?
Those questions, in turn, only seem to produce more questions, such as, “Who is best suited to care for the needs of the poor—the government, church, para-church organizations, private charities, etc.?”
Here is a common response IFWE has heard from evangelical Christians in a series of focus groups we conducted in 2012:
The church is supposed to but we’ve abdicated the responsibility. We’re in a tough spot. Government has taken that role. Now Christians are upset about the government infringing on our rights. It’s our fault. We have to partner with the government to get the job done.
Participants viewed government as the only entity large enough to tackle the problem of helping the poor, even if it is the church’s responsibility. Government social welfare programs were often considered the most effective means of helping the poor because of the size of government’s resources.
Even though the job of caring for the poor seemed too big for the church, many recognized that churches and individuals are better equipped to provide for the poor on a smaller scale. In fact, they believed that private charity is more effective because it is relational as opposed to the impersonal nature of “big government.”
The question of whether caring for the poor is too big for the church and requires government involvement poses a false choice. And those considering this choice sound stuck. Are those the only two choices on the table?
What’s the Right Answer?
There’s not a simple answer to the question of how best to care for the poor. But it’s encouraging that there is more we can learn from scripture and from economics about the potential each one of us has to make a difference on this topic in and through our vocation—a potential many of us never realized.
Let’s examine the two choices we think we have:
Choice A: The Bible calls the church to care for the poor, and not to abdicate this responsibility to the government. Christians should oppose government social welfare programs on ideological grounds even though some people may slip through the cracks.
Choice B: The Bible calls Christians to care for the poor, but because the job is so big, the church should partner with the government to get it done. Even though this means less-effective programs and some wasteful spending (which is hard in a time of massive debt), at least more people will receive help.
These are tough choices. We are fallen human beings and live in a broken world, and neither choice will be perfect.
But not all the choices are on the table.
What’s missing is Choice C: The Bible calls Christians to care for the poor, and, in addition to giving charitably, we must unleash our gifts in the marketplace by serving others through our work.
In the Parable of the Talents, Jesus calls us to invest and grow what’s been entrusted to us and live out whole-life stewardship. We are to seek the flourishing of others not only through our volunteer ministries and church work, but through our very own 9-5 vocations.
That said, the Bible doesn’t explicitly prohibit a government “safety net” for the poor. Following the principle of subsidiarity, that those closest to the need are best suited to address it, a government solution should be a last resort and regularly scrutinized for effectiveness.
Striving to Serve Others Through Your Job
So why isn’t Choice C on the table? Brian Brenberg, an economics and business professor at The King’s College, New York City, explains in his WORLD Magazine article, “Serving Like Stephen: Most Christians Don’t Understand the Significance of their 9-5 Jobs:”
Most of us in the pews don’t understand the significance of our work because most of us in the pulpit don’t know how to explain what it means to serve tables in a modern economic context. The Bible says feed the hungry. The pastor says volunteer at a food pantry. The small business owner goes on believing that Monday through Friday has nothing to do with Sunday.
But how does Choice C actually work? Brenberg gives tangible examples of how various jobs, such as bankers, tractor manufacturers, mechanics, accountants, and others all contribute to a flourishing society:
Food pantries are important, but they’re not the reason far fewer of us go hungry today than ever before. Most of us have jobs in which we never hand food to anyone. And, strange as it may sound, that’s exactly why so many more people have plenty to eat. Fewer go hungry today because some of us lend money to farmers so they can buy new tractors. Fewer go hungry today because some of us design even better tractors, or tinker in workshops to keep the old ones running. Fewer go hungry today because some of us look at spreadsheets to figure out how companies could spend less money on tractors and produce even more food.
Few of us realize or will ever fully know how doing our jobs well contributes to the flourishing of society. Working at your vocation and leveraging your gifts with all your heart, as for the Lord, creates value. That value, when leveraged in a competitive market, not only generates income, it also improves the products and services that are offered and lowers prices for everyone. My colleague Anne Bradley and Art Carden (in his featured video on trade) further describe this concept here.
We are still called, both as individuals and as church communities, to give of our time, money, and talents outside of our 9-5 jobs. Anne Bradley says that poverty alleviation must be viewed as a “both/and”—both through the power of market trade and charitable aid:
If you look at the church and nonprofit organizations, combined with a really thriving economy, you have the best antidote to long-term poverty that we’ve ever known.
All Options Working Together Are a Picture of Biblical Stewardship
Caring for the poor is a big task, but an understanding of biblical stewardship and basic economics enlarges our view on how to tackle this problem. We have an incredible opportunity through our jobs to serve others and contribute to the common good—an opportunity few of us ever realize.
This truth is exciting and motivating. Most of us spend the majority of our week at our jobs. Doing our jobs well not only glorifies God, it benefits others in tangible ways. We must ask God to help us discover our gifts and be situated in a job that can maximize that potential.
Editor’s Note: Learn more about the role of the market in poverty alleviation in For the Least of These: A Biblical Response to Poverty, edited by Anne Bradley and Art Lindsley.
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