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Poverty and the Church

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Poverty principles

In previous articles dealing with poverty, we noted several important principles that should govern our ideas about poor relief.

  • Our greatest responsibility is to those closest to us, starting with our own families. The more removed people are from us, the less our direct responsibility to them.
  • Work is an aspect of the image of God and is central to human dignity; the best way to help people in poverty is to help them earn their income rather than having them rely on someone else to meet their needs.
  • When people face immediate needs, those needs must be met. Ideally, however, the recipients should be transitioned toward self-sufficiency as soon as possible so they can retain their dignity and pay it forward to others in need.
  • Government may have a role in poor relief, but that role should be subsidiary to individuals and local charitable institutions; when government does get involved, it should be on as local a level as possible.

This leads to the immediate question of the role of the Church in relieving poverty. Christians as individuals clearly have great personal responsibility for helping the poor; what should be the role of the local church?

The Early Church

There can be no question that the early Church was involved in caring for the poor. The church in Jerusalem in Acts 4 is perhaps the most obvious (and most misunderstood) example of this, but we can look as well to the aid delivered to the church in Jerusalem from churches in Asia Minor and Greece as an additional example of caring for those in need within the Christian community.

But Christians did not only take care of their own poor. They ministered to the sick and dying, purchased slaves to set them free, clothed the naked, and fed the hungry whether they were Christians or not. This was recognized by Julian the Apostate, the Roman Emperor who attempted to re-paganize Rome after Christianity was legalized. Julian complained, “These impious Galileans [i.e. Christians] feed not only their own poor, but ours as well.”

Julian’s reaction was based on the fact that the pagan world was not much given to charity, and so the Church’s role in feeding the poor created a space in Roman society that was not under imperial authority and therefore undermined his rule. As the Church has moved away from its ancient practice, it has surrendered this area once again to Caesar.

Evangelism and the Poor

Historically, evangelism had always been linked to social welfare programs, ranging from feeding the poor to establishing hospitals and schools. In the early twentieth century, American Church leaders inspired by German liberal theology essentially abandoned evangelism in favor of the “Social Gospel” and a nearly exclusive emphasis on this world. Conservative theologians rejected this change as a betrayal of true Christianity, but unfortunately they reacted by focusing exclusively on evangelism and the afterlife while ignoring the relevance of the Gospel of the Kingdom for this life.

American evangelicalism is still suffering from the aftermath of this division, which has discredited Christianity in the eyes of many young people in the country.

The fact is, the emphasis on an exclusively other-worldly Gospel does not do justice to the teachings of Jesus or Paul, as Ron Sider, Jim Wallis, and more recently Ched Myers and Shane Claiborne have argued.

“Progressive” Evangelicals

Unfortunately, many of these “progressive evangelicals” have largely baptized the programs of the secular left and confused them with a Biblical vision for caring for the needy. Wallis, for example, has tied himself to government solutions for poverty through his close association with secular progressives and funding from the atheist George Soros.

Claiborne and Myers see economic redistribution as an essential component to the Gospel: Claiborne’s The Irresistible Revolution tells us that “rebirth and redistribution are inextricably bound up in one another,” and Ched Myers’s Sabbath Economics presents a vision of Christianity that is 100% economic, with no mention of any spiritual dimensions to salvation.

Sabbath Economics illustrates a number of important themes in this movement along with its problems. The book’s premise revolves around three points: God provides enough for His people if they restrain their appetites and live within limits; differences in wealth and power are not natural and the community of faith must correct them through redistribution; the prophetic message of Scripture calls us to redistribution, which is what makes it good news for the poor (pg. 5).

The first point comes from Myers’s interpretation of the story of the manna, which teaches us that God provides for us, but that accumulation is forbidden (pg. 13). In fact, Myers sees the entire manna episode as a parable about the superiority of hunter/gatherer society and local horticulture over intensive agriculture, cities, and the resultant slave-based imperial economies (pg. 11).

The prohibition of accumulation is further reinforced by the story of the rich young ruler, about which Myers concludes, “Whatever else the kingdom of God may be, it is where the rich are not!” (pg. 31)—evidently confusing it being difficult for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven with it being impossible, an error Myers might have avoided had he not made the climax of the discussion Mark 10:26 rather than Jesus’ own conclusion in 10:27.

The idea of redistribution comes from the Old Testament Sabbath year and Jubilee, where property was returned and slaves set free, the Jerusalem church in Acts 4 (more on that in the next article), and Jesus’ description of his ministry as preaching good news to the poor. According to Myers, the only thing that would qualify as good news to the poor was the cancelation of their debts (pg. 23), and so Jesus’ ministry was fundamentally about economics.

He even argues that although in the New Testament, the Greek words for debt and sin are different, in Aramaic they are the same, and so when Jesus talks about forgiveness of sins he really means releasing people from monetary debt (pg. 24). In other words, in rejecting the emphasis on the next life of contemporary evangelism, he has made the Gospel all about this world.

These assumptions guide Myers’s approach to Scripture and lead to what can only be described as tortured exegesis of some of Jesus’ parables. For example, in the parable of the vineyard, the absentee landowner is the one who faces judgment, not the tenants (pg. 27).

Similarly, in the parable of the talents, it is not the ones who use their talents who are the heroes because according to Myers everyone would have recognized that the only way they could have doubled their investment was by exploitation (pg. 42). Myers here ignores the example of Isaac, who got a one hundred-fold return in his harvest (Gen. 26:12). He also misses the fact that the master was away for a long time (Matt. 25:19); even at the low rates of return he claims would have been acceptable, the servants could potentially have doubled the money without exploitation. The only reason to see these servants as exploitive is because if they aren’t, Myers’s economic argument falls apart.

Myers instead sees the servant who hides the talent as the real hero, because he refused to participate in an exploitive economic system. Myers’s justification for this reading is that the third servant called the master a “hard man”—a term used for Pharaoh elsewhere in Scripture—and the master quotes it back to him without refutation (though in parallel passages the master makes it clear he is judging the servant using his own words).

Both the tenants and the third servant come to an unfortunate end, though Myers argues that this is not the result of divine judgment but the action of the unjust, oppressive system of the world which always persecutes the righteous. The descriptions of their fate—being executed or cast into outermost darkness—are in other parables references to divine judgment, but to fit his assumptions Myers has to argue they mean something different here.

The examples can be multiplied. This forced exegesis (or to be more accurate, eisegesis—reading into the text rather than drawing the meaning out of it) is a sure sign that the assumptions Myers brings to Scripture are wrong. While his recognition of the relevance of the Gospel to this world is laudable, his approach is wrong-headed, owing more to a Christianized version of Marxist economic determinism than to a Biblically faithful vision of economics within the community of faith.

We will examine the issue of redistribution and develop a more balanced view of biblical economics and the church in the next article.

Reprinted with permission of Prison Fellowship,

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