Public Square

Principles of Poor Relief

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In a series of articles, we have looked at the relationship of rich and poor and the roles of government and the church in dealing with problems of poverty from the perspective of Scripture and history. To draw this series to a close, I would suggest the following principles drawn from the previous discussion as a starting point for dealing with issues of poverty:

The Importance of Work

In an era of high unemployment, it is important to recognize the true value and importance of work. One of the areas that progressives often ignore is where wealth comes from in the first place, which is the essential starting point if we are going to find Biblical principles for dealing with poverty.

Work is simultaneously an aspect of the image of God and the normal means God gives us to provide for our needs and for the needs of others. Sometimes people are genuinely unable to provide for themselves, but Scripture tells us we should all be seeking to work rather than to live off the generosity of others.

Those of us who are employed or who own businesses need to value our work and do our best at it. We also should advocate for policies that will encourage meaningful work. And where possible, we should endeavor to provide training and opportunity for others as an expression of our love for our neighbor.

Churches can also be involved in these areas, but at the very least they should recognize the importance of business, investment, and employment as fundamental tools to promote human dignity and the health and wellbeing of the community. The Church must not demonize the wealthy, the financially successful, the business owner, or the entrepreneur. In too many cases, these groups are only valued when it comes time for a capital campaign.

The Church also needs to rediscover and teach the cultural mandate, that is, that all callings—including business and finance—come from God and are part of what it means to be created in the image of God. Rather than condemning business, the Church needs to devote resources to supporting it and bringing the Gospel of the Kingdom to bear in the marketplace. This doesn’t mean ignoring ethical abuses, but it does mean promoting Kingdom values in business in an effort to prevent those abuses.

The Importance of Moral Proximity

The principle of moral proximity states that we have responsibilities to others in proportion to our relationship with them: those who are closer to us have more of a claim on us than those who are distant, with proximity determined by relationships rather than geography.

For example, our church has a relationship with a church in Peru through the marvelous organization Compassion International. Through that relationship, our church is brought into close moral proximity with that church and its members, and we thus have a greater responsibility to support them than we do to support other equally needy and deserving churches elsewhere.

Following the principle of moral proximity, our primary responsibility is to our own family. Jesus understood the commandment, “Honor your father and mother,” to mean that we need to provide for our parents even ahead of giving to the temple (Mark 7:9-13), and Paul tells us that we are responsible to take care of our grandparents rather than passing them off to the church (or the state) to take care of them (1 Tim. 5:4).

We also have responsibilities to our descendants. Proverbs 13:22 tells us we are to leave a legacy to our grandchildren, so we are to give them something to build upon rather than to leave them in debt.

We thus have an ethical responsibility before God to provide for our own families ourselves. How this works out in our modern world is more complicated than it was in the first century, given Social Security, Medicare, insurance, unemployment, food stamps, and other public and private provisions to care for the elderly, unemployed, or disabled. Nonetheless, it remains our responsibility to see to it that our families are cared for regardless of what assistance is or is not available.

After our families, we need to look at the other circles around us, including our churches, our communities, and connections to the wider world through institutions we are part of, as the next set of responsibilities we have.

We need to think about more than just finances here. Personal involvement is also important. We must consider whether giving to a school in a third world country is enough when we have failing schools in our own communities. Giving to the school is of course a good thing, but are we failing those in closer moral proximity to us by not being involved?

The Importance of Subsidiarity

The principle of subsidiarity is very closely related to the principle of moral proximity. The difference is focus: moral proximity looks at problems and asks where I personally am responsible to act given my finite time and resources; subsidiarity looks at problems and asks who is best equipped to deal with them.

Subsidiarity argues that solutions are best found on as local a level as possible, with higher level institutions only becoming involved when the problems are too big for lower levels to handle. In cases of human need, the process begins with the family; if they cannot solve it, friends, community groups, and churches should step in. Only after these private agencies are exhausted should the problem move to government, and then once again on as local a level as possible.

This is where a Biblical approach to poor relief flies in the face of what is done in most of the Western world. Rather than looking for solutions at the highest levels of state control, subsidiarity is based on the premise that those closest to the problem have both the best understanding of the situation and the individuals involved, and the most direct responsibility to solve those problems. This allows for solutions tailored to the individual situation rather than the one-size-fits-all approach necessarily taken by the state, and promotes virtue by encouraging the community to take greater responsibility for the welfare of its members.

The Importance of Giving

All of these principles mean nothing unless we follow Biblical teaching about the importance of giving generously and even sacrificially to those in need. John Wesley’s advice about money is worth quoting here: “Make all you can, save all you can, give all you can.”

James tells us that true faith leads us to give to those in need: “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?” (James 2:15-16) And John tells us that if we do not give to those in need, we don’t know the love of God: “… if anyone has this world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” (1 Jn. 3:17)

Once again, giving is more than money: it includes our time. If we are too busy to help others, we are too busy. This includes being involved directly in people’s lives, but also involvement in community organizations, particularly churches that have an active ministry to those in need.

History shows us that when the Church carries out its calling to help the poor, it can have a profound effect on society as a whole. But it is important to do this correctly. It begins with encouraging businesses and economic development. These provide resources to help the poor as well as giving people the opportunity to work their way out of poverty.

In terms of direct action, churches should recognize that helping the poor is not simply serving in a soup kitchen once a month; rather, the Church needs to consider how it can help minister to the whole person and the full range of needs they may have, such as food, medical care, education, transportation, job training, etc.

Few churches have the resources to deal with all of these areas. Instead, churches need to work together across denominational lines to coordinate their work in the community, and even beyond that should work with secular social service agencies to see that the needs are met.

Following the principle of subsidiarity, the Church’s first concern must be for the needy within its own community. But this does not preclude the Church from taking on other charitable work further afield, whether in poor areas in our own nation or overseas. This is important work as well, but it must not replace meeting local needs.

Far from moving in an anti-capitalist, quasi-socialist direction, both the Bible and Church history show that a two pronged approach of supporting business and economic development and direct work meeting needs in the community is the best approach to promoting human flourishing in this world, and it does so in a way that also promotes godly living in this world in preparation for the next.

Reprinted with permission of Prison Fellowship,

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