At Work

The One Choice Left Off the Table

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I started a discussion yesterday about a phrase I’ve heard frequently this year in some Christian circles:

Caring for the poor is too big for the church.

Those wrestling with how to best address poverty alleviation seem stuck between two choices:

Choice A:  The Bible calls the Church to care for the poor, and not to abdicate this responsibility to the government. Government social welfare programs should be opposed on ideological grounds even though some people may slip through the cracks.

Choice B: The Bible calls Christians to care for the poor. 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 debt), at least more people will receive help.

These are tough choices. We are fallen and live in a fallen 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 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.  But as Glenn Sunshine says in his series on Poverty and the Church, it should be a last resort and continually scrutinized for effectiveness.

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.

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 colleagues Anne Bradley and Art Carden (in his featured video on trade) further describe this concept here. The flourishing that can come through a market economy is certainly an example of God’s common grace.

Caring for the poor IS a really big task, but an understanding of Biblical stewardship and basic economics enlarges our view on how to tackle this problem.

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. But 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 job 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.

What do you think? Have you ever thought about how pursuing your vocation helps alleviate poverty? Leave your comments here.

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  • Roger McKinney

    Nice couple of posts! Thanks!

    I think a historical perspective is important, too. “Escape
    from Premature Death and Hunger” by Nobel Prize winning economist Robert
    William Fogel shows that in 1700 Europe, the level of farming technology
    allowed nations to produce enough food at maximum production for only 80% of
    the people to have enough to do a normal day’s work. 20% of people could do no
    more than beg for enough to sustain them because they couldn’t get enough food
    to work.

    There are no poor in modern Europe
    and the North America like the poor in 1700, not because
    we give more to the poor, and not because of science, but because of better
    technology and investment.

    China
    has not lifted over 300 million people from starvation poverty to relative
    wealth through charity, but by abandoning socialist principles and allowing a
    tiny space for entrepreneurs to work their magic.

  • Pingback: IFWE: The One Choice Left Off the Table | Koinonia()

  • I certainly prefer the Hayekian Choice C far better than A or B. But I don’t buy the opening premise of your three choices. Are these opening statements any less scriptural?

    Choice D: the Bible instructs the poor to give of their money to the church.
    Choice E: the Bible tells the poor that if they don’t work, they won’t eat.
    Choice F: the Bible only commands Christians to care for poor believers.
    Choice G: the Bible tells Christians to sell everything and give to the poor.

    And the most relevant one…
    Choice H: the Bible says some will urge spending on the poor, then steal the cash.

    This whole issue is a Red Herring. Christians always HAVE “cared” for the poor in exemplary fashion. We’ve done it for two millenia, mostly in small and unheralded deeds. But also in big ways like, say, inventing Hospitals. This “debate” has been foisted on American Christians by disingenuous Leftists arguing that we shouldn’t resist paying higher taxes to the Nanny State. The extent to which this bogus challenge throws us into a tizzy illustrates how tenuous a grasp we have on our real mission: making and baptizing and teaching disciples.

  • Chris Jordan

    just finished two excellent reads. ‘The hole in our gospel by richard sterns, president of world vision and then money, greed, and god, by jay richards. These should be read together, both provide great perspectives.

    My take away? Start supporting some kids through world vision or similar. It is the biblically right thing to do. They focus on those in desperate positions through no fault of their own. This is biblical giving. WV provides sustainable programs to solve the problem.

    Get involved in a local poor community help such as pregnancy life line or a school reading program. they need volunteers who will give knowledge, training on how to live life, be an example, and love. This is the good samartain model.

    we give not only to help free the oppressed and poor, but to remind ourselves how God freely gave all, including His son, to us while we were dead in our sin and unable to help ourselves.

    i am an business owner and looking for an outlet to influence younger at risk men. the more of us that do this will determine the impact we have on culture for the kingdom of God.

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