Public Square & Theology 101

What Is the Church’s Role in Poverty Alleviation?

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Not too long ago, visitors to the United States were impressed with the spirit of voluntarism they observed to be alive in this country, whether it came from society at large or from local churches. This observation, for example, was made during the highly-reported visit of Alexis de Tocqueville in 1830. In his book, Democracy in America, Tocqueville claimed private citizens carried out a major part of necessary charity work. In recent years, however, government approaches to aid have grown massively in comparison to private alternatives.

The “Robin Hood” approach to solving the problem of poverty has never proven consistently effective. In all economies where such forceful redistribution of wealth has occurred, the standard of living for all has dropped.

The Church’s Historical Role in Poverty Alleviation

Historically, the church stood at the forefront of giving freely to the poor, caring for widows, taking in destitute orphans, visiting the sick, and caring for the dying. Despite this long and often-appreciated legacy of support for the poor and the needy, the evangelical church ceased or slowed to provide such ministry in the years that followed 1925. This was probably due to the emphasis on the “social gospel” in liberal theology, which many evangelicals began to view with deep suspicion.

This turn of events is regrettable, for evangelicals historically supported the oppressed:

  • In England, William Wilberforce, along with those in the Clapham sect, led the long fight for the abolition of the slave trade.
  • Others with similarly impeccable evangelical credentials, such as George Mueller and Charles H. Spurgeon, were known not only for preaching the gospel, but also for supporting large orphanages.
  • The Salvation Army, founded by William Booth, was one of the most effective evangelical ministries to the poor.

In talking about the church’s relationship with poverty, it should also be noted that historically, the poor have suffered due to those in the church who without warrant preach the health, wealth, and prosperity gospel, incorrectly stating that God wants everyone to be equally rich. Proclaiming this false gospel turns out to be a get-rich-quick scheme for those who lead the movement while the benefits rarely—if ever—reach those at the bottom of the pile, and this is done in the name of the Almighty!

How Poverty Alleviation Relates to Work

A biblical foundation for the concept of work exists: the dominion mandate of Genesis 1:28. Human beings were to “fill the earth” and exercise dominion over all the created order as an act of stewardship for which they must give an account to God on the final day. All concerns about upward mobility are strongly linked to one’s concept of work, one’s view of the family, and one’s view of faith in the living God.

Christians are called to exhibit special care for the poor, the sick, the elderly, the widow, the orphan, the resident alien, and the oppressed. Those who address poverty and the struggles of the poor cannot afford to ignore the centrality of the home, the family, and the church, in addition to other economic factors.

Neither the wealth nor the poverty of any society can merely factor in economic issues alone as the solution, for several biblical principles come into play:

  • Stewardship;
  • A high view of the value of the family and the people of God in the Church;
  • The concept of work, which needs to play a key role in addressing poverty;
  • The act of giving our money in a generous and liberal way, which should characterize the people of God;
  • The necessity of saving and providing for our children and ourselves in the future. This is part of the future-oriented nature required of all who answer to God.

The poor may always be with us, but therein lies both the challenge and the opportunity to demonstrate the power of the gospel.

Editor’s Note: Learn more about the church’s role in fighting poverty and continue reading Dr. Kaiser’s essay, “Poverty and the Poor in the Old Testament,” in For the Least of These: A Biblical Answer to Poverty.  

On “Flashback Friday,” we take a look at some of IFWE’s former posts that are worth revisiting. This article was previously published on Oct 28, 2013.

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