What role should the church play when it comes to helping the poor? In my early 20s, after time growing up in a liberal church and then away from church as an atheist, I joined a very conservative church. The view there was that helping the poor could be tolerable if it was directly related to evangelism. That is, it could not be an end of itself, it could only be done as a tool to proclaim the gospel.
I was a bit shocked when I studied the Bible for myself and discovered the emphasis on the care for the poor in both Old and New Testaments. And it seems to be valued as an act itself and not just as a means to a more important goal. Care for the poor seems to be something close to God’s heart.
However, when I talk to evangelical Christians, there still seems to be a level of suspicion when it comes to this area. I feel as if part of this is because they identify this kind of activity with liberal churches. Perhaps they fear that if they become too active in helping the poor, that might lead to diminished zeal for evangelism or might be a slippery slope theologically into other areas.
When I push the firm biblical basis for caring for the poor and that interpretation is accepted (it is not always), I generally get two reactions:
There are many Christian charities already doing this.
What we oppose are government intervention in poverty alleviation.
In terms of the first reaction, I do agree. But I will say, having gotten to know people working in these organizations that they often struggle to get church support. In fact, you would be surprised at how much of these Christian organizations actually have to rely on government funding because they are not receiving adequate funding from the churches. I would also challenge you to, instead of just saying there are Christians already doing this, look at the budget of your local church and find out much is being sent to these organizations and how much are you as an individual giving to these organizations.
But the big one that people put forth is that, even if the Bible does say we should help the poor, we should still oppose any governmental involvement in this. This could lead to a form of socialism, where money from rich people is be used to help poor people, even they do not choose it.
The first thing I would say is that the New Testament does not address how the church should try and encourage the government to put into place better poverty relief programs because that was not an option. The Roman Empire really did not care what Christians thought they should be doing. This silence is not evidence for opposing government involvement.
I will observe, however, that Christians are happy to lobby the government in other areas. The biggest area of course is in regard to abortion. But it is more than that. There are plenty of evangelicals who believe that the government should give privilege of place to the Christian Church. Many think Christian prayer should be included in public schools. Many think that the government should support the teaching of creation over evolution in school.
So when it comes to the issue of poverty, it is not as if evangelicals hold to a firm separation of church and state that does not allow us to promote better government programs. Evangelicals want government involvement and support in certain areas, just not poverty relief.
I suspect that part of this because they see the government helping the poor as being a threat to capitalism. For some, capitalism is not just the best economic system, it is closely tied to the gospel and any threat to capitalism is a threat to the gospel. I have actually heard evangelicals say that universal healthcare of anti-Christian, that is not just something they disagreed with for financial reasons but a gospel issue.
I am not arguing for communism by any means. But both the Old and New Testaments do describe some redistribution of wealth without any sense of horror. It actually surprises me that of all of the ways the government spends our tax money that Christians would oppose the use of it to help the poor.
What if the God of the Bible who valued helping the poor still values helping the poor? What if God wanted us to use the resources available to us to make sure the poor were helped? What if instead of just our money, that also included our vote and pressure put on government representatives?
If you still cannot bring yourself to support any government programs for poverty relief, then show me how you are actively involved in helping the poor as the Bible teaches instead of just voicing your opposition.