Review and Commentary by Lee Duigon
(This article is part 3 of a series. Parts 1&2 available at Chalcedon.edu.)
In Part 1 of this series we exposed the promoters of The Poverty and Justice Bible (American Bible Society, New York: 2008) as statists who believe that “poverty” is to be alleviated, or even eradicated, by the government’s coercive redistribution of wealth. Although these individuals all bill themselves as Christians, it need hardly be said that there is nothing in the Bible to support their solution to socio-economic problems.
In Part 2 we examined the actual results of the government’s anti-poverty programs. Despite the expenditure of trillions of dollars and the establishment of vast bureaucracies, there is no evidence to support that these programs have alleviated poverty at all. Indeed, in the case of Indian reservations and the inner city, government’s “assistance to the poor” has only made their situation worse.
In the meantime, the Daily Mail has reported “Bono’s ONE foundation under fire for giving little over 1% of funds to charity.”1 Christian rock star/socialist “Bono” is one of the P&J promoters. His foundation, the Mail reported, “received almost 9.6 million pounds in 2008 but handed out only 118,000 pounds to good causes (1.2 percent). The figures published by the New York Post show that 5.1 million pounds went towards paying salaries.” A reader wryly commented, “It’s no surprise that the immense majority of money went to pay people’s salaries … I guess the way this company plans on eliminating poverty is to make sure they never become impoverished themselves.”2
We doubt the government’s use of tax money on behalf of the poor is any more efficient than “Bono’s.”
Here in Part 3, we’ll ask what is the right way for the church and Christians to address poverty.
Kinds of Poverty
First we must acknowledge that there are different kinds of “poverty.”
Absolute poverty means an actual lack of necessities such as food, clothing, clean water, shelter, etc.
Relative poverty refers to a person who is “poor” only by comparison to those around him. He may have all the necessities of life, lacking only certain luxuries enjoyed by his neighbors.
Voluntary poverty is, of course, by choice. A talented doctor might choose to be a medical missionary in a poor Third World country instead of building up a lucrative practice in a U. S. suburb. There is no need for the church or the government to alleviate voluntary poverty.
“Some people are poor because of a calamity and not through any fault of their own,” writes theologian R. C. Sproul. “The church must care for this group as we are told pure religion involves providing for orphans and widows whose impoverishment is, by definition, caused by tragedy (James 1:27). Others are poor because of criminal exploitation. Caring for those requires Christians to bring their influence to the justice system (Lev. 19:15).”3
Absolute poverty may be temporary-as in the case of a fire, or a flood, or curable injury or illness-or permanent, due to old age, disability, etc. No one denies that God calls the church to care for the victims of absolute poverty.
Relative poverty requires finer judgment. “[M]any Americans today live below what is called the ‘poverty line,'” writes Sproul. “Yet all of these poor have a better standard of living than the impoverished in the rest of the world. Even the poorest in the United States today usually have access to clean water and electricity, unlike many of the world’s population.
“Regardless of the standard for wealth and poverty, God does have a special concern for the poor, and our response to them is determined by the reasons for their poverty.”4
The ‘Social Gospel’
The Bible teaches, “[I]f any would not work, neither should he eat. For we hear that there are some which walk among you disorderly, working not at all … Now them that are such we command and exhort by our Lord Jesus Christ, that with quietness they work, and eat their own bread” (2 Thes. 3:10-12).
Able-bodied men and women who simply will not work, but devote their time to idleness and even crime, are not entitled to any kind of alms. There are many such persons on the government’s welfare rolls. Unlike the state, the church is called to relieve persons who, for one reason or another, cannot work.
As we see by the words and actions of “social gospel” churches, some churches have drifted off this course.
“Regrettably, there is no shortage of preachers who have traded the Gospel for a platform of political and economic change, most often packaged as a call for social justice,” says Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. “The last century has seen many churches and denominations embrace the social gospel in some form, trading the Gospel of Christ for a liberal vision of social change, revolution, economic liberation, and, yes, social justice. Liberal Protestantism has largely embraced this agenda as its central message … The New Testament is stunningly silent on any plan for governmental or social action.”5
In obedience to God’s Word, the church, over the centuries, has ministered to the needy: soup kitchens, free clinics, food and clothing drives, orphanages and adoption agencies, schools, hospitals. Despite Rick Warren’s assertion in The P&J Study Guide, the church has not “missed it.” But with the advent of the modern welfare state, some churches, and many individual church members, have become confused as to the nature of their duty to the poor.
The March of Welfarism
“God’s law does not allow us to shift our duties onto the state or to the church,” R. J. Rushdoony wrote. But the church “has surrendered its ancient works of mercy to a cold state bureaucracy.”6
Throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, the federal bureaucracy has expanded massively. Even a supposedly conservative president like George W. Bush said, “When people are hurting, the government has to do something.” In addition to the government programs explicitly created to alleviate poverty, we have a host of others, too numerous to name but a few-Social Security, Medicare, public education, student loans, disaster relief, farm subsidies, unemployment benefits, multi-billion-dollar “stimulus packages”-with still more planned for the near future. Altogether these cost trillions of dollars in money sucked out by taxation from the private sector of the economy-from citizens’ pockets. And as the government expanded, the church through pietism contracted, abandoning more and more ground to the state.
“Welfarism replaces godly charity and law with a doctrine of entitlements,” Rushdoony wrote. “If charity is left to the state, the poor will increase and will be evil like those around them, and community and society will be superseded by the state.”7
It’s hardly surprising that church charity has suffered mission drift. With so many government programs in operation, the individual church member-who is already paying for those programs with his taxes-might well wonder why he ought to pay tithes to the church so that it can try to do what the government is already doing!
There are two problems to be addressed: the government’s takeover of charitable functions, replacing charity with welfare; and the adoption by many churches of a “social justice” agenda very similar to welfarism and allied with the state, with the added defect of teaching salvation by works of the flesh.
What should the church be doing?
What should individual Christians be doing?
Keep It Personal
“Christian help or charity is personal: it establishes a personal relationship from which concern and gratitude flow,” R. J. Rushdoony wrote. By contrast, “Modern statism seeks in every sphere to objectify and depersonalize essentially personal activities.”8
When the only charity is statist welfare, with checks mailed out robotically by a faceless bureaucracy, how can the recipients feel any gratitude? The “donors” have no choice but to surrender their tax dollars, and are completely invisible to the donees.
“In the Bible, mercy is always personal; it begins with God, and it manifests itself through the people of God,” Rushdoony wrote.9 And, “What is clear in biblical law is that, first, poor relief is to be from person to person. It is not institutional but personal. This means that those who are fraudulent and shiftless are excluded by their neighbors, who know their nature. Second, it is local in character … Third, however else the charitable help was rendered … the needy were included in the family meal in order to unite the rich and poor in the Lord … The fundamental unity of faith in the Lord means that the rich and the poor are like His family [emphasis added].”10
When charity is person to person, face to face, gratitude is possible because the recipient of the charity knows exactly whom to thank: the giver has a name and a face. Thus Jesus Christ taught, “When thou makest a dinner or a supper call not thy friends … nor thy rich neighbors; lest they also bid thee again, and a recompense be made thee. But when thou makest a feast, call the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind: And thou shalt be blessed; for they cannot recompense thee …” (Luke 14:12-14).
From this flows societal cohesion. Rich and poor are no more strangers to each other, but persons who have dined and harvested and worshipped together. But, “To view poverty as a condition which gives man rights and entitlements is a strange belief, and a socially destructive one because it rests on envy … As against welfarism, Christian charity unites rather than divides society,” Rushdoony wrote.11
In our political system, entitlements buy votes, and class warfare rhetoric is a constant. This all serves to widen divisions in society.
Creating a Godly Society
The mission of the church, Rushdoony said, is to create God’s ordained society in God’s ordained way. “A godly society will not come by waving a magic wand, nor by dictators, nor by any other way than God’s ordained way as set forth in His law. And basic to that is the tithe. The tithe is the a,b,c’s of godly reconstruction, the alpha and the omega of a Christian society.”12
If one individual or one family can perform works of charity, many individuals and many families united in a church can perform more and greater works of charity. Tithing empowers the church to do those works.
Throughout church history, until modern times, “Christians assumed the responsibility for health, education, and welfare … Clearly, the basic government of society was in the hands of Christians, and Christian institutions,” Rushdoony wrote.13 But as the church retreated into pietism, the modern state has taken on those responsibilities. This process began in the nineteenth century and greatly accelerated during the twentieth.
Although the church has never stopped its work of charity, the modern state’s invasion of this sphere has added a new dimension to the church’s mission: “We must take government back from the state and restore it to Jesus Christ.”14
Church vs. Humanism
“Using technology wisely, we can control our environment, conquer poverty, markedly reduce disease, extend our life-span, significantly modify our behavior, alter the course of human evolution and cultural development, unlock vast new powers, and provide humankind with unparalleled opportunity for achieving an abundant and meaningful life.”
-The Humanist Manifesto II 15
This is what has changed over the past 200 years: the rise of the godless, secular, messianic state which “seeks a kingdom apart from the Lord.”16 All we have to do, the statists tell us, is to give them the money, give them the political power-and give up God; and they will give us Paradise on earth. We have to renounce God, the Manifesto says, because “faith in the prayer-hearing God … is an unproved [sic] and outmoded faith … harmful, diverting people with false hopes …”17 Hundreds of Nobel Prize laureates in various arts and sciences have signed this document. We are dealing with a threat that is real, identifiable, and aggressive.
With secular statists shouting “We are the ones that we’ve been waiting for!” and seducing people with their visions of Utopia, the church must not only continue to “do charity” as it has always done. It must also stave off the statist threat to supersede society.
Rushdoony reminds us, “The Lord tells us that godly service is power… The power of the early church was in its remarkable ministry of service to the needy, to widows and orphans, to the sick, the homeless, and to travelers … We are thus summoned from the humanistic quest for power to the recognition that godly power means faithfulness, obedience to our Lord. It means the love of God, and the love of our neighbor, with all our heart, mind, and being.”18
Welfarism is motivated by political calculation and the lust for power. The charity of the church is to be motivated by love of God and love of neighbor. Welfarism is impersonal, and established by the raw coercive power of taxation. Christian charity voluntarily springs from the very personal love Christ has for His church and all its members. If the recipients of Christian charity are not grateful to the givers, the givers are grateful to God for all that He has given them. They perform charity not out of a desire for worldly recognition or reward, but out of obedience and gratitude to God.
The promoters of The Poverty and Justice Bible propose to abolish poverty without insisting on the primacy of God’s law. For the engine of charity they propose the impersonal coercive power of the state, having decreed, with Jim Wallis, that voluntary charity is simply “not enough.” They cannot envision the church replacing the state as the source of charity-even though, for centuries, the church was indeed the primary fount of charity, with little or no role for the state. Although they call themselves Christians, they have yoked themselves to an aggressively godless humanism.
But the better way, God’s way, is for individuals to minister to individuals, lovingly and of their own free will; and for the church to do the same, but on a larger scale. To fulfill its charitable potential, the church must receive its tithes.
“Thus, in obedience to the Lord (Rom. 13:5-7), we pay our taxes, although that tax money is used to undermine all that we believe in,” Rushdoony wrote. “Again, in obedience to the Lord, we pay our tithes. In time, the effect of the tithe will be to undermine and destroy the statist world and its taxation. It will create a godly society in the only way it can be created, in God’s appointed way. In all of this, we have a great calling and privilege, that of exercising dominion over the earth under God and in God’s revealed way.”19
6. R. J. Rushdoony, In His Service (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 2009), 3, 65.
7. R. J. Rushdoony, Deuteronomy (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 2008), 236, 248.
8. In His Service, 83, 84.
9. Ibid., 129.
10. Deuteronomy, 194-195.
11. In His Service, 96, 97.
12. R. J. Rushdoony and Edward A. Powell, Tithing and Dominion (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1979), 142.
13. In His Service, 89.
14. Ibid., 160.
16. In His Service, 21.
18. In His Service, 37-39.
19. Tithing and Dominion, 142.
Lee Duigon is a Christian free-lance writer and contributing editor for the Chalcedon Report. He has been a newspaper editor and reporter.
To see parts 1 and 2 go to Chalcedon.edu.