The church has been about the business of caring for the poor since its inception. But the poor are still with us in their millions because the job is too big for the church alone. I’ve heard Christians say, “If the government would just get out of the way, the church would get the job done.” It’s not that somehow the government is holding us back from doing a more complete job. It is rather that the scale of resources required is such that if we refuse to use the tool of government, many, many people who are in severe (and often undeserved) need won’t get help.
One often raised objection is that using tax money to help poor people amounts to forcibly taking the money of people who worked hard for it to give to those who didn’t. The logical conclusion to that argument is that the government is not justified in using any tax funds to help people in need. So, no jobless benefits, no Social Security retirement benefits beyond what the recipient personally contributed, no Medicare, no Emergency Room unless you can pay, etc. I think that is a recipe for a disintegrating society. I hope that it is not where most Christians want us to go as a nation.
Here, I believe, is a better way to look at this. We as a society have decided that we will pool our resources to accomplish certain aims that can only, or can much better be accomplished corporately than individually – defense, police and fire protection, building an interstate highway system, etc. I believe that caring for the poor is in that category. Is it taking other people’s money by force when the government uses that common pool of funds to send fire fighters to your house to put out a fire? No. It’s just that we as a society have decided that fire protection should be one of our corporate priorities. So should be caring for the poor.
But, the objectors continue, God never commanded government to care for the poor. Well, think about this – does God command the government to police who may marry whom? Yet Christians who believe that God intends marriage to be between a man and a woman, have no problem with voting to have the government declare same-sex marriage illegal. Or, to look at it from another angle, if I saw you drowning and I can’t swim, should I refuse to call River Rescue because God never commanded government to rescue people?
In a democracy government is instituted to be the arm of the people to carry out their will. If our will, as Christian citizens, is to see that the poor are cared for, and there is a large element of that that only government can accomplish, I believe that it is not only appropriate but necessary to employ government as our tool to do what needs to be done.
If we shoot down every attempt by government to fill the gap between the needs of the poor and what private institutions can accomplish, the practical effect is to say to the needy, “depart in peace, be warmed and filled” (James 2:16), and then leave them in their misery. And that, I believe, is contrary to God’s command.