There are two seemingly irreconcilable realities that confront Christians when we consider whether government should be in the business of helping to care for the poor. On the one hand, government is just not very good at helping poor people, and often ends up doing them great moral and spiritual harm. On the other hand, if government is not involved, many desperately needy people, including great numbers of children, won’t get the help they need.
Why do well-meaning government attempts to help poor people so often end up with unintended negative consequences? I believe it’s because government programs are usually implemented in ways that take no account of biblical values. A great example is Welfare, a program that, by providing handouts to individuals who don’t earn them, often has the unintended effect of keeping poor people in a state of dependency by robbing them of the motivation to work for themselves.
As the posts in this series have emphasized, the Bible is full of God’s concern that the poor be cared for. All throughout both the Old and New Testaments, Scripture is very definite that care for the poor is a high priority with Him. But Scripture is also definite that God’s way of caring for the poor is not by giving them unearned handouts. That fact is illustrated by the biblical story of Ruth.
Ruth and her mother-in-law, Naomi, were both widows. With all the men of the family dead, and with no other source of support, the two women were very poor. So Naomi sent Ruth out to glean grain that was left in fields after the harvest. This was the practice in Israel at that time, because of what God had commanded in the Law:
Leviticus 19:9-10 (NKJV) When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not wholly reap the corners of your field, nor shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest. 10 And you shall not glean your vineyard, nor shall you gather every grape of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I am the LORD your God.
It is clear from this passage that God’s plan for the poor does not involve giving them handouts, but instead giving them the dignity of working to supply their own needs. So why do government programs so often fail to reflect that crucial principle? Is it because government is inherently incapable of doing so, and therefore ought not be involved in attempting to supply the needs of poor people? I don’t believe that is the case.
As we have previously pointed out in this series, for Christian citizens to employ the tool of government to help the poor is not only permissible but necessary if the job is to get done. Even with the great efforts that the church and other private institutions already make, many who desperately need help won’t get it without government involvement. The scale of the resources required to effectively meet the level of need is simply too great. And since in a democracy government is only a tool of the people to carry out their will, Christian citizens have a right and an obligation to make use of that tool to help implement the care for the poor that Scripture says should be one of our highest priorities.
But how can we reconcile the duty of Christian citizens to employ government as a tool to help poor people, with the tendency of government to do moral and spiritual harm when it does try to aid the poor? Many Christians, believing that there is no way to reconcile those two realities, simply reject any participation by government in the care of people in need. I believe that is a grave mistake.
When Christians simply align themselves in political opposition to all government programs designed to help the poor, we abdicate our responsibility to help shape those programs to reflect biblical, and not secular values. In other words, when those programs are put in place despite our total opposition, we forfeit any place at the table in terms of determining how they will be designed and implemented. When the secular vision is the only one in the room, naturally that is the vision that is reflected in the finished product.
To a great degree, evangelical Christians are perceived by the rest of our society as expending all their energy on trying to eliminate programs that help the poor, while encouraging those, like Social Security and Medicare, that aid people like themselves. Even secular folks realize there is something not quite godly in that. The result is a political fight that evangelicals not only often lose, but which perpetuates the secular world’s image of us as being selfish, unloving and uncaring about the plight of our neighbors.
Instead of engaging in that fruitless and damaging fight, I believe that Christians should be vigorously advocating for a strong social safety net, built around biblical principles, that ensures that basic needs of food, shelter, healthcare, etc, are met, especially for children, while not allowing people to become comfortable in their dependence on the state. In practical terms, that means finding dignity-enhancing ways to encourage the poor to work for their benefits.
To achieve that goal, Christians must acknowledge it as legitimate. Then we can focus all our considerable influence and goodwill – and voting power – on making sure the programs put in place to achieve that goal are designed and operated on biblical principles. Yes, that will inevitably mean another ongoing fight with the forces of secularism. But I believe it will be a fight well worth making. It will be, in fact, a “good fight of faith” for which we have the promise that the Lord Himself will fight the battle.