Charity needs a more comprehensive vision that includes both the Church and the government.
“Gimme five!” says a boy of maybe seven. It’s not so much a request, as a demand for attention. He has invaded my small office with his two younger brothers, an office so small that I have room for only a desk, a couple chairs, and a bookshelf. His mother is sitting in one of those chairs. She is distraught, barely able to maintain eye contact. She fidgets with her Kleenex and stares at the floor. The boys are fairly clean, a little snotty, and dressed in clothing that most likely came from the local Goodwill. They are also quite energetic, and of course, completely oblivious to their mother’s pain.
I slap the boy’s outstretched hand with a smile. I want this young man to have the attention he desires. It doesn’t bother me that he wants to play; it doesn’t bother me that his brothers are currently fighting over the knick-knack I bought from a street vendor in India, but their behavior is embarrassing their mother because she cannot make them stop. I produce a small elephant figurine I got from Africa to distract the youngest, and I ask them to go play while I talk to their mom. She can’t pay the rent, afford groceries, or keep the electricity on this month. And at their age, the kids don’t need to know that.
I live in a city of about 21,000 people in Alabama. There are, easily, 60 or more evangelical churches in my city. We have one of the highest churches per capita ratios in the country. Of those churches, only our church and one other will give money towards helping those in need. I know because I have looked into it for myself! There used to be a couple of others, but when I contacted them for help, most churches had quit doing this type of benevolence because of “budget issues,” or because it was too “time consuming.” Unfortunately, many of my inquiries as to why they had stopped giving boiled down to the fact that people took advantage of the church’s kindness. But I couldn’t help but wonder: Isn’t the very nature of a gracious act to give anyway?
Our church is rather small, and we can only afford to help out $50 per family; they have to decide if they want us to put it towards groceries, power, or rent. What’s readily apparent to me is that if the government didn’t get involved in welfare, we’d have far, far more people out on the streets, and many more children in desperate situations without proper food, shelter, and clothing. I thank God for WIC (“Women, Infants, and Children”); I would be an emotional wreck if it didn’t exist. During the time of my writing this article, I’ve helped a grandmother who is taking care of three children, one of whom is severely handicapped. I don’t know what would become of this woman and her grandchildren if it weren’t for food stamps. I’d have trouble sleeping.
Sometimes, I hear the objection that the government ought to stay out of the “welfare business.” The worry is that government welfare creates dependence and causes citizens to be lazy, and it is true that the apostle Paul taught that if a person does not work, then neither should he eat (2 Thessalonians 3:10). I agree with the Apostle Paul; the problem is that he is not addressing destitute widows, abandoned mothers, or men and women with severe injuries who cannot work. He is talking about lazy church members who were busy bodies. It is folly to take the apostle’s admonition and apply it across the board to every person on welfare. Furthermore, it underestimates the difficulty of living as a single parent with three children in a small repurposed FEMA trailer without reliable transportation, money for rent, and childcare even if one could get a job. When someone gets a job here, the best he or she could do would be about $8 an hour, and maybe after three months of employment, he or she would qualify for health benefits. What would people in this situation do with their children in the meantime? How will they pay rent until the check comes? (Sometimes employers take up to a month to get the first check out.)
The objection to the government being in the welfare business is often followed by the thought that such benevolence ought to be the jurisdiction of the church. But is that plausible? Could the church do it alone?
It might be helpful to consider whether or not the government ought to stay out of the charity business altogether by trying to crunch the numbers. What would that look like? In 2009, the federal government spent around $6.6 billion on WIC alone, which doesn’t count the money that each state kicked in as well. Do a little thought experiment with me for a moment. According to an article by Christianity Today written in January 2011, the average evangelical gives about 4% of his or her income to the church. In 2011, the average household income was around $51,413. The US population was around 311 million people in 2011, and evangelicals made up about 26% of the population. That’s roughly 80 million evangelicals in the United States. A good approximation of household is probably four per house, which means 20 million households making an average of $51,413. That works out to $2,000 per household in church giving, which would give us $40 billion to play with. If WIC costs $6.6 billion, every evangelical church would have to donate almost 17% of its budget to help mothers in need. Admittedly, I am using rough numbers, but the point remains: the evangelical church could not afford to run welfare even if that was all the church did. Here is what WIC typically does for a Michigan household for a month:
- 3 gallons of milk
- 1 quart of milk
- 1 pound of cheese
- 1 dozen eggs
- 36 ounces of cereal
- 18 ounce jar of peanut butter, 16 ounce dry beans/peas or 4 cans beans/peas
- 2 bottles 64 ounce juice
- 2 pounds whole grains (breads, tortillas, brown rice or oatmeal)
- $6.00 fresh fruits and vegetable
I will concede that if you are generous, people will often take advantage of you. I have seen many hucksters and con artists in my fifteen years of ministry. However, I find it deeply ironic that some of the very churches who stop giving out funds because of charlatans are often the same group of people who complain when the government helps the poor via welfare. If the solution is to cut off welfare at the federal and state level because of moochers, then where will those in real need go if the churches cut them off for the same reason? Who is left to help? I propose that if your church never gets taken advantage of because of your kindness, you are barely fit to be called a church. Didn’t Jesus heal ten lepers knowing that nine of them wouldn’t even say thanks (Luke 17:11-19)? People are constantly mooching off of God’s graciousness without the slightest bit of remorse, even reviling Him in the process, and yet He continues to cause the rain to fall on the unjust and the just (Matthew 5:45). One of the driving factors of Christian charity is that we shower it upon people who may curse and spitefully use us.
There are many terrible, sinful, and ignorant ways that people get into poverty. Deadbeat dads who abandon their children. Laziness. Lack of understanding of how to make and keep a budget. Foolish decisions to abandon education. Absentee parenting. Drugs. The list goes on and on. I know there are many “honest” ways to become impoverished as well, but just for the sake of argument, let’s take those who’ve gone broke through foolishness. Foolish people get hungry. Foolish people get desperate. Foolish people have children. Their children can go to school hungry. They can get cold in the winter when their electricity is turned off. After all of the grace I have received from Christ, after all my foolish behavior, he has never failed to lavish me with kindness even when I returned to my own folly. How can the church do any less? And how can we, as a church, not celebrate when society as a whole tries to help the poor through government means?
I am not arguing that the church should just give up and let the government handle all benevolent and charitable giving. What I am proposing is that it is too big for the church to handle alone. There are those evangelicals who read Romans 13 and think that the government’s only responsibility is to provide for a national defense and to protect its citizens from evil-doers. Fair enough: I would say that’s a plausible argument, but I would simply add that a country with a large percentage of impoverished, hungry, and homeless people are going to have an increased difficulty with evil-doers; hungry people can do some dangerously desperate things to see that they or their babies get fed. So yes, the government has a role to play in charity, and that is a God-ordained function of the government. The church helps to supplement that charity. This is not a competition, nor are the two entities always at odds. God has ordained the government just as He ordained the church, and because of this, there is no reason that the church cannot recognize the necessity of such charity. Certainly, there is no reason why individual Christians cannot work in, and help shape, the government’s charities.
So how can a local church help people in need? First, find out if your church has a benevolence program. If not, why don’t you suggest that a benevolence offering be taken up after each communion service? (If your church has communion every week, you might try to take up the offering on the first Sunday of every month.) Beyond that, encourage people to be involved in the foster care system, or as social workers, or as educators attached to the various government programs. Help people become educated about the need for some kind of medical overhaul in the government system because people are going to go to the hospital without insurance, and no doctor is going to let people die because they are poor. But the doctor ought to get paid and the hospital ought to get paid, so who pays? These are discussions that we ought to have. But we must avoid simplistic solutions that ignore the real problem. The fact is that the poor are always going to be with us, and we ought to love them, even the con artists. Sometimes that love includes saying, “Dude, get a job.” But sometimes it means saying, “Who is your landlord, and who should we make the check out to?”