Can the Church Alone Provide Welfare for the Poor?

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

17% of your church’s budget gone to provide these basic necessities. What do you suppose the numbers would look like if we began to include housing help, utilities, and helping those with disabilities?

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?”

Illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne. Check out his graphic novel and comic review site, Good Ok Bad.

About Brad Williams

Brad is the pastor of a Baptist church in a small town in Alabama. Brad has a lovely wife, two children, two dogs, a cat, a turtle, and five bee hives. Besides the incredible fact that he managed to persuade his wife to marry him, he is proud that he served six years in the Army National Guard, managed to graduate college with an English Lit. degree, graduate seminary, and finish the original Bard's Tale as a youngster by making maps on graph paper.

  • http://dlmayfield.wordpress.com D.L. Mayfield

    Brad, I really liked your points (especially this one: “if your church never gets taken advantage of because of your kindness, you are barely fit to be called a church”). And I think your audience is a bit different from mine, so it was great to hear your perspective. I would caution, however, that we can’t just neatly take away those who came by poverty “honestly” for the sake of argument. A very real factor in American poverty are systemic problems–which schools get more money, how the vast majority of welfare money only benefits systems (like hospitals, for instance) outside of the community. And we might be more tied to these systemic factors than we realize.

    In the end, we have to move beyond our arguments that stereotype the poor as “lazy” (or, conversely “noble”) and we have to enter into real relationship with them. Walk through the brokenness with them. And this is where the church has the chance to shine far beyond any government program. We can enter into life, and experience the grace of Christ together. Thanks for your words today.

  • Brad Williams

    D.L.,

    Thank you for your comment. I hope that my comment did not come off as my dismissing those who came by poverty ‘honestly’. Rather, I was attempting to make an argument from lesser to greater. That is, if we have an obligation to help those that are just “being lazy”, it would seem to me that our responsibility for those who are trying would be even greater.

  • http://thearnoldianproject.wordpress.com/ Danny Anderson

    This article should be widely distributed. Our political environment has led us into a state where we are more interested in being right than in doing right. This passage really spoke to me:

    “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.”

    I frankly don’t see enough of this kind of peacemaking in our churches. We should be reaching out to the poor instead of demonizing them to add rhetorical support for our political agendas.

  • Meg King

    Hi! First, thanks Brad for this article. I think that this is a timely discussion, one that members of Churches should be having much more often. This is a topic that my husband and I frequently toss around. Every time it comes up he tells me I’m being waaaay too idealistic, so you’ll just have to forgive me, but I have a very big, and perhaps naive, view of church and what it can/should do.

    “What I am proposing is that it is too big for the church to handle alone.” I disagree. I am sold out to the idea that the church alone can provide for the needs of the poor, the widow, and the orphan. And, I think it should.

    Very basically, I think that if local churches were the ones administering charity, there would be less charity needed. It’s the “teach a man to fish,” mentality. So, instead of the large government receiving paperwork and then doling out money and benefits to people it doesn’t know, rather local bodies of believers (who are mandated to care for the poor in their community) could build relationships with those who they are aiding. As relationships are built, more folks are converted, and also “rehabilitated,” if you will. In time, as church members take ownership of and responsibility for their communities, and as poor are integrated into our church bodies, there will be less need for such large sums to money and aid to be administered.

    So, yes, Jesus said that the poor will always be with us. But it doesn’t mean that we don’t fight like hell against poverty. And I think it’s the church’s fight.

    Again, thank you for writing this article and facilitating discussion.
    -Meg

  • Tim Hahne

    Brad I love the article and think every Christians should read it. I’ve been teaching through Luke’s Gospel for the last 14 months and I see Jesus demonstrating a type of Christianity that we don’t see that often and that is along with the Gospel He demonstrated mercy… I call it practical Christianity. I’m in Romania and our church is very poor and we are heavely involved in benevolence, mercy ministry. My wife and I have struggled with many of the questions about helping the poor yet we always come back to Jesus who gave unresevedly to all who came to Him. Every Sunday after church people come to Krista, my wife with request for help and we need great discernment on how to best help as the needs here are incredible and our resources are limited yet by God grace and mercy we are able to help many.

    We’ve been taken advantage many times yet I would never consider not helping the poor in our midst. I agree with your statement about if your church never gets taken advantage of maybey you shouldn’t be calling yourself a church, (paraphrasing you and maybe adding my on slant on it)… But if we have the means to help someone who doesn’t have food or medicne or rent or electricity or wood for heat, can we say be warmed and filled and never give them any help?

    When I come home on furlough I’m always amazed at how much money people spend in going out to eat… If they only went out to eat once or twice a month and used eating out money to help someone who is struggling to make ends meet, wouldn’t that greatly help meet some of the needs? I admit at times I’m judging them and have to ask God’s forgiveness. I just think that the church could do more and stop being afraid that you’ll be taken advantage of… So what if you get taken advantage of, isn’t the important thing to love the people with Christ’s love.

    Something I’ve noticed is that when we give to help those in need some of those people come to Christ… some don’t but we don’tknow what the final out come will be. We’ve had people come to us that we helped years ago and are now doing good for here and they are so thankful for the help they received although we never knew it at the time. A kind act, a helpful hand out may make a difference in a persons life for all eternity… If we have and we can give do it!

    Again Brad thank you for your words and may God bless you as you and your church continue to minister the love of Christ to the needy… In Christ, tim

  • alice

    I am a Christian who works in a government-funded program helping those in poverty get an education. This is probably the best-written article I’ve read on this subject. I’ve been so disheartened by the attitude of Christians toward the poor and the role of government lately. The other night I spent hours signing students up for free GED courses. Some were homeless. Some were prostitutes. One was so drunk I had to try to not keep scooting my chair back because I was worried she would throw up on me. When I got in my car at the end of the night, the Casting Crowns song, “Jesus, Friend of Sinners” was playing. Your words: “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?” = so much truth.

  • nan hill

    Do what you can when you can if that is not enough do more and we all can do more.

  • Kurt Alan

    I think you overlooked the fact that the government only has $6.6 billion to give away under WIC because they took it from you and me in the first place. Assuming the average tax bracket is 20%, I could find it fairly easy to meet the 17% demand on the church budget with an extra 20% income.

    Secondly, you completely overlook the fact that government assistance is never ministered in the name of Christ. As such, physical needs may be temporarily met while the soul perishes. I fail to see any compassion whatsoever in that ‘solution’.

    Thirdly, the church was never intended to remedy every instance of poverty, as Christ himself said “The poor you will always have with you.” As such, the call for Christians to unilaterally end poverty is not rooted in Scripture…and makes the argument presented above moot. The end goal for Christians is not the end of poverty, but to bear testimony to the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. If we don’t minister to every poor person, we have not disobeyed Christ. If we do not minister the Gospel, it is an entirely different story. The challenge then is to minister the Gospel, and a mechanism for that is sharing with those in need. Turning those in need over to an atheistic government to have their stomachs filled but their souls left empty is a cruelty of the greatest magnitude.

    At times, God uses physical need to drive people to recognize their infinitely greater spiritual want (the woman at the well is a great example)…eliminating the former while failing to point out the latter is not the least bit charitable, yet is what governments do in welfare handouts. I find this quite incongruous with the Biblical position.

  • Brad Williams

    Kurt,

    First, the church would not get an extra 20% income if taxes were cut. Why? Because people have demonstrated over and over again that they do not raise giving equally with their income. Secondly, churches would not necessarily put that extra money into benevolence. Rather, they’d build buildings. That’s just how it is.

    Your second point is sort of true. However, you neglect the fact that the government is, in fact, a minister of the Lord. Paul says so in Romans 13. Whether or not people recognize that is moot.

    Third, no one said that the church’s job was to wipe out poverty. But it is her job to have compassion on the poor. You quote Jesus as if he is saying, “Don’t worry about the poor, they’ll always be around.” That’s the equivalent of making Jesus say, “Don’t worry about the lost, they’ll always be around.” We know it isn’t the church’s job to convert every soul, but it is our job to preach the gospel to all nations. Just because the poor will always be with us is no excuse to not minister to the poor in the name of Christ.

    Finally, at times God uses the compassion of the church to show people the love of Christ. He uses the kindness of his people to demonstrate to hurting people their greater spiritual needs. No one ever suggested the church do benevolence without the gospel. And even though the government helps its citizens without preaching the gospel to them is not wickedness. Your alternative seems to be, “Just let them starve.” I find this quite incongruous with the Biblical position.

  • Kurt Alan

    Brad,

    I think you misunderstand some of my assertions, and I disagree with several of yours:

    1) If you had an extra 20% income, I’m assuming your giving would remain the same percentage…in other words if you were a 4% giver, you would still give 4% of the 20% more…an assumption that I would consider reasonable…and still meets the needed benevolence based on the math you provided. This is before you even address the Christian’s responsibility to give. ..which leads me to this observation…
    You seem to assert that giving your tax dollars to the government is equivalent to giving to a gospel preaching church simply because “the government does something” with the money. Would you not agree that a Christian has a responsibility to have compassion on the poor? If so, would you not also agree that a church ministering the gospel and providing compassionately for the poor is far better than an atheistic government conducting un-Biblical handouts while leaving the poor to die in their spiritual poverty? As a Christian, would that not then provide you with all the reason you need to do all within your power to divert those financial resources away from the atheistic government and towards the work of the church? This leads to my second point…

    2) Your handling of Romans 13 is completely out of context. Paul uses those verses to advocate the government is a minister of good by punishing evil-doers…even to the point of death…for violations of the law. Nowhere does Paul advocate the government as a minister of charity…not in Romans 13…nor in the rest of the Bible. I would encourage you to step back a bit and look objectively at the government’s role in Scripture. Nowhere does Scripture ever prescribe the government as a minister of charity. There are many passages where Christians and the church are admonished to do so, but not governments. Christians and the church should absolutely minister charitably…under the direction God has given in His Word, and I’m not proposing an “all or nothing” scenario. Rather, I’m proposing a course guided by Scriptural direction where Christians give liberally while the government acts only within its Biblical and legal authority.

    In your final paragraph above you state “even though the government helps its citizens without preaching the gospel to them is not wickedness.” This, I think, is where you miss my point. This statement might have a wisp of validity if the government did not obtain its money out of the pockets of its people through the threat of force. That, however, is exactly how the government obtains its money, and thereby robs God’s people of the ability to use those resources to minister the gospel. The United States Constitution carefully prescribes the authorities granted to the government, none of which involve charitable works. The 10th Amendment clearly and specifically states that powers not granted to the government belong specifically to the people. As such, by spending your and my money on God-less, atheistic welfare, the government not only violates the law of our land, but robs us of our ability and opportunity to minister charity in the name of Christ…a far cry from the “agent for good” of Romans 13.

    Bottom line…I think the Biblical answer is for Christians to seek increased opportunities to give, serve, and minister while the government returns to its rightful Biblical and Constitutional roles and gets out of the way of that Christian ministry. The answer is not to abdicate our Christian responsibilities to the government, but rather to work to return the government to its Biblical and Constitutionally limited place in our lives.

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  • Jon

    Kurt, your second to last paragraph makes it sound like you are disgusted with even the idea of taxes at all.
    Putting aside the fact that no matter what the government has to collect *SOME* money to, you know, function…
    What are your thoughts on Matthew 22: 15-22:
    “Then the Pharisees went and plotted together how they might trap Him in what He said. And they *sent their disciples to Him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that You are truthful and teach the way of God in truth, and defer to no one; for You are not partial to any. Tell us then, what do You think? Is it lawful to give a poll-tax to Caesar, or not?” But Jesus perceived their malice, and said, “Why are you testing Me, you hypocrites? Show Me the coin used for the poll-tax.” And they brought Him a denarius. And He *said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They *said to Him, “Caesar’s.” Then He *said to them, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s.” And hearing this, they were amazed, and leaving Him, they went away.” (NASB, Bible Gateway)

    Furthermore, I would postulate that if we completely removed any government involvement in caring for the poor and needy, many people would suffer, starve, and die. Many more would be homeless.
    As much as I like the *idea* of “the church helps everyone”, the *reality* is that, in this country and many other Western countries, it’s not happening, and unless people radically altered many things, it would never happen.
    It sounds nice to talk about returning the government to it’s “original scope”, but we also should consider that we face different circumstances, situations, and statistics than the founders and writers of our nation. Consider that there are *millions* of unemployed people in the nation right now.
    Perhaps I’m biased, because I’ve *been* unemployed. And you know what happened? My family helped what little it could, but money’s not exactly growing on trees here.
    And not a single person at church offered anything more than “I’m sorry”, “I’m praying for you”, “I hope you find something soon”, or, *at best*, a possible job lead. No one even *considered* “Is there anything I can do to help”. Now, you could argue “oh it’s because they know the government will take care of you”, but did they *know* that?
    I’m not blaming my church or painting them as selfish; I think a *lot* of people are having rather lean times. Which is why being able to get unemployment checks most definitely saved me and ultimately helped me stay afloat long enough to get a new job.

    I think you’re trying to do the right thing, but the results of what you’d like to do would bring far more suffering than the Church in America could handle, even if we all had a bit more cash in our banks.

  • M Reed

    “…but the results of what you’d like to do would bring far more suffering than the Church in America could handle”.

    You mean it would bring far more suffering then God could handle in America, if Christians gave more and truly trusted God to provide for their own needs as well as the honest needs of those who could not provide for themselves.

    Doesn’t sound as if you are relying on God but instead you are relying on man’s created institution of government to provide for those in honest poverty. I would prefer to rely on God to meet my and other’s needs. I believe, with His guidance, I can do a better job of it then the government.

    God has also used suffering in the past to bring about His goodness and knowledge of him. Even on His chosen people, through their own stupidity and foolishness and hard-heatedness. So is our goal to remove all human suffering? I do not think we are called to do that as Christians. As it would not even be possible without the Lord returned here on earth. Of course we can and should try to help those truly in need. But I believe instead of relying on man’s misguided fallible creation of government and encouraging Christians to rely on it we should encourage Christians to pursue their relationship with Christ and trust in Him to lead them to give more on their own. Their local ministries as well as, and probably even more importantly, to volunteer their time and energy to put their hands and their face in the place of their paper bills. Meaning, volunteer.

    Also if their local church is more interested in only building a bigger fancier house for God then we should also be encouraging those Christians in wisdom to recognize that and invest God’s money in a more fruit filled endevour like a local grass roots job training site or a local food bank or a church that is fine in their older church building but is showing God’s love in physical ways to their their own family and neighbors.

    Christ is personal, I believe a lot of our giving should be as well. That is my own personal philosophy based on God’s Word.

    Relying on the government to take our money and spend it wisely is well, not wise. That could be proven by reading about the current unsustainable debt situation as well as by researching the returns on investment, both financial as well as human, of the current programs in place. Even though the government will continue to take our money in the form if taxes I would encourage Christians to trust God more and to give their money and time directly to local organizations that are not controlled by the government.

    All of that verbosity aside, you all have encouraged me. I am now going to take my two kids to sign-up to volunteer at our local food bank on a weekly basis. I encourage you to find some way to share God’s love with others in a personal way. I hope that as we trust God more it brings about more reliance on Him and that we pray for daily opportunities, for ourselves, to show His love to others in a physical way.


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