Christians Debate: Was Jesus For Small Government?

NPR did an interesting story asking whether Jesus would be for bigger or smaller government
Scot McKnight responded with five really important principles to remember during this conversation.

What is the discussion about, really?

The government cannot fix our social problems, because that is not the government’s role. The best way to care for the poor is through churches that are involved in mission. The US government has gotten so big and bloated that the tax burden it places on her citizens is illegitimately large – so as to be confiscatory. Yes, Jesus loves the poor. However, the way to help the poor is not via government, but via Christians being like Christ. The rich are the ones who make all of the jobs and should not be punished with high taxes. The reason people are poor has more to do with their own personal choices and the government sucking the economy dry. Free enterprise, the churches, and charitable organizations can address systemic poverty more effectively than big government.
The poor are struggling, the middle class is shrinking, the rich are getting away with murder. The system is broken – look at the urban poor of any major city, look at the rural poor of any small agricultural town. The reason the poor are stuck in systemic poverty is because the rich have been able to contain our social problems among the poor. The system may be broken but as long as the symptoms of the brokenness are isolated among the poor (and minorities), the rich seem fine to ignore this reality. Hence, government has to step in and keep the greed of a few who prosper on the backs of the poor from causing (as this generally does at some point) a revolution of the underclass which could threaten the entire society..
Side one is right – The church should take care of the poor. Jesus is the hope of the world not the nation. Government is too big and wasteful. However, when will he church actually take care of the poor? If the government all of the sudden drastically cut back entitlements do we really think churches would be able to take care of those who live in poverty? Most churches think all they are doing is teaching people how to get to heaven when they die & how to have the ultimate religious experience. Would churches be able to fill the gap of reduced unemployment benefits or social security? Unless there is a drastic change, the answer is no.
Side two is right – The rich are getting away with murder in our society. Systemic poverty is linked to greed, racism, and a system which shows complete deference to its richest members. Corporations now wield unprecedented power. The government will have to play a role in changing the system. Getting government out of the way would only make the problem worse. However, the government cannot become our excuse for doing nothing. The church is pathetic on poverty. If we’d get to work the government could ratchet down spending as we ratchet up generosity and attacking the roots of systemic poverty.
Should he Christians of the world wait to be generous until the government shrinks its size & gets spending under control? Should Christians refuse to do what we are asked to do by Jesus (Mt. 25:31-45), until “the government gets off of our backs?” I’m thinking now of Jesus’s first followers, struggling under the oppressive tax burdens of Caesar, Herod, and even the temple rulers – stuck living in an empire which allowed the rich to prosper on the backs of the poor. I do not know if they whined and complained & held tea party rallies, but I know that they were generous (Acts 2), I know Jesus said this generosity & love was the mark of a true believer (Jn 13:35). What are we waiting on?
Last month Paul Ryan, the House Budget committee chairmen, pushed a budget through the House of Representatives which lowered taxes and cut services to the poor. Ryan represents a district that has very few poor people. Wisconsin’s 1st District is 85% white, has a median income of nearly $60k a year, and 56% of people living in his district make over $50k a year. Ryan is a rich white man who serves a rich white district, and he’s writing the budget. Of course he doesn’t care about the poor. He doesn’t represent the poor. Unless he’s a Christian (which he professes to be), and then he’s obligated to the least of these. I will grant him every argument he wants to make about how the church should be the ones to care for the poor, the government is too big, taxes are too high, and whatever else he wants to stipulate – I grant it all. And still, Christians are obligated to make the first move. We go first. We love the enemy. We care for the poor. We don’t wait for everyone else to do what’s right, we just do what Jesus asked us to do & we do it first.
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  • "Ryan is a rich white man who serves a rich white district, and he's writing the budget. Of course he doesn't care about the poor."

    Please tell me you were joking or trying to make a point that I'm to dim to understand.


  • Okay, I see your point. Maybe "care" is a bad choice of words. I would propose to amend that phrase to leave out questions of race & of caring: "Ryan is a rich man who serves a rich district, and he's writing the budget – he doesn't have to watch out for the poor because he doesn't represent the poor." If, for instance, 1/2 of Ryan's district lived at or near the poverty level, he would lose his next election precisely because of this budget.

    I know Ryan & his peeps would say the government isn't the best way to care for the poor – it creates an entitlement state. He believes poor people are taking advantage of the government & thus wealthy taxpayers are taken advantage of. Even if we grant any of those arguments they want to make, the essential fact still remains that churches aren't aren't caring for the poor. I'm really not arguing for the government to act a certain way so much as that we Christians need to roll up our sleeves and get to work – myself included.

  • I completely agree with you that we, as Christians need to "roll up our sleeves and get to work." We need to clearly define justice and what it looks like. Without that clear vision we end up working towards a flawed conclusion.

    From the Christian narrative, though we live in a world where “fairness” is difficult to define and even harder to establish, we are called to recognize and engage in the lives others when we see inequity and injustice. Since we are all created in God’s image, we are guaranteed that each and every one of us has intrinsic value in the eyes of God. From Proverbs 31:8-9 through the “golden rule” in Matthew 7:12, we are expected to be more than just passive participants in God’s desire for every human being to be venerated. Justice is the corrective action that occurs when we are willing to diagnose society’s illness and then participate in the cure.
    Whether it be inequitable distribution of resources, discrimination based on race, class, gender, or sexual identity (granted, a new phenomenon), or the inadequate access to the most basic needs of human survival, water and food, justice occurs when “love thy neighbor” transitions into action. Every one of us has a moral and ethical duty to assist and protect our fellow human beings from inequity and oppression. We are called to be the facilitators of God’s desire for communion and of Jesus’ teaching about community.

    We can do all of these things without castigating someone else. I actually know Paul. He is a fine man and the 30 second sound bites (how most have formed their opinion of him)are unfair.You state that you aren't arguing for gov't to act a certain way but you kind of were a bomb thrower with your initial post. You could have made that point without , what I consider an unfair attack on someone I don't think you know. You're a heck of a lot better than that.


  • He may well be a fine man, you are right, I do not know him personally. I wish we were friends, because I would tell him I think he is on the wrong side of this one politically. If you listen to the link you'll hear that he connects his Catholicism to the budget… I cannot find any sort of biblical support for small goverment conservatism. Any policies which protect the rich over & above those who are struggling are problematic in my opinion. God's primary concern seems to be that everyone should have enough. Ryan and the conservatives are right, the government has gotten too big. But the president and the liberals are right that wealth, power, in control have increasingly concentrated in the hands of very few people, while more and more are struggling, many, if not most of them minorities. The christian faith speaks up for the weak first and foremost. Ryans budget would be hard on the weakest. No?

  • Perhaps Ryan's plan is a way to SAVE the social net so that future generations will have it available to them.

    I think there is a knee-jerk reaction anytime somebody proposes real cuts. A fair reaction, I believe, is to look at how bloated, ineffective and wasteful our government spending is, compared to how deeply our nation is in debt.

    It's obvious to me that we can significantly cut government spending (yes, even defense) AND provide more significant/meaningful care to those in our society who need a helping hand.

    It's not an either/or situation. Our government can do both.

    Just a side note about your "tea party" snip…I have several tea party folks in our community who contribute cash and manpower to my youth ministry (which is located in a poor, minority part of town). I'm sick of the characterization that tea party people are racist, uncaring people. I don't think you were really saying that, but it just came across to me the wrong way.

    Keep up the thought-provoking articles! 🙂

  • Anonymous

    Tim said, "He believes poor people are taking advantage of the government & thus wealthy taxpayers are taken advantage of."

    It's not about fairness. It's about what system of government actually does the best good. It could be argued that the number of poor we have today is directly related to government programs that encourage such dependence. And it's not that the poor are willfully taking advantage of the "rich", but that any people will utilize such systems if they are available to them…

    For me, as a Christian, it is about stewardship. Who is going to a better job of Kingdom creation with my money? Me or the Government?

    Howard Walker

  • 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.

    If Christians 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.