Church or Government: Whose Job Is It to Take Care of the Poor?

Church or Government: Whose Job Is It to Take Care of the Poor? February 15, 2017

taking care of the poor

Whenever you see a left-leaning Christian talking to a conservative about poverty, it turns into a question of who should be taking care of the poor. I found myself in a debate about this the other day, and the gentleman I was talking to fell back on the argument that it was the church’s job to take care of the poor, and not the government. But is that really true?

Whose “job” is it to take care of the poor?

My first thought whenever I hear this argument is, “who gave the church this job?” Obviously, the implied answer is God. After all, Jesus does talk a lot about his followers’ responsibility for taking care of the downtrodden, poor and oppressed. If you read his parable about the sheep and the goats, it’s easy to walk away with the impression that eternal life rests entirely upon whether or not a person cares for the poor. It’s pretty obvious that Jesus intends for the church to be in the business of serving “the least of these.”

But does that mean that he’s delegated that responsibility away from non-faith communities and governments? That seems a little silly. To tell his followers to be mindful of a particular group doesn’t necessarily preclude the rest of humanity’s responsibility to each other. If I tell my kids to pick up their trash, I’m not sending a message to every other parent on my block that their kids can litter because my kids will pick it up.

Christ’s primary point is that he cares about what happens to the those on society’s bottom rung. It would be irresponsible for Christians not to encourage everyone to do all that they can to protect them.

What happened to the Christian nation?

In America, there’s a lot of talk about being a “Christian nation.” Typically the people who are the most concerned with viewing the nation as Christian are the same people who don’t believe it’s the government’s job to take care of the poor. And while I don’t believe that a nation can even be Christian, I’m often left scratching my head at what the words “Christian nation” mean to these people.

When I tell them that the word “Christian” isn’t an adjective that you can simply tack on to random nouns, they tell me that “Christian nation” means that the country was founded on Christian principles and its laws were based on Judeo-Christian values. But if that’s the case, then taking care of the poor would be one the country’s primary objectives.

Think about it. When God was running a theocracy out in the desert, He baked welfare into his laws:

  • Tithes were collected and this was a provision for the Levites, as well as immigrants, widows, and orphans.
  • Farmers were not to pick their fields clean so that the poor could come through and glean.
  • Every seven years, creditors had to release their neighbor’s debt.
  • Every 50 years all of the wealth that the rich had amassed was redistributed to its original owners.

Reading the Pentateuch gives you a real understanding of how particular God was about taking care of the poor. It seems irrational to me to say that a country is based on Judeo-Christian values and then argue that spending tax dollars on the helping the poor is “wealth redistribution” or robbery through taxation. I mean, taking what the rich have accumulated and giving back to the original owners every 50 years seems like an actual example of wealth redistribution—and God sanctioned it.

I fear that too often Judeo-Christian values are merely as laws that require “Christian” morals in others but are expected to keep themselves away from my belongings.

Christians do have a responsibility to the poor

There’s no question that the church has a responsibility to the poor. If Christians gave even 10 percent of what they earned to the church—and it wasn’t being squandered on nonsense—we could make an enormous impact. But can the church afford to take care of all the poor’s needs?

The U.S. Census Bureau reported that the average household income in 2014 was $51,939. Now if the population in 2014 was 318.9 million and 83 percent claim to be Christian, that means there are 264,687,000 Christians in the U.S. Now, let’s adjust that for the average family size of around 3.14 people. That leaves us with about 84,295,222 Christian households. If they all gave 10 percent of their $51,939 income, that would come to about $438 billion dollars. That’s a lot, right!? Except the government spends upwards of $668 billion a year on 126 different welfare programs— and that doesn’t meet all the country’s need.

We’re not even close, and that’s not counting the fact that:

  • The number of committed Christ followers is dramatically smaller than the number of people claiming to be Christians
  • On average Christians only give 4 percent of their income to the church
  • We haven’t factored in the finances required to keep church doors open, lights on, and staff paid (not to mention the extravagant spending of a lot of American churches)

Christians are called to feel a sense of responsibility for the poor, but they’re not called to live in a fantasy world. The church just can’t take care of all of society’s needs, so part of caring for the poor requires that we are to be the conscience of the state. If we want to live in a “Christian nation” we’d spend more time advocating for charitable spending and combat the percentage of our national income that goes to trusting in horses and chariots (or in our case, drones and bombs).

Put your money where your mouth is

When push comes to shove, this discussion frustrates me because I know how little the average Christian gives. As I said earlier, on average, people give about 4 percent of their income to the church. But let’s be honest—that average is only that high because a lot of benevolent Christians are giving so much more.

When a Christian tells me that it’s the church’s job to take care of the poor and not the government, I’m always wondering how much they give. There’s no way for me to know the truth, but if a Christian honestly believes it’s the church’s job to care for the poor, I would hope that they’re giving sacrificially.

I  mean, if you’re a Christian who wants to argue with me that poverty is the sole responsibility of the church, you’d better be giving your fair share. Otherwise, this is really an argument about protecting your hoard and not really about God’s concern.

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  • In the 1932 election, the Hoover administration used the argument that the churches should and could take care of the poor, even as they were overwhelmed by the need.
    Our common notion of the poor is that they are too lazy to work or that they will only spend our money on booze and drugs. Yet, the majority of America’s poor work more than 40 hours/week, often at jobs that refuse to allow them to work full time to become eligible for retirement and benefits.
    It is clear by our actions that far too many (I suspect most) Christians are really only concerned about the bottom line. Somewhere along the line, American Christians developed the concept that capitalism equals Christianity. As you have pointed out, God believes in a socialistic dictatorship with God as the Dictatorship.
    That is what we long for in the New Jerusalem.

  • Danny McDonogh

    Fantastic, and well said.
    We have gone through periods where we as a family gave sacrificialy, and we have gone through period where we didn’t give at all.
    At the moment we don’t give (I think my wife gives a little without me knowing).
    But I have come to a point where I resent giving to a church that so often squanders what it cost me painfully to give them.
    I am no longer in church as I was kicked out for arguing that they should extend the same level of Grace to gay people as they extend to others.
    I have not encountered a church that I would be happy to contribute to, but if I did and hopefully I will be happy to give not just of my money, but my time, talents and skills, but you touched on and articulated a point that had sat with me only as a feeling. It’s hard to see your sacrifices squandered and wasted.
    I know that God blesses based upon what we give not upon what is done with that gift. But surely the responsibility stewardship demands that we be more discerning in where we put our finances and efforts.
    I also suggest a rethink on the “tithe” issue. If you want to get legalistic then the tithe is 10% of the first fruits which would be only around 3%-4% of the whole harvest.
    But the New Testament take on it would be;
    Tithes go to the Priests.
    All beleivers are Priests.
    When we give our lives to Jesus and become Christians giving Him our lives includes all of our possessions.
    Christians are not to give 10% and do what they want with the rest.
    We are responsible for discerning stewardship of the 100%

  • Chris

    This is a great post, Jayson! It makes me stop and consider what I’m giving and where it’s going. I’m concerned as well about “tithes” that go to enormous building projects for the direct benefit of the donors.

    I do however lean more to the side of the church (a group of individuals and as an organization) being responsible for taking care of the poor. If I or my pastor are distributing to needs, we don’t need a salary to compensate our time. We also don’t need a long set of regulations to govern who we do or don’t help. I think this would make our dollars go farther and make them more effective for Christ because we can use those contacts as a means to build relationships.

  • James G. Johnson

    Good article and follow-up which provoked a few thoughts.
    It is not exactly accurate to say that America was founded on judeo-christian values. It was founded on the freedom of religion, meaning that such values of any religion we’re not to be imposed upon the citizens by the government. Thomas Jefferson was a deist, who believed that God created the world and then had nothing more to do with it. The only thing that I know of that Benjamin Franklin said about God was ” beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”
    The so-called judeo-christian values that still have a hold on much of America’s values were rather Puritan values which were not mainstream Christian values at all. Christian values have to do with the love of the neighbor. Puritan values had primarily to do with the repression of sexuality,the “evils of alcohol,” and a “work ethic” which often was taken to an access that was never the less admired in our culture.( Jesus rarely spoke about the first, and never about the second and third. As you pointed out, he spoke often about the care of the poor and oppressed and even the imprisoned.
    Somehow in our culture a false logic has taken root, a logic which says that if you are poor it must be because you don’t work, because if you worked you wouldn’t be poor. That becomes an excuse not the care for the poor. After all, the thought goes, it’s their own damn fault.
    One wise person, I’m sorry I can’t remember who it was, once said that” the measure of a civilized society was how it cares for its own poor.” Under this standard many in our society, weather Christian or not, don’t measure up.

  • Charley

    It is a complicated issue, but what I think much of what it comes down to is who we are submitting to first. The United States is a country formed on Judeo-Christian values – that is a fact. It is important to put government in the frame of the Creator to understand that dynamic. However, even though we are a “Christian nation” our faith and our government can be mutually exclusive at times. Christ even saw them as separate “Luke 20:25, Mark 12:17, Matt 22:21 – Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s”. This is scripture that actually and specifically refers to taxation. Some benefits of a county formed like ours include the freedom submit oneself to the will of God, before submitting the will of the State.

    The term “right” is often misunderstood. A right is NOT something we are guaranteed (i.e. a right to healthcare,) a right is actually something the government CANNOT prevent us from doing (i.e. freedom of speech is a right, the government cannot stop us from speaking.) What this means is that the government is responsible for preventing infringements on rights, this includes things like protecting citizens from murder, theft, and enforcing freedoms associated with speech and assembly, etc. These things are what is “Caesar’s”

    As Christians, we have very specific directions regarding how to serve others, and as a church we should be encouraging those inside our faith and outside our faith to serve each other (I totally agree with you there!) But a gift that is demanded, is no gift at all. It is a tax. A person must freely give their tithe, and to the place they have decided on after much prayer and thought. Not a bi-weekly payment into the pot of government directed expenses. Tithe and taxes are two very, very different things.

    Next, I wholeheartedly agree that Evangelicals need to do a better job of stepping up to the plate with their checkbook. After all, how did the Good Samaritan care for the beaten man on the side of the road? He did NOT bring the stranger into his home risking the lives of his family and children, he paid for his stay at a place where he could heal in safety.

    Lastly, your numbers for government spending are irrelevant. Current government spending does NOT reflect what is needed to serve those in need. Regarding food stamp (SNAP) subsidies – $357,700,000 go towards soft drinks at one food chain alone. Soft drinks (soda pop only! juice and milk NOT included in this number) are the largest SNAP expenditure. Another $78,000,000 went to cookies. Welfare is no longer a system for those in need and suffering…it has become something much different. I wholeheartedly believe in giving freely. I do not give and expect something “in return” or give with the expectation of “results.” But I will not give foolishly.

  • Alan Christensen

    Since you brought up the parable of the sheep and goats, I think it’s significant that in the parable the “Son of Man” is JUDGING THE NATIONS. “All the nations will be gathered before him” (Mt. 25:31). This is not just about individual actions but about what a righteous nation looks like. And I agree that Christians who argue for a “Christian nation” but don’t want the government to care for the poor are being hypocritical.

  • ptbren