Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Biblical View of Poverty: What It Is

One of the primary intersections between Christian thought and economics is the issue of poverty. Proper responses to poverty we encounter requires an understanding of economic law as well as ethics.

The Scriptures are clear that God calls us to care for the poor. As I write in Foundations of Economics: A Christian View,

God does make it clear that we are to help the poor. We are to be imitators of God and he tells us that he cares for the poor (Ps. 35:10). God tells us that the poor and orphaned are to be defended from would-be oppressors (Ps. 82:3). We definitely should not turn a deaf ear to the cry of the poor. In fact, God tells us that whoever ignores the plight of the poor himself shall not be heard when he calls for help (Prov. 21:13). God tells us that in times of trouble, he will deliver the one who has consideration on the poor (Ps. 41:1). Whoever is charitable to the poor lends to the Lord and God will repay him for his generosity (Prov. 19:17). The mandate to minister to the poor even includes our poor enemies (Prov. 25:21).

We receive similar instruction in the New Testament. When the rich young ruler asked Jesus what last thing he needed to do to be perfect, Jesus told him to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor (Matt 12:21). In the early chapters of Acts we find the Apostolic Church ministering faithfully to those in need. Additionally, James clearly teaches that it is not enough to feel compassion on the poor, but we are mandated to provide them with real material help when they are in need (Jas 2:15–16).
Because of this Biblical mandate, it is important to know just what the Bible means by poverty. This is very important because the conventional definition of poverty has changed over the course of the Twentieth Century. Before then, the predominant view of poverty was similar to that of Scripture. E. Calvin Beisner does an excellent service to all Christians by explaining the biblical view of poverty. In his excellent "Poverty: A Problem in Need of a Definition.” in Welfare Reformed, edited by David W. Hall, Beisner points out that, while the modern view of poverty characterizes it as a relative lack of what others have, when the Bible speaks of poverty, it refers to an absolute lack of bare necessities. The poor are those who do not have adequate food, clothing, or shelter to live.

The above is important to keep in mind when we seek to be good stewards with the wealth God gives us. We are not called to indiscriminately promote income equality, especially if it erects a perverse incentive structure. As I have noted before, there is very little biblical-scale poverty in the United States. The vast majority of what we call poverty in the US is the relative kind. That is not to say we should not be charitable toward those of lower incomes here in our country. It is to say, however, that we should recognize there is no biblical mandate to perpetuate a vast welfare state for the purpose of income redistribution.

It is also important to note that God's Word never calls us to minister to poverty or to solve the poverty problem. It calls us to love our poor neighbor. God wants us to minister to people, not conditions. This is another reason we should eschew the welfare state in favor of the ministry of the deacons who can personally interact with those people who need help.

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