Should Christians work to relieve the suffering of poverty? Near the end of the 19th century, proponents of the social gospel proposed a new answer to that question.1 Part of their answer wasn’t new at all—the idea that Christians should help the poor and bring the gospel to them. But the social gospel effectively claimed that relieving suffering in the world is the gospel.
Naturally, Christians who understood their Bibles ran in the opposite direction, aiming to bring the true gospel into sharp contrast with this new distortion. But in the process, many eventually embraced an attitude of total indifference to the poor and, worse, became habitually hostile toward any organized Christian effort to fight poverty.
In recent years things have gotten messier yet. In their haste to reject unbiblical reactions to the social gospel, many evangelicals (and some fundamentalists) seem to be over-correcting (“anti-anti-social-gospelism”?). They are rejecting the central error of the social gospel while accepting other components of the social liberalism that bred it.2
This series aims to help readers recognize and properly reject not only the social gospel but also other errors that have become ubiquitous assumptions of our times.
So far, we’ve briefly considered three questions:
- What is poverty? (relative versus absolute poverty)
- Why are the poor poor? (a survey of the causes of poverty)
- Why shouldn’t the poor be poor? (why believers should fight poverty)
It’s about God
Christians should seek to relieve poverty because (1) God designed mankind to be productive and because (2) God has called believers to love their neighbors as themselves (see Part 3). But a third reason appears as a theme running throughout Scripture—a reason linked directly to God’s character. Here’s a sample (emphasis added).
For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality nor takes a bribe. 18 He administers justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing. 19 Therefore love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (NKJV, Deut. 10:17–19)
He who oppresses the poor reproaches his Maker, But he who honors Him has mercy on the needy. (Prov. 14:31)
You shall not pervert justice due the stranger or the fatherless, nor take a widow’s garment as a pledge. 18 But you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this thing. 19 “When you reap your harvest in your field, and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be for the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. 20 When you beat your olive trees, you shall not go over the boughs again; it shall be for the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow. 21 When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not glean it afterward; it shall be for the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow. 22 And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I command you to do this thing. (Deut. 24:17–22)
For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich. (2 Cor. 8:9)
The message of these passages is powerful. Believers must be generous people because their God possesses the attributes of goodness and love. In the words of David Martin Lloyd-Jones, “the goodness of God is that perfection of God which prompts Him to deal bounteously and in a kindly way with all His creatures.” God’s love is closely related. Again, Lloyd-Jones says it well: “love is that attribute in God by which He is eternally moved to communicate Himself to others.”3 Christians are bearers of God’s name and own the solemn duty and privilege of expressing God’s abundantly generous, out-reaching character by our response to needy people.
This principle makes me squirm. What Christian doesn’t rejoice that God is lavishly, almost recklessly, generous? But His generous nature doesn’t call me to merely behave generously; it demands that my affections mirror His—that I actually be generous, that I desire to give what I have to others.4 The act of giving is the easy part!
Though the goals of productivity and love of neighbor demand true, long-term effectiveness in our poverty-relief efforts, the calling to be generous in our affections means a Christian should never find himself confronted with a needy fellow man, feel reluctance to help, then rationalize the reluctance on the grounds that giving is unlikely to truly help in the long run. Rather, the sequence ought to be that we are people of generous character first, encounter a need, desire to give, then wrestle with the question of what will truly help.
The call to mirror God’s generous character also has powerful implications for the problems of greed and materialism. The Deuteronomy passages in particular indicate that being generous is therapeutic: “you shall remember…therefore, I command you to do” and “therefore, love the stranger.” A generous spirit counters the problems of greed and what we loosely call “materialism” because, in reality, these are problems of the affections. If generosity isn’t exactly the opposite of greed, it is certainly incompatible with it. And though the act of giving can be as materialistic as the act of hoarding, loving—in the sense of reaching out to “communicate ourselves” to another eternal soul—is profoundly anti-materialistic.
The social gospel errs in redefining or ignoring holiness, sin, wrath and redemption. Social liberalism errs also in asserting that we should fight poverty in order to right the “wrong” of economic inequality. Popular sentimentalized and sloganized social liberalism errs in insisting that helping the poor is simply a matter of wealth transfer. But Scripture reveals that the causes of (and solutions to) poverty are complex and rooted in human sinfulness. Scripture also reveals that the reasons for Christian involvement in poverty relief are rooted in the will and character of God.
Many important questions remain. What do “greed, materialism and consumerism” have to do with the poverty problem? What did Jesus really teach about wealth and poverty? What kind of continuing threat does the social gospel pose? How does our understanding of the kingdom of God relate to our views on poverty and social justice? What’s the role of the church in poverty relief vs. the role of the believing individual? Lord willing, we’ll explore these and others as the series continues.
1 Primary sources include Walter Rauschenbusch’s Christianity and the Social Crisis and Theology for the Social Gospel. The work of Harry Emerson Fosdick (e.g., Hope of the World) is also representative.
2 A couple of recent evangelical examples: Tim Keller and “Social Justice,” Evangelical Left Leader. Though he isn’t saying all the same things as these others, I would also put David Platt’s book Radical in this category.
3 Both quotations are from Great Doctrines of the Bible, vol. 1, p.74.
4 Maybe the spiritual gift of giving (Rom. 12:8) includes being wired this way by default. My default wiring is to want to keep my stuff.