Social Involvement without the Social Gospel

social250.jpgRepublished with permission from Baptist Bulletin May/June 2011. All rights reserved.

Can churches create compassionate social ministries in their communities without inadvertently becoming sidetracked from their essential gospel motivation?

The question is not new—a promising young German seminarian slipped down this path in the 1880s. “The idea came to me that I ought to be a preacher, and help to save souls. I wanted to go out as a foreign missionary—I wanted to do hard work for God,” Walter Rauschenbusch said in 1913. “Indeed, one of the great thoughts that came upon me was that I ought to follow Jesus Christ in my personal life, and die over again his death,…and it was that thought that gave my life its fundamental direction in the doing of Christian work” (Rauschenbusch, “The Kingdom of God” in The Social Gospel in America, 1870–1920).

Rauschenbusch, who began his ministry with an orthodox view of salvation, would later become known as “the father of the social gospel.” Regrettably, once he became pastor in the Hell’s Kitchen district of New York City, he preached a different gospel, altering his Biblical message to address social ills such as poverty, unemployment, and malnutrition. In the process, Rauschenbusch lost his emphasis on Christ’s atoning sacrifice for the sinner.

Even today Christians tamper with the gospel message, as Rauschenbusch did, applying his ideas to our modern problems.

This is not what the New Testament teaches. The command by Jesus to “make disciples” does not imply a change in the gospel, but rather a proclamation of the good news, which Paul affirmed to the church of Corinth: “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:1–4).

Yet our disciple-making does not happen in a social vacuum. Cities are filled with poverty, hunger, and unemployment. Public schools become drop-out factories, leading to teen pregnancies, abortion, and AIDS. In response, the urban church has tangible opportunities to “love our neighbors” in their need, adorning the gospel as salt and light in our communities, using social ministry as a platform for the proclamation of the gospel.

But sponsoring social ministries can pose troublesome questions for churches that wish to proclaim traditional, orthodox beliefs. Doesn’t focusing on social issues detract us from the true gospel? Won’t our social involvement lead to the social gospel?

It is my experience that some Regular Baptists fear a social gospel for the wrong reasons. The danger does not come from churches providing a community-wide food pantry for the poor or helping single mothers find employment. Rather, the hazard sets in when we let our theological guard down by not aggressively applying the doctrines of our faith to the social crises of our day. If churches are to create compassionate social ministries in their communities, they must have a robust theology actively functioning as boundary lines. If not, the social gospel will eventually do away with the good news that “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.” In this writing, I will briefly unpack three articles of faith deconstructed by the current form of social gospel. This deconstruction inevitably leads to theological compromise within the church.

Total Depravity

Supervising a neighborhood recreation program almost two decades ago, I encountered unspeakable evil. My coworker who lived in the projects shared with me the story of her crack-addicted neighbor. Teenage drug dealers who were attending our program had abused and humiliated this single mom because they had grown tired of trading drugs for sex with her. At once I began to comprehend what the Scriptures mean when they say that God “saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5).

I realized that sin is so much more than “societal selfishness” toward fellow human beings, Walter Rauschenbusch’s definition in A Theology of the Social Gospel. Humanity’s interaction with sin is more than “a story about the downside of ‘progress’…the human intention toward evil,” as Brian McLaren states in A New Kind of Christianity (a denial of the historical event of the Fall and the inherited sin nature from Adam).

What about sin as open rebellion against God? What about the reality that because humans inherited the sin nature from Adam, we are born sinners totally depraved and we, too, are guilty and under condemnation? Did those teenagers have only an intention toward evil, or did their sin spring from evil hearts, which they always had before God? Belief in original sin and total depravity goes so much deeper than the naivety that Rauschenbusch and McLaren have proposed.

Moreover, Adam’s sin nature is found in all people. This may seem obvious, but our basic beliefs about total depravity are increasingly downplayed by my evangelical urban ministry colleagues, who are greatly influenced by Shane Claiborne’s The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical. His semiautobiographical book describes his work with Mother Teresa in Calcutta, during which he began to refer to the lepers as “Jesus in disguise.” Claiming Scriptural support from the “least of these” found in Matthew 25:31–46, Claiborne teaches a sacramental view of the poor, where street ministry is like a liturgical act by which the believer earns sanctification. Such ideas have Roman Catholic roots in the theology of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Martin of Tours.

Viewing the poor as “Jesus in disguise” leads to significant theological problems. As a result, those who serve Christ from this motivation often romanticize the poor and oppressed, believing they are mystically encountering Jesus. But Jesus had no sin. And since Jesus had no sin, those who minister from this motivation have no cause to lovingly share the gospel with the poor. They are left with social action, but no gospel.

Five years ago as I paused for a stop sign while driving through my inner-city neighborhood, a young drug dealer on the corner pulled out his gun with a laser scope and aimed its red dot at my forehead. With a pull of his trigger I would’ve been a dead man, but out of sheer terror my body jolted with fear, causing him to double up with laughter (allowing me to drive away!). The gunman was not the high-level pusher seen in movies or music videos. He didn’t have flashy clothes, a Hummer, a mansion for a “crib,” or an assortment of scantily clad women by his side. No, he was like many other young adult men in my community: a jobless, desperate dropout lacking marketable skills, and most likely addicted to the drugs he was selling. In other words, he was poor.

So if Shane Claiborne is right, and the presence of Jesus mystically resides in the poor, was this drug dealer actually Jesus in disguise? Would Jesus have terrorized and mocked me in this manner?

Or what about when I saw one homeless person beating another homeless person nearly to death? If the “least of these” were actually “Jesus in disguise,” wouldn’t we have to claim that somehow Jesus was criminally assaulting Jesus in some mystical way? This illogical conclusion—stemming directly from Shane Claiborne’s teaching—often leads to discouragement among young urban workers as they begin to question whether they are really encountering Jesus among the poor.

Scripture offers a different conclusion. The poor (and all of humanity) have been broken and maimed by sin. And unless they repent and believe the gospel, the poor and the rest of humanity are still under condemnation because of sin.

Penal Substitutionary Atonement

When people see sin as more societal than personal, more as selfishness toward fellow human beings than an offense before a holy God, or more as a human intention toward evil than having an evil heart, when they overlook sin because somehow the mystical Presence resides in the “least of these,” their atonement remedy for sin often veers away from penal-substitution and embraces a form of moral example.

With accusations of divine child abuse, certain Christians have spurned penal-substitution for a more nonviolent view of the atonement. Rauschenbusch, for instance, saw the atonement as more of a demonstration of public evils, which he revealed as religious bigotry, the combination of graft and political power, the corruption of justice, the mob spirit and mob action, militarism, and class contempt (A Theology of the Social Gospel). Consequently, Rauschenbusch believed that the atonement was an ultimate demonstration of love by Jesus. “The life of Jesus was a life of love and service. At every moment his life was going out toward God and men. His death, then, had the same significance. It was the culmination of his life, its most luminous point, the most dramatic expression of his personality, the consistent assertion of the purpose and law which had ruled him and formed him.”

In the same vein, McLaren advocates a form of moral example, highlighted through vulnerability and sacrifice: “By becoming vulnerable on the cross, by accepting suffering from everyone,…Jesus is showing God’s loving heart, which wants forgiveness, not revenge, for everyone” (McLaren, The Story We Find Ourselves In).

Both Rauschenbusch and McLaren rejected substitutionary atonement in favor of the Cross as God’s love for us so that we could sacrificially love others. But an atonement that only sets a loving example for us to follow does not deal with the problem of our totally depraved sin nature that is a violation before a holy God. Only Jesus, Who bore our sins as our perfect substitute on the cross, can remove the guilt and absorb the punishment for our sins. Since the punishment of sin is death, which Jesus took upon Himself on the cross, those who reject Christ in this lifetime must pay it themselves in the future life. Yet for social gospelers, future judgment does not depend on belief in the atoning work of Christ, especially when original sin, total depravity, and substitutionary atonement are denied.

Final Judgment

Walter Rauschenbusch straddled the fence contemplating whether or not a future Hell exists. But in The Last Word and the Word after That, Brian McLaren looks to “deconstruct our conventional concepts of hell,” by creating a straw man argument against the traditional belief of Hell, which he summarizes as, “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life, and if you don’t love God back and cooperate with God’s plans in exactly the prescribed way, God will torture you with unimaginable abuse forever.” McLaren can imagine a final judgment that “will not involve God…pulling down our pants to check for circumcision or scanning our brains for certain beliefs….God will examine the story of our lives for signs of Christlikeness—for a cup of cold water or a plate of hot food given to one in need, for an atom of mercy shown to one who has been unkind or unthoughtful” (A New Kind of Christianity). McLaren describes the final judgment as “not merely retributive…but reconciling and restoring.”

McLaren teaches universalism with his assertion of a future judgment where God eventually saves all of humanity anyway and where the differences between the righteous and wicked are downplayed.

But why would the final destination of the righteous and the wicked even matter if essential doctrines such as original sin and total depravity are denied and Jesus’ substitutionary death on the cross is disregarded? Thus, the timeless words of H. Richard Niebuhr acutely apply to both Rauschenbusch and McLaren: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross” (The Kingdom of God in America).

As long as people distort the doctrines of the Christian faith, there will be a social gospel. Yet believers do not need to be wary of church-based compassionate social ministries that may compel a pagan world “by [our] good works which they observe, [to] glorify God in the day of visitation” (1 Peter 2:12). Rather we should fear the consequences of ignoring sound doctrine and refusing to apply our theology to the social issues that plague our world.


Joel Shaffer (MA, Grand Rapids Theological Seminary) is director of Urban Transformation Ministries, Grand Rapids, Mich.

3605 reads

There are 12 Comments

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Joel wrote:
The danger does not come from churches providing a community-wide food pantry for the poor or helping single mothers find employment. Rather, the hazard sets in when we let our theological guard down by not aggressively applying the doctrines of our faith to the social crises of our day.

I think there is more than one danger but I agree that this is the main one. The social gospel is not compatible with core doctrines of the Christian faith, and where people understand what these doctrines are and how important (and relevant) they are, the SG doesn't truly gain a foothold.
There are other dangers involved in church involvement in "social" efforts--more on that some other time--but I found the doctrinal strength of this article very encouraging.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

JobK's picture

One social gospel exalts the poor. Naturally, political conservatives would distance themselves from it. Since most fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals are also politically conservative, I do not know that the is a great source of error within fundamentalism.

Instead, within fundamental and conservative evangelical realm, it is much more common to exalt the wealthy and powerful, and to associate the external success of accomplished individuals, vibrant cultures, and leading nations with God's favor, or at least adherence to "Biblical principles." The "prosperity doctrine" is actually only a small part of the problem, and that heresy only exists because of a religious and cultural climate that takes material success and accomplishment for godliness, God's favor, spirituality, piety or at least morality was already in place. That's why the prosperity doctrine was developed and spread like wildfire in America during economic booms (i.e. the 50s, 80s and 90s) and not in third world countries during famines.

What we have to realize is that both sides of the social gospel - that which exalts the poor and exalts the rich - are rooted in liberal theology. "God helps those who helps themselves" is Benjamin Franklin deism. So is "that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness" by the deist Thomas Jefferson. Political conservatives latch onto these because they teach the self-reliance, hard work, self-interest and individualism that are key to building personal fortunes on the individual level, and strong nations on a national level, and powerful cultures on a transnational level. The problem is that these things become leaven that leach into Christianity by way of politically conservative Christians who are often - but not always! - also theologically conservative. And of course, the need to oppose the political, economic, social and religious arguments of the other side - including but certainly not limited to the social gospel folk - only increases the temptation to mix conservative politics with conservative theology, or at the very least claim that the latter is the logical consequence of the former.

The religious right would not exist without their "social gospel." Being in the political square of a nation that is constitutionally secular, and also having as fellow-travelers those who reject core Bible doctrines (i.e. Jews, Catholics, Mormons, and a huge number of political conservatives who are theological moderates and liberals, a group incidentally which must necessarily include George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan) they cannot talk about such things as substitutionary atonement. So they have to replace it with "values" and "principles" that for many have become an added part of the faith, and for not a few are the faith itself.

So, where the liberal is in danger of seeing Jesus Christ in a poor person, the conservative is in danger of nodding in agreement (or failing to speak in protest) when our commander in chief declares God to be on our side when engaging in military action! Or when so many preachers and pastors claim that "the liberals are turning us away from the Biblical principles based on which God blessed us and made this country great." (Never mind that the Bible tells us of many great empires - Egypt, Medo-Persia, Babylon, Assyria, Greece, Rome - that were utterly pagan.)

Do not get me wrong, what you are saying about the liberal social gospel is 100% true. My issue is that this is not a big cause of error or threat to fundamentalism, or not nearly so much as (what I call) the conservative social gospel is. I guess it really comes down to worldliness being a snare to both sides.

Solo Christo, Soli Deo Gloria, Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, Sola Scriptura
http://healtheland.wordpress.com

Dan Salter's picture

I think that the confusion of Christians promoting a social gospel lies in a vague understanding of Christian mission, stirring in concepts of kingdom living and direction with our efforts at evangelization in the soup of purpose for why we are here. Two specific problems seem to emerge. One is not recognizing that there is not one mission but two, and the second is not recognizing that there is a difference between personal sanctification and mission.

Christ’s words of social service in Matthew 25 come in immediate connection to his demarcation and separation of the sheep and goats. It is of the sheep, not the goats, that he commends the physical care and concern given—and that to his brothers. The essence is a call to recognize the relationship of those united in Christ. The mission of relationship building among the people of God stands next to the mission of evangelization of the lost. Confusion of these two missions results in a rather purposeless and indiscriminate social visitation on the world at large.

Yet, personnel sanctification includes a kingdom living that will indeed result in benevolence and mercy to the world at large, just as it did in Jesus’ own earthly life. And that is involved with mission only to the extent that, because of it, obstacles may be broken down to facilitate our evangelistic mission to the lost. Paul’s circumcision of Timothy is an example of breaking down obstacles so that the old covenant Jews could focus on Paul’s message of fulfillment through Christ’s death and resurrection. We, then, care for the world’s poor and hurting (1) in the overflow of our lives in kingdom living and (2) to remove obstacles in the preaching of the cross.

There is then no either-or decision. Our focus in our evangelistic mission must be the gospel of the cross and resurrection. Our focus among Christians is relationship building—often through the care and concern for the poor and hurting among us. But in our kingdom living, the world should see the benevolence and mercy of our Lord.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Dan... agree that mission confusion and kingdom confusion is a huge factor. In the case of the social gospel, though there's a more fundamental layer first, as Joel notes. The SG rejects the view that human beings are sinners in need of a righteousness not their own purchased by the shed blood of God incarnate on the cross.
So... people not being sinners, they are not--individually--in need of that kind of redemption. But once you take the view that people are victims of corrupt social order, much of SG falls into place.

The social gospel isn't really about exalting the poor or the rich but rather, it was a shift in understanding of the human condition plus a focus (obsession?) on human beings collectively rather than as individuals. So the early proponents, Gladden, Rauschenbush, later Fosdick, spoken often of applying "kingdom principles" in the form of a new social order (for a recent example, take a look at The Hole in Our Gospel by Stearns). To them, it was not sinners who needed to be saved but "society" needed to be saved.
All the rest of SG flows from that.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Joel Shaffer's picture

Aaron, JobK, and Dan,

All of you make, in my opinion, valid points.

Aaron you are right that there are other dangers besides abandoning foundational doctrine. However, often I'd hear fundamental Christians make the more minor dangers (over-realized kingdom view, misapplying O.T. passages, and etc...) as the main reason(s) that churches embrace social gospel, while overlooking how these social gospel leaning churches changed their views on sin, atonement, authority of Scripture, Final Judgment, and etc....which is more foundational.

JobK, if I understand you right, you are highlighting the Christian left and Christian right's social gospel where their politics have trumped the gospel. Currently that is taking place on both sides over the proposed budget cuts. Both leaders from the Christian left and leaders from evangelicalism have signed on to the "Circle of Protection" group to defend against budget cuts for programs for the poor. On the other side, the AFA is encouraging the budget cuts, including poverty programs. Both groups end up looking and acting like a special interest lobbiests which really doesn't adorn the gospel at all.

Dan, confusion of mission is a definitely a problem. In the 1950's when the World Council of Churches were making every social problem in the world part of the mission of the church, Missionary Historian Stephen Neill acutely observed that "if everything is mission, than nothing is mission."

As for Matthew 25, unfortunately many Christians do not discern enough when it comes to the sheep and the goats because of the faulty interpretations either identify the "least of these brothers" as all of humanity or as Jesus somehow mysteriously indwelling the poor/needy least of these. However, that's what they hear many popular speakers (Tony Campolo, for example) and what they read from books about ministry among the poor. I am especially concerned with young naive Christian college age students who desire to help the poor, but become enamored with stirring stories of Mother Teresa and Shane Claiborne serving lepers in Calcutta, proclaiming that they got to see and feel the presence of Jesus through it. Which is why I counter with ministry stories that illustrate the sin nature of the poor (which is no different than the non-poor). This is probably one of my main soap boxes, but it is something that I encounter on a regular basis.

RPittman's picture

Joel wrote:
Can churches create compassionate social ministries in their communities without inadvertently becoming sidetracked from their essential gospel motivation?
It appears that people are hung up on the connotation of the term "social gospel." Somehow, it seems to identify with Liberalism/Modernism and the denial of sound doctrine. However, Christianity does have doing good works as a basic component. "For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them (Ephesians 2:10)."

My problem is with the quoted question. It seems to imply that churches, Fundamentalism churches in particular, are not performing their function of good works toward the poor. Nothing could be farther from the truth. It was the Fundamentalist churches that founded rescue missions (providing food for body and spirit), children's homes, etc. during the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy. I can hardly think of a church that doesn't have some kind of "social" outreach. For example, http://www.anchorbaptist.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=category&... ]Anchor Baptist Church in Pisgah Forrest, NC maintains a large warehouse for distributing food, clothing, furniture, etc. to the poor. They also have tractor trailer trucks for disaster relief and distribution of food and supplies in needy areas. My church has a children's home, apartments for widows, and distributes food to the poor. Many local churches have food banks, clothing closets, etc. on a smaller scale. The answer to the question is a resounding YES!

Because we are opposed to the "social gospel," as associated with the Liberal/Modernist viewpoint or the emergent church or the "social evangelicals," folks may think we are against doing good works. Not true.

RPittman's picture

z

Joel Shaffer's picture

Quote:
Because we are opposed to the "social gospel," as associated with the Liberal/Modernist viewpoint or the emergent church or the "social evangelicals," folks may think we are against doing good works. Not true.

I totally agree. Glad to hear of other fundamental churches that are doing social outreach. My context (among regular Baptists) has been of suspicion towards certain social ministries because of the fear that it leads to social gospel. 20 years ago one of the reasons my former church dropped my missionary support was because they believed I was dabbling with the social gospel because I was doing good works that adorned the gospel. However, I probably contributed to it as well because I didn't articulate it the way I do now.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Appreciate your thoughts, Joel. The space you occupy on the issue must get a bit uncomfortable at times since it isn't sentimental and theologically sloppy enough for much of popular rhetoric/understanding of the poverty problem and isn't standoffish enough from direct social work for those who are really zealous against church mission-creep. (I'm in the latter category I guess... certainly not in the other one.)

Here's the question: what would you say to someone who asserts that the best way to help the poor in the long run is to convert and disciple them? I think I can already guess the answer: there's no inherent disjunction--you can work at converting and discipling and also work at feeding, clothing, medicating, etc... or even work at feeding, clothing, etc., as "a way in" to converting and discipling.
So maybe a tweak of the question is if a church is "helping the poor" by preaching the gospel to them, what's wrong with stopping there? Or, to put it yet another way, what if someone says "I am already helping the poor by preaching the Word?"
(This is not completely abstract question. In the rural setting where I serve, I often encounter poor folks who have--as I do a little digging--have gotten where they are by a series of sinful choices flowing a complete lack of understanding of what matters in life and how to achieve it... I'm often struck with the phrase, to misquote Acts, "Silver and gold have I some, but it really ain't what you need.")

To address Roland's point a little, I don't think anyone denies that believers are to do good works, but we don't all do every kind of good work possible. We're selective. So the question is, why is direct ministry to material/physical needs the right good work and, if it's the right one for every Christian, to what extent is this the work of the church vs. the work of redeemed human beings?
Surely telling someone about sin and the Savior is a good work, isn't it? (Many would say the best .)

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Joel Shaffer's picture

Quote:
Surely telling someone about sin and the Savior is a good work, isn't it? (Many would say the best .)

I was reminded of a recent Christianity Today Editorial that made the point that the greatest social problem is alienation from God, which of course can be traced all the way back to Adam and Eve in the Garden. So yes, I would agree that if the greatest social problem happens to be alienation from God, the best work would be evangelism. http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2009/january/20.18.html

However, I've never really compartmentalized evangelism/discipleship from helping people with their needs. The context of our evangelism/discipleship among the poor is loving your neighbor as your self through good works. I find that when we develop long-term loving relationships with the poor, we uncover an entire array of issues in their lives, which we respond to in a holistic manner. By the way, we don’t meet every need that they have. We connect people with other social services that have resources as well (Why reinvent the wheel?).

Of course I don’t know your context with the rural poor and as you said, the many sinful choices that led them to poverty in the first place. I am sure the big one (that sociologists don’t like to talk about) is having kids out of wedlock. Studies have shown this to be the greatest indicator of poverty. That is one of the reasons why our ministry focuses more on children, teens, and young adults because of the sinful patterns that are being modeled to them by their parent (s). In our discipleship, we toe the line between teaching our students to really love and respect their parents, but yet exposing certain patterns of behavior that are modeled by them that not only are an offense to God and to each other, but also lead to poverty.

In many ways the kids that grow up in poverty are victims. One of the sad things we deal with is the fact that the credit of many of our students, by the time they graduate from high school, is ruined because several parents have put the gas bill in kid's name and then don’t pay their bills. Also, the guilt trips that a parent or a grand parent will put on their child can be detrimental as well. I have high school students that once they get a decent paying job will have a parent or grand parent guilt them into giving them money because they tell them “You owe me because I raised you!” For many among the poor, it is about survival. And it wasn’t until we really developed deep relationships with the families that we even realized these situations were happening……..

Charlie's picture

Aaron, I wonder about the origins of the idea that the best way to help the poor not be poor is to disciple them. Although it is true that poverty can be caused by sinful choices, it's certainly a strange thought that all poverty is caused by sin, or can be eliminated by becoming a well-discipled Christian. Such an approach may have more currency in the affluent West, but it has no currency outside the wealthy nations.

Doesn't Scripture speak to this? In 2 Corinthians, Paul takes up an offering for the saints in Jerusalem. In James 2:14-17, an unwillingness to help a brother with material goods contradicts the profession of the true Christian faith. Now, both these cases involve Christians, but in neither case does the Bible say, "Disciple these people better so they won't need help anymore." Rather, the Scripture seems to assume that there will always be people in need of charity, and that it is our Christian duty to provide it.

I do realize you were asking the question hypothetically, not stating your own view.

My Blog: http://dearreaderblog.com

Cor meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere. ~ John Calvin

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Joel wrote:
that is one of the reasons why our ministry focuses more on children, teens, and young adults because of the sinful patterns that are being modeled to them by their parent (s).

Makes perfect sense to me, too. The youngest are the biggest victims not only because they had no choice about the conditions they're growing up in but also because a certain kind of poverty absolutely depends on attitudes (not just conditions) being passed on from generation to generation.

Charlie wrote:
Aaron, I wonder about the origins of the idea that the best way to help the poor not be poor is to disciple them. Although it is true that poverty can be caused by sinful choices, it's certainly a strange thought that all poverty is caused by sin, or can be eliminated by becoming a well-discipled Christian. Such an approach may have more currency in the affluent West, but it has no currency outside the wealthy nations.

Doesn't Scripture speak to this? In 2 Corinthians, Paul takes up an offering for the saints in Jerusalem. In James 2:14-17, an unwillingness to help a brother with material goods contradicts the profession of the true Christian faith. Now, both these cases involve Christians, but in neither case does the Bible say, "Disciple these people better so they won't need help anymore." Rather, the Scripture seems to assume that there will always be people in need of charity, and that it is our Christian duty to provide it.


It isn't strictly hypothetical in my case. In part 1 or 2 of my series I talk about the causes of poverty. One of the things I'm trying to nail down is some different kinds of poverty, distinguished mainly by their causes... and they have different solutions as well.

Arguably only one kind of poverty is not ultimately caused by sin: disaster. There's no level of Christian discipleship that can keep you from loosing everything to a tornado or a huge chunk of your nation being wiped out by earthquake or tsunami or both.
But even these are greatly mitigated by the culture in which they occur. Compare Japan to Haiti, for example. (Interestingly, Japan is even less "Christian" than Haiti--arguably alot less--but thanks to common grace, they have--as a culture--a much wiser work ethic and far better law and order over all.)

Don't have time to fully develop these ideas here but the germ is that though people are often in poor conditions due to circumstances beyond their control, Christian discipleship teaches a work ethic and planning ethic that--widely adopted in a culture--results in far fewer people being completely wiped out by disaster. They have saved up for it. But the sin factor is at least as often outside the poor person coming at him in the form of crime and oppression. But this is still sin causing his poverty--just not his own sin.

So there are similarities in my thinking on this perhaps to Machen's view of high culture we've been talking about elsewhere. Though I'm still not sure to what extent a more thoroughly Christianized culture leads to personal faith, I'm confident that it leads to less poverty (though the Protestant version seems to correlate better on this point!)

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Help keep SI’s server humming. A few bucks makes a difference.