Should Christians give to street people?

Two evangelical thinkers weigh in:

Edited to add…

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Susan R's picture


I agree with both- I don't think they are really all that contradictory. They both advocate giving- but the second narrows giving a bit, from just tossing some money into a hat to attempting to meet the actual need (food, shelter, clothing) and developing a relationship in order to make a lasting difference. As much as I hate the metaphor, it's the "teach a man to fish" philosophy.

If I had to pick I'd lean toward the "Don't", because the "Give freely" seems to be advocating that we should always give money every time we meet someone asking for help. I don't think just giving money is all that helpful in the long run, and I think good stewardship and discipleship requires us to think about spiritual goals and not pass people like ships in the night.

Shaynus's picture

I live in Washington DC, home of a lot of street people. I've resolved that if someone ever asks explicitly for something to eat, and I have time, that I'll offer to take them to get something to eat if there is a restaurant nearby. The really hungry ones will take it, and be thankful. If they push back and want cash, after saying they're hungry, I pass on by. Sometimes I'll object and say, but you said you were hungry!

Two nights ago, a guy stopped me on my way home. I had happened to have a loaf of bread in my backpack. He said he was hungry, so I gave him the loaf of bread. He said ". . . if you think that will help." Um yeah. it will.

Shaynus's picture

I always keep a little cash outside of my wallet in another pocket. This is for those who mug me, or beg.

Joel Shaffer's picture

I clearly don't like the first one. He pulls out the "judge" card against those who hesitate and also comes across quite naive when it comes to the street-people population. If I am to freely give, I need to be able to evaluate the situation to figure out exactly what is needed. I love what Fikkert says in When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor or Yourself “One of the biggest mistakes that North American churches make—by far—is in applying relief to situations in which rehabilitation or development is the appropriate intervention.”

Actually the second one advocates a freely giving model too, but one with much more discernment. Most experienced evangelical urban ministry practitioners identify with the second one. However, I am concerned that the more younger group of evangelicals identify with the first, which potentially does more harm than good.

Susan R's picture


in the subtitle of the article is "Christian thinkers weigh in on whether Christians should always give money to people on the street who ask for it." Always is a really big word, and the idea that you should empty your pockets on a regular basis and just 'have faith' that God will supply for you seems less like faith and more like checking your brain at the door. Faith doesn't mean we don't ever use our noggins.

Aaron Blumer's picture


Thanks, Chris. Didn't see that one. I'm going to add it to the original post.

... also have to say I think Bales' answer is the strongest.
But, fwiw, I would start with a different question (and, to be fair, all of the guys linked to in the post might well start with a diff. question, too. They are responding to the one they were asked.)

Better question: what can I do make it less likely that there will be street people asking for money? Or, for something more focused on the encounter itself, what does this person really need most from me and can I even give that to him? (If so, will he even take it?)

But I like Bales' answer for it's strong interest in pursuing what really helps.

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.

J. D. Coleman's picture

Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.. -- Matthew 5:42

I've never been able to find a way out of this clear command of Christ, though I don't think it should be applied to churches. Christ never turned away anyone in need, so that He might have opportunity to meet even deeper (spiritual) needs. My personal practice has been to take a beggar to a convenience store or restaurant and give them food. This has given me many opportunities to share the gospel with them. If they can tell you care, they are usually willing to listen to you.

Only if I cannot take the time to buy them food will I give cash. Shaynus' advice to keep a little cash in your pocket is good.

Susan R's picture


Verse like this need to pass through a terminology filter-

Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.. -- Matthew 5:42

Is the implied 'all' in this verse mean "all without exception" or "all without distinction"? Does that mean that every charity solicitation that comes in the mail requires me to fork over the requested $25 or $100?

A good example of the difference between AWE and AWD is Romans 3:23 we have "For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God;" but in 2 Peter 3:9 "The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance." Or verses that say Christ died for the world (without distinction), but others that say He died for the church (without exception).

Jewish culture also comes into play here- 'the poor' referred to were those who genuinely had no means of supporting themselves. They were usually physically disabled- blind, deaf, diseased, lame... SO- I think we give when we have means and opportunity, and when we are faced with a genuine need.

Shaynus's picture

Given that money may not be the best thing for a person living on the street, I think the money may be a way to open a conversation. I've gotten into brief conversations with the street people I've given money too. I tell them about a Christian mission in the area, but to my dismay, I rarely share the gospel at all in these conversations.

Jesus would help someone, then tell them to repent, go and sin no more. That was a pattern. Maybe we just don't want to do the hard work of using a five dollar bill as a way to strike up a conversation about Jesus? Just the fact that you're interested in the homeless person is very different. Even if they go buy a six-pack of cheap American beer with the money, maybe the incident will get them thinking, which could eventually lead to them making a better decision about what they do with the money they do get.

Maybe money isn't the best thing to give them, but the gospel is. And I think the former aides the latter in some circumstances.

Jim's picture

I bump into street people in 2 locations:

  • In warmer weather (not in bitterness of winter!), where the interstate exits into downtown. These guys typically hold up cardboard signs at a stop light. Frankly these guys are much healthier than I am and really don't feel very sorry for them. They look like they could work.
  • All seasons in the Minneapolis skyways. There is one particular location where I've seen drugged out women panhandling. Security hustles them off from that spot.

My own choice is to not give - I don't consider it true stewardship.

Eric R.'s picture

"Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you" comes as part of a stream of commands, climaxing in "you must be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect." Christ is tightening the screws down on the law, pointing to heart issues to reveal to His listeners that no one can keep the law perfectly. If you're going to try to earn your way into the kingdom by your own righteous actions, then you better take extreme precautions to make sure no actions are motivated by sins of the heart. So, cut your hand off and pluck your eye out, and never even defend yourself against an attacker, and if you're sued give them twice as much, and if anyone ever asks for anything, you better give it to them. You can't afford to take any chance of having sinful motivations or responses, because even one will disqualify you from the kingdom.

Does that mean Christ's teaching and example don't lead us to a generous, sacrificial heart toward the needy? No. But, as has been observed, wisdom and stewardship must be fully employed as well.

Christ healed everyone who came to Him, but His earthly mission was not the same as the commission He left us with.

Eric R.'s picture

Given the "last resort" perspective (which I tend to agree with), giving cash is not the only option. We have made a habit of always having several fast food gift cards, in small denominations, in the car. When we don't have time to stop for a lengthy discussion with the person, a restaurant gift card is a quick way to offer them some food without running the risk of them spending cash on drugs, liquor, etc. Whenever possible, the gift card is accompanied by a tract, or at the very least, a brief word expressing that the gift comes to them through us from Christ.

Of course that is never solving root problems, but it is a an opportunity to give a "cold cup of water" without fearing you're really giving a cup of something else.

J. D. Coleman's picture

I've been trying to find the time to offer a more nuanced discussion of Matthew 5:42 in context.

Although Matthew 5 certainly culminates with the conclusion that God's law demands perfection, I believe it also has additional aspects of instruction for believers.

In verse 1, we find Christ speaking to his disciples -- not the Pharisees as you might expect if you only read the end of the chapter. If one were to summarize his teachings to them in this passage it might be something like this: "Disciples of Christ must conduct themselves in the everyday world in such a way as to display the inner values of the kingdom." In doing so, Christians become the salt and light of the world -- a testimony to all without exception (Matthew 5:13-16).

What does this look like:

  • Paradoxical values (poor in spirit / rich in the kingdom, etc.)
  • Heart obedience (not just external obedience but bringing thoughts, and motives into subjection).
  • Showing Christlike love toward others (loving enemies; responding gently to unfair treatment; demonstrating compassion and love toward sinners).

A life like this is a demonstration of a kind and quality of righteousness that will bring lost sinners to realize their need, while at the same time overwhelming them with Christlike love.

So yes, the message of Matthew 5 culminates in the statement "you must be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect," but the emphasis of the passage is on the preaching of that message -- through a life demonstrating Christlike love.

Should we be good stewards? Of course! I think Eric's gift card idea is awesome. That's one way to be wise about how you do it. But we have to be careful not to use stewardship as an excuse not to get involved in showing love to messed up people the way Christ did. Everywhere Christ went, He compassionately ministered to people's needs; and then, He reached even deeper into their lives and met spiritual needs they didn't even know they had.

Our commission is no less. Christ called us to make disciples. That means we might need to approach a down-and-outer and show that we really care. That means maybe we should take some time to talk to them when they approach us instead of just giving something as a "last resort" to get rid of them. That means we should develop relationships of intentional discipleship, letting people see Christ in us, helping them come to know Christ and receive His righteousness and find victory over sin, habits, and other problems.

Will you be taken advantage of in the process? Yes (Matthew 5:41). You might even be stolen from (Matthew 5:40), or mugged (Matthew 5:39). But that would be an honor -- to follow in Christ's footsteps!

Who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.