The exchange of goods and services in a free market will often produce unequal outcomes. People will generally reject transactions that make them worse off, but a few will make mistakes that push them into poverty.
Some mistakes will be made when naive or innocent people are "ripped off" by bad people (they should be forced to make restitution), but most poverty is not the result of evil actions, but flows from the vagaries of life. Trade in free markets can push people into poverty without any immoral action being taken.
- A bad decision in a free market can produce a huge loss.
- An unwise offer will sometimes be accepted.
- A desperate seller may be forced to accept a very low price.
- Some people are foolish buyers.
- Others are foolish sellers
- Some people are not as clever as others.
- People with rare skills can achieve higher pay than others.
- People who do not use their skills and capital may find themselves in poverty.
Lazy hands make a man poor (Prov 10:4)
- The sick and handicapped will struggle to prosper by buying and selling.
- Producing goods that no-one wants will leads to losses.
- People with surplus goods can improve their situation
- Market only benefits those who participate.
- People in desperate circumstances may have not surplus to sell.
- People with nothing to sell gain nothing from free markets.
- Many are harmed when the people they depend make mistakes.
- Employees are harmed by the mistakes of their employers.
- Economic power is really the power to harm other people.
- People caught up in a war can lose everything they produced.
- Droughts, tornadoes and floods push innocent people into poverty.
Markets provide opportunities, but some people will be unable to take them up. Some people will benefit more than others. Transactions in a free market can produce inequality, even when every participant is honest and good.
Upset by Inequality
Christians should be upset by inequality of incomes, but they must be precise about their response. Concern about inequality can mean either of two things.
I got too much income from market activity.
Those people over there gained too much.
The first possibility is easy to deal with. People who think that they have earned too much can give some away. Many of them already do.
The second option is different. It usually has a corollary:
The government should force those with too much to give it others.
Many people just assume that governments should take from those who gained "too much" and give it to those who are poor. No justification is given.
If they people have used force or stolen from others, they should be forced to make restitution to their victims. If they have gained "too much" by honest trading, or by producing good quality products, or by producing services that many people want, it is hard to understand why they should be punished.
Those who expect the government to deal with inequality are really saying,
- I do not like the state of the world.
- I want the state to force the world to change.
Church leaders and theologians assume that the state should be involved solving poverty and inequality, but they do not think about what this means. What they are really saying is:
- Love cannot change this situation.
- Compassion will fail.
- We must use force.
- Only coercion can deliver the required change.
I can understand Marxists being advocates of force and coercion, but Christians have a better way. Love and compassion should be our trademark.
God has a Solution
God is actually more concerned about poverty than most Christians. His gospel is "good news to the poor". Paul was certain that He does not want inequality.
Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. Then there will be equality (2 Cor 8:13-14).
God objective is equality, but his solution is unique as it does not require force or coercion. God's solution to inequality is love and compassion.
God's requires people with plenty to give generously to those who are hard pressed. He expects people who have prospered to demonstrate compassion for those who have not done so well. Compassion and sharing create equality.
Theologians who are concerned about inequality should be teaching Christians how to assist the poor. Paul did this all the time, because caring for the poor was the heart of his gospel. His letters are full of exhortations about giving.
Now about the collection for God's people. On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made (1 Cor 16:1-3).
Paul taught the Corinthians about the Lord's Supper, because he was concerned about their lack of sharing (1 Cor 11:20-22).
Good News for the Poor
The gospel is good news for the poor. What does that mean? One possibility is that Jesus wants people facing poverty to have "peace in their heart" while their belly is empty. I do not think so.
Jesus expected that the gospel to produce a great flood of wealth from the rich to the poor. This started, as soon as the Holy Spirit was poured out.
Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need (Acts 2:45).
The gospel was good news for the poor at the beginning. And the church carried on as it has started.
There were no needy persons among them (Acts 4:34).
Two things were essential for the success of the gospel: caring for the poor and healing the sick. The gospel really was "good news to the poor" and "recovery of sight for the blind".
The only good news the modern church has for the poor is God will multiply their seed if they tithe. The inequality that pervades the modern world is not a sign of market failure. Rampant inequality represents the failure of the church to proclaim and produce good news for the poor.
Tithing Trumps Compassion
The modern church has not done well at compassion, because its own needs come first. Running the modern church is really expensive, so tithing to support the pastor-manager and maintain the church system has become the top priority. Tithing to the church has become the accepted standard for giving. This is sad, because tithing is easy. Once the money has been given to the church, the believer's responsibility is complete. Helping someone who is poor is more difficult. They will need training and guidance. The responsibility is not complete until they poor person has escaped from poverty.
Theologians worrying about the limitations of free markets should be teaching churches how to shift wealth from the rich to the poor, and how to help the poor escape from poverty. Unfortunately, most church leaders teach more about tithing than caring for the poor. Paul was different. He never mentions tithing to the church, but wrote incessantly about giving and sharing.
Bill Gates recently gave a large chunk of his wealth into a foundation that is committed to helping the poor people of Africa. I am glad that he is not a Christian. If he were a Christian, his pastor would be advising him to tithe, build a ten thousand seater auditorium and setup a Christian television station.
Great Wealth Transfer
Many church leaders are looking for a great wealth transfer. Most prophecies suggest that this wealth will be transferred from the world to the church. God is not interested in giving more wealth to the church. He does not need larger auditoriums, more professional pastors or, television ministries. God wants more "living letters" from which the world can read the gospel.
You yourselves are our letter.. known and read by everybody. You show that you are a letter from Christ. written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts (2 Cor 3:2-3).
Living letters do need huge tithes. They do not require large wealth transfers. The great wealth transfer that God is seeking is a transfer from the rich to the poor. This flood of wealth will not be complete until equality is achieved.
God's tool for dealing with poverty is the ministry of the deacon. If theologians were really concerned about equality and poverty, deacons would be the most important ministry in the church. Unfortunately, the modern church does not understand the role and has changed it to something different. In Baptist Churches, elders are often called deacons. In the Catholic Church, deacons are priests in training. In other churches, deacons are responsible for raising money and maintaining buildings.
The deacons in the New Testament cared for the poor. They were the social welfare arm of the church. The record of the appointment of the first deacons is in the book of Acts. When the number of disciples had increased, some of the disciples complained that their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food.
So the twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, "It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and of wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word. This proposal pleased the whole group so they appointed seven men who were full of the Spirit. They presented these men to the apostles who laid hands on them (Acts 6:2-4).
These deacons used the offerings of the Church to provide for the needs of the poor and the sick. They were fulfilling the parable of the Good Samaritan. When he found a person in trouble, he took action to meet the immediate need. He then took further action to find a permanent solution, taking responsibility for the cost himself. This is a good pattern for the ministry of a deacon. The work of the first deacons had immediate effect.
So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly (Acts 6:7).
The ministry of the deacon is the second ministry to be mentioned in the New Testament. The twelve were appointed to be apostles by Jesus. Deacons were established in Acts 6. Evangelists are first mention in Acts 7 and 8, but Philip and Stephen had already served as deacons when they emerged as evangelists. Pastors are not mentioned until Acts 20, and they were elders not the CEO/Pastors we have today. The first prophets appeared in Acts 11. They were not interpreting biblical prophecy, but in encouraging the flow money to people suffer from a famine. This suggests that deacons are more essential for the fulfilment of the churches calling than pastors, prophets and evangelists.
The importance of deacons is confirmed in Paul's letters. He devoted several chapters to teaching about their role. The fact that this ministry has disappeared suggests that something is drastically wrong in the church.
Caring for the poor is not just a virtue for Christians. God expects everyone who has prospered to share with those in need. This is even more urgent during tough times.
A generous man will prosper;
he who refreshes others will himself be refreshed.
People curse the man who hoards grain,
but blessing crowns him who is willing to sell (Prov 11:25,26).
During a famine, people who hoard grain might get a better price, but they will lose the blessing of God. Sellers of the basics of life must not take advantage of people in desperate straits.
The same applies when a poor person is looking for work.
Do not take advantage of a hired man who is poor and needy, whether he is a brother Israelite or an alien living in one of your towns. Pay him his wages each day before sunset, because he is poor and is counting on it. Otherwise he may cry to the LORD against you, and you will be guilty of sin (Deut 24:14-15).
In a free market, a poor and needy person will accept very low wages because they desperate. God warns employers not take advantage of people who are frantic for work.
People with economic resources must not abuse those who are in difficult circumstances. Those who ignore God's concern for the poor place themselves under a curse. When people who have prospered stop being generous to the poor and needy, they bring a curse on their land, which harms everyone.
Christian should challenge everyone with plenty to be generous to those in need, but they will only have credibility, if Christians are leading the way in compassion. If Christian prophets are calling on kings and government to remedy poverty with force, they will be ignored.
Buying and selling in free markets is better than theft and force, but not as good love and compassion. Free markets are better than theft and force, but they will not produce a perfect world. More love and compassion is what the world really needs.