Important Issue

Poverty is a central issue for Christians. To be credible in the modern world, we must provide proposals for the cure of poverty. In this article, I will outline several biblical methods for dealing with poverty.

Not the Rich

The scriptures do not give responsibility for caring for the poor to rich people of society. Rich people are cautioned against trusting in their wealth. They are warned that their wealth may quickly disappear. They are also warned that they may die before they have a chance to enjoy their wealth. However, the Bible is realistic and does not expect the rich to do good to the poor.

Furthermore, Jesus is not in the business of forcing rich people to be generous. The modern approach to poverty is to tax the rich and give their money to the poor. The implicit argument goes like this. Rich people are not as good as the rest of us, so they cannot be trusted to be generous of their own accord. They should be forced to be generous. We should tax the rich more, so the money can be used for the poor.

The problem with this approach is that Jesus never forced people be good. He never forced the rich to be generous. The Bible gives responsibility for the poor to Christians, not the rich. Christians who want to tax the rich to bless the poor are "passing the buck".

Personal Responsibility

This may seem obvious, but responsibility for providing our material needs is our own personal responsibility. Paul stated this quite bluntly when he said that those who will not work should not eat.

In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers, to keep away from every brother who is idle and does not live according to the teaching you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone's food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you? For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: "If a man will not work, he shall not eat (2 Thes 5:6-8,10).

Each person has a responsibility to provide for there own needs. In some cultures, this will mean growing or hunting for food. In modern cultures, it means working to earn enough money to pay for all that we need.

Personal provision includes saving enough to deal with the small emergencies that will arise from time to time (Prov 21:20). We do not know the future, but we can be certain that troubles will come, so a wise person will put a little aside to prepare for the unexpected.

Other methods of support only kick in when some unique circumstances prevent a person from providing for himself. For example, sickness or some other impairment may prevent a person from working. They will need support from others by one of the methods described below.

Families

The primarily responsibility for supporting those who become poor belongs within families.

If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever (1 Tim 5:8).

Families should provide financial support for each other. The first port of call when someone gets in financial difficulty will be other family members. Family members are in the best position to provide help. They will know the person well, so they will understand their situation. Family members will quickly identify anyone who does not deserve help because they are just being lazy. The recipient may also have opportunities to provide assistance in the future, so help tends to be more reciprocal.

This duty of care extends to children and grandchildren.

But if a widow has children or grandchildren, these should learn first of all to put their religion into practice by caring for their own family and so repaying their parents and grandparents, for this is pleasing to God (1 Tim 5:4).

This is different from the modern concept, where the state is expected to care for the elderly. The biblical principle is that children and grandchildren should care for the elderly.

The traditional family managed inter-generational wealth transfers very effectively. Parents cared for children when they were young, and children provided for their parents when they grew old. This worked well, because parents have their greatest earning power, when their children need expensive tertiary education. The children have their best earning power, when their parents are old and dependent on them.

The modern social welfare state has created problems by shifting wealth between generations without thought for the consequences. These changes have broken the bonds that held our wider families together. Parents no longer provide for their teenage children, so they have less influence on their lives, just when the need is greatest. Often extended families do not know each other well, so they are not in a position to support each other. Christian community will have to be restored so that families can provide economic support for each other in times of need.

God has given fathers the responsibility for providing for their families and where the father or his family fails to provide, the church is responsible to meet the need. When the state becomes the provider, it takes this responsibility away from the father and he loses his self respect. This weakens family life, making the whole welfare problem worse.

The Church

In situations where families are unable to provide the help that is needed, the church must get involved. Caring for the poor is part of the responsibility of every Christian.

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him (1 Jn 3:16-17).

These verses are really challenging for Christians. We know that Jesus laid down his life for us. We should also be prepared to lay down our lives for others by sharing our possessions. This is best done by the body of Christ sharing together.

Equality

Most people feel that large variations in income or wealth are wrong. This is confirmed in the Bible. God's goal is equality.

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).

This is the same goal as the socialists, but the method of achieving the goal is different. Socialists use compulsory taxation to transfer income and wealth from the rich to the poor. This makes the rich angry and leaves the poor still poor.

God also wants equality, but his way is by sharing. The theme of the entire chapter is not compulsory redistribution, but generosity and sharing.

For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the saints. And they did not do as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then to us in keeping with God's will. (2 Cor 8:3-5).

Paul's is a radical vision. He believed that if Christians grabbed hold of this sharing concept, the result would be equality. We are a long way from Paul's vision, because we have not understood that sharing our wealth is the normal response to Jesus death on the cross. Generous sharing should be normal for Christians.

Voluntary Sharing

Caring for the poor must always be voluntary. God does not force us to do good, so sharing must always be a free choice.

Christian love produced a radically different attitude to possessions. Instead of being something to enjoy, they were seen as a gift from God to be used to strengthen the Church.

All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all. There were no needy persons among them (Acts 4:32-34).

Christians like Barnabas responded to the gospel by selling their property and giving to those in need (Acts 4:36-37). There was no compulsion. All this giving was voluntary.

The story of Ananias and Saphira is well known, but we often miss the main point of incident. It does show the dangers of lying to God, but more important, it shows that giving and sharing must always be voluntary. Peter's words are important.

Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? Didn't it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn't the money at your disposal? (Acts 5:3,4).

Peter's key point is that Ananias's land belonged to him before he sold it. It still belonged to him after he had sold it. He was under no compulsion to give anything. He could have kept the whole value of the property for himself without facing any condemnation.

Christian sharing must always be a free response to the love of Jesus. The motivation must be compassion, not condemnation. Sharing must always be voluntary. It must be motivated by love and not by peer pressure. Demanding that someone share is always unacceptable. Charity is a privilege, not a right.

Visible Witness

Sharing is important because it makes the gospel visible. Jesus promised that if we love each other, people will be drawn to him.

A new commandment I give you:
Love one another, As I have loved you,
so must you love one another.
All men will know that you are my disciples
If you love one another (John 13:34,35).
I when I am lifted up from the earth,
will draw all men to myself (John 12:32).

The people of the world are entitled to look at a Church to see if its members love each other. The problem is that love is not easy to see. Forgiveness and encouragement will often not be visible to those outside the Church.

The best way for Christians to make their love visible is by sharing their possessions. In a world where riches and poverty are normal, a Church with "no needy people" will be a very visible witness to the love of Jesus.A sharing Church would be a tremendous testimony to people living close by. Christianity is not just a personal relationship with Jesus. His death on the cross also broke down the barrier of sin that divides us from other people. His people must demonstrate their restored relationships. In a world that is hungry for love, the best witness may not be a believer saying "Jesus loves me", but a group of Christians freely sharing their possessions.

Simple Lifestyle

As Churches get serious about sharing their possessions, a simple lifestyle should start to emerge. People will still own property and possessions, but their attitudes should be very different. They will choose a simpler lifestyle, not because possessions are evil, but because they are irrelevant. Christians should be so focussed on what God is doing that they lose interest in the things that occupy the world.

If the Holy Spirit is really moving in power, Christians will find it hard to be absorbed in a newer house or a bigger yacht? If the Lord is "adding to their number daily", "retail therapy" will seem quite boring. If there is great joy in their neighbourhood, because paralytics and cripples are being restored, who would be dreaming about upgrading their car? The members of a Church will be so involved in the work of the Holy Spirit, that they will lose the need to own more and more things.

Sharing will mean that Christians can live better than the rest of society, while owning fewer possessions. Consequently, they will be able to spend less time working for money and more time working for the Lord. If they are called to work, they will be able to give more freely to support people in need. Sharing will free up resources for the work of the Kingdom. If God's people learn to live simply and to share what they have, deacons will be able to use the surplus to minister to people in need.

Deacons

Deacons are the members of the church who specialise in care of the poor on behalf of the church. In the New Testament, deacons were the "social welfare arm" of the Church. The record of the appointment of the first deacons is in Acts 6. Men like Barnabas, when called to a Christian ministry, had sold their property and "brought the money and laid it at the apostles' feet". The twelve used this money to provide for those in need.When the number of disciples had increased, some of the Grecian Jews complained because 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. The result was that the word of God spread and the number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly(Acts 6:2-4).

The deacons were responsible for the offerings of the Church. They used them to provide for the needs of the poor and the sick. In doing this 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.

Qualifications of Deacons

The qualifications for the selection of deacons are listed in 1 Timothy 3:8-13. These are relevant to the nature of their work.

  1. A deacon must be a person who does not pursue dishonest gain. Because they are responsible for the money of the Church, deacons must be trustworthy. They must have proved that they can handle money wisely and responsibly.

  2. A deacon must be able to manage his household. If a man cannot manage his own household, then he will not be able to manage the finances of the Church. The elders should look at the way a person's household is functioning for evidence that he has the ability to do the work of a deacon. However, there is another reason why household management is important. The deacon also has a teaching role. He does not just give money to the people who are poor. He also teaches them how to manage their households better, so that they can manage on their own in the future without help. A deacon could not do this unless he was skilled in managing his own household. This would mean that monetary help would always be given on a short-term basis.

  3. A deacon must also have a clear knowledge of the truths of the faith. This is because he also has an evangelistic ministry. The Christian gospel is always directed to the whole person. If a person is hungry, it is no use preaching the gospel to them, without feeding them. On the other hand, feeding a hungry person is no use without doing something about their spiritual needs. Deacons have a total ministry to the poor. As they distribute food and clothing, they will also preach the gospel. This is why they must have a good knowledge of the faith.

    Some evangelists will start their ministry as deacons. Philip and Stephen both began their service as a deacon and then went on to a successful ministry as an evangelist.

  4. People skills are more important than knowledge of finance and administration. The early Church chose deacons who were skilled in working with people.

  5. Deacons should be full of the Spirit (Acts 6:2-4). They will need the discernment and wisdom that only the Holy Spirit can give. They would have personal contact with those that they are helping, so they could quickly weed out those who were bludging. The money would go to those with genuine needs.

Female Deacons

Women can fulfil the ministry of the deacon. Deaconesses are referred to twice in the New Testament. Phoebe a deaconess of the Church of Cenchrea is mentioned by Paul in Romans 16:1. The women referred to in 1 Timothy 3:11 are almost certainly deaconesses.

The ministry of the deacon can be performed well by a married couple. The husband would work with men and his wife would work with the women. The deacon's wife would concentrate on helping the wives to manage their homes wisely.Widows can also exercise this ministry. They would have responsibility for caring for the other widows in the Church. Where a Church is under persecution this would be a very important ministry, as there will be many widows or women with husbands in prison.

Women tend to function better than men in situations where personal care is needed. Female behaviour is orientated towards helping and caring for personal needs. This means that women often do the work of a deacon better than men. They should be released into this ministry.

Caring Methods

Christians will help the poor using seven main methods.

1. Daily Food Distribution

During times of crisis and in poor countries, Deacons will organise a daily distribution of food to those who are poor. For example, the apostles organised a "daily distribution of food" in Jerusalem (Acts 6:2).

Regular distributions of food may not be necessary during more normal times. The focus will shift to caring for widows and others who have fallen into hardships. Some pragmatic principles for this work are outlined in Paul's letter to Timothy. The aim was to focus on those with real needs.

Give proper recognition to those widows who are really in need (1 Tim 5:3). 

Help is only provided to those with genuine needs.

Five principles will shape the efforts of the church to care of the poor.

2. Interest Free Loans

The second main method for assisting the poor is an interest-free loan. When a person strikes temporary hardship, they will often need help to get started again. They may need to pay for training or need capital to start a business. The solution is a loan of some money. God's people are commanded to be generous to those in need.If there is a poor man among your brothers in any of the towns of the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tight fisted toward your poor brother. Rather be open handed and freely lend him whatever he needs. Give generously to him and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to? Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land. (Deut 15:7-11).The context of this passage is interest on loans to poor people. There are several important principles that apply.

When you make a loan of any kind to your neighbor, do not go into his house to get what he is offering as a pledge. Stay outside and let the man to whom you are making the loan bring the pledge out to you (Deut 24:10-13).

The problem with charity is that it makes the recipient feel dependent and worthless. Providing a loan says to the person that you are confident in their future. You are saying that you have faith in them. This helps build the person's self esteem and self-respect.Loans give an incentive for the person to get back onto their feet. Most people do not want to be in debt. They will usually work hard to pay back the loan.

The worst effect of government social welfare is the effect that it has on the incentive to work and succeed. People no longer have to work to supply their needs, because the government will provide for them. Those who do work are taxed heavily, to pay the cost of social welfare. They soon get the feeling that it does not pay to work hard and the whole economy is weakened. Interest free loans strengthen the economy.

Poor loans are an excellent method for helping people in third world countries. The greatest problem is lack of capital. Local lenders often charge exorbitant interest rates that enslave people for life. Providing people with an interest free loan to start a business if often the best way to help them. They will often be able to repay the loan quite quickly. An effective business will provide financial support for the entire life time. Those who are successful will be able to help families. Interest free loans are often the best way to help the poor.

3. Gleaning

Gleaning is another way that people Christians can help the poor. This is a biblical principle.

When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the alien, the fatherless and the widow, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over the branches a second time. Leave what remains for the alien, the fatherless and the widow. When you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, do not go over the vines again. Leave what remains for the alien, the fatherless and the widow. (Deut 24:19-21).

When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. 10 Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the alien. I am the LORD your God (Lev 19:9-10)

Land owners were required to leave some of their crop for the poor to glean.

The reason for allowing gleaning is to give to people in in a way that does not leave them feeling humiliated.

The interesting thing about this approach is that the poor person has to work quite hard to get the help. Gleaning is harder work than harvesting, because the easiest part of the crop has been already been harvested. This hard work develops good work habits. It also contributes to the self respect of the gleaner.

Rural gleaning is not practical for people living in urban cultures, so developing modern gleaning methods is a challenge for Christian business owners. They should be looking for ways to give some of there surplus stock or spare capacity to poor people in ways that will help them get ahead. This will require creativity to be effective.  

Business people should be looking for opportunities to apply the gleaning principle by helping poor people through their business. An ISP operator might provide free access to the internet for job searches. Another business might provide training on how to use machines or equipment during the evening. Businesses could give surplus machinery or computing equipment to poor people starting a business.

4. Job Creation

Sometimes the greatest need of a person who is poor is for well-paid work. Christians can help the poor by becoming employers. Being an employer is costly and more risky than being an employee. This is often the reason for unemployment. Not enough people are willing to be employers. The government cannot create jobs. Only employers can create jobs, so the best solution to unemployment is more employers.

Christians can help the poor by becoming employers. They have the wisdom of God and the confidence of faith, so they are well placed to start a business. If they already operate a business, they can look for ways to expand opportunities to employ other people. Often the best thing that a Christian can do to help a poor person is to start a business and provide them with an opportunity for employment.

5. Sharing Capital

An important part of caring for the poor is to get capital goods into the hands of the poor. This will make their efforts more productive, which should increase their income and wealth. A more equal distribution of capital will be an important step toward the elimination of poverty. The prophet Isaiah looked forward to a time when every person would own their own capital.

Every man will sit under his own vine and under his own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid, for the LORD Almighty has spoken (Mic 4:4).

If every person owns some capital they will be able to provide for themselves in most circumstances.

The market will not provide equality of capital, because it tends to reward the most successful entrepreneurs by increasing their capital. Through the normal working of the market, some people will accumulate capital as they make good decisions and others will lose their capital either through mistakes or adverse circumstances.

The land laws of the Old Testament were designed to maintain equality of capital in a time when land was the main form of capital. If someone became poor and sold their land, it had to be restored to them at the time of the Jubilee. This ensured that the distribution of land remained roughly equal.

When Christians get serious about dealing with poverty, we will have to find ways to share capital. Interest free loans are one way of transferring capital, but we will need to find others that work in the modern world.

Jacob and Laban were both shifty operators, so they are not really good examples to follow, but they do provide an example one person helping another to build up their capital. When Jacob went to live with Laban he owned no capital. Laban capitalised Jacob's wages by paying him with breeding ewes. Jacob was able to build up his own flock, while not neglecting Laban's flock. This was an early win-win situation.Christian business operators could look for ways to help some of their employees build up their own capital. Shares for salary is one possibility, but it would better to provide employees with capital that would supplement their skills and equip them to start their own businesses.

Businesses people could see themselves as reverse apostles, training up skilled people and sending them out to start new businesses. This is the opposite spirit to the world, which always tries to bring new things back under the control of the centre.

6. Bonded Service

The bonded employment option is only used for really serious poverty. Sometimes a person will have a financial problem that is too serious to be dealt with by an interest free loan. This is most like to occur where a person has to make restitution for a crime and has no credit record to justify the loan and no family member willing to act as guarantor to a lender.

The poor person will bond themselves to an employer for up to seven years in return for a lump-sum advance of their future wages.

If a fellow Hebrew, a man or a woman, sells himself to you and serves you six years, in the seventh year you must let him go free (Deut 15:12).

The length of the loan will depend on the amount advanced and the productive capacity of the person receiving the loan. During the time that the person is bonded, they will not be able change employers or move to a different place of residence. The employer would give them enough to pay for food and shelter, but the rest of what they earn would go towards paying back the loan.

The employer making the loan is running quite a risk, because they would not know how useful their employee will be. He may end up advancing more wages than he can recoup within seven years, especially if he is generous. There is also a risk that the bonded employee might abscond.

The employer is also required to treat the bonded employee well. If the employer does physical harm to a bonded employee, he or she must be set free from their debt.

If a man hits a manservant or maidservant in the eye and destroys it, he must let the servant go free to compensate for the eye. And if he knocks out the tooth of a manservant or maidservant, he must let the servant go free to compensate for the tooth (Ex 21:26-27).

When the bonded employee has repaid the amount of the bond, they are to be set free. The employer must be generous to the departing servant.

Supply him liberally from your flock, your threshing floor and your winepress. Give to him as the LORD your God has blessed you. Do not consider it a hardship to set your servant free, because his service to you these six years has been worth twice as much as that of a hired hand. And the LORD your God will bless you in everything you do (Deut 15:13,18).

The employer's help allow the departing employee to get started in their new life. The employer can be generous, because they will receive God's blessing for providing help in this way.

7. Establishing Justice

A key aspect of caring for the poor is assisting them to obtain justice.

Do not deny justice to your poor people in their lawsuits (Ex 23:6).

Poverty is often the consequence of illegal activity by powerful people and companies. Poor people often do not have the resources to do battle against those who would deny them justice before the courts. They often give up, when faced by a rich adversary. The justice system often does not help them, because it tends exclude outsiders.

Christians should get involved whenever the legal rights of the poor are being "rolled". We should be the first to assist poor people to obtain justice. Christian lawyers should take up some of these cases and take on the people who using their legal skills to walk over the poor. Other Christians might provide legal support for lawyers who assist the poor. God is on the side of the poor, so Christian lawyers who work for the poor are working with God.

On the other hand, we must not be biased against the poor. Some people who care about the poor want to resolve poverty by taking political action against the rich. This is as wrong as refusing justice the poor.

Do not follow the crowd in doing wrong. When you give testimony in a lawsuit, do not pervert justice by siding with the crowd, and do not show favoritism to a poor man in his lawsuit. (Ex 23:2,3).

God requires justice to be impartial. His justice does not favour the rich or the poor. True justice always penalises law-breakers and favours their victims.

Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly (Lev 19:15).

Understanding the difference between Mercy and Justice is important.

Conclusion

Poverty is one of the more persistent problems faced in the modern world. Governments have spent billions and billions of dollars on social welfare schemes with only limited success. They have donated billions of dollars as foreign aid, but the problem of poverty in the third world has hardly been dented. The problem is that man's way always fails. God has provided clear wisdom and guidance for dealing with poverty. We will only eliminate poverty from the world, when we do it God's way.

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