Sunday, September 30, 2012

Christians and Social Justice

Christians and Social Justice

Stan Feldsine September 27, 2012

Jesus commanded us to care for the poor; of this we are sure. In Matthew 25:34-40 Jesus said the kingdom of heaven is our inheritance if we take in the poor, feed and clothe them, a clear and unmistakable message.

In today’s Christian world, there seems to be considerable confusion about just how to do that though. In particular, should we feed them by throwing our support behind government sponsored social justice programs, and tax the rich so we can give to the poor, or is there a better way?

What is Social Justice?

The aim of “social justice”[1] as it is known today is “equality of outcome”[2]. Equality of outcome is defined as “a state in which people have approximately the same material wealth or, more generally, in which the general economic conditions of their lives are similar. Achieving this requires reducing or eliminating material inequalities between individuals or households in a society.”[3] This fairly accurately describes the current political strategy for balancing the living standards of the poor and rich through taxation and redistribution. This is being done through various government programs in an effort to raise the living standards of the poor. It is supported by a large segment of Americans who have a well-meaning concern for the plight of the poor and the more vocal among them are making their voices heard in Occupy Wall Street and other movements as well as the anti-rich and anti-conservative rhetoric being heard on the streets and public forums today.

As Christians, we should be very concerned with what the Bible teaches, and question whether social justice is a legitimate primary strategy that will match the model that Jesus provided to feed the poor.

God’s Model for Caring for the Poor

In attempting to find solutions to poverty, one thing that cannot be ignored is that in all Jesus’ and His follower’s teachings, there is never a mention of partnering with the state, the Roman government to feed the poor. Rather, Jesus teaches that the poor are cared for first by their family, then by the church. Paul is quite clear about this in his first letter to Timothy.

1Timothy 5:8 But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.

1Timothy 5:16 If any believing man or woman has widows, let them relieve them, and do not let the church be burdened, that it may relieve those who are really widows

Note that in 1 Timothy 5:16, the church is called to care for those widows who are without family, and by application, this principle can be applied to caring for the poor as well. The principle of care for the poor by the family and the church is corroborated in Acts 4:31-35, the story of the Pentecost where the multitudes of believers had received the Holy Spirit. These Spirit filled people were acting out what would later be confirmed in Paul’s letter to Timothy. These initial members of the church shared their possessions as each had abundance, and as others had need. Additionally, in Acts 6:1-7 we read of the administration of the daily distribution of a public charity. In each of these passages we see the well off giving of their abundance to those less well off. Scripture is consistent in that there is nothing to indicate that either Jesus taught, nor anyone subscribed to a line of thought that a program of “equality of outcome” was needed to raise the living standard of the poor. There is no evidence of coerced giving to balance inequalities between individuals or households anywhere in scripture. God’s plan for caring for the poor is for the family to care for them. If the family is unable, then the spirit filled church will share what they have as each has need. This mode of operation is consistent throughout scripture, we are always invited to participate, and never coerced.

It should be noted that the church spoke of here is a body of believers, the Bride of Christ, not a church building. The bride could be manifested as the members of a church who meet on Sunday, home fellowships, believers organized by common interests, charity groups, or any other gathering of believers.

The Causes of Poverty

Today, as Christians, many of us tend to look at the problem of the poor through worldly eyes. Through those eyes, the problems seem insurmountable, impossible to solve. God’s lifelines for the poor appear to have been broken for some time, if not for all time. Our families, our churches, charities and so on are falling far short, and poverty, which always seems to be with us, is on the rise. The empirical evidence seems to indicate that God’s plan is failing.

Should we as Christians abandon God’s plan, and decide for ourselves what the best plan is, or should we stay with God’s plan no matter how it seems to be doing? Before we can answer questions regarding how to address systemic poverty, we need to determine what makes a person poor. There are a number of causes for poverty, not the least of which is laziness:

Proverbs 19:15 Laziness casts one into a deep sleep, And an idle person will suffer hunger.

Proverbs 24:30-34 I once walked by the field and the vineyard of a lazy fool. (31) Thorns and weeds were everywhere, and the stone wall had fallen down. (32) When I saw this, it taught me a lesson: (33) Sleep a little. Doze a little. Fold your hands and twiddle your thumbs. (34) Suddenly poverty hits you and everything is gone!

1 Thessalonians 4:11-12 Try your best to live quietly, to mind your own business, and to work hard, just as we taught you to do. (12) Then you will be respected by people who are not followers of the Lord, and you won't have to depend on anyone.

Poverty can also be caused by injustice:

Proverbs 13:23 Much food is in the fallow ground of the poor, And for lack of justice there is waste.

Poverty can also be brought on by a number of other factors, including death in the family, oppression, and other causes.

The Remedy for Poverty

The following passage from Ezekiel is interesting for it tells us what the primary need of the poor is, as well as illustrates the justice eventually delivered when a nation does not care for it’s poor.

Ezekiel 16:49 Look, this was the iniquity of your sister Sodom: She and her daughter had pride, fullness of food, and abundance of idleness; neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy

Note that Sodom was condemned in part for “not strengthening the hand of the poor and needy”. It does not say they were condemned for holding back food and provisions. The Hebrew for “strengthen” here is ‘to strengthen, cure, help, fortify’ and to ‘encourage’. These verbs clearly indicate that the role of the family and church is to rise up the poor out of poverty by encouraging and helping them, with the implication that they would be taught to become productive and learn to care for themselves. This truth gives understanding that programs put into place by the family, church, or even the state to address poverty should primarily “strengthen their hands”.

This is corroborated in 1 Timothy 5:9-16, where Paul is instructing Timothy in the care of widows, with practical application to the poor as well. Widows are not to be taken under the care of the church unless “she has been the wife of one man, well reported for good works: if she has brought up children, if she has lodged strangers, if she has washed the saints' feet, if she has relieved the afflicted, if she has diligently followed every good work.” Furthermore, Paul warns Timothy regarding the tendency of younger widows, “they learn to be idle, wandering about from house to house, and not only idle but also gossips and busybodies, saying things which they ought not.” Paul instructs Timothy, “Therefore I desire that the younger widows marry, bear children, manage the house, give no opportunity to the adversary to speak reproachfully.”

This passage is loaded with information that guides us in how to lift a person out of poverty. Clearly, Paul is teaching Timothy that widows who have been industrious have learned to be productive, and it is these who are taken under the care of the church when they have need. Those who tend to idleness are turned away from the churches care and sent to the care of the family. An implication here is that how to lead productive lives is taught in the home.

It is clear that a significant cause of poverty according to God is idleness, and that the remedy for it is “strengthening of the hands”, rather than in-discriminant distribution of food.

There are additional passages that indicate that the greater need of the poor is other than satisfying their hunger needs. One of these passages is frequently used out of context by the social justice advocates, John 21:15-17:

John 21:15-17 So when they had eaten breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon, son of Jonah, do you love Me more than these?" He said to Him, "Yes, Lord; You know that I love You." He said to him, "Feed My lambs." (16) He said to him again a second time, "Simon, son of Jonah, do you love Me?" He said to Him, "Yes, Lord; You know that I love You." He said to him, "Tend My sheep." (17) He said to him the third time, "Simon, son of Jonah, do you love Me?" Peter was grieved because He said to him the third time, "Do you love Me?" And he said to Him, "Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You." Jesus said to him, "Feed My sheep.

In this passage, Jesus tells Peter once each to feed his lambs and his sheep, and once to tend to His sheep. Many Christians use this passage to justify their advocacy of social justice programs to feed the poor, as indeed, Peter is told to feed the lambs and sheep food twice. However, a deeper look at this passage reveals truths that may be overlooked, and Matthew Henry in his commentary helps us to understand this passage. The first thing to note is that Jesus is primarily commissioning Peter to feed his sheep spiritual food. The following passages corroborate the importance of spiritual food over physical food:

John 6:27 Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to everlasting life, which the Son of Man will give you, because God the Father has set His seal on Him."

Matthew 6:31-33 "Therefore do not worry, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' (32) For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. (33) But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.

Additionally it is interesting to note when taking a look through the history of Peter that after hearing these words of Jesus, did not set up a great food distribution system, but rather, he was a great teacher in the early days of the church, and he fed the sheep spiritual food. Peter’s life and teachings were a great example of “strengthening the hands” of the poor, and this seems to be completely overlooked in the general argument that handouts to the poor should be without expectation that they should learn to be productive.

Another important observation is how sheep actually are fed. Sheep of the day had shepherds, whom fed the sheep by leading them to green pastures. They were led to where the food was, and did not simply have the food laid before them. There is a real picture here that reemphasizes the plan God has for feeding the poor that their providers should lead them to where the food is, helping them along and giving them a role to play, rather than just laying the food before them.

A well-known and applicable quote comes to mind, especially considering Peter was a fisherman, “Give a man a fish and he eats for a day, teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime”.

Although it may seem incongruous to claim we can end poverty by providing the poor with spiritual food, in reality, this is in fact the most effective way to end poverty according to God’s Word. We read above in Proverbs that idleness leads to poverty, and God’s word teaches us to “strengthen their hands” thus helping to eliminate idleness..

The Christian Response to Poverty

Modern social justice seeks to reduce the disparity between the rich and poor by legislating programs and taxes that manipulate the flow of money. These programs forcibly move money from those who are well off into state programs with budgets that seek to uplift the poor. In spite of what appears to be a caring response to the poor, as we have seen, there is no scriptural precedent for this. These policies are fraught with pitfalls. Clearly, those who have worked hard and earned what they have are being robbed when coerced via unequal taxation. These policies do little to “strengthen the hand” of the poor. There is no scriptural involvement of family nor church, in fact, the state appears to be creating dependents, rather than assisting families and churches in taking on that role.

As Christians we have to ask ourselves whether or not the problem of poverty today isn’t due to our failure at large to believe that God is able to care for the poor. Our actions and words of encouragement to each other demonstrate what we believe. During this election season so many of us are promoting a primary message to vote for one candidate or the other so that they can make inroads into the elimination of poverty. We have turned to the state, rather than to God and his model to solve this problem. Rather than understanding the biblical view of salvation from poverty, we ignorantly promote secular state policies that have no chance of success. They have no chance of success because God is being left out of the solution, and his model is being ignored.

The problem of poverty is persistent, and we fall short in part because we as the church promote political solutions by secular government at the forefront rather than making our primary message about God, His care and love for the poor, and His biblical model for dealing with poverty.


In conveying this message in public forums, I have been accused of wanting to “starve the poor until they turn to Jesus”, by more than one liberal Christian. No, I have no desire to starve them, but only that we find the true way out of poverty, a way that will “strengthen the hand” of the poor, feed them, AND secure their eternal destiny.

I believe that our nation has gone so far off course that Christians among us who are not grounded in the Word are unable to see the truth. Sin has overlaid sin, nationally and individually, and confusion reigns. When we, as Christians fail to promote and encourage the biblical role of the family and the church as God’s solution to poverty, and promote politicians who promise secular social justice instead, we are directing our fellow brothers and sisters away from God’s plan and model. And ultimately, any plan other than God’s is going to fall short.


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