Christian Charity and the Welfare State
- Tuesday, April 19, 2011
President Obama’s dialogue with Pastor Warren underscores the timeliness of this momentous issue. Should Christians favor government programs that redistribute wealth to the poor? The affirmative case has been set forth many times over the decades. In this paper, I will make the opposite case. I will attempt to show that Christian support of the government redistribution of wealth should be rethought in light of some clear Scriptural texts.
Citing a single scriptural verse, as President Obama did, can be helpful and illuminating, but it also can be problematic, as can be seen in Matthew 4, where the tempter quotes Scripture. I invite you to examine Sen. Obama’s statements in the fuller biblical context that I will provide.
Christ and Government—the Essential Difference
The very natures and methods of government and Christ are diametrically opposed to each other. Government employs force and the threat of force, even violence, to impose its will. Jesus eschewed the ways of this world, especially violence.
The gentle but powerful spirit of Christ moves humans to charitable deeds through internal impulsion. Government commands obedience through external compulsion. Christian charity is voluntary, rewarding the giver with joy and satisfaction. By contrast, financial support of government programs is not voluntary, but mandatory. Noncompliance is punished by fines and/or imprisonment.
It has become fashionable in recent years to ask, “What would Jesus do?” Did Jesus enlist the help of the state in carrying out his mission? According to the gospel record, Jesus’ only contacts with government were when government sought to deprive him of each individual’s God-given rights—his life (the crucifixion), his liberty (his arrest), or his property (taxes). Given these facts, perhaps we shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that the Lord would choose government as an ally in performing Christian works.
“But things are different today,” some might say. “At the time of Jesus, Roman society was pagan, but today Christian values permeate our society, and so it is only natural to expect government policies to implement Christian values.” Let’s examine this assumption.
Apart from the lengthy historical record showing how Christian rulers have ruined countless lives when resorting to compulsion, Jesus himself cautioned against merging Christian goals into a political agenda. Wiser than the rest of us, the Savior delineated two separate spheres of activity, the sacred and the secular, telling his followers to “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17).
If Jesus had believed in political power as the path to God’s kingdom on earth, might not he have accepted Satan’s offer to receive control over all the kingdoms on earth? Then he could have passed laws and imposed his will on mankind. But we all know how the Lord responded to that temptation: “Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.” (See Matt. 4:8-10.)
Where in the Bible is the church of Christ instructed to delegate its charitable mission to civil government, or to seek a “joint custody,” or shared responsibility, for Christian beneficence? Christians may “reprove, rebuke, exhort” (II Tim. 4:2) others to increase their charitable activities, but where in the Bible is it written that we may compel others to act charitably?
The Master’s Way
A Bible passage often cited by those who claim biblical support for the redistribution of wealth is Jesus’ encounter with a rich man in Mark 10. This unnamed man wanted to know how he might attain eternal life. After hearing that he had faithfully kept the commandments “from [his] youth,” Jesus told him what he still needed to do: “Go thy way, sell whatever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, take up the cross, and follow me” (v. 21).
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