Is welfare scriptural?
- Monday, January 24, 2000
The issue of welfare is very clear biblically: We are to help those in need. There may be disagreements about how much help is necessary and who should receive it, but there should be no disagreement on the necessity to feed, clothe, and shelter the poor.
Welfare for the poor is biblical and necessary. The fact that the government has assumed that function of caring for the poor does not negate our responsibility.
No one can realistically deny the fact that the church is no longer the prime mover in meeting the needs of the poor; the government is. Nor can there be any doubt that from this base of government welfare the "great society" has grown. From this society developed many families in permanent poverty, and because of this many Christians have developed resentment and indifference to the real poor.
The purpose of welfare
"For the poor will never cease to be in the land; therefore I command you, saying, 'You shall freely open your hand to your brother, to your needy and poor in your land'" (Deuteronomy 15:11). God's Word says that there will always be needs in the world around us. The purpose is twofold: one, to test our commitment to obedience (Matthew 25:40); and two, to create an attitude of interdependence (2 Corinthians 8:14). We are admonished to meet the needs of the widows and orphans because they are unable to meet their own needs. But does welfare stop with the elderly widows and orphans? Unfortunately, in most of Christianity, it doesn't even include them. Simply because Satan has misused welfare for his purposes doesn't make welfare wrong.
It's impossible to read the epistles of James and John without recognizing the requirement to help others in need. John uses the lack of concern for the needs of others as evidence of the lack of love (1 John 3:16-18). Therefore, we know that the true purpose of welfare (meeting the needs of others) is to prove (demonstrate) God's love through us. An outside observer would have to conclude that there is little evidence of God's love in America. That is exactly the conclusion many unsaved come to. The church is more interested in buildings, programs, and promotions than in caring.
Effects of welfare
It is interesting to see the contrasting objectives of biblical welfare and government welfare. The effects of sharing with others in need, out of God's love, are threefold: one, a sense of fellowship and belonging (2 Corinthians 9:13); two, a stronger family unit (1 Timothy 5:8); and three, a high standard for work, which prohibits laziness (2 Thessalonians 3:9-10).
Unfortunately, the effects of social or government welfare are almost the opposite. Why is this? It is because the motivation is not love but pity, or even worse, guilt. When society tries to make up for previous wrongs by providing government welfare, the results will be permanent dependence and poverty. With the best of intentions, our welfare system traps people at the lowest economic level by indiscriminate giving. To qualify for support, most recipients must show only that they are not working, not that they cannot work.
Additionally, most welfare recipients resent the system and, ultimately, the society that supports them. Why? Because of the degrading method in which the funds are distributed and the stigma attached to "taking someone else's money." Welfare must be voluntary to express any kind of caring. Government welfare recipients must adopt an attitude of "you owe it to me" to justify receiving the money, even if they have legitimate needs. After only one generation, a welfare mentality and permanent dependence develops. The temptations of free money attracts more and more recipients until, finally, there are fewer "givers" than "takers."
Christians are given clear and absolute direction about welfare in God's Word. Fortunately, the standards for welfare also are given. Indiscriminate welfare traps the recipients by making them dependent. Biblical welfare meets needs and always looks toward restoring individuals to a position of productivity.
Qualification for welfare
- Poor - In Scripture, being poor literally meant those who were unable to meet even the most basic needs. Those who were poor (not lazy) were worthy of support. (Deuteronomy 15:7-11; 2 Samuel 12:1-5; Proverbs 14:31, 19:17.)
- Diligence - There are many people who are lazy by nature. They do not qualify for support and, in fact, require a good swift kick for motivation. Supporting these people is just as unscriptural as not supporting those with legitimate needs. "A worker's appetite works for him, for his hunger urges him on" (Proverbs 16:26). (Also see Proverbs 19:15, 20:4, 24:33-34; 2 Thessalonians 3:10.)
- Widows - A qualified widow is defined as a woman 60 years or older whose husband has died (1 Timothy 5:3-10). In the first century it was acknowledged that families took care of their own widows. In our generation, the qualification could well be extended to those who cannot get help from their own families (divorcees included).
- Orphans - It would seem evident that being parentless is a nearly impossible situation. All children belong to God's family. If Christians fulfilled their function, every child would have parents. Even if we can't adopt them all, we most assuredly can care for their needs (both material and emotional).
- Benevolence - This is nothing more than material "obedience." Welfare means long-term care; benevolence means meeting immediate needs. In James 2:15-16 we are admonished to help those in need. It does not qualify them as "poor" or "widows" but only as "lacking of the daily food." Such temporary needs can easily be the result of illness, imprisonment, or unemployment. Benevolence means giving to the obvious needs of another.
- Lifestyle - Legitimately, many Christians ask what constitutes a need in another's life. The Scripture seems to indicate a moderate lifestyle but not one of poverty. "For this is not for the ease of others and for your affliction, but by way of equality" (2 Corinthians 8:13). Reason would indicate that a need is relative to the society and times. A Cambodian's needs probably do not include an automobile. But for many Americans, a car is necessary for earning a livelihood. Since there are no absolutes on this issue, it would seem that God allows individual discernment. However, the need for food, shelter, and clothing to survive are absolutes and, unfortunately, there are many people in our world who are dying for the lack of these things.
The truth is that Christians are doing a miserable job of caring for the physical needs of the poor. If we can't meet the needs of those around us, we won't meet the needs of people in other countries. Few churches today have any organized program for helping the poor of their own fellowship or community. Some have a benevolence fund to help meet some emergencies but nothing to meet continuing needs. Obviously, vision and leadership come from the top down. If the church doesn't practice the "body" concept of Christianity, it is a certainty that it will never reach the unsaved community.
At present, the governments of the world account for nearly 95 percent of all the care to the aged, ill, and impoverished, and the evidence shows they are using it as a tool to spread atheism. Is it any wonder that the unsaved are rejecting Christianity? In the matter of caring, it has become just another religion rather than a "faith." (Obviously, there are exceptions, and many Christian organizations do a great job of meeting the physical and spiritual needs of others, but they are few in comparison.) It is not a question of ability or direction. Christians in America have the resources to do at least ten times what we are presently doing for the poor, with little or no alteration of lifestyles.
Many Christians are going to be very ashamed to face the Lord and explain how they hoarded money for indulgences while others went hungry at the same time. "And he said, 'This is what I will do: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.' But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your soul is required of you; and now who will own what you have prepared?'" (Luke 12:18,20).
What can we do
Welfare was transferred from the church because the church neglected it. It can be recovered, and the church can become a leader in caring about personal needs. This is not an option from God; it is an imperative. "He who gives to the poor will never want, but he who shuts his eyes will have many curses" (Proverbs 28:27).
Committed Christians should encourage their church leaders to establish a body life ministry. A portion of every church's budget should be designated for needs in the fellowship and in the community. There should also be an outreach to starving people in other countries. If the denomination doesn't have a "care" program, support a good, independent ministry that feeds the hungry.
Each church should have a resource committee set up to counsel families in need, to determine who does and does not qualify. There should be such an atmosphere of sharing and caring that members would feel as free to share a financial burden as they would a physical burden. Ultimately, within the Christian community there should be health and child care centers, vocational training centers, and employment agencies, so that when faced with needs from within the Christian community or the secular community we could respond without relying on government help.
Click here to read other articles by Larry Burkett.
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