The Bible and the Ballot Box 1
If we want to be faithful followers of Jesus, we have to let our faith inform every aspect of our lives – not just what we do on Sunday. Nowhere is this more important than how we, as citizens of a republic, let our faith shape how we vote and otherwise influence our government.
I don’t know many people who would deny that the Bible has a lot to say about the poor and how we should treat them. The question is do we actually know what it has to say? What does the Bible tell us to do for the poor?
The Bible’s instructions regarding the poor can be loosely divided in two categories: charity and justice.
The first command regarding charity in the Mosaic Law is "If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy… charge him no interest” (Ex 22:25).
The next is this: “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… Leave them for the poor and the alien” (Lev 19:9-10).
Self-sufficiency: These and other biblical commands regarding charity show two interesting features; first, we see a preference toward helping the poor take care of themselves rather than just receiving charity.
In some cases, God’s people are told simply give to the poor. The needy were given the OT tithe every three years (Deut 14:28-29), and Jesus told his followers, “Give to the one who asks you” (Matt 5:42), but there is a biblical emphasis on self-sufficiency rather than dependency. Even as the NT church was instructed to take care of the poor, they were also told “If a man will not work, he shall not eat” (2 Thess 3:10, emphasis added) – i.e., a person should do what he can for himself.
This philosophy appears in later Christian and Jewish works. Maimonedes called it the ladder of charity: “The highest degree of charity…is he who strengthens the hand of his poor fellow Jew and gives him a gift or [an interest-free] loan or enters into a business partnership with the poor person.”
Likewise in the Constitutions of the Holy Apostles, church leaders were instructed to provide “to the widows the care of husbands; to those of suitable age, marriage; to the artificer, work; to the unable, commiseration; to the strangers, an house; to the hungry, food…” (4.1.2, emphasis mine).
Both traditions thought it preferable to help the able-bodied poor find work and maintain dignity and self-reliance.
To the individual: Secondly, the commands in scripture are aimed at the individual. Yes, these commands were given to a community, but each individual was responsible for carrying them out, and he was answerable to God alone for his failure to do so.
In the NT, it appears at first glance that the fledgling church of Jerusalem made a group effort to take care of the poor (Acts 4:32-5:11), but even there the individual made the decision (5:4) with the apostles simply coordinating the effort.
It’s also worth noting that, where the local church was taking care of the poor, the onus was on an able-bodied individual to take care of his extended family and keep the burden off the community (1 Tim 5:3-8).
Redistribution?: Completely missing from the Bible is any suggestion that some central body (e.g., the government) should take people’s money or property and give it to the poor. For some reason Luke 12:33 (and similar verses) is popular to quote as supporting liberal social policies. But when Jesus says, “Sell your possessions and give to the poor,” that does not give you license to sell your neighbor’s possessions.
But what about “justice?” Social justice is the cry of many politically active Christians today, and justice is an important principle in the Bible. But what does justice mean?
Jeremiah, one of the prophets who cried out for justice, wrote, “Woe to him to builds his palace by unrighteousness, his upper rooms by injustice, making his countrymen work for nothing, not paying for their labor” (22:13). Here, “justice” seems to be paying your laborers.
The OT is full of commands to treat the poor and the alien properly. This is justice:
“Do not mistreat an alien” (Ex 22:21).
“Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan” (Ex 22:22).
“Do not hold back the wages of a hired man overnight” (Lev 19:13b).
“Do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly” (Lev 19:15b).
“Do not use dishonest standards when measuring length, weight or quantity” (Lev 19:35).
These commands are about treating everyone fairly, not taking advantage of anyone, not defrauding people because they are weak. According to Jeremiah 22 and Ezekiel 18 and the other prophets, this is being “just,” not giving the poor money.
Modern liberals who say “justice” in these passages is government redistribution of wealth are reading their own definition of justice into the Bible.
To summarize, regarding the poor the Bible instructs us to be
1) A community of individuals who
2) if possible, help the poor provide for himself,
3) if it’s not possible, provide him his daily needs,
4) and make sure that the poor is denied neither wages he is due nor justice in court.
So what’s the purpose in all this? Lately the Christian Left has been accusing the Christian Right of ignoring the Bible on any issues other than abortion and same-sex marriage.
The truth is there is no biblical mandate to enforce charity upon society as a whole or upon the individual taxpayer. Each individual will answer to God for how he regards his possessions and the poor, but you can’t make a biblical case that the government has a responsibility to step in and pick up the slack.
That is not to say that we can’t, as a society, decide that we want to take care of the poor in that way. But you cannot accuse conservatives of ignoring the biblical mandate to take care of the poor. In fact it is the liberal position that strays from the Bible. Until the reform of the nineties – created by Republicans in Congress and signed by a more conservative Democrat – the system even discouraged people on welfare from working. That is the unscriptural policy.
The conservative approach to helping the poor via personal charity and tax policies that encourage economic growth (i.e., job creation) seems to be well within the scope of the biblical picture.
So to the people wondering if they can be conservatives and Christians, on this issue, the answer is yes.
The next “Bible and the Ballot Box” will look at the issue of capital punishment.