Should Government Help the Poor?

People who really want to follow Jesus aren’t itching to set up a theocracy or some sort of political version of the Kingdom of God on earth.  Why? Because they know that Jesus told us that the Kingdom of God is fundamentally different from worldly political systems and has completely different goals. “My kingdom is not from this world,” Jesus said. “If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting… But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” John 18:36 NRSV.  

That being said, the Bible isn’t silent about politics or the role of government.  The Apostle Paul addressed the issue most explicitly in his epistle to the Romans where he states that God has put political rulers in place to punish those who “do what is wrong” (Rom. 13:4).  Unfortunately, corrupt politicians (including Hitler) have appropriated Paul’s message to justify their oppressive regimes.  But Paul’s command to “be subject to the governing authorities” must be understood within the wider context of Scripture.  In short, Romans 13 doesn’t require Christians to blindly obey governments if doing so would cause them to disobey God (see, e.g., Acts 5:29).  

While the church is called to advance the spiritual kingdom of God on earth (as opposed to setting up a political version of the kingdom of God), followers of Jesus still ought to want the government of which they are citizens to be moral, just and good. 

Does the Bible give us any ideas of what a moral, just and good government looks like?  

It sure does.

Ancient Israel was a theocracy – a version of God’s kingdom on earth –  and many of its civil laws provided examples of what a moral and just society could look like.  While we can’t draw a straight line between the civil laws of a theocracy to the laws a secular government should enact, we can gather some general principles.  Also, while the Mosaic laws regarding sacrifices and annual feast days were “shadows” that pointed forward to the coming Messiah, many of the Mosaic civil laws were not inherently spiritual or related to worship.   Some of those civil laws are clearly inapplicable outside a theocracy, but others still provide principles that can inform civil governments today.

For example, God gave the Israelites laws regarding the treatment of the poor. What do these civil laws teach us about modern governments helping the poor?   

  • The Mosaic law required all debts to be forgiven every 7 years (Deuteronomy 15:1)
  • Every 50 years, the Mosaic law required that land reverted to the original owners (Leviticus 25:13)
  • Numerous other biblical passages condemn the oppression of workers and command employers to pay a fair wage to their employees (see, e.g., James 5:1-4)
  • Requiring taxes is a legitimate role of government (Romans 13)

Is it permissible for governments to enact laws that help the poor?  

Absolutely.  God’s laws for ancient Israel show us that relying on the generosity of the selfish human heart is not enough; structures and regulations are needed to assist the poor.

In fact, the Bible teaches that a government that ignores poverty – or worse yet, encourages oppression of the poor – is an immoral government: 

“Woe to those who decree iniquitous decrees, and the writers who keep writing oppression, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be their spoil, and that they may make the fatherless their prey! What will you do on the day of punishment, in the ruin that will come from afar? To whom will you flee for help, and where will you leave your wealth?” Isaiah 10:1-3 ESV

What should government assistance to the poor look like?  That’s open for debate, but what shouldn’t be open for debate is the fact that it is perfectly appropriate for government to pay attention to poverty.

What was the goal of God’s laws for the poor? 

“There will, however, be no one in need among you, because the Lord is sure to bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a possession to occupy, if only you will obey the Lord your God by diligently observing this entire commandment that I command you today.” Deut. 15:4-5 NRSV

Some will argue that since Jesus said we would always have the poor with us that there is nothing we can do about poverty.  Jesus,  however, was simply stating the reality of things as they were in our sinful world.  Clearly, God’s ideal was that there will “be no one in need among you.”  (Deut. 15:4).

The early Christians understood this beautiful truth and lived it out to the point that “that there were no needy persons among them” (Acts 4:34 NIV).  The early disciples obviously did not share the dystopian, fatalistic view that there was nothing they could do about poverty.

Babylon – a Government that Oppressed the Poor

The Kingdom of Babylon presents a case study in government gone bad.  Daniel chapter 4 records how King Nebuchadnezzar was warned in a dream that if he failed to acknowledge the true source of his power he would be humbled.  The government of Babylon was illustrated by a great tree:

“The tree grew large and strong and its top touched the sky; it was visible to the ends of the earth.  Its leaves were beautiful, its fruit abundant, and on it was food for all. Under it the wild animals found shelter, and the birds lived in its branches; from it every creature was fed.” Daniel 4:11-12.

“This representation shows the character of a government that fulfills God’s purpose—a government that protects and upbuilds the nation.” Education, 175.

However,

“[I]nstead of being a protector of men, Babylon became a proud and cruel oppressor. The words of Inspiration picturing the cruelty and greed of rulers in Israel reveal the secret of Babylon’s fall and of the fall of many another kingdom since the world began: “Ye eat the fat, and ye clothe you with the wool, ye kill them that are fed: but ye feed not the flock. The diseased have ye not strengthened, neither have ye healed that which was sick, neither have ye bound up that which was broken, neither have ye brought again that which was driven away, neither have ye sought that which was lost; but with force and with cruelty have ye ruled them.” Ezekiel 34:3, 4.” Education, 176.

The prophet Daniel warned the king with the following words: 

“Your Majesty, be pleased to accept my advice: Renounce your sins by doing what is right, and your wickedness by being kind to the oppressed. It may be that then your prosperity will continue.”  Daniel 4:27 NIV

The government of Babylon fulfilled God’s purposes when it protected the poor and oppressed, when it healed the sick and was kind to the oppressed.  God’s purpose for secular governments today is no different. 

Ellen White’s View on Government and the Poor 

Ellen White believed that government had a crucial role to play in caring for and educating the formerly enslaved after the Civil War:

“Much might have been accomplished by the people of America if adequate efforts in behalf of the freedmen had been put forth by the Government and by the Christian churches immediately after the emancipation of the slaves. Money should have been used freely to care for and educate them at the time they were so greatly in need of help. But the Government, after a little effort, left the Negro to struggle, unaided, with his burden of difficulties. Some of the strong Christian churches began a good work, but sadly failed to reach more than a comparatively few; and the Seventh-day Adventist Church has failed to act its part. Some persevering efforts have been put forth by individuals and by societies to uplift the colored people, and a noble work has been done. But how few have had a part in this work which should have had the sympathy and help of all!” Testimonies for the Church, Vol. 9, 205.

Ellen White also wrote that the economic “regulations” that God instituted in ancient Israel were designed to “place a check” upon the love of property and power and to promote “social equality”: 

“The Lord would place a check upon the inordinate love of property and power. Great evils would result from the continued accumulation of wealth by one class, and the poverty and degradation of another.…There would be a feeling of despair and desperation which would tend to demoralize society and open the door to crimes of every description. The regulations that God established were designed to promote social equality. The provisions of the sabbatical year and the jubilee would, in a great measure, set right that which during the interval had gone wrong in the social and political economy of the nation. ” Patriarchs & Prophets, 534.

Ellen White believed that the economic laws given by God should have continued, and that much of today’s societal unrest can be traced to selfishness and poverty: 

“If the law given by God for the benefit of the poor had continued to be carried out, how different would be the present condition of the world, morally, spiritually, and temporally! Selfishness and self-importance would not be manifested as now, but each would cherish a kind regard for the happiness and welfare of others; and such widespread destitution as is now seen in many lands would not exist. The principles which God has enjoined, would prevent the terrible evils that in all ages have resulted from the oppression of the rich toward the poor and the suspicion and hatred of the poor toward the rich. While they might hinder the amassing of great wealth and the indulgence of unbounded luxury, they would prevent the consequent ignorance and degradation of tens of thousands whose ill-paid servitude is required to build up these colossal fortunes. They would bring a peaceful solution of those problems that now threaten to fill the world with anarchy and bloodshed.” Patriarchs & Prophets, 536.

Ellen White wrote that the Mosaic economic “regulations” promoted “social order” and “the stability of government” and saw human beings as connected on a socio-economic level and not merely as individuals:  

“There is nothing, after the recognition of the claims of God, that more distinguishes the laws given by Moses than the liberal, tender, and hospitable spirit enjoined toward the poor… These regulations were designed to bless the rich no less than the poor. They would restrain avarice and a disposition for self-exaltation, and would cultivate a noble spirit of benevolence; and by fostering good will and confidence between all classes, they would promote social order, the stability of government. We are all woven together in the great web of humanity, and whatever we can do to benefit and uplift others will reflect in blessing upon ourselves.  Patriarchs & Prophets, 530-534.

Ellen White believed that true Christianity cares about human rights and the claims of the poor: 

“The standard of the golden rule is the true standard of Christianity; anything short of it is a deception. A religion that leads men to place a low estimate upon human beings, whom Christ has esteemed of such value as to give Himself for them; a religion that would lead us to be careless of human needs, sufferings, or rights, is a spurious religion. In slighting the claims of the poor, the suffering, and the sinful, we are proving ourselves traitors to Christ… Search heaven and earth, and there is no truth revealed more powerful than that which is made manifest in works of mercy to those who need our sympathy and aid. This is the truth as it is in Jesus. When those who profess the name of Christ shall practice the principles of the golden rule, the same power will attend the gospel as in apostolic times.” Thoughts from the Mount of Blessing, 136, 137.

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