Conservatives, in particular, conservative Christians get a bad rap from our “progressive” brethren about either being inconsistent regarding ministry to the poor or sometimes we are bluntly accused of not caring for the poor.
I believe both are false and accusations like this are not helpful. While there may be individuals on the right who feel this way, by and large it is not representative of our entire constituency. In many regards liberals, albeit not necessarily religious ones, have been shown to care in rhetoric only.
I would say that Christians from both conservative and progressive stripes (and others in between) do care about the poor, want to help those who are in poverty, and want to put and end to hunger, etc. We agree on the end. What we don’t agree on are the means. Chris Brooks gives several reasons why increasing governmental social welfare or having income redistribution doesn’t jive with what the Bible teaches regarding helping those who are poor. He says that the Bible’s model for the helping the poor is “one that encourages and enables self-reliance and one that is mostly dependent on individual givers.”
I agree. Looking at both the Old Testament and the New we see in God’s commands responsibility given to individuals, not the State. Care for the poor is a mandate for the Church, not governments. I also believe that you have seen a decrease of the influence of the Church as their role has been diminished in the social welfare arena. Before the Great Depression hospitals, schools, orphanages, etc. were largely run by churches or denominations. Not the case any more. The prophet Isaiah promises God’s people what will happen when they do the work on behalf of the poor that He desires:
“Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up speedily;
your righteousness shall go before you;
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’
If you take away the yoke from your midst,
the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,
if you pour yourself out for the hungry
and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
then shall your light rise in the darkness
and your gloom be as the noonday.
And the Lord will guide you continually
and satisfy your desire in scorched places
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters do not fail.
And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to dwell in,” (Isaiah 58:6-12, ESV).
God through the prophet Isaiah was telling his chosen people that they had chosen the wrong fast. They were neglecting the poor, the homeless, and the hungry. When they return to that work then in verse 8 we see, “then shall your light break forth like the dawn and your healing shall spring up speedily,” and God promises blessing and influence in other ways. We can see a parallel with the Church as well.
People, like Jim Wallis, read the prophets and see what they say about the poor, and assume that God is directing the government of the Nation of Israel to do something. Sometimes God’s message was given directly to the leaders, but by and large were given to the people of Israel individually as well.
I would also like to point out that organized contributions for the poor came from a person’s tithe, not tax. In Deuteronomy we see:
At the end of every three years you shall bring out all the tithe of your produce in the same year and lay it up within your towns. And the Levite, because he has no portion or inheritance with you, and the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, who are within your towns, shall come and eat and be filled, that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands that you do, (Deuteronomy 14:28-19, ESV).
In Acts when you see the poor taken care of collectively it was through individuals being led to sell their possessions and give to the poor, (Acts 4:32-37). In Acts 6 you see that it was the Church who took care of widows. James tells us that caring for orphans and widows in their distress is pure religion, (James 1:27). In Matthew 25 Jesus says, to individuals, those who help the least, the last and the lost are doing that unto Him as well.
So the responsibility ultimately is the Church’s. No where in scripture do you find people being forced to be charitable. We who follow Christ should give and work with “the least of these” because Christ’s love compels us.