Saturday, December 05, 2009

Evangelicals And Neglect Of The Poor

I think Justin Taylor's description of this sermon ("The Gospel Demands Radical Generosity") is better than the sermon itself. There's an element of truth that David Platt is getting at in his sermon. I suspect that most Christians should be more concerned about, and should be doing more to help, the poor. But that conclusion isn't the same as equating conservative Evangelical Christians in America, Platt's primary audience, with the rich man of Luke 16. This subject could be approached from so many different angles, and there's a lot I'm ignorant about on this issue, but here are several qualifications I would add to Platt's sermon, qualifications he doesn't mention much or at all:

- The main problem with the rich man in Luke 16 is unbelief (Luke 16:31). Neglect of the poor is one symptom among others, but a symptom particularly relevant to the materialistic Pharisees mentioned in the nearby context (16:14).

- I doubt that the way the rich man dressed and ate (16:19) is comparable to what the average attender of a church like Platt's does. Yes, Americans generally have better and more clothing than a lot of other people in the world. But you can have better and more clothing without being excessive or going to the extent of excess described in Luke 16. The same is true of food, for example. Excessive and wasteful use of food is a significant problem in America, including among conservative Evangelicals, but the degree of the problem varies a lot from one individual to another, and I doubt that more than a small percentage of America lives the way the rich man in Luke 16 lived. There's a large gray area between poverty and the rich man of Luke 16. Americans are closer to the rich man. (And we're even better off than him in some ways.) But saying that Luke 16 has a secondary, significantly qualified application to people like those who attend Platt's church is different than saying that those people are the rich man. Some of Platt's comments would be more appropriate if directed at leaders of third-world nations or the executives at some corporations, not the average American Evangelical.

- Is Lazarus literally at our gate, as he was for the rich man? When Platt refers to people in other nations, sometimes thousands of miles away from us, as people at our gate, he's defining "at our gate" significantly differently than it's defined in Luke 16. The rich man didn't have to get past corrupt government officials, a corrupt military, language barriers, significant differences in cultural customs, etc. in order to get to Lazarus. Even when a Christian ministry or American government program has been set up to do such work, while being funded by the American people, much of the time and money involved has to go into getting those ministries and programs in place and keeping them going. It's not as easy as giving crumbs to a man who's literally at your gate (Luke 16:21) or helping him in some other manner.

- If Luke 16:21 is meant to suggest that the rich man didn't even give crumbs to Lazarus, then is such behavior comparable to what the average conservative Evangelical in America does? My understanding is that while Americans don't give as much money away as they should, they do give away some. And conservative Evangelicals seem to be among the most generous. Ministries to the poor are common, and they often receive a lot of attention from churches, businesses, the media, etc. Think, for example, of Salvation Army or the many radio and web ads you see for ministries helping the poor around the world. Are we truly refusing to even give away crumbs? We don't have to exaggerate a problem in order to address it. Hyperbole is acceptable at times, but let's be sure that people understand when a particular comment, like one of David Platt's, is hyperbolic at best.

- Even Americans who don't know much about politics tend to be aware of government programs like welfare. Our government spends a large amount of money on the poor, and we know it. Americans knowingly, and to some extent approvingly, provide for the poor through government programs.

- Part of the work done by our military involves helping the poor. We often provide food and water, build schools, and help with other such work in other nations, whether through our military or by other means. We don't just give financially. We also give our time, energy, and, in some cases, the lives of our soldiers in the process. Our concern for the poor often involves investing large amounts of money in rebuilding their nations and sometimes laying down our lives in service to them. This year, there will be American families who will be celebrating their first Christmas since losing a child, parent, or sibling in Afghanistan or Iraq, for example. Much of the work done by our military in those regions of the world constitutes helping the poor. What would a family of such a soldier think if you told them they were equivalent to the rich man of Luke 16?

- We're surrounded with many appeals to help the poor. How often do you see television, radio, and web ads for such ministries? How often do local Evangelical radio stations have fund raisers for such things? Even when the fund raiser is for something like the Bible League, so many of the people who receive the Bibles are poor people. Why do organizations seeking to help the poor set up stations outside of popular stores or in other such locations? Why keep setting up in such locations if nobody is even giving away their crumbs? Even if Americans don't give as much as they should, which I think is the case, I doubt that these organizations would be so numerous and would keep operating the way they do if the average American or the average Evangelical were behaving like the rich man in Luke 16.

- How many conservative Evangelical churches don't do anything to help the poor? From what I've heard from my church's leadership, it seems that they frequently are involved in things pertaining to the poor. We work with local ministries to the poor, we gather food for the poor, poor people come to us for help, etc. I suspect that the average conservative Evangelical church is frequently involved in helping the poor. Maybe we should do some things more or differently, but we are doing some things already.

- When poor people want help, do they usually go looking for a local group of atheists? They probably look for a religious or government organization to help them. They know that any help they're going to get is likely to come from professing Christian ministries or a government set up by professing Christians, one that largely reflects Christian priorities. Given how many shelters, hospitals, etc. there are that have been founded or operated by Christians, and given how widespread such things are, isn't it highly inaccurate to suggest that we refuse to even give away crumbs?

- Old Testament passages about the oppression of the poor or passages about using dishonest scales in order to steal from the poor, for example, can't be applied without qualification to Evangelicals who are only guilty of not giving as much as they should to the poor. Not helping the poor as much as you should isn't the same as oppressing the poor or stealing from them in an unqualified sense.

- Scripture distinguishes between different types of poor people. As Proverbs and Paul tell us, some poor people don't eat because they refuse to work. And many poor people, particularly in a nation like the United States, are poor partially because of something like mental illness, drugs, or alcohol. They sometimes don't want help or resist it, and they're sometimes largely blameworthy for their poverty.

- As Platt acknowledges, the poor can be helped in more ways than giving money. Giving them knowledge of important truths, developing their skills so that they can provide for themselves, spending time with them, and other such things are important. Giving to them financially is important, but so are other things. That includes apologetics, I would add. Ideas have consequences, including for the poor, both directly and indirectly.

- In some parts of a nation like the United States, you can live for many years without knowingly coming into face-to-face contact with somebody who's poor. You may know or walk or drive past people who have a relatively low income, but still have multiple pairs of clothing, a car, a television, housing, etc. They aren't in the same category as Lazarus. You could go many years, maybe even a lifetime, without meeting somebody like Lazarus face-to-face.

- We shouldn't assume that every commendable act of giving to the poor in scripture is meant to be taken as a universal commandment. Must everybody give 50% of their possessions to the poor upon their conversion to Christ (Luke 19:8-10)? Sometimes people are commended for giving their resources elsewhere instead of to the poor (Luke 21:1-4, John 12:3-8, Acts 6:1-4). Helping the poor is one good work among others, and different people are called to different fields of labor. Yes, poverty is common in the world and a frequent subject of discussion in scripture, and we should act accordingly. It should be relatively high on our list of priorities. Even those who don't do something like working for a ministry to the homeless should be helping the poor to some extent in some manner. You'd have to be unusually corrupt or unusually incompetent to avoid helping the poor altogether in a society like ours, where there are so many opportunities to help them and so many reminders to do so.

- Much of what our society has in place to help the poor, through non-governmental agencies or government programs, is a result of our Christian heritage. Those who went before us established a society in which we would be surrounded with reminders of the importance of caring for the poor and would have many opportunities available to do so. To refer to such a society, and particularly the portion of that society that most serves as salt and light, as the rich man of Luke 16 is inaccurate and slanderous.

Having said all of that, I want to repeat what I said at the beginning of this post. There is an element of truth to David Platt's sermon. And I'm glad that he's highly concerned about the poor. But qualifications like the ones above have to be kept in mind.


  1. A couple of other things to keep in mind:

    1. It's common to think of available resources as a fixed-size pie, i.e. more for me means less for someone else. But this view is economically false. There is not a fixed size to the economic pie. We can engage in activities that help create wealth and increase the size of the pie. Regardless of their respective motivations, people such as Bill Gates, Sam Walton, and Michael Milken have--by creating new wealth and new jobs--done far more than Mother Teresa to help alleviate world poverty. It's therefore a false dichotomy to make a spending/giving distinction and claim that only giving helps the poor. Spending has distributive consequences throughout the world economy, stimulates further economic activity, and increases the size of the global economic pie. A larger pie benefits the poor, the middle class, and the rich.

    2. When we give, we should consider unintended consequences in addition to intended consequences. For example, if large numbers of American Christians stopped eating out so they could instead give the money they saved to the poor, then how many jobs in the restaurant industry would be lost? Would ripple effects also cause lost jobs in other kinds of businesses such as restaurant suppliers? Would the very act of trying to give to the poor thereby create additional poor people by causing lost jobs?

    Does giving to the poor in countries with with bad economic policies or corrupt or oppressive governments help prop up those governments and keep them in power longer than they otherwise would be? If we did not give, would the poor of those countries be more likely to rise up and overthrow their evil or incompetent governments and institute a new regime with sound economic policies? Aren't people whose basic needs are not being met more likely than those whose needs are provided for to overthrow their leaders? By alleviating poverty now, do we thereby create additional poverty in the future?

    I'm not sure about the answers to these questions, but they're definitely things we should think about when we give. We shouldn't pretend that giving has only positive consequences and no unintended negative consequences.

  2. Matthew wrote:

    “Does giving to the poor in countries with with bad economic policies or corrupt or oppressive governments help prop up those governments and keep them in power longer than they otherwise would be?”

    And the governmental and non-governmental agencies giving the money and other resources often waste those resources before they even get into the hands of foreign governments. The United States government frequently wastes money, including in highly dishonest ways, and some charities are ineffective in using what they’re entrusted with.

    We have to distinguish between a poor person living at our gate and a poor person living thousands of miles away. Even if you want to help the latter, you don’t have as much control over what happens with your efforts to help. It still makes sense to try to help people who are far away, but I think there are good reasons for people to be more cautious about entrusting others with resources to do work that’s far removed from the people who are doing the giving.

    One of the reasons why poverty isn’t as bad in the United States as it is in a lot of other nations is that we’ve made provisions to take care of the poor. Where our own government is concerned and the people who need the help are close to us, we’ve done a lot to help. We’ve also done a lot in other nations, though it’s to be expected that we wouldn’t have as much control over what happens in those other nations or sense as much responsibility for those people.

    There are some significant differences between first-century Israel and twenty-first-century America, and we have to take those differences into account. The fact that people often came into contact with the poor in first-century Israel doesn’t prove that we have as much contact with, and thus as much responsibility for, the poor in twenty-first-century America (or other nations). Sometimes something like better technology, a better system of government, or a large Christian influence on a society will make one culture much different than another (in both good and bad ways). We should be doing more to help the poor, and misuse of money is a major problem in this country, but overestimating the problem doesn’t help.

  3. This comment comes in two parts because of length and maybe three?

    What's that old saw? "...The New Testament is contained neatly in the Old Testament. The Old Testament is explained completely in the New Testament....".

    Well with that old saw in mind consider these things about the proclamation of the Heart of God to the hearts and minds of His Elect regarding the purpose of giving back to Him and giving to one another:::>

    Deu 15:1 "At the end of every seven years you shall grant a release.
    Deu 15:2 And this is the manner of the release: every creditor shall release what he has lent to his neighbor. He shall not exact it of his neighbor, his brother, because the LORD's release has been proclaimed.
    Deu 15:3 Of a foreigner you may exact it, but whatever of yours is with your brother your hand shall release.
    Deu 15:4 But there will be no poor among you; for the LORD will bless you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess--
    Deu 15:5 if only you will strictly obey the voice of the LORD your God, being careful to do all this commandment that I command you today.
    Deu 15:6 For the LORD your God will bless you, as he promised you, and you shall lend to many nations, but you shall not borrow, and you shall rule over many nations, but they shall not rule over you.
    Deu 15:7 "If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother,
    Deu 15:8 but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be.
    Deu 15:9 Take care lest there be an unworthy thought in your heart and you say, 'The seventh year, the year of release is near,' and your eye look grudgingly on your poor brother, and you give him nothing, and he cry to the LORD against you, and you be guilty of sin.


    Act 20:28 Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.
    Act 20:29 I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock;
    Act 20:30 and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.
    Act 20:31 Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish everyone with tears.
    Act 20:32 And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.
    Act 20:33 I coveted no one's silver or gold or apparel.
    Act 20:34 You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities and to those who were with me.
    Act 20:35 In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, 'It is more blessed to give than to receive.'"

    What we read there about Paul, it seems to me, is to exegete what Moses wrote in Deuteronomy 15.

    Paul goes to a specific idea here, also, when it comes to "giving" to God, to the Teachers within the Church and the giving to one another generally and specifically:::>

    Gal 6:1 Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.
    Gal 6:2 Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.
    Gal 6:3 For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself.
    Gal 6:4 But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor.
    Gal 6:5 For each will have to bear his own load.
    Gal 6:6 One who is taught the word must share all good things with the one who teaches.
    Gal 6:7 Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap.


  4. Jesus, Himself, picks up this idea of giving and covetousness, greed and self-serving, here. It seems to be His own indictment against such sinfulness, don’t you think?:::>

    Mat 23:23 "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.
    Mat 23:24 You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!

    For me, though, seeing there is so much to be misunderstood about John 3:16 and God’s generosity; and the fact that we are to be careful to just "how" we are give our pearls out to a select needy group among all groups, the topic of giving to the Church, I like the way John develops John 3:16 here, as he exegetes it succinctly:::>

    1Jn 3:14 We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death.
    1Jn 3:15 Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.
    1Jn 3:16 By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.
    1Jn 3:17 But if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him?
    1Jn 3:18 Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.

    The key to understanding all these verses, Deu. 15:1-9, Acts 20:28-35,
    Gal. 6:1-7, Matt. 23:23-4 and 1 John 3:14-18 in my opinion, is to understand the use of the Greek Word "bios" in the New Testament.

    You see this Greek Word “bios” in 1 John 3:17, translated as the phrase: "this world's goods".

    It was and is "this world's goods" that Satan tempted Jesus with during the temptation in the wilderness and he continues to tempt us with today to be self-serving, greedy, hoarding in covetousness, instead of cheerfully and liberally giving out of our increase and the first fruits, this world’s goods, to those in need.

    It is "this world's goods" the widow gave into the Treasury that Jesus noted after seeing all the rich given into His Treasury from their wealthy and surplus. It is this same "world's goods" Paul had in mind when we read him give this admonition to Timothy:::>

    2Ti 2:4 No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him.

    Here, the Greek Word "bios" is translated "civilian pursuits".

    Here is my assertion about "evangelicals and neglect of the poor": "it falls to the leadership to set the example of “giving”, first to God, then, giving honorarium and a double portion to those who teach and preach well and setting aside so that at the first of every week we are continually giving into the New Testament "treasury" so that the deacons can serve the Church and the world well! Giving is the only way of increasing and prospering within and without:::>

    Act 6:1 Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution.
    Act 6:2 And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, "It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables.
    Act 6:3 Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty.

  5. For those coming to this thread from my link at Justin Taylor's blog, you may be interested in a follow-up thread I posted here.