Practical Guidelines – The Gospel and the Poor (Part 7)

the gospel and the poor While general principles and guidelines can be ascertained from scripture, the practical out working of a theology of social engagement with the poor is messy. Plans to alleviate poverty may appear cut and dry on a philosophical level, but quickly unravel on a practical level. Alleviating poverty happens best when those who are attempting to render aid are able to perceive the needs first-hand on a local basis.

The truth is that your dollar goes further to  relieve poverty in third world countries than it does America and other industrialized nations because of the huge gap between living on a dollar a day and living on twelve to sixteen dollars a day. Sometimes it is easier to offer assistance in the third world because it seems like we can do more with less, but until we understand the issues surrounding specific instances of poverty we are more likely hurting those we intend to help. Poverty is seldom ever just a financial matter. More often than not throwing money at the problem will not fix it. In many cases there are other significant  factors at work such as the Hindu Cast system in India and land laws in South America.

There is nothing wrong with rendering aid to people in the third world but a few guidelines should be followed:

  1. Be sure you are meeting your moral obligation to the poor who are within your own moral proximity. An individual or church that gives aid to relieve poverty in Africa but fails to minister to the poor in its own congregation and community is passing by Lazarus at the gate.
  2. Be sure to give through an organization that understands the issues surrounding the specific instances of poverty. Sometimes we can offer economic incentives that reward bad behavior and actually fuel the cycle of poverty rather than deliver people from it. The best solution is to work with someone who understands the ins-and-outs of a specific instance of poverty and can address the real issues.
  3. Remember the difference between Mission and Philanthropy. Mission involves the gospel. Philanthropy is rendering aide. There is nothing missionary about an endeavor to merely relieve poverty without offering the only real hope we have in Jesus. There is nothing wrong with Philanthropy, but we need to be careful to not mislead people into believing that they are supporting a missionary endeavor when the organization only meets physical need. A good mission organization will have a good balance of meeting needs and sharing the gospel.

Churches and individuals may choose to give generously beyond their moral obligation of proximity to help those who are in need around the world. This though should be understood as generosity and not a moral obligation.  An individual may choose to adopt a child through an organization and send regular contributions to make sure that their child has adequate food, shelter, clothing and education. Churches may partner with ministries and churches in third world countries like India to feed slum children and provide them with a gospel lesson.  However, whenever aid is rendered in this way it is generally well beyond their moral proximity, Church communities and individual Christians would be wise to be invested in an individual or organization who knows the specific instances of poverty that are being addressed.  This would help insure that whatever aid it given is given in such a way as it not only addresses immediate needs such as hunger, but also looks to a long term solution. 

What are you doing to relieve poverty in your community and around the world?

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Who is Responsible? – The Gospel and the Poor (Part 6)

the gospel and the poorIs it the church’s responsibility to address poverty or is that a function of individual believers? DeYoung and Gilbert argue that the actual obligation of moral proximity lies at the feet of individuals rather than the church:

If I am commanded to do justice, does that mean ipso facto that it is the church’s mission to do justice? By the same token, if I am commanded to love my wife as my own body, does that mean it is the church’s mission to love my wife as it loves its own body? What sense would that even make? Our point is simply to say that defining the mission of the church institutional is just not as simple as identifying all the Bible’s commands to individual Christians and saying, “There, that’s the church’s mission.”[1]

But are they right? Is there a difference here between the Church and Believers when it comes to relieving poverty? Timothy Keller anticipating this kind of response notes:

Some believe that all the texts enjoining believers to give to the poor are given only to individual believers, not to the church as an institutional or body… If it is really true that justice and mercy to the poor is not optional for a Christian and is in fact the inevitable sign of justifying faith, it is hard to believe that the church is not to reflect this duty corporately in some way.  But we do not have to go on surmise and inference here…[2]

Keller goes on to outline a list of several Old Testament references such as tithes for the poor, land laws, etc. before turning his attention to the church in the New Testament and highlighting the role of deacons in Acts 6.[3]

Early churches did cooperate in an attempted to alleviate poverty beyond their geographic constraints. The gentile converts of Macedonia and Achaia took up a collection for the poor Jewish saints in Jerusalem. Paul wrote to the Romans, “At present, however, I am going to Jerusalem bringing aid to the saints. For Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make some contribution for the poor among the saints at Jerusalem. For they were pleased to do it, and indeed they owe it to them. For if the Gentiles have come to share in their spiritual blessings, they ought also to be of service to them in material blessings” (Romans 15:25-27 ESV).

While individuals such as in the account of Lazarus and the rich man are responsible to address poverty that churches are also responsible to address poverty as in the case of Macedonia and Achaia sending funds to the Jerusalem saints. The connection between the various churches however, is one of moral proximity.  The gentiles received the gospel because of the dispersion of the Jerusalem church and owed their very faith to the ones who were suffering in need. Akin to grown children providing for a parent who has fallen on hard times the gentile churches picked up the obligation to joyously care for members of the older church in her need.

What do you think? What are instances today where a church may be morally obligated to help relieve poverty in another area?

[1] Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert. What is the Mission of the Church?: Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission. (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2011), 233.

[2] Tim Keller, “The Gospel and the Poor,” Themelios 33, no. 3 (December 2008), 10.

[3] Ibid., 11.


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Generosity vs. Moral Obligation – The Gospel and the Poor (Part 5)

the gospel and the poor

Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert in their book, What is the Mission of the Church, make a different argument than the one we were left with by David Platt in the last post:

Some Christians make it sound like every poor person in Africa is akin to a man dying on our church’s doorstep, and neglecting starving children in India is like ignoring our own children drowning right in front of us… This rhetoric is manipulative and morally dubious…. We must distinguish between generosity and obligation, between a call to sacrificial love and a call to stop sinning.[1]

DeYoung and Gilbert are arguing for the concept of “moral proximity” to delineate the difference between an obligation to help the poor and generosity that flows from a heart of gratitude.  They are staking the claim that Christians have an ethical debt to relieve poverty as it appears in their moral proximity. So a believer has a greater obligation to alleviate the poverty of his brother-in-law than he does to alleviate the poverty experienced by an unbeliever he has never met ten-thousand miles away. This is the gist of what Paul says when he writes to Timothy, “But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8, ESV).

The concept of moral proximity is one of concentric circles working from the individuals and families experiencing poverty to a wider and wider community.  Thus the Apostle John writes about the moral obligation a believer has towards another believer, “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?” (1 John 3:17, ESV).  Likewise the epistle writer James notes that true faith will involve action to benefit those among the congregation who are living in poverty, “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?” (James 2:15-16 ESV).

Moral proximity is precisely the point of Jesus’ parables of the Good Samaritan and the rich man and Lazarus. In each case it was the proximity that created a moral obligation. The rich man had Lazarus at his gate every day in need while he himself dined sumptuously (Luke 16:19-20).  He was not responsible to alleviate every suffering of every beggar on the planet, but he was responsible for Lazarus precisely because Lazarus was at his gate.  Likewise the Good Samaritan did not help every man of a different ethnic origin and culture that had ever been beaten nearly to death by robbers on the Jericho road; he simply helped the one who was in his path that day.

Moral proximity is a good check against hurting those whom economic aid is intended to help. Jay W. Richards in his book, Money, Greed, and God, notes how quickly financial aid intended to relieve poverty can actually cause poverty in the consumer option of purchasing fair trade coffee:

The problem is subtle. Paying artificially high prices for some coffee encourages poor farmers to enter or stay in the coffee market when it’s against their long-term interest to do so. Consider this statement by one fair-trade organization, Global Exchange: ‘Coffee prices have plummeted and are currently around $.60-$.70 per pound. ‘With World Market prices as low as they are right now, we see that a lot of farmers cannot maintain their families and their land anymore’… There’s a reason the market prices have dropped…. When the supply goes up, the price for coffee goes down- not because of injustice, but because of the law of supply and demand…. There’s no law of economics or morality that sets the price of coffee high enough so that every coffee farmer everywhere will always be able to make a decent living growing coffee- anymore than there is a law that everyone will always be able to make a decent living manufacturing tallow candles or buggy whips or eight-track tapes or Winnebagos.[3]

When consumers are uneducated about the effects of purchasing fair-trade coffee, they can be under the assumption they are doing a lot of good to help poor farmer when indeed they are contributing to keep people bound in poverty for generations.  Richards suggests individuals really interested in helping the plight of poor coffee farmers are better off dealing with issues more locally, such as supporting initiatives to reform the South American land laws inhibiting an individual to improve property for fear the land owner will then take it away.[4]

Working to alleviate poverty in developing nations such as India may be similar in nature. One of the largest issues that keep people in poverty in India is the Hindu cast system.[5] American churches can shell out millions of dollars every year to create some sort food provision for slum children, but until they break the back of the Hindu cast system nothing will have ultimately changed. In the coming generations American churches will be supporting the children and grand-children of those they support now.

The question that should always be addressed when it comes to global poverty such as starving children in India is the same question that should be asked in a local context, “why are they poor?”  Generally it is those who are in the closest proximity who will be able to intelligently answer and address the underlying issues of poverty.  Generally it is those who are closest who are morally obligated to alleviate poverty.

Moral proximity does not remove the opportunity to alleviate poverty on a global level; rather moral proximity removes alleviating global poverty out of the category of obligation and places it in the category of generosityDeYoung and Gilbert write, “Moral proximity should not make us more cavalier to the poor. But it should free us from unnecessary guilt and make us more caring toward those who count on us the most.”[6]

It is not as though the American Church should not attempt to alleviate poverty in developing nations such as India. Rather the American church should first look to its own doorstep of moral obligation before appealing to the nations on economic grounds. Each church has an economic responsibility for reaching those in its moral proximity first and foremost before the nations.

[1] Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert. What is the Mission of the Church?: Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission. (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2011), 185.

[3] Jay Wesley Richards. Money, Greed, and God, (New York: HarperOne, 2009), 41.

[4] Ibid., 42.

[5] Frederica Misturelli and Claire Heffernan. What is poverty? A diachronic exploration of the discourse on poverty from the 1970s to the 2000s. European Journal of Development Research, Dec2008, Vol. 20 Issue 4, 675.

[6] DeYoung and Gilbert, 187.

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Is David Platt Right? – The Gospel and the Poor (Part 4)

the gospel and the poor

The question of whether or not Christians should be engaged in alleviating poverty is mute. Both the New and Old Testaments bear witness to how believers are to act in kindness and generosity towards their peers who are in poverty. Timothy Keller in his book Generous Justice, in which he levels the Bible as a guide on having a more just society writes, “from ancient times, the God of the Bible stood out from the gods of all other religions as a God on the side of the powerless, and of justice for the poor.”[1]  The real question is, “how should the church respond to poverty?”

David Platt in his book Radical levels serious criticisms of the American church and its affluence compared to the poverty present in developing nations. In one place he comments on a parable found in Luke 16 concerning the rich man and Lazarus:

I am much like the rich man, and the church I lead looks a lot like him too. Every Sunday we gather in a multimillion-dollar building with millions of dollars in vehicles parked outside. We leave worship to spend thousands of dollars on lunch before we return to hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of homes. We live in luxury.Meanwhile, the poor man is outside our gate. And he is hungry. In the time we gather for worship on a Sunday morning, almost a thousand children elsewhere die because they have no food. If it were our kids starving, they would all be gone by the time we said our closing prayer. We certainly wouldn’t ignore our kids while we sang songs and entertained ourselves, but we are content with ignoring other parents’ kids. Many of them are our spiritual brothers and sisters in developing nations. They are suffering from malnutrition, deformed bodies and brains, and preventable diseases. At most, we are throwing our scraps to them while we indulge in our pleasures here. Kind of like an extra chicken for the slaves at Christmas.[2]

While Dr. Platt’s statements are full of rhetorical flare, he does lay serious criticism at the doorstep of his church. In essence he notes that the extravagant lifestyle that invests millions of dollars in church buildings, homes and cars is responsible for the poverty and death of children on the other side of the planet.  This is serious criticism. It is one thing to be unaware of poverty on the other side of the globe and it is another thing to be actively keeping people in poverty. It is one thing to note people are starving in India and another thing to note people are starving on the drive into worship. Platt equates the two when he says, “the poor man is outside our gate… almost a thousand children elsewhere die because they have no food.”[3]

My questions go like this: Am I morally responsible for poverty in India? Should I feel guilty for buying my children nice things while other children on this globe starve? What are your thoughts? Is David Platt right?

I’ll be blogging more on this subject tomorrow.

[1] Timothy J. Keller. Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just. (New York, N.Y.: Dutton, Penguin Group USA, 2010), 6.

[2] David Platt. Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream. 1. ed. (Colorado Springs, Colo.: Multnomah Books, 2010), 115.

[3] Ibid.

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The Gospel and the Poor (Part 3)

the gospel and the poorOne of the greatest reasons for needing a lose term such as “need” to help conceive of poverty is the radical differences in standard of living that occur between the continents and even among the poor themselves. D. L. Mundy in his ground breaking book, Christianity and Economic Problems wrote:


Even ‘the poorest he’ in the highly industrialized countries expects a standard of living unprecedented in earlier ages. He lives longer, he has access to educational and medical facilities, he has better clothes, a more solid and warmer house (even if it be a slum), more leisure from work, less sheerly [sic] back-breaking labor when at work, a dependable food supply, and opportunities to enjoy those luxuries of modern civilization in the form of tobacco, films and daily papers, which tend to be regarded as necessities, and no longer luxuries, though the mass of human kind have managed to live fairly satisfactory lives without knowing them or caring for them.[1]

The 2012 Poverty Guidelines Federal Register Notice from the United States Department of Health and Human Services based on the Census Bureau’s official poverty thresholds records the poverty line for a family consisting of four people, presumably two adults and two children, living in the lower forty-eight states to be at $23,050; higher in both Alaska and Hawaii.[2] This breaks down to roughly $15.80 per person, per day to live at the poverty line in the United States. The breakdown is higher for single adults living on their own assuming they are not able to share the expenses of shelter and basic utilities. The World Bank standard for the world poverty line around $1.25 per person per day.[3] The poverty line for the United States is roughly twelve times higher than the world poverty line. Incidentally the world poverty line put forth by the World Bank does not take into account large industrialized nations such as the United States, Canada, and Australia in its findings.  The conclusion is that the cost of living or at least the standard of living is higher in the United States and other industrialized nations than it is in third world countries.

D. L. Munby stated; luxuries of modern civilization have come to be counted on as necessities.[4]  Some such luxuries would include processed foods which increase the cost of food in the super market, stricter food laws that prevent markets from selling out of date products, utilities such as electricity, water and the sewer/ septic systems that are standard in America,  rigorous building codes, the cost of transportation, child care, etc.  All of these factors indicate a higher standard and therefore cost of living in the United States.

Though the United States Census Bureau attempts to put a figure on the cost of living it is difficult for any national organization to really address the specific issues of poverty in a region. Individual issues often complicate the poverty issue. Attitudes such as depression or culturally ingrained mindsets prevent people from reaching their full economic potential. Issues such as a gambling addiction, drug addiction, alcohol addiction and others are localized situations that keep individuals poor and cannot be addressed or even fully realized through suggesting  a poverty line. Ultimately the matter of poverty has to be addressed on a local and individualized level.[5]

[1] D.L. Munby. Christianity and Economic Problems. (New York: MacMillon & CO, 1956), 107-8.

[2] “,” 2012 Poverty Guidelines, (accessed April 20, 2012).

[3] “,” Replicate the World Bank’s Regional Aggregation, (accessed April 20, 2012).

[4] Munby, 108.

[5] Jay Wesley Richards. Money, Greed, and God, (New York: HarperOne, 2009), 50-51.

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The Gospel and the Poor (Part 2)

the gospel and the poorDeriving a standard definition for poverty in absolute terms is problematic.  Poverty or being poor encompasses many things such as mindset, income level, management, ability, injustice, economic policy, joblessness, childcare, land laws, etc. Many attempts have been made to devise economic margins by which poverty may be measured. The most common way to measure poverty is according to a scale of ability to provide for yourself. So if an individual lacks “the financial resources to satisfy their basic needs and/or reach a minimum standard of living,”[1] they are considered poor.  “According to the World Bank (2000), ‘poverty is pronounced deprivation in well-being.’ This of course begs the questions of what is meant by well-being and of what is the reference point against which to measure deprivation.”[2]

There is tension when using artificial margins to understand poverty.  Artificial margins are helpful in understanding poverty on a large scale such as a national or global level.  However, poverty is an issue centered on the state of specific individuals. The more specific you get when examining poverty, the less relevant the artificial margins are. There are different ways for poverty to be expressed; someone may be house poor, food poor, or health poor.[3] Ultimately though, poverty has to be dealt with on an individual level.[4]

Poverty has many faces.  Poverty can be an expression of culture such as in the case of low cast Indian Hindu’s who are born into poverty and kept in poverty by their society.[5] Poverty can be temporary as in the case of someone between jobs. Poverty can be derived from poor choices such as gambling, alcohol addiction or it can be derived from other factors like a lack of education or disability. To be poor is “to be in need.” The term “need” may seem vague, but vague is what you arrive at when the definition requires generalization to the lowest common denominator. A loose definition of poverty allows for discussion of poverty in general that can be developed into a discussion of specific cases of poverty without demeaning all the other instances of poverty.

[1] Frederica Misturelli and Claire Heffernan. What is poverty? A diachronic exploration of the discourse on poverty from the 1970s to the 2000s. European Journal of Development Research, Dec2008, Vol. 20 Issue 4, p667.

[2] Jonathan Henry Haughton and Shahidur R. Khandker. Handbook on Poverty and Inequality. (Washington, DC: World Bank, 2009), 2.

[3] Ibid., 1.

[4] Jay Wesley Richards. Money, Greed, and God, (New York: HarperOne, 2009), 49-50.

[5] Misturelli and Claire Heffernan, 675.

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The Gospel and the Poor (Part 1)

the gospel and the poorYou have seen their faces on the television. You have heard their pleas come through the voice of a spokesperson pleading with you that for just around a dollar a day you can make a difference for a child in a third world country. You see them standing in the major intersections of the city, holding their signs up and their hands out. You may even have members of your own family who come by for financial help and assistance from time to time. They are fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, and they are the poor. This week we will be exploring the issue of poverty and the gospel.

The ancient Israelites were fully informed by Old Testament law on how to deal with poverty.  Special instructions were given to make sure the widow, orphans and aliens who lacked economic power were to have their needs met with their dignity intact (Deuteronomy 14:29).  Property laws were established in such a way that would ensure a families economic viability from generation to generation via a special lease program (Leviticus 25:18-55).  Farmers were to leave the corners of their field un-harvested so the community’s poor could glean enough food to fill their empty stomachs (Leviticus 19:9-10; 23:22).

In a similar way the New Testament contains many teachings of Jesus and direct application from the Apostles on how to deal with poverty.  Jesus indicated that the poor, lame and crippled were to be the honored guests in the homes of his followers (Luke 14:12-13). Jesus spent considerable time healing those with handicaps that would have by nature been economically disadvantaged (Matthew 11:4-5). The Apostle Paul unashamedly laid out the measures by which an offering was to be taken to help the poor saints in the Jerusalem church (1 Corinthians 8-9). The epistle writer James was especially stringent on noting that no partiality was to be given to the rich over the poor (James 2:1-9) and proclaimed a dead faith to anyone who saw his brother in need and turned him away (James 2:14-17).

While the culture has changed one thing remains clear, God has a heart for the poor. The task left before us is to discern how the American church both as an institution and as individuals should set about to alleviate poverty.  Join us as for the next few days as we explore the issue of poverty and the gospel.

What are your thoughts on the gospel and alleviating poverty? Are they related? Are they unrelated but both are necessary? Who is responsible to alleviate poverty? The Church, individual Christians, the government? Feel free to weigh in and share your thoughts and opinions in the comment section below.

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Remembering to be Humble on Thanksgiving Day

My parents had a few strange customs around our dinner table growing up.  First, we ate at the table.  It was a discipline because dinner time usually happened around the same time that our favorite TV shows would come on.  Second, My father would read or share a devotional from the Bible or an inspirational book.  Third, we held hands and would all share something that we were thankful for. Nobody ever bothered to tell my parents that this was “Thanksgiving day thing” and not for the other 364 days out fo the year… at 2-3 family meals a day, times 365 days a year times about 18 years at home and you get the idea that we were a thankful bunch.

In those early years I was thankful for sweet and endearing things like my “momma” or my “daddy.” Around the age of middle childhood I was thankful for petty things like, “I’m thankful that I can beat my brother at basketball.” (Since then, he’s beat me a few times).  In to the teen years it became, “I’m thankful for the food, now lets eat!”

Here lately as I try to observe our customs from the outside it dawned on me that sometimes arrogance parades as thankfulness.  I wish I could take all the credit, but the thought really occurred to me when I woke up at 3 AM one morning and heard a few voices clearly speaking in the darkness of my room.  They said…

“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus:’God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

God really spoke to me that night, but before you go jumping to conclusions, I went to bed that night with the audio Bible cued up to play while I slept (and allow my subconscious to digest the scriptures).  However, I was waking up from a deep sleep, was disoriented and it took me a few minutes to realize it was just the audio Bible and not a few strange British men who had broken into my house to dramatically read to me from Luke 18.

None-the-less, the seed was planted and I began to consciously think through the implications of how we show our gratitude to God and others.  Real thankfulness doesn’t arise out of a comparison to others, it arrises out of a genuine dependence on God.  The Pharisee wasn’t thankful, he was arrogant.  The things he was “thankful” for were the things that he wasn’t.  He was thankful that he wasn’t like this “sinner” beside him.  The tax-collector was just calling out for mercy. 

There is difference in being thankful that I have a home and being thankful that I am not homeless.  The first way is thankfulness, the second is arrogance.  Its subtle, but it’s there.  One way is gratitude for the blessings of God, the other is to make myself better than others.

This Thanksgiving I’m aiming to be truly thankful to God for all the blessings he’s given me… and to not be arrogant.  Though in a moment of weakness I might say that I’m thankful I’m not an Alabama fan.