Some Christians, including outspoken pastors of liberal churches, seem to think the biblical mandate to love their neighbors means urging government to expand welfare programs. While we should applaud the type of active faith that inspires and informs civic engagement, we must beware of conflating the Christian's duties with the duties of the state. Moreover, the church's faithful fulfillment of its own mission – proclaiming the Truths of God's Word – would eliminate the need for much of government's involvement with social issues.
It is understandable that so many Christians get confused on the issue of poverty. They know that Jesus cared deeply for the poor and that he commanded us to love our neighbors as ourselves. To illustrate loving our "neighbor," he used the parable of the Good Samaritan, a man who used his own resources to care for a beaten and abandoned cultural enemy. So one could easily jump to the conclusion that Jesus would have been a Democrat, or would have at least supported their pushes for colossal taxpayer-funded welfare programs.
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The problem with this thinking is that Jesus gave the "love your neighbor" and "care for the least of these" mandates to his individual followers – not to the state. It is quite clear from the Scriptures (e.g., Romans 13) that the role of government is to punish wrongdoers and protect its citizens. This is why Christians rightly look to their government to protect innocent lives from abortionists, or from doctors who "assist" the vulnerable to commit suicide. Protecting life is precisely the government's job.
Providing for people's material needs, on the other hand, is not. So while it makes practical sense for state and local governments to provide a last-resort safety net for citizens who are unable to get help any other way, church leaders are off track when they suggest that extensive government programs are the primary way our society should care for the poor.
What is most detrimental, however, about Christian leaders and pastors lobbying for government welfare programs is not that they have conflated their own role, as individual Christians, with the proper role of government. What is most detrimental about it is that it diverts the church's attention from what the church could and should be doing to fulfill its own role in caring for the poor.
I know that many of these same churches are actually quite faithful in serving the needy among them by providing warm meals, offering a safe place to spend the night and giving them clothing or other tangible supplies. That is good, and right, and admirable. But it will never be sufficient if it is not accompanied by a steady provision of the less tangible, more nourishing substance that holds the power to prevent or end poverty: Truth.
There will always be a need for charity. But the truths of God's Word, diligently proclaimed and followed, hold the power to break the cycle of poverty and dependence for many Americans today.
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For instance, statistics reveal that the explosion of single-parent households has resulted in more impoverished women and children. How different our nation would look today if the church faithfully and consistently taught about God's design for the family, and that while God allows for divorce in certain circumstances, it is wrong for one spouse to leave the other because he is "unhappy."
How different our nation would look today if the church taught its members not to isolate themselves from the culture, but to drive it to higher ground by critically evaluating the merits of popular songs, books, movies and television shows by the standards of Goodness, Truth and Beauty. What if a nation of Christians rejected the pop culture garbage that encourages humanity to behave more like animals and less like image-bearers of the Creator?
The popular "follow your heart" mantra at the center of popular culture today may sound harmless, but it is the way to broken lives, broken families and a people who are impoverished spiritually, emotionally and financially. It is the province of the church to counter this cause of poverty – not to lobby the government to alleviate symptoms of poverty.
To be clear: there are many public policy issues that are rightly the concern of the church. And in a self-governing nation, all public policy issues are rightly the concern of every individual Christian. But the church, as an institution, must focus on fulfilling its own mission of teaching Truth – a powerful antidote to all social ills.