Three Theses on Poverty

With so much talk these days about social ministry, my thoughts turned there again after reading chapter seven in Theology and Practice in Mission entitled “The Gospel and Social Responsibility” by Sean Cordell. I walked away from the book with at least three conclusions about poverty.

1. Christians should know that the causes of poverty are vast and often moral.

Many who speak of poverty issues today are only concerned that someone is poor, rarely wondering why they are that way. At least Cordell tries on page 95, but he could have given more. He lists natural disasters, laziness, and oppression as causes but understates how much Scripture talks about sin as the source of poverty. Does this chapter and other popular evangelical books like When Helping Hurts just not know about these other passages? Are they naïve to the world’s depravity? Or are they unknowingly parroting today’s party line that poverty is always the result of something outside of us and not from within?

This grieves me because after living within a poor rural African village for eight years my conclusion is that most of the poverty stems from an unbiblical worldview. If my subjective conclusion did not jive with objective Scripture, I would reconsider. Such is not the case. Cordell briefly mentions laziness as a cause of poverty but includes no Scripture references. But the sheer number of passages warning us that laziness is the cause of poverty (Pr. 10:4; 20:4, 13; 24:30-34; Ecc. 4:5), hunger (Prov. 13:4; 19:15; 20:4; 21:25; 2 Thess. 3:10), ruin (Ecc. 10:18), and misery (Ecc. 4:5) should help us conclude that this is a major cause of poverty, not just one of several. Cordell implies this by listing laziness alongside crop failure, a cause of which Scripture rarely speaks.

Scripture in fact tells us that it is a sin to feed the lazy (2 Thess. 3:10). “But what if they starve?” Scripture has already thought of that and warns us not to be duped. “A worker’s appetite works for him; his mouth urges him on” (Pr. 16:26). Today’s corrupt government systems (and dare I say corrupt church practices) want to rescue lazy people from their poverty by giving them foreign aid, child grants, and handouts and by doing this they dull the pain that God uses to motivate them toward escape. Scripture says the shiftless man goes hungry (Pr. 19:15). The West says the shiftless man goes on welfare.

But laziness is just one of many poverty inducing sins; there is much that could be said of stubborn (Ps. 106:13-15) and prideful hearts (Pr. 13:18). How shocked would you be if an evangelical book said that many people are poor because of self-indulgence? “Whoever loves pleasure will be a poor man” (Pr. 21:17).

2. Be careful not to define the poor to broadly.

Cordell may have done this in Matthew 25. He overreached when he says “Jesus made it clear that those who are followers of Christ must preach the good news and meet the needs of the poor as well.” (97) His first proof text is Matthew 25, where those who feed and clothe the poor actually do this to Christ (vv. 35-40) and those who neglect this neglect Christ (vv. 41-42). But are the poor in this passage the world’s poor or poor Christians?

The context points to the latter; Jesus speaks of his “brothers” (v.40). This fits in nicely with Galatians 6:10 where we learn that our first priority is toward other believes.

3. It is not unchristian for believing donors to vet those in need of donations.

While wealthy Christians today are made to feel cold and harsh if they set up criteria for those receiving aid, this is exactly what Paul told the early church to do. Needy widows did not get financial help carte blanche. According to 1 Timothy 5, a widow had to be a believer, a church member, and at least sixty years of age.

Martin Meredith in The Fate of Africa entitled one of his chapters “The Lost Decade” because of Africa’s steep economic decline in the 1980’s. In fact, in the 80’s and 90’s alone, Africa received more than $200 billion in foreign aid but was none the richer in the end. Part of the reason was due to corruption, as foreign money slid easily from the rich West into the coffers of unvetted, unrighteous scoundrels. The level of corruption was so noticeable, one Kenyan observed:

We hoped [corruption] would not be rammed in our faces. But it has: evidently the practitioners now in government have the arrogance, greed and perhaps a sense of panic to lead them to eat like gluttons. They may expect we shall not see, or will forgive them, a bit of gluttony because they profess to like Oxfam lunches. But they can hardly expect us not to care when their glutton causes them to vomit all over our shoes.

 

If a secular author like Meredith can see this, why not the Christians? Why is so little said about the unrighteous causes of poverty and the steps Christians must take in finding the root of physical paucity?

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