The Christian Ethical dilemma and obligation in how to alleviate American Poverty

In the previous essay, Christianity and the presenting problem of poverty in America today, we explored the question as to who is considered poor and impoverish; as well as, what lead to their state of poverty.  The summation of this essay provides insight in two things:

  1. Poverty is defined by an individual (or family) lacking present social context of “necessities” to function and participate within their relevant community
  2. Poverty is neither an attribution of “lack of effort” or “defining circumstances”.

Understanding who are considered in poverty, and what led them to experience poverty in America today is an ongoing and complex issue of our society. What this next essay will focus on is the Christian ethical dilemma and obligation in how to alleviate American poverty. Again, this information is based on relevant literature regarding Christianity and poverty. This essay is an attempt to provide, not only an answer, but, a call to action in developing proactive ways to address poverty within the local communities.

We begin by addressing the specific role the “body of Christ” has in poverty alleviation. This begins by addressing the primary mission of the Christian Church. Next, we will explore how the Christian Church has a “divine mandate” toward poverty alleviation. To understand the divine mandate requires a discussion on how present American Churches today view poverty.

As we wrestle with the complexity of poverty and how to alleviate it from a Christian and Biblical worldview, we will conclude where the present Church fails in relation to fulfilling the great commission of Christ and working toward alleviating  poverty in America today. What we want to do is answer this question: Is American Christianity working toward poverty alleviation; or, has the American Christian Church today faltered and come under condemnation for not “remembering the poor?”

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By understanding the primary mission of the Christian Church and the social mission of the Christian Church, we may develop a sound theological framework in which to fulfill the obligation and duty of all those who confess Christ as Lord and Savior.

This requires an honest and forthright investigation in where the Church excels, and, sadly, where the Church has abandoned such ethical duties. By taking a more pragmatic and objective approach to this, many may be surprised to see how the American Christian Church remains in sin on poverty.

What is the prime mission of the Christian Church?

The answer is summed up in the Great Commission as recorded in the last chapter of the Gospel of Matthew:

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” See, Matthew 28:18-20, ESV

In an article by published in the International Research Journal of Arts and Social Sciences, the authors mentioned the following premise of what defines the mission of the Christian Church:

It is the mission of the Church to provide the kind of place where spiritual life can flourish. This is the primary mission of the Church to: preach the gospel; teach the saved; provide a spiritual atmosphere; reproduce the character of Christ; and bring joy to mankind. This is the paramount objective of the Church… . {emphasis mine}

Yet, when it comes to the question of the Church’s obligation to alleviate the suffering of those who are in poverty, the authors reflect how the Church may do well, however, it is not the prime directive of the Church. The basis for this is on the account recorded in Acts where the Disciples requested men to be chosen to look after the welfare and well-being of the widows, orphans, and those who are experiencing poverty. The authors conclude that based on the New Testament, it is quite clear “…that each Christian has a responsibility to other Christians (Hebrews 3:12-13). 

What we are able to conclude is this: The prime directive of the Christian Church, especially in American society today, is to do the following:

  1. Preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ
  2. Teach those who are saved (Discipleship)
  3. Provide a spiritual atmosphere where individuals become spiritually mature in Christ
  4. To produce the Character of Christ in all who come unto Christ
  5. Bring joy into the hearts and lives of all people through the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

While evangelism is a definitive hallmark of American Christianity today, the latter principle truths have seemed to falter to the way side. Much of this may be do in part to the ever evolving ideology of various churches becoming more and more “culturally relevant” instead of “contextually real”. Os Guinness was interviewed, and subsequently published at Christianity Today, regarding the “culturally relevance” of Christianity.

With this, not only has the primary mission of the Church become watered down, the social mission of the Church appears to have become non-existent.

The Social Mission of the Church in America Today

In the article by Ayiemba, Theuri, and Mungai, we continue to read:

Assistance to the poor is therefore not a new phenomenon to the church. It is as old as the Bible itself. Both the Old and New Testaments affirm that the prophets’ and Christ’s intentions were to remind the rich of their natural responsibility towards the very needy of society. If the war against the oppression of the weak by the powerful was to be met; it had to target all those structures that promote this inhumane treatment.

In a work by A. Harnack and W. Herrmman, we find the following factors: First, Harnack argues that the Church, through the mission of Evangelism, raises the “…individual conscience…”

The first of these consists in rousing the individual conscience, in such a way as to awaken strong, regenerate, self-sacrificing personalities. This is the all-important thing; but the means to such an end vary; as the Lord’s method of teaching shows, it may either begin within, and work outwards, or it may penetrate from without to the inmost being. But the vital point is that there should be a Christ-like personality, and that in every action the power of love from one person to another should operate, and make itself felt. The kingdom of God must be built upon the foundation, not of institutions, but of individuals in whom God dwells and who are glad to live for their fellow men.

The heart of the Gospel of Christ is to bring to awareness humanity’s great need of a Savior. The nature of one’s own depravity and condemnation. This is accomplished in a variety of ways where God meets individuals where they presently are at. Christians merely preach the Good news.

The second aspect is the community fellowship of the believer in relation to Christ and the Gospel. According to Harnack, this community of individual believers are to be “…full of active charity, and bound by brotherly love…” This idea of brotherhood exceeds mere discipleship. It is the ability to provide a spiritual atmosphere where the Love of God not only abounds, it is manifested, in the concern and well-being of each individual.

Finally, it is the social context the Christian church finds itself. When we look at the meridian of time, and the life of Christ himself, we find that Jesus addressed the prevailing religious sentiment and teachings; as well as, the social climate of his day.

What this means is the idea that the individual Christian, and the body of believers, have an obligation to seek out, and assist those who are poor. It is the Church, and not secular governmental institutes of social systems, to care for the needy, to clothe the naked, to care for the sick, and to provide necessary sustenance for those who come seeking refuge and help.

Christ himself shared the divine truth:

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. 34 Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” See, Matthew 25:31-46

The Biblical truth, the Christian worldview, is this: We are individually and collectively responsible to care for the poor, the needy, and to assist in what manner we are called to assist. Otherwise, if we turn away those in need (whether they profess to be Christian or not), we stand condemned as we have turned Christ away.

Probably, one of the most inspiring hymns of my own youth is that of the Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief:

  1. A poor, wayfaring Man of grief
    Hath often crossed me on my way,
    Who sued so humbly for relief
    That I could never answer nay.
    I had not pow’r to ask his name,
    Whereto he went, or whence he came;
    Yet there was something in his eye
    That won my love; I knew not why.
  2. Once, when my scanty meal was spread,
    He entered; not a word he spake,
    Just perishing for want of bread.
    I gave him all; he blessed it, brake,
    And ate, but gave me part again.
    Mine was an angel’s portion then,
    For while I fed with eager haste,
    The crust was manna to my taste.
  3. I spied him where a fountain burst
    Clear from the rock; his strength was gone.
    The heedless water mocked his thirst;
    He heard it, saw it hurrying on.
    I ran and raised the suff’rer up;
    Thrice from the stream he drained my cup,
    Dipped and returned it running o’er;
    I drank and never thirsted more.
  4. ‘Twas night; the floods were out; it blew
    A winter hurricane aloof.
    I heard his voice abroad and flew
    To bid him welcome to my roof.
    I warmed and clothed and cheered my guest
    And laid him on my couch to rest,
    Then made the earth my bed and seemed
    In Eden’s garden while I dreamed.
  5. Stript, wounded, beaten nigh to death,
    I found him by the highway side.
    I roused his pulse, brought back his breath,
    Revived his spirit, and supplied
    Wine, oil, refreshment–he was healed.
    I had myself a wound concealed,
    But from that hour forgot the smart,
    And peace bound up my broken heart.
  6. In pris’n I saw him next, condemned
    To meet a traitor’s doom at morn.
    The tide of lying tongues I stemmed,
    And honored him ‘mid shame and scorn.
    My friendship’s utmost zeal to try,
    He asked if I for him would die.
    The flesh was weak; my blood ran chill,
    But my free spirit cried, “I will!”
  7. Then in a moment to my view
    The stranger started from disguise.
    The tokens in his hands I knew;
    The Savior stood before mine eyes.
    He spake, and my poor name he named,
    “Of me thou hast not been ashamed.
    These deeds shall thy memorial be;
    Fear not, thou didst them unto me.”

In Matthew 26:11, right after the parable of the Sheep and the Goats, Christ informed his disciples this important truth: “For you always have the poor with you…”

So, the alleviation of poverty from a Biblical and Christian perspective is seen as the following:

  • The poor is constantly with us, and as Christians, we are to remember the poor always
  • Christianity is not just a relationship with Jesus Christ, it is a fundamental relationship with one another built on the mutual love and knowledge of Christ
  • Both Old and New Testament scriptures condemn the oppression of the poor in society and requires the body of believers to work toward economic truths and policies to assist those who are in need

In an article published in Christianity Today, Dr. Anne Bradley shares this:

At the core of poverty alleviation is igniting God-given dignity into the hearts of the poor by empowering them to be who God created them to be. In that, there is abundant joy. Our efforts can’t just be monetary. Poverty alleviation is all about relationships. Jesus loved and cared for the poor, and he calls us to model his example. If someone has an immediate need and we can help them, we should. However, that’s only the first step. While addressing immediate, dire needs, we must maintain the long-term vision of flourishing and self-sustenance. We need to help turn survival into thriving.

Dr. Bradley also provides the following “practical takeaways”:

  • Poverty alleviation is the church’s responsibility. It is the job of the church, the body of Christ, to care passionately and genuinely for the poor. The church must step up to their responsibility and be the first line of offense in addressing poverty.
  • When we do what God has created us to do, we help others. The impact of our work extends to God’s kingdom in ways we will never understand. Embrace volunteer opportunities. Serve your church. Work hard at your job every day. Love your family, friends, and neighbors well.
  • The fight to end poverty starts in your community. It starts with building long-term relationships, getting your hands dirty, and addressing real needs.

What this means is that when someone comes seeking assistance from any Christian church, instead of saying:

  • Have faith, God will provide
  • Pray and believe God all things work out for those who believe
  • Don’t worry about it, God will ensure provision for you
  • Keep coming to Church
  • Confess any unrepentant sin and seek God’s forgiveness
  • Pray that God will open the door for employment/better employment
  • I will pray that God will meet your needs

These are all well and good, however, this is the oft response to those seeking assistance, or who are experience poverty. And, these statements come from many Christians. And, they are more offensive and insensitive to the person suffering and experiencing a need. What I’m saying here, is that making these statements, one is passing off the responsibility to God and God alone. It is not God’s responsibility to care for the poor, it is every Bible Believing Christian who professes to love Christ and Love God! How is this so?

Because we are the representatives of God. We are the extension of Christ. We are the means by which provisions are to be given to those who stand in need. It is through us to bless those who are experiencing poverty. It is not the Government, or social non-profit agencies (as many of them do great help, yet, can only operate under the charity of the community at large); it is the very individual and fellowship of the Body of Christ.

It is here that the American Christian Church has failed her ethical and social mission of the Church. It is here, the American Christian Church has faltered in living up to the example and mission of Jesus Christ. It is the American Christian churches, and individuals within those Churches, that stand unrepentant sin because, as Christ taught: “by turning away the least of these, you have turned me away.”

It is the Christian duty and obligation to remember the poor, and to care for the poor. Not send them away, naked, hungry, and thirsty.