A blog about everything about teaching the Bible. "And still I will show you a more excellent way..." (1 Corinthians 12:31).

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Poor, The Government, and the Individual of Character

God created individuals (one man and one woman), and united them in the first home. He also instituted the spiritual community (the church), and the legal community (government). These three institutions form the foundations of society. Each has God-ordained purposes. When people ignore these purposes society is in big trouble. We're living in a time when these purposes are being ignored, and thus, unless things can soon be turned around, our society is in big trouble.

An example of these messed up purposes is the question of who's supposed to take care of the poor. The U.S. government (and many others) has meddled in that business at least since F.D.R., and it has arguably had disastrous affects on American society. Today, a radio speaker said freedom is the fruit of responsible labor, and a people gets the kind of government it deserves. As a people's character decreases, its government takes more and more control of their lives until they have nothing, including no freedom. People can't legally force individuals, families, or churches to give them anything. But, if they can convince lawmakers to make it a matter of law, governments can force people to give their hard-earned money to others. It all arguably starts with good intentions, but the end result is always legal thievery that creates an ever-growing class of unproductive government dependents that swells the population of the poor to a level the church, family, and individual can't even begin to help privately. This is why, when a nation's entitlement bubble eventually bursts--and it always eventually will--the result is rioting and all kinds of crime until somebody strong enough to martially restore order rises up and starts the society over.

So, who should take care of the poor? Governments can't do anything right, except military and infrastructure. As far as I'm concerned that's beyond dispute. It's definitely not the government's job to take care of the poor, except to provide a safe environment in which people of character can freely work.

So, who should take care of the poor? The church? So many conservatives say so. In my opinion, the answer is actually both yes and no. It depends on what you mean. Most people mean the church as an institution should take care of the poor in a way that's similar to government entitlement programs. It's alarming how many people who never darken the door of a church building for worship call or show up looking for money as if the church owes them.

If churches are institutionally responsible to the poor, then local churches everywhere should immediately create infrastructures staffed by trained individuals who can hear cases of need, decide the best course of aid, and act accordingly. It means the members of the church will have to generously increase their contributions, because few churches have the means to put even a dint in the poverty of their communities as is. Government "assistance" has contributed to a dependent poverty problem in many areas that far exceeds the local church's ability to solve it. If the government were to abruptly stop all entitlement programs, chaos would ensue for a time, because nobody has enough money to support such a huge number of unproductive people. Truth is, the government doesn't have it either and is proceeding on borrowed time.

I'm all for churches drastically stepping up the sophistication of their benevolence programs, because the church is the only institution remotely able to deal with poverty in a responsible way (that is a redemptive and rehabilitative one). However, even this approach if seen as the main way to help the poor will ultimately prove insufficient.

The church is the body of individuals saved by grace into fellowship with God and bound together in common cause. It exists to glorify God, and equip its members to do the work of ministry individually and as families. The real solution to poverty and dependence is in the healing of the family, and the solution to the healing of the family is in the conversion and restoration of the individual to good character. When individuals in society are once again of good character, they will form strong families which will hold family members accountable to do productive work. Then families can help families, take in orphans, and do so in a private way that preserves the dignity of the one in need and holds him accountable to work toward financial rehabilitation. These individuals and families are what make up local churches that will actually have a shot at effectively helping the poor in the surrounding communities. I'm not at all against institutional approaches to benevolence like church supported orphan's homes, job-training ministries, and the like. We need more of them. But, we need the individuals and families with the strength and character to support them. We also need individuals and families that see helping the poor as their own private responsibilities--not just the responsibility of an institution.

Social problems start with individuals and families, and then weaken churches and ruin governments. A messed up government can't fix social problems, because it's too big, and too impersonal. Churches used to environments in which big governments have usurped their responsibility to do good works, because of the collapse of the family, are too busy trying to keep their families together to effectively solve the problems of dependence and poverty in their communities. Families can't solve the problems, because they're too busy trying to stay together against the overwhelming odds of individual senses of entitlement and an overall lack of character.

What we need is the restoration of the individual of character. That's the solution to society's problems at every level, and will effectively eliminate poverty along with all other social ills to the fullest extent possible this side of eternity.


Joel said...

Josh, thank you for the Pappas Manifesto. It was indeed worth the meal. I agree with you, at least in the abstract, but I'm going to play devil's advocate here. The following isn't written in my own voice, per se, but in the voice of the persona inside who checks my own sociopolitical and religious ideologies.

You seem to be working from a structure of 3 divinely ordained institutions: Family, Civil Government, and Church. It's not clear to me whether you think their respective responsibilities can overlap. At any rate, I think you'd agree that we can see those same three spheres of authority looking back in history, though the “family/church” distinction is less easy to see in the nation of Israel and harder still with the patriarchs.

Under the Law of Moses:
- the poor were not to be charged interest (Ex. 22:25).
- Farmers and landowners made various compulsory gifts to the poor (Ex. 23:10-11; Lev. 19:9-10; Deut. 23:24-25).
- Every third year, the mandatory tithe was given to the poor (Deut. 14:28-29).
- Debts, validly entered and not yet repayed were nonetheless deemed forgiven, not by choice of the lender, but via operation of law every seven years (Deut. 15:1-4).We might call that an abridgement of the freedom of contract, today.
- Further, slavery was never permanent. If you sold yourself into slavery, you were free after 6 years. (Deut. 15:12-15).

This all raises several questions. Were these laws civil or ecclesiastical in nature? If civil, does that mean God's purpose for government has changed over the years? Or does government indeed have an obligation to the poor today? If ecclesiastical, are these sorts of laws only indicative of the church's responsibility to care for its own members?

I absolutely, undeniably, 100% agree with your contention that the solution to societal poverty (and frankly most any societal evil) is, as you put it, the restoration of the individual of character. I often criticize socialism (and I hate to use that loaded term, but I don't know what else to use) for being theoretically brilliant and practically useless. If we lived in a perfect world, socialism would work perfectly, but there would of course be no need for it. I wonder if that same criticism applies here.

Ideally, every last soul in the nation is born again and redeemed by the blood of Christ. Ideally, we are all individuals of character who support each other. Ideally, there's no need for civil poverty relief. But few are chosen. We don't have that ideal, and never will. I don't think the goal is to eliminate all poverty. Christ himself said the poor would always be with us (though you could argue that statement was more rhetorical than a true prediction).

These are loosely connected thoughts that I haven't structured particularly well, but I'm trying to say that I'm not convinced that government has no legitimate role to play in helping the poor. I'm also not convinced that taxing the non-poor to help the poor is necessarily legalized stealing. I definitely agree that our current method of poverty relief is counterproductive and does nothing to rehabilitate families. But, in a world where there are—perhaps—more impoverished people than there are Christians, is there really no role for civil government to rehabilitate families and individuals?

Joshua Pappas said...

Sorry to take so long to approve the comment, Joel, but the usual "You have a comment awaiting moderation," email must have gone to spam.

Thanks for the thoughts. I'll think them through further, and may offer some sort of reply.

God bless!