Who are “the poor”? And how should we help them? The biblical evidence is clear and overwhelming that God is deeply concerned about the poor, and that Christians are called to mirror His passion for coming to the aid of those in need. This does not mean that Christians find it easy to carry this out. A great deal of discussion—and sometimes disagreement—is given to difficult questions and to competing answers about what this should look like in practice.

One important question in this context is the role of the local church in combating and alleviating poverty. Do such efforts undermine the true mission of the church? Does a church that runs a soup kitchen put itself at risk of implicitly endorsing a “social” gospel? Are ministries of mercy, especially those that are extended indiscriminately to an unbelieving world, executed most effectively and biblically by individual Christians and parachurch organizations rather than the church as an institution?

Clarifying “The Poor” in Scripture

The answers to these questions are probably not as simple as most of us would like. Though the Bible refers to the poor and those in similar categories (e.g., widows, orphans, aliens) hundreds of times, and repeatedly commands God’s people to have just and generous attitudes toward them, there are many times when the context shows more nuance than the simple idea of one who lacks money.

When Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor,” does He mean that everyone who goes through this life with little or no financial resources is automatically the object of God’s eternal favor? A comparison of His two statements in Luke 6:20 and Matthew 5:3 suggests rather that, while financial considerations are not absent from His teaching, neither are they the sole, exclusive factor in determining who is blessed and who is not. “The poor” becomes a way of referring to those who do not trust in the resources of this world. It is possible, though very difficult, for “the rich in this present age… not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God…” (1 Timothy 6:17). But the biblical pattern shows that the membership rolls of the churches in Biblical times were made up predominantly of the poor, not the wealthy. 

God has chosen “those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him” (James 2:5). Not many of those called by God were powerful or of noble birth; instead, “God chose what is low and despised in the world” to humble the pride of man and exalt His own glory (1 Corinthians 1:26-29). God chooses and loves and saves all kinds of people. He is obligated to save no one because of their social or economic status, but He seems to show a particular delight in rescuing those who are most obviously poor and needy.

There are different kinds of need, of course. Saul the Pharisee was in desperate need without realizing it. Zacchaeus was wealthy in strict financial terms, though he had bankrupted his reputation in the eyes of his fellow countrymen. The point is that God manifests His grace in ways that are too surprising for us to imagine ahead of time. But one of the frequent ways in which Scripture refers to those who trust God and receive His salvation is in terms of those who experience pressing, obvious need: the poor, the afflicted, the persecuted, the brokenhearted, the fatherless, the widow, the sojourner. In sovereign mercy, God strips men and women of their earthly resources in order to reveal and bestow His infinite riches.

Exceptions to this general rule were abundant during brief periods of time in the Old Testament when Israel lived faithfully and prosperously in the land God had given her. Such were the terms of the covenant He made with them in the wilderness. The material blessings of that covenant looked back to the wealth multiplied to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the land; and they anticipated the riches promised to the inhabitants of the New Jerusalem. But as the old covenant nation grew more and more corrupt, “the mighty” and “the rich” increasingly came to refer to those who exercised power by oppressing the weak and the vulnerable. “The poor” and “the meek” became synonymous with those who shunned riches obtained by violence and deceit, who refused to ally themselves with the rich and the powerful, and cried out to the God of Israel instead of relying on the arm of flesh.

Without this broad context in view, it may be easy to miss the true identity of “the poor” who are pronounced blessed by Jesus, or who become the object of so much attention and care in the New Testament church. From “the least of these my brothers,” to the “orphans and widows in their affliction,” the primary reference is to those who believe on Christ and willingly accept deprivation of earthly goods for His sake.

Obligations to “The Poor” Outside the Church?

If “the poor” mentioned in Scripture so frequently means “the humble and believing poor,” does this mean there is no special obligation to address the needs of the poor living and dying outside the church and without Christ? We believe that conclusion would be a tragic and unbiblical mistake.

The Biblical pattern showing the largest number of converts coming from lower socio-economic classes should lead us instead to ask some uncomfortable questions, to make some risky moves, and take some unpopular stands. Why don’t we see this same pattern played out in our present context? Most Christians that we know are situated fairly comfortably within the American middle class.  We have a tendency to look down on the Hollywood and media elite and the super rich, and we treat the minimum wage worker at McDonald’s or Wal-Mart with equal or greater distrust. Has God changed His strategy?  Has He lost His power to save the poor, the uneducated, and the nobodies of our society?

If we are not reaching large portions of the largest demographic group reached by Jesus and the apostles, we should probably consider where our strategy—and even our message—is different from theirs. We must learn to stand for the poor. To prioritize for the poor. To speak like Jesus and the prophets for the poor. To engage and advocate for the poor. But what does that look like?

Aiming for Better Solutions in Ministry to the Poor

To be clear, we are not arguing for the endorsement or adoption of a liberal political agenda. Christians are free to disagree on a variety of political and economic issues, including the degree to which government should be involved in gathering and redistributing resources to help the poor. Most members of Redeemer view with considerable skepticism the constant demand for increased funding for government social programs. We believe there are better ways to address societal ills. But if we do not work to discover, demonstrate, and implement some of those better solutions, we are probably better off keeping our criticisms of liberal social projects to ourselves.

What might those better solutions be? And what role does the church have in developing them? The truth is that the Bible gives very little detail about such issues. If the exiles of Jerusalem, deported to Babylon, are an example for us, then we are to seek the peace and good of the city in which we presently live. What that might look like is subject to multiple interpretations and multiple thousands of applications. For John Calvin, it included designing a sewer system for the city of Geneva. For William Wilberforce, it moved him to campaign long and hard against the British slave trade. For Abraham Kuyper, it meant serving as prime minister of the Netherlands. These may be the God-given roles of individual Christians. It does not mean the church, considered collectively, is called to engage in those pursuits.

Or does it? Christians (especially the wealthy among them) are commanded to remember the poor, to be rich in good works, to be devoted to good works, and to help cases of urgent need. We have observed earlier that these commands refer primarily to helping the poor within the community of faith (see Galatians 6:10). But a lesser obligation to do good to all still implies some real obligation. Do Christians serve their neighbors most effectively as individuals, or as a team?

Of course the answer is, “It depends.” There are times when your neighbor (maybe he’s sick and needs his lawn mowed) neither wants nor needs the help of a dozen Christians from your church. There are other cases—for example, a famine in Africa, a typhoon in Asia, an earthquake in Haiti—which call for massive resources administered through the meticulous cooperation of large numbers of people. Are these jobs for the United Nations, for large parachurch organizations, or for the church?

One would think the obvious answer is all three. Government organizations can command and channel large amounts of resources, by force if necessary, into stricken areas. But political systems do not administer the grace of the gospel or the compassion of Christ with their relief.  Parachurch organizations like Samaritan’s Purse are better equipped than a local church or denomination to administer critical help on a widespread scale, and they often include some presentation of the gospel as part of their ministry. But in-depth, long-term discipleship is difficult if members of a ministry downplay specific biblical doctrines because of the different theological backgrounds represented by various members of their own team. The collective, coordinated efforts of a particular church or alliance of churches can open doors for evangelism and discipleship carried out on a more substantive level than a parachurch organization is likely to provide.

The Local Church in Ministry to the Poor

Whenever the Bible commands us to do something, but gives little in the way of detailed instructions about how to implement the command, we should be very reluctant to criticize the way others are trying to go about it. If little or none of our church budget goes to things like famine relief or third world orphanages, we should not look skeptically at those who invest heavily in parachurch organizations.

Because we love the church and see it as God’s primary strategy for reaching the nations, we want the church to be involved in as many forms of outreach and mercy as possible, without compromising her missional priorities. Preaching and teaching the gospel should be first, caring for physical needs within the church second, but demonstrating the compassion of Christ with deeds of mercy given to undeserving outsiders needs to take its place high on the list as well. At least it should be higher than the priority we usually give to comfortable, attractive, and expensive worship centers.

A serious and destructive dichotomy has taken hold among evangelical American churches over the last century. Many have softened or even abandoned the eternity-oriented direction of the Christian message, in favor of concerns that are largely limited to this life. In these contexts, robust theological analysis and rich doctrinal instruction are almost unheard of.

But another error is possible as well. In a conservative reaction to liberalism and the “social” gospel, we have neglected a priority that Christians throughout church history have always considered an essential duty of the Christian life. Because of our concern for a strictly biblical ecclesiology, parachurch organizations are often viewed with skepticism or considered unworthy of our financial support, yet there is little or no room in our church budgets for the charitable work that is often their focus. This means that we have constructed a system that practically exempts us from investing generously or engaging significantly in efforts that address the widespread temporal needs of our world.

David Platt tells us that worldwide, 26,000 children die every single day from malnutrition and preventable disease. Statistics like this should burn into our conscience and sear themselves upon our memory. They should rattle around in our heads all day and keep us awake at night. They should drive us to spend our lives looking for ways to bring hope to those in need.

Those efforts will generally prove ineffective if we do not integrate rich gospel truth with tangible acts of compassion. Neglecting men’s souls to care only for their bodies is fatal. But a failure to care for obvious, pressing temporal needs calls our compassion into question- and with it, the authenticity of our Christian profession. The point is not to bribe the needy into receiving the gospel. The purpose can be summarized as simply as letting our “…light shine before men, that they may see (our) good works and glorify (our) Father who is in heaven.”

Toward a Strategy for Ministry to the Poor

The elders of Redeemer Church offer the following suggestions as possible strategies to help us live out the biblical mandate of ministry to the poor. Thoughtful critiques and further additions to these proposals are always welcome.

  • Make low-income areas—for example, apartment complexes, trailer parks, older neighborhoods—the focus of multiple outreach activities like VBS, homework helpers, ESL or GED classes, community barbecues, etc. We believe many should even consider moving into these neighborhoods to build the kind of relationships that only come through close proximity and extended hours of hanging out together.
  • Actively look for ways to build relationships with faithful Christians living among major centers of poverty worldwide. The truth is that there are relatively few of the truly poor living among us here in North America. Missionaries, local pastors, and church members serving in places like Mexico City, Mumbai, or Manila are best suited to provide direction and counsel for wealthy North American Christians who want to donate funds for orphan care or similar projects in places of such strategic need.
  • Young men who aspire to be pastors and church planters should consider investing several years of their life to ministries of mercy among the poor as training for future ministry.
  • Partner with other likeminded local churches in our city to develop specific strategies and projects to bring aid to the poor. Recruit one or more deacons from each congregation to form regional outreach teams to help implement all the above proposals in ways that are potentially more effective and biblical than those carried out by parachurch organizations.
  • Ministries of mercy like the ones suggested above also require considerable funding. Mercy and benevolence ministries should take on a new priority in our budget...

Some of these ideas may be difficult and may require planning for several years before they can be implemented. But we believe they are worth pursuing. We eagerly anticipate the work God may do in us and through us as we seek to live in renewed obedience to Him.