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Part 5 in a series on A Biblical Answer to Poverty

Editor’s Note: Today we continue our series of excerpts from IFWE’s forthcoming book, For the Least of These: A Biblical Answer to Poverty, due to be released in early 2014. In this post, Dr. Glenn Sunshine concludes his discussion of poverty by explaining four key principles of poverty relief and how they contribute to human flourishing. 

We know that the Bible commands us to help the poor. How can we make a true impact that respects the dignity of the poor? How can we help them to break free from a cycle of poverty?

In my previous posts, we discussed how the Bible defines the poor and the rich as well as the responsibilities of the rich, government, and Church to the poor. From this foundation spring four significant principles that are vital to the poverty alleviation process.

Principle #1: The Importance of Work

In an era of ongoing unemployment, it is important to recognize the true value and importance of work. Work is simultaneously an aspect of the image of God and the normal means God gives us to provide for our needs and for the needs of others.

Sometimes people are genuinely unable to provide for themselves, but Scripture tells us we should all be seeking to work rather than to live off the generosity of others. Those of us who are employed or who own businesses need to value our work and do our best at it.

Fighting poverty through job creation is essential. Employment is a fundamental tool that promotes human dignity and the health and well-being of communities. The Church can be involved in this area by not demonizing the wealthy, the financially successful, the business owner, or the entrepreneur. It can also help by providing tools for the poor to find jobs and become more qualified for those jobs.

The Church also needs to rediscover and teach the cultural mandate. That is, that all callings – including business and finance – come from God and are part of what it means to be created in the image of God. This doesn’t mean ignoring ethical abuses, but it does mean promoting kingdom values in business to prevent those abuses.

Principles #2 & #3: The Importance of Moral Proximity & Subsidiarity

The principle of moral proximity states that we have responsibilities to others in proportion to our relationship with them: those who are closer to us have more of a claim on us that those who are distant. Proximity is determined by relationships rather than geography. Subsidiarity argues that solutions are best found on as local a level as possible.

The two principles are very similar. Moral proximity looks at problems and asks, “Where am I personally responsible to act given my finite time and resources?” Subsidiarity looks at problems and asks who is best equipped to deal with them.

Using either principle, the process begins with the family. In accordance with moral proximity, Jesus understood the commandment, “Honor your father and mother,” to mean that we need to provide for our parents even ahead of giving to the Temple (Mark 7:9-13). Further, Paul tells us that we are responsible to take care of our grandparents rather than passing them off to the Church (or to the government) to take care of them (1 Timothy 5:4).

Subsidiarity states that if the family cannot solve the problem, friends, community groups, and churches should step in. Only after these private agencies are exhausted should the problem move to government, and then once again on as local a level as possible.

This is where the biblical approach to poverty relief flies in the face of what is done in most of the Western world. Rather than looking for solutions at the highest levels of government, subsidiarity is based on the premise that those closest to the problem have the best understanding of the situation and of the individuals involved. This approach allows for solutions tailored to the individual situation while promoting virtue by encouraging the community to take greater responsibility for the welfare of its members.

Principle #4: The Importance of Giving

All of these principles mean nothing unless we follow biblical teaching about the importance of giving generously and even sacrificially to those in need. James tells us that true faith leads us to give to those in need:

If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? (James 2:15-16).

And John tells us that if we do not give to those in need, we do not know the love of God:

If anyone has this world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? (1 John 3:17).

The Church needs to consider how it can help minister to the whole person and the full range of needs they may have, such as food, medical care, education, transportation, job training, etc. Few churches have the resources to deal with all these areas. Churches need to work together across denominational lines, and even beyond that, to secular social service agencies to see that needs are met.

Conclusion

Both the Bible and church history show that a two-pronged approach of supporting economic development and direct work that meets the needs in the community is the best approach to promoting human flourishing in this world. And it does so in a way that promotes godly living in this world in preparation for the next.

How can we apply these principles to help those around us? Leave your comments here.

Dr. Glenn Sunshine

About Dr. Glenn Sunshine

Dr. Glenn Sunshine is Professor of History and Department Chair at Central Connecticut State University, a Research Fellow at the Acton Institute, and a faculty member for the Centurions Program. Dr. Sunshine holds a B.A. in Linguistics from Michigan State University, an M.A. in Church History from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and a Ph.D. in Renaissance-Reformation History from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author of Why You Think the Way You Do. He and his wife, Lynn, have two children.

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