There are many Christians who are rightly convinced that our duty is to help the poor and needy among us as Jesus did and commanded. But often such people view government programs as the means to that end. To them, helping the poor means advocating and supporting welfare spending, and opposing welfare sounds downright unchristian. Just a couple examples of this mentality are here and here.
Now of course Christians must be in favor of and actively working to support the poor, but we must do that and not cede our responsibility to the government. Delegating our duty to government is not only historically ineffective, it is a betrayal of that duty. When the apostles told Jesus about the plight of the hungry crowds who followed them, Jesus’ answer was “you give them something to eat.” James writes that we should “look after orphans and widows in their distress” not “give your money to the government and they will handle it.”
The current system is too expansive and involved to remove overnight. I am not saying that we should stop all existing government aid to the poor and replace it with the existing charitable work of the Church. The solution requires a deeper overhaul both of the systems and our thinking. We must stop thinking of the Church as a group of people who share some beliefs and who get together every once in a while to talk about them and recover the mission of the Church to be workers for God’s kingdom of abundance and cheerful giving. Indeed, the early Church was characterized by giving and sharing (though not in some proto-Marxist way, but that is a topic for a different post). Paul constantly moves from talking about the gospel that Jesus is king one moment to understanding the implementation of the gospel to involve voluntary giving the next. But the form that giving takes leaves out any mention of a middleman.
Take Ephesians 4:28 for example Paul says that “thieves must give up stealing” (a strong endorsement of property rights) and instead “labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy.” The alternative to dishonest acquisition of wealth is honest acquisition of wealth so that one may share that wealth with the needy not so that one may pay his taxes and have the government build homeless shelters.
As much is the Church is guilty of ceding its responsibility to the government, the government itself has not made things any easier. Government regulation and programs crowd out existing Church efforts. One way this happens is that when the government takes on the burden of caring for the poor people no longer feel that they need not donate money or time themselves because they have already paid their taxes. Of course charitable giving of all kinds still takes place, but to a lesser degree than if the government ownership of the problem did not create a sense of complacency. Another way that government efforts crowd out the church is by direct regulation of their practices. Many charities and hospitals have found themselves having to choose between conforming with government mandates about abortion or human sexuality and shutting down to keep their conscience clear. If Christian advocates for the poor want to change government policy, this would be a good place to start.
As previously mentioned, it is both logistically and legally unrealistic to think that the current system can do a 180 very quickly, but Christians should at least stop making it seem like government welfare is proper response of the Church to the poor and hungry. Rather we should begin to implement Jesus’ command that we give them something to eat.