Biblical Theology, Poverty, and Social Justice: Part 12

Posted By on September 13, 2013

In this last post on the issue of the Bible, poverty, and social justice, I want to remind readers of several of the basic conclusions we reached in this series. The following conclusions were readily discernible in the biblical text after looking at the OT and NT material on poverty, the poor, and just treatment of the poor.

1. The poor are mostly said to be poor without a description as to how they became poor. There were some exceptions (war, laziness), but by and large, explanations were absent.

2. God was not pleased when the poor were exploited and mistreated. Some passages do describe both private wealthy individuals and wealthy state officials exploiting the poor, but there is no scriptural warrant for concluding that wealth is some sort of inherent corrupter of persons that invariably prompts them to oppress the poor, or that always peripherally leads to the oppression of the poor.

3. A biblical theology of poverty is focused on the individual being compassionate to the poor. There is no sense of handing this responsibility off to an impersonal state. A welfare state should consequently be viewed as a sign of the failure of the Church, not as a clever and useful creation of the human state so the Church can move on to more “spiritual” pursuits.

4. If the question is what is a biblical theology of the care for poor, the answer is the individual, or individuals operating as a like-minded group, under the guidance of biblical revelation from a God who hates poverty and injustice. The answer is not the empowerment of a corruptible state. That is the secular God-less answer.

5. Neither the OT, NT, or 1st Century Judaism viewed wealth as inherently evil.

6. Personal wealth creates more opportunity to abuse the poor, but there is no axiomatic cause and effect relationship between wealth and exploitation.

7. God’s “special interest” in the poor” isn’t an idea that exists in a theological vaccuum. When Jesus blesses the poor who are seeking the kingdom it is not because their poverty made them godly. Being poor is no more a mark of God’s favor than being rich.

8. The NT does not teach that giving to the poor washes one’s sins away. That isn’t what John 3:16 (and many other passages) says.

9. Acts 2:42-47 is not consistent with the political-economic theory of communism or socialism. Early Christians were not required to sell all their property nor have a negative view of private property. The passage says nothing about empowering the state to redistribute wealth, or empowering the state in any way. it is entirely consistent with the voluntary care for the poor spelled out in the OT. There is no NT mandate for the erection of a theocracy (read: state).

10. The parable of the talents shows a positive view of private property, lending, and investing capital. The parable is also a cautionary tale for handling resources, lending, borrowing, and risk. It is not specific as to the matter of charging interest of fellow believers, though the OT prohibition of that practice would not be overturned by what we see in the parables.

The focus of this last post is Paul’s comment in 2 Thess 3:6-12

6 Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. 7 For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, 8 nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. 9 It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate. 10 For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. 11 For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. 12 Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.

To say the least, this passage would be quite odd and out of step with Acts 2:42-47 if indeed that latter passage prescribed some sort of Christian communism or welfare state. Why would Paul chide a believer for being idle — not working to support their basic needs when they are capable of working? Why not tell the person in question to go to the church for support, the “new theocracy” designed (in the mind of some) to mime the OT’s (alleged) state system of support for the poor?

It is transparent from the passage that, like the other OT and NT material, the focus of Jesus, the apostles, and the NT Church was not to build a state system as some sort of theocratic substitute.  Many social justice advocates presume this from the outset and bring it to the text as a hermeneutical grid or guide. But consider the absurdity of the general proposition: if that was the case, the Church should have the power to tax, conscript for military service, have a standing army, negotiate treaties, demand and carry out public works projects, enforce law, etc. — all things we see the state of ancient Israel doing in the OT. Why isolate this presumed “biblical state” to social and economic welfare? The idea simply implodes with very little probing.

On the other hand, Paul is not advocating for total self-sufficiency, as though fellow believers should not help other believers (and, by extension of the second greatest commandment, their fellow human beings). The message here is not that refusing to help others is some sort of divinely sanctioned “it’s for their own good” litmus test, or that help should only be rendered for equal service value. In other words, while Paul wasn’t Marx or Lenin, he wasn’t Ayn Rand, either.

Most of what Paul is advocating here is clear to readers.

1. People who can work and provide for themselves should, so they are not a burden to the church and its efforts to provide for those who cannot provide for themselves (e.g.: widows, orphans, invalids, handicapped). People can work and do not would have been a drain on resources that ought to go to others. In other words, for those capable of working for their daily needs, working is how they can love their neighbor.

2. Paul wanted to set an example of the above. While he could have insisted on support, especially on the analogy of priesthood (see 1 Cor 9), he didn’t — and his refusal to do so is a telling rejection of the idea that the NT church was supposed to be the new state.

Less obvious is that this passage has antecedents in his earlier letter to the Thessalonians, as well as the broader NT teaching about church discipline — expulsion from the church community (to deliver the offender “to Satan” – i.e., to the realm outside the holy “geography” of the church, the believing community, to that realm under the powers of darkness — the world and its members who follow other gods).1 The key term that links this passage to 1 Thessalonians is “idleness” (Greek: ἀτάκτως /ataktōs).2  The adjectival form of that word occurs in 1 Thess 5:14 (“admonish the idle”; ESV). Paul’s warning here in 2 Thess 3:6 is therefore actually Paul’s second warning. This is in concert with other church discipline passages (e.g., Titus 3:10) seeking to apply the process of rebuking and reconciling a fellow believer in sin (Matt 18:15-17).

I’m not going to elaborate on a biblical theology of church discipline or “separation”. Rather, I want to make a third observation from the passage:

(3) The issue of not working when one could was serious enough that, for Paul, a failure to do what’s right in this instance could have rightly led to expulsion from the believing community.

Again, this is hard to reconcile with the notion that the early church was formed as a utopian commune or Marxist community.

 

  1. See 1 Cor 5:1-13, especially verse 5.
  2. “Idleness” is the rendering of the ESV; other translations have “disorderly” or “unruly”.

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6 Responses to “Biblical Theology, Poverty, and Social Justice: Part 12”

  1. haibane13 says:

    In the NT when it says blessed are the poor does this mean poor as poverty or poor in spirit? Or both?

    • MSH says:

      It says both (Matt 5:3; Luke 6:20). Those passages are both the sermon on the mount/plain (the issue of whether those sermons are the same or different is itself a debate). The basic idea behind “blessed” is “fortunate” so I think we’re on solid ground that what is meant isn’t that you’re fortunate if you’re destitute.

      • haibane13 says:

        What’s your view are they the same sermon or different ?

        • MSH says:

          I don’t care. Can’t say I’ve bothered to spend enough time on to make a decision. I usually only drill down into things that I sense will matter. This doesn’t strike me as anything of importance.

  2. roberterasmus says:

    Michael,

    You’ve done some tremendous work here (throughout…as I’ve been able to follow…need to really get into it). #7 above brings to mind an area of teaching regarding the subject overall; do the Scriptures teach about the “world at large” poor or the poor within the “seeking the Kingdom” subset? Did any of the 11 previous posts handle that in any way?

    Bob

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