Should THE CHURCH be doing social welfare instead of the government?


1. Early Church. To talk about caring for the poor today we have to start with the early church.  The early church took care of the needy among them and even the needy beyond their own circle. From time to people sold property and gave the proceeds to the Apostles who used the gift distributed food and aid to the needy among them—especially the widows and orphans.  But beyond this service to its members, the early church also became known for helping strangers and poor people even those who were not believers. We cannot say they ever took on the entire welfare needs of the Roman empire—they were too small to do that—but they did become known as a people who helped the poor and needy. But it was not just an [organized] “church” responsibility—it was considered a personal responsibility. IN fact it was considered a certifiable sign you were truly converted to help the needy—how could a person be a real Christian of they did not help someone in need? (1 John 3:17).  So the church corporately had a welfare program, and the individuals personally had a welfare program.  The state had none. States and empires taxed and ruled. Churches gave and cared.


2. Christendom. Within a few hundred years of Constantine, Christians were no longer a minority. By AD 500 Christians ruled along with the empire and the church was large enough to take on almost all social welfare responsibilities. It did so for the next thousand years—AD500- AD1500. A “division of labor” between the church and state resulted. Governments taxed, ruled and went to war and the church handled the softer side—caring for the poor, the sick, the broken and the outcasts.  Society was still largely agrarian so the family was the primary first front of the welfare system. People turned first to their extended family when they were old, sick, or dying. But there were some who had no extended family support: the “outcast poor.”  These unconnected people had no family or farm to turn to when they were in need so the church stepped in as their care-giver—to the rejected, the wanderers, the orphans, the widows, the crippled, and the insane. For a thousand years this general division of labor between the state and the church continued, with the extended family being the first line of defense for the poor, then the church acting as backup where a person had no family network.


3. Protestant Reformation. With the Protest Reformation “the church” became fragmented. Soon there were scores of “denominations” and not a single unified church. Protestants continued to aid the poor personally and corporately but the over-all approach was fragmented and became hit and miss.  A plethora of denominations each had their own approach. Some cared for all needy who showed up, others considered their calling to only serve “their own” arguing that the early church had no needy “among them” and did not care for those outside the church.  Some denominations married the state and became “state churches.”  Eventually the Protestant Reformation spawned scores—eventually hundreds—of denominations fragmenting and disbursing church power. At about this time the “modern state” offered a stronger more unified central authority.  While the church was fragmenting and losing unified power, the state was getting stronger, unifying and gaining power. Yet still, social welfare was the duty of the church—however fragmented and herky-jerky the approach was.


4. Industrialization.  Industrialization changed everything. People moved from their rural extended family networks to sprawling urban centers and became “workers.”  Workers, that is, when they could find a job. They became poor when they couldn’t. And even when they found a job—they were often only the “working poor” barely able to feed a family. When they couldn’t work they were hungry.  Poverty increased. The old extended family social welfare network had evaporated. Cities became jammed with poor people and the church tried its best to rise to this new challenge. They had been equipped to handle the “outcast poor” but handing this new wave of poverty overburdened them.  Churches and Christians responded heroically though, with John Wesley being one of best examples in this period. But the response was inadequate. No longer was the burden for the smaller group of “outcast poor” but now the church tried to take on the teeming masses of—they did their best but it was just too much to handle. The church tried heroically but was fragmented in its response. Even though Christians responded vigorously and established city missions and hospitals and homes for unwed mothers and homes for recovering prostitutes and if someone in a city was hungry they could usually find a meal—and usually that was offered by a church, the response was just not enough to “solve” the problem.  So, who had power great enough to respond to this new need? 


5. The Great Depression. The coming of the Great Depression overwhelmed doubled down again the sheer numbers of needy. “Workers” living in cities need jobs, not just bread. The church had bread but no jobs.  Christians stood at the bottom of the cliff helping those who had fallen over, but the fragmented church never even imagined how to work at the top of the cliff—creating an economic climate to keep people from falling off the poverty cliff. It just wasn’t in their repertoire.  Churches put out extraordinary efforts during the depression but the situation did not improve. In America it was government that seemed to have the power, not the churches. Government now had new power derived from multiple wars.  Government seemed to offer unified across-the-board solutions—bread and jobs. The Government provides “welfare” but also provided work—the CCC, the WPA, and a dozen other domestic jobs programs touted to boost the economy. Then World War II approached and government put virtually everybody to work connected in one way or another with the war effort. Churches still founded city missions and aided the poor, but the church’s work was rapidly eclipsed by government.  Christians went along with this. Those with compassion for the poor saw the government had one ability they did not have: the power to tax.  Church welfare ministries had been stuck with spending only the pittance they got voluntarily. Christian social welfare ministries felt they only got a few coins tossed their way by other Christians—like Dives in the Parable. Governments did not have to ask for donations—they taxed people and forced them to contribute. The contributor may have not gotten the benefit they would have gotten if they’d voluntarily donated the money- but the needy certainly got more benefits that way!  Many compassionate Christians applauded this new role for government—indeed they believed this was the Christian thing for a Christian nation to do. Besides, they rather gleefully rejoiced that the government taxed all the unbelievers and non-church attendees too.  They knew caring for the poor it was God’s work, and were happy however God got His work done—by voluntary donations to the church or by taxation by the government.


6. The modern welfare state. Government was eminently successful at taxing and spending. At least people saw the power and unified approach of government as stronger than that of the fragmented competitive churches. The poor were cared for, in a new arrangement: Government did lots but churches did the rest. But few Americans were satisfied with care for the poor—they wanted in on it. Government was so successful at taxing people and helping others that the middle class wanted in too. While old people used to live with their kids on the farm, now their kids had moved to California in a small house and had their own kids. Why couldn’t government offer some kind of social security for these parents of middle class kids who wanted to keep their own income? How about all these men coming home for the war—why couldn’t government help them get a college degree with some sort of a G. I. Bill? How about helping all middle class families send their kids to college with subsidized loans? How about helping the “family farm?”  Could help old people with medical care—not just poor people, but middle class old people with something like Medicare? Maybe we could help these middle class old people with their drug costs too with George Bush’s Part D?  Maybe churches could have done all these things but the church’s financial power was too weak. Churches could not tax people. They could persuade some of their own people to tithe but they could not make the 70% of the people in their town who did not attend church to tithe. But government could tax everybody—all denominations, even non-believers to do this work. Even more so, government had another power no church even dreamed of—they could print money!  The role of government changed. Government’s care for the poor became care for voters, and welfare became “entitlements” most of which went to the middle class, and even to the rich.  The straw that will eventually break the economic camel’s back will not be welfare for the poor—it will be welfare for the middle class.


7. Evangelicals go along.  Evangelicals have uneasily accepted a new division of labor. Government taxes and makes war, and also now also cares for the needy, and especially the middle class. Evangelicals like the idea of the church doing welfare ministry but they don’t like the budget it would cost. Now the church preaches and evangelizes and “does a little bit of ministry to the poor” on the side while the government carries the bulk of welfare ministry.  Evangelicals are going along. The new more successful brand of evangelicalism is more like a business than a mission anyway. While evangelicals regularly recite their creed, “The church should be doing welfare for the poor, not the government” it is mostly a hollow doctrine recited to themselves—we do not act on it. We are quite content to collect our tithes and spend most of them on ourselves. Modern evangelical success requires this modern business approach. We need million-dollar buildings and a dozen staff persons to succeed in today’s competitive market. We want to be “missional” but the vast majority of our people are content with “photo-op ministries”—you know, the kind where someone goes for a day or week to help the poor then wears the tee shirt advertising their service for the rest of the year. We have some wonderful examples of missional people, but they are the exceptions that prove the rule—they are rare, not average. Most evangelicals know down deep in their hearts that there is no way they could take back from the government welfare for the poor, let alone take back welfare for the middle class. In most towns in the USA. to pay for just the poor’s welfare we’d have to take every single dollar coming into every single church in the town—Protestant and Catholic alike, and use it for poverty programs. There would be no money left to pay the pastor, or staff or to cover the heat bill—let alone pay for a building. We like the notion of the church handling welfare, but when we crunch the numbers we see it just can’t be done.  We can “help out” but we simply can’t match the government’s power and money.  There is only one way evangelicals could actually take on a major burden of welfare for the poor: If every Christian would tithe.   


Go ahead and crunch the numbers. If all Christians in America tithed a full 10% of their income to their local church, and the church used 100% of this new income to care for the poor, we as a minority of the USA population, could take on most of the social welfare for the poor the government now does. We could not do welfare for the middle class—Washington has to figure that out—but we could pretty well handle welfare for the poor. So it is really possible that “The church could do welfare for the poor, not the government.”


But, that raises a disturbing question.  If all Christians started tithing this Sunday... would the church really spend it on the poor? 


By Keith Drury 2/25/2013