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What Should Christians Do about the “Have-nots?”

In 1964, President Johnson led America into a “War on Poverty.” Combat in this “war” included a flurry of legislation establishing Medicare, Medicaid, and Head Start. Over forty-five years later, unfortunately, poverty is still a national problem.  According to the 2010 U.S. Census Bureau, 15.1 percent of Americans lived in poverty and, perhaps more importantly, 22 percent of children. Furthermore, this was the third consecutive annual increase in the poverty rate.1 The situation is much worse internationally. In Niger, Africa for example, 34 percent of the population is undernourished while the average life expectancy is only 46 years.2 Awash in a sea of statistics, how can a believer not grow numb to the problem? What’s a Christian to do?

Ron Sider, founder of Evangelicals for Social Action, argued that, in the face of global poverty, Christians should voluntarily lower their standards of living. He offered three strategies. First, institute a “graduated tithe.” Under this plan, any income above a family’s most basic needs is given away at an increasing rate. Second, a “liberated family” rejects materialism by shopping at secondhand stores and day old bakeries, foraging in empty lots and trash, and riding the bus instead of owning a car.3 Third, believers might choose “communal living” to help each other survive on the bare minimum.4 According to Sider, Christians must opt out of the materialistic culture that ignores the plight of the poor. For every Christian family, “[t]he ultimate goal should be to . . . enjoy a standard of living which all persons in the world could share.”5

John Schneider, former professor at Calvin College, wrote from the other end of the spectrum. He disputed both Sider’s understanding of poverty—at least in the United States—and consumption. First, if poverty is defined as a lack of food, clothing, or shelter, it does not exist in the United States where even the poorest have color televisions and eat fast food.6 It would be more accurate to say that “the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting richer, but not at the same pace.”7 Second, consumption is godly because God made humans to enjoy material prosperity.8 So, according to Schneider, one should delight in his possessions without guilt, but show compassion toward those with less.9

In the debate over Christian social action, Sider and Schneider are both helpful but ultimately unsatisfying.10 Sider appears to be demanding more than Scripture itself, and his teaching borders on legalism. On the other hand, most believers in the Western world already enjoy their earthly acquisitions quite enough, thank you. They don’t need more encouragement from John Schneider.

Is there a sensible biblical balance? It’s possible, but only if Christians recover the lost grace of godly self-denial. In practical terms, this means every family disciplining themselves to a household budget that carefully plans the expenditure of income. Few things clear the senses like seeing finances in black and white. It shows where one’s treasure resides. An organized budget also helps one be mindful that it is a privilege to live where believers can not only “earn their own living” (2 Thess. 3:12) and pay “taxes to whom taxes are owed” (Rom. 13:7) but have enough left over to meet the needs of others. Families can pray for guidance about where their money would best be spent, whether locally or around the world. Many factors can play into the decision, but this much is certain: budgetary outlays should evidence the pinch of self-denial. After all, how much is spent by Christians on items that will inevitably be called by their proper name—frivolous junk?

Whatever failures marked Johnson’s state-led approach to the “War on Poverty,” on one fact there is little doubt: individual Christians and churches, especially the American ones, need to do a lot more. What priorities mark the plans of God’s people? What percentage of a church’s financial resources go to meet the needs of the “have-nots” as opposed to spending on buildings, entertainment, and other discretionary programs? The answers to those questions may not result in a single, easy answer to a Christian response to poverty. But almost anything would be better than having the reputation for casual inattention to genuine need or plain-old “do-nothingness.”


U.S. Department of Commerce, United States Census Bureau Website, (accessed May 29, 2012).  A person is in poverty if the combined income of his family is below a threshold calculated by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget.


“Niger: Hunger and Poverty Statistics by Country,” Bread for the World Website, (accessed May 2, 2005). For a map with additional statistics see


Ronald J. Sider, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger: A Biblical Study (New York: Paulist Press, 1977), 175-180.


Ibid., 180-182.


Ibid., 178.


John R. Schneider, The Good of Affluence: Seeking God in a Culture of Wealth (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 2002), 21-22.


Ibid., 33-34.


This is Schneider’s main point. Thus, for example, one should take pleasure in owning a well-made Mercedes. Ibid., 38.


For example, Schneider defended affluence because the rich rightly “love being rich both for the freedom it gives them to enjoy life and for the immense power it enables them to offer on behalf of others. In the lives of these people affluence is itself a very great good.” Ibid., 39. Likewise, he wrote that world poverty “requires from us who are wealthy a spirit of compassion, full of respect for that condition and the people trapped within it.” Ibid., 219.


Sider and Schneider represent two attitudes toward private poverty, both with biblical roots, but that nonetheless fail to capture the entire picture. As R.T. France, a biblical commentator, put it, “[T]here are two sides to Jesus’ attitude to private property, and his modern interpreters naturally tend to emphasize one or the other, depending on their prior commitment. Emphatic black-and-white statements and commands suggest that no true disciple should own property, while incidental comments and inferences from both his teaching and his practice indicate that private ownership is normal, and indeed essential, not only for society at large, but for the majority of Jesus’ followers.” R.T. France, “God and Mammon,” The Evangelical Quarterly 51 (1979), 14.