Christian Charity and the Welfare State

One of the great privileges and duties of practicing Christians is to do charitable deeds. Virtually all Christians agree on this point. There is, however, a great divide in Christendom between those who believe that charitable giving should be a voluntary, private-sector ministry and those who believe that a government welfare state should oversee a mandatory redistribution of wealth. 

It has become fashionable in recent years to ask, “What would Jesus do?” Christ delineated two separate spheres of activity, the sacred and the secular. He told his followers, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17). Jesus clearly believed in the separation of church and state. He never enlisted the help of the state in carrying out his mission. According to the gospel record, Jesus’ only contacts with government were when government sought to deprive him of each individual’s God-given rights — his life (the crucifixion), his liberty (his arrest), or his property (taxes). Given these facts, it seems unlikely that he would pick government as an ally or the instrument with which to perform Christian works. 

A Bible passage often cited by those who claim biblical support for the redistribution of wealth is Jesus’ encounter with a rich man in Mark 10. The rich man asked how he could attain eternal life. Jesus told him, “go thy way, sell whatever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, take up the cross, and follow me” (v. 21). 

The relationship between Jesus and the rich man was entirely consensual and free. Christ offered the man a voluntary contract, a quid pro quo: you give away your earthly all, and I’ll give you everlasting life. The rich man was completely free to accept or reject the deal and its terms. When he elected to decline the offer, Jesus let him depart in peace. If he had said to his disciples, “Let’s go to the governor and petition him to redistribute the young man’s wealth to the poor,” then the Christian redistributionists could cite this incident to substantiate their position. That is not, however, what the Scriptures record. 

In Luke 12, a man asked Jesus to command his brother to share his inheritance with him. The Lord emphatically declined, pointedly asking, “Man, who made me a judge or a divider over you?” (v. 14). If he whom Christians accept as the only begotten Son of God and the Savior of mankind did not feel qualified or justified to command the redistribution of one person’s property to another, then how can those who profess to be his followers believe that they have the right, the wisdom, or the moral authority to endorse government’s massive, complex, forced redistribution of trillions of dollars among millions of people? 

Many Christians claim that socialism is compatible with Christianity on the basis of Acts 4:32-37, 5:1-10. This is the account of the Apostle Peter’s Christian community sharing a common purse. First, it should be noted that membership in this church was voluntary, whereas all citizens are compulsorily drafted into the welfare state. Second, it is a mistake to construe this story as a repudiation of property rights. 

As you may recall, a married couple, Ananias and Sapphira, were struck dead after it was discovered that they had withheld the proceeds from the sale of their real estate from the common purse. Far from denying the right of private property, Peter explicitly reaffirmed it, stating, “Whiles it [your land] remained, was it not thine own? And after it was sold, was it not in thine own power?” (Acts 5:4). The couple would have been entitled to keep their property if they had not voluntarily contracted to exchange it for full membership in the society of believers. By conniving to receive the benefits of membership without honestly paying for them, they had attempted to defraud the community. Ananias and Sapphira were punished because they were dishonest cheats.

Nothing written herein should be interpreted as minimizing the obligation of Christians to perform charitable deeds. In his parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus clearly shows the two proper ways for Christians to practice charity. The first option is to minister directly and personally to those who need help, as the Samaritan did when he tended to the wounded traveler. The second option is to make a donation (a voluntary contribution, not a tax) to help others care for those in need (Luke 10:33-35) as the Samaritan did when he had to leave to attend to his pre-existing responsibilities. Try to picture the Good Samaritan spotting the wounded man and then demanding money from other passersby on the road to give him money to pay for the wounded man’s care. It isn’t a very inspiring picture, is it? Yet the process of compelling others to support various welfare agendas is the fundamental essence of the welfare state—give or else. 

The correct answer for a Christian to give when asked, “Who bears the responsibility for doing charitable deeds?” is “I do.” Answers such as “the rich” or “society” are evasions of individual responsibility. It is not a Christian duty or prerogative to force others to join us in charitable endeavors. It is erroneous for us to suppose that we are doing God’s will by compelling or trying to compel others to do good deeds. We are accountable to God and we receive our heavenly reward for what we do, not for what we make others do. Paul teaches each of us to “work out [our] own salvation” (Phil. 2:12).

Eventually, we (meaning all Americans, not just Christians) need to dismantle the welfare state that is bankrupting our country. We should not, however, begin to balance the budget on the backs of the poor. Let us first eliminate the myriad federal programs that redistribute money to the rich and powerful. Using government force to redistribute wealth is never justifiable on biblical grounds, but the greater moral outrage is the obscene practice of what we economists call “rent-seeking,” whereby well-connected and well-funded special interests use the power of government to divert money into their own pockets. 

We should cut off the flow of money from the federal treasury to the prosperous — bailouts and handouts to corporations, subsidies to wealthy agribusinesses, grants to politically connected universities, etc. Afterward, can figure out how to phase out government welfare programs and devolve care for the poor to the private sector, especially the churches, where — at least, from a Christian’s perspective — it rightly belongs.

Editor’s Note: A longer version of this essay was first published by The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.

Dr. Mark W. Hendrickson is a faculty member, economist, and contributing scholar with the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.