... 1 John 3:17 may sum it up the best: “If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?”
1 John is obviously talking about individual giving. To what extent should churches give? What role should the government play in giving? These are questions that generate strong feelings on all sides.
There are clear instances of Christians coming together to pool their resources to help others in the New Testament. The most significant is the collection Paul took up for the Jerusalem church from the churches he had planted around the Mediterranean (e.g., 2 Cor. 8-9). This may have been in response to Peter and James’ instructions to Paul to remember the poor (of Jerusalem) as he founded churches around the Roman world (cf. Gal. 2:10). Here again, we see the principle that the broader church has a responsibility to take care of other parts of the church that are in need.
What about governments? There is a strong sentiment among many Christians today that the government should not be in the business of helping the needy, that God and the Bible assign this duty to individual Christians and the church. How does this sentiment actually line up against the Bible?
In general, this argument has much more to do with the debates of our world than it does the biblical world. With regard to the New Testament, it is largely an argument from silence. The early Christians were in no position to be instructing the Romans to take care of the needy, so it is no surprise they don’t say much along these lines. Paul does say in Romans 13 that Christians should pay taxes (13:6-7) and that governments are meant to do things for our good (13:4). Nothing here prohibits a government from helping the needy with those taxes.
Whether we believe today that the government should help with the needy is thus an argument we will need to have on the merits of whether we think government will tend to help or hurt those to whom it gives assistance. You will certainly not find any prohibition of the government helping. Indeed, Psalm 72:12-13 honors the king who delivers the needy and pities the weak. We might debate whether the government actually does good, but the Bible simply does not in any way forbid a government from doing good with taxes. If any biblical writer thought a government was truly helping those in need in a reasonable way, it would praise it.
I write this chapter in the wake of Hurricane Sandy which ravaged the coast of New York and New Jersey. Since the government was highly criticized after Hurricane Katrina several years ago in New Orleans—and since America was in the last days of a presidential election—the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) moved in swiftly to help. Churches and other aid organizations like the Red Cross also sprang into action.
No doubt the assistance has not been perfect. Over a week has gone by and there are still individuals without power in the cold. But the question arises—could churches and non-profit organizations have helped those in need nearly as well and as speedily as the federal government? It’s hard to see how the answer could be yes. The help that individual Christians, churches, and non-profit organizations can give in the wake of earthquakes in Haiti or tsunamis in Indonesia is a drop in the bucket next to what a government like that of the United States can do speedily and extensively.
It is hard to imagine any scenario in which Jesus would not be pleased to find that a government had helped in this way, in addition to the assistance that individual churches and Christian organizations give. In fact, of all the things that taxes might go for, surely Jesus and Paul would be most pleased about this one. Jesus and Paul are solidly on the record behind Christians paying their taxes and this despite the fact that massive amounts of money in the Roman tax system simply lined the pockets of greedy individuals. Our system is far more just than theirs was...