Charity vs. Welfare: The Christian’s battle over personal responsibility

Giving by Karpati Gabor for
Giving by Karpati Gabor for

WASHINGTON, February 20, 2014 – One of the most hackneyed and worn-out arguments in any remotely politically-minded Christian’s life is the one about what God thinks in terms of big vs. small government. Having said that, here’s another to toss into the fray.

The battle lines seem pretty clear in this age-old debate: on the left side we have those who argue that if Jesus taught us anything, it was to help our fellow man, and so big government social justice-type programs must be a good thing. Consequently, anyone who is against them is bad and wrong and therefore not really a Christian because they don’t get what Jesus was going for anyway.

Over on the right, we have pretty much the opposite. The right-minded folk believe that Christianity is all about personal responsibility, and that helping your fellow man through charity and love should be done on an individual basis. Doing it through governmental action not only doesn’t count, but removes the internal, “Love Thy Neighbor” mentality that should be the driving force behind the action, thereby rendering it completely null in terms of Christian value.

While both arguments are presented as caricatures here for the sake of brevity and simplicity, the crux of each is fairly represented.  Looking into both arguments, frankly, the ride side wins this one.  If you seek scriptural justification, you can find it for both sides.  For example, Jesus tells us in the book of Mark to, “sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.”  T

hat seems a decidedly unambiguous statement to take care of the less fortunate; in fact, it links the act with heavenly reward.  Point: left wing.  But wait – there’s more.  In the book of Matthew, Jesus tells us to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” On its face, that sounds like a ringing endorsement for paying taxes, or if you’re really making labored metaphoric leaps, for acquiescing to the whims of your ever-expanding government.

If, however, we take a moment to look at things more holistically, we find that the Bible doesn’t support that big government agenda after all. Of the over fifty verses dealing directly with helping the poor, not one of them references any sort of edict to do so through the government.  Rather, the exact opposite holds true; we are instructed to help the poor as individuals. It’s an issue of personal responsibility, and it’s repeated again and again throughout both testaments of the Bible.

Speaking of personal responsibility, there are also droves of verses dealing with individual responsibility outside the realm of helping the poor. Galatians teaches us that “each will have to bear his own load,” and 2 Corinthians reminds us that it is our own duty as individuals to work hard, saying, “whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.”

Taken together, the collection of verses dealing with helping the poor as a matter of personal obligation, and dealing with the broader issue of individual responsibility contains over 100 verses.  That makes it a pretty major theme of the Bible, and therefore should be one that is clearly understood and interpreted.

Now, back to that bit about Caesar.  A cursory investigation of that passage clears up quite a bit of the hype. As it turns out, Jesus was answering a trick question about taxes, with a coin bearing the likeness of Caesar being used in the discussion. In the scripture’s original language (Greek), it is very clear that the coin in question belongs to Caesar. Jesus said to give back to Caesar what belongs to him; that is a very different statement from giving of one’s self or possessions to Caesar (who represents the government in this metaphor). Similarly, we are to give back to God what belongs to God.

The main bullet point of the story is to respect one’s government, such that it does not interfere with one’s religious directives. It’s not a call for separation of church and state, as many believe, nor is it proof that Jesus supported the notion of a big government with lots of taxes designed to implement programs to force people to do what God tells us to do on our own. All of that is an outcrop of a major misunderstanding of a fairly straightforward story in the Bible.

As with many of the stories in the Bible, it is a call for balance. Do the work that God has commanded you to do, individually, rather than relying on the State to do it for you. It very simply means that we are to be responsible for ourselves, accountable to God, and a blessing to those around us.

Happy tax season, everyone!

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