It is by no means a controversial statement to claim that Jesus loves the poor or that His disciples are to follow in His stead.
What stirs controversy, however, is when we ask each other, “How does Jesus want us to love the poor?”
For many, it is a forgone conclusion that the welfare state plays an indispensable role in our care for the poor, as well as widows, orphans, and sojourners.
But I’m here to argue that not only is there is no Biblical warrant for the entitlements of the modern welfare state, but that the welfare state stands in stark opposition to the will of God.
Social Security and Medicare
It’s important to understand the distinction that divides rights from political privileges. Our rights from God reflect His character and nature in miniature, which means they are lawful and good and, thus, cannot require sin for their very existence. However, political privileges, like government pensions, Social Security, and Medicare, are different: they are granted by the partial hand of the State and need an atmosphere of intimidation, fraud, and theft in order to breathe. God does not require men to be thieves or the beneficiaries thereof. Such entitlements, then, cannot be rights.
Indeed, political privileges are conceived in and nourished by sin, even if unwittingly and even when the trappings suggest a virtuous cause.
Social Security, for example, is a highly prized and closely guarded jewel for most seniors, an undeniably vulnerable group, but rarely do Americans consider that this coveted treasure comes at the expense of future generations.
We must ask ourselves, as Christians, “Is it right for grandparents to sow future economic destruction in the lives of their grandchildren simply because they’ve ‘paid their fair share’?”
But setting aside this moral quandary of personal gratification at the expense of others, what if the elderly haven’t even paid their fair share? What if, on net, they are taking more than they are contributing, and the biggest reason they get their monthly check is because the system relies on a strongman who intimidates the taxpayers into obedience?
For generations now, beneficiaries have, in fact, paid relatively little into the system and profited exceedingly. Ida May Fuller, the very first Social Security recipient, retired in 1940, having worked just three years under the Social Security program. She paid a measly grand total of $24.75 in payroll taxes, but received almost that much, $22.54, in her initial monthly check. By the time of her death in 1975, she had received exactly $22.888.92 in benefits.
Now the jig is up, and people of my generation are paying more into a system that can’t feasibly provide even a sliver of the promised financial peace that was lavished on the likes of Ida May Fuller. We’ve been stuck holding the bag, in other words.
Even the magisterial liberal economist Paul Krugman has compared Social Security to a redistributionist Ponzi scheme in which retirees are being handsomely subsidized at the expense of younger workers, and that such subsidization is unsustainable.
Social Security is structured from the point of view of the recipients as if it were an ordinary retirement plan: what you get out depends on what you put in. So it does not look like a redistributionist scheme. In practice it has turned out to be strongly redistributionist, but only because of its Ponzi game aspect, in which each generation takes more out than it put in. Well, the Ponzi game will soon be over, thanks to changing demographics, so that the typical recipient henceforth will get only about as much as he or she put in (and today’s young may well get less than they put in).
That was in 1996. Thankfully, even squirrels as blind as Paul Krugman find nuts now and again, because it seems that Krugman, of all people, has since been proven right. According to the admission of Social Security’s board of trustees, the program currently has unfunded liabilities that stand at $34.2 trillion.
Medicare, believe it or not, is in even worse shape, consuming $590 billion of taxpayers’ money this past year and being on target to consume twice that in the next decade. A couple of years ago, the left-leaning Urban Institute estimated that a married couple of two average earners retiring at the age of 65 in 2025 will receive $547,000 worth of Medicare benefits despite having only paid $168,000 in Medicare payroll taxes.
With these kinds of numbers, it’s no wonder that it has an even greater outstanding bill than Social Security, with one estimate putting its unfunded liabilities at a staggering $49 trillion.
A 20 trillion pound millstone
You add to this our mammoth military expenses and a picture begins to emerge as to how our federal government has accumulated $20 trillion of debt, at least according to “official” calculations.
Some of us, however, might prefer more accurate accounting figures to the cooked books of our federal government. You see, those aforementioned liabilities are made to fall outside of the government’s cleverly-devised budgetary parameters. The truth is that when we remove such subterfuge, we are the pack mules of a far weightier burden – and while these alternative estimates vary widely, they are all in considerable excess of that daintier “official” number. In fact, there are some credible wonks arguing that our debt is actually in the ballpark of $119.5 trillion or, amazingly, even higher still.
Regardless, our debt is bad enough that just making annual interest payments flays a pound or two of flesh from the bones of every American taxpayer. It cost Americans $266 billion last year to do just that and, should our habitual profligacy continue, this expense will only grow, at least until the bottom falls out of our economy. For what it’s worth, the Congressional Budget Office estimated in 2016 that, in only ten years, we’ll likely be spending $712 billion on interest payments alone.
Mind you, for as much as Scripture teaches us to fear private debt, which Solomon likened to being trapped in a hunter’s snare (Prov. 6:1-5), it was still allowable under God’s law. However, public debt is a far scarier animal than private debt in that it doesn’t follow the same honest contractual guidelines of the private world. Instead of private debtors honoring the terms of their contracts and paying back their creditors out of their own pockets, our politicians do something quite different. They lure Americans into joining what amounts to a scam against the future. They borrow from these complicit public creditors who then want their share from the gravy train. Our politicians then repay them by siphoning money from the pockets of future taxpayers, thus enslaving our offspring with impossible debts and suffering little in the way of direct consequences, save being voted out of office.
Fiat currency and false weights
But our national debt hides a particular abomination that, while certainly not novel, has been mastered in the digital age. It has become normative, or some might even say necessary, with the rise of fiat currency and fractional-reserve banking in the 20th century. This grievous sin, hidden in plain sight, is called currency debasement.
To cheapen any standard weight or measure, including currency, while giving the illusion that no tampering has taken place is abominable to God.
You shall do no wrong in judgment, in measures of length or weight or quantity. You shall have just balances, just weights, a just ephah, and a just hin: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt (Leviticus 19:35-36).
Unequal weights are an abomination to the Lord, and false scales are not good (Prov. 20:23).
A just balance and scales are the Lord’s; all the weights in the bag are his work (Prov. 16:11).
These are, literally, only a handful of the occasions where God either rails against fraudulent weights and measures or praises their converse.
You might be asking yourself, though, how exactly this relates to our national debt.
I think Dr. Gary North can bridge the gap between our monetary policy and its relationship to our national debt better than I can.
In his classic Honest Money: The Biblical Blueprint for Money and Banking, Dr. North writes,
A government needs money. It fears a tax revolt if it raises taxes. It cannot afford to pay more interest, so it can’t borrow money from the general public. It therefore goes to the central bank and says, ‘Buy our Treasury debt certificates.’
The Treasury creates the debt certificates (usually on a computer entry: liability). The central bank buys them by creating another entry: money. The computer blips are swapped.
The government has just monetized some of its debt…The central bank creates a reserve asset when it buys the government bond. The money is then used by the government to buy whatever it wants (mainly votes). This new money goes through the economy. If the banking system is a fractional reserve system, the money multiplies many times over. This is the process of legalized counterfeiting we call inflation.
The government never gets something for nothing. That means that you and I aren’t going to get something for nothing. More likely, we’ll get nothing for something. We’ll get higher prices, higher long-term interest rates, and then a recession.
Currency debasement is the reason that, over the course of the last century, our dollar has lost somewhere between 95 to 98 percent of its purchasing power since the advent of our central bank. While a dollar still appears to be a dollar, they certainly aren’t built like they used to be. The dollars of yesteryear were once backed by gold.
Even the Consumer Price Index (CPI), which measures the rate of inflation and is integral to the work of investors and economists, is the product of all manner of convoluted statistical chicanery. It is a false measure, even if by accident. The Bureau of Labor Statistics employs “hedonic price adjustments,” which cleverly exaggerate the gains in economic growth and underestimate inflation, a perfectly subtle tactic to assuage a doubting public.
Where do we go from here?
Responsible people would take these portentous signs as a wake-up call and begin sobering up—but not our politicians.
Lavish privileges buy votes, and our leaders are addicted to power.
And with foreign and American creditors growing increasingly reluctant to lend, it looks as if we’ll find ourselves looking more and more to our central bank, the Federal Reserve, as our “lender of last resort,” to print our way out of these mounting fiscal woes. We’ll watch prices scamper upwards and the value of our savings evaporate by inflationary black magic.
In other words, we are making our way toward economic implosion, which could result in the hyperinflation, bare grocery shelves, and rioting of a Venezuela or a Greece, but will certainly require that we crash-land into some form of default or, better still, debt repudiation.
And this, ultimately, is the stinging disinfectant that our suppurating wounds require. It would likely usher in the demise of our entitlement system and, for a time, would surely raise our borrowing costs, necessitating a severe cultural adjustment to go along with our economic one. However, defaulting on our debts wouldn’t be that bad in the long-term. It would be our jubilee year, honestly liberating the oppressed, and imposing the fiscal discipline that God requires of His magistrates, while giving the Church the opportunity to practice true religion in a broader, more authentic sweep.
Speaking of which, how should Christians then practice true religion, if not in some kind of partnership with the State?
Faithfully, devotedly, lovingly, and freely.
Under the Old Covenant, when a brother fell into dire financial straits and required a loan, his more affluent neighbor was expected to lend without exacting interest (Deut. 15:7-10).
The poor, along with other legally vulnerable groups, also had a very particular right that was to serve as a safeguard against their destruction: the right to glean their neighbors’ fields.
When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God. (Lev. 19:9-10)
When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat your olive trees, you shall not go over them again. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not strip it afterward. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I command you to do this. (Deut. 24:19-22)
Biblical charity versus modern welfarism
Some people might find justification for the welfare state in these verses. It faintly resembles a food relief program, albeit a primitive one.
However, we’d be wise to notice the vast chasm separating the Biblical order from the modern statist order.
First of all, one distinct difference between modern welfarism and these gleaning laws is that gleaning demanded hard work, unlike the current welfare arrangement, making it more like low-wage labor than a simple handout.
Secondly, gleaning was very limited in its provision, being permanently constrained by God to the perimeter of a field and whatever sheaves or grapes were dropped by the field hands, rather than a flexible allotment that waxes or wanes over time with successive political negotiations.
Moreover, gleaning was also limited by the calendar year, relegated to just a few harvest days a year.
It also seems that violation of the gleaning laws carried no civil penalty. Landowners, while morally obligated by God to invite the poor in to glean, were not to be compelled to do so by the magistrate. It is God and God alone who commends the generous and curses the miserly.
This distinction is enough to sever any supposed conduit linking Biblical charity with the variegated strains of socialism.
The magistrate’s sole function has always been to punish public evil, not substandard kindness, which is why, in God’s economy, true charity is to be left highly decentralized and voluntary. In the case of gleaning, it was implemented locally, further emphasizing the highly personal nature of Biblical charity. Townsfolk and villagers would have known who was poor and, more often than not, why they were poor. And as is the case now, certainly not all of their tragedies warranted financial deliverance. Much like the man prone to violence and wrath of Proverbs 19:19, some poor men are poor by an intractable love of sin and are thus sometimes best loved when consigned to the just consequences of their stubborn folly.
This means that the donors’ right to exercise discretion is a must. While Boaz was obliged to admit lowly, poor sojourners like Ruth to glean his fields, he also had a duty to ensure that he wasn’t propping up wicked rebels in the community. There were limitations to the rights of the widow, orphan, and sojourners, and sometimes these rights were forfeited. This is why I think that Ruth sought permission to glean on Boaz’s property (Ruth 2:2,7). Her access wasn’t guaranteed simply because she met the generic citizenship and income requirements, rather, she gained access because she was found worthy. Justice is done, not when we are “partial to the poor or defer to the great” (Lev. 19:15), but when we defer to God and exercise discernment and judge according to His righteous standards.
It’s not just with gleaning that we see this allowance for discretion. Similar freedom was granted by God to the kinsman-redeemer of an impoverished man. Presumably, if one’s kin fell upon hard times, it became the moral duty of the kinsman-redeemer, like a Boaz, for instance, to redeem the impoverished member of the family by buying back his land and preserving him from indentured servitude. However, the poor family member wasn’t guaranteed redemption. Rather, it reads that he “may be redeemed” (Lev. 25:48) by a brother, an uncle, a cousin, or a close relative. But what’s interesting is that the kinsman-redeemer didn’t have to redeem his poor relative, because the law then states that, should the poor man’s family not redeem him, he could grow rich enough to redeem himself (v. 49). What the law doesn’t say is that the family shamefully shirked its duty and that the poor man was then entitled to restitution at their expense. God’s law does not arm the magistrate to force a poor man’s kin to come to his financial rescue (Lev. 25:25-28), because God doesn’t want the love of a neighbor to be coerced or evil to be subsidized. Again, freedom is necessary to determine when help is justified and when it isn’t.
To be clear, we should still err on the side of mercy, even giving food and water to our enemies should the opportunity arise (Prov. 25:21-22), with the hope that such tenderness will melt their hearts into repentance, but we veer into lawlessness when we translate that charge as a legally mandated blank check to avaricious enemies.
Poverty that springs from persistent libertinism and sloth would not have been countenanced in Israel given that incorrigible dissipated drunkards could justifiably be put to death (Deut. 21:18-21). Subsidizing such cursed men, abominable parasites to the community, at the expense of the poor servants of God is surely a perversion of Christian charity.
The New Covenant and the poor
Unsurprisingly, the God-breathed New Covenant doesn’t depart from these fundamental God-breathed Old Covenant principles of voluntarism, decentralized mercy, and the freedom to exercise personal discretion. Paul makes the point to the Corinthians that charity, in order to be true, must be motivated by a love for neighbor and given without compulsion.
“Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor. 9:7).
“If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing” (1 Cor. 13:3).
Moreover, he recognizes that, as far as the church is concerned, alms are never granted based on circumstances alone.
We see this latter principle at play later when Paul tells the Thessalonians that not every poor man is entitled to eat at the church’s expense, but such alms are reserved for those who, in addition to their dire circumstances, have walked in “accord with the tradition” taught by Paul.
Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat (2 Thess. 3:6-10).
Caring for widows
Paul similarly exhorts Timothy to maintain strict character requirements for widows seeking church support.
“If any believing woman has relatives who are widows, let her care for them. Let the church not be burdened, so that it may care for those who are truly widows” (1 Timothy 5:16).
But who are the “true” widows? Paul gives the enrollment criteria, and they are anything but permissive.
Let a widow be enrolled if she is not less than sixty years of age, having been the wife of one husband, and having a reputation for good works: if she has brought up children, has shown hospitality, has washed the feet of the saints, has cared for the afflicted, and has devoted herself to every good work (1 Tim. 5:9-10).
Paul recognizes immediately thereafter, that, were the church to subsidize younger, more immature widows, the church would be encouraging idleness, which, interestingly enough, has long been the contention of free market economists.
In the final account, Scripture is devoid of our concept of an impersonal State forcibly redistributing wealth to the poor, let alone to retired veterans, the elderly, the sick, or the unemployed.
There’s a reason that Paul is so severe in his exhortation that families should be the first line of defense for the least in this world, taking care of their own widows, while a principled, exclusivist church stands as the last line of defense.
Therefore, I think it is safe to say that wealth redistribution shares little likeness with Biblical charity, not only because it lawlessly requires theft in its inner workings, but also because it results in a coerced love of the weak and vulnerable and encourages a flabbiness in our Christian walk as if we’re relieved of our duty before God to the extent that the State does the church’s work for us. In fact, suggesting that God finds taxes to be a legitimate means of charity is like imagining that God is, likewise, satisfied with idolatry as a legitimate means of worship.
Our nation’s descent into fraud, theft, and messianic statism, I think, would set Paul’s teeth on edge were he alive today. It should set our teeth on edge, too, but it doesn’t, and it hasn’t for a long time.
By truncating the Gospel and limiting its influence on our political ideologies and institutions, we, as Christians, have all too often entrusted the care of the hen house to the foxes.
It doesn’t matter much whether these sly foxes have aligned themselves with the paganism of democratic socialism or of economic fascism. The differences are often just window dressing, anyway. What matters is that, as Christians, we really should know better.
Regrettably, though, we often yawn at the wiles of politicians who have, for generations, forsaken the narrow constraints God has prescribed for magistrates and opted, instead, to chart a course according to the zeitgeist of the age and the dictates of corroded consciences.
It’s this aberrant justice of vain men that routinely mistakes the thievery of vote-buying partiality for justice, charity, and kindness, and the slavery of insurmountable debts as an inconsequential and unavoidable byproduct of benevolent governance. Rather than being checked by a vigilant church, however, such a paradigm doesn’t even seem to rankle many self-described Christians or even their pastors.
Things that our unchanging God has forever deemed abominable are shrugged off as trivialities and downgraded as the peccadilloes of schismatic zealots, but the way we go about loving the poor, weak, and vulnerable in our midst is not a thing of little consequence. Even the most nominal Christians would likely agree here, it’s just that many haven’t a clue where to look in the Word of God for their actual marching orders, if they even care to look there at all, let alone how to implement their discoveries faithfully.
I hope that, for our children’s sake, we sit up and take notice soon, repudiating the contemptible miscarriages of justice that have long been pursued by our fathers, because, from what I hear, God’s wrath is a bear, and I wouldn’t wish it on my own worst enemy, even if he is a socialist.