8 Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. 9 Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.
In the church today, it seems that God’s concern for the poor and marginalized1 is often overlooked. We give necessary attention to spiritual matters, but often completely neglect the physical. A reading of the Law, Proverbs, Prophets and New Testament will clearly show that God exhorts His people to actively care for the poor while admonishing any mistreatment of – or indifference toward – the needy.
Social Concern in the Law
Throughout God’s law – which are his nature-revealing instructions for holy living – we see the care, provision and redemption of the poor and marginalized highlighted.
- Exodus 22:21-23
- Leviticus 23:22
- Leviticus 25:39-43
- Deuteronomy 15:7-11
We see God command His people to treat the poor and marginalized fairly, to make provisions for them, and allow them to be released every Year of Jubilee. He also commands His people to give generously, not begrudgingly.
Social Concern in Proverbs
Proverbs – God’s declaration for wise and skillful living – repeatedly gives us instruction on how to respond to the reality of God’s concern for the poor and needy.
- Proverbs 14:21
- Proverbs 14:31
- Proverbs 28:27
- Proverbs 31:8-9
- Proverbs 19:17
- Proverbs 22:9
- Proverbs 21:13
- Proverbs 22:22-23
- Proverbs 29:7
- Proverbs 17:5
Notice the practices that are condemned in Proverbs: oppressing the poor, mocking the poor, gloating over disaster, shutting ours ears to the cry of the poor, exploiting the poor, crushing the needy in court, closing our eyes to the poor, and not being concerned about justice for the poor. Ignoring the poor shows just as much contempt for God as actively oppressing the poor.
Notice the practices that are blessed by the Lord: being kind to the needy, lending to the poor, being generous, sharing food with the poor, giving to the poor, caring about justice for the poor, speaking up for those who cannot speak for themselves, judging fairly, and defending the rights of the poor and needy. Being kind to the needy is even equated with honoring God, while oppressing the poor shows hatred for our Maker.
Social Concern in the Prophets
We see God speak through the prophets to rebuke Israel for their disobedience, including oppression of the poor and marginalized and a lack of concern for justice.
- Isaiah 10:1-3
- Malachi 3:5
In Isaiah 58:6-7, the Lord deplores those who claim to be religious yet do not “loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, set the oppressed free and break every yoke.” The kind of religion that God honors is “to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter” and “when you see the naked, to clothe him.”
Social Concern in the New Testament
The New Testament echoes God’s heart for the poor and marginalized that we saw displayed throughout the Old Testament.
- James 1:27
- Galatians 2:10
- Acts 6:1-6
The early church modeled social concern. In Acts 6, seven godly men were designated by the leaders of the church to focus their attention on caring for the widows. (In this passage, widows represent marginalized people; people that have a difficult time or are unable to care for themselves.) In 1 Timothy 5, Paul gives specific instruction to the body of Christ on how to care for widows. Also, James acknowledges our tendency, even as believers, to favor the rich and ignore the poor. He commands believers not to show favoritism because God has not “chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him.” 2 Quoting Jesus and the Old Testament, James says that to keep the royal law is to “love your neighbor as yourself.”
Who is My Neighbor?
An expert of the law asked Jesus this exact question in Luke 10:29. Jesus answered the man with the story of the Good Samaritan. In this story, Jesus teaches that His followers must be a neighbor. They must ask themselves, “Who can I be a neighbor to,” rather than, “Who exactly do I have to love and who can I not love?” Jesus was teaching that a person should be a neighbor to everyone in need. The ultimate neighbor was Jesus, whose compassion exposed the Jewish religious leaders’ lack of concern for those who were perishing. Jesus wrapped up His teaching with the command that His followers were to live like the true neighbor from the passage, showing mercy to those in need.
Why We Lack Concern for the Poor and Marginalized
Hopefully, the theological framework provided in the previous section has helped to build conviction in your heart concerning God’s desire for the Church to care for the poor and marginalized. Given the Biblical support surrounding this aspect of God’s kingdom, why do many Christians still fail to demonstrate significant concern?
- Ignorance. We do not learn what the Scriptures say about caring for “social” issues in life.
- Poor Theology. Platonic thought has crept into Christianity. Many of us were taught that the soul is all that matters and we should be indifferent toward the physical realm. While the believer is exhorted to live for eternal purposes and not just temporal ones, the body and its needs are never passed off as second rate or something to be ignored.
- Sin. Our tendencies towards selfishness and laziness tell us that it is just easier to ignore social issues. We tend to forget the poor, thinking that we cannot do anything about their poverty or we convince ourselves that they are not our problem.
- Overcompensating. We are afraid that if we give too much attention to the social needs of the world we will be accused of preaching the “social gospel.” Just because some secularists and spiritually dead churches have abandoned the precious truth of Christ does not mean that we alter God’s kingdom agenda in retaliation. We need to stay the course in pursuing God’s kingdom agenda in both spiritual matters and social/physical matters.
Ways We Justify Our Neglect of the Poor
- “I am Only Around Those Who Are Well Off.” Have you seriously considered these questions: why do you live where you live? Have you surrendered this decision to the Lord? Are you showing favoritism by avoiding poor people or low-income neighborhoods? Are you clinging to comfort or justifying your inaction? Often, the reason we do not care for the poor is because we do not know the poor. Are you putting yourself in a place where you can invest in relationships and truly love your neighbor as yourself?
- “The Bible is Only Concerned With the Spiritually Poor.” On the contrary, the Bible encourages spiritual poverty, because it leads us to understand our spiritual need for Christ’s Lordship. Further, the Scriptures we have used in this document support the theological framework of caring for the physically poor.
- “Do the Poor Really Experience Injustice and Exploitation?” Look around. Where are landfills placed? How is zoning done? Do the poor who live near you have opportunities for redemption or are they stuck in cycles of poverty? What government policies are keeping the poor in poverty, rather than helping them out of it? Are certain ethnic or other types of groups seemingly stuck in the cycle of poverty? If efforts are being made towards serving the poor near you, are they helping to alleviate poverty (empowering individuals) or are they quick fixes to the problem of poverty (band aids that enforce the cycle)?
- “I Am Just Being Discerning With Those I Choose to Help.”
We do need to be discerning in whom we help and how we help (not creating dependency, not being patronizing, etc.). In 1 Timothy 5:3-16, Paul instructs the body of believers to help those widows “who are really in need.” He instructs family members to care for their poor family members first, allowing the church to care for those who have no one to help them. He instructs the church to give to the widows who are over sixty who have modeled good character (most likely because they are unable to earn money for themselves). We know that some (not all) people that need help will not do their part in working. Proverbs warns us that laziness, the love of pleasure, and alcohol abuse will lead to poverty. It does not say that people who struggle in these areas are not to be cared for, but it is clear that these things will need to be changed in order to bring about true reform.
The Bible is clear that the church is to advocate for the poor and the marginalized in the world, caring for their needs and pursuing justice on their behalf. We are not to neglect spiritual needs for social ones, nor social needs for those that are spiritual. The two areas of need are not in opposition. On the contrary, Christ demonstrated care for the whole person, body and spirit. As His followers, we must demonstrate the same, not allowing bad theology, laziness and poor excuses to keep us from addressing the social needs of our communities.
- Do you have relationships with those who come from a background of poverty? If so, how are you involved with them?
- Do you actively seek to understand the plight of the poor and marginalized?
- Do you give generously? Are you mindful of whether or not your generosity is helping or hurting?
- After reading this document, how has your perspective changed?
- Make a plan for how you can better understand the plight of the poor and needy. Then, make a plan for how to better pursue justice for the poor and marginalized.
How does this study reinforce your belief in the gospel?
- Marginalized is a term that refers to those who are prevented from having attention, power or influence.
- James 2:5
- Proverbs 20:13, 21:17, 23:20-21