RPM, Volume 18, Number 36, August 28 to September 3, 2016

How Do We Do Social Justice (II)

By Ron Gleason

Who is Truly Needy?

We are investigating what Scripture says about "doing" social justice. Our starting point is intentional and will continue to hearken back to what the Bible says, because today there are those like Tony Campolo, Brian McLaren, Ron Sider, and Jim Wallis—just to mention a few—who are peddling their works as if what they are saying is what God says. For anyone with a modicum of biblical discernment, however, (and they are getting fewer and farther between) their works are little more than tendentious eisegesis, distorting the whole warp and woof of God's redemptive-historical dealings with his people, wholesale distortion of biblical texts, and torturing translations and paraphrases to say what they don't really say.

In one sense, this should come as no surprise as a number of pastors have been doing this for quite some time. Pretending to preach sermons, they have held topic "talks" on the latest, greatest secular self-help book. These sermonettes have produced a bevy of christianettes; people who cannot begin to tell you where to find the Ten Commandments in Scripture, let alone what they are; and those who cannot tell you the most fundamental, rudimentary truths contained in God's Word. This—and myriad other reasons—is why less than 10% of those who call themselves "born again" are actually in possession of a biblical life and worldview.

I pointed out last time that writers like Campolo, McLaren, Sider, and Wallis often throw out a term as if everyone knows the precise definition of what they're talking about. Moreover, they will not and do not take the time to define their terms because they know that if they do, someone will probably call out "Socialism!" Of the four men I've mentioned—and there are many more than can be added to the list—they are all strong proponents of the re-distribution of wealth and what is worse, they have the audacity to call the snake oil they're peddling Christianity. Of course, they're consummately concerned about the poor in all this—at least that is what they say.

Interestingly, in a number of recent surveys it was clear that those who call themselves biblical "conservatives" in fact gave more charitable donations than their liberal counterparts. Therefore, at the outset we are taking time to ask ourselves what poverty is, or better, what the Bible says constitutes real poverty and what it to be done about it. As (North) Americans we tend to have a rather stereotypic view of what constitutes poverty. For example, we might get our information from a newspaper article about what the "poverty line" is or how many people are living under that line. We might conclude that we need to throw (welfare) money at that problem.

But it ought to be patently clear to us that throwing money at a problem does not make it disappear. Some examples are in order. Two liberal U.S. Presidents, Lyndon B. Johnson and Jimmy Carter, literally threw trillions of taxpayer dollars at "poverty." What was the net result? Nothing changed. We continue to be vague when it comes to defining poverty, probably because we listen more to the "stats" than we do to Scripture. That is why in many of our "poorest" counties in the United States 52% of those under the poverty level own television sets, 46% own automobiles, and 37% own washing machines. This does not even take into account how many of these smoke heavily, drink heavily, and play the lottery.

In order to come to a biblical understanding of who is actually "poor," (physically, not spiritually) there are two Greek words that are helpful. First, is the word pénës (pe,nhj) that "may be identified with those today who must work for a living rather than living on the interest and dividends of savings and investment." 1

Second, there is a word that is reserved for those who are truly poor, destitute and that word is ptöchós (ptwco,j). This individual does not work for his daily bread but is reduced to begging. Whereas the pénës has nothing left over, the ptöchós has nothing at all. 2

Theologian R.C. Sproul delineates four causes of poverty: sloth, calamity, exploitation, and personal sacrifice. 3 These are helpful categories for us to employ to distinguish those who are truly in need and those who are out to scam churches or simply to give a sad story so that the undiscerning congregation will simply throw money at their problem. Every congregation has experienced the telephone call from someone in distress needing money or a reasonably healthy looking man shows up needing something to eat. Who wants to be the hard-hearted schlemiel that turns a hungry person away? We're going to answer that as we progress because the Bible does give us clear boundaries that enable us to make an informed decision, all the while being compassionate.

When we discuss a topic such as poverty in relationship to social justice it is essential to determine whether the poverty about which we're speaking is self-caused or imposed from outside. This is a distinction that Jim Wallis and Brian McLaren do not make and it is a serious omission leaving their words open to almost any and all interpretations. For example, in Wallis' God's Politics he recounts a story of how a bunch of first year seminary students found every text they could in the Old and New Testaments. Interesting—sort of. From there, however, Wallis launches into a litany of left-wing socialistic web sites and organizations and that is supposed to pass for biblical exegesis. Perhaps it does at Harvard.

Working, Eating, & Other Biblical Descriptions

The late Carl F.H. Henry once commented that "moral poverty often dooms its victims to ongoing material poverty." 4 This means that if the modern Church will truly be an agent of change in our society she must recognize both the moral and material aspects to the problem of poverty. It means that she neither can expect the government to step in and solve all the ills of society nor can she copy secular government's methodologies, especially those that tend towards Socialism, and expect to remain obedient to Scripture.

One of the major, predictable problems with the Social Gospel was that it ended up looking substantially more like Socialism than it did the Gospel. Why was that? The answer is quite simply because Socialism subordinates all other considerations to man's material well-being. Scripture, however, takes the whole man into account in a serious manner. What do I mean by that? In light of our current topic of doing social justice and poverty we must be informed by what the Word of God tells us about the subject and then move into action from there.

So what does the Bible teach about "self-caused" poverty? From the moral perspective, each one of the categories I'm going to mention is actually a sub-set of man's rebellion against God. Since our modern Christian social engineers have an aversion to the presence and reality of sin—unless it's Bush, Rove, or Cheney, who we all know are huge sinners—they omit what Scripture says about man's sinfulness. The sinfulness of sin is an unwanted intruder in McLaren's and Wallis' discussion of social justice. In McLaren's new book it's not until you're past page 200 that he even mentions sin and then it's only in passing. This is a serious, debilitating flaw in their approach. Claiming to be Christian they refuse to take Scripture seriously and opt rather for liberal, secular solutions to spiritual matters. In fact, it is safe to say that Campolo, McLaren, Sider, Wallis, and others like them are kinds of ecclesiastical Jacobins. They are "gentler collectivists" asking our permission or an allegiance to them playing God with the human race.

I like to think of the book of Proverbs as "bumper sticker ethics." Unlike most bumper stickers, however, Proverbs actually makes sense and imparts wisdom, while the garden variety bumper sticker is superficial and inane. This book in the Old Testament wisdom literature has a great deal to say about poverty and its self-imposed causes. For the sake of argument, I'll mention three sub-sets that fall under the category of rebellion against the Law of God: laziness, foolishness, and shortsightedness.

Proverbs 10:4 is clearly one of those texts that "Sojourner Jim" Wallis and his merry band of liberals at Fuller Seminary missed while discovering that America's Bible is full of holes. 5 What does this text say? "A slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich." Laziness has severe consequences in one's life. It is also noteworthy that the Old Testament wisdom literature does not condemn industrious, conscious work to earn income. Proverbs 19:15 speaks in a similar vein: "Slothfulness casts into a deep sleep, and an idle person will suffer hunger."

Foolishness is symptomatic of those who continually try to figure out things for themselves, but keep running into brick walls. The much-quoted Proverbs 11:14 is an apt verse in this context. 6 Of course, the modern Church has long since left off acting biblically. She's been too concerned with entertaining the masses to spend time asking herself what the Word of God would have her do about specific ethical issues. How bad has it become? Let me give you a few illustrations. Precisely because of the "entertainment" factor in the modern Church modern Christians are blatantly ignorant about everything except the words of John 3:16. Less than 10% of those who call themselves "born again" Christians have a biblical life and worldview, around 80% do not believe in absolute truth, and 85% of "born agains" still have their children in public schools. I went to a meeting this week about California's desire to make traditional marriage a thing of the past. In short, our social engineers want to redefine marriage to include male and female homosexuals—for now. (Since there are no ethical brakes on this train, one can only wonder where this law will take us.) This is a very serious matter and 1,100 invitations were sent out to local pastors. Ten of us showed up. Ten! And we wonder what is wrong with the evangelical church today! Whether it was because of apathy or fear, I'm sorely disappointed in my colleagues. But they'll be the first ones to cry like rats eating onions (Sorry. It was a favorite expression of my Company First Sergeant) when it passes.

It was interesting to see how all of a sudden those present were concerned about what might happen even though for the longest time all they've pushed was easy believism and entertainment. Now, with our backs against the wall they want to plead to God for a revival—a revival! Who do they think their people will be worshiping in this revival? They've neglected teaching them about the nature and character of God for years, they've demeaned biblical doctrine, and now they want to be politically active. Unbelievable. It seems like revival is the modern Church's answer to everything—or, the social gospel is. What is needed is not revival but reformation and certainly not what McLaren suggests: revolution. "Revolution" is the unacceptable by-product of the French Revolution; Reformation is something quite different. Do we remember sola Scriptura?

Shortsightedness—spiritually and physically—lands one in poverty (cf. Prov. 21:5; Matt. 7:24-27; Luke 14:28-30). Beisner correctly adds, "Each of these is a symptom of rebellion against the Law of God, which sets forth a pattern of life that is both naturally fruitful and supernaturally blessed by God (Deuteronomy 8:11-20; 11:18-32; 28:1-68; 30:1-20). 7 In other words, a poor man or woman has poor ways. Can there be a movement out of self-imposed poverty and towards biblical stewardship? Absolutely. And I might add that the Church of Jesus Christ should have a key role to play in that movement. Yet, this movement can only happen when the cause of self-imposed poverty is deliberately rejected and weakened. Before poor people with bad stewardship habits can begin to overcome their poverty, they must first overcome the causes of their poverty and here is where the Church can be an indispensable agent of change.

What has happened, as often as not, is that the Church has followed the likes of LBJ, Carter, Wallis, and McLaren and simply thrown money at the problem or became gentler collectivists sipping Starbucks while wearing their Birkenstocks presenting ostensibly Christian solutions to our "global crises" while in reality they were striving to play God with the human race.

In our next installment we will, Lord willing, delve more deeply into the biblical notions of poverty and some of the presuppositions of men like Campolo, McLaren, Sider, and Wallis.


  1. E. Calvin Beisner, Prosperity and Poverty, (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2001), p. 193.
  2. R.C. Trench, Synonyms of the New Testament, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), p. 129.
  3. R.C. Sproul, Ethics and the Christian, 54-56.
  4. Carl F.H. Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority, Vol. 4, (Waco, TX: Word, 1976), p. 549.
  5. This is Wallis' description, not mine.
  6. Where there is no guidance a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety.
  7. Beisner, PaP, 195.
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