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An attempt at a balanced view of the Bible and economics

Posted by Chance on March 21, 2007

Dan has a post about Jesus on Economics and Religion, which has many good verses on not being obsessed with wealth or material things. To be sure, verses like this motivates his and other liberals’ views on the government and our economy. Let’s say that we want the government to be involved in helping the poor (I am more about private efforts but I am speaking as a moderate here). Let’s look at a few other verses.

“6 Go to the ant, you sluggard;
consider its ways and be wise!
7 It has no commander,
no overseer or ruler,
8 yet it stores its provisions in summer
and gathers its food at harvest.
9 How long will you lie there, you sluggard?
When will you get up from your sleep?
10 A little sleep, a little slumber,
a little folding of the hands to rest-
11 and poverty will come on you like a bandit
and scarcity like an armed man. ” Proverbs 6:6-11

” 6In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers, to keep away from every brother who is idle and does not live according to the teaching[a] you received from us. 7For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, 8nor did we eat anyone’s food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. 9We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to make ourselves a model for you to follow. 10For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “If a man will not work, he shall not eat.”

11We hear that some among you are idle. They are not busy; they are busybodies. 12Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the bread they eat. 13And as for you, brothers, never tire of doing what is right.

14If anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of him. Do not associate with him, in order that he may feel ashamed. 15Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.” 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15.

Now, what is my point? Am I saying that poor people are lazy? No, not at all. What I am saying is this. If we are trying to develop a government that follows God’s commands about helping the poor, we should also take into account other verses that warn about idleness and laziness. In my view, we don’t want a government that can discourage people from making a living and encourage them to depend on the goodness of the government.

Some people believe that it is better to be safe than sorry, to do a little more than needed than do to little, and maybe they are right. At the same time, it can be detrimental to do too much. People need food and clothing, but they also need a life of dignity, to work and be useful to people, and to provide for their family.

I think the call of Christian living in relation to wealth is two-fold: give of yourself, but at the same time, earn your own bread.


12 Responses to “An attempt at a balanced view of the Bible and economics”

  1. Josh said

    Good points, Chance.

  2. Dan Trabue said

    No one at all (that I know of) would disagree with the notion of earning your own bread if you’re capable of it.

    You say:

    “If we are trying to develop a government that follows God’s commands about helping the poor, we should also take into account other verses that warn about idleness and laziness.”

    And no one would disagree with that, either. My wife is a social worker. She works with many folk who are or have been receiving money from the gov’t.

    Do you know what they say to folk?

    “WHY did you get cable?! You can’t afford rent! Turn it off!”

    “Get some nicotene patches, you can’t afford to pay $25 bucks a week on cigarettes!”


    No one is encouraging laziness, at least not the social workers and state agencies I’m aware of.

    Can you make the case that, just by having a safety net that some people would be more lax than they ought and therefore end up using it and that if it weren’t there, they wouldn’t be so lax in the first place?

    Sure. Probably so (although I know of no studies to back that up).

    But I don’t think the majority of Americans want our families to have no safety net. For one reason, if a parent is being irresponsible, then it will be the child who pays along with them, and we’re not a society that digs punishing the children for the sins of the parents.

    What if we had study-backed safety nets and assistance?

    For instance, repeated studies have shown that convicts have a high retention rate but that those who get education and addiction help are significantly less likely to go back to jail.

    And the lower recidivism and the added productivity add up to pay for the cost of the education/addiction programs.

    That, to me, seems obvious. If it’s going to cost society $100x to jail convicts but by spending $10x, we can bring the costs of jail down to $50x, we ought to do so out of our own self-interests. It would be foolish not to.

    Don’t you think?

  3. Dan Trabue said

    This last point I made (what I call “obvious investments we should make”) is one reason I question the “conservative” claim that “liberals” are big spenders.

    In the case of prisoners, we all are GOING to pay. The so-called conservatives are arguing we ought to invest in more and more prisons. The so-called liberals are saying we ought to invest in ways to reduce prisoners in the first place.

    BOTH sides are talking about spending but, at least in this case, I think it obvious that those calling for reducing our prison rate are the true fiscal conservatives.

  4. Neil said

    Well said, Chance. I think a safety net is good public policy if administered properly. But that is not what the Bible ever refers to. It is always addressing how individual believers deal with their own money. “Biblical” arguments that make up new guidance aren’t Biblical at all.

    I think the liberal theologians often drift into covetousness by being so sure that others have too much, such that we need to take it from them and redistribute it.

  5. Dan Trabue said

    Actually Neil, the Bible is full of rules for the nation of Israel in regards to safety nets established by policy.

    No, Jesus and the early church did not dictate any terms for the Roman gov’t (over which they had no say), but they did dictate some guidelines for individual believers. And in a Republic such as ours, those believers may want to follow OT sensibilities and institute policies.

    Nothing wrong with that, in theory.

  6. Chance said

    Dan, you make a good point but I think what we have today is more than a safety net. A commenter in the past said that if you take the 10% tithe and the other occasional tithes you would have somewhere around 23.3%, yet many liberals will claim that times were good when the rich were taxed 91% (not you, but others). That was to pay the church AND give money to the poor. There is also the year of Jubilee and canceling of debts and stuff, but I don’t think that equates to an additional 70% tax rate.

    The New Testament calls on some to give all away. Even if that was the case for all of us, in my view you also have to take the New Testament calls to give that voluntarily.

  7. Dan Trabue said

    As I noted earlier, perhaps it would make sense to do a rational-cost-analysis approach as I suggested was the case with the funding prisoners issue. If it’s going to cost society regardless, let’s invest in issues up front. Especially if that upfront investment means saving more money in the long run.

    I don’t know enough about how to measure that, myself, but I’m saying that if having an under- (or wrongly-) educated workforce is costing us $10x a year and we can change that by investing $5x, then by all means, invest the $5x.

    And if we can get individuals or private agencies to fund all or part of that $5x (as long as there were no significant strings attached), then by all means do so.

    I’m all for compassion, but in the end, it is my conviction that compassion is also fiscally responsible.

    A problem with all of this approach may be in determining how to measure success. OR, if there ARE ways to measure success.

    For instance, in environmental protection or education, failing to have responsible policy can cost not only a horrible amount of money, damage done may be unreversable in real terms.

  8. Michael Westmoreland-White said

    Ah, I wondered when this verse from Proverbs and the one from 1 Thess. would be brought out. I argue for an economy where everyone who is able to work has a job and get this kind of reply. “Balanced.” Justice for the poor is a theme of nearly every page of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation–with only a handful of verses warning of laziness (most in Proverbs) and FAR more worrying about the rich getting richer in unjust ways, but this is considered “balanced.”

    It’s rather like when TV news cameras see a huge anti-war demonstration and a small counter-protest and zoom in close to the counter-protesters so that it seems like there are just as many and then gives “equal time” to the spokesperson for the small counterprotesters as for the huge anti-war rally. This “balanced” view actually distorts the event–and so does focusing on the few verses that emphasize laziness. Should they be ignored? No. Of course not–but in this unjust economy that is not the danger–FAR from it.

  9. Michael Westmoreland-White said

    To see how imbalanced this “balanced” approach is, go to the index of any good work on the Bible and poverty, say Ronald Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, or, if you can find this long out of print work by Sider, Cry Justice, which just gives passage after passage on poverty and wealth with no interpretation. Count the number of verses ORDERING both individuals and governments to lift the burdens of the poor (or face God’s wrath). Then count the tiny number of verses that warn against laziness. Do the math. See where God’s priorities as measured by the Word.

  10. Chance said

    Okay. Let’s talk about the verses on helping the poor. The OT talks about helping the poor, but with no tax rates near your progressive dream era. Even in the OT the poor weren’t guaranteed a job with vacation, they “gleaned” from the fields.

    The New Testament says for many (or all, depending on your interpretation) to give it all away, but it talks about doing so free from compulsion.

    I don’t question God’s call to help the poor. That is clear. God also calls us to live holy lives (abstain from drunkenness, sexual immorality, etc…), but just because I don’t want the government to get heavily involved in that area doesn’t mean that I disagree with God’s word. In the same way, just because I question taxing people at 91%, or even 38%, doesn’t mean I doubt God’s word.

  11. John Kaiser said

    It can be a tough road to walk between being a productiver and hard working man who glories in the Lord and placing too much emphasis on your material belongings. They are so easy to get attached to, I can attest to that.

  12. Neil said

    Great points, chance. I love helping the poor, here and around world. But just because there are lots of Bible verses about helping the poor doesn’t mean we need to give a blank check to the government and covet the money of others. The Bible is pretty keen on discernment and wisdom as well.

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