There are many people calling themselves Christians, who follow the movement that is commonly known as the “social gospel.” According to this movement, the heart of the Christian faith is about bringing change to society by helping the poor, downtrodden and abused.
Those who follow this teaching have no time for the idea that people need to be saved from God’s judgment. In their view, although Jesus’ death on the cross served in some way to demonstrate God’s love, it was not a sacrifice for sins. And they reject the idea that people in their natural state are on course for hell after death.
Opposing this distortion
It is quite right for genuine Christians to vigorously oppose this movement. These views are far removed from the Christian faith of the Bible and are thoroughly heretical. In reality, the social gospel is not Christian at all.
However, we often find that when Christians oppose an error of some kind, they overreact. Frequently, the baby is thrown out along with the bath water. And many fall into this trap when opposing the social gospel.
Although the core of the Christian faith is about salvation by faith in Christ and God’s building of His church, the Bible makes it clear that giving practical help to those in need should be a large part of normal Christian living. In fact, it is striking just how strongly this theme is emphasized.
Here are some New Testament examples:
In Luke 3:10-11 we are told something about John the Baptist’s teaching on repentance:
“10 And the crowds asked him, ‘So what shall we do?’ 11 And He replied, ‘Whoever has two tunics should give one to someone who does not have any, and whoever has food should do the same.’”
There is no doubt that what John says here applies to Christians today as much as it did to people in the first century.
And note how radical this teaching is. If someone with two tunics gives one away to someone who doesn’t have any, then both people would end up with one tunic. The person giving and the person receiving would have the same quantity. This is extremely generous giving.
It would be taking this passage too rigidly to understand it as a rule set in stone. It is not implying that in every single situation when a person with more than one of a certain possession meets someone who has none, the person who has should give until both parties have the same quantity.
On the other hand, however, we mustn’t ignore or explain away the radical nature of John’s teaching. It is certainly implying that it is often God’s will for a person to give until the receiver has as much as the giver.
This passage, then, shows how important it is for us to be generous in giving to the poor.
In Luke Jesus says:
“Sell your possessions and give to charity.”
Verse 22 – “And He said to His disciples” – makes it clear that this instruction is directed to Jesus’ disciples, not just to the crowds that listened to Him. His discipel
There is no good reason for thinking that the command in v. 33 doesn’t apply to Christians today. It is true that some of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels ceased to apply directly to His followers when the New Covenant was inaugurated after His death and resurrection. However, this is the exception rather than the rule. Unless there is a special reason for thinking that a Gospel command is no longer directly applicable, we should assume it still applies today. And nothing suggests that Luke no longer applies.
So this verse stands as a biblical command to Christians today to sell their possessions and give to charity.
This shouldn’t be taken to mean that every single Christian should sell everything they possibly can and give away all the money they make from selling. That would contradict other biblical passages.
However, we mustn’t go too far the other way either and ignore the radical character of Jesus’ words here. This verse is teaching us that selling possessions and giving away the money that is made to those in need should be a common practice for Christians. And because selling possessions to give away money wouldn’t normally be done while a person still has cash in hand, this verse surely also implies that giving away all the money we have should be a common Christian practice too.
In Galatians Paul tells the churches in
“So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, especially to those who belong to the family of faith.”
There are several things to note about this verse.
First, “as we have opportunity” means that acting on what Paul says here is something that Christians should do often.
Second, the doing good that he refers to certainly includes helping people who are in practical or financial need.
Third, the verse is clear that we should help everyone but especially our fellow Christians.
In Ephesians Paul writes:
“The thief must no longer steal, but instead he must work hard and do what is good with his own hands, so that he will have something to share with anyone in need.”
Note how Paul doesn’t just say that a former thief who becomes a Christian should give up stealing and work to support himself. Instead, when contemplating this person working and earning money, Paul’s thoughts turn immediately to charitable giving.
There is a strong implication here that giving to those in financial need is an important part of the Christian life.
In Hebrews the author writes:
“And do not forget to do good and share what you have, because God is pleased with sacrifices like these.”
The sharing in view here is certainly a sharing of money and material possessions. And the writer is explicit that sharing these things pleases God.
In James James writes:
“Pure and undefiled religious worship in the sight of our God and Father is this: to take care of orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
Some English translations of this verse have “visit orphans and widows” instead of “take care of orphans and widows.” However, in these translations “visit” is being used in a special sense, to mean “visit with a view to helping,” which basically means “take care of.”
James wrote these words at a time when there was no state financial help for those in poverty. And this meant that orphans and widows were often especially vulnerable. That is why he mentions these groups of people specifically. He is not suggesting that his readers should help only orphans and widows. Rather, his point is that Christians should help those who are in need, especially those who are in financial need.
Note in this verse how no less a thing than “religious worship” is summed up as the performance of just two types of act, one of which is to help people in need. Of course, this shouldn’t be taken to mean that helping people and keeping morally pure is all that is involved in the Christian faith. There is clearly hyperbole in James’s statement. Nevertheless, this verse strongly underlines the importance of giving help to those who need it.
Importantly too, there is no suggestion in the text that the people who should be helped are only Christians. James is telling his readers to help any who are in need.
This verse teaches us, then, that a major part of what it means to live a Christian life is to help people in poverty.
The combined weight of the passages we have looked at makes it very clear how important it is for Christians to practically help those in need.
There are also plenty of other texts that teach along the same lines. These include Leviticus 19:18; 23:22; Deuteronomy 10:17-19; 15:7-11; Job 31:16-22; Psalm 41:1; 112:5-9; Proverbs 11:24-26; 19:17; 21:13; 22:9; 28:27; 31:8-9; Isaiah 58:6-7, 10; Matthew 19:16-22; 25:31-46; Mark 10:17-22; Luke 6:24; 16:19-31; 18:18-23; 19:8-10; Acts 2:44-45; 4:32-37; 11:29-30; 20:35; Romans 12:8; 15:25-28; 1 Corinthians 13:3; 16:1-3; 2 Corinthians 8:1-15; 9:1-15; Galatians 2:10; 1 Timothy 6:18-19; Titus 3:14; James 2:15-16; 1 John 3:17. And many more passages could be added to this list.
As far as who we should help is concerned, the principle outlined in Galatians 6:10 sums up the overall emphasis of biblical teaching: we should help everyone but especially our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. Because we Christians are all part of one spiritual family, it is no surprise that our priority should be to help our fellow believers.
I think one reason why Christians are sometimes hesitant in their giving is because they are wrongly influenced by the Old Testament regulations about tithing, i.e., giving one tenth (e.g., in Leviticus 27:30-33; Numbers 18:21-32; Deuteronomy 14:22-29).
Some seem to have the idea that God doesn’t usually expect Christians to give away more than ten per cent of what they earn. Others, although not thinking that God typically sets a limit at ten per cent, believe that He specifically requires them to give ten per cent of what they earn to their local church.
Both these ideas are mistaken, however. There are a few things to note here:
First, the Old Testament commandments about tithing never included instructions to give a tenth of monetary income, only a tenth of certain crops.
Second, these commandments are part of the Law of Moses, which was superseded in Christ (e.g., Galatians 3:23-25; Romans 7:6; 10:4; Hebrews 7:18-19; 8:7-13).
Third, even the argument that Old Testament tithing provides a good principle for Christians to follow today is a very weak one. The New Testament contains a lot of teaching about financial giving, as we saw above, but in the relevant passages there is never any explicit or implicit reference to tithing.
It is true that twice in the Gospels we find Jesus accepting the validity of tithing herbs (Matthew 23:23; Luke 11:42). However, in the context of each passage He is speaking to Jews who lived under the Law of Moses. There is no suggestion in these verses that Christians should give tithes of their incomes.
The fact is that nowhere in the New Testament are we encouraged to follow any principle of tithing.
There is therefore no clear or even vague rule for us today telling us how much of our money we should give away.
Nevertheless, we must not think that God is somehow neutral on the matter. There is no doubt that He knows exactly how much He wants each person to give.
We have already seen that selling possessions in order to give should be a common Christian practice. In view of that, I think in the wealthy Western countries of today God probably wants most Christians to give away more than ten per cent of their income, in many cases much more than that. And in light of the passages we looked at, a substantial portion of what we give should typically go towards practical help for the poor, especially the Christian poor.
I think another reason why some Christians are at times reluctant to help people financially is because they don’t want to discourage them from taking personal responsibility for their own lives.
It is true that we should take personal responsibility into account when considering helping someone. And it is usually quite right for us to withhold practical help when people can do something for themselves without much difficulty.
However, we must be careful not to take this too far. There will be many occasions when we simply don’t know all that is going on in someone’s life. People may at times not be as irresponsible as it might seem on the surface, and we should always be prepared to give someone the benefit of the doubt.
Furthermore, there is a big difference between someone being able to do something without much trouble, and someone being able to do something only by enduring real distress. Only a hard-hearted person would make light of this difference.
For example, just because a man manages to make enough money to feed his family doesn’t necessarily mean that it would be a mistake to help him financially. His job may involve working very long hours in bad conditions, and God may well want us to give him money to ease his hardship.
Giving to the undeserving
I suspect that Christians are also sometimes hesitant to give money to people, because they think they don’t deserve it. Often a person can end up in financial difficulty through their own fault, and in such a case a Christian might think it is inappropriate to help them.
It is certainly right for us not want to encourage bad behaviour, and this may at times mean withholding help so that someone learns a lesson.
However, we should never refuse to help a person simply because they don’t deserve it. At its heart, the Christian faith is all about God giving His mercy to us undeserving sinners. And we should also give freely to the undeserving.
In Matthew 5:45 Jesus says:
“. . . He [God] causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the upright and the unjust.”
We should have a similar attitude.
In the world today there are millions upon millions of people in real poverty, who badly need practical and financial help. They include many Christian brothers and sisters.
The Bible makes it very clear that giving money to such people should be a major part of the normal Christian life. This has nothing to do with supporting the so-called social gospel. It is just about following Jesus.