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Last week there was a healthy discussion about government's responsibility to care for the poor.  It was pointed out that nowhere in scripture can you find support for the idea of government being obligated to care for the poor. While that may be true is it possible to make an argument based on scripture  for the wisdom of government taking responsibility for the poor?


If government in fact exclusively wields the power of the sword (and that proposition finds biblical support), which I think fairly implies that it uniquely has the power of life and death, then I would think it can be reasonably concluded that government ought -- as a matter of justice, not mercy, based on its power over life and death -- provide the means by which the poor might live.  The caveat to that is that this (justice) obligation is not to provide a comfortable life but rather the minimal means by which the poor will, essentially, avoid dying.

This is not a "wisdom" argument but a "justice" argument (I missed the argument from "last week" and can't find it).

In terms of a "wisdom" argument, but also in terms of "what the role of government is" argument, I think government should/does have the authority to do that which benefits the citizenry as a whole (for the "common good").  Examples would be: (1) creating contract law so that the citizenry can better engage in economic relationships; (2) creating electricity creating dams on rivers to provide energy; (2) creating all sorts of civil laws (torts, property, etc), again so that the citizenry can engage in life, with others, in a more orderly way; (3) build needed roads, or mail systems, or other services that are helpful to the citizenry as a whole; (4) establishing anti-trust laws so that the government will not lose the "most powerful status" to any business or other organization (in which case the existence of government as government is threatened); (5) defining/recognizing institutional spheres and sphere boundaries in society (e.g., church, family, voluntary organizations, etc); (6) regulating behavior that significantly threatens the citizenry as a whole (e.g., possession of nuclear weapons, requiring banks and insurance companies to hold reserves, limiting use or harvest of commonly owned, natural resources that might otherwise go extinct or become unusable); (7) if the government is democratically elected, to ensure the voting population will be sufficiently educated so as to be capable of intelligently voting.  

This isn't an exhaustive list of course, but the common thread in the examples is that government acts in these cases for the "common good," not as a means of deciding that some in the population should be nice (should mercy) to others.  The power of the sword should never be used to force some citizens to be merciful to others.


Thanks Doug for your thoughtful response much of which I appreciate and agree with.  You did bring a question to mind about two things.

1.  "This justice obligation is not to provide a comfortable life but rather the minimal means by which the poor will, essentially, avoid dying."  Avoiding dying is truly a minimalist point.  Is such a serious limitation truly necessary in your understanding of the role of government.  I could understand other limiting measures such as not to exceed the cost of living for a family of four. Or not to exceed the poverty line.  Buy only to prevent death seems unusually harsh and frankly something I have never ever heard before.  I think even Ronald Regan would object to this limitation. I personally would/could never vote for someone running for office with such a view of government.  I expect more of a government which writes into its constitution " to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and posterity." "To promote the general welfare of the United states".

I also think of the words in our pledge of allegiance "with liberty and justice for all."  

2. One more thing, I think it is clear that Romans 13 not only establishes states with the power of the sword but also with the power to do good. Vs. 4 "For he is God's servant to do you good."  The power of the sword does not even come up in Paul's language until after the phrase :"to do good."  The first three verses are all about submitting to the authorities for there is no authority except that which God has established.  Paul's primary concern in the first three verses is the proper recognition of governing authorities.  He is not defining the function of the government so much as the legitimacy of the government.

Paul in 1Timothy 2: 1-7 appeals to Christians to pray for kings and all those in authority that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness." It is clear that Paul understood that one function of kings and all those in authority was to make it possible for people to lead peaceful and quiet lives.  Additionally I cannot image being only minimally alive and at the same time living a peaceful and quiet life.  It seems even here Paul has more than mere life in mind. Peter also sees a twofold function of the government in 1 Peter 2:13f.  "To punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do good."  He does not tell us how the government commends those who do good but he does it make it clear that it is not doing good by punishing, those who do wrong.  These two are distinct.

Thanks again for your reflections.


Well, your lead post says, "It was pointed out that nowhere in scripture can you find support for the idea of government being obligated to care for the poor."  I was merely pointing out that there IS scripture that "support[s] the idea of government being obligated to care for the poor."

Don't interpret what I say as suggesting government should try to keep people close to death, but rather that it is simply not the justice obligation of government to provide it citizenry a very comfortable living. 

Let's look at it this way.  Have you ever been motivated to really put in some extra effort because if you didn't, you and your family might be headed for some real financial trouble?  That if you didn't really put out, your business would fail, or you wouldn't be able to send a child to a college of choice, or you couldn't afford your spouse's elective surgery that would be really nice, or you wouldn't be able to afford piano lessons for your child (etc etc etc etc)?  If government's justice obligation is to give you a comfortable living, or if your justice right is to demand that government make you comfortable, what will you be tempted to do?  Answer: not worry, not put in the extra effort.  For that matter, why would you put in all that work to get the education you need to get to that next step?  Live is guaranteed comfortable, not?

Sure, some people are self-motivated to the point that they will do what they should do (use and develop their gifts) regardless of external incentives/disincentives, regardless of a government guarantee of a comfortable living, but if you and I or anyone was asked, we must admit that many people do require the incentive of sheer WANT to the point of NEED to get them motivated to do what they should do to live more fully.  Indeed, many people would be deprived of that incentive if they knew government would offer them a comfortable life if they did nothing.

Beyond that, consider that government is not the only societal institution that can and does provide truly needed help.  My goodness, if we live or die based on government, what kind of society have we actually become?

Do you really think that Romans 13:4, "For he is God's servant to do you good," intends to suggest that government will provide materially for you?  Consider the context.  The Roman government provided economically for no one (except the political elite of course).  If a subject was blind, he/she needed to beg.  Doing good, in an NT biblical  context, means maintain "law and order," I would suggest.  That is, restrain thieves and murderers and others with the power to harm you.  And that was a big deal -- and still is -- "... that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness."

I'm not sure how old you are, but I'm 61.  When I was young, only women and children were eligible for any kind of welfare benefits.  If males "needed help," except if they were disabled in some way (in which case medicaid type of benefits could kick in), then males needed to figure out how to help themselves, get help from parents, get help from friends, or something else.  Did those maies die back in the 1960s when that was the case?  Nope.  Did NEED motivate them to do something?  Yep.  In fact, I would say adults today who grew up as children in households that were very financially challenged when they were young, who grew up as children having to work 20, 30, 40 or more hours a week, are now blessed as adults.  Why?  Because they know how to handle that stress, how to work even when it isn't fun or even pleasant, how to get themselves to do what it takes to "prosper" (in a good way), and how to take care or their families -- and then also their neighbors.  And sometimes, they also learned what the true meaning of friendship is, of local community, of a church that is true family.

Do we really want Caesar to guarantee a comfortable life to all who need the nudge of economic motivation?  I don't think so.  And if the government does provide a true safety net, a subsistence that is uncomfortable, and someone really should have more than that, there still is family, friends, community, church.  Indeed, I think too many people never become a part of community and church because they perceive they don't need to.  If all else fails, the government will take care of them after all.

"With liberty and justice for all" says nothing about government owing anyone a comfortable life.  That idea would be considered absurd to the founding fathers, probably to all early church Christians and Jews living then as well.  Liberty means the right to live without an oppressive government or other force, and justice roughly the same.  Neither suggests a right to not struggle to provide for yourself.

Thanks for the exchange.  I think this is a critically important area of concern for us today.


Doug much of what you say is good common sense and some a laundry list of what governments may do in the interest of the common good.  Butt here is not a single reference to a Bible passage in your article so I dispute the assertion that you were showing that Government is responsible to take care of the poor.  What scripture are you referring to?

I'll repeat the argument made above.  Government is given, as Scripture indicates (Rom 13:4, but also the clear tradition of the OT), the power of the sword, which can fairly be interpreted to mean the authority in society over whether someone lives or dies.  That being the case, it would follow that if poverty existed in a particular nation that is life-threatening, government, the holder of the power over life and death, should exercise that power in a way that prevents that death -- that is, death from poverty, which could result specifically from of lack of food, lack of clothing, lack of housing, lack of health care, etc.


Doug -- Three questions:

(1) Why not extend your commentary to include the next two verses, Romans 13:5-7 ?

(2)  Given the vast differences between the cultural context in the First Century and our own, and even more so our cultural context and that of the Old Testament, are we not running the risk of false equivalencies on a large scale ?

(3)  How does the key concept of SHALOM figure in the discussion ?


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