What Does the Bible Say About… Benefits?

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It seems like politics has never been more central in the minds of ordinary people in the UK, at least in my lifetime. The passion released by the EU Referendum has continued through the resignations of multiple politicians and the installation of the new Prime Minister Theresa May. It is vital that Christians are able to understand the key issues which are being debated, from a Biblical perspective. We need to understand the heart of God, and from that position engage with political debate. This post is part two of my series “What The Bible Says About…”. You can read part one here.

Welfare is another contentious issue in politics. A broad term, it encompasses all kinds of benefits, as well as the NHS and National Insurance. For the purposes of this post, I’ll focus on the benefits system, as it is more often a subject of debate. Of course, the NHS has been discussed a great deal in the past year or so, but public opinion still seems to be clearly in favour of it, and any apparent attempts to move toward privatising it have not been well received by the public. So, what does the Bible say about welfare?

Gustavo Gutierrez, founder of Liberation Theology, in his book A Theology of Liberation reminded Christians around the world that God has what he calls a “preferential option for the poor.” This means that God is on the side of those who are poorest in the world. As a result, to be a Christian is to be concerned for the needs of the poor. 1 John 3:17 gives us sound basis for that:

“If someone has enough money to live well and sees a brother or sister in need but shows no compassion—how can God’s love be in that person?”

If we have received the love of God through Jesus, we cannot ignore the poor. After all, Jesus gave much of his attention and concern to the poor during his three year ministry. He healed the sick, spoke to beggars and touched lepers. If anyone was considered the lowest of the low – if they were someone who others would actively avoid – Jesus stooped down to meet them where they were.

Something I find really challenging about the way Jesus dealt with the poor is his apparent lack of a screening system. Our benefits system in the UK is regulated, so that people can’t just take money from the government without first having to apply for it. Some would say that the system is too restricted, and that access to certain benefits should be easier (as in the debate of the cuts to personal independence payments under Iain Duncan Smith and later Stephen Crabb). Jesus seemed not to place any restrictions on which people he would help. His actions towards the poor caused consternation in the religious officials of the time, particularly when he touched those who were considered to be ‘unclean’.

In the Old Testament, God made provision for the poor and expected the people to do the same. From allowing the poor to glean grain from the edges of their fields (Leviticus 19:9), to lending money to the poor without interest (Exodus 22:25-27), to forgiving all debts every seventh year (Deuteronomy 15:1-15), God made clear instructions to the people that it was their responsibility to care for the poor in their society.

This same heart for the poor was displayed in the early church. The very first believers sold their possessions in order to give to the poor (Acts 2:45; 4:34-37). I remember someone in my philosophy class in school suggesting that Jesus had somehow inadvertently invented Communism! This was not intended that way though – there was no prohibition on owning property, otherwise the believers would have had nothing to sell! There was simply a culture of willingness to make sacrifices for the sake of those less fortunate. That followers of Jesus would care for the poor was simply a given – there was no debate about it. Paul writes to the Galatians about a meeting he had with Peter, James and John,

“They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the circumcised. All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along.” (Galatians 2:9-10)

One of the common concerns regarding benefits is the notion of dependency. Governments have often referred to the benefits system as “a hand up, not a hand out,” so as to clarify their position about dependency. While there are some people who out of necessity claim benefits for their whole lives (those with disabilities which severely limit their ability to work, for instance), the goal of the system is to provide help to those who need it until they can find lasting work and provide for themselves.

There is no doubt in Scripture that material poverty is a bad thing. Where there are means to lift people out of poverty, that is definitely the goal. However, we need to be careful not to withhold help from those who need it simply because we don’t want them to become dependent upon that help. The mandate given to us in the Bible is to help the poor, not to decide which of them deserve our help.

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