Poverty is pervasive in our fallen world, and it has many origins, as we saw in a recent post. How, then, can we best minister to the poor?
We cannot offer a comprehensive answer to such a broad question, not when each instance of poverty is unique and needs to be addressed individually. Yet we can follow several general principles in any context of poverty — principles that will allow us to work toward biblically faithful, individual solutions.
1. Discern whether the situation calls for aid or development.
An aid-based model is one in which resources are distributed indiscriminately in light of a pressing material need. We see this type of relief most often in emergency situations where poverty has been caused by natural evil, such as a medical emergency, a natural disaster (like the recent hurricanes) or another unanticipated event.
Examples of such aid include temporary shelter in the aftermath of a hurricane or meals for a family while a loved one is hospitalized. In emergency situations such as these, an aid-based model of relief is appropriate and helpful in addressing and/or preventing poverty. This is the type of aid provided in the example of communal sharing found in Acts.
However, an aid-based model of poverty relief can cause problems and even prolong poverty if we handle it improperly. In some cases, when we give aid indiscriminately and long term, beneficiaries can become dependent on it and even stop working to meet their own needs. The aid-based model of poverty relief can cause the related problem of enabling sin. If we help those who are impoverished because of their sin, our efforts can insulate them from the effects of their sin, thus robbing them of a natural motivation for repentance.
A final problem with aid-based models of poverty relief is that they have historically tended to propagate relief organizations. While this is not problematic in itself, organizations that make up the so-called “poverty industry” have a conflict of interest in regard to the existence and alleviation of poverty. Of course, this is not to say that all (or any) relief organizations are evil, but it is a caveat that if an aid-based model of poverty relief is misapplied, it places certain relief organizations into a situation of possible codependence.
In such cases, the alternative developmental model can be far more effective. Under this paradigm, we can attempt to affect poverty in ways that allow for long-term productivity. Such an approach is not appropriate in emergency situations, but is usually the best course of action when poverty is caused by personal sin or oppression.
Examples of developmental relief include providing job-skills training to an impoverished community, working to change unjust civil laws designed to keep new businesses out of the marketplace, laboring on behalf of a minority neighborhood to ensure residents have access to law enforcement or reaching out with the gospel (in conjunction with discipleship and long-term accountability) to help individuals overcome their poverty-causing sins.
By turning to a developmental model of aid, we seek to endorse and protect the connection between work and production. But doing so requires us to make a longer-term commitment and have more personal interaction than in aid-based relief, so such efforts are usually more difficult to implement and sustain. While some cases undoubtedly call for short-term intervention, our efforts to help transition the poor from impoverishment to productivity are arguably more important, even if they are more difficult. Indeed, successful ministry to the poor should not be measured by how much we give away, but by how many people we can help overcome and remain out of poverty.
Developmental efforts should cause us to question our motives. In John 12:6-8, Jesus confronts Judas Iscariot, who suggested that the nard ointment Mary brought to anoint Jesus should be sold and the money given to the poor. Judas’ concern was not for the poor but for himself — he was in charge of the moneybag and helped himself to its contents. If we are seeking some profit or glory from helping the poor, we will not do the hard work of developmental relief.
2. Try to discern the root of poverty.
Discernment is a second principle to keep in mind as we minister to the poor. An earlier generation coined the phrases “deserving poor” and “undeserving poor” as reminders that we must seek to discern the cause(s) of the poverty as well as the character of those who are impoverished.
When we encounter those who are poor due to natural evil or oppression, we should naturally consider them to be the deserving poor and strive to provide them with resources to alleviate their poverty. But when we seek to help those who are poor because of personal sin, we ought to offer aid only if they are repentant and willing to participate in a developmental model of relief. Although it’s difficult to discern the root of poverty and the character of the impoverished, we must exercise discernment in ministering to the poor.
3. Consider “moral proximity.”
A final principle we should consider when caring for the poor is the concept of moral proximity, which is sometimes called the principle of proximate obligation. This concept teaches that poverty is best addressed and alleviated by those closest to the situation. Such individuals or groups will usually have the best understanding of the situation and the people involved.
Shades of this concept can be seen in Scripture when we are encouraged to care for our own families (1 Timothy 5:4, 8), for our descendants (Proverbs 13:22), for the members of the church (Romans 12:13), for those in the community (Galatians 6:10), and for the whole world (Matthew 28:19–20). Our efforts to address poverty will be most effective in this order.
There is no simple solution to poverty. Every instance of poverty involves individual people in unique situations facing specific problems. As such, we need to seek wisdom and discernment.
But don’t let poverty’s complexity scare you away from ministering to the poor. The world needs more people with holistic, biblically faithful responses to poverty.
A version of this article originally published on Sept. 16, 2016.