Briefly Noted: Do the Biblical Commands to the Rich Apply to Affluent Americans Today?

[Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on October 11, 2013.]

In a recent article in Journal of Markets and Morality, Clive and Cara Beed raise the question of whether biblical warnings about the rich are contemporary affluent Westerners.[1] Clive (Retired, Department of Economics, University of Melbourne) and Cara (Retired, Department of Social Science, Australian Catholic University) argue that the categories used in Scripture to describe different degrees of wealth and prosperity do not necessarily correlate directly to contemporary definitions.

They note that by today’s standards of wealth and poverty, “the rich in the past history in the United States are poor” (370). Even those considered poor today have access to more health care, food, clothing, shelter and even intellectual resources than would have been true a century ago in the United States. The disparity is even more striking between our contemporary culture and the cultures presented in Scripture.

The Beeds wrestle with various definitions of poverty. They conclude that all of the definitions are inadequate because they try to exactly quantify a qualitative attribute. In other words, people are generally considered rich or poor in a society based on a comparison to the relative economic state of other people in the same society. Because of this inexactness, the Beeds shift their argument to evaluate the relative justice of economic inequality. Their argument is that God’s design for the world was that humans would prosper both spiritually and economically, that some inequality will exist because of the fall, but inequality can become unjust if it is too great (365).

The authors find it helpful to discuss three categories instead of two in order to apply teaching on wealth and poverty in the Bible. They hold that teachings that apply to the rich in Scripture still apply to wealthiest people in society. They argue that the category of the poor still exists and it contains those for whom meeting basic needs can be a struggle, they find this consistent with the biblical category of poverty. The Beeds argue for a third category, the affluent. The affluent are those who do not have significant economic concerns about meeting basic needs regularly, but still do not fall into the category of the rich. The authors debate what constitutes affluence and the dangers of affluence, but they approve of the category in principle.

The Beeds, therefore, arrive at the conclusion that the ethical teaching in Scripture that relate to the rich do not apply to the affluent, though mandates regarding the poor and rich still apply to people in those categories. The responsibility of the affluent is to live well and in accordance with the moral precepts of Scripture, but “the Bible’s warnings to the rich do not apply to modern middle-class [affluent] people” (381).

This article as a whole is helpful in some ways in providing a voice in the middle of the ongoing theological and economic debates about wealth and poverty. For example, the categories of rich and poor are variable, and understanding that can help to understand the ethical obligations of individuals and organizations. The authors are also helpful in reminding the reader that prosperity is a good thing, and that being prosperous is not an offense to God.

The Beeds are probably right that the biblical commands to the rich do not apply univocally to those whom we might call “affluent” today. Those commands, however, do apply analogically to those who are affluent. To state or imply that the biblical warnings to the rich do not apply to a particular group is dangerous, because possession and the desire for wealth can be a poisonous sin to anyone, regardless of their economic status.  In 1 Tim. 6:10, Paul writes that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils” and his instruction was not directed to a wealthy person, which seems to indicate that an improper affection for wealth can be problematic for anyone. Similarly, in its original context Jesus’ warning in Luke 18:25 was understood to address the rich young ruler as well as the people who were listening to the conversation. Jesus warned that it was hard for a rich man to get into heaven, to which his audience responded by asking, “Then who can be saved?” (Luke 18:26)

Both the “rich” and the “affluent,” in the Beeds’ model, find it incumbent upon them to recognize that poverty is one aspect of broken shalom, the shalom that was God’s creational design and that will be on full display when Christ the King renews and restores heaven and earth and populates it with the redeemed of the nations. If God cared about this sort of shalom at creation, and if he will restore it in the future, then we as believers should care about it also, and should work for our Christian communities to be previews of that shalomic Kingdom.

The Beeds call for efforts to “enhance both efficiency and equity” in economic systems, but they do so within a capitalist framework that allows for poverty alleviation more consistent with God’s design (382). As Corbett and Fikkert have noted in When Helping Hurts, approaches to poverty alleviation could be divided into three categories. One approach focuses on relief, which is emergency aid during crisis conditions. A second approach is rehabilitation, which is the attempt to restore people and communities to pre-crisis conditions. A third approach is development, which is an ongoing process of equipping people and communities to reflect the shalom God intended, which includes financial development but extends beyond that to broader concerns.

American churches tend to focus on the first approach to the exclusion of the second and third. Further, we tend to be paternalistic, viewing the poor as little children who need things done for them. As Corbett and Fikkert note, we do best to use all three approaches depending upon context and circumstance. Instead of merely asking people what their problems are, we should ask them what they can do, equip them to use and develop their gifts, and remove social and cultural barriers which prevent them from doing so. Instead of limiting ourselves to doing things for the poor (or to the poor), we should work hard to do things with the poor. They, like we, are made in the image of God, and deserve nothing less.

These applications are consistent with the Beeds’ call to “abide more by the triune God’s eternal principles, [so that] the benefits of capitalism can be enhanced and its limitations reduced” (382). It brings theology to bear on economics to shape it is a Christian manner. Moving closer to biblical definitions and proper biblical application can bring the whole creation closer to shalom.



[1] Clive and Cara Beed, “Biblical Warnings to ‘the Rich’ and the Challenge of Contemporary Affluence,” in Journal of Markets & Morality 15:2 (Fall 2012): 363-390.

Briefly Noted: On Poverty Alleviation and Faith-Based Initiatives

[Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on December 30, 2013.]

In the 2013 issue of the Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics, Keri Day tackles an important question about the efficacy and propriety of Faith-Based Initiatives in the United States.[1] Faith-Based Initiatives are, by definition, government sponsored programs that provide resources to religious organizations for the express purpose of combatting poverty and other social ills. Day’s analysis of these programs is very skeptical, since she sees them as being framed within a neoliberal economic perspective. Neoliberal economics emphasize free market principles while still expressing a significant concern for issues of social justice. Instead, Day approaches poverty and social justice from a womanist perspective, which is a version of contextual theology that she describes as being a progression beyond black liberation theology and feminist theology.[2]

For Day, neoliberalism is incorrect because it “argues that merit, thrift, and hard work can bring socioeconomic success, which means that if one is poor, one must be indolent. In other words, poor individuals are the problem, not the system.”[3] This definition illustrates the greatest weakness of Day’s argument, which is that she does not fairly engage opposing ideas. Day’s representation of free market economics, such as those espoused by neoliberals, is a strawman. Notably, within the limited bibliography of her article, Day fails to engage with other scholars critical to her view.

This caricature of neoliberalism is essential for Day’s argument, since a major plank in her platform is to challenge “neoliberal hegemony” by “reconstituting history from the underside of life so that we may hear, see, and appreciate the voices of the oppressed.”[4] Day argues that there has been a fundamental shift in American views on poverty from colonial days until the present. She asserts that free market principles have shifted concern for poverty from a familial and community concern to one of “contrived and racist characteristics of the poor . . . . [T]his new paradigm located the problem of poverty in the lack of labor discipline, violations of work ethics, and lack of family discipline.”[5] This is contrasted to the modern “welfare state” which views poverty as a national, political problem.

Day’s chief objection to Faith-Based Initiatives is that they seek to reform people in order to combat poverty. She asserts, “In fact, within the idea of charitable choice and faith-based initiatives, poor mothers tend to be generally represented as a kind of moral recovery project for the state as well as churches.”[6] Day is reacting negatively to the perception that there is a connection between the type of behavior that often leads to single motherhood due to children born out of wedlock and poverty. So viewing sin as a problem that must be dealt with in combatting poverty, which is an evidence of sin in the world, is anathema to Day.

Day’s proposed solution is changes in societal structures that involve increasing the minimum wage and creating more child care and health care programs.[7] This is because Day believes the government is responsible for caring for the daily physical needs of Americans.[8] Day’s views claim to affirm justice and a right view of the imago Dei, but they tend to undermine it because of an improper understanding of sin and the role of government.

In response to Day’s article, I limit myself to three comments. First, Day is certainly right to argue that individual sin cannot fully explain all societal poverty. She is correct to assert that concern for structural justice is central to Christian theology and ethics. On the other hand, Day’s rejection of the role of individual sin in perpetuating unhealthy lifestyles and an over emphasis on the role of government in caring for the physical needs of people brings into question the basis for, if not the fact of, her rejection of Faith-Based Initiatives. In the end, the question of the effectiveness and propriety of Faith-Based Initiatives in American society needs further evaluation, but the solution will not be found through Day’s womanist theology.

Second, I recommend Marvin Olasky’s book, The Tragedy of American Compassion,[9] as a helpful counterpoint to Day’s perspective. Olasky outlines the evolution of the American approach to poverty alleviation, arguing that the sort of high level approach that Day advocates is largely ineffective and, at the same time, tends to denigrate the imago Dei. While Olasky’s work should be read critically, his presentation should be at least considered.

Third, I wish to point out that American evangelicals need to work together to build healthy biblically-based models for understanding the roles of the government, the individual and mediating structures in alleviating poverty. We should ask questions such as: what is God’s creational design for government? How should government relate to other beings (individuals) and institutions (family, church, business), especially when it comes to alleviating poverty? When does the government wrongly overextend its God-intended authority such that the state is overinflated or tramples on the jurisdiction of other institutions? When is the government neglecting its role by overinflating the role of the individual? What should be the role of the institutions which mediate between the individual and the government (e.g. non-profit organizations, churches, charities)? Many of the questions that arise will not be answered by any sort of biblical proof-text, but instead must be answered by going beyond explicit biblical statements in order to explore larger patterns within the biblical narrative. In other words, we need creative, biblically-based proposals for promoting human flourishing in a 21st century Western democratic republic.



[1] Keri Day is an assistant professor of theological and social ethics and director of the Black Church Studies program at Brite Divinity School at TCU. http://brite.edu/faculty.asp?BriteFaculty=k.day

[2] Keri Day, “Saving Black America? A Womanist Analysis of Faith-Based Initiatives,” Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics, 33.1 (2013), 65–66.

[3] Ibid., 66.

[4] Ibid., 67.

[5] Ibid., 69.

[6] Ibid., 75.

[7] Ibid., 78.

[8] Ibid., 74.

[9] Marvin Olasky, The Tragedy of American Compassion, (2nd ed.; Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2008).

Briefly Noted: On Poverty Alleviation and Faith-Based Initiatives

In the 2013 issue of the Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics, Keri Day tackles an important question about the efficacy and propriety of Faith-Based Initiatives in the United States.[1] Faith-Based Initiatives are, by definition, government sponsored programs that provide resources to religious organizations for the express purpose of combatting poverty and other social ills. Day’s analysis of these programs is very skeptical, since she sees them as being framed within a neoliberal economic perspective. Neoliberal economics emphasize free market principles while still expressing a significant concern for issues of social justice. Instead, Day approaches poverty and social justice from a womanist perspective, which is a version of contextual theology that she describes as being a progression beyond black liberation theology and feminist theology.[2]

Day begins her argument by explaining the playing field as seen from her perspective. She defines her womanist perspective and contrasts it to a position she labels as neoliberal. For Day, neoliberalism is incorrect because it “argues that merit, thrift, and hard work can bring socioeconomic success, which means that if one is poor, one must be indolent. In other words, poor individuals are the problem, not the system.”[3] This definition illustrates the greatest weakness of Day’s argument, which is that she does not fairly engage opposing ideas. Day’s representation of free market economics, such as those espoused by neoliberals, is a strawman. Notably, within the limited bibliography of her article, Day fails to engage with other scholars critical to her view.

This caricature of neoliberalism is essential for Day’s argument, since a major plank in her platform is to challenge “neoliberal hegemony” by “reconstituting history from the underside of life so that we may hear, see, and appreciate the voices of the oppressed.”[4] Day argues that there has been a fundamental shift in American views on poverty from colonial days until the present. She asserts that free market principles have shifted concern for poverty from a familial and community concern to one of “contrived and racist characteristics of the poor . . . . [T]his new paradigm located the problem of poverty in the lack of labor discipline, violations of work ethics, and lack of family discipline.”[5] This is contrasted to the modern “welfare state” which views poverty as a national, political problem.

Day’s chief objection to Faith-Based Initiatives is that they seek to reform people in order to combat poverty. She asserts, “In fact, within the idea of charitable choice and faith-based initiatives, poor mothers tend to be generally represented as a kind of moral recovery project for the state as well as churches.”[6] Day is reacting negatively to the perception that there is a connection between the type of behavior that often leads to single motherhood due to children born out of wedlock and poverty. Thus, viewing sin as a problem that must be dealt with in combatting poverty, which is an evidence of sin in the world, is anathema to Day.

Day’s proposed solution is changes in societal structures that involve increasing the minimum wage and creating more child care and health care programs.[7] This is because Day believes the government is responsible for caring for the daily physical needs of Americans.[8] Day’s views claim to affirm justice and a right view of the imago Dei, but they tend to undermine it because of an improper understanding of sin and the role of government.

In response to Day’s article, I limit myself to three comments. First, Day is certainly right to argue that individual sin cannot fully explain all societal poverty. She is correct to assert that concern for structural justice is central to Christian theology and ethics. On the other hand, Day’s rejection of the role of individual sin in perpetuating unhealthy lifestyles and an over emphasis on the role of government in caring for physical needs of people brings into question the basis for, if not the fact of, her rejection of Faith-Based Initiatives. In the end, the question of the effectiveness and propriety of Faith-Based Initiatives in American society needs further evaluation, but the solution will not be found through Day’s womanist theology.

Second, I recommend Marvin Olasky’s book, The Tragedy of American Compassion,[9] as a helpful counterpoint to Day’s perspective. Olasky outlines the evolution of the American approach to poverty alleviation, arguing that the sort of high level approach that Day advocates is largely ineffective and, at the same time, tends to denigrate the imago Dei. While Olasky’s work should be read critically, his presentation should be at least considered.

Third, I wish to point out that American evangelicals need to work together to build healthy biblically-based models for understanding the roles of the government, the individual and mediating structures in alleviating poverty. We should ask questions such as: what is God’s creational design for government? How should government relate to other beings (individuals) and institutions (family, church, business), especially when it comes to alleviating poverty? When does the government wrongly overextend its God-intended authority such that the state is overinflated or tramples on the jurisdiction of other institutions? When is the government neglecting its role by overinflating the role of the individual? What should be the role of the institutions which mediate between the individual and the government (e.g. non-profit organizations, churches, charities)? Many of the questions that arise will not be answered by any sort of biblical proof-text, but instead must be answered by going beyond explicit biblical statements in order to explore larger patterns within the biblical narrative. In other words, we need creative, biblically-based proposals for promoting human flourishing in a 21st century Western democratic republic.



[1] Keri Day is an assistant professor of theological and social ethics and director of the Black Church Studies program at Brite Divinity School at TCU. http://brite.edu/faculty.asp?BriteFaculty=k.day

[2] Keri Day, “Saving Black America? A Womanist Analysis of Faith-Based Initiatives,” Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics, 33.1 (2013), 65–66.

[3] Ibid., 66.

[4] Ibid., 67.

[5] Ibid., 69.

[6] Ibid., 75.

[7] Ibid., 78.

[8] Ibid., 74.

[9] Marvin Olasky, The Tragedy of American Compassion, (2nd ed.; Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2008).