We need to answer the question about how to help the poor – but before we do, we need to determine whether ministry to the poor is part of the church’s mission. At first glance, it might seem to be self-evident that the church has a responsibility to the poor. It is somewhat disheartening, however, to discover that religion, in general, and Christianity in particular, has been described as part of the problem; as something that needs to be put aside if the challenge of poverty is to be finally addressed. As Karl Marx famously argued:
The social principles of Christianity justified the slavery of Antiquity, glorified the serfdom of the Middle Ages and equally know, when necessary, how to defend the oppression of the proletariat, although they make a pitiful face over it. The social principles of Christianity preach the necessity of a ruling and an oppressed class, and all they have for the latter is the pious wish the former will be charitable. The social principles of Christianity transfer the consistorial councillor’s adjustment of all infamies to heaven and thus justify the further existence of those infamies on earth. The social principles of Christianity declare all vile acts of the oppressors against the oppressed to be either the just punishment of original sin and other sins or trials that the Lord in his infinite wisdom imposes on those redeemed (1).
While there is no doubt that Marx’s rhetorical flourish shows little understanding of Christian theology, or of the history of the Church’s involvement with and advocacy for the poor, it is also true that certain branches of the modern church have not always understood the situation of poverty as being central to their mission. There are various reasons why this has been so – many of which I have discussed in previous posts about the church’s lack of concern for the environment (see here). In Protestantism, the early twentieth century debates between fundamentalist and liberal churches cemented the notion of a dichotomy between a gospel oriented to the salvation of the soul and the so called “social gospel.” During the course of the century, liberal churches experienced substantial decline while conservative evangelical and pentecostal movements, focused on local church growth and preaching a message concerned with the eternal state of the soul, grew rapidly. Various elements of traditional theology fed their preoccupation with the eternal and their prevailing indifference to the situation of the poor. Developing premillennialist eschatology’s, conservative Christians read world events through literalistic interpretations of biblical apocalyptic literature, looking forward to the immanent return of Jesus which was to be accompanied by the rapture of the saints and subsequent global devastation. While acting as a motivating force for missionary activity, premillennial pessimism has been blamed for the tendency of evangelical and pentecostal churches to ignore the social responsibility of the church.
The narrow focus of conservative protestant churches is further exacerbated by a dualistic anthropology, which tends to focus on the distinction between body and soul/spirit, prioritising the latter. The result is a soteriology focused on the state of the soul, leading to a narrow understanding off the mission of the church. In extreme cases this generates criticism of Christians involved in social work, with the assumption that time and money spent on feeding the poor would be better spent on “evangelism” (narrowly defined). More widespread is the view that social activity serves the task of evangelism. Social action is affirmed as a means of pre-evangelism, a method of selling the ministry of the church to individuals and society as a whole, but not as something intimately connected to the gospel and the primary mission of the church.
In some pentecostal church’s, lack of concern for the poor is further exacerbated by explicit and incipient forms of the prosperity gospel. When prosperity is understood to be a mandate for Christian believers, and God’s blessing assumed to follow faith, then an implicit assumption is made that those suffering under extreme poverty have no faith, or are under some form of judgement. While prosperity preachers might deny this critique, the logic of their position is self-evident. At the very least, faith preachers are forced to ignore the situation of the poor in the presentation of their message, since the fact of extreme and widespread poverty completely undermines their message.
There may be more reasons why the church has failed to take seriously the plight of the poor (please let me know if you can think of some more). Perhaps the main reason, however, is that we have misread the message of the gospel of Jesus, and failed to follow His model and pursue His mission. Precisely what this might be shall await another post.
 Karl Marx: On Religion, ed. & trans. by Saul K. Padover (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974), 83.
 For example, Sarah Jane Lancaster was roundly condemned for setting up a soup kitchen for the unemployed, being told that “the money spent in feeding the unemployed would be better spent in evangelising and building up the church. See Shane Clifton, “An Analysis of the Developing Ecclesiology of the Assemblies of God in Australia,” Sydney: Australian Catholic University, 2005) 136.