We cannot have healthy churches unless our preachers faithfully proclaim biblical truth, and there is strong biblical reason for thinking that many evangelical preachers are idolatrous heretics. If you think this statement is a bit strong, ask yourself these questions: Do today’s evangelical preachers consistently preach and teach about God’s concern for the poor as seen in the Bible? In turn, what does the Bible say about those who neglect the poor, as well as those who fail to teach their people what God has to say on the matter?
Three sets of facts simply do not fit together. There is widespread poverty in our world. The Bible says God and his faithful people have a special concern for the poor. But North American Christians give less and less every year. In July 2000, the World Bank reported that 1.2 billion people must try to survive on one dollar a day. Another two billion have only two dollars a day. The richest 20 percent of the world’s people (including the vast majority of people in the U.S.) are 150 times as rich as the poorest 20 percent.
The Bible is full of texts demanding that God’s people share God’s concern for the poor–indeed, these biblical texts fill almost 200 pages in a little book I edited (For They Shall Be Fed [W Publishing Group, 1997]). Jesus had blunt words for those who neglect the poor: “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat” (Matt 25:41).
Tragically, every year since 1969, per capita congregational giving in the U.S. has declined. It is now below a quarter of a tithe, and materialism is far more pervasive in North American Christian circles today than thirty years ago. Most of us are substantially more wealthy than we were thirty years ago. The size of the average new house has almost doubled in the last forty years. Mammon is winning the battle for most Christian hearts.
If the church today is to be healthy, and faithful to her kingdom calling, she must come to terms with four essential biblical truths regarding God and the poor.
James warned the rich so harshly because they had hoarded wealth and refused to pay their workers (5:2–6). Repeatedly, the prophets said the same thing (Ps 10; Isa 3:14-25; Jer 22:13-19). “Among my people are wicked men who lie in wait like men who snare birds and like those who set traps to catch men. Like cages full of birds, their houses are full of deceit; they have become rich and powerful and have grown fat and sleek…. They do not defend the rights of the poor. Should I not punish them for this?” (Jer 5:26–29).
Repeatedly, the prophets warned that God was so outraged that he would destroy the nations of Israel and Judah. Because they “trample on the heads of the poor…and deny justice to the oppressed,” Amos predicted terrible captivity (2:7; 5:11; 6:4, 7; 7:11, 17), as did Isaiah and Micah (Isa 10:1–3; Mic 2:2; 3:12). And it happened just as they foretold.
But what if we work hard and create wealth in just ways? This is good and pleasing to
God as long as we do not forget to share. No matter how justly we have acquired our wealth, God demands that we act generously toward the poor. When we do not, the Bible says, God treats us the same way he does those who oppress the poor. There is no hint in Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus that the rich man exploited Lazarus to acquire wealth. He simply neglected to share. So God punished him (Luke 16:19–31).
Ezekiel contains a striking explanation for the destruction of Sodom: “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy…. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen” (16:49-50). Again, the text does not charge them with gaining wealth by oppression. It was because they refused to share their abundance that God destroyed the city.
The Bible is clear. Whether we get rich by oppression or if we have wealth and do not reach out generously to the poor, the Lord acts in history to destroy us. God judges societies by what they do to the people at the bottom.
Do you know one evangelical preacher in ten who preaches as much about the poor as the Bible does? Obviously, our Christian leaders—including most evangelical pastors—are guilty of colossal failure. According to the Bible, leaders are placed as “watchmen” over God’s people (Ezek 3). When leaders issue God’s warning and the people ignore it, the people are held responsible. But when leaders fail to warn the people, then God holds the leaders accountable. “When I say to a wicked man, ‘You will surely die,’ and you do not warn him or speak out to dissuade him from his evil ways in order to save his life, that wicked man will die for his sin, and I will hold you accountable for his blood” (v 18).
Would anyone claim that evangelical preachers today are talking as much about God’s concern for the poor as the Bible does? When evangelical pastors review their sermons, when evangelical congregations review their educational curricula and total congregational spending, can they honestly affirm that seeking to empower the poor is one of their top agenda items? Will not God hold evangelical leaders accountable for their widespread failure to teach their people about God’s concern for the poor?
In my view, evangelical leaders have four options: (1) A radical option: You can preach fiery sermons and get thrown out. By the way, I do not recommend this option. (2) The conformist option: Basically, you can preach and teach what the people want to hear—throwing in an occasional word about the poor on World Hunger Sunday. When someone ignores the resurrection or deity of Christ in that way, evangelicals are crystal clear though that this person is a heretic. 3) The calculating option: You resolve to lead your people into greater concern for the poor, and you calculate just how much they can take without getting really upset. You push them, but never to the point of endangering your job. At the end of the day, this is just a more sophisticated version of the faithless conformist option. The bottom line is still really a careful calculation of what the market will hear. 4) The Spirit-filled, costly option: You can decide that you would rather have Jesus than parsonage, pulpit, or presidency. You can decide that you will lovingly, gently, clearly teach all that the Bible teaches about justice for the poor.
Do you know what will happen if you do this? If you embrace a biblical balance of prayer and action, evangelism and social ministry, worship and mission, your faithful preaching and teaching will often lead to transformed, growing congregations. Yet, sometimes, your congregations will throw you out. Unless you are ready to risk this, it means that no matter how you rationalize it, no matter how you massage your conscience, you really worship job security more than Jesus. And in the end, what does the Bible say God does to idolaters?