Historically, Christians have often distinguished themselves from their surrounding cultures by championing the cause of the poor.
Since the Second World War, Western countries have experienced very considerable economic growth and corresponding affluence. At the same time, the general population of the world has expanded hugely, leading to an alarming increase in poverty.
Christian thinking and action has not always kept pace with these global changes.
One response to these trends began in the late 1960s with liberation theology. In the face of Roman Catholic neglect of the structural issues tending to perpetuate poverty especially in Latin America, liberation theology attempted both the analyse and to remedy the injustice and suffering associated with world poverty. Drawing on Marxist teaching, and sometimes advocating violent revolution, it asserted that God sides with the oppressed against their oppressors. Although liberation theologians appealed to certain texts of Scripture, it was not until the 1980s that responsible Biblical exegesis was more consistently employed.
Evangelical attitudes towards liberation theology have included neglect and one-sided criticism, although there have also been some more balanced and responsible responses. A frequent criticism has been liberation theology’s neglect of the spiritual and eschatological aspects of salvation.
Since the fundamentalist/modernist controversies dating back to the 1920s, evangelicals had, by way of contrast, tended to neglect the this-worldly aspects of salvation. Then in 1977 came the publication of Ronald Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. Sider set out the plight of the poor in the modern world, and engaged in a biblically-based critique of capitalism and structural evil, called for appropriate state intervention, and suggested relevant applications of the biblical material to contemporary Christian living.
Sider’s work has prompted some extremely conservative responses. David Chilton, for example, blamed poverty mainly on laziness and non-Christian religion, and accused Sider of inducing false guilt amongst the industrious Christians of the West. Ronald Nash blames the Western world not of too much capitalism, but too little. John Schneider has also been concerned about ‘false guilt’ among affluent but godly Christians.
The so-called ‘prosperity gospel’, associated with (mainly) charismatic figures such as Oral Roberts, Kenneth Hagin, Kenneth and Gloria Copeland, and Benny Hinn promises its followers unlimited material wealth, if only they have enough faith. This is based on untenable biblical interpretations, and its applications are ludicrous in the light of the plight of many Christians in the Two-Thirds World who lack material possessions but have faith in abundance.
There have been many popular evangelical books produced in recent years on the Christian attitude towards work, money and stewardship. However, these tend to deal only with the behaviour of the individual, and seldom deal with business ethics and structural evil.
Efforts to develop a biblically-based critique, mediating between classic capitalist and socialist models, have had little impact to date. Goudzwaard and de Lange have advocated ‘an economy of care’ involving small, locally-based action groups. They have also articulated a ‘theology of enough’, challenging Christians to establish a voluntary consensus on minimum and maximum levels of income and resources.
Various holistic missions work overseas to promote the creation of small self-sustaining businesses, teaching literacy and marketing skills in conjunction with the gospel.
In recent years, a major revolution has taken place in New Testament studies, associated with a burgeoning sociological analysis of Scripture. We now have a much better understanding of the socio-economic world into which Jesus and his followers were born, and of the spectrum of those who were converted to Christianity in its early years. It is now clear that the early church consisted of a mixture of poor, ‘middle-class’ and wealthy believers. This material is only beginning to be integrated into a theology of wealth and possessions.
Based on Blomberg, Neither Poverty Nor Riches (IVP, 1999), 21-28.