When God brought Israel out of Egypt, he gave it a set of rules. Beginning with the Ten Commandments, he spelled out a constitution for the new nation, a law by which they were to govern themselves. The New Testament calls this the “perfect law of liberty.”
In this law of liberty, there were no entitlement programs. Neither businesses nor poor folks received any handouts from the central authority. (This is because there was no taxation. Without this, the government had nothing to “generously” give to anyone.)
This doesn’t mean the new constitution was unconcerned with helping poor people. In fact, taking care of the weaker, vulnerable members of society was a prominent theme.
Still, no office of government was given the authority or mission of giving gifts to anyone, even for the sake of trying to “do good.” No one could arrest you for failure to help other people.
Instead, individuals are repeatedly commanded to be generous, and their failure to do so will be a topic of conversation between them and the Lord personally. At one point, the warning is that, however you treat the most vulnerable people around you, God will make sure you get treated the same way.
There was no “social safety net.” This is challenging for us, because we lack the imagination to envision a world in which government doesn’t have a hand in literally every activity of the society. We’re baffled, wondering how a road could be built without taxation. How could a neighborhood possibly be secure against crime and violence? How could poor folks be taken care of?
The law of God provides several ways of ministering to poor people. The most basic is, of course, generous personal gifts. As Jesus told the rich, young ruler, sell your stuff and use the money to help the poor. The churches in Acts took this seriously, cheerfully sharing their goods with those in need.
There were laws of “gleaning” by which farmers were told to leave parts of their fields unharvested, so that hungry people could go through and feed themselves. Today, that might look like allowing someone to do menial jobs around your home, in exchange for a disproportionately high amount of payment.
You could loan out sums of money to the poor, at zero interest, to preserve their dignity as they paid it back. In addition, the closest thing they had to an income tax was the tithe, a completely voluntary 10% contribution. This funded community storehouses to supply the needy.
In the direst circumstance a poor man could sell himself into something like indentured servitude, for a period not to exceed six years. He would work as a hired employee, though, and not as a slave, in exchange for room and board, and, possibly, the acquisition of a new job skill he could use going forward. Again, this last option was voluntary. It wouldn’t be a great situation, but it would keep him and his family off the street.
Families took care of family. Individuals who were grateful to God would share the wealth as an expression of thanks. I realize it sounds like a pipe-dream to us. It’s worked before, though, and could again.
Gordan Runyan is the pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church in Tucumcari. Contact him at: