The Myth that the Church Alone Can and Should Take Care of the Poor

Tuesday Jesse Graston, the South Carolina Coordinator of the John Birch Society, stood on the steps of the South Carolina Statehouse and called on Americans to nullify the Affordable Care Act and replace it with charity from churches. Frankly this is a sentiment I have heard for years. The government should get out of the “charity business) i.e. welfare, medicare, medicaid and Social Security and let the churches do their job. Well, I have news for you. That is just flat-out never going to happen. Not only because it wouldn’t work and people would be missed but also because they simply do not have the resources to carry out the task. Follow the math with me for a second.
(If math makes you queasy look for the statements in BOLD)

The federal budget expenditures from the year 2011 (the most recent year data is available) for these programs is as follows:

  • 746 billion for welfare programs (283 billion is also contributed to these programs by the states for a total of 1.3 trillion)
  • 725 billion for Social Security
  • 480 billion for Medicare

The grand total of these expenditures is 2.505 trillion dollars per year. There are about 338,000 Christian congregations any given year that works out to $7,411,242.60 per church.

Now let’s look at  Christian church budgets in the United States.

In a survey performed by the Evangelical Christian Credit Union this is how churches responded that they spend their money:


Let’s look at a few line items…

  • Total average spending on personnel, buildings and administration is 85%
  • Total average spending on local/national/international benevolence 3%.
  • Yes, you read that right THREE FREAKING PERCENT!

If a nonprofit had this kind of percentage going to the actual people they were serving you would never give your money there. As an example, according to the Christian Science Monitor here are the percentage of total expenses spent on programs for a few well-known non-profits:

  • American Red Cross 92.2%
  • United Way 90.6%
  • Feeding America 97.2%
  • Habitat for Humanity 83.7%

If you do the math this works out to $8,270.00 average allotted in each congregation’s budget for benevolence. Do you remember the amount each congregation would have to provide to cover federal and state spending on these programs? $7,411,242.60.

I think we are a little short.

[Don’t even get me started on church debt.  According to Church Finance Today, “68% of churches in the West-South Central U.S., and 64% of churches in the East-South Central U.S. have expenses exceeding income. These are the best regions in the country.”]

All of this assumes that the numbers stay the same you say. Ok,  think about this…

  • Even if we threw 100% of church revenue at it we would still be over 7.4 million short per congregation. EVERY YEAR.
  • Even if giving doubled because taxes were cut, you cut spending in half and threw it all at benevolence, we would still be over 3.6 million dollars PER CONGREGATION SHORT. EVERY. YEAR.

All that to say, it is mathematically impossible.

Also, if only the Christian Churches, as Mr. Graston and many others assert, are charged with caring for the poor, they would have to give 100% of their annual income. And it STILL wouldn’t be enough.

How’s that for a tax increase?

According to World Christian Trends AD 30-AD 2000: Interpreting the Annual Christian Megacensus, in the year 2000, total Christian income in the United States was $5.2 trillion annually and according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, median income for working-age households slid 12.4 percent from 2000 to 2011. But for the sake of argument let’s say that number stayed the same. Church members would have to give a little less than 50% of their income to cover for it all and that wouldn’t include the remaining taxes they would still owe the government to pay for defense, infrastructure and education.

Talk about a tax hike.

Next Mr. Graston threw out this doozie about the difference between the way liberals and conservatives view taking care of the poor,

“They think it’s the duty of others to help them take care of the poor,” he remarked. “We believe that we shouldn’t take from others to help take care of the poor or to help ourself, but we follow Christ’s example.”

“He did not steal from his disciples to feed the hungry,” Graston continued. “No, he gave of his own substance to those that were in need, and I believe that as we’re saying no to the encroachments of the federal government, that we will have to stand up and the churches must take their place to take care of the needy. I’m asking as we push the government out of the way that we need to fill that vacuum and begin to see those that around us and take that initiative ourself.”

Let’s take what he said point by point, shall we?

#1. “They think it is the duty of others to help them take care of the poor.”

Last time I checked we (the citizens) are the government. The money the government spends on taking care of the least of these is money given to the government by we the people. The government is nothing else but the people we hire to steward our collective money. If we do not like the way they spend it we have recourse for that. It is called voting.

#2. “We believe that we shouldn’t take from others to help take care of the poor or to help ourself, but we follow Christ’s example.”

Hmm. When Jesus fed the 5,000 what did he start with? Loaves and fish from a person in the crowd. When Jesus made wine, what did he start with? Pots of water owned by the host of the party. Who was it who supported Jesus and provided him with the money to care for people? According to Luke 8, a group of women. As far as I can tell, Jesus used resources acquired from others to take care of people.

#3. “He did not steal from his disciples to feed the hungry. No, he gave of his own substance to those that were in need…”

Of course he did not steal from them. Neither is the government stealing from the people. We elect our representatives who then administer the finances. As the Declaration of Independence clearly states,

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

The government gets its power from who? From us. Humans set up governments to secure rights for all our citizens. Rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We declared and continue to declare that all our citizens are created equal. This is what our government is for and that includes but is not limited to using our tax dollars to help ensure this. If you ask me this is a very practical way to take care of people. We the people have spoken and we have decided we want our government to help us carry out the commands to love our neighbor, to care for the poor, the widow and the orphan. If you don’t like the way they are doing it, or think you have a better way, the beauty of our system is  you have the right as a citizen to try to persuade people that you are right, you have a right to organize and vote and change things. 

#4. “…I believe that as we’re saying no to the encroachments of the federal government, that we will have to stand up and the churches must take their place to take care of the needy. I’m asking as we push the government out of the way that we need to fill that vacuum and begin to see those that around us and take that initiative ourself.”

Taking care of people is not an encroachment of the federal government. And, as fully detailed above, churches are actually not capable of taking care of all the needs.  [As a side note this is a major reason why at novitas church we have no paid staff and meet in a building we use for free. We do this so we can use all of our money to take care of people.] I actually agree with one part of his last line. We do need to “begin to see those around us and take the initiative ourself” to be part of the solution. I just don’t think we need to push the government out of the way to do that. I believe we need to come along side the government and encourage fiscal responsibility, cut waste and streamline so that we can take care of people more efficiently. Honestly this is part of the reason President Bush instituted The White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships which has been continued under President Obama, so that, according to ABC News to,

“coordinate with faith-based and community organizations on social service outreach and will work to utilize these organizations’ efforts to advance the administration’s policies, with a primary focus on poverty.”

Now that is a beautiful thing.

Related Articles:

This Mind Blowing Fact Proves That Christian Churches Cannot Provide For The Poor


19 thoughts on “The Myth that the Church Alone Can and Should Take Care of the Poor

  1. megan says:

    Ron Sider has done some fascinating work on this. Have you read Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger?

    I agree with you there is a huge disparity between the needs of the poor and the current capacity of the Church to meet them, but is that because our Churches don’t hold the resources within them or because 1) people don’t give to the Church (only 5% of the US church tithes and the average U.S. Christian gives somewhere around 2-3% of their income to the church) and 2) Churches are far too inward focused, especially in their budgeting.

    As a pastor, I would be the first to say pay your staff well, but I know several churches who dump exorbitant amounts of money into buildings and renovations and lighting and sets for “worship” while giving very little to their own community.

    Great conversation starter.

  2. Interesting post–and if I may suggest this, you might consider placing a tag in here somewhere after the first paragraph or so. That way, your WordPress “new blog post” emails and your blog’s home page will only show viewers a section of your post, making several posts at once easier to browse through.

    My concern about items such as health care, education, and so on, is whether it is Constitutional for the federal government to be involved in those things (the Tenth Amendment limits that portion of the government’s authority to what is given to it by the Constitution, and everything else goes to the states).

    • The general welfare clause of the constitution is precisely as all encompassing as it appears. George Washington fought for it hard to be in there because he had personally, as a general, dealt with the general incompetence and foolishness of a “confederacy of states”.

      The general welfare clause was so encompassing, that Patrick Henry, a slave owner from Virginia, stood up in the middle of the Virginia Constitutional Convention and shouted “They’re gonna free your niggers!” The entire movement to paint the federal government began with Henry and the anti-federalists, and they LOST during the Constitutional convention.

      Therefore, the US government has as much authority as we, the voters, choose to give it. And arguments about “states’ rights” are really a euphemism for the single state right that the entire Old Confederacy subsequently fought a civil war over – slavery. And that states’ right was abolished.

      If we, the voters, decide that we want the government involved in these matters, from healthcare to addressing poverty, then we, the voters, DO have the authority to do that.

      What the tenth amendment really means is that any power that we, the voters, do not delegate to the federal government, is reserved to the states until such time as we delegate it to the federal government.

      There is no constitutional basis for arguing against these social programs. They have been challenged again and again over the years and not once has the Supreme Court found them to be outside the bounds of the federal government’s authority.

      Finally, the state governments have a long and ugly history of bigotry, cruelty, and discrimination that cannot be overlooked. The historical record must be taken into account as well. It is clear that many states have acted with antipathy towards the poor and towards various ethnic groups and other minorities throughout history. German immigrants were at one time reviled. Irish were reviled. Blacks have gotten the shortest end of the stick in this nation since its inception. And state governments were at the forefront of every one of those discriminatory positions.

      To argue that we should then trust the states with this is to ignore the historical record, which would be foolish in the extreme.

  3. Fran Macilvey says:

    The idea that the State has no business getting involved and that Churches should just do it all has been around for thousands of years, and in the -very – old days when the Catholic church was the state’s social security net, that worked well enough, because they collected tithes and travellers had a place to stay and if you got desperate you could just send all your kids to monasteries and nunneries …. but hey, we have come a long way since the 1300’s I like to hope….

    Thanks for this post! xx :-))

  4. Ioannis says:

    Of course, Birchers have a different working assumption … that most needy people are not actually needy and that cutting them lose will mean a lot of people terminally disenfranchised from contributing to the economic engine through old age, infirmity and illness are dead weight that needs to be dropped like a litter of puppies in the nearest pond.

  5. Your math is bad. 746b, 725b and 480b does not equal 2.505 trillion. 746+725+480=1969. So it’s 1.969 trillion not anything over 2 trillion and that’s a huge difference.

  6. I feel like this article is misleading with its premise.

    Most people who advocate for the government providing only the most minimal safety net aren’t promoting a individual-congregations-only social safety net, as is being countered in the math above.

    Rather, what is being advocated is that instead of government taking lead, churches, charities, nonprofits, and community organizations need to be the primary movers in social and community care. Looking at it this way, yes, the Church should take greater responsibility, but that is a far cry from what this article is depicting.

    (My background is in nonprofits… My belief is that the US has a uniquely strong history and ability to use nonprofits and churches and voluntarism to meet many of the social needs the government has taken on… )

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