A popular argument amongst political conservatives goes like this: while they grant that Scripture requires concern and care for the poor and marginalized, that concern is one to be addressed by individuals and not by governments. This is a popular argument, but is it a sound one from a biblical perspective? Well, there are a host of reasons to conclude it is not.
First, there are numerous places within Scripture where we are told that governmental authorities are ordained by God. Let's consider a couple. One common cited passage is the first several verses of Romans 13. Unfortunately, many readers seem to forget that 12 precedes 13, and as a consequence, they allow too large a space to open between the community life affirmed in Romans 12 and the "ordination of government" statement in Romans 13. The more interesting passages are in Colossians 1 and 2. In Colossians 1 we are told that all powers, principalities, ruling authorities were created "by him and for him." The "him" is, of course, Christ in the immediate context, which is the same as affirming that they were created by and for God. In Colossians 2, we are told that Christ "laid bare" the powers on the cross. How did he do so? Just in this way: when the creator of these powers shows up, they show they have become demonic in that they turn against him and crucify him. In short, the cross shows that "the powers" can become demonic and fail to serve the agenda for which they were created.
If all ruling authorities have been created "by him, for him," then the obvious implication is that ruling authorities are intended to serve God's agenda. Now, it would be passing strange to think that God had created/ordained ruling authorities to serve his agenda, but then conclude that one of the most consistent themes of scripture (concern for those on the margins of our societies-the poor, the widow, the orphan, etc.) is excluded from the purview of those ruling authorities! Is it the case that God intends individuals to be engaged in care for the least of these? Of course! But, it is also the case that God intends societal structures to be structured in ways that serve the agenda of caring for the marginalized, and that means governments have a role to play.
I am really not clear why some think that caring for the least is to be only a "voluntary" aspect of our lives. If one looks at various sections of Deuteronomy and Leviticus, it is clear that God gives laws that are to be implemented in society that are aimed at tending to the poorest. One thinks of the Laws of Jubilee, the Laws of Release, and the interesting Collateral Laws. These were not "options" that one "volunteered" to follow. No, they were to be God's expectations embodied in law.
Some try cleverly to resist the obvious implications by suggesting that all this is because early Israel was a "theocracy." However, that cannot stand. Just consider Ezekiel 16, where we are told that the sin of Sodom was that it failed to hear the cry of the needy. This is particularly interesting, because the destruction of Sodom came prior to the giving of the law, and Sodom was not part of the "chosen people." Yet, God saw the need for the city state to take responsibility for caring for the poor and marginalized so obvious that God took the most serious punitive action against it. Further, God did not punish the "individuals" who failed to take care of the needy, he destroyed the city state for its failure to see this obligation.
Selfishness, the need to be in control--these are all reasons why we resist the fact that God ordains governments to have a role in caring for the least. Not good ones, but they are reasons. What is much harder to find are good biblical reasons for why a faithful follower of Jesus would oppose government having a role in caring for the needy. Will they do it perfectly? Of course not. All the more reason faithful followers of Jesus must be vocal in pushing governments to serve the agenda for which they were created, and to serve it well!
Chuck Gutenson is the Chief Operating Officer for Sojourners.