The Healthy Church: Embodying Prophetic Witness

Ronald J. Sider

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.

  1. Repeatedly, the Bible says that the Sovereign of history works to lift up the poor and oppressed. God acted in the Exodus to call out the chosen people of Israel. In addition, it is clear that God intervened because God hated the oppression of the poor Israelites (Exod 3:7–8; 6:5–7). Annually at the harvest festival the people of Israel repeated this confession: “The Egyptians mistreated us. . . . Then we cried out to the LORD, the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice and saw our misery, toil, and oppression. So the LORD brought us out of Egypt” (Deut 26:6–8). God acts in history to lift up the poor and oppressed.
  2. Sometimes, the Lord of history tears down rich and powerful people. Mary’s Song in Luke is shocking: “My soul glorifies the Lord…He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty” (1:46, 53). The message of James is more direct: “Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you” (5:1).Is creating wealth a bad thing? No. The Bible is very clear that God has created a gorgeous world and placed human beings in it to revel in its splendor and produce an abundance of good things. Is God biased? No. The Bible explicitly declares that God has no bias either toward the rich or the poor (Deut 10:17–18).What, then, is the problem? Why do the Scriptures warn again and again that God sometimes works in history to destroy the rich? It is because the rich sometimes get rich by oppressing the poor, or because they who have plenty neglect the needy. In either case, God is furious.

    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.

  3. The Bible says that God identifies with the poor so strongly that caring for them is almost like helping God. “He who is kind to the poor lends to the LORD” (Prov 19:17). On the other hand, one “who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker” (14:31).Jesus’ parable of the sheep and goats is the ultimate commentary on these two proverbs. Jesus surprises those on the right with his insistence that they had fed and clothed him when he was cold and hungry. When they protested that they could not remember ever doing that, Jesus replies, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matt 25:40). If we believe his words, we look on the poor and neglected with entirely new eyes.
  4. Finally, the Scriptures teach that if we do not share God’s concern for the poor, we are not really his people–no matter how frequent our worship or how orthodox our creeds. Because Israel failed to correct oppression and defend poor widows, Isaiah insisted that Israel was really the pagan people of Gomorrah (1:10–17). God despised their fasting because they tried to worship God and oppress their workers at the same time (Isa 58:3–7). Through Amos, the Lord shouted in fury that the very religious festivals he had ordained made him angry and sick. Why? The rich and powerful were mixing worship with the oppression of the poor (5:21–24). If we do not care for the needy brother or sister, we simply do not know God (1 John 3:17).Jeremiah 22:13-19 is a most astonishing passage. Good king Josiah had a wicked son Jehoiakim. When Jehoiakim became king, he built a fabulous palace by oppressing his workers. God sent the prophet Jeremiah to announce a terrible punishment. The most interesting part of the passage, however, is a short aside on this evil king’s good father: “He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. ‘Is that not what it means to know me?’ declares the LORD” (v 16; emphasis added). Knowing God is inseparable from caring for the poor. Of course, we dare not reduce knowing God only to a concern for the needy as some radical theologians do. We meet God in prayer, Bible study, and worship—in many ways. But if we do not share God’s passion to strengthen the poor, we simply do not know God in a biblical way.I fear that many Christians today who consider themselves orthodox move into heresy at just this point. If Jeremiah 22:16 and 1 John 3:17 present one biblical criterion of genuine knowledge of God, what does God think about rich Christians who are living in countries that are 150 times as wealthy as the poorest one-fifth of the world’s countries, and yet share less than 3 percent of their abundance? Is that not heretical defiance of explicit biblical teaching?

    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?

Posted Feb 01, 2004