Paul was a theologian of the twofold kingdom. In what Calvin called the “spiritual” aspect of the kingdom we find a covenant of grace in which sinners are accepted (justified) and saved by God out of his free favor (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide), in Christ alone. There is another aspect of the kingdom, the common or secular. In that aspect we find a covenant of works. Our whole secular life, our job, school, relationship to the civil magistrate is a covenant of works. God is sovereign over both spheres but he administers them distinctly. In that sphere, we Christians have no particular advantages and we live under the same sorts of creational (natural) laws and general providence as everyone else. God makes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust (Matt 5:45). Christians live under the same laws of physics—though we interpret the significance of the world differently from unbelievers.
One of the creational laws under which both believers and unbelievers live is the law that requires the able-bodied to work in order to eat. Paul wrote to the congregation at Thessalonica, some of whom had become so worked up and confused about the return of Jesus that they had quit work and were now dependent upon other members of the congregation to support them while they waited for Jesus to return.
For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living (2 Thess 3:10-12; ESV).
This is the positive aspect of the eighth commandment. Not only are Christians not to steal but they are fulfill their vocation by laboring to support themselves and to be able to relieve material needs within this congregation through almsgiving (the diaconal offering). Heidelberg 111 says:
111. But what does God require of you in this commandment?
That I further my neighbor’s good where I can and may, deal with him as I would have others deal with me, and labor faithfully, so that I may be able to help the poor in their need.
Work is a creational or natural necessity but it’s also a Christian obligation. Charity is also a Christian virtue and obligation. Our English word charity is derived from the Latin caritas, which simply means love. We have come to think of charity as giving money and/or food to those in need but that is an application of charity but not charity itself. To give money, shelter, and other basic necessities to those who are truly needy is a blessed thing. The visible church, considered as an institution, has an obligation to love its members by seeing to their well being. James says, “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:15–17). Indeed, this is his illustration of how true faith ought to manifest itself (2:14).
There is very little evidence in the New Testament that the visible church (the congregations) ever gave general welfare beyond the church itself. When there was famine under Caesar Claudius, the churches organized relief efforts for “the brothers living in Judea” (Acts 11:29–30). The “least of these” in Matthew 25:40 is specifically in the passage itself to “my brothers.” Christians ought to form agencies for general poverty relief and, indeed, they have been doing so for centuries but the explicit and implicit teaching of Scripture speaks to the responsibility of the visible church to professing Christians.
The reality of homelessness in late-modern cities and suburbs is complex and uglier than most of us probably realize. Take a look at this exposé by John Stossel:
Heather MacDonald notes what social service providers, police officers, and other first responders already know. Most of the people on the street conveniently designated “homelessness” are there by choice. There are truly needy homeless who should be helped. The public mental health system in the USA has been in a self-imposed crisis since the 1970s. After the reforms of the 1970s law enforcement agencies are able to commit the mentally ill for a 24-hour hold under the Baker Act. Unable to hold them, most of the mentally ill are back on the streets again without treatment.
The rest of the homeless are either begging to feed their substance abuse or, as the video shows, simply bone lazy. The signs and sights are emotionally compelling but it is really only street theater. Watch the person at the drive of your local upscale mall (should you have one) and you will likely see that they are part of a tag-team. Frequently one sees the “homeless” with a pathetic sign in one hand, a bucket in the other, and an $800 iPhone cradled between their right ear and neck. Giving money to such folk may give one a little satisfaction but it is not helping the recipient.
From the perspective of the secular aspect of the kingdom, what would help that person is to get a job, any job. That is not cruel. That is love. Doing something productive, however menial others may see it, is always better than laziness and addiction. Doing work creates a sense of self-worth and it creates value. Panhandling by the lazy creates nothing.
From the spiritual aspect of the twofold kingdom, a persistent refusal to work is the fruit of unbelief. Giving money on the street to such a person is like handing a bottle of booze to an alcoholic: it is destructive, not helpful.
There are lots of ways to serve the homeless and the needy. Call your local shelter and ask if they need volunteers. Christian shelters need gospel preachers for chapel services. Your time may be more valuable than money.
2 Thessalonians 3 is a neglected passage in our age but it is God’s Word and it does help re-calibrate our compassion meter. We ought not think that we are more gracious, wiser, or more compassionate than the Apostle Paul or Jesus. After all, our Lord healed and fed many but he did not heal all nor did he feed all. We are not greater than our Master.
We have a family (a couple, sometimes just the mom but always with young kids) that hangs out at the stop sign near the strip mall (and other venues in a five mile radius) where I work begging for money and always say “Hi, God Bless you!” To passersby. They were offered jobs by my boss and they turned them down. I have no sympathy for such exploiters.
I wish more people would visit the Third World and see real poverty. Like Walter Williams says, there is really no material poverty here compared to the Third World. We have so many people in the United States who don’t want to work that we have to import workers. I used to think that employers just weren’t paying enough to attract workers, but then I had several experiences giving advice to younger men who seemed lost in the employment world and watching them shake their heads at jobs that were hard or dirty but pay well.
Taking this a step further, I think a lot of these non-profits and charities are really just a full-employment program for the charity workers. Our era is like that leading up to the Reformation: there were so many Romanist clergy in one order or another doing almost nothing living off the laity.