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Hope for the poor

"Hope for the poor" Continued...

As a pastor in Geneva, Calvin developed a robust diaconal program in the church. David Hall, a pastor and the author of Calvin in the Public Square, calls the theologian’s diaconal work “one of Calvin’s contributions to Western civilization.”

Calvin helped form the diaconate as a response to refugees flowing into Geneva, but extended that care to widows, orphans, the hungry, and the poor. He even directed the deacons to make sure the public hospital was maintained so that the poor and needy could find good medical care.

All of these efforts were grounded in an expectation that those seeking help would also seek work. Calvin taught that begging without honest work (for those who were able) was incompatible with a biblical work ethic—a break from Roman Catholic almsgiving that had distributed charity more indiscriminately. 

And diaconal assistance in Geneva came with biblical counseling from the deacons, and an expectation that recipients attend the local church.

By 1578, theologian and pastor John Knox was continuing an emphasis on helping the poor in his work as a leader in the Protestant Church in Scotland. Knox supervised a substantial system for deacons to visit the poor in local parishes and help tend to their spiritual and material needs. 

Thomas Chalmers, a Scottish pastor in the early 1800s, revived this emphasis after it had declined, and became known as one of the most significant social reformers of his era. Chalmers directed deacons to help the unemployed find work, and help uneducated children find schools to attend through a meticulous home visitation system. 

Chalmers also wrote extensively on poverty relief. Tim Keller, a pastor and author of Ministries of Mercy, notes Chalmers once said the church could do what the government could not: address the moral and spiritual roots of poverty. 

Addressing the moral and spiritual roots of poverty remains the challenge for Christians today. 

Back at the Chalmers Center, Fikkert says that the government does have a role to play in poverty fighting, including promoting a healthy economic environment that will create jobs and give people an opportunity to work.

Christians can help by teaching poorer people how to be spiritually healthy, he says, “So that they will know they are made in the image of God and called as His image bearers to work and be productive.”

And though specific programs and ministries are often critical, Fikkert says encouraging the poor to be part of regular church life is perhaps the most critical step: “Sometimes we lose sight of the fact that the ordinary means of grace—worship, preaching, fellowship, prayer, the sacraments—are a part of how God transforms lives. The poor need these too.”

That means considering how to do more in the days ahead will require Christians to think deeply about how to be involved in local ministries, but also how to involve the poor in the ministry of their churches. Fikkert says that’s a task that takes tremendous effort and “unbelievable intentionality.”

2013 Hope Award of Effective Compassion

WORLD is now taking nominations for poverty-fighting ministries to be considered for our 2013 Hope Award for Effective Compassion. Please email June McGraw (jmcgraw@worldmag.com) with basic information about your nominee: Name, city, website address, and a paragraph on why you think it’s great. Criteria: Groups should be explicitly Christian, privately funded, and centered on offering challenging, personal, and spiritual help. The national winner receives a check for $25,000, and regional winners receive $4,000 each.

Jamie Dean
Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the national political beat and other topics as news editor for WORLD. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.

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