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Home > Research Library > The Biblical Case for Giving > Theological Topics > Prosperity and Poverty

Prosperity and Poverty

Below are articles and papers that explore the phenomena of financial prosperity and financial poverty—why they happen, what causes them, how we should respond to them, and what God has to do with it all. Questions about prosperity and poverty?


Articles and Papers

Is the Health and Wealth Gospel Biblical?
Randy Alcorn. Sandy, Ore.: Eternal Perspectives Ministries, n.d.
According to author and former pastor Randy Alcorn, many believers buy into the message of the “health and wealth gospel,” which says that “God’s reason for existing is to give us what we want.” In other words, if we pray enough, God will give us that new car or heal whatever physical ailments we may have. However, rather than promising us prosperity in this life, God actually tells us that in this life we must suffer and even face poverty and persecution. Alcorn points out the irony in the familiar health and wealth gospel saying, “Live like a king’s kid”: The “King’s Kid” was Jesus, and his life was far from one of health and wealth. Jesus himself called us to give up everything in this life for the sake of his kingdom (Luke 14:33). Alcorn calls this the “sickness and poverty gospel.” The apostle Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” is a good example of how we should view suffering in this life. Paul prayed that it would go away, but when he realized that God had sent it to him to keep him from becoming conceited, Paul accepted it as God’s will. He didn’t “name and claim” his right to good health from God. Like the apostle Paul and Jesus himself, Alcorn calls us to accept suffering and hardship in this life as a means by which God achieves his purposes and prepares us for heaven.

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De Contemptu Mundi
Desiderius Erasmus. Excerpt from chapter 3. Christian History & Biography, no. 19 (July 1, 1988).
Medieval Christian theologian Desiderius Erasmus (c. 1469-1536) warns against the dangers of the secular world in De Contemptu Mundi (translated “On Disdaining the World”). In this short excerpt he warns Christians against the dangers of material wealth, which threatens to poison our souls and remove our love for Christ.

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The Good Samaritan
James Montgomery Boice. Chapter in The Parables of Jesus. Chicago: Moody Press, 1983.
Pastor Boice of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia opens this essay with Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). He explains that this parable is a story within a story. Jesus specifically used a Samaritan, a people scorned by the Jews of Jesus’ day, as the example of how we are to treat our neighbors. He challenged the Jewish lawyer with whom he was talking to disregard the question of who is or who is not a neighbor but to focus instead on how to treat a neighbor. Boice explains that to live as followers of Christ, we are to do the same. With disregard to nationality, religion or social status, we are called to lovingly care for the needy around us.

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Charitable Giving in a World of Need: How Do We Choose?
Mark D. Roberts. OneTrueGodBlog, October 16, 2005.
Compiling several key passages from the Old and New Testaments, pastor Roberts briefly explains the habit we should have in our caring and giving to those in need. He concludes that we should be continually charitable and generous in our giving and caring.

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Biblical Guidance for Our Charitable Giving
Mark D. Roberts. OneTrueGodBlog, October, 21, 2005.
Pastor Roberts briefly responds to the question, “When many needs are obvious, how to chose where to send assistance?” He writes that regardless of our relation to them, God calls his people to care for all those in need. Roberts also looks at Matthew 25:31-40 and 1 John 3:16-18, explaining these texts in terms of our priority to provide for other Christian brothers and sisters in need.

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Justice as Asceticism
Maria Gwyn McDowell. Speech delivered at the annual St. Mary’s Lenten Lecture Series, St. Mary Orthodox Church, Cambridge, Mass., March 12, 2004.
If our Lenten disciplines only benefit ourselves, can we truly say that we have kept the fast? Taking a cue from Isaiah 58, Maria Gwyn McDowell, doctoral candidate in theological ethics at Boston College, believes that the traditional Lenten disciplines—prayer, fasting and almsgiving—are not meant primarily for individual transformation but for social restoration (justice). In this context, we see why St. John Chrysostom considered almsgiving to be “the queen of virtues,” the neglect of which is “not simply a neglect of the poor, but a valuing of material things over the image of God, and as a result, is a display of inhumanity.” If we become people who “embody the justice of God,” then we will have truly kept the fast.

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50% Is Not a Passing Grade!
Al Fragola. Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, n.d.
In the eighth grade Al Fragola, a retired military man and member of St. Andrew Antiochian Orthodox Church in Arlington, Wash., learned a valuable lesson on living the Christian life from a strict but godly nun. When we keep the fifth through the 10th commandments, we have only done half the equation as regards loving our neighbors. These commandments tell us what we are not to do; in Matthew 25:35-36, Christ tells us what we are to do: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and imprisoned. If we have not done these things, we have only kept half the commandments; and 50 percent is not a passing grade. To be numbered among his sheep on the Day of Judgment, we must extend our love for God to those around us who also bear his image.

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The Christian Paradox: How a Faithful Nation Gets Jesus Wrong
Bill McKibben. Harper’s Magazine (August 2005).
“America is simultaneously the most professedly Christian of the developed nations and the least Christian in its behavior.” In this essay, Middlebury College scholar and author Bill McKibben asks, “America is saturated in Christianity, but is it Christian?” As a supposedly Christian nation, our murder and divorce rates are higher than Europe’s, and our government foreign aid is considerably lower. Jesus said his disciples must feed the hungry and clothe the naked. American churches are too concerned with the end times and not serving their neighbor. The author is critical of mega-churches whose messages cater more to their members’ psychological needs than preach Jesus’ command to serve others. Our theology must encourage aiding the weak and poor. When asked how to get to heaven, Jesus said told the rich young ruler to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor. Until the American church looks beyond its own financial interests, this crucial statement by Jesus will remain a mystery and stumbling block.

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Jesus’ Development and the Concept of Adequacy
Bob Moffitt. Harvest, n.d.
In seeking to help the poor, American Christians often do unintentional harm. The problem stems from our own failure to grasp the biblical concept of adequacy. Because we treat our comforts—technology, nice homes and higher education—like necessities, we introduce “needs” to the poor that they themselves never perceived. We ought to meet people’s real needs—things that hinder human thriving—without passing on our own flawed, materialistic thinking. If we saw the trap of riches for what it truly is, we would think of all that we can learn from those who have less. Let us reexamine the Bible; there we will see that “Jesus’ life on earth gives us a model of human development that is radically different from the modern, secular view.”

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Clement of Alexandria’s Ethic of Wealth
Nelson D. Kloosterman. Mid-America Journal of Theology 2, no. 2 (Fall 1986): 138-148.
Dr. Kloosterman, professor of ethics and New Testament at Mid-America Reformed Seminary, turns to the early church fathers for a fresh approach to the contemporary rift dividing wealthy and poor and examines Clement’s essay Who Is the Rich Man That Shall Be Saved? based on Mark 10:17-31. After placing Clement in his historical context and briefly outlining the patristic writer’s major works, Kloosterman turns to the essay itself and argues that Clement’s ethic of wealth is in fact an ethic of grace. In telling the rich man to sell his possessions, Jesus was striking at the core of the human problem of wealth: the heart. To His disciples’ amazement, Jesus asserted that entrance into heaven for the wealthy was virtually impossible. Since the wealthy were thought to enjoy a special measure of God’s favor, Jesus’ words seem to preclude the salvation of anyone. Yet the ethic of grace is built upon that very assertion: No one can enter heaven on his own merit but, rather, must receive salvation as a gift from God. Jesus’ words to the rich man do not mean that His followers must divest themselves of their possessions, for Christians are called elsewhere to give freely, and thus must have something to give. Neither does His command ensure righteousness for those who practice poverty; those who boast in their own works will not be saved. Rather, Jesus teaches that the heart must be changed in order for righteousness to be possible. Grace must precede obedience. Similarly, wealth redistribution plans typically ignore the internal issues of the heart and achieve only external success at best. Thus, Clement’s ethic of wealth can be applied to any area of life: The heart must first be transformed in order for obedient performance of God’s will to occur. Note: No downloadable text or audio is available at this time.

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The Gospel Preached to the Poor
Thomas E. Peck. Presbyterial Critic, October 1855. In “Miscellanies of Thomas E. Peck, D.D., LL.D.,” vol. 1. Selected and arranged by T.C. Johnson. Richmond, Va.: Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1895-97. Reprinted as Writings of Thomas E. Peck. Carlisle, Pa.: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1999.
What do social work and preaching the gospel have in common? Having read this selection of Presbyterian theologian Thomas Peck’s (1822-93) writing, the reader might be more inclined to wonder what they don’t have in common. He notes the peculiarity of Jesus response to John the Baptist when asked if He was the Christ. Jesus offers a long list of miracles, crowning it with “and the good news is preached to the poor.” According to Peck, this identification of miracles with preaching to the poor shows the intimate connection between caring for people’s earthly needs, such as sickness and poverty, and their eternal needs. Jesus wasn’t content simply to point everyone to the other-worldly kingdom of heaven but, rather, insisted on reaching out to the sick and poor of this world as he preached his eternal message. The significance of ministering to the needs of the poor is so great that Peck claims, “The church’s whole work is comprehended in this.”

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The Relief of the Poor
Thomas E. Peck. Presbyterial Critic, January 1856. In “Miscellanies of Thomas E. Peck, D.D., LL.D.,” vol. 1. Selected and arranged by T.C. Johnson. Richmond, Va.: Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1895-97. Reprinted as Writings of Thomas E. Peck. Carlisle, Pa.: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1999.
Presbyterian theologian Thomas Peck (1822-93) makes his thoughts on poverty practical by describing first the reasons for and then the method of caring for the poor. He adduces strong scriptural and pragmatic support for the necessity of relieving poverty and then proceeds to outline a plan for dealing with this problem that is likely to ring true for today’s politically conservative American Christians. Not laws or government programs but “voluntary associations” involving individual benefactors and beneficiaries must be employed for the relief of poverty. He offers a clear ethical justification for this methodology: God has made us for community, to depend on each other, and God has given mankind poverty so that we might learn beneficence and gratitude in relationship to each other. Impersonal governments and imposed obligations undermine this intended effect of community-based relief of poverty.

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Preface to ‘On the Christian and Economic Polity of a Nation: More Especially with Reference to Its Large Towns’
Thomas Chalmers. From “Works,” vol. 14. Edinburgh: Sutherland & Knox; London: Hamilton, Adams & Co., n.d.
Scottish minister and social reformer Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847) held that besides directly religious matters, the most important concerns for the Christian are those areas that relate to the economic and moral well-being of society. Unfortunately, economics and morality often are treated separately. While economists are concerned with economics and clergy with morality, both groups often act as if the other were unimportant. But Chalmers believed that both areas are related and must be dealt with at the same time. In this preface, Chalmers explains his concern about this presence of poverty within the British Isles and seeks to move toward a remedy. “The proper remedy ... for the wretchedness of the few, is the kindness of many.” Chalmers sought to make the poor self-sufficient so that they would not become reliant on handouts, and he discouraged excessive government involvement. He hoped to lessen the burden of poverty within Britain primarily by encouraging the church to fulfill its responsibility to the poor and needy.

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The Advantage and Possibility of Assimilating a Town to a Country Parish
Thomas Chalmers. Chap. in “On the Christian and Economic Polity of a Nation: More Especially with Reference to Its Large Towns.” From “Works,” vol. 14. Edinburgh: Sutherland & Knox; London: Hamilton, Adams & Co., n.d.
Scottish minister and social reformer Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847) observed that at the time of his writing philanthropy was quite common. “At no period, perhaps, in the history of the human mind, did a desire of doing good so earnest, meet with a spirit of inquiry so eager, after the best and likeliest methods of carrying the desire into accomplishment.” Unfortunately, much of this philanthropic spirit went to waste due to a lack of right direction. Chalmers examines how it is possible that within a nation so desirous to do good, poverty and wretchedness could persist. He believed that the church, above any other institution, is responsible for addressing social issues, and that its good works must be accompanied with an awareness of the extent of problems being addressed.

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Private and Communal Farming
William Bradford. 1623. From “Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620-1647.” Samuel Eliot Morison, ed. New York: Modern Library, 1967.
In what may have been America’s first practical lesson in the inherent flaws of communism and strengths of individualism, Gov. William Bradford (1588-1657) relates how the young Plymouth Colony radically altered its labor rules to avert another devastating harvest. Because at first the Pilgrims shared all property in common, man’s natural tendency toward laziness set in, with a few pulling the weight of many since the reward for each one would be identical, regardless of effort or condition. In an attempt to keep the fledging community alive, the governor restructured food production so that every man (family) labored for his own food. And history shows they prospered.

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Wealth and Poverty
Kerby Anderson. Probe Ministries, 1992.

Questions surrounding the biblical perspective on wealth and poverty are important to Christians for two reasons. First, a biblical view of wealth is necessary if we are to live godly lives, avoiding asceticism on the one extreme and materialism on the other. Second, a biblical view of poverty is essential if we are to fulfill our responsibilities to the poor. A biblical understanding of wealth includes three features: (1) Wealth itself is not condemned. (2) When wealthy people in the Bible were condemned, they were done so for the means by which their riches were obtained, not for the riches themselves. (3) Christians should be concerned about the effect wealth can have on our lives, keeping their priorities straight and guard against the seductive effects of wealth. As a Christian understands the causes of poverty, he is enabled to deal with those causes and those effectively fight poverty. Whether the cause is oppression, misfortune, laziness or a culture of poverty, the Christian is called to join the poor in fighting against poverty. An important concept that ties these views together is that of stewardship. The Bible tells us that our wealth, abilities and lives are gifts from God to be used for God. We are to use the wealth God has given us to bring glory to His Name, and we know that His name is honored when the poor are cared for.

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Prosperity in America
Larry Burkett. CrossWalk.com.

The affluence of the American way of life is a mixed blessing. On the positive side, our prosperity has made life easier. It also has provided us with a great deal of money that could be used to spread God’s Word. On the negative side, prosperity requires a great deal of our time and attention. In fact, the urgency of our materialistic lifestyles can demand our allegiance at the expense of God himself. Larry Burkett offers advice for American Christians trying to maintain integrity in a culture of wealth.

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Understanding Prosperity: Developing a Balanced View of Giving
Randy Alcorn. TheGoodSteward.com, May 21, 2001.

“God doesn't want his children driving Volkswagens; he wants them driving Cadillacs. God wants only the best for his kids!” So says a popular radio preacher. This is but one manifestation of a large and vocal segment of American evangelicalism that subscribes to what is called “prosperity theology,” or the “health and wealth gospel.” What makes every heresy dangerous is its element of truth. Indeed, the scriptures sometimes do connect prosperity with God’s blessing. But there is a very significant other side to the story. Randy Alcorn clarifies this controversial issue.

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Finding a Biblical Balance between Poverty and Prosperity Theology
Patrick Morley. TheGoodSteward.com, September 24, 2001.

There is a whole range of theological perspectives on wealth. Everyone, it seems, has an opinion, many of which can be backed from some part of the Bible. The three prevailing perspectives in our own day are (1) poverty theology, (2) prosperity theology, and (3) stewardship theology. Patrick Morley presents all three positions, and the reasons each one is attractive. But all three cannot be true. What is God’s view? Is it one of these, or something else altogether? This article attempts a promising answer.

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Truly Living Like a King
Larry Burkett. CrossWalk.com.

Larry Burkett tells the stories of two Christian friends of his. The first was a believer in a full-time Christian ministry who had dedicated himself and his family to a life of poverty, convinced that in order to serve Christ, one had to relinquish all ownership of "worldly goods." Burkett’s second friend was also in full-time Christian work. His view (which is much more popular) was: "I'm a child of the King," he said, "and I'm going to live like it” – luxury cars, ivy league schools, country club membership, etc. Burkett argues that both men were wrong, and develops a third position from scripture.

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Ultimate Generosity: Communing with the Poor
Marva Dawn. Speech delivered at Generous Giving’s Pacific Northwest annual fall conference, Stevenson, Wash., October 19-21, 2006.
Author and theologian Marva Dawn begins this engaging speech with a warning: “[Isaiah 58:1-10] might sound at first a wee bit harsh.” She continues on by saying, however, that this passage is actually a sign of God’s grace, one of God’s merciful “wakeup” calls to his rebellious people. Although the Israelites long ago were liberated from slavery in Egypt, the people had fallen into another from of bondage. Injustice and oppression of the poor ran rampant because it was (often unintentionally) sanctioned by religion: “On the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. ... Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?” Isaiah 58 was a wakeup call not only to Israel but also to Christians today about our responsibility toward the poor and oppressed. Our ignorance of this responsibility often contributes to systemic evils in the world. God calls us out of this ignorance and into community with the poor. We should live in communities of believers where we learn how to live in community with the poor and oppressed. This kind of generous giving, which involves not only money but also our very lives, frees us to great joy. “When we know that kind of generous giving, we discover a new sort of healing in our own life; a healing away from our own self-centeredness; a healing away from our false ambitions, a healing toward participating in the purpose of the creator of the cosmos.” Note: No downloadable text or audio is available at this time.

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