Welfare and work

Some books seem so outdated that it is tempting to dismiss them out of hand, but “it ain’t necessarily so”. Take Mrs Beeton’s ‘Book of Household Management’, first published in 1861. It can still lay claim to the country’s cheapest nutritional lunch (the toast sandwich) according to the Royal Society for Chemistry.

Leviticus is similar. It may have been the first book that Jewish children studied in the synagogue but it is probably the last book that anyone in today’s church takes seriously. But we dismiss it at our peril for it shows us that God is as concerned about our economic culture as He is about songs of praise. Even the Observer recognised this by running a headline some years ago that declared “The Jubilee line that works: Debt relief campaign Jubilee 2000 can now claim its great victory, thanks to Leviticus’ (D Tidball: ‘The Bible Speaks Today’ IVP)

Leviticus lays it on the line: God expects us to care for the poor. He has set His face against exploitation and vast economic disparities. I am sure He would applaud the recent comments of the governor of the Bank of England who pointed to the perceived unfairness that it was the well-heeled bankers who caused the mess we're in, but it's those on average and below-average incomes who are paying the price.

The God of the Bible is the champion of social justice and a defender of the weak. He does not think in terms of the “deserving” and the “undeserving” poor. He shows mercy to everyone in need and expects us to do the same.

All of which seems to support the bishops’ criticism of the Government’s proposed benefit cap of £26,000 per year: “There is a very real risk that these reforms will cause suffering to the most vulnerable in our society”

But we would be very unwise to jump to the conclusion that the answer is to be found in mere handouts. As Lord Carey argued so cogently in the Daily Mail we do nothing to help the neediest in our society by allowing the welfare budget to run out of control.

“If we can’t get the deficit under control and begin paying back this debt, we will be mortgaging the future of our children and grandchildren,” he wrote.

We do no one any favours when we let them think we can live without any regard to the financial consequences. The Greek experience offers ample proof of that.

The Sunday Times went to the heart of the matter when it suggested that we need to address the problems that have arisen from of our “why work” culture, and that we need to think more carefully as to how we can help families that are “trapped in dependency”.

As Lord Carey says, the welfare system desperately needs to be reined in and there is something radically wrong when employment does not pay more than a life on benefits.

The apostle Paul condemned those who were tempted to be idle.

“Don't you remember the rule we had when we lived with you?” he wrote. "If you don't work, you don't eat. And now we're getting reports that a bunch of lazy good-for-nothings are taking advantage of you. This must not be tolerated. We command them to get to work immediately—no excuses, no arguments—and earn their own keep” (2 Thessalonians 3).

In other words whilst we must never be judgmental or uncaring when dealing with the curse of unemployment, we do have a God-given right to expect people to “pull their weight”.

Work is not synonymous with paid employment. John Stott understood this. “For although all employment is work (we are not paid for doing nothing) not all work is employment (we can work without being paid for it). What demoralises people is not so much the lack of employment (not being in a paid job) as lack of work (not using their energies in creative service). Conversely what gives people a sense of self-respect is significant work” (Issues facing Christians Today: Marshalls).

I once met a street cleaner who was advised that he was to be made redundant because there were no longer the funds to employ him. He was distressed, and then asked if he could continue to work for the council in an unpaid capacity!

I have no idea what faith he had or whether he had ever read a Bible, but in that short exchange I saw evidence again that God has made us in His own image, and that when we cease to work - or cease wanting to work - we are not being true to ourselves.

We were created for work and anything that stifles our inborn urge to work must be resisted. It is for this reason then I must agree with the Sunday Times when it suggests that in opposing the Government’s welfare reforms the bishops are actually doing “a disservice to the poor”.

We do not need to question their compassion, just their understanding of Scripture.

Rob James is Executive Chair of the Evangelical Alliance Wales and Pastor of Westgate Evangelical Chapel