I am becoming increasingly convinced that dispensationalists understand why social justice is outside the realm of the church, and that others—especially and ironically those in the missional movement—are rapidly losing sight of what the church’s mission is. When Tim Keller says, “It’s biblical that we owe the poor as much of our money as we can possibly give away,” Robin Hood ethics gradually eclipse the Great Commission mandate. Others may squirm, but it takes a real dispensationalist to say, “The Bible simply never commands the church to give anything to the poor of the world, other than the gospel.”
When Jesus said, “The poor you always have with you, but you will not always have me” (Matt 26:11, Mark 14:7, John 12:8), he raises a pressing question: What is the church’s role and responsibility when confronted with poverty? It is not debated that poverty has existed on earth since Cain’s banishment. What is debated is the reason for this, and then by implication the role the church has in ministering to the poor.
The Keller quote above came in an interview promoting his book Generous Justice, but it is not a new line for him. Way back in Ministries of Mercy, Keller said that the church has a mandate both personally and corporately to try and lower the poverty rates in our world, as well as a call to care for the homeless in our community (p. 21). He even defines mercy ministry as “meeting felt needs through deeds” and he describes sin as “producing alienation from God, self, others, and nature. This in turn produces theological, psychological, social, and physical needs, and the church must have as its goal the correcting of all of those needs.” (46-52). Even so, to say “It’s biblical that we owe the poor as much of our money as we can possibly give away” sort of ups the ante on this.
It probably goes without saying, but I radically disagree with Keller on this. I feel like a kid who says that the emperor has no clothes, but the fact of the matter is that nowhere does the Bible command the church to care for the material needs of the poor in the world, to lower the poverty rates in society, or to care for the homeless in our community. There are zero verses that command this, and several that even argue against it.
While some amils or historic premils may agree with this, it usually takes a dispensationalist to bluntly say that the NT does not command the church to participate in social justice endeavors. This is why dispensationalists are accused of being so pessimistic that they are of no earthly good. Thirty year ago Ryrie wrote: “Dispensational premillennialism is regularly accused of such pessimism as to make it useless in the realm of personal and social ethics. In personal ethics it is commonly characterized as negative; in social ethics as impotent.”
I am fine with being labeled a pessimist, because I strongly believe that the NT does not command Christians to engage in what is mislabeled social justice. Even Keller himself tacitly grants that there are no NT commands to the church for these activities (apart from the story of the good Samaritan, which I discuss here). The fact is, the church should be using her resources to further her one mission in the world, and that mission is reaching the lost with the gospel.
There are substantial distinctions between dispensational and non-dispensational views concerning the church’s responsibility to the poor and the role of mercy ministry in the local church. The dispensationalist understands that the commands given to Israel concerning the poor do not apply to the church. The dispensationalist understands that the way God’s testimony was manifest to the earth through a theocracy is different than how the gospel goes forward through the church, and this change affects social ethics. The dispensationalist understands that there are eschatological implications in how the church pursues mercy ministry, and that eradicating poverty is not a means of kingdom advancement.
While certainly some amillennialists would agree with some of the preceding paragraph, these are generally pretty easy statements for the dispensationalist. These observations, although obvious to me, are often overlooked by non-dispensationalists. John Feinberg explains that non-dispensationalists tend to focus on “the soteriological and spiritual elements” of the Old Covenant, leaving dispensationalists to emphasize the “social, economic, and political” structure of OT Israel. He went on to write that because the nature of the Torah’s commands concerning the poor are so different than what the NT commands, that to discuss them at all lends itself to seeing discontinuity between the two covenants, and thus dispensationalism. Ryrie agrees, adding that distinctions between the OT and NT concerning mercy ministry can only be understood in light of dispensations.
There is a very real danger that has been played out through history repeatedly, that when churches embrace a vision for combating poverty, evangelism is one of the first victims of this altered commission. In no way am I implying Keller has sacrificed evangelism, but I am making the observation that when money is going to soup kitchens, it is not going to missions. To guard against that, the church is never commanded to give material goods to the poor as a means for expanding the kingdom. Simply put, you owe the poor the gospel; Jesus died to purchase for them the privilege of hearing the testimony of his death and resurrection (1 Tim 2:6). That is both the most and the least you can give, and Robin Hood ethics do not overlap with the Great Commission.