God’s “Preferential Option for the Poor”

God’s “Preferential Option for the Poor”

Occasionally I come across fellow evangelicals distancing themselves from the notion of a “preferential option for the poor.” This has been happening recently in the debates over the proposed adoption of the Belhar Confession by Reformed and Presbyterian denominations in North America. Belhar, the argument goes,  espouses the “preferential option,” particularly in its affirmation “that God, in a world full of injustice and enmity, is in a special way the God of the destitute, the poor and the wronged.”

It just so happens that I had been reading the great Dutch Calvinist statesman Abraham Kuyper on the same day that I came across a contemporary Calvinist theologian faulting Belhar for its “liberation theology” emphasis on God’s concern for the poor. In a powerful address that Kuyper gave to a Christian Social Congress in 1891 (published as a little book, Christianity and the Class Struggle), Kuyper warns that “you do not honor God’s Word if … you ever forget how both Christ, and also just as such His apostles after Him and the prophets before Him, invariably took sides against those who were powerful and living in luxury, and for the suffering and oppressed.”

To be sure, Kuyper insists, we must also affirm a solidarity within the Christian community between poor and rich. “In every Lord’s Prayer,” he says, “the poor prays for the rich that God may give him his bread for that day, and the rich prays it for the poor. Nowhere in this prayer is there a my or an I; but always we and us.” For all of that solidarity, though, Kuyper observes that when the Bible “corrects the poor [it] does so much more tenderly and gently; and in contrast, when it call[s] the rich to account [it] uses much harsher words.”

Kuyper was no friend of socialism. But he does observe with reference to James 5:1-4, that “[i]f words as strong as these were not found in the Bible, and if anyone should dare pen them now on his own initiative, people would brand him a crypto-socialist.”

All of that seems to me to be exactly right; indeed it is profoundly biblical. And it certainly comes across as affirming something very much like a “preferential option for the poor.” Let the debate over Belhar be waged on legitimate theological grounds.


  1. I’d have to say i agree sir, and the Kuyper quotes are excellent! It is difficult to read the prophets, the gospel of Luke, etc and not come to the same conclusion. Globally speaking the fact that I own a pair of shoes places me in the category of “wealthy.” I suspect our well shod congregations/theologians may be more offended by Belhar than say those in Peru.

    Comment by Luke parker — February 8, 2011 @ 8:28 pm

  2. To fully understand James rebuke of the rich one needs to read the law regarding the care for the poor in the midst.

    Deuteronomy 26:12 When thou hast made an end of tithing all the tithes of thine increase the third year, [which is] the year of tithing, and hast given [it] unto the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, that they may eat within thy gates, and be filled;

    In the law of Moses, the model for giving to the poor was on the personal and individual-to-individual model.

    Matthew 19:21 Jesus instructed the rich man to sell all he had and give to the poor.

    Note what Jesus DID NOT say to the rich man:
    • Sell all you have and bring it to me to redistribute to the poor
    • Sell all you have, bring the proceeds to the Priest for redistribution to the poor
    • Sell all you have, bring the proceeds to Herod for redistribution to the poor
    • Sell all you have, send it to Rome for the careful need of those less fortunate

    I contend that care for the poor in the first century was ‘bottom up’ or horizontal if you will.
    I contend it is the gospel for the individual, not the corporate.

    Today the church and government usurps the obligation and requirements of the individual.

    Today we bring a stipend to the church, believing they can do the work of ‘social justice’, my obligation is complete.

    We say, all the taxes I pay, It is the government’s job to provide for the welfare of the poor.

    I contend that the plan of God for individual-to-individual responsibility, and never intended for the corporate church or government top-down regime.

    Comment by Dan Bryan — February 10, 2011 @ 10:54 pm

  3. Yes, but where does the Belhar mention forgiveness for the oppressors? This radical grace can only be inferred. Kuyper, as you quote him, is more balanced than the text of the Belhar. There is no explicit mention of forgiveness and concern being given by the poor to the rich, by the oppressed to the oppressors. IT IS THIS OMISSION that may push the Belhar from Gospel truth to liberation theology.

    Comment by Ryan — February 12, 2011 @ 6:25 am

  4. In response to Ryan, under article 3, the Belhar confession states: “that God’s lifegiving Word and Spirit has conquered the powers of sin and death, and therefore also of irreconciliation and hatred, bitterness and enmity, that God’s lifegiving Word and Spirit will enable the church to live in a new obedience which can open new possibilities of life for society and the world”. People tend to forget that the whole justice section of the Belhar comes AFTER the articles on Unity and Reconciliation. In my reading, therefore, the justice articles are ALREADY in the context of unity among Christians (rich and poor implied) and reconciliation between oppressor and oppressed in Jesus Christ.

    The articles of justice cannot be used to subscribe to another division of hatred and enmity because the above quoted article stated that God’s Word and Spirit destroys irreconciliation and hatred, bitterness and enmity. Yes, it is not an explicit statement to forgive your oppressors but clearly if you read things in context, you cannot take the justice stance with the poor as creating an irreconcilable division between rich and poor.

    In response to Dan Bryan, what you suggest is not justice at all but merely charity and mercy, which are noble, necessary and commanded of Christians too. But if you look simply at Micah 6:8 – “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God?” – your individual one-to-one help of the poor is merely acts of mercy, not justice. Justice requires structural change and redistribution. We need to do BOTH individual acts of mercy/charity and acts of redistributive justice.

    Please see Ezekiel 34:16 – “I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice.” (TNIV) And in v. 20-22: “See, I [the Lord] myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you shove with flank and shoulder, butting all the weak sheep with your horns until you have driven them away, I will save my flock, and they will no longer be plundered. I will judge between one sheep and another.” (TNIV) Ezekiel is not talking about how the nations treat Israel but how Israel’s rich and powerful treats Israel’s poor and needy. In Ezekiel, God is angry at how the fat sheep keep getting fatter and bully the lean ones, even driving the lean ones away from the pasture – not giving the poor access to food. This is not only a charity issue but also a justice issue. There’s a systemic structural reason for the thin sheep in staying thin and getting thinner!

    Dr. Mouw, I am wondering if Kuyper also said this in that address: “When rich and poor stand opposed to each other God never takes his place with the wealthier, but always stands with the poorer.”
    – Christianity and the Class Struggle, trans. D. Jellema (Grand Rapids: Piet Hein, 1950), p. 2. This was quoted by Paul Marshall in his excellent brief evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of liberation theology from a Reformed perspective in the book, The Basic Ideas of Calvinism, 6th Edition (Baker 1990), Chapter 24: Liberation Theology, pp. 187-194.

    Comment by Shiao Chong — February 12, 2011 @ 5:58 pm