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Martin Bucer’s Anti-Poverty Program

June 3rd, 2019 | 8 min read

By Jake Meador

In his book De Regno Christi, Martin Bucer outlines his vision of a Christian society, including details on how he believes such a society should handle questions of poverty.

The basic vision can be sketched out as follows:

  • Bucer proposes a ban on public begging.
  • He also proposes a ban on private almsgiving.
  • He argues that all Christians, particularly those of means (and do keep in mind that he’s assuming Christendom here and so ‘all Christians’ would encompass most or all of society) should give generously for the aid of the poor.
  • Finally, he says that if individual congregations lack the means to address all the needs in a community, the crown should give the church whatever is necessary to meet the need.

The argument is something like this: If a person is so poor that their only means of supporting themselves is to beg, then the church has failed in its public witness as the fellowship of those who follow Jesus who commanded us, after all, to care for the needs of the poor. The mere presence of begging is, to Bucer, proof that the church is failing to be attentive to the needs of the poor.

There are, however, two other points to consider as well regarding begging.

First, because of the way late medieval piety functionally worked, private almsgiving was viewed as having meritorious value for the Christian and so public begging was incentivized on the basis of a kind of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” The private person sees a person begging and is strongly incentivized by the system of piety to give the person alms without actually taking the time to discern how to best aid the person. This, in turn, creates a system rife for abuse in which those who are simply idle can solicit alms that would have been better used for those who are genuinely in need.

Second, and this relates to the banning of private almsgiving, Bucer was concerned with both maximizing the effectiveness of charitable giving and with avoiding scenarios in which the idle are encouraged in their idleness.

So his vision was that the local church would have deacons with a deep knowledge of their local community and empowered through a large mercy fund (since charitable donations flowed through the church rather than directly from private individuals) to meet all the genuine needs that came to them.

The final provision, though, is perhaps what is most striking—the idea that the crown should simply make up the difference whenever an individual congregation’s funds are insufficient to meet the needs set before them.

To be sure, there are limits to how we can apply 16th century ideas about anti-poverty programs to our modern context. After all, in our day many of the poor are working already and are poor not because of shiftlessness but because it is not possible for them to make enough money to make ends meet.

That being said, I am still struck by three possible points that could be developed as Christians attempt to constructively address issues of poverty.

First, there is benefit in distinguishing between types of poverty. Such a taxonomy for today would be far more complex than in Bucer’s day, no doubt. But it could still be a helpful exercise.

This is a point other reformed Christians also were concerned with. In a fantastic paper given at last week’s Convivium Irenicum, Ian Mosley described the work of Wilhelm Zepper, a German reformed pastor and theologian who also saw a particular call to address what he called “mendicant poverty,” as a particularly alarming sign of a society’s failure to care for the poor.

If a person’s best option of providing for their physical needs is to beg, then the society cannot seriously claim to love and care for the poor. This does not mean, of course, that we should ignore other forms of poverty. But it does perhaps suggest a way of making distinctions between forms of poverty and then developing plans of how to address it.

It should also be noted that the argument here about begging is not an argument for the various ugly forms of anti-homeless urban design and architecture that have been seen in American cities in recent years. Bucer’s proposal to ban begging cannot be separated from the other aspects of his plan which provide an alternative vision for providing tangible aid to those poor who would otherwise be forced to beg. The argument is not “people should not be able to beg.” Rather, it is “in a just society begging should be unnecessary.” The laws against both begging and private almsgiving are, to Bucer, necessary provisions to achieve that end in something of a parallel, you might say, to some of the less popular (but necessary) provisions of something like the Affordable Care Act.

Second, there is an assumption built into Bucer’s vision that truly aiding the poor requires knowledge and affection. His reason for disliking private almsgiving is that it often ended up doing more harm than good because, at worst, it incentivized those who did not need to beg to beg and even in better cases it reduced a complex problem—a person who lacks the means of supporting themselves but also lacks the familial connection to receive that support or who has had to leave their family for one reason or another—into a transactional relationship.

The idea of the deacons in Bucer’s polity is that it would be a body of people committed to the care of the poor whose primary job is to know and understand the issues causing poverty and facing the poor in a particular place. We should also note that though there is some utopianism in Bucer’s plan (as there nearly always is in Bucer) he is not unaware of the potential for abuse. Indeed, he is withering in his attack on how the church had abused its funds in the past on services that did not provide for the tangible needs of the poor:

For they had removed all power and authority of kings and legitimate magistrates from themselves and persuaded the common people that it was far better if these goods were expended on their godless cults for the benefit of the living and the dead than if Christ the Lord by this means fed the hungry, gave the thirsty to drink, offered hospitality to pilgrims and the homeless, clothed the naked, and visited the sick and prisoners.

He also notes that when the clergy did this they were not only harming the poor who ought to have received the aid but themselves as well: “having rejected all concern… for the souls of themselves and the whole people of Christ and all religion.”

To put it starkly, Bucer says that those clergy who would abuse the funds given them for the aid of the poor are at risk of being damned. So, yes, there is a utopian aspect to this, but Bucer is aware of it and does see a kind of way of addressing the problem, even if that way does chiefly concern the last judgment rather than a more immediate penalty, though such ministers would have faced church discipline as well if they had been caught abusing funds for the poor in Bucer’s Strasbourg.

Finally, note how Bucer proposes providing for the needs of the poor in the event that the generous giving of local Christians to the church still does not provide ample funds for that work.

The poor will be little helped unless there is some source of supply of things to be distributed to them, and this must be provided by Your Majesty, so that the churches may supply whatever the cause of the needy demands.

Such a vision is a far cry from the libertarian notion currently in favor amongst many Christians as they consider the work of our government. Government, for many of them, has a purely negative role. But Bucer rather straightforwardly and unapologetically argues that the crown should provide for the needs of the poor up to the amount that the deacons in a church deem necessary to meet the various needs facing the church.

To bring home how radical this actually is we might simply consider asking deacons in churches how much money they would need to address all the genuine and legitimate needs that are known to them in their local community.

Even assuming a well-off and generous congregation, there is still likely to be some gap between their means and the need in their area. And Bucer’s solution here is “the crown pays for it.”

Without saying too much more in an already long post, it’s worth noting here that Bucer is simply assuming a far more active role for the government in fighting poverty than anything you would find from many conservative Christians today.

This move, of course, raises other intriguing and discomforting questions, for the implicit assumption in Bucer’s argument here is that there is a positive role the government plays in the life of society. So this touches how we think about poverty.

But, of course, it also demands that we consider what exactly it means to say that the government has a positive role to play, for that ‘positive role’ must be referenced to some kind of good toward which the positive work tends. The Christian argument for an active government providing for the needs of the poor may well be inextricably tied up in an argument for the government itself being expressly Christian in some fashion.

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Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).