A Theology of Poverty & Praxis Part III – Which Comes First, Their Need or Our Creed?

If your desire is to practice “pure religion,” and by that I mean caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you. James 1:27  Then eventually you will be accused of being communist, marxist, or even a liberation theologist.  What is liberation theology?

Simply put, Liberation Theology is an attempt to interpret Scripture through the plight of the poor. It is largely a humanistic doctrine. It started in South America in the turbulent 1950s when Marxism was making great gains among the poor because of its emphasis on the redistribution of wealth, allowing poor peasants to share in the wealth of the colonial elite and thus upgrade their economic status in life. As a theology, it has very strong Roman Catholic roots.[4]

Entrenched in the Gospel is the idea of “setting captives free.” Luke 4:18  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed.”  

Alleviating poverty all together, is, in my view impossible.  But that’s no excuse for inaction when it comes to addressing poverty.  Look at these 3 quotes from Lesslie Newbigin, in the book “The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission.”

True theology does not begin in the realm of ideas. It begins with praxis.[1]

We have now to listen to the missiology formulated within the consciousness of the Christian who is part of the poor world, a missiology centered in the demand for liberation in the name of God’s Justice.[2]

To “know the Lord” is not a matter of intellectual contemplation or mystical union; it is a matter of doing justice and mercy in concrete situations.[3]

The struggle amongst today’s advocates for the poor is whether or not their situation determines our action and gives meaning to scripture or whether scripture determines and gives meaning to their situation and our actions towards them.  In other words, what lens are you looking through to give meaning and purpose to poverty alleviation?   Does your doctrine, or theology, determine your action when it comes to the poor, or does the existence of the poor and their situation determine how you interpret and apply your theology?  

Liberation theology, in addressing the needs of the poor has not worked.  In every attempt to nuance and resurface it, eventually people have come to understand that there is something wrong with it.  In fact, here is South America where we live and work with the poor, I’ve seen the results, and it’s not good.  It has yet to be realized as ineffective amongst the United States African American communities where the prosperity gospel and liberation theology is gutting those who are already poverty stricken and redistributing what little wealth is had back to the rich.  

Someone recently asked me, “How do we minister to the rich?”  It’s a great question.  Certainly, when it comes to the gospel and sharing with the poor, we  must address hunger, health, and oppression, or the gospel becomes meaningless to them.  But in the case of the rich who have none of those needs, it’s a battle of ideology.  The question is whether theology comes first in both cases.   

If we turn to the ministry of Jesus himself, it is of course clear that Jesus shocked the established authorities by being a friend to all – not only to the destitute and hungry, but also to those rich extortioners, the tax-collectors, whom all decent people ostracized; that the shocking thing was not that he sided with the poor against the rich but that he met everyone equally with the same unlimited mercy and the same unconditioned demand for total loyalty.[5]  A few questions:

When it come to the poor, does need their determine creed or does our creed determine how we address their need? 

What is the difference between setting a captive free and poverty relief?  

Do the poor have a better theology of poverty than those with means?


View the first two parts of this series:

A Theology of Poverty & Praxis – Part I

A Theology of Poverty & Praxis Part II – Church Charity First, then Everyone Else?



[1] Lesslie Newbigin. The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission (Kindle Locations 1311-1312). Kindle Edition.

[2]Lesslie Newbigin. The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission (Kindle Locations 1306-1307). Kindle Edition.

[3]Lesslie Newbigin. The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission (Kindle Locations 1331-1332). Kindle Edition.

[4] http://www.gotquestions.org/liberation-theology.html

[5] http://firstthings.com/blogs/evangel/2010/05/newbigin-on-liberation-theologies/

0 thoughts on “A Theology of Poverty & Praxis Part III – Which Comes First, Their Need or Our Creed?

  1. Peter says:

    My understanding of God comes primarily through His revealed Word and a direct connection with Him. It comes only secondarily through His creation and those around me. Thus theology always comes first. Seeing poverty around me might inspire me to investigate what God has to say about poverty, but my understanding of poverty and how it relates to me comes from theology. Of course the specific situation on the ground determines our specific response to the need of the poor before us.

    The concept of “setting the captives free” taken from Isaiah 42:7 is speaking of an understanding of the Gospel and a release from the bondage to sin and to the law. Thus a new “covenant for the people”, a “light for the Gentiles”, “open eyes”, and to “release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.” It has nothing whatsoever to do with material poverty or its relief.

    The poor have a more intimate understanding of poverty than do the rich who have never been poor. This doesn’t mean their theology (God’s perspective) on poverty is any better.

    All of Scripture points to Jesus. Any attempt to redirect the Bible’s message anywhere but to Him is a false Gospel and a step away from God. Relief of the poor is an outcome of “true religion.” But making relief of the poor a religion in itself is poor theology indeed.

  2. I sometimes wonder if the failure of Liberation Theology is that we attempt to make it work as an overall theology, when perhaps it is best understood as a prophetic response to a given circumstance. Prophetic responses are essential, but almost never normative. Just a thought.

    As a Christian, I don’t believe that we are called to end poverty. Rather, we are called to create shalom in the world. The former is defined in the negative, whereas the latter is defined by what could be and should be (and will be). John Driver says this about shalom:

    “It meant well-being, or health, or salvation in its fullest sense, material as well as spiritual. It described the situation of well-being which resulted from authentically whole (healed) relationships among people, as well as between per- sons and God. According to the Old Testament prophets, shalom reigned in Israel when there was social justice, when the cause of the poor and the weak was vindicated, when there was equal opportunity for all, in short, when the people enjoyed salvation according to the intention of God expressed in his covenant”

    This is where the blessedness of the poor comes in. It is not that the condition of being poor is somehow a blessing, but rather that poverty, stripping us of pretense, stands as a mirror to the poverty of spirit in the world and the Church. Poverty of spirit is a recognition that transforms the heart, leads to repentance, producing in us a fervent and active humility that longs for justice. But tempered by the awareness of our own brokenness, it produces a longing for justice that seek the same grace for the oppressor and for the oppressed, yet not compromising accountability and truth. Then, it is with pure hearts- products of our humble repentance- and longing for justice- steeped in grace- that we become shalom-makers!

    Here is where we get to the hardest part. As inspiring as this may sound, Jesus was clear that such transformation leads us to suffering and persecution. Yes, we are blessed by God, but we will suffering for Christ as we make shalom in our world. Shalom destroys the false dichotomy between the so-called social gospel and spiritual gospel, leaving instead the fullness of God’s truly good news for all of creation. An emphasis on either end of the spectrum that excludes or minimizes the other misses the heart of the true gospel. We must resist the temptation to reduce or simplify the gospel in order to make it more accessible or acceptable; we must seek to embrace it in this fullness. And this means a lot of work, sacrifice and perseverance in a world where a very real enemy will push back with ruthless force. Being a peacemaker is all too often a thankless, even hated, vocation. It forces us to be about the work of reconciliation at all costs.

    It is not up to us to finally and for all time achieve shalom, only to be makers of shalom, creators of peace in our lives and our immediate contexts. Christ alone can inaugurate true shalom, and it is only through him that any of our efforts have any meaning or hope. It is not us, but the Spirit in and through us, together, as His people.

    • In other words:

      “Blessed are the poor in spirit,
      for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
      Blessed are those who mourn,
      for they will be comforted.
      Blessed are the meek,
      for they will inherit the earth.
      Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
      for they will be filled.
      Blessed are the merciful,
      for they will be shown mercy.
      Blessed are the pure in heart,
      for they will see God.
      Blessed are the peacemakers,
      for they will be called children of God.
      Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
      for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
      “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

  3. Hi Miguel,

    I read this post yesterday and then had to go back to read the previous posts today.

    I am particularly struck, as I prayed about this, about the event of the woman who poured the costly oil on Jesus’ head. Some of those around Him “were indignant” that such costly oil was, in their view, wasted. They (and chief of these objectors was Judas Iscariot) insisted that the money should rather have been given to the poor.

    Yet Jesus defends the woman and states that she has done a good work for Him.

    From this I am convinced that we should always place Jesus first and then good works for the poor as a natural follow-on from that. It should never be the other way around. We cannot base our love for Jesus on our love for the poor, neither should we view Jesus in the “light” of the poor. It must be that we base our love for the poor on our love for Jesus, and see the poor in the Light of seeing Jesus.

    If we get this the wrong way around then we will have a distorted view of our Lord.

  4. […] A fellow Christian blogger, Miguel Labrador, has been writing a series of blog posts on poverty, and yesterday I read the third of these posts which was on the topic “Which comes first, their need or our creed?” […]

  5. Wendy McCaig says:

    Hi Miguel,

    I have been reading your series of post this morning and this question, “Does your doctrine, or theology, determine your action when it comes to the poor, or does the existence of the poor and their situation determine how you interpret and apply your theology?” My answer would be “yes.” I think setting this up as an either/or question is part of the problem.

    I decided to hang out with my homeless friends because of my theology but it was my experiences and relationships that drove me to re-engage passages of scripture through their eyes and in the process my theology has changed and become far deeper.

    I prefer to think of the process as more of an action/reflection process. We should continually seek Christ and the leading of the spirit in the process. It is our own experience with Christ that drives us to action but our action should also drive us back to Christ. It should be an unending cycle. A healthy approach is a balanced approach. All action with no theological reflection causes our work to become a human effort void of power. All theology with no action leads us to be irrelevant and hard hearted.

    The decision to separate out “spirituality” from “social justice” has done a disservice to both. They belong together. I see this in many churches where discipleship and mission are separate “departments.” For me true spiritual formation is both. Care of the poor is spiritually formative, If we read the biblical narrative which instructs us to love our neighbors and then choose to do nothing, we cut ourselves off from a practice through which we encounter Christ in the least. The damage we do is not only to the other who is in need but we do so to our own deficit.

    The reintegration of these two sides of our faith is essential to the health of the Christian faith. We need the whole body – hands, feet, head, heart, and mouth all functioning as one. Instead we have carved the body up and each is operating autonomously from the other. What the world sees is a Frankensteinish monster that does not know who it is anymore.

    Thanks for the conversion. This is a question that seems to continually divide and separate the body. My prayer is for unity.

    • Miguel says:


      Thanks for the comment. My intention is not to divide or create a false dichotomy, which my question may have accidentally done. I agree with you. It can lead into a false division of spiritual and physical.

      That said, practice never determines proposition. We do what we do because we are executing or applying sound doctrine. Our doctrine is not determined by what needs doing. Is that saying the same thing?

      • Wendy McCaig says:

        I think we are on the same page. Our doctrine should lead us to action but our doctrine is also shaped by that very action when we seek God in the experience. It is a continual loop that should lead us to deeper and deeper understanding and insight into the nature of God and the work of the Spirit in us and in the world around us.

        I was taught to “share the good news” with the poor but when I went to share, i discovered that they were teaching me about Christ through their own encounters. We have to keep the feedback loop open so that we allow the Christ spirit that dwells in “the least of these” (hate that lingo but you know what I mean) to shape our own understanding of God.

        What I have seen is that those who operate out of a one-sided “doctrine” driven approach are often closed to receiving the good news from those they perceive as being in need. It can lead to a kind of spiritual arrogance. That is why I love Micah 6:8 – it reminds us that our acts of kindness and doing of justice must be done humbly.

        I would love to see us reintegrate mission and spiritual formation. I believe true maturity comes when we actually learn to live what we believe with integrity in the world and that is a process. I have learned more from my homeless friends about faith and walking with God than I did from my seminary professors and countless bible studies.

        Again, thanks for raising the question. I know you have experienced the integration that I am praying for but I have found it is a hard concept for most churches to grasp. We like neat boxes, something either belongs in “missions” or in “spiritual formation” and when I propose a both/and approach, I get blank looks and confusion over what box they should put me in. So your observation of this false dichotomy hit home with me.

  6. Wendy McCaig says:


    I am re-reading Alan J. Roxburgh’s book “Missional: Joining God in the Neighborhood.” Have you read it? He writes, “Scripture can only really be engaged as it is performed within a community of God’s people.” It made me think of our discussion. There are several concepts that he shares that I think are relevant to your question. I may try to gather them and share them tomorrow on my blog. I have not been very motivated to write lately but your topic interests me and has inspired me to dig a little deeper.

  7. […] —————————————————– Great Post from my friend Miguel Labrador about poverty: A Theology of Poverty & Praxis […]

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