I write this article at the request of the OPC’s Committee on Ministerial Care (CMC). I note this for a couple of reasons. For one thing, this article is meant to address practical issues in the church pertinent to the work of the CMC and the OPC Committee on Diaconal Ministries, as well as to diaconal work at the local and presbyterial levels. For another thing, readers should know that I do not write this out of any interest in advancing a personal agenda or to persuade others of my personal convictions. My goal, instead, per the CMC request, is to help church officers and other Christians think through the multiple and often complicated questions raised by the matters before us. I hope that readers who disagree with some of the conclusions below will still benefit from my attempt to clarify the issues at stake. The CMC did not ask me to take particular positions, nor has it officially endorsed my conclusions.

The main issue is the propriety of Christians accepting public aid and of the church encouraging or discouraging its members (including ministers) from accepting public aid. I use “public aid” generally to refer to government assistance to the needy. Reformed Christians clearly do not share a unanimous view on this issue. There are many relevant exegetical, ecclesiological, ethical, and political factors that might shape a person’s view, so it is wise for us not to be prematurely dogmatic, especially since the ramifications of our answers for individuals, families, and churches can be quite serious.

Among the factors relevant to resolving the issue are the obligation of individuals and families to provide for themselves, the responsibility of the church to care for its needy members and especially for its ministers, the concern that the church not be unnecessarily burdened, the proper authority of civil government, and Christians’ participation in civil government when they believe it has overstepped its proper authority. Some examples of concrete cases are the following: Is enrolling in Medicaid permissible or advisable for, say, a retired minister and his wife with little savings, for a family of limited means with a child having disabilities requiring speech or physical therapy, or for a family of limited means with a parent/grandparent having serious memory care issues and in need of constant supervision? Or is the church obligated to provide all the necessary financial and personal support in such cases? Is utilizing public school resources permissible or advisable for a family having a child with disabilities, when that family is committed to Christian or home schooling, but the latter have no resources to help the child? Or, is it permissible for a church of modest means to call a pastor with a promise to keep him free of worldly care when that promise depends upon access to a state program that will provide free healthcare to the pastor’s children?

Rather than focusing on concrete examples, this article works through a number of foundational issues and offers some general conclusions, with the hope that this will equip Christians and churches to work through specific cases on their own. To approach our topic in an orderly way, I first address whether there is a Christian view of the proper scope of government responsibilities. Then, I address whether Christians may or should accept public aid, considering this first from the perspective of individuals and families and then from the perspective of churches. Finally, I address the distinctive issues that arise for ministers accepting public aid, in light of the church’s special obligations toward them. I generally assume political conditions in the United States and trust that readers elsewhere can make appropriate application to their own contexts.

The Proper Scope of Government Responsibility

The question of what civil government properly does is obviously controversial, but it is an unavoidable aspect of our broader topic. Readers who support a more activist government may find it puzzling that anyone would question the propriety of needy Christians accepting public aid. In contrast, readers who are deeply skeptical of government assistance programs may be instinctively troubled at the idea of Christians doing so. Hence, it would be helpful at the outset to clear the air on the scope of government authority as much as possible. Is there a distinctively Christian view of this subject? Or is this a matter of judgment, about which Christians may hold well-informed opinions, but which they should not impose upon fellow believers?

It may be helpful to distinguish between different types of possible government functions. One way to do so is the distinction among so-called protectionist, perfectionist, and service-providing activities.[1] Protectionist functions aim to protect people from being harmed by others and to provide remedies and punishments when such harm occurs. These include administering a judicial system, a police force, and a military. Perfectionist functions aim to make citizens better people or at least stave off the worst vices. Examples include prohibiting gambling, prostitution, or narcotics (negatively), and establishing public libraries (positively). Service-providing functions, as the name suggests, aim to provide a variety of goods and services to the public. Among many examples are building roads, running municipal sports facilities, and funding or administering health care. It is not always obvious how to categorize a given government program, but this basic distinction at least provides some initial conceptual clarity.

Only a few New Testament texts address what responsibilities civil government has. Romans 13 says that God has “instituted” and “appointed” magistrates (13:1–2) such that they are his “servant[s]” and “ministers” (13:4, 6).[2] The purpose of this appointment is to “bear the sword” and to carry out “God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” 1 Peter 2:14 puts it more briefly but similarly. God has “sent” civil magistrates “to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.” 1 Timothy 2:1–2 does not say directly what magistrates should do, but it tells Christians to pray for them, “that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life.” This arguably implies that civil government ought to keep the peace.

The first two texts and likely the third speak of government responsibilities in protectionist terms: government should do what is just by punishing wrongdoers and maintaining social order. It is debatable whether the commission to punish those who do wrong includes perfectionist functions, but I say nothing more about this, since it is beyond the scope of this article. Any mention of service-providing functions, however, is clearly absent from these texts.

Does the Old Testament add anything to these observations? The Noahic covenant commissions human society in general to enforce justice in response to intra-human violence (Gen. 9:6). This does not establish civil government directly, although it does describe protectionist responsibilities that, according to texts such as Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2, civil government rightly administers. In the rest of the Old Testament, we observe many Gentile governments conducting protectionist responsibilities, which reflect God’s common-grace governance of the world under the Noahic covenant. The Old Testament occasionally condemns Gentile rulers or societies for their sins. These texts usually focus on hubris, excessive brutality (such as slave-trading or ripping open pregnant women in Amos 1), and mistreatment of Israel.[3] Some of these sins, especially those involving misconduct in war, could be interpreted as perversions of legitimate protectionist activities. But no text I am aware of condemns these nations or their rulers for failure to provide government services. (Of course, the Mosaic law and much else in the Old Testament speak about the responsibilities of theocratic Israel’s kings and judges, but this provides no direct evidence of the rightful competence of contemporary civil governments, which are not in covenant with God through Sinai. But for those who might think it relevant, I note that the Mosaic law did not give service-providing responsibilities to Israel’s kings and judges.)

What can we conclude from this biblical evidence? One sound theological conclusion is that civil government is divinely authorized to exercise protectionist functions in pursuit of intra-human justice. This is the prime rightful function of government. Another conclusion is that Scripture says nothing directly about government service-provision. This latter point suggests some further conclusions, but we need to step carefully. Reformed Christians recognize the regulative principle of worship but not a regulative principle of government functions. That is, while we insist that the church should worship only in ways Scripture commands, we do not insist that civil government may only do things Scripture commands government to do. Thus, it would be hasty to conclude that governments should not provide services because Scripture never says that they should. At this point, we can merely say that providing services is, at best, a secondary function of government.

Are there other general moral or theological considerations that shed light on the legitimacy of government service-provision? One argument in favor of supporting some service-providing functions is that if human societies are going to accomplish certain good and important things, certain other goods are necessary that private parties cannot provide, or at least not without great difficulty. A classic example is roads, which are required for many worthwhile activities that almost everyone wishes to pursue. While private parties can build and maintain roads on a small scale, developing an extensive system of roads is virtually impossible to imagine without government oversight and funding. So it seems reasonable to say that there is a stronger case for government services regarding goods that are less easily provided privately than regarding goods more easily provided privately. But the lines between these things are blurry, and thus we again fall short of being able to affirm or condemn government service-provision absolutely.

What about government assistance for the needy, the service-provision function of special concern to this article? In terms of the previous paragraph, assistance for the needy is something that private parties can and often do provide. Thus (at least in most cases), it cannot be justified on grounds that government must provide it or it cannot happen. There are also many weighty reasons to prefer private to public assistance (again, at least in general): In comparison to public aid, private assistance is better able to personalize help to match distinctive circumstances, to hold recipients accountable, to avoid creating unnecessary dependence, and to use resources efficiently. It also permits people to be genuinely charitable to the needy rather than simply enforcing contributions through taxation. Related to these factors, public aid programs display a tendency to swell over time.[4] Yet Christian proponents of public aid (even if only a modest safety net) raise other moral and theological considerations in response. Reformed Christians profess that people are deeply sinful and thus often are not very generous with their resources toward the needy. Hence, keeping assistance purely in private hands is likely to leave many genuine needs unaddressed. Some contend that societies do not show adequate concern for the needy if they merely protect them from violence, since their needs run much deeper. Others argue that government is in some sense an extension of the family and thus serves as an important backstop for needy people who lack ordinary family support or that earthly kings rightly imitate God the heavenly king who provides for the poor.[5]

Where does this leave us? I suggest that it is impossible to insist upon a clear Christian view of exactly what kinds of services and how much of them civil governments should provide. To be sure, Christians may make strong and well-informed judgments about the propriety and effectiveness of particular sorts of public aid. But since Scripture never commands or prohibits governments to provide services, including aid to the needy, believers should refrain from characterizing their own views as binding Christian doctrine. I myself am quite skeptical about the wisdom and effectiveness of most public aid programs, and I have made a political-theological argument elsewhere that public aid “stands on the outskirts of legitimate state authority.”[6] But I could not draw that conclusion (even vague as it is) as a matter of dogmatic Christian conviction.

Christian Acceptance of Public Aid

If the conclusion of the previous section is sound, the church itself should not label public aid either as an evil or a good, as a cause either to support or oppose. The church can merely regard public aid as arguably within the bounds of legitimate government authority. And to the extent public aid is legitimate, it seems to follow that needy Christians may accept it. As a general principle, Christians rightly participate in divinely-instituted political structures (as evident in Rom. 13:1–7) and rightly claim legal benefits of their own political system (as evident in Paul’s appeals to his Roman citizenship in Acts 16 and 22).

But there are potentially complicating factors with respect to public aid. One is that Scripture requires Christians, on an individual and family level, to strive to support themselves through hard work (e.g., 1 Thess. 4:11–12; 2 Thess. 3:6–12). Another is on the ecclesiastical level: the church has a solemn responsibility to care for its own needy members (e.g., Acts 6:1–6; 2 Cor. 8–9). Let us now consider the morality of Christians’ acceptance of public aid with respect to these two potential complications.

Public Aid and Individual/Familial Responsibilities

Christians ought to work hard (e.g., Col. 3:23; 1 Thess. 4:11; 2 Thess. 3:6–12). The wise person takes care of his property, lives within his means, and saves for the future (e.g., Prov. 10:5; 13:22; 24:27; 27:23–27). One of the goals of such industriousness is to avoid financial dependency (1 Thess. 4:12). These principles apply to individuals but also extend to families: family members should care for each other (1 Tim. 5:4, 8, 16). Paul took such concerns so seriously that he issued the stern judgment that the person unwilling to work should not eat (2 Thess. 3:10). Paul also suggests that unnecessary dependence tends to be morally degrading (1 Tim. 5:13).

Such texts make clear that Christians should aspire not to rely on public aid. They should not only avoid idleness and financial profligacy but also beware of life choices that make such dependence likely. Even to the extent public aid falls within legitimate government jurisdiction, Christians must never view it as a backstop for their own laziness or irresponsibility.

But laziness and irresponsibility are not the only source of financial need. Many people who work hard and make reasonable financial decisions fall into want. “Time and chance happen” to us all (Eccl. 9:11). Accident, injury, famine, pandemic, war, economic crash, and other events beyond our control or foresight bring hard times for Christians. The mere fact that Scripture so often praises care for the poor demonstrates that while those unwilling to work should not eat (2 Thess. 3:10), others who lack life’s necessities properly accept help from those better off. God has made us part of communities, and communities exist in part so we can care for each other in our inevitable times of need.

Such considerations alert us to two potential temptations. One is that Christians become idle and irresponsible. The other is that Christians become proud and deny their inherent neediness. Christians should not want to be financially dependent on others and rightly make effort to avoid it. But one of the ways God disciplines his children through suffering is by allowing them to fall into want. There is no shame in poverty per se or in accepting help from others. (Here I speak in general, without thinking specifically about private or public aid.) God provides for his people, but ordinarily does so through fellow humans. To refuse help in time of genuine need may be a symptom of pride, for only God is truly independent. Such pride is bad enough if only the proud person himself suffers because of it. But it is considerably worse if it enhances the suffering of others too. I think, for example, of cases in which proud parents turn down help that would offer relief to their needy children.

These initial considerations indicate that Christians’ responsibility to work hard and care for themselves, in and of itself, does not constitute a moral barrier to accepting public aid. Insofar as public aid falls within the possible legitimate authority of civil government, the obligation of industriousness and self-care is not itself a sufficient reason for Christians to refuse assistance from state sources. In fact, refusing it could be the result of pride that scorns help God has seen fit to provide.

But an objection may arise at this point. Christians do not have biblical grounds for condemning public aid altogether, but they may have grave moral reservations about their particular society’s public-aid system, perhaps because of how bloated it has become, how wasteful it is with tax revenue, or how it promotes or condones anti-Christian values. Christians who may not oppose accepting public aid might theoretically still feel conscientious unease about benefiting from a corrupt system. How should we think about this?

There certainly may come times when a political system becomes so evil that Christians should refuse to participate in it. But no Christian should be hasty in concluding that his own government has sunk to this level. The infamous Nero was likely emperor when Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 were written, yet the apostles still regarded Roman magistrates as legitimate and commanded Christians to honor, obey, and pay taxes to them. Apparently, governments can fall into many terrible wrongs without triggering Christian obligation to disengage from them.

The New Testament provides an interesting concrete example of Christian participation in a sinful government structure: Paul’s experience with the Roman judicial system in Acts. On many occasions, judges or other officials acted rather reasonably (16:38–39; 18:14–16; 19:35–41; 22:25–29; 23:16–35; 27:42–43), although at other times Acts describes them allowing or perpetrating injustices (e.g., 12:1–5; 16:19–24; 18:17; 24:26). Despite their shortcomings, Paul treated Roman civil officials with respect and participated in the system by defending himself in court and appealing to his legal rights (e.g., 16:37; 22:25–28; 24–26). His appeals to his rights are especially noteworthy. It is difficult to condone Roman policy toward non-citizens. They could be “beaten publicly” when “uncondemned” (16:37) and be “examined by flogging” (22:24).[7] But that systemic injustice (as people might call it today) did not prevent Paul from taking advantage of the benefits the system gave him. To put it differently, Paul did not turn down benefits on account of objection to evils in the system.

I imagine that most Christians tempted to refuse public aid on account of problems in the public-aid system do not apply the same principle to their participation in protectionist government functions. Many Christians have concerns about the conduct of their local police departments. Some Christians regard their police as too aggressive in trying to combat crime, while others regard them as not aggressive enough. Many believers object to police-officer biases that compromise equal justice. Yet, most Christians do not feel obliged to refuse all benefits they might derive from their police. They are willing to call the police when threatened by imminent danger and to report crimes they witness. They act similarly toward their judicial system. Thoughtful Christians can recognize many injustices in their courts, but that does not prevent them from serving on juries or participating in lawsuits. One way to put it is that most Christians, when dealing with protectionist government functions, act as Paul did.

It is difficult to see why the same principle should not apply with respect to service-providing government functions. If participating in and receiving benefits from the police or civil courts is legitimate for Christians, despite corruptions within them, the reality of corruptions in a public-aid system is not a sufficient reason to prohibit Christians from participating in and receiving benefits from it.

This analogy might raise an objection from some readers. What if someone contemplating a certain public-aid benefit objects to the very idea of the government providing such a benefit? That is, it is one thing to continue utilizing the local police, despite objection to some of its practices, when a person believes that the government should provide police protection. But it is another thing for a person to accept a public-aid benefit if he believes the government should not provide that benefit at all.

This scenario does require further thought. A person finding himself in such a situation presumably has the freedom to choose to forgo the benefit and endure the consequences, at least if this decision does not hinder his ability to fulfill his God-given vocations or impose serious deprivation on others, such as his dependents. But I believe there are good reasons to conclude that this person is not morally obligated to forgo the benefit.

The reasons I have in mind pertain to our place and responsibilities within corporate bodies. Participation in corporate bodies is part of ordinary human experience. Christianity highly values each person as an individual yet also affirms that we are meant to live and work in communities. God made each individual in his image (Gen. 1:26; 9:6) yet also made and redeems us as communities of image-bearers (Gen. 1:27; Rom. 8:29). While we might envision a pre-fallen or eschatological community in which all its members are in perfect agreement about everything, that is decidedly not our experience in any community of this fallen world. Corporate bodies need to make corporate decisions, and their individual members often oppose and regret those decisions. But it is simply not the case that individuals are obligated to refuse participation in the consequences of decisions they oppose and regret. In fact, humility and charity ordinarily require us to acquiesce in corporate decisions and to share in their burdens and benefits, even when we have lost the vote.

To use a personal example, I have been a member of a presbytery and of a seminary faculty for more than two decades. I concur with most of their corporate decisions, but on occasion I do not, and on some of these occasions I disagree strongly. What is the right course in the latter situations? I regard it as my responsibility to submit to these decisions and to live with their consequences. I am free to regret the decisions and to propose future measures to reverse or mitigate them, but I am not free to pick and choose which I participate in. In most cases, I will not have a choice anyway about whether to share in their burdens, since that will be required of me. And it is not hypocritical of me to share also in their benefits, even if I could turn them down. I remember a particular decision of my faculty many years ago from which I strongly dissented. It entailed a burden (extra work) but also provided a benefit (extra compensation). I had to accept the former, and I did not refuse the latter. As I shared the burden as a member of the body, I also rightfully shared in the benefit.

God has called each one of us to live within another corporate body: political community. As considered above, political communities are divinely ordained and have legitimate authority structures. Few if any of us participate in the corporate decision-making of our political communities as intimately as I do in my presbytery and faculty meetings, although most readers live in political systems that grant rights to vote and to free expression. But in any case, we all must live within political communities that inevitably make many corporate decisions of which we disapprove, in some cases strongly. We cannot simply pick and choose which legislative, executive, and judicial decisions we will participate in. With respect to disagreeable policies about public aid, we seldom have a choice about whether to share in the burdens: our income will be taxed to fund them. And if so, we rightfully also share in their benefits. It is not hypocritical to accept the benefits as a just exchange for the exacted burdens, even if one objected to the exchange in the first place.

Of course, this conclusion requires nuances and exceptions. Christians should never acquiesce in a corporate body’s decision that requires doing something inherently sinful. And corporate bodies sometimes make decisions that compromise or nullify that body’s entire justification for existence (in the case of my personal examples, a presbytery or faculty decision to embrace a heretical doctrine would qualify). In such cases, active resistance to the decision or even withdrawing from the body may be required. But it seems unlikely that accepting basic public-aid benefits would entail doing something inherently sinful or that any of the policies behind these benefits compromise or nullify the government’s entire justification for existence.

I conclude, therefore, that although a Christian is generally free to refuse public-aid benefits he believes should not be available, he is not obligated to refuse them because of such belief. In fact, accepting the benefits is a rightful exchange for the burdens imposed. And if refusing the benefit hinders a person’s pursuit of his lawful vocations or deprives one’s dependents of genuine goods, that person should seriously reconsider his refusal. He should at least ask whether this is a stubborn insistence on getting his own way that detracts from his responsibilities toward God and neighbor.

Church and pastor will be covered in Part 2 in May.


[1] I have used this threefold distinction to examine similar issues in a recent book, which readers may consult for a more detailed discussion: David VanDrunen, Politics after Christendom: Political Theology in a Fractured World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academic, 2020), 329–48. Other writers have distinguished government functions differently. For example, George Klosko makes a sevenfold distinction in Political Obligations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 24–40.

[2] Scripture quotations are from The ESV Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version), copyright © 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[3] For extensive discussion of this, see David VanDrunen, Divine Covenants and Moral Order: A Biblical Theology of Natural Law (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), ch. 4.

[4] See e.g. John F. Cogan, The High Cost of Good Intentions: A History of U.S. Federal Entitlement Programs (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2017).

[5] Among recent Reformed writers who utilize some of these arguments in defense of modest government assistance to the needy, see John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2008), 824–25; and Meredith G. Kline, Kingdom Prologue: Genesis Foundations for a Covenantal Worldview (Overland Park, KS: Two Age, 2000), 174–79.

[6] VanDrunen, Politics after Christendom, 341–48.

[7] See e.g. Craig S. Keener, Acts: An Exegetical Commentary, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014), 3246–48; and C. K. Barrett, The Acts of the Apostles, vol. 2 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1998), 1047.

David VanDrunen is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and serves as the Robert B. Strimple professor of Systematic Theology and Christian Ethics at Westminster Seminary California, Escondido, California. Ordained Servant Online, April, 2023.

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Ordained Servant: April 2023

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Also in this issue

The Voice of the Good Shepherd: The Primacy of Preaching: A Biblical Overview, Chapter 3 [1]

Commentary on the Book of Discipline of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Chapter 4B

Letters to a Younger Ruling Elder, No. 4: Prayer Work

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Illustrating Well: Preaching Sermons that Connect, by Jim L. Wilson

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Death Is but a Comma

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