There is no shortage of people who need help. No matter what lies the health-and-wealth teachers may tell, there are poor people in our churches who need help. Whether due to circumstances beyond their control, circumstances which they created, or some combination of the two…there are needs all around us.
But how do we decide, who gets help…or who possibly “deserves” it more than someone else? I have a tough time figuring that out as an individual, but have we considered how our church should be responding to assistance requests? Logistically speaking, our churches have bills to pay, too. So, it’s unrealistic to expect that every single request for support can or will be met at 100%.
Resources vs Needs isn’t a new problem for the church, either. Paul addressed it with Timothy regarding the needs of widows in the Ephesian church. Widowhood was a serious situation for women in the ancient world, since they were not typically the direct heir of husband’s will, and income generating options were limited, at best. Additionally, if the husband was poor, he may not have left much for his wife to live on.
Her needs would be more significant than a one-time pantry-stocking trip to the local grocery store. So how was Timothy to handle this significant of a request for continual support?
1 Timothy 5:3-4
Support widows who are genuinely widows. But if any widow has children or grandchildren, they should learn to practice their religion toward their own family first and to repay their parents, for this pleases God.
Timothy’s first step is to thoroughly check for family. I almost find it humorous that Paul says “Support widows who are genuinely widows”. First step is to verify that her husband is truly dead. The second step is check for extended family, especially if they are believers. If they’ve been adopted into God’s family, then they have no excuse to skip out on taking care of members of their earthly family. There were no assisted living homes and no hospice care in the ancient world. The family’s care for the widow is an act of worship and respect toward God, which He finds pleasing because their actions are a reflection of his own.
1 Timothy 5:5-7
The real widow, left all alone, has put her hope in God and continues night and day in her petitions and prayers; however, she who is self-indulgent is dead even while she lives. Command this so that they won’t be blamed.
The real widow, the one the church should consider helping is destitute and has no other family options. In fact, she considers the church her last resort…notice that she goes to God directly and repeatedly before she approaches the church body with her need.
Paul also affirms that the widow’s lifestyle should be considered prior to giving assistance. If she is living a self-indulgent lifestyle, then she probably won’t be wise with the funds the church may give her. In this case, there are other issues to address that are greater than her immediate need.
Lastly, Paul gives an ominous warning:
1 Timothy 5:8
Now if anyone does not provide for his own relatives, and especially for his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.
Paul pulls no punches here, so let’s be as practical as possible:
If I have the resources to take care of my widowed mother, and I refuse to do so…which forces her to rely on support from the local church, using funds that should go to those who are genuinely in need…how is that not stealing from God?
Clearly, this verse is addressed to believers, since the comparison is with an unbeliever. So, denying the faith doesn’t mean that I would not be part of God’s family. What it means is that I would be grossly hypocritical of the love and resources that God has extended to me. God did not withhold His resources when I could not save myself. How can I claim to be a part of His family and then have my actions deny the faith and relationship with God? At least an unbeliever’s words and actions match up. What damage am I doing to God’s reputation if I have no good reason to refuse to help?
Our application of this passage is two-fold:
If we have family members who are destitute, it is our responsibility to care for them – not the church’s. This doesn’t mean we pay for all their bills each month, either. “Destitute” means just that. We should not be passing off our family’s financial burdens to our church family.
If the church is approached by an individual in great need, it is both acceptable and wise to evaluate the depth of that need. It is also wise to evaluate the person’s lifestyle. Financing someone’s irresponsibility is less loving than telling a person “No, we will not help you in this way”, especially if there are deeper needs to address. If there are other avenues of help available, either through their family or other modern-day options, that is acceptable as well.
The problem of societal needs is not new. However, we must be wise with how/when we support others. Everything we do, whether we give assistance or refuse assistance, must be done within the context of reflecting God to others.