Friday, July 5, 2013

The Church and Charity

Today is the final day of our twenty-sixth week, reading the Bible through together in a year.  That means that if you have continued with this reading schedule, you are at the exact halfway point so far!  Congratulations!  If you didn't start this schedule from the beginning and you're wondering why on June the 5th we're at the halfway point, it's because we didn't begin it on January 1.  A January 1 start date just seemed too much like a New Year's resolution.  If you'd like to download a copy of the entire Bible reading schedule for the year, click here.  

Today's scriptures are:  1 Kings 9; 2 Chronicles 8; 1 Timothy 5.

As a young pastor, Timothy had a lot that he had to figure out.  He had to learn how to teach and preach.  He needed to know how to relate to church members who he had to oversee in the Lord, yet who were older than he was.  He had to learn to accept and expect wages for the full-time work that he did in God's service.  Had had to figure out how to deal with sin in the church, and he needed to work a little self-care into his own life.  Paul wrote to Timothy about how to deal with these things.  Another topic that Paul tackled in his letters to Timothy was how to deal with charity cases in the church.  2 Timothy 5:3-16 (ESV) says:

Honor widows who are truly widows. But if a widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to show godliness to their own household and to make some return to their parents, for this is pleasing in the sight of God. She who is truly a widow, left all alone, has set her hope on God and continues in supplications and prayers night and day,but she who is self-indulgent is dead even while she lives. Command these things as well, so that they may be without reproach. But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. 
Let a widow be enrolled if she is not less than sixty years of age, having been the wife of one husband,[a] 10 and having a reputation for good works: if she has brought up children, has shown hospitality, has washed the feet of the saints, has cared for the afflicted, and has devoted herself to every good work. 11 But refuse to enroll younger widows, for when their passions draw them away from Christ, they desire to marry 12 and so incur condemnation for having abandoned their former faith. 13 Besides that, they learn to be idlers, going about from house to house, and not only idlers, but also gossips and busybodies, saying what they should not. 14 So I would have younger widows marry, bear children, manage their households, and give the adversary no occasion for slander. 15 For some have already strayed after Satan. 16 If any believing woman has relatives who are widows, let her care for them. Let the church not be burdened, so that it may care for those who are truly widows.
"Honor widows who are truly widows."
I'm sure that many people in the church, and in the surrounding community, might think that Paul was cold-hearted for giving Timothy these rules for how to deal with benevolence issues regarding widows.  I'm also positive that Timothy struggled with following Paul's guidelines, considering that his calling as a pastor meant that he had a tender heart toward all who suffer.  One thing that people need to know about their pastors is that nearly all ministers wrestle internally with a desire to help everybody on the one hand, and the fact of limited funding on the other hand.  Pastors generally wish they could help everybody who comes to the church in need of assistance.  Generally, I've found that I've been more willing to offer assistance than my deacons or benevolence committees--not because they're stingy and I'm generous, but because God gave these co-workers to me so that their realism could temper my compassion.  The fact is, the church can't help everybody who comes to ask for assistance.  Paul knew this, and that's why he instituted some strict guidelines for who the church could help and who it couldn't.  

Paul said that Timothy should create a list of "widows who are truly widows." This means that there were some widows who weren't truly widows, meaning that they had other means of support, yet they still frequently asked the church for help.  True widows had to meet certain criteria in order to receive charity from the church.  Those who were eligible for assistance had to be above sixty years old, they had to have a reputation for good works, and they had to be truly alone--meaning that if they had family who could support them, then the church shouldn't be burdened with caring for their physical needs.  Those who were able to care for themselves were expected to care for themselves.  Those who could care for others were also expected to care for others.  Only those who were truly alone and helpless could expect assistance from the church.

Now, that might sound stingy to you--but it gets even more conservative than that.  Paul was talking about benevolence within the church membership.  He really gave no consideration to assisting the poor who were outside of the fellowship.  In the New Testament, every time you find charitable giving, it's within the body of believers--not to the outside community.  Sure, the Old Testament talks about farmers leaving the corners of their fields for gleaners, and about taking care of foreigners.  Benevolence outside the community of faith isn't unheard of in the Bible, yet in the New Testament every time benevolence is mentioned, it's in the context of assisting other Christians.  The Antioch church took up a collection to help the church in Jerusalem, during a famine.  Some believers sold property in order to provide for others within the church.  Collections were received to provide for missionaries.  Benevolence was restricted to those inside the church--thereby giving people a reason besides religion to maintain ties with the community of faith.

It seems like every couple of weeks, I get a phone call from people who want help from the church--people who have no connection to the church, but who expect that any good church will help them pay their bills.  After all, isn't that what the church is there for--to be a benevolent organization?  To which I say, no--that's not what the church is there for.  Should we help others along the way?  Sure we should--just as the Good Samaritan took care of his neighbor who wasn't a member of "his own people."  But that's not the purpose of the church.  And benevolence does have its limits.

There are those who are really in need, and then there are those who can, or ought to, take care of themselves and their own families.  Sometimes, when the church just provides for anyone who asks for it, the church actually enables people who aren't doing what they ought to do to help themselves and their families.  By too quickly giving handouts, the church can rob people of the privilege and responsibility of self-sufficiency.  If we accept verse 8, which says that those who don't provide for their families are worse than unbelievers, then by too quickly helping people who could provide for their families, we help them to be worse than unbelievers.  It's a difficult call to make, but sometimes the church simply has to say "no" to benevolence requests.

Who are the "widows who are truly widows" in your church?  Make sure that you not only provide for them, but honor them as well.  None of these truly needy people should ever feel ashamed to ask for help from their church.  They should know that their church is glad to assist in any way they can.  

Who are the ones who claim helplessness, but who really should be helping themselves--or who should be helped by their families instead of by the church?  Make sure that you're not robbing their families of their right to take care of their own.  

Remember that it's not the church's responsibility to financially take care of the whole world--but always be ready to be a Good Samaritan to those around you who are truly in need.  And may God bless you when you sacrifice in order to provide for others.

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