Theme: Caring for the Needy
In this week’s lessons, we see how Christians are to regard and treat one another in the church.
Scripture: 1 Timothy 5:1-3
Beginning in verse 3, he begins to talk about a particular problem. There is the issue of the needy, and particularly the way in which the care of the church for the needy applies to widows. This must have become a significant problem, since Paul devotes quite a bit of space to it, in verses 3 through 16. He wants to lay down some principles here so that Timothy will have something to draw on as specific situations come.
It’s very interesting that not only here but elsewhere in the New Testament, you find great social concern for various problems and difficulties. You find it in the book of Galatians, for example. Although this is a book that’s written to correct a doctrinal situation, towards the end of it Paul deals with practical matters. In chapter 6, verse 10, Paul writes, “”Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.” Paul is saying that as Christians, we have special responsibility to those who are part of the household of faith, including financial help. Other people who are not Christians are not excluded from our care, but our first priority is toward our own immediate family and to those who are part of the family of God.
This matter of social concern is one of the things that has been lost, to a large measure, in the evangelical church in America, and we can understand how it happened. It happened because the social gospel movement picked it up, and many of the spokespersons for the social gospel movement were liberals. And since the evangelicals were fighting against the liberals on theological grounds, they paid less attention to social ills and instead began to focus primarily, and perhaps in some cases, almost exclusively, on doctrinal concerns. It was part of evangelicals’ heritage to care for the poor and needy. But sadly they backed off on this area because it became a liberal cause. So without realizing it, evangelicals gave up part of their heritage of putting the gospel into action in this way. But simply because the liberals left out the gospel doesn’t mean that evangelicals who have the gospel should leave out the social concerns.
When you go back to the early days of the church, you see that Christians had this great sense that if God had blessed them, they had a responsibility, and a desire, to reach out and care for those who were needy, as well as for those who were lost. And they had no greater example than that of the Lord Jesus Christ, who went about not only preaching the gospel but doing good. He healed the lepers, gave sight to the blind, cast out demons, and ministered to others who had been afflicted in various ways.
Given how prominent it is in the New Testament for the church not only to care about doctrinal faithfulness but also the physical and material needs of others, it is not surprising that Paul would devote some attention to a very practical matter. In this subject of widows, Paul lays down two different areas of concern. One has to do with priority of responsibility, and the second has to do with true need.
When he talks about priority of responsibility, he wants to point out that when the church has within it needy people, and the example that he’s giving here is that of widows, it is not the primary responsibility of the church, but of the person’s family. As long as a widow has a family member who is able to care for her, it is the responsibility of her family to provide this care. A widow shouldn’t be pushed off on the church when her family has the means. What kind of a Christian testimony would that be for a believer to neglect his own mother and expect the church to take care of her? Why should others do it if the member of the family doesn’t?
But there are certainly situations where the family can’t always do that. Sometimes there is no family, and the widow is alone. In that case, Paul says it becomes the responsibility of the church. In Paul’s day, they didn’t have state programs; the Roman Empire was not in the business of caring for widows or the needy. The state does that today, and there are a number of programs available that we support through the paying of our taxes. So the situation today is very different from Paul’s. It certainly is not wrong for Christians to use such means. We are not forbidden to use government services. But the thing that is wrong is to push people off onto the government when we as Christians should have a personal concern for these people and ought to show that in practical ways. We should not try to absolve ourselves of any responsibility or involvement and simply expect the needy person to go through all the government channels that are open to them with no help at all from us. There are a variety of ways Christians can help each other in need, even including helping them take advantage of public funds that are open for them. But that should not be a substitute for giving of our own resources to minister to someone.
Paul also talks about true need here, because he knows that sometimes people are going to apply for funds from the church who don’t need them. There may be a family member who can care for them, or perhaps their children are able to work and help support them. Paul talks about widows being of different ages. If a widow is young and able to work, by all means, she should work, rather than burden the church financially when those funds could be used for someone really in need. Just because one is a widow does not automatically mean that the church is expected to take care of them. But, Paul says, if the need is real, and the widow cannot work and has no family to help her, by all means this should be the responsibility of the church. Another thing about this is also true. If we who are young care for the elderly today, let’s remember that the day is coming when we, too, will be elderly, and we may need people to be caring for us. We are to do unto others as we would have them do unto us.
Historically, what has led to a decline among evangelicals in their concern for social ills?
List and describe the two principles Paul lays out for how to deal with widows.
Application: How can you help your church in caring for its members in need?