Author: Ron Graham


Church and Charity
—The church’s role among the poor and needy

This lesson looks at where various ministries of benevolence and charity fit into the work of the church.

Some people eke out a living by ringing up churches and asking for charity. That's what they think churches are there for. However Jesus did not build his church because he thought the world needed charity.

Having said that, I am sure it is a given that the church should have a reputation for helping the poor and needy. Nobody denies that fact. Jesus made it one of the marks of true Christianity. Take for example the following stories:

The church, however, does not have unlimited resources, so it has to prioritise its work of charity in at least five fruitful ways which we describe below.

1 Evangelism of First Importance

The church gives first importance to the ministry of preaching and spreading the gospel.

The "great commission" (Mark 16:15-16, Matthew 28:19-20) is the Lord's primary directive to the church. Of course you can't preach the gospel while ignoring the pressing material deprivations of people who lack food, shelter, clothing, medicine, literacy, and such like. You have to try to help them, but not to create a charity disguised as a church..

The church is "the pillar and ground of the truth" (1Timothy 3:15) and "the gospel is the power of God for salvation" (Romans 1:16). The church is the custodian and propagator of the gospel. That's the church's primary purpose.

The important ministry in the first congregation of Christians was "to prayer and to the word of God" (Acts 6:1-7). The benevolent ministry (in this case helping needy widows) was secondary. It was not neglected, nevertheless it was not allowed to distract from the ministry of the word.

2 Charity to Believers Especially

The church directs its works of charity primarily to fellow Christians.

The first church gave to "all as anyone had need" (Acts 2:44-45, cfActs 6:1-7), however the previous verse shows that the "all" was "all who believed" not the wider community.

The church does "good to all men especially those who are of the household of faith" (Galatians 6:10, cf1Timothy 3:15). This shows that the church has a focus on its own members for its benevolent work.

3 Caring for One's Own

The church expects its own members to look after their own and not burden the church with what is their own duty.

In looking after widows in its number, the church restricted its assistance to those who were "widows indeed". Not only had they lost their husbands, but they were old and had no family to care for them. Where a widow had family, it was the family's responsibility to look after her "that the church be not charged" (1Timothy 5:8-16).

Notice, by the way, that Christians who are able to look after their own family members, yet expect the church to provide instead, are "worse than infidels" (verse 3). The church should not be doing for people what they can do for themselves.

4 Providing for Oneself

The church expects individuals to look after themselves and provide their own needs if they can.

In the previously mentioned case (1Timothy 5:8-16), you will observe that the younger widows who had an opportunity to marry and be homemakers, were expected to do that. People should "eat their own bread" (2Thessalonians 3:10-14) and "work with their own hands... so as not to be in any need" (1Thessalonians 4:11-12) and "have something to share with one who is in need" (Ephesians 4:28).

The church, by the authority of Christ, takes a hard line on people whom we in Australia call bludgers. The rule is, "If a man will not work, neither let him eat" (2Thessalonians 3:10).

5 Urgent and Pressing Needs

The good works of the church are directed toward urgent and pressing needs, not to non-essentials.

The circumstance that church benevolence addresses is "a brother or sister without clothing and in need of daily food" (James 2:15-16) or "the fatherless and the widows in their afflictions"(James 1:27).

We are taught to be rich in good works "in order to meet pressing needs" (Titus 3:14). The church is not to be niggardly. However the church listens to Jesus who said, "Only a few things are necessary" (Luke 10:38-42). It is those things the church's charitable ministries properly provide. Many good welfare programs go well beyond this, but the church must avoid being "cumbered about with much serving" so it can get on with that one thing that is most needful, the preaching of the gospel.