The Bible is full of explicit commands and implicit commendations to help the poor.
One thinks of the gleaning laws in Deuteronomy 25 or the command to “open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor” in Deuteronomy 15. We can read about Job’s heart for the needy and oppressed in Job 29 to 31 or of God’s special concern for the poor in Psalm 35 and Proverbs 14.
We also know Jesus was moved with compassion for the weak, the harassed, and the helpless (Matt. 9:35-36). We see in the early church that the needs of the poor and distressed was a constant priority (Acts 4:34-35; Acts 11:30; Gal. 2:10). And frequently we are command to love one another not only with words but in the concrete actions of generosity and material support (James 2:15-17; 1 John 3:16-18). Even the elders, who are to be devoted to the word of God and prayer, were told by Paul to help the weak (Acts 20:35).
Clearly, God cares about the poor and wants us to care about them too.
Maybe you’re thinking: “Okay, I’m a Christian. I know God cares about the poor. I know I should care about the poor too. I do care about the poor. So what is my responsibility to help them?”
HOW SHOULD WE HELP THE POOR?
The question is deceptively complex. It’s very easy (and altogether biblical) for folks to insist that Christians ought to “be concerned about the needy” or “do something about the poor.” That’s powerfully true, but it doesn’t say nearly enough. In an age when easy travel and ubiquitous WiFi can connect us to billions of needs around the planet, how do we determine whom to care for and when to do something?
If Christians have an obligation to help the poor (and we do), does that mean we are obligated to help everyone everywhere in the same way in any circumstance of need? How should we think about our responsibility to help the poor?
I believe two critical principles can help us answer that question.
Principle 1: We are most responsible to help those closest to us.
In general, we ought to think of our sphere of responsibility as having expanding concentric circles. In the middle, with the closest circle, is our family. “If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim. 5:8). This means that if you have the ability to help your (not lazy) children and don’t, you are a pagan. If you have the necessary resources and yet you neglect your aging, helpless parents, you have turned from Christ.
In the next circle we have members of our church community. The principle is really the same: just as we have an obligation to provide for our natural family, so we ought to provide for our spiritual family. The New Testament frequently enjoins us—by example and by explicit command and warning—to care for the needs of the Christians in our local churches (Acts 2:45; 4:32-37; 6:1-6; James 2:15-17; 1 John 3:16-17). If there is a Christian in your church who is materially devastated by calamity or infirmity and we who have resources in abundance do nothing to help, we prove that we do not truly have the love of Christ or know Christ himself.
Next we have members of our Christian family whose needs are more distant. We still have an obligation to care for our brothers and sisters, but the Bible speaks less forcefully the farther away the needs become. So in 2 Corinthians 8 and 9 Paul clearly wants the Christians in Achaia to generously support the Christians in Macedonia, but he is stops short of laying down a command (8:8) or exacting a contribution from them (9:5).
In the outer circle we have the needs of non-Christians in the world. The church should still be ready to do good to all people, but this support is less obligatory than what we owe to Christians and is framed by “opportunity” rather than requirement (Gal. 6:10).
One other category should be mentioned. Sometimes we come across needs that are so obvious, so immediate, and we are in such a unique position to help, that it would be wrong to ignore them, whether the person is a family member, a church member, or a complete stranger. Regardless of prior affiliation or acquaintance the “closeness” of the need is too close to ignore. This seems to be the point of Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) and the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). If we see a child drowning in the pool, we should dive in. If a woman is being beaten up, we should intervene. If a minivan has collapsed on a barren stretch of highway, we should stop and lend a hand. The concentric circles are helpful as a general guideline for care, but they should not be used to justify the lack of care when someone needs our assistance right here and right now.
Principle 2: We are most responsible to help those least able to help themselves.
Here again we can think of expanding concentric circles of responsibility. The progression with this principle is a little different because if we go out far enough in these circles we are actually commanded not to help. So the logic needs to be tweaked, but the basic imagery is still useful.
At the center, we have those people whose situation is most desperate because their options are most limited. In the Bible this prototypically meant “orphans and widows” (James 1:27). But the principle applies to any person or persons who will crash unless we provide a safety net. Caring for believers in prison was another classic example in the ancient world (Heb. 10:34).
Outside of this inner circle, we find those who are less desperate but still depend on others for their well-being. In the New Testament this meant being generous with hospitality, especially to travelling evangelists who relied on the kindness of their brothers and sisters for their mission (Matt. 10:40-42; 25:31-46).
Next, we have those Christians with long term needs. The striking thing about almost all of the “poor” passages in Scripture is that they envision immediate, short-term acts of charity. There is nothing about community development (which doesn’t make it unbiblical) and only a little about addressing situations of ongoing need. By putting these situations in this circle I don’t mean to imply that we ought only to care about quick fixes. The point, rather, is that we must think more critically before committing to long-term assistance. In both Acts 6 and 1 Timothy 5 we see church leaders working hard to develop a fair and sustainable process for the regular distribution of resources to the poor. In particular, we see in 1 Timothy 5 that the widows who went on the official rolls had to meet certain requirements. The women had to be godly, older Christians in order to receive the church’s care (1 Tim. 5:9-16). No doubt, the church sympathized with almost all widows, but they had to be wise with their resources. They did not want to support young women who could get married or fall into idle sinfulness. And as for the other requirements, I imagine the church knew it had to draw the line somewhere and requiring “a reputation of good works” ensured that the widows on the rolls were genuine, faithful, known Christians and not just busybodies looking for a handout.
In the farthest circle out we have people that must positively not be helped by the church. First, Christians should not provide hospitality for false teachers or do anything that would aid and abet their wicked works (2 John 10-11). Second, Christians should not support able-bodied persons who could provide for themselves, but prefer laziness instead (1 Thess. 4:11-12; 5:14; Prov. 24:30-34). The apostolic principle is clear: “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (2 Thess. 3:10). In fact, Paul insists that church discipline be exercised on those who persist in idleness (2 Thess. 3:14). The Christian responsibility to charity does not extend to those who expect others to do for them what they could do for themselves. Helping the poor in these circumstances is no help at all.
BASIC PRINCIPLES FOR WISE DECISIONS
Obviously, I have not begun to answer the myriad of “What if…?” and “What about…?” questions that arise when churches start to work on actually caring for the poor. I can’t give specific answers for every situation because the Bible doesn’t give those answers either.
But what the Bible does do is provide the basic principles to inform wise decision-making. As you consider your personal obligation to the poor and your church’s corporate obligation, keep in mind these two principles: proximity and necessity. The closer the person is to you (relationally, spiritually, or geographically) and the more acute the need (because it’s immediate, urgent, or within your unique power to provide), the greater your obligation is to give, assist, and get involved. The farther out you go in either circle, the less “ought” you should feel and the more caution you should take.
But please don’t use the two circles of responsibility as an excuse for apathy and inactivity. Use the biblical principles to help you set priorities wisely and respond in ways that are sustainable and effective.
Kevin DeYoung is the senior pastor of University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Michigan, and is most recently the author, with Greg Gilbert, of What is the Mission of the Church? (Crossway, 2011).
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