Sometimes folk have the notion that the Church is a dispenser of welfare to the wider society and that the sole function of the Church is to collect material goods from its members and give them to whomsoever wishes them. But this notion is exceedingly peculiar and is in fact not according to the New Testament where, believe it or not, actual rules are laid out concerning the distribution of charity.
First, from 1 Timothy 5-
Χήρας τίμα τὰς ὄντως χήρας. 4 εἰ δέ τις χήρα τέκνα ἢ ἔκγονα ἔχει, μανθανέτωσαν πρῶτον τὸν ἴδιον οἶκον εὐσεβεῖν καὶ ἀμοιβὰς ἀποδιδόναι τοῖς προγόνοις· τοῦτο γάρ ἐστιν ἀπόδεκτον ἐνώπιον τοῦ θεοῦ. 5 ἡ δὲ ὄντως χήρα καὶ μεμονωμένη ἤλπικεν ἐπὶ θεὸν καὶ προσμένει ταῖς δεήσεσιν καὶ ταῖς προσευχαῖς νυκτὸς καὶ ἡμέρας, 6 ἡ δὲ σπαταλῶσα ζῶσα τέθνηκεν. 7 καὶ ταῦτα παράγγελλε, ἵνα ἀνεπίλημπτοι ὦσιν. 8 εἰ δέ τις τῶν ἰδίων καὶ μάλιστα οἰκείων οὐ προνοεῖ, τὴν πίστιν ἤρνηται καὶ ἔστιν ἀπίστου χείρων. 9 Χήρα καταλεγέσθω μὴ ἔλαττον ἐτῶν ἑξήκοντα γεγονυῖα, ἑνὸς ἀνδρὸς γυνή, 10 ἐν ἔργοις καλοῖς μαρτυρουμένη, εἰ ἐτεκνοτρόφησεν, εἰ ἐξενοδόχησεν, εἰ ἁγίων πόδας ἔνιψεν, εἰ θλιβομένοις ἐπήρκεσεν, εἰ παντὶ ἔργῳ ἀγαθῷ ἐπηκολούθησεν. 11 νεωτέρας δὲ χήρας παραιτοῦ· ὅταν γὰρ καταστρηνιάσωσιν τοῦ Χριστοῦ, γαμεῖν θέλουσιν 12 ἔχουσαι κρίμα ὅτι τὴν πρώτην πίστιν ἠθέτησαν· 13 ἅμα δὲ καὶ ἀργαὶ μανθάνουσιν περιερχόμεναι τὰς οἰκίας, οὐ μόνον δὲ ἀργαὶ ἀλλὰ καὶ φλύαροι καὶ περίεργοι, λαλοῦσαι τὰ μὴ δέοντα. 14 βούλομαι οὖν νεωτέρας γαμεῖν, τεκνογονεῖν, οἰκοδεσποτεῖν, μηδεμίαν ἀφορμὴν διδόναι τῷ ἀντικειμένῳ λοιδορίας χάριν· 15 ἤδη γάρ τινες ἐξετράπησαν ὀπίσω τοῦ Σατανᾶ. 16 εἴ τις πιστὴ ἔχει χήρας, ἐπαρκείτω αὐταῖς καὶ μὴ βαρείσθω ἡ ἐκκλησία, ἵνα ταῖς ὄντως χήραις ἐπαρκέσῃ. (1 Timothy 5:3-16).
Here the guidelines are quite clear- widows are deserving of help and support from the Church if:
1- they are Christians
2- they are elderly
3- they have no family
4- they are – in essence – alone except for the Church
That’s pretty specific, isn’t it. but doesn’t the Church owe it to just anyone who asks to give them money any time it’s asked for? Again, the New Testament is pretty clear about this:
καὶ γὰρ ὅτε ἦμεν πρὸς ὑμᾶς, τοῦτο παρηγγέλλομεν ὑμῖν, ὅτι εἴ τις οὐ θέλει ἐργάζεσθαι μηδὲ ἐσθιέτω. 11 ἀκούομεν γάρ τινας περιπατοῦντας ἐν ὑμῖν ἀτάκτως μηδὲν ἐργαζομένους ἀλλὰ περιεργαζομένους· 12 τοῖς δὲ τοιούτοις παραγγέλλομεν καὶ παρακαλοῦμεν ἐν κυρίῳ Ἰησοῦ Χριστῷ, ἵνα μετὰ ἡσυχίας ἐργαζόμενοι τὸν ἑαυτῶν ἄρτον ἐσθίωσιν. (2 Thessalonians 3:10-12).
That’s pretty clear too. If people aren’t willing to work, Paul says, let them starve. Nothing motivates work like hunger and the belief that the Church owes it to the world to feed the lazy and indolent is simply unscriptural.
But does all this mean the Church should turn its back on the needy? Certainly not. But it does mean that the Church should set boundaries and limits to the distribution of its resources so that those AUTHENTICALLY in need are those who are helped and those who can, and should, provide for themselves and their families are made to do so.
The rub, of course, is to determine who TRULY is in need. And, further, what NEED itself is. For instance, needs include food and clothing and shelter. Needs do not include air conditioning or cell phones or Nike tennis shoes. Yet many act as though if they spend their money on cigarettes and beer the Church should buy food for their children. This is, to be blunt, both shortsighted and selfish of them and if the Church does in fact provide the gap created by such acts of selfishness it finds itself enabling the very kind of behavior it should abhor.
Help the needy. That’s the Christian ethic. What Christians, and Churches have to do is to define ‘help’ and ‘needy’ in terms of Scripture and not in terms of culture.