People fall on hard times. This isn’t a new situation. Ever since the land started producing thorns and thistles instead of fruit, people’s labor has at times come up short.
In a post 9/11 world, with the collapse of the housing market, people of all types are struggling to make ends meet. Christians, with good intentions, begin to think about how it is that they can help their brothers and sisters make it through these times. However, we often misstep in this process because we don’t think through the biblical pattern of how God’s people are to support others.
Today I want to take a look at a few of the main principles that we see in the Bible regarding how this is supposed to function.
Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.
The first principle that we see in the Scripture is that a person who seeks assistance, needs to be willing to work. Furthermore, Paul argues two points that we often miss here.
First, a person who is walking in idleness is subject to church discipline because of it. Paul commands the Thessalonians Christians to “keep away” from those who will not work. This is sometimes used to refuse to pay the Pastor of a church, but Paul makes it clear that those who minister to God’s people have a right to draw a salary, but for the sake of giving an example to follow to the Thessalonians, Paul and his ministry partners did not do this. Instead they worked hard so they would not present a burden to the rest of the church, and commanded us to follow their example.
Second, a person who refuses to work ought not to be provided for. This may sound harsh, but it follows from the first point clearly. The church is to support its members. Those who refuse to work should be subject to discipline, and the end point of discipline is excommunication.
When we fail to direct someone to their local church for assistance, we short-circuit this process. We rob the fellow believer of the accountability that the church provides for those in these difficult situations.
And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, nor shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God.
In this passage, we see a second principle related to those struggling financially. This was the social safety net which God provided for the destitute in the Old Testament. This was not a hand out. He did not direct people to go to God’s people and ask for food. He directed his people to provide work for those struggling.
Gleaning the field was a common job in the Old Testament. Before the era of harvesting machinery, people would walk through the fields and manually pick the grain from the stalks. This was a somewhat inefficient way to do it, and there would often be pieces that were missed. Additionally, not every plant becomes ripe at the same time, so as the reapers would go through the fields they would pass by the unripe plants. However, God commanded his people to leave these inefficiencies stand. These inefficiencies then provided work for those struggling to do. The farmer did not reap the field and then give a certain portion to the poor, he gave the poor the opportunity to come and work for him by reaping his field, and he paid them with the food they reaped.
If we draw this into a modern context, this looks a little different. In the agrarian society of the Old Testament, God commanded his people to leave some inefficiencies in place to provide for those in need. So we might apply that in modern times to a business owner. Perhaps they might hire an extra person beyond what they actually need in order to help someone who is struggling to find work. This might mean that they take a little hit to their profit margins because they have an extra person on the payroll who isn’t, strictly speaking, needed. For the modern business owner, this extra employee who eats away at the bottom line is the unreaped edge of that business owner’s field.
There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.
When someone is struggling and needs assistance, if they are a Christian, the place they need to go for support is the church. While it is a great thing, to ask your fellow believers to help you, ultimately you should go to the church for support. Not to strangers on the Internet, not to the government, to your local church. This is clearly demonstrated in the early church. Those who sold lands and houses did not distribute the money as they saw fit, they gave the money to the apostles who then distributed the money as they saw fit.
There is a level of accountability that needs to happen when someone is provided with support. Just like we saw in the Thessalonians passage above, the church is not to support someone who is not willing to work, and that lack of willingness to work is grounds for church discipline. The church cannot properly apply this kind of God-ordained accountability and discipline if Christians chose to seek support through other means instead of the channels that God has provided.
Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”
The flip side of the fact that those who are generous should give their surplus to the church, and allow them to wisely distribute them, is that the church ought to carefully and prayerfully distribute these funds. This involves appointing wise and godly men to assess the needs of those in the church and distributing it accordingly. These men then do this hard work so that the teaching elders of the church can focus on the proclamation of the gospel and shepherding the flock.
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.
In the ancient world, widows and orphans were among the most needy. The reason this was the case is that they were unable to work, unable to own land, and had no one to protect them. If we apply this to our modern concept, we might include people who are physically disabled and cannot earn a living on their own. This might extend to those with mental disability, severe psychological problems (soldiers with PTSD for example), or the elderly. Those who cannot work, should be cared for by the church. However, as the passage above demonstrates, this care is still administered by the elders, not directly by the congregation.
Let’s summarize this all.
- Christians should go to their local congregation for assistance if they are struggling financially, not to strangers or government agencies.
- Those who can work, should work. If they refuse to work, they should be placed under church discipline up to and including excommunication.
- Those in the church who are in a position to provide work opportunities, should do so, even if it means a loss to their operating profit.
- Christians should be generous with their financial surplus, but they should provide this surplus to the church to be distributed by the church.
- The church should take seriously this obligation, and should have a process which allows these funds to be distributed to those who have needs under the supervision of godly men who are wise and filled with the Spirit. This activity of the church should not interfere or diminish the proclamation of the gospel.
- The church is obligated to care for those in her midst who cannot work, but this should be done under the direction of the appointed men, not by individual decisions in the congregation.
Postscript: Christians are commanded to care for their families as well. What has been said above should not be understood as a statement which indicates that the responsibility to care for your family, including aging parents, or disabled children, should be abdicated to the church. Furthermore Deuteronomy 15:7-9 indicates that those who have the ability to, should give loans to those who have need. This is not a hand out, but a loan. Even if the person who is lending money does not expect the money to be returned, it should be considered a loan and the person borrowing should be allowed to and expected to repay it. This expectation is confirmed in the New Testament by Christ in Luke 6:31-36. In these situations, Christians ought not to charge interest to their brothers or sisters, and if they are unable to repay the loan they should generously forgive it.