Intelligent Charity, Principled Compassion

The widow who is really in need and left all alone puts her hope in God and continues night and day to pray and to ask God for help. But the widow who lives for pleasure is dead even while she lives.

No widow may be put on the list of widows unless she is over sixty, has been faithful to her husband, and is well known for her good deeds, such as bringing up children, showing hospitality, washing the feet of the saints, helping those in trouble and devoting herself to all kinds of good deeds.

As for younger widows, do not put them on such a list. For when their sensual desires overcome their dedication to Christ, they want to marry. Thus they bring judgment on themselves, because they have broken their first pledge. Besides, they get into the habit of being idle and going about from house to house. And not only do they become idlers, but also gossips and busybodies, saying things they ought not to. So I counsel younger widows to marry, to have children, to manage their homes and to give the enemy no opportunity for slander. Some have in fact already turned away to follow Satan.

If any woman who is a believer has widows in her family, she should help them and not let the church be burdened with them, so that the church can help those widows who are really in need. (1 Timothy 5:5-6, 9-16)

The ancient church was intelligent and principled in the distribution of aid. Perhaps it lacked the bureaucracies of the modern world, but tediousness should not be confused with developed management. Paul’s instructions concerning the widows show that the early church appreciated several essential factors in the effective administration of charity. There were clear and precise terms to define individuals who qualified to receive aid. Need alone was insufficient to constitute a legitimate claim to the resources of the church – it was significant that the apostle placed much emphasis on whether the people fulfilled their responsibilities as measured by the precepts of the gospel.

The fact that there was a list of widows who qualified to receive aid implies deliberateness and organization. They had a system of giving that entailed much more than handing out money and supplies to anonymous individuals waiting in a line at random hours. Further, the terms were much stricter than those of any contemporary church charity that we have encountered, in that they demanded an established record of holy conduct. Those who did not satisfy the requirements were outright excluded even if they appeared to be in need. If the church made some exceptions for very special cases, certainly they were exceptions that proved the rule.

Those who did not qualify to receive aid as widows might have obtained some form of assistance on another basis – perhaps as individuals who needed help to survive. However, even if this happened, it would have been occasional, spontaneous, and temporary, and insufficient to maintain one’s livelihood. Otherwise, the entire system of charity to widows would have been pointless. This program for supporting the widows arose from the church’s intent to exercise compassion with intelligence and integrity. The restrictions were designed to both limit the burden on the church, as well as to prevent any scandal that would bring the name of Christ into disrepute. True Christian ethics always places God’s honor above the very lives of the men and women that we are supposed to assist. This is an inflexible principle that must govern all our charitable works without any exception or hesitation.

This was a main reason for refusing aid to licentious young widows. Paul provided no other route for them to receive support from the church. They were forced to remarry and settle down, or starve to death. Unlike the modern church, ancient believers refused to sponsor sinful living in the name of compassion. This is shocking to contemporary humanistic sentiments, whether inside or outside of the church, but it is not a dubious inference from an isolated passage. The apostle also commands elsewhere, “If a man will not work, he shall not eat.” There he provides no other way for such a man to survive. If a man can work but will not work, the church is not to support him with money and supplies. The man will then either be forced to work (if appropriate, the church can even hire him), in which case he will not starve, or he will remain idle and die, in which case it would be a case of suicide.

Scripture demands every person to assume his own responsibility before he can receive aid from the church. A man who can work, must work. The same thinking applies here, as the apostle says, “But the widow who lives for pleasure is dead even while she lives.” We can keep her alive with food and shelter, but if she wallows in worldliness, then she is already “dead” in a deeper sense. She is a walking corpse. When a person chooses to kill himself, albeit slowly, we can only delay it for so long, but eventually he will succeed. The church incurs no guilt in such cases.

Children must support parents who are in need. Nevertheless, when this is necessary, it presupposes some failure in the parents. This is because Paul writes elsewhere, “After all, children should not have to save up for their parents, but parents for their children.” That is, children should not have to save or provide for their parents, but parents should be able to sustain themselves their whole lives and still have an inheritance left for their children when they die. Instead of passing on debts and burdens from generation to generation, it is better to pass on savings and possessions. This is the ideal, but it does not always happen. And when the parents are unable to provide for themselves, the children are to support them.

Paul’s instructions would prevent most people from cheating the system, or to exploit the kindness of Christians. A widow could have lied about her age, but it would have been much harder to counterfeit an established reputation for faithfulness to one’s husband and “all kinds of good deeds.” Again, it must be emphasized that if widows who do not qualify are nevertheless included on the list, we would render pointless the apostle’s demands. Since respect for divine inspiration means that we must not ignore his instructions, then neither can these demands be bypassed or relaxed. When the world defines compassion so differently, and when it favors human life and comfort so much more than God’s honor, it takes courage and obedience to implement this sort of program in the church. Humanistic charity helps someone just because he is a fellow man and not because of God’s command. If we are acting on the basis of God’s command, then we will do what he actually says, and that is to exclude unqualified widows and to allow idle men to starve.

Sometimes people think that we have advanced very much in thought and intelligence, and also in our ethical standards. But this is based more on arrogance and misconception than truth. It would be a mistake to suppose that the ancient church was unsophisticated, and that the modern church possesses superior principles to regulate the management of charitable aid. No, insofar as it followed the approach set forth by the apostle, the church exercised intelligence without tedious bureaucracies, and it administered its resources according to the principles of the gospel, always with a view to honor the name of Christ in all that it does. The modern church has sometimes slipped into the humanistic trap of caring more about meeting the material needs of the people, and has forgotten to enforce principles of character and responsibility that arise from the gospel of Jesus Christ.