When I grew up in the Holiness movement, if you had asked me to list off the top practices of a healthy Christian, I would have listed off the need for daily prayer and Bible reading, regular church attendance, and adherence to a list of standards. Perhaps the need to witness would have occurred to me. What almost certainly would not have crossed my mind very high on the list is the requirement to serve the poor, sick, and vulnerable.
Serving others as a church, which I will refer to interchangeably as charity, was simply not a part of our practice. It was rarely addressed and opportunities were never formally organized. We had revivals, camp meetings, homecomings, youth camps, fall festivals, prayer meetings, and church workdays galore. In 15 years, I would have attended nearly 3,000 church gatherings – but I don’t believe I ever once attended a church service project of any sort. I’m sure individuals would occasionally do something that constituted an act of charity, but this was not a part of a routine, and opting out of service to the vulnerable would never raise eyebrows in the way that say, opting out of a Wednesday night church service would.
This reticence to actively engage in physical service is not typical of the church throughout history. The early church was widely known for their provision for the outcasts of society. The last non-Christian Emperor of Rome noted that “it is their benevolence to strangers, their care for the graves of the dead and the pretended holiness of their lives that have done the most to increase [Christianity] … For it is disgraceful that, when no Jew ever has to beg, and the impious Galileans [Christians] support not only their own poor but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us.” It’s worth noting that Julian’s reference to holiness was not to an outward standard of appearance that differed notably from their culture – there was none – rather it was a reference to virtue, integrity, and love. Throughout all of church history there has never been a period when significant portions of the church were not actively involved in social issues and in service to the vulnerable, particularly the poor.
Interestingly enough, the Holiness Movement used to be known for being very active in charity and social reform. In the late 1800’s, Holiness Christians were involved in everything from women’s rights to making church available to the poor (it was the era of pew-renting). One branch off the Holiness Movement became entirely centered around charity work; today we know it as the organization “Salvation Army.”  Sadly, this Holiness emphasis on serving has faded over the years, if not altogether disappeared.
This article will establish both that charity to the vulnerable is still required of the church today and that the Bible gives us significant guidance in a manner that is empowering and impactful.
Charity is Required of the Church
It is biblically obvious that we have a mandate to share our faith. However, this mandate is distinct from an additional requirement to meet the physical and relational needs of others. Very often, the two things are closely connected. Providing for someone’s physical needs is often the first step to addressing their deeper spiritual needs. This is exemplified by Jesus’ ministry – he met physical needs for health and provision as well as sharing his good news. He shares his philosophy in Matthew 5:16 “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” “Good works” can include personal behavior, but it also surely includes acts of love for others – which is just another way of saying charity. While God’s people are called to show love for everyone, they also have a special call to serve the vulnerable. In the Bible the vulnerable usually consists of the poor, widows, orphans, and immigrants – with “the poor” generally covering all of the subcategories.
The Old Testament is replete with commands to serve the vulnerable, but Jesus establishes that this applies to the church with his sermon in Mathew 25. “Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.” In context, Jesus is teaching that these acts of service will be one of the crucial visible factors which show the difference between those headed to judgement and those headed to everlasting life (not as earned righteousness, but as the fruit of a transformed heart). The story he tells assumes that all of the righteous serve. There is no category in the story for the Christians who just like to look after themselves.
This duty is also plainly taught in James 2:15-16, “If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?” Best wishes and spiritual platitudes are inadequate to care for others – action is required.
John intensifies the command in 1 John 3:17, “But whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his [heart] from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?”
The early church took this to heart. In Acts 6, we see the apostles had a feeding program, which they had need to delegate to others in the church (like Stephen). James 1:27 goes so far to say that service is exactly as necessary for pleasing God as separation from worldliness: “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.” Don’t miss that. If you keep yourself “unspotted from the world,” you have not pleased God unless you also “visit the fatherless and the widows.”
In 1 Timothy 6:18, the rich are instructed to be especially generous: “That they do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to distribute, willing to [share].” Given that we are 90 times richer than the average historical person, every American would certainly meet the criteria of “rich” that Paul had in mind.
Objections to Charity
In the modern era, many in the church no longer feel an obligation to assist the poor because they believe that the government has already taken on that responsibility. One thing this argument misses is that government programs tend to be especially bad at the sort of relational assistance that effective charity requires. For instance, no one becomes homeless just because he lost his job. Anyone who sleeps under an overpass has also lost all his friends and family too. Even if the government provides him with a check or some housing, usually that person still has no support structure to prevent future homelessness. No law or entitlement program can build a strong family and a circle of friends.
But even if all the government programs suddenly became wildly effective, that still would not alleviate the church from its responsibility. If the government created a Department of Evangelism and started preaching the gospel on through public service announcements, would the church stop preaching it? Clearly not, and I believe we would be rather suspicious of the evangelism that the government was offering. By the same token, simply because the government is attempting to assist the poor does not mean we are alleviated of our Christian responsibility.
Another common objection people cite to serious service to the poor is Jesus’ remark that “the poor will be with you always.” The obvious problems with this is that the back half of Jesus’ same sentence is “but you will not always have me.” This makes sense in context, but hardly seems like a statement that is intended to apply to all future readers. Unless we are willing to hold that Christians will lose access to Jesus in the future, we must admit that Jesus’ statement about his imminent departure applied only to his first-century hearers. If the back half of the sentence is not universal, it stands to reason that the first half of the same sentence would also not be universal. Regardless of this bit of exegesis, Jesus is alluding to a passage in Deuteronomy 15:11, which follows the observation with a command. “For the poor shall never cease out of the land: therefore I command thee, saying, Thou shalt open thine hand wide unto thy brother, to thy poor, and to thy needy, in thy land.”
God’s logic in Deuteronomy was that the fact that the poor would always be in the land of ancient Israel should motivate constant generosity. Even if we should understand Christ’s words to apply to our time, that should serve as a call to persistent action – not an excuse for self-indulgence.
The Church in Action Today
The good news is that there are still parts of the church where this sense of service is still taken seriously. Take this salient example from pastor and bestselling author David Platt:
“One day I called up the Department of Human Resources in Shelby County, Alabama, where our church is located, and asked, “How many families would you need in order to take care of all the foster and adoption needs that we have in our county?”
The woman I was talking to laughed.
I said, “No, really, if a miracle were to take place, how many families would be sufficient to cover all the different needs you have?”
She replied, “It would be a miracle if we had 150 more families.”
When I shared this conversation with our church, over 160 families signed up to help with foster care and adoption. We don’t want even one child in our county to be without a loving home. It’s not the way of the American Dream. It doesn’t add to our comfort, prosperity, or ease. But we are discovering the indescribable joy of sacrificial love for others, and along the way we are learning more about the inexpressible wonder of God’s sacrificial love for us.”
This sort of exemplary behavior is even more common in poor countries, where people cannot lean on the government to provide the social services. In my time working in Haiti, nearly all local churches served their communities in multiple ways – independently of foreign funding. They routinely provided primary schools, adult literacy classes, farming co-ops, adoptions, and support for the elderly.
These examples of modern churches putting ancient commands into action also raises an important point. There is more than one way to serve the vulnerable and not all are equally helpful.
Effective Charity – More than Good Intentions
The Bible’s admonitions to serve are so clear that most readers will catch on to it eventually. Once they catch the idea that service is mandatory, they usually begin their acts of service in the ways that are the simplest. This consists of giving tangible goods out to people who are readily accessible to receive them. While these good intentions are a good place to start – they’re not a good place to end. If we would truly follow the example of Christ, we must concern ourselves with the long-term needs of the people we serve. This means not only meeting the immediate need, but helping people flourish. A flourishing life includes elements like spiritual growth, strong families, healthy lifestyles, education and career advancement, character development, and wise stewardship of finances and other resources.
A Framework for Charity
While we do not completely control the long-run outcomes for any individual we seek to help, this situation is very analogous to medicine. A heart surgeon cannot guarantee that his patient will survive, but a heart surgeon should expect to improve the average outcomes of his surgery over time. This is exactly what happens – you would certainly rather receive open heart surgery today than 50 years ago. So even though they do not control the outcome for each individual patient, they can still learn to grow and identify more effective methods. Charity works the same way.
An excellent book entitled When Helping Hurts by Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett lays out a particularly useful framework for understanding different kinds of charity. This framework is grounded in the Christian notion that the most important thing in life is relationships – with God, with others, with one’s self, and with the rest of creation. When all these relationships are healthy, people and societies flourish, when they break down, some form of poverty prevails. Our job as Christians is to restore these relationships in our own lives and in the lives of people around us. Regarding helping others, Fikkert and Corbett distinguish three types of charity: relief, rehabilitation and development.
Relief is any assistance offered in a temporary crisis. the good Samaritan’s assistance to the beaten man on the road to Jericho is a good example. The characteristic of relief is that it usually involves one-way giving and the recipient is rarely in a position to contribute anything in return.
Rehabilitation is the process of moving from crisis back to a previous level of life – it typically follows relief. A characteristic of rehabilitation is that it requires some effort from the one rehabilitating. In the story of the Good Samaritan, the man on the road to Jericho would have had to exercise and tend his own wounds as he recovered. Eventually, he would leave the financial support of the Samaritan. People recovering from a job loss or drug addiction will have a similar active role to play in improving their own situation.
Development is the process of improving your condition to a level not previously attained. Personal development is a part of everyone’s life as we strive to grow spiritually, increase our careers, and strengthen our families. For people in poverty, development is often a process that can be facilitated by charity. However, development always involves significant effort on the part of the person developing. Like rehabilitation, development is not something you can do “to” someone. They have to do it, and you can merely assist. If they are unwilling to work and grow, development is not possible until they have a change of heart.
This distinction is more than just semantic, if you attempt to provide continuous relief to people who need development, you will not solve their underlying problems and you will merely enable an unhealthy situation to continue unresolved. For instance, imagine a young woman who grew up in a dysfunctional home and has difficulty holding down a job. The root problem in this case could be a lack of knowledge, experience, or character due to her troubled upbringing. No amount of food or financial assistance would address this issue. If she is willing to improve, these root problems can be addressed by compassionate volunteers either through friendship/mentorship, a job skills class, or someone giving the woman an employment opportunity in which she is given grace to learn. There are many levels at which a local church can serve this woman – through formal programs like classes and job fairs, through informal connections, and perhaps through temporary financial assistance to help her get established. Because there are so many options and layers of assistance required to move this woman from dysfunction to flourishing, the church will almost certainly need to work with other churches and community organizations in the process.
This process is complicated and very specific to the individual served. But who is better equipped to deal with a messy relational process like development than the Church? It is there that people from many walks of life are connected to serve a common purpose. It is there that we all acknowledge the redemptive power of God. The church is well suited to facilitate development – a powerful form of charity which makes a world of difference in the lives of the poor.
Biblical Guidance on Effective Charity
Unfortunately, development is not very intuitive to most people taking a first step into charity work. When we see someone hungry, we default to trying to figure out a way to feed them indefinitely. While feeding the hungry would seem to be in step with the Bible’s commands, the Bible also elaborates whom we should feed and how. These commands are not incidental – they are central if we want to see the poor flourish. You will note that they meld nicely with the relief vs. development framework outlined above.
In the Old Testament, God commanded the children of Israel to provide for the poor by leaving some grain in the fields (Deut. 24:19). The poor could come and collect grain in the fields, mill it themselves, and provide their own bread. Farmers were not expected to make bread and give it to the poor – the poor had an active role to play. This work requirement diminished the chance of unhealthy dependence and combined with the Mosaic system of land distribution, meant that over the long run, each family was equipped to provide for itself.
Jesus did miraculously feed thousands, however he only gave food to a particular group of people who had listened to him all day long before he fed them; they were committed to a form of spiritual development and the food was just a bonus. Furthermore, it was not an ongoing occurrence. The only example of continuous food provision in Scripture (for the widow of Zarephath) took place entirely during a famine – a short term-crisis that called for relief. The idea of requiring recipients of charity who are not in such an exceptional crisis to work, contribute, or demonstrate commitment to growth is the Biblical model.
In keeping with this model, in 1 Timothy 5, Paul gives explicit instructions for how to discern between widows who the church should help and widows who the church should not help. Generally, if widows were in a situation where they could take care of themselves or where their family could provide for them, then that was the means required. The church was not the first stop for assistance. Furthermore, by his admonition that “he who does not work shall not eat,” Paul specifically taught that if a person was unwilling to solve his own problems then the church should refuse to solve that person’s problems for him. Assistance was conditional not only on need, but also on willingness to do one’s own part before asking the church for assistance.
This concept is called subsidiarity. Subsidiarity means to solve a problem at the most local level possible: the individual, his family, his church or community, then the government from the most local levels to most distant. In accordance with this principle of subsidiarity the Bible also teaches that our levels of responsibility as servants varies – we serve God before family (Luke 14:6), we have more responsibility for our family than strangers (1 Tim 5:8), and we owe aid to Christians before unbelievers (Gal 6:10). These teachings help us realize that God’s intent is not for us to run ourselves ragged in serving others. While we are called to love and forgive unconditionally, we are not called to continually provide for the material needs of those capable of providing for themselves.
The final biblical perspective to share on the needs of the poor comes from Jesus’ assessment of his own ministry. “The blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them. (Matt 11:5)” In this passage Jesus lists the solution to a number of ailments. When he gets to the poor, he does not say “the poor have money given to them.” Jesus identifies the root problem of as lack of hope, a lack of the knowledge of God’s redemptive plan. Jesus met some physical needs, but mostly he provided things of eternal value. And while everyone needs the good news, he had a special place in his heart for sharing it with the poor.
Service to the poor and vulnerable is a central responsibility of the church. Furthermore, it does require some discernment and education to do it effectively. The perpetual handout model that seems so intuitive at first glance is neither biblical nor impactful. While this article only scratches the surface of effective charity, I hope that it provides you with some inspiration to get started or refine your current work.
Charity is a topic that requires both study and action. Maybe that action begins with a family member or acquaintance whom you can assist. Maybe your church has service opportunities you can participate in or lead. If your church doesn’t facilitate something, there are almost certainly nonprofits in your area who are in great need of your help. There is room for everyone’s time, treasure, and talent in this field. As ransomed sons and daughters of God, serving the vulnerable is both the least we can do and the most we can do.
P.S. My day job is equipping churches and nonprofits with tools and best practices to implement more effective charity. You can see some of my articles on the topic, as well as other resources, at TrueCharity.us
- “Letters by Julian: Letter 22,” Translated by Emily Wilmer Cave Wright
- The Holiness Revival of the Nineteenth Century by Melvin Dieter
- “Holiness Movement: American History” in Encyclopedia Britannica
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