Who Do You Help? 1 Timothy 5:1-16
One of the more difficult areas of leadership in the local church has to do with the needy among us. You don’t have to be associated with a local church for very long to realize there are far more apparent needs than there are resources to meet those needs. With limited funds and resources, how do you decide whom to help and whom not to help? It is one thing to assign the benevolence ministry to the deacons (see Acts 6:1-7 for an early example of division of responsibility). But it is another thing to provide guidance to the deacons and others who have a burden for those in need.
Jesus said that we would always have the poor among us, but then He did not meet everyone’s need. Not everyone who presents their need is truly needy. So how should we decide?
Paul, in his letter to Timothy moves beyond simply saying, “Let the deacons figure it out,” and gives guidelines for thinking through a specific situation. Here are a few principles drawn from 1 Timothy 5:1-16.
1. The context for helping those in need arises from a family atmosphere in the local church (vs. 1-2). Older believers are to be treated like parents and younger believers like siblings. This means we care for one another and step up when there is a need. Those in our spiritual family take priority over those outside of our spiritual family.
2. There is clearly a precedent for financial help to those in need. Paul uses an example, “Honor widows who are widows in deed.” The word, “honor” is the same word used later in the chapter (1 Tim 5:17 NASB) in reference to elders who rule well and especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching. Clearly, in view of the next verse, financial remuneration is in mind, for “the laborer is worthy of his wages” (vs. 18). Paul is saying that certain widows should be honored with financial help. We would extrapolate from this instruction concerning widows, that there may be other situations where financial help is appropriate to meet real needs.
3. Not all apparent needs really represent those who are needy “indeed” (vs. 3). The widows that Paul has in mind to be helped should truly be widows in need. Most conscientious Christians have encountered situations that looked dire upon first notice. Some people are more verbal about their needs than others. Some have a sense of “entitlement,” some are lazy, some could supply their own needs if they would simply apply themselves or use available resources available to them, some could adopt a simpler lifestyle. Motives and attitudes are very hard to judge. However, when all this is said and done, there are still some who are truly needy like the widows Paul has in mind.
4. The vanguard for meeting genuine needs is the nuclear family, that is, the family of one’s origin (vs. 4). Children have a responsibility to look after the material needs of their widowed mother. Paul draws on a general principle a few verses later when he says, “But, if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (vs. 8) The church was not designed to take the primary place of a person’s blood relatives. This is a matter of basic faithfulness.
However, when a needy believer has little or no help from their earthly family, the church should step in like a family (a spiritual family) to help meet the need (see vss. 1-2).
5. Clear cut guidelines should be used to determine who qualifies for help. Paul lays these out in the case of widows in need: women who have no family, who are clearly focused on God as seen in their prayerfulness and holy living, and who meet a certain age criterion—these women may be considered for regular help by the church (vss. 5-7). Further, character qualifications should be examined while making a determination (9-13).
6. Most times, people can and should provide for their own needs. In the case of younger widows, they should focus on remarrying, rather than “enjoying” an idle life at the expense of the church (13-14). In fact, in 2 Thessalonians 3:10, Paul commands that “if anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either.” The basic principle is that a person should provide for themselves, rather than easily take advantage of Christian kindness.
7. Benevolence in the church should be systematically organized. Paul recommends a “list” of widows who qualify. There was clearly a sense of someone being either on the list or not on the list. True, such organization can become bureaucratic and impersonal—however, such abuse can be averted by having godly, qualified men overseeing this ministry. It is also true that individuals should reach out on an individual basis. But, as Acts 6:1-3 makes clear, without good organization, needs are met haphazardly and inequitably.
There are many kinds of needs among God’s people, besides that of widows. And making matters more complicated, in North America for example we have insurances, social security, retirement plans and personal savings. Yet there can still be catastrophic life situations that exhaust all these resources, such as major illnesses, accidents, and events beyond one’s control—situations where someone’s own personal or family resources are unable to meet the need. It is to these kind of situations that this passage applies. The spiritual family called the local church comes through for its own.
Finally, the solution to some needs is not to give money. What may be needed is financial counsel, personal advocacy, legal help or any other support the Spirit of God leads the church to provide in a systematic way.
Paul, in this section of his letter to Timothy, makes it clear that part of spiritual leadership is providing guidelines for decision making in the church. Dealing with widows in need was emblematic of all situations where needs are apparent. Godly elders will think through clearly both the church’s responsibility to help meet those needs as well as the way those needs can be met in a wise and balanced way.