Responsibility and Need

If any woman who is a believer has widows in her care, she should continue to 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 5:16 (NIV)

Early in my life journey I worked at a number of different churches and different denominations. One of the common struggles I observed was how each church handled those who would regularly come to the church asking for a handout. In every church I served there was a sincere and loving motivation to help those in need, but there was also the realization that responsible generosity also required  wisdom and discernment. While some individuals were people truly in need, others were not. There were individuals who were perfectly capable of getting a job and supporting themselves, but they were more than happy to avoid the work and simply make the rounds of every church in town seeing how much money they could talk the churches into giving them.

Along the way I’ve observed a simple reality of human nature. If you create a system of welfare there will be those who will try to take personal advantage of the system. Even Jesus encountered this when He fed the multitudes by turning a few loaves and fish into to a  miraculous Filet o’ Fish fest. He quickly recognized that many were following Him simply for the free lunch. John 6 describes Jesus confronting the crowd and questioning their motivation. He appears, at that point, to have shut down his miraculous fish sandwich program on the spot.

It’s so easy for me to get stuck thinking about “church” in context of what I have known and experienced “the church” to be in my lifetime. I default to thinking of buildings and denominational institutions with varying takes on theological issues.  It’s critical as a reader of Paul’s letter to Timothy for me to understand how different the circumstances were then. There was no institution, no denomination, and no church buildings. Small groups of Jesus’ followers were “the church.” It was a flesh and blood organism. Followers of Jesus gathered in homes where they ate together, worshipped together, and shared life together. They were loosely structured and yet they quickly gained a reputation for collectively caring for those in need who were marginalized and outcast by society of that day: widows, orphans, the sick, the diseased, and the disabled.

And, true to human nature, there were those more than willing to take personal advantage of the corporate generosity.

There is a theme woven throughout Paul’s life and letters that I rarely hear discussed today. It’s threaded through the entire chapter today. Until late in his life Paul always worked for his living and supported himself. His family were tentmakers by trade and no matter where he went he could pull out his tools and ply that trade. He expected Jesus’ followers to take personal responsibility for the needs of one’s self and one’s family so that generosity could be given to those “truly in need.”

In the quiet this morning I’m whispering a prayer of gratitude, as I recognize that I am blessed to have been raised in a culture and a family system that taught and modeled personal responsibility, hard work, and generosity. My gratitude extends to giving thanks for my job, my clients, and my colleagues. Finally, I’m thankful for the reality that, thus far in my entire life journey, I have never known what truly means to be what Paul described as “really in need.”

featured photo courtesy of IIP Photo Archive via Flickr

3 thoughts on “Responsibility and Need”

  1. Timothy strikes me as a person who takes a precarious position. The woman who is a believer should assume the burden, but the church (comprised of many believers, I assume) should be spared that burden?

    Precarious is probably the wrong word. There’s something flawed in the position. A person needs help, or they don’t. And, if they need help, whomever CAN provide help, should do what he or she can to help.

    My first impression of Timothy is that he’s a bit of a whiner.

    1. Caring for widows was a real issue in the day given that women had no real standing and when their husbands died they were left with no means of support. That said, there were women of means within the community who had been using their means to care for widows. One of the largely untold stories of the first century is how many women of means played a crucial part in the explosive growth of Christianity. Reading between the lines of Paul’s letter to Timothy, I believe that there were those who had been providing care for widows who now wanted to unburden themselves of the personal responsibility they’d already taken and place the burden on the larger gathering of believers. “Well, if the church is going to help widows then, here you go. It’s your problem now.” I believe that Paul was encouraging these generous women to continue what they had already been doing so that a larger number of widows could, overall, receive assistance.

  2. You can tell a legitimate widow by the way she has put all her hope in God, praying to him constantly for the needs of others as well as her own. But a widow who exploits people’s emotions and pocketbooks—well, there’s nothing to her.

    I don’t know why I continue to be amazed by God’s goodness through His word, but I am. While not EVERY possible situation and outcome are listed in the Bible for our direction, many are indeed listed. As an elder in a local gathering in the past, care for widows and the poor was a common discussion. How do we discern? Who will we choose to help? The need is great, the resources limited. This simple verse and chapter do give us guidance on how to discern and affirm for me some of the people we supported and some that we didn’t.

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