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What Does Scripture Say About the Poor?

By Steve Boyer and the Capitol Hill Baptist Elders

A position paper by the Capitol Hill Baptist Church elders presented to the members of the church over two Wednesday evenings.

Most people are sympathetic with the idea of caring for the poor. It’s considered to be a worthy task. Yet the question about how to care for the poor is more contentious. The different solutions offered can remind one of debates on the floor of the United States Congress.

So what are we to do? How are we to help those in need? Most importantly, what does Scripture say about the poor? God has not been silent on this topic. Given this fact, the subject is worthy of our study.

Although Capitol Hill Baptist Church (CHBC) has been congregating over the past 125 years, there has been much membership turnover in recent years, and many in the congregation have wanted to know not only how best to care for the poor, but also what the church’s role should be in this endeavor. The CHBC elders have spent a lot of time over this past year reading, praying, and discussing this issue. Hopefully, by the grace of God, I will be able to clearly communicate to you what we the elders of CHBC collectively understand Scripture to say on this topic.

There are seven questions for which we want to seek out answers in Scripture:

I. Who are the poor?
II. What causes poverty?
III. How does evangelism and relief of the poor relate?
IV. Are there deserving poor and undeserving poor?
V. Does God call us to be poor or rich?
VI. Who should care for the poor? The church? The state? Individual Christians?
VII. What are practical ways to provide relief to the poor?


Who are "the poor" in Scripture?

Poor in Physical Resources

One broad category is those who are poor in physical resources. Some examples are those who are poor in family, such as widows and orphans (Exod. 22:22). Others are poor in wealth, such as the low-wage workers (Deut. 24:14) and prisoners (Heb. 13:3). They are devoid of food, shelter, and clothing. Still others are poor in health. This can be the elderly (1 Tim. 5:9), the disabled (John 5:3), or the sick (Matt. 25:36).

The statistics gathered regarding those who are poor in physical resources are alarming. One out of four people in the world are considered to be in poverty.[1] Here in America 17 percent of children live below the poverty line.[2] In the Washington, DC area we have 10,000 people who are homeless, and one-half of these are women and children.[3]

Where we live there are needy people, and we must not be indifferent to them. Although our Lord says that we will always have the poor with us, we should not be complacent because the problem is interminable (see Mark 14:7; Deut. 15:11). Instead, it should lead us to compassion.[4] Poverty was not to be tolerated or encouraged in Scripture but abolished (Lev. 25:35; Deut. 26:12).

Poor in Spirit

Although Scripture speaks about physical poverty, it means to use physical poverty to point us to spiritual poverty. Jesus did not come to earth to ultimately remove physical sickness. Instead, physical poverty is a parable of spiritual poverty. Whenever Jesus healed, he then taught about the kingdom of God or taught others to believe in him. Scripture gives many examples.

In Luke 4:38-44, Jesus healed many kinds of illnesses in the town of Capernaum, but then leaves the town because he "must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also." For this is why he was sent, Jesus says. More people in Capernaum were sick, but healing the physically sick was not Jesus’ primary mission.[5] It was preaching the Kingdom.

Not only was his healing ministry not primary, it did not serve an end in and of itself. For example, in John 6:25-59 Jesus feeds the 5,000 and then describes the difference between bread that spoils and the bread of eternal life, which he claims to be. Jesus did not feed the 5,000 ultimately so that hungry people would have something to eat. He meant to show them the way to be spiritually fed for eternity. He meant to point them to himself. Another example of this lesson occurs in John 11, where Lazarus was raised from the dead to show that Jesus is the resurrection and the life.

So if the physically poor were to point us to the spiritually poor, who are the spiritually poor? In one sense, all people are spiritually poor because all people are sinful. But there is a special blessing for those who confess this deficiency and seek Christ’s righteousness over their own. In Matthew 5:3, Jesus says "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."[6] From this it appears that the poor in spirit are those who Scripture says are born again (John 3:3). It is those who personally acknowledge their spiritual bankruptcy before God and put their trust in him for salvation. It is those on whom God has set his gracious love and is particularly concerned for (cf. Is. 29:19; Ps. 40:17.).

"Well," someone might ask "if Jesus was to come to help the spiritually poor, then why does he spend his time healing and helping the physically poor? Jesus even says that this was his mission, and he points to Isaiah’s words to prove it."

It’s true that Jesus refers to the prophet Isaiah’s words to show his purpose for coming in the flesh. We read in the Gospel of Luke,

When the men came to Jesus, they said, "John the Baptist sent us to you to ask, ‘Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?’" At that very time Jesus cured many who had diseases, sicknesses and evil spirits, and gave sight to many who were blind. So he replied to the messengers, "Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor." (Luke 7:20-22; cf. Matt. 11:2-6; Luke 4:16-20)

Jesus says this to recall what the prophet Isaiah said about the Christ in Isaiah 61:1-3 and Isaiah 35:5-6. Jesus did heal and help the physically poor, but he didn’t do this as a part of establishing the political rule that others (and perhaps John) thought the Christ would establish. Rather, these healings and miracles were used to demonstrate who Jesus was—the Messiah or God.[7] The healings and miracles testified to Jesus’ divinity.

The climax of this passage in Luke does not appear to be in healing, but in preaching the good news. And we see this throughout the Gospels.[8] Jesus’ main concern was not to make sure that everyone was physically healthy, even though he did spend time doing this. Jesus’ main concern was preaching the good news of the gospel, which we have already seen in Luke 4.

What a great example Jesus gives us in caring for the poor. We must work to relieve suffering with the same intent Jesus had—to declare the gospel.


So what we find in Scripture are two kinds of poor—the poor in physical resources and the poor in spirit. There is not necessarily a link between the two. It would be wrong to equate all of the physically poor with those who are God’s people, as some people have done.[9] Not all of the poor in Scripture are exalted and not all of the rich in Scripture are condemned. While it is true that God tends to use the weak things of the world to display his glory (1 Cor. 1:26-31), it would be a terrible exegetical mistake to teach that all of the physically poor are under God’s electing grace.[10]

So when we read about those who are poor in Scripture, we must be careful to understand the context of the passage as it relates to the passages around it and as it relates to the whole of God’s redemptive plan throughout Scripture.


Now that we have discussed what ‘poor’ refers to in Scripture, it’s worth considering what causes poverty. Some people experience poverty because of government oppression, as the Israelites encountered when they were in Egypt (Ex. 1:11). Others come to poverty through personal disaster. This can come from a variety of sources, such as a hurricane destroying a home, mental illness, or job loss. Still others may find themselves working hard in a job, but because of the economy or lack of necessary skills, they are unable to make ends meet.

While the things just mentioned can bring material ruin, Scripture teaches that poverty began in Genesis 3 with sin. The Garden of Eden was ideal in every respect (Gen. 2:8-15). Yet when sin was committed and God’s curse was pronounced, the necessities of life became hard to come by (Gen. 3:17-19).

And this is how sin has operated ever since. How many people have been deceived into sin’s lure of promises only to experience utter pain and ruin? How many have become poor through laziness, greed, or self-indulgent to drunkenness or drugs? The book of Proverbs is full of warnings against falling into sin’s snare (Prov. 10:4, 21:17, 23:21). We must not only heed these warnings with caution for our own sakes, we must recognize them when seeking to help the poor.

The Social Gospel

That brings us to a good question. What is the best way to help those who are poor and needy? One way that has been put forward by many churches is what is known as the "social gospel."[11]

The proponents of the social gospel teach that the category of sin should be applied to society as a whole as well as to individuals (and most often to society instead of individuals). If a society as a whole can embody sin, then it is possible to fight that sin with Christian principles in order to save it. Social structures and institutions can thus be "evangelized" and transformed, or "converted."

The social gospel places blame for corruption and social injustices on an abstract, intangible society instead of on individuals. It says that the governments, justice systems, and economics are all set up to guarantee the failure of the poor, and therefore must be changed. The answer that the social gospel puts forth is to improve the social condition through good laws, civilization, education, social reforms, and so forth. It has a rather high or optimistic view of people and their ability to make the right choices.

The Gospel of Jesus

But there is another way that has been put forth to help the poor and needy—the gospel itself, or the gospel of Jesus. This gospel is defined in Scripture as the eternal salvation of sinful man from the wrath of a holy God through the death and resurrection of Jesus. "For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom. 6:23).

Even though it’s biblically accurate and necessary to say that God means to save "a people," the gospel applies salvation to individuals and not to society as a whole. It places the fault of corruption on individuals and effectively saves the people of God as individuals—one person at a time. It is concerned with man’s spiritual position before his Creator, and its work is to glorify God by building a people for himself.

The Social Gospel and the Gospel of Jesus Contrasted

When comparing the social gospel with the gospel of Jesus, we must first say of the social gospel that it’s good to seek to improve the state of the poor. Yet the goal of the Christian is not to produce a better society. We must agree with Benjamin Moraes who said,

I reject the so-called social gospel. But that does not mean that the Gospel has no social implications. It has! And since the human being lives in an environment influenced by politics and the social order, it’s necessary to bring to politics, to the social order, to the economy, the biblical principles that God has given to us. Otherwise we’d be very insane leaving in the hands of pagans and non-Christians the government and the economic conditions in the world.[12]

Christians must promote biblical principles in the political, social, and economic realm. Yet this type of activism is not the final answer to the problem of the human condition, and it should not be elevated as such. It is only secondary in nature. The social gospel misplaces the blame for poverty on society and so it also misplaces the hope of "salvation" to something other than Christ. Ultimately, it sends the wrong message of hope, it distracts the local church from its true mission, and it leaves people in their sin. In the end, it produces a watered-down gospel, which is really no gospel at all.

Man’s sin was what brought us into poverty, and only Christ can bring us out. Salvation will not ultimately occur through the physical riches of this world but through the incomparable riches of the grace and glory of God, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus (see Eph. 2:7).

After all, the gospel deals with the heart and is not reliant on external rules that seek to obtain a certain, calculated response. The gospel helps Christians to care for the poor as it reminds us of Christ’s love and what he did for us on the cross. Those who have been given the new birth through this gospel will have hearts positively inclined by God’s Spirit toward doing good works and caring for the worst sort of people—because the worst of sinners we know is ourselves. The gospel of Jesus not only helps us care for the poor, it helps us to avoid the sinful dangers that often lead to poverty.


To conclude this second section, then, we must note that God is concerned with the poor. It is often through the poor that he shows himself to be utterly loving, kind, and faithful. When we consider ourselves before God, it is easy to see our own poverty, and this should help us to identify with and seek to help those who lack physical resources in this world. As concerned as God is with the poor, though, his solution is not finally to distribute physical wealth. Instead, he calls all people to deny themselves and to put their hope in the future grace of Christ, not in anything this world can give. Only in Christ will we ever experience the fullness of joy that we were intended to experience, regardless of whether we are rich or poor.


In this next section we want to try to answer some of the questions that are usually asked when Christians speak about caring for the poor.

Who Is Our Neighbor?

One of the sections of Scripture most quoted when speaking about caring for the poor is the story of the Good Samaritan:

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" "What is written in the Law?" he replied. "How do you read it?" He answered: "’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’" "You have answered correctly," Jesus replied. "Do this and you will live." But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?" In reply Jesus said: "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’ "Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?" The expert in the law replied, "The one who had mercy on him." Jesus told him, "Go and do likewise." (Luke 10:25-37)

This is a powerful passage to meditate on and to examine our own lives with. An expert in the law asks Jesus a question of great magnitude: "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus points him to the two greatest commandments that sum up the entire law:[13] "Love the Lord your God will all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind" and "Love your neighbor as yourself." But then the text says that the expert "wanted to justify himself." He wanted to narrow the commandment so that it would fit with his lifestyle and practice. He wanted a loophole. He wanted to confine salvation to a rule to follow instead of to the dependence on God which overflows with love for God and others. So he asks, "who is my neighbor?"[14]

The expert in the law was probably not a Pharisee because Luke doesn’t use that specific word; though the Pharisees had a zeal for the law and studied it. Either way, it appears that the expert sought to narrow the law to justify himself—like the Pharisees did by not helping the unclean and making up traditions that superseded God’s law.

Jesus then tells the story and shames the expert by using a Samaritan as the hero in the story, since the Jews hated Samaritans.[15] Jesus was showing the expert that a loving Samaritan was closer to the Kingdom than an uncharitable Jew, though the Jews had been given God’s law!

Many people propose that this parable is ultimately about Jesus redefining what "neighbor" means. The word ‘neighbor’ is a covenantal term. To be a neighbor was to be a brother, or a member, or someone who lived under the covenantal rule. For example, Jeremiah 31:33-34 shows that these are covenantal terms by equating "neighbor" with "brother." God says through Jeremiah,

"I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest," declares the Lord.

Another example of this can be found in Leviticus 19:18. Here "neighbor" parallels "God’s people." God commands, "Do no seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord."

So although there may have been some minor disputes about what "neighbor" meant, all of Jesus’ first hearers would have known it was being used in connection to those who were in the covenant community—Israel.

By using a Samaritan, Jesus shattered the idea that the Jews, as individuals, were only to help other Jews. They were to help anyone in need. Though the parable did not remove the prioritization that should be given to those inside the covenant community, it does show that the kindness of the covenant community (of Christians) must not be limited to other members of the community (to other Christians).

Interestingly, Jesus never specifically answered the expert’s question of "who is my neighbor?" Instead, he turned the tables back on the expert (and on us) about whether he (and we) behave neighborly to others. Are we characterized as those who help others? Do we go out of our way for others? Do we love others sacrificially? Such sacrificial love is indicative of someone who has inherited eternal life, which was the first question the expert posed and what Jesus seems to be answering in the parable.

So how should Christians care for non-Christians? More particularly, what role does evangelism play in providing relief to the poor? Does relief of the poor have a priority over evangelism? Or does evangelism have a priority over relief of the poor? Or are they of equal importance? Should there be a distinction made at all?

Argument for Not Giving Evangelism Priority Over Relief of the Poor

Many confessed Christians are quick to assert that evangelism does not have a priority over relief of the poor. Evangelism is regarded as either on par with or below meeting the physical needs of the poor. Different arguments are put forth to defend this view.

Some people say that Christians tend to "spiritualize" verses in Scripture that deal with the physically poor. For example, they say that Jesus’ is calling for a literal, physical relief when he reads from the Isaiah scroll and says that he came "to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed" (see Luke 4:18-19). He did not mean to refer to freedom from spiritual bondage, since physical needs are just as important as spiritual needs. And spiritualizing such passages is detrimental to caring for the poor because it reduces Christian care for people’s physical condition. This imbalance hurts the plight of the poor.

Other people say that giving priority to evangelism wrongly exploits the poor’s real needs in order to promote religious concerns. These people would say that prioritizing evangelism would be like giving a horse a carrot so that you can put him into a harness.

Still others would appeal to acts of mercy and evangelism as interdependent equals without a primary or secondary. They say that evangelism and acts of mercy are likened to the two wings of an airplane. Both are essential. They go hand-in-hand and must never be separated from each other. It is the practice of a word and deed ministry. "Evangelism" is the word portion, and "acts of mercy" is the deed portion. So, for example, there are times in Scripture when Jesus healed first and then spoke of salvation afterwards, as with the man born blind in John 9 (cf. Mark 5:24b-34). Incidents like these demonstrate that Jesus did not prioritize spiritual needs over physical needs, since he healed first before calling the man to himself.[16]

Argument for Giving Evangelism Priority Over Relief of the Poor

While these arguments present strong cases, they are not without objection, and we will try to address each in turn.

First, to the argument of spiritualizing verses in Scripture, we are not saying that the Isaiahnic prophecy Jesus read in the synagogue must only be interpreted spiritually. Jesus really physically restored sight to the blind. Yet we also believe that this was secondary to the fulfillment and meaning of the prophecy. Its ultimate meaning is found in the freedom we need from the bondage of sin through the words of the gospel. As one modern writer puts it, "While a significant aspect of Jesus’ ministry was helping the poor and afflicted, it is the preaching of the Word of God to all people—wealthy and poor—which must take biblical priority..."[17]

We would be naïve to think that improving all the outward circumstances and conditions for the poor will gain them a higher quality of life when their fundamental need of redemption is still unaddressed. Man does not live on bread alone (Deut. 8:3).

Second, to the argument that prioritizing evangelism exploits the concern for the poor, we must say that it is wrong to accuse evangelicals of using social concerns as bait to speak the gospel. Evangelical Christians have long been showing compassion to the oppressed as those who have been created in the image of God.

Some people would say that Christians must help the poor without insinuating at every turn that they must become saved and join a local church. But if we exclude the promotion of the gospel, we remove the heart of what the Christian helper is compelled to do and what gives him the hope and motivation to help in the first place. It would be like cutting out the life-giving root of a tree that is the source of shelter for the birds of the air.

Finally, to the argument that evangelism and acts of mercy are interdependent equals like two wings of an airplane, we find a worthy position. How can we not be sympathetic to this idea that word and deed must go together? After all, this is how we are to live as Christians—in word and deed. Yet if you ask us the question of whether disseminating the gospel or distributing food should have priority, we are going to go with the gospel.

No matter how much assistance we give to the poor, it will never substitute for the saving power and grace of the gospel. Once again, Jesus did not attempt to eradicate the poverty of his day on a national or aggregate level but instructed his followers to minister to the larger needs of the poor. As Paul says, "For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins…" (1 Cor. 15:3).

Being made new in Christ is more than just being saved from eternal damnation, although it does mean that. It means that we now have a relationship with the Father and are the benefactors of God’s specific and particular love. This love shows itself in that God takes care of his people. If we are God’s children, we will undoubtedly receive the promises held out in Scripture. For example, at the end of Matthew 6, we are told that God takes care of those who seek his righteousness first. This is not a promise for non-believers but for Christians.[18] While God sends sun and rain on all men alike, he extends his saving grace to his elect only.

As for the times in Scripture when Jesus healed first and then spoke of salvation afterwards, there are plenty of verses that show that healing was only possible through faith.[19] Jesus healed often in response to faith and also to instill faith in him.[20] As for the John 9 passage about the man born blind, the fact that Jesus healed first and then spoke of salvation does not mean that evangelism does not have priority over physical healing. In this case, Jesus used this blind man to reveal his identity as God. In fact, before healing him Jesus teaches that this man was born this way "so that the work of God might be displayed in his life," and then he goes on to say that he is the "light of the world." The healing was done ultimately to teach about who Jesus was as the only way to salvation. Again, we see that a priority was placed on the gospel message.

Contact Evangelism

However, the priority given to evangelism does not necessarily mean it should be done first. It is often difficult to practice acts of mercy and evangelism at the same time. Practically, we must assess each situation and relationship first before unwisely blurting out the gospel message. For example, if a fire destroys a neighbor’s home, it would not be wise to speak the gospel to them first. We must first help them find shelter and care for their immediate needs. This is a caution to what is known as "contact evangelism," which we will define as telling a stranger the gospel in a brief, initial, and forced encounter with the individual.

There are many Christians—perhaps you—who first heard the gospel and came to belief in Christ through contact evangelism. We can praise God for this. He is a sovereign God and can use anything to bring his elect to himself. That said, we should think carefully about the practice of contact evangelism.

While boldly proclaiming the gospel is a good thing, contact evangelism can also be insensitive and reflect poorly on Christ. It can be unhealthy because it involves witnessing to those whom we don’t know and who don’t know us. It’s also unlikely that they would ever become a part of our lives. How much better is it to take time to understand someone and endear yourself to him or her while humbly speaking the truth of the gospel? Paul exampled this for us well when he wrote,

we were gentle among you, like a mother caring for her little children. We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us. Surely you remember, brothers, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you. (1 Thes. 2:7-9)

We are not saying that one should avoid opportunities that present themselves with strangers. In fact, we should always be mindful of proactively seeking to share the gospel with anyone. Conversations on an airplane or with a hairdresser are good and glorify God. These are done in a natural setting rather than in a forced, interrupted context. What we want to warn against is sharing the gospel callously as so much of contact evangelism does. A good book to read on evangelism is Will Metzger’s Tell the Truth. It reminds us that our whole lives and speech should be marked by and rich with the gospel.


So while evangelism needs to be primary, caring for the poor is an evident outpouring of the gospel message. The fact that the gospel alone brings sinners to repentance does not negate our need to care for a fallen world and for those made in God’s image.


Another question that often comes to mind when we think about caring for the poor is whether or not we are to differentiate between those we care for? In other words, are we to extend unconditional relief to everyone? Does Scripture distinguish between the poor who are deserving and those who are undeserving?

Many answers have been given to this question. Certainly we must remember that Christians must always be merciful, as our Savior is merciful. When speaking to this question, however, we think it’s necessary to understand that showing mercy does not always require us to give someone a handout, just as loving a child does not always mean letting them do what they want to do. Discipline and correction are one way that God loves his children. So, too, mercy is more than just giving to all those who ask. We must care for the poor responsibly.

Two Extremes

There are two extreme approaches to caring for the poor that we want to warn against. The first deals with those who provide relief too casually. This kind of relief can be characterized by carelessly giving money out to those who ask for it on the street. It’s easy to feel like we are helping in these cases, but are we? What if the person to whom you give money buys drugs with it? Then you would be aiding a possible drug addiction.

Surely, it’s impossible to make sure that every dime we give to help the poor is used responsibly. When loving sinful people—such as ourselves—we will often be offended against. God loved us when we hated him, and this must be our attitude towards others. However, this does not excuse us from being good stewards of what God has given us, or from caring for others in how we give.

The other extreme deals with providing relief too strictly. This kind of relief can be characterized by setting the bar so high that few, if any, will receive relief. It is the attitude of dismissing the poor because they are lazy or because there is some sin in their lives. While being cautious with the resources God has given us is good, we must help those in need and not be tight-fisted. Jesus said, "Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you" (Matt. 5:42). Are we deserving of God’s mercy?

Balanced Responsibility

While both extremes skew what it means to care for the poor, there is a balance somewhere in between. It’s here that we will find what it means to care for the poor responsibly.

When we look to Scripture, we can see that there were certain conditions set forth for providing aid to those in the first churches who were poor. While these conditions do not directly apply to those outside the church, it helps us consider some basic principles. In 1 Timothy 5:9-10, Paul gives instructions for caring for widows in the church. He says,

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.

Here we see that there were conditions made for giving aid to a widow. A helpful principle to use when caring for people is to require commitments from them. This means building relationships. If they really want help, commitment is a good sign that they are putting effort forth in overcoming their situation. This is where good, Christian organizations committed to caring for the poor can help in holding someone responsible, such as a homeless man. It is often difficult for individuals to do this by themselves.

In 2 Thessalonians 3:6-12, Paul strongly objects to advocating an unproductive lifestyle where someone does not work for their food. Working is the normal way the Bible tells us to provide for ourselves. The fourth commandment positively mandates work: "Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God." So in 2 Thessalonians Paul says,

In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers, to keep away from every brother who is idle and does not live according to the teaching you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to make ourselves a model for you to follow. For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: "If a man will not work, he shall not eat." We hear that some among you are idle. They are not busy; they are busybodies. Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the bread they eat.

In Ephesians 5:28, we are told that working allows us to provide for ourselves, but it also allows us to share with those in need.

Scripture teaches us that we must be wise in our charity. Aid done improperly can cripple and destroy the incentive for the poor to improve their financial situation. For example, take the practice of gleaning in the Old Testament. Those reaping the harvest were commanded not to reap to the very edges of the field, and they were commanded not to go over the field a second time (Lev. 19:9-10). This was so that the poor could work for their food. Gleaning did not foster a system requiring no effort for pay, and the poor were required to work, if they were able.

The Poor Who Reject the Gospel

One question that can be raised is whether or not we are to extend relief to those who openly reject the gospel? The short answer to this is "yes." Jesus tells us in Luke 6 to

love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

That said, we must not give to support someone in their rebellion against God, particularly if it is fostering a sinful habit. A point comes when we may have to shake the dust off our feet and move on from caring for an individual (see Matt. 10:14). Determining this point can be difficult, but we are commanded not to give dogs what is sacred and not to throw our pearls to pigs (Matt. 7:6). God’s good gifts are not to be laid out for abuse and mockery.


While it is true that the Good Samaritan did not ask for a background check before he helped the man beaten by robbers, we should not conclude from this that we should not inquire of someone about his or her needs and the history related to their problem when trying to help. The man beaten by robbers was left half dead and his need was blatantly obvious. The Good Samaritan did not need to perform a background check to care for the man’s life. We must love responsibly, even if—no matter how gently we try to go about it—it will sometimes appear intrusive.


As we think about what Scripture says about caring for the poor, it is natural for us to consider our own financial condition. This leads us to the question of what Scripture says about attaining wealth? Does God call us to be poor or to be rich? Does it dishonor God to gather wealth when so many are poor? Are we truly to give up everything we have in order to follow God?

Scripture’s View of Wealth

Before we evaluate our own callings, it is good for us to understand what Scripture says about wealth. Throughout Scripture we see that material possessions in and of themselves are considered to be good gifts from God and are meant for his people to enjoy. After all, God created possessions for our use, and they should be received with thanksgiving. When we look to God’s covenant with Israel in the Old Testament, we find that obedience was rewarded with prosperity (see Psalm 112). The blessings of prosperity are a taste of God’s goodness to us that we, as adopted heirs who follow Jesus, will one day receive in its fullness (see Prov. 22:4).

So wealth is not inherently evil, as some may think. Rather it’s what we do with our wealth that seems to be the key indicator of our hearts. Paul writes, "For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs" (1 Tim. 6:10).

Notice that it is not money itself but the love of money that is a root of all kinds of evil. At the same time, generosity with one’s material possessions is evidence of regeneration. In Luke 19 Jesus declares the tax collector Zacchaeus to have received salvation in part because of his action of giving half of his possessions to the poor. Zacchaeus was not saved because of this action. No one can obtain salvation through works; but Zaccheus’ works gave evidence of his regeneration, which is the work of God’s Spirit.

Jesus’ Example of Poverty

If material possessions are good, then why did Jesus forgo them when he came to earth? Shouldn’t we follow Christ’s example in how we live? In Scripture, Jesus’ life was full of self-denial and poverty. He was born in a manger in a stable (see Luke 2:7). He grew up in a poor home and moved about without a home during his three years of public ministry and was cared for by others in his travels.[21] What’s more, Jesus left heaven for earth and was unjustly murdered on the cross only to be buried in a borrowed tomb.

While it’s basically true that we are to follow Jesus’ example, we must also take note that we are not Jesus. Even more important that Jesus being the example we emulate is Jesus being our unique savior. Surely, the heart of Jesus’ work was utterly unique. Isaiah 53:10 says that it was God’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer. Instead of asking the question of "what would Jesus do?" and try to imitate God, perhaps it would be better for us to consider what God has expressly taught us on how we ought to live.

Jesus’ Teaching on Attaining Wealth

In Mark 10, we can see what Jesus taught on this subject. It says,

As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. "Good teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" "Why do you call me good?" Jesus answered. "No one is good – except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.’" "Teacher," he declared, "all these I have kept since I was a boy." Jesus looked at him and loved him. "One thing you lack," he said. "Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth. Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, "How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!" The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, "Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, "Who then can be saved?" Jesus looked at them and said, "With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God." Peter said to him, "We have left everything to follow you!" "I tell you the truth," Jesus replied, "no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields – and with them, persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first." (Mark 10:17-31)

Does Jesus expect us to give up everything we have in order to follow him? Is giving up all our possessions the way to salvation? There are many people who would say that there is a direct connection between giving to the poor and salvation. Giving to the poor may be evidence of our regeneration, but, as we stated earlier, it is not something we do in order to obtain salvation, as though salvation comes by our good deeds.

The young man in this passage asked how he might obtain eternal life. This man had great wealth, and Jesus knew right where to put his finger to challenge whether the man had really put his faith in Christ—on his worldly possessions. If we are to love the Lord our God with all of our heart and with all of our soul and with all of our strength, then we are to put him first in everything, trusting only in him (see Deut. 6:5). This is the meaning of the dramatic language used in Mark 10. It does not necessarily mean we must sell all that we have and give to the poor, as this was only a symptom of the young man’s problem. But it does mean that all of our lives and all of our money must be used to glorify God. This may mean providing for our family or showing hospitality to others, but let it also mean giving ourselves and our finances to help the needy so that we can show God’s love through his good gifts to us.

God’s Call for Obedience

So does God call us to be poor or rich? God calls us to be obedient, wherever that may lead us. Abraham’s obedience led to wealth and prosperity while Job’s obedience led—for a time—to ruin and poverty. This difference necessarily destroys the "health and wealth" gospel preached by television evangelists. Obedience is more important than riches.[22] Better a poor man whose walk is blameless than a rich man whose ways are perverse (Prov. 28:6). There is dignity in our calling. The poor can be used powerfully by God as well as the rich.

Paul tells us to,

Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life. (1 Tim. 6:17-19)

Of this passage John Stott comments,

We observe at once that the apostle does not tell "those who are rich in this present world" to "become poor." But he does not allow them to "stay rich" either. Instead, he first warns them of the spiritual dangers of wealth (as Jesus said, it is not impossible for the rich to enter God’s Kingdom but it is hard), and then tells them to be generous with their wealth, which will inevitably result in a lowering of their own standard of living.[23]

We see then that we are not to work to become poor, nor are we to stay rich, because we are to be generous with our wealth. It should also be said that we must live in simplicity as Christians and be content in our circumstances, for this is pleasing to God.[24] Yet, if we are in poverty, it is good and right to seek to be able to provide for oneself and one’s family.[25]


When considering caring for the poor, we should not be guided by worldly wisdom. We must seek God’s Word in the Scriptures for our help. We should not view engaging with the poor as troublesome, but as opportunities to show God’s love and to tell others the gospel of Jesus Christ.

If giving of your time and finances to help the needy is a struggle for you, take Proverbs 11:24 to heart: "One man gives freely, yet gains even more; another withholds unduly, but comes to poverty."

How does one who gives what he has away and become rich while another keeps everything and loses it? This is backwards according to worldly wisdom. Yet isn’t it just like God to bless those who give of themselves to others?


Prioritized Responsibility

In America there are many arguments presented about how best to care for the poor. But another important question is, who is responsible? What does Scripture say?

Paul appears to present an order that prioritizes who is responsible to help the poor in 1 Timothy 5. He writes, "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 Tim. 5:16).

Here we see that the widow’s own family is to take care of her before the church is to help. Even in the secular world the immediate family is to care for the one in need before an outside party. Paul writes, "If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever" (1 Tim. 5:8).

This chapter provides us with the proverbial wisdom that there exists a natural order of responsibility for caring for the poor. It begins with oneself and then follows with the next closest covenantal relationship.

The State

So what about the government? Should the state care for the poor? To answer this question it’s important to understand Scripture and the role it gives to government.

It seems from Scripture that the role of the state is to protect its citizens. God has established all authority for our good (see Rom. 13:1-4). This can be accomplished through a number of ways.[26] First, the government makes laws. Proverbs 8:14 says, "By me kings reign and rulers make laws that are just."

Second, the government is responsible for enforcing those laws.[27] In this way, the government restrains injustice and improper behavior committed by the transgressor and positively commends those who do good (cf. 1 Peter 2:13-14). Romans 13:4 says, "For [the ruler] is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer."

Third, the government is to judge. Proverbs tells us that "By justice a king gives a country stability"; and "If a king judges the poor with fairness, his throne will always be secure" (Prov. 29:4; 29:14). When governors govern well the result is peace among their citizens.

So if the state is to protect its citizens against wrongdoers and unfair judgments, then the answer to our question is "yes"; the state is responsible to help the poor, albeit in a different way than the family or church does. Obviously, a government that protects and justly governs its citizens through laws and courts will be caring for the poor.[28] It may also be necessary for the government to provide food or shelter for its citizens in the event of a national crisis, such as Joseph did for Egypt (see Gen. 41:53-57, 47:13-26). In Scripture, rulers were often called on to help the oppressed and those who cannot speak for themselves (see Dan. 4:26-27; Prov. 30:8-9). In fact, Solomon understands this as his duty as king. In Psalm 72 King Solomon writes,

Endow the king with your justice, O God…He will judge your people in righteousness, your afflicted ones with justice…He will defend the afflicted among the people and save the children of the needy; he will crush the oppressor…he will deliver the needy who cry out, the afflicted who have no one to help. He will take pity on the weak and the needy and save the needy from death. He will rescue them from oppression and violence, for precious is their blood in his sight.

And so we see that the government does have a limited obligation to care for the poor. It may be inferred from the 1 Timothy verse cited previously that the state’s obligation should not supplant that of the family; so the state must act prudently in providing assistance. Since the government has a responsibility to protect its citizens, part of our moral responsibility is to work for a just government. However, this does not exhaust the Christian’s moral responsibility to care for the poor.

The Church

What about the church? Is the church responsible to care for the physical needs of the poor who are outside of the church?

Before we begin down this road, we must be clear about what the word "church" means. Scripture sometimes refers to "church" as the universal church—that is, all Christians everywhere for all time. The term "universal church" refers to all those whom Christ died for and redeemed. However, the more common use for "church" found in Scripture refers to the local church. A local church is an assembly of believers just like our church here on Capitol Hill. So when we refer to the word "church," we will be specifically speaking of the local church, since it is this use of the word that gives us direction in how we ought to live corporately.

Consider the following conversation taken from the book entitled The Enduring Community:

"I have an idea," said a friend, his impish smile indicating there was a point to his antics. "I want to open a used car lot at the church," he continued. Huh? "Yeah, think of it. It’ll be great. We have all that parking lot space left mostly vacant throughout the week. We’ll simply move the cars off the lot on Sundays for church and sell cars the rest of the week. It’ll give Christians a place where they can buy their cars and give an opportunity for them to witness to lost people who come to the lot looking." I decided to play along with the game just to see where he was headed. Well, who will run the used car lot? "I will, and you can help me if you want. But we’ll need to have the elders of our church oversee it." All of a sudden, it was clear where this friend was going. Why in the world would the church take on a project like a used car lot? Why would the elders waste their time overseeing something that is so clearly removed from their biblical job description? This friend was getting at a core church issue: just what is okay and is not okay for the church to do? A basketball gym? A school? A shopping mall? (All of these are now being run by American churches.) What would keep a church from opening a pawnshop, or a legal office, or a doctor’s office, or an accountant’s office? "Great question," this wise friend said, a grin spilling over his face. "Kinda makes you wonder about a lot of things the Church does, doesn’t it?"[29]

This illustration goes to the heart of what many members of our church have asked about. Does God commission the local church to do the work of social welfare? Should a local church have a daycare, nursing, or hospital establishments? Does it need schools, counseling services, and the like to function as a church? Should the church be about preventing physical poverty and its causes?

Marks and Purpose of the Church

These are good questions, yet Scripture seems to suggest that a church is present where the Word of God is preached correctly and where God’s ordinances are administered correctly.[30] As John Calvin said, "Wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, there, it is not to be doubted, a church of God exists."[31]

The right preaching of the Word and the right administration of ordinances mark both the creation and the preservation of the church.[32] While it is beyond our scope to do a detailed study of the marks of a church, it is important to note that what constitutes a church is not having a used car lot or a soup kitchen. Knowing this will help us to understand then what the purpose of the church is.

The purpose of the church is finally and ultimately to glorify God and reflect his divine character to the world. Paul writes, "[God’s] intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Eph. 3:10-11).

Glorifying God can come about in many ways, but Scripture seems to key on a few specific purposes given to the gathered church. The first two that we will touch on briefly are edification and evangelism. We can see both purposes where Jesus commissions the church by saying to his disciples,[33] "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:19-20).

By making disciples, we see a call to evangelize. By teaching them the Word, we see a call to edify those who have been baptized (see Heb. 10:25).

A final specific purpose given to the gathered church is to mold and promote corporate and individual worship. The church is an assembly of people who fellowship together, seek to worship God together, and devote themselves to God’s Word together. This is seen in Acts 2:42-47 where it says of the early believers,

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer…Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God…

The gathered local church is given a specific role throughout Scripture. It would be a huge mistake to attribute everything Jesus did or everything individual Christians are to do to the function of the gathered local church. Just because Jesus healed the blind does not mean we should assume that the church is to open an eye clinic. Similarly, it would be absurd to commission the church with the responsibility for raising children, because that role has been given to parents (see Eph. 6:1-4).

The Spirituality of the Church

In all of this, we are trying to protect something referred to as the "spirituality of the church." The "spirituality of the church" is a phrase used to communicate the idea that the fundamental task of the church is different from the tasks of other institutions, such as the government, and should not generally be mixed, unless exceptional circumstances make it necessary.[34] To take a current example, it is the church’s job to teach that God instituted the covenant of marriage to occur between a man and a woman only. This is seen clearly in Scripture and speaks to Christ’s love for his church (see Eph. 5:22-33). The church should also teach that a Christian’s actions should be consistent with his profession of faith (see James 2:14-17). But it is not the church’s job to tell a Christian who to vote for in a presidential election, even if the election may have ramifications for what constitutes legal marriage. As John Murray has written,

To the church is committed the task of proclaiming the whole counsel of God and, therefore, the counsel of God as it bears upon the responsibility of all persons and institutions. While the church is not to discharge the functions of other institutions such as the state and the family, nevertheless it is charged to define what the functions of these institutions are….To put the matter bluntly, the church is not to engage in politics. Its members must do so, but only in their capacity as citizens of the state, not as members of the church.[35]

The church should never be reluctant to speak out against horrific acts of evil endorsed by the state, but it must do so only when circumstances call for it.

The spirituality of the church teaches that the church is to be the church.[36] For our purposes, the spirituality of the church reminds us that, while a concern for mercy ministries and caring for the physical needs of the poor is a good thing for members of a church to have, the local church is not normally the primary vehicle given to meet those concerns. Such physical mercy ministries are not essential components needed to be a local church, or for us to be counted as a biblically "faithful" church.[37] Yet we can say that such ministry is the work of Christians individually, since individual Christians are involved in other structures of society such as families, schools, governments, and other organizations. Ultimately, we are relying here on the distinction between the specific work given to the local church and the work called for in the kingdom of God.

Relationship Between "Kingdom of God" and "Church"

The word "church" (Gk. ekklesia) can be defined as a gathering, or assembly, of God’s people.[38] As we have said before, it can refer to the universal church, but it mostly refers to the local church, which is how we are applying it.[39] When those redeemed by Christ’s blood gather and covenant together to form a local church, God gives them certain instructions of how they are to live together and be governed together. This is the specific, unique function and work of the church.

The work found in the kingdom (Gk. basilea) of God is somewhat different. The kingdom of God mainly refers to the reign, or rule, of God.[40] So in Matthew 6:9-10, Jesus teaches his disciples to pray by saying, "Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done…"

Working to make known the kingdom of God is both broad and comprehensive and extends to every sphere of life, both in the local church and beyond the local church. When Jesus sends out the seventy-two in Luke 10, he says,

When you enter a town and are welcomed, eat what is set before you. Heal the sick who are there and tell them, "The kingdom of God is near you." But when you enter a town and are not welcomed, go into its streets and say, ‘‘Even the dust of your town that sticks to our feet we wipe off against you. Yet be sure of this: The kingdom of God is near." I tell you, it will be more bearable on that day for Sodom than for that town.

Here we see that when healing comes to those who welcome God’s messengers and judgment comes to those who reject God’s people, the rule of God is displayed. This rule of God is regarded as both present and future (i.e. now and not yet). It is future when Christ returns bodily and God’s rule will be consummated in the final defeat and judgment of Satan (see Rev. 11:15).

But the rule of God is also present because Jesus came and completed his redemptive work and greatly increased the present blessings of the kingdom (see Rom. 14:17). In Matthew 12:28 Jesus says, "But if I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you."

All this is to say, whenever God’s rule is expressed over evil and sin and brings the blessings of God’s reign, there is the kingdom of God. Whenever an individual Christian spends his or her time helping the poor, or visiting the sick, or caring for the fatherless, there is an expression of the kingdom of God (see Luke 10:8-11 and Matt. 11:2-5). It can work through the local church,[41] but it is comprehensive and represents the dominion of God in every sphere of our lives. The local church’s role, however, is more narrowly defined as God’s instrument for preaching and displaying the gospel.[42] Not all worthwhile Christian service that is done in the world needs to be funneled through the local assembly of believers.[43]

Why This Distinction Is Important

The importance in understanding this difference is key to understanding the question of the local church’s responsibility to care for the physical needs of the poor outside the church. Again, we are not here speaking about the individual Christian’s responsibility. (We will come to that next.) The local church has a responsibility for what is taught and that it is taught. Therefore, it is harmful if the mission of the local church becomes diluted with other things that distract her from her primary purpose. Yet while the primary purpose of the church is the preaching of the gospel, she may pursue that in ways which include caring for the physical needs of non-Christians. Such mercy ministries to those outside of the church are not biblically required to be ministries of any congregation. But they may be employed to the end (whether directly or indirectly) of promoting the gospel in the community.

It is necessary, however, to emphasize that the church should not claim power and jurisdiction in every area of life, including social issues. There are greater calls on our compassion than even the most horrible physical sufferings, and no other body is charged with looking after meeting those greater needs and showing that kind of compassion than the local church.[44] It would be just like Satan and the world to desire the church to abstain from her role of proclaiming the exclusivity of Christ to become another welfare organization, when God did not give the church that function in Scripture. Ken Jones said it well at a CHBC Henry Forum. He said,

If the church never offers a single hot meal but preaches the gospel, then she is true to her calling. But if all she does is offer hot meals and dances in the neighborhood and gives away clothes but never preaches the gospel – she’s not a church…The church is not called to economically empower anybody, but it is called to deliver the message of reconciliation. But my concern is that…we are defining ourselves…by the programs that we offer and not the message we preach.

Think of all the benefits that follow when the church sticks to its God-given role. First of all, the gospel is always held in the forefront and is not competing with other agendas. It keeps the church free from other priorities in order to be obedient to Christ and his calling for the church. Otherwise, a lot of time and energy can be spent in wrong ways.

Second, it keeps the elders, deacons, staff, and members of a church from burnout. We did not all come together because we had sociology degrees and are skilled in caring for the poor, but because we proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. The biblical qualifications for an elder are not the same qualifications needed to be a good administrator of a day care center, and it would be inappropriate for the elders of CHBC to extend their oversight to such matters.

Finally, it shatters the idea that ministry should only occur in the context of a church or in its building; rather, Christian kingdom ministry should extend to every area of life, just as our worship of God does (see Rom. 12:1). Members of a church should still evangelize, even though a ministry program is not set up for it. This keeps the responsibility on the individual and does not allow for a general, blurred responsibility to lie with a group of people (i.e., the church).

Israel’s Relationship to Those Outside the Covenant Community

If we look to the Old Testament communal nation of Israel, we can see a consistency between Israel and the church. Israel is considered to be a "type" of the New Testament church, because the kingdom of God is no longer expressing itself through Israel with God’s rule and blessings but through the church (see Gal. 3:7). So it is important to see how Israel related to caring for those outside the covenant community as a nation.

We know from Scripture that there were not to be poor among the Israelites. Brother was to help brother so that no one would be in need (see Deut. 15:4-11). Blessings were promised only to those who lived under God’s rule. What we do not find in Scripture are commands for Israel to provide physical or monetary aid to the Philistines or to the Assyrians, that is, those who do not live under God’s rule.[45] We can see an example of this in how Israel was to conduct their lending to others.

An Israelite could lend to a fellow Israelite in need, but they were not to charge interest on the loan. They were also not to require payment but cancel all debts in the seventh year. Yet this is different from how they were to relate to foreigners. With foreigners, Israel was allowed to charge interest, as well as demand payment back. Physical benefits were not given to those outside of the covenant community (see Deut. 15:3-6 & 23:19-20).

It is true that Israel was commanded to care for the physical needs of the resident alien (see Deut. 10:18-19), but the alien is described as one living among the Israelites and is expected to obey the law among the covenant community (see Deut. 16:11-14; 26:11; 29:10-11). The alien was not part of the covenant community nor circumcised (see Ex. 12:48), but he was expected to keep the laws and receive benefits of the community. This alien would be equivalent in the New Testament to the children of church members, who benefit from their parents’ relationship to God and to other believers, though they themselves may not be Christians.

The Church’s Relationship to the Poor Outside the Church

If this is how Israel understood its responsibility to the poor outside the covenant community, then we should not expect the church’s responsibility to differ much. When the elders at CHBC prayed about, read about, and discussed this issue, we were all in agreement that there did not seem to be scriptural command for the church, as a local church body, to extend material resources to nonmembers. If the church were given scriptural command, for example, to feed all of the poor outside the church, then by inference the church would be commanded to feed the whole world. But this is not the case. Once again, Ken Jones says it well,

If a church never feeds a hungry, non-churched individual, if the church never puts clothing on a naked non-believing individual, it doesn’t make it any less of a church. But if a church fails to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, it ceases to be a church.

When we look at Acts 6:1-7, we can see the church extending material resources to those inside the church. It says that there was a "daily distribution of food." In fact, a church office was set up for it—that being the office of deacon. This was done so that the leaders in the church, the twelve disciples, could give their attention and priority "to prayer and the ministry of the word." Since this was the case, it would stand to reason that another office would be set up to care for those outside the church—if the church was to function this way; but there was not.

We even see examples of churches caring for the physical needs of other churches, but not for nonbelievers. In Galatians 2:10 Paul was to "remember" the poor, as he went out to minister the gospel to the Gentiles. The poor in this passage refers to the Judean Christians in Jerusalem, where Paul and the other apostles met, and not to the poor in general.[46]

The Judean Christians were under great difficulties and hardships after the first days of Pentecost. Acts 8:1 tells of a persecution breaking out against the church in Jerusalem that scattered the believers throughout Judea and Samaria; and Acts 11:28-30 shows that a severe famine occurred, as well (see also 1 Thes. 2:14-15). It was proper then for the Gentile Christians, who shared in the Jews’ spiritual blessings, to share with them in their material blessings (see Rom. 15:27). This is what Paul helped to do as he ministered the gospel to the Gentiles.

In 1 Corinthians 16:1-4 Paul instructs the church in Corinth to take up a collection for "God’s people" in Jerusalem when they gathered together. Paul also collected offerings from other churches in Macedonia and Achaia for the poor saints in Jerusalem.[47]

But what about verses in the New Testament that seem to suggest the church is to help the physical needs of those outside the church, such as Galatians 6:10?[48] Such passages are unclear, and we do not find an explicit example or mandate to the church, as a church, to care for the physical needs of nonmembers.[49] While it is not the purpose of this writing to do a detailed exegetical study on different verses, one thing that has helped us in studying these passages is to ask the questions that we do in our Bible study every Wednesday night, particularly the questions of who is being addressed and to whom is the text speaking.

To summarize, we are not saying that we understand Scripture to teach the regulative principle in such a way that denies our right or ability as a church to care for the physical needs of non-Christians in our community. Nor do we understand the teaching of Scripture to require our congregation to alleviate the physical needs of non-Christians in our community. Rather our conclusion is that congregations have a call to preach, display, model, and express the good news of Jesus Christ. And in obedience to that call we have both the liberty and responsibility to take such initiatives in our community as it is prudent to do so.

While Capitol Hill Baptist Church does have the freedom and prerogative to give financially to help the poor outside of the church, if it is deemed wise and prudent to do so, we understand that the best way to help the poor is to teach them the gospel. The best way to serve them is to tell them of Jesus. As a local church devoted to Christ, we understand that spiritual needs have priority over physical needs. If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. If you tell him the gospel, you could be used by God to save his life for eternity.

The Individual Christian

Before we begin discussing how we, as a church, practically handle caring for the poor, we should look at a last group. And this group is ourselves, as individuals. We are all called by God individually to help the weak, poor, and needy, and Scripture says that we will be rewarded in heaven for our kindness.[50] As we see Jesus giving to the poor both physically and spiritually, so we too must help others.[51]

This is not something that you as a Christian can opt out of. We are all called to help. We should not place caring for the poor on the same level as serving the church in the nursery or helping with sound. Not everyone is called to these, but each member is called to use his or her Spirit-given abilities for the common good of the church (1 Cor. 12:7). In the same way, how we serve in caring for the poor looks different for each individual, yet we are all called to show mercy to others according to our capacity, just as we are all called to love others. We may not have directly contributed to the problem, but we are still responsible to help, as it is in our power and means that God has granted us to do so.[52] No doubt there will be differences in what this will look like for each person, but none of us are excluded from sacrificially helping others.

Scripture does not say that we are to only help only those who are in our family or only those who are Christians. We are to also to help the stranger (see Luke 10:30-37). In fact, we are to go as far as helping our enemies (see also Rom. 12:17-21). As, Jesus said,

But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. (Luke 6:35-36)

God works through his people so that the world will better know of his love. We are to let our light shine before all men, that they may see our good deeds and praise our Father in heaven (see Matt. 5:16; 1 Pet. 2:12). This means that we are all called to abstain from sinful desires and live a pattern of life that brings praise and glory to our Lord. It suggests that if non-Christians cannot see your good deeds, then perhaps they are too private. Sin includes acts of omission, as well as commission.

When we turn to Scripture to see examples of God’s people caring for the poor, it is mostly within the context of the covenantal community. For example, in Acts 9:36-43 a disciple named Tabitha, who was raised from the dead, was characterized by doing good and helping the poor, particularly that of making clothing for the widows.[53] Acts 10:1-4 tells us that Cornelius’ active faith of prayer and generously giving to the poor was considered a pleasing "memorial offering" before God.[54]

So we see that God’s people care for the needy. This is evidence of a regenerated heart. "The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern" (Prov. 29:7). Scripture teaches that our attitude toward the weak and poor reflects our attitude towards God (see Prov. 19:17, 14:31; and Matt. 25:40). The gospel that affected our own lives so deeply will naturally overflow in love for others who are suffering physically and spiritually.[55]

The Sheep and the Goats

Jesus spoke about this evidence of being saved when he said,

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep form the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’ Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life. (Matt. 25:31-46)

This passage in Scripture is often used as the litmus test of whether one is a Christian or not. Some people would interpret Jesus’ words to say that "if you do these six acts of charity, then you are saved." And so, as the thinking goes, it is essential for Christians and the local church to be exercising these acts of mercy toward the poor on a regular basis. But is this the case?

We must always keep our guard against teaching that suggests that our works are the basis for our salvation, and not God’s grace. Scripture, all throughout, camps on this main message, and Matthew 25 is no exception.[56]

Here in our text, we see that salvation is based on election by grace. Look at verse 34 again: "Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.’"

First of all, an inheritance is never earned; it is given, just as grace cannot be earned. Otherwise it would not be grace (see Rom. 11:6). Second of all, those identified as the sheep have the kingdom prepared for them since the creation of the world—before they were born or had done anything good or bad. Furthermore, Jesus does not say they were saved "because" they had done these acts. Instead, the word used in the beginning of verse 35 is "for."

It would be like saying, "My car is broken, for it could not get me to work today." My car was not broken because it could not get me to work. Instead, it was broken, and this is the evidence of how I know: it could not get me to work today. So to apply this to our passage, the sheep will not receive their inheritance because of their works. Instead, their kindness to the poor is cited as evidence about those who are the sheep.[57]

Notice also that the six acts of charity were done to "the least of these brothers of mine." Jesus was not speaking about being kind to just anyone but to those who followed him. Jesus does not refer to his enemies as his brothers. The terms "brothers" and "least of these" were terms Jesus used for his followers.[58] The kindness or lack of kindness extended to these "brothers" was shown as a response to the Kingdom of God. The receiving of Jesus’ disciples was equivalent to receiving Christ.[59] By contrast, the world hates Christ and his followers. Perhaps this is why Scripture stresses that Christians are to love and help each other in need. 1 John 3:17 says, "If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has not pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?"

We can see that we must be careful in studying God’s Word so that we understand it correctly. Salvation is not based on how much we help the poor. We must never take pride in our acts of charity and look down on those who have not done as much as we have in helping the poor. Instead, we should gently encourage each other in the gospel, which is the root of all acts of charity offered in faith and love.


We now come to our final section where we will think about practical ways to help the poor. As we have already labored to say, the best way to help the poor is to tell them the gospel. Yet let that not be the only way! James is clear that faith without deeds is dead (see James 2:17). Our actions must work together with our faith (see James 2:22). This means that if a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food, we must not just wish them well but seek to help them (see James 2:14-16).

CHBC Church Covenant

Reading from the CHBC church covenant, it says, "We will contribute cheerfully and regularly to the support of the ministry, the expenses of the church, the relief of the poor, and the spread of the Gospel through all nations."

In light of this teaching, many church members have probably wondered what our promise to contribute to the relief of the poor means as we live out this covenant corporately. First, we must make sure that it must not mean something unbiblical. It must comply with Scripture. So in keeping with what we understand Scripture to teach, this phrase primarily refers to relieving the poor among the church congregation (see Rom. 12:13) and a happy encouragement for individual members to care for those outside of the church.

While contributing to relieve the poor oftentimes means to give financially to help them, it can also mean doing other things, such as helping a widow with groceries or transportation to church. In our church budget, we as a congregation have allocated funds to help with ministries that CHBC members have started and are involved with. The funds are allocated for evangelistic purposes and to encourage members as they seek to care for the poor by witnessing to them in love. We do not feel obligated to maintain these budget lines if members are no longer involved with these ministries. Each ministry that we support must have an evangelistic component to it (whether direct or indirect), and this evangelistic component is how we connect the ministry to the church’s purpose in making disciples.

Angel Tree is a perfect example. The Angel Tree ministry started out as a project the church’s youth began in order to reach out to those in the neighborhood who have family members in prison. All that was involved was buying gifts for the children of these families and giving them a banquet around Christmas where the gospel was presented to them.

As the years passed many members of the church began to get involved and made it a year-round ministry for the purposes of building relationships with those struggling in our neighborhood and sharing with them the gospel. As this ministry took root with more and more of our members, the church began supporting it with more and more of its funds.

Now if, all of a sudden, there was a large decrease in involvement with this ministry, the church leaders would not feel obligated to continue making the Angel Tree ministry work—it would just cease to continue. This is because, in the final analysis, Angel Tree is not a ministry of the church but a ministry of members in the church. Yet we are happy to use the relationships in the church as a way to make opportunities to give mercy known among the congregation.

Our church has also created a diaconal position entitled the Deacon of Community Outreach to help the members coordinate their efforts to help the poor. This deacon is the person you as a member should initially talk to about seeking ways to evangelize in our community through helping to care for the poor and needy. This position particularly aids the members in this church as we think about practical ways of being a witness for Christ and helping those outside the church with our individual lives. Any use of the church’s resources or communication—whether it be through the weekly email or an announcement on a Sunday evening—should then come to the elders for approval, as those who are charged with overseeing the church’s resources and meetings together.

For the poor who are in our own congregation, we have a benevolence fund. Our church established a benevolence fund to primarily assist members in financial need. On occasion the fund may be used to aid a nonmember upon the request of a member. However, the nonmember must either have an established relationship with the member or display a willingness to gather with the church regularly. Also, on occasion, the fund may be used to assist other local nonprofit organizations that help meet community needs in the name of our Lord Jesus.

If you are a Christian, being a member of a church is a great way to begin practically and intentionally caring for others. Roger Greenway says it well:

For churches, composed of the residents of the area, offer more effective remedies for the "hurts" of the city than any other form of association. The loneliness, insecurity, and frustration created by city life are ministered to best through the local assembly of Christians who meet regularly for worship and fellowship and belong to one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. The social impact of the Christian religion through the transformed lives of believers has more influence than any other factor in improving the quality of life in an urban community.[60]

Practical Ways to Care for the Poor

That is a brief look at how Capitol Hill Baptist Church functions. What about ways to be involved outside of the church’s ministry? There are numerous ways to practice caring for the poor. America is rich with volunteer not-for-profit organizations and other ways to care for those in physical need. Even in our own web of relationships, we have daily opportunities to care for those who need help, whether it is for a child, an aging adult, or someone who is ill. We have not spent a lot of time here on all of the specific opportunities in our city because there are so many and because it is more important to consider this matter theologically first.

That said, here is a quick summary of some ways that you can help.


First, it is important for us to pray for opportunities and boldness in reaching out to the poor. Pray for wisdom and the skill to listen so that you may discern was is the best way to help. And pray that God would work compassion in your hearts. God shows compassion by listening to the needy, blessing those who care for them, and holding accountable those who oppress them.[61] The poor must never become inaudible to us. Compassion becomes possible when we begin to consider others more worthy than ourselves (see Phil. 2:3-4). It is understanding that the poor are not just those who have sinned—like everyone else in the world—but are also those who have often been sinned against; sometimes abusively. Compassion means wounding your pride and associating with people who are poor and needy the same way that God has dealt with you (see Rom. 12:13).

Giving Financially

Second, give financially to help. This is a good biblical way to care for the poor. God rewards those who give to the needy (see Matt. 6:1-4). Greed is just the opposite of this and works to exploit those who are vulnerable to perpetuating their poverty. Much poverty is caused by the selfish actions of others either directly or indirectly. We must be mindful of the ways we advance financially in life. In our sinful natures we are so prone to get what we can without considering how we are obtaining it and who it affects.

Many of you have very busy jobs and are unable to spend the time necessary to care for the poor, even if you want to . Well, charity depends on industry, and while you may not currently have time, you might be able to supply money for those who have time but not money. Consider giving a week’s wages above and beyond your tithe to help the poor. The Salvation Army created what is known as the Self-Denial fund. This fund began by asking others to forgo a meal—or their "pudding"—and giving the money that would have been spent on that meal to help the poor. What a great way to love sacrificially.

Also, we encourage members to give to well-administrated organizations with a gospel emphasis, such as Central Union Mission in Washington. These organizations are specifically set up to assist the poor and can better hold accountable those they help. Giving to an organization can also help to maximize the financial support given. While it is not sin to give to an non-religious organization such as the Red Cross, you may want to consider how the money that God has given you is best used for his purposes and glory.

We believe it’s generally prudent never to give money to a stranger. General, undiscerning contributions can be irresponsible and unhelpful. When homeless people ask for money in order to get something to eat, depending on the situation, one might point the individual to an organization that the church supports. It may be worth carrying around one of the cards that our church office provides with the phone numbers of shelters that can help. This is worth doing because it’s difficult to know initially the real concerns of an individual, and we do not want to encourage a wrong way of living. If you are a man, it may be appropriate to buy a meal for an individual, but we would recommend doing this in order to have a conversation with the person, to listen to him, perhaps to build a relationship with him, and perhaps to share the gospel with him.

Building Relationships

That leads us to the third point, which is to build relationships with the poor. In Matthew 28:19 we are told to make disciples, not just converts. The most difficult thing to invest time in is people, but people are by far the most important. Who are you developing a relationship with? Let us encourage you to just jump in and beginning investing into someone who wants to overcome his or her circumstances and is open to the gospel. This could be through a not-for-profit organization, through a mentoring relationship, or through some other avenue.

Sometimes building relationships means strategically thinking about where you will live. In the New Testament, Paul is very strategic in going to urban settings to declare the gospel to many people. We don’t believe it’s necessary to sell all of your possessions and move your family to a public housing area of the city because the poor won’t listen to you or understand the power of the gospel otherwise. We do believe that it can be beneficial to deliberately think about how your ministry can multiply to those around you because of where you live. One of the best ways, if possible, is to live close to the church where you are a member. This makes it easier to get involved with the church, which in turn makes it easier to demonstrate God’s glory to the community through lives of shared love and responsibility. Besides that, it will be easier to invite friends and neighbors to gatherings of the church when they don’t have to drive forty minutes.

"Okay," you say, "we need to pray and give financially. But developing relationships takes time. In case you haven’t noticed, we live in one of the busiest cities; we have demanding jobs; some of us have families that we are caring for; and we desire to maintain a healthy attendance at our regular public gatherings with our church. How are we to help care for the poor outside the church also?"

To give you a definite answer to that question would make it too easy and would probably not be helpful. So let us encourage you to search your heart. In what ways is your time being used poorly and selfishly? In America most people are fortunate to have two days off from work each week. How are you using those hours? Go over your calendar with a friend and ask how you can better use the time that God has given you. Are there ways that you can combine any of your normal activities with caring for the poor? For example, could you include the time you spend with your spouse or child or discipleship relationship in helping others together? If fear is driving your hesitation, then how can you do better at trusting God? These are just a few questions, but you get the point.

The last thing that’s worth mentioning is the immediacy that helping often requires. Many of our initial encounters with those in poverty are in apparent crisis situation, and we are faced with what appears to be a choice between reacting swiftly or causing a person to suffer. It may be an encounter with a homeless person on the street who needs money immediately for a medical prescription; it may someone who is being evicted from his apartment the next day. These are the circumstances that can make us uneasy in helping because it requires urgency and, often, fast cash.

Just as fire safety officials tell us not to panic in the midst of a fire, so it is your responsibility to take time to understand the situation and what will be the best way to help. This may mean asking the person a lot of questions, and that’s okay. It may also mean asking someone else who knows this person to independently vouch for them, and that’s okay, too. The longer conversation you have with someone, the more apparent their needs will appear. Each situation is different, and it is difficult to speak to each without knowing all of the details. That said, we would encourage you to prepare yourself for these encounters ahead of time. Know the organizations around you that are able to help, and be wise in your compassion so that you love responsibly.


That is some practical advice for helping those outside of the church who are poor. Pray, give financially, and build relationships by being a help and a friend. What distinguishes good charity from bad charity is that good charity begins with forming a relationship that leads from poverty to responsibility and requires personal accountability. Do all of these things for the glory of God in sharing the gospel. Caring for others is a universal language. Throughout the New Testament we find that taking the gospel to the non-Jews or the Gentiles was the height of expressing love and concern for them. Let us not forget the importance of sharing the gospel in our own charity.

Steve Boyer (writing on behalf of the CHBC elders) has served for six years an elder at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC, and is presently on sabbatical. He wrote this paper in consultation with Mark Dever, Michael Lawrence, and Thabiti Anyabwile.

1 John Stott, Social Issues, 79.
2 "Hot Topics" article, The Salvation Army National Headquarters, October 7, 2003.
3 The Missionary, Central Union Mission, October 2003.
4 Mark 8:1-3 shows Jesus having compassion on the four thousand and giving them something to eat. Compassion also extends to evangelism as seen in Acts 17:16-17.
5 Matthew 8 also speaks of the centurion who had great faith in Jesus although he was a Gentile. Jesus used this healing to teach that faith, and not racial origin, would be the basis of entrance into the Kingdom.
6 Luke’s account of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Luke 6 is often used to show that God is favorable towards the materially poor (Gk. ptochos) in verse 20 and against those who are materially rich in verse 24. On the surface Luke does seem to secularize this, but Jesus is not condemning rich people but those who place their trust in their riches instead of God for "[they] have already received [their] comfort." The poor then are those who have placed their dependence on God, such as the prophets did (v. 23). Matthew makes explicit in Matthew 5 of what Jesus was saying in Luke 6 – "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
7 John 3:1-2 shows Nicodemus confessing Jesus is from God because of his miracles.
8 Matthew 9:35-36; Luke 4:15, 5:3; John 7:14-15
9 It is true that those who humbly trust in God are those whose loyalty often results in oppression and material disadvantage because we are told in Scripture that those who are in Christ will be persecuted (1 Peter 4:12-14; Mark 8:34-35). God’s people, also, do not seek to advance their own cause as the world does. Yet, it would be impossible to show a direct correlation between being physically poor and being a Christian. How else would we explain the physical prosperity of Christians in the U.S.?
10 James 2:2-6 seems to suggest this, but James is teaching against showing favoritism in the church and uses the example that God’s electing grace has chosen the poor, as seen in the eyes of the world. This does not exclude the materially wealthy from salvation because "poor" is a general term. Instead, the passage reminds us that God does not view things the way the world does.
11 Webster’s Third New International Dictionary defines the social gospel as "A movement in American Protestant Christianity initiated at the end of the 19th century and reaching its zenith in the first part of the 20th century, and dedicated to the purpose of bringing the social order into conformity with the teachings of Jesus Christ."
12 B. Moraes, One Race, One Gospel, One Task, Vol. 1, 308.
13 See Romans 13:9; Galatians 5:14; and James 2:8. Also, notice that Jesus did not dismiss the law but pointed to it so that men might know their inability to keep it and seek Christ’s righteousness over their own for salvation.
14 Notice that the second question was not a whole new question but an extension of the first question.
15 A Samaritan was not a Jew by race but was from an Israelite sect that adopted Jewish forms of worship and read the Jewish Torah. Samaritans were the people sent by the king of Assyria to inhabit the land of Israel after Israel’s captivity and were considered an enemy of Jews. See 2 Kings 17:24-41; John 4:9; and John 8:48.
16 Tim Keller, Ministries of Mercy, 110-111.
17 Applying the Scriptures section on "A Response to Wealth and Poverty" by J.A. Sekulow, p. 470.
18 Matthew 6:33 indicates that only those who seek first God’s kingdom and righteousness will be given all things as well, meaning food and clothing. While Christians are persecuted through means of starvation, this seems to be the only exception – self-sacrifice for righteousness sake. D.A. Carson does a good job explaining this point in his book Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount on page 100.
19 See Matthew 9:1-8, 9:27-30, 15:21-28; Mark 2:1-12, 6:4-6.
20 Craig Blomberg, Neither Poverty Nor Riches (IVP), 135.
21 See Luke 2:22-24, Luke 9:58, and Mark 15:41.
22 See Proverbs 19:1, 19:22, 28:6, 28:11; Ecclesiastes 4:13.
23 John Stott, Social Issues, 95.
24 See 1 Timothy 6:8 and Proverbs 30:8. Both passages speak to being content with the necessities of life. Hebrews 13:5 reminds us that our contentment is to be focused on God.
25 Similarly, 1 Corinthians 7:20-24 tells the slave to gain his freedom, if he can.
26 What is not mentioned, because it is not relevant to our study, is that the state is also to help guard the people entrusted to its care. 1 Samuel 8:20 shows that this is one reason why Israel wants a king in order to be like the other nations. It is sad to see that just a few verses earlier in 1 Samuel 7:10-14 God clearly protected Israel and gave them victory over the Philistines and now they were slighting him.
27 Genesis 9:5-6 shows that God gives man the responsibility to account for his fellow man and to enforce justice. "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man will his blood be shed."
28 Laws, such as the Sabbath laws found in Exodus 23:10-11, were examples of caring for the poor responsibly. Also, we are told in Scripture to judge the poor fairly (Proverbs 29:14) and also not to unjustly favor them either (Leviticus 19:15, Exodus 23:3).
29 B. Habig & L. Newsom, The Enduring Community, 79-80.
30 See 2 John 9-11; Galatians 1; and 1 Corinthians 11:17-34.
31 John Calvin, Institutes, 1023.
32 The right administration of ordinances deals with church membership both in baptism, which signifies entrance into the church, and the Lord’s Supper, which admittance to is carefully examined throughout the life of the church member (1 Corinthians 5).
33 The apostles were representatives of the church to be. Not every individual is called to go out, but the church is to send messengers into the world. This seems to be fulfilled in Acts through the church, as they were scattered and sent into the nations (see Acts 8:1-4, 11:19-30) and proclaimed the gospel.
34 R.L. Dabney in Lectures in Systematic Theology says, "The ends of the State are for time and earth; those of the Church are for eternity. The weapon of the State is corporeal, that of the Church is spiritual. The two cannot be combined, without confusing heaven and earth."
35 John Murray, Collected Writings of John Murray, 255.
36 D.G. Hart & J.R. Muether, Ordained Servant, vol. 7, no. 3, 66.
37 Mark Dever speaks well to the spirituality of the church in a footnote of his ecclesiology chapter for A Theology for the Church (B&H, 2007)..
38 Acts 19:32 uses the word generically to indicate an assembly of people.
39 Colossians 1:18 uses the word in a universal sense, and Acts 13:1 uses the word in a local sense.
40 The kingdom of God, however, can be meant to refer to a place (see Matthew 23:13, 13:43; 2 Peter 1:11) and a people, (Revelation 5:10) but it is primarily meant to refer to the reign, or rule, of God. Mark 10:15 and Matthew 6:33 refer to "kingdom" as to accept God’s rule. Psalm 145:11 expresses parallelism to associate the idea of kingdom with the power to rule.
41 In Ephesians 2:11-22, Paul shows that kingdom reconciliation ultimately finds itself within the church.
42 George E. Ladd writes an excellent study on the kingdom of God in The Gospel of the Kingdom. Also, see Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology on pages 863-864.
43 B. Habig & L. Newsom, The Enduring Community, 86.
44 Quoted from Mark Dever’s sermon on Ruth 2 (September 3, 2006). This sermon, along with the previous week’s sermon on Ruth 1, speaks at length to the role of the church in caring for the poor outside the church.
45 Scripture does speak of Israel helping other nations (e.g. Jeremiah 29:7; the Israelites are exhorted to be good citizens of Babylon where they were exiled).
46 When Paul recounts his journeys, he notes in Acts 24:17 that he brought gifts to his people in Jerusalem. These gifts were the offerings given by the Gentile churches.
47 See 2 Corinthians 8:1-9:15 where the Macedonian churches gave to the saints (v. 8:4; 9:1; 9:12). 2 Corinthians 9:13 says the church in Corinth shares their material wealth with "them" (i.e., the Judean saints) and with "everyone else". It is difficult to say who "everyone else" is referring to, but it is likely referring to other saints that are benefiting from the Corinthian church’s gift because it was in the context of giving "to the saints."
48 Galatians 6:10 was written to the churches in Galatia. "Especially" (Gk. malista) can mean the more exact group of people Paul will then name (i.e., Christians), as is done in 1 Timothy 4:10, but it could also mean the more general and vague "especially" that would still leave some obligation to others. It is unclear which it is referring to.
49 The following are explanations of texts that people have taken as a mandate for the church to help the physical needs of non-Christians:

  • James 1:27: James seems to be writing to a broad, general Jewish audience (v. 1:1) and not specifically to his church in Jerusalem, although the letter likely conveys issues with the believers in Jerusalem. While verse 27 appears to command the unequivocal looking after of all widows and orphans, James’ primarily Jewish audience would likely understand that these particular categories of people referred to those inside the community of believers as James 2 expounds upon further. The widows and orphans are types of those who find themselves helpless in the world and helping them is considered true worship (see Isaiah 1:10-17).
  • 1 Peter 2:12 (also see Matthew 5:16): Peter’s audience is not clear as to whether it is to a church or individual Christians, but it is likely to a wide audience of Christians spread abroad (v. 1:1). Living good lives among the pagans refers to how one conducts himself and is to be taken together with verse 11 on abstaining from sinful desires. This language is then followed by an exhortation to submit to those in authority, as perhaps a practical example of how this living good lives among the pagans is displayed. It does not seem to mean that the church is to care for the physical needs of nonbelievers.
  • 1 John 3:16-18: John is likely writing to a church and says that love of God is shown in loving his followers, or "brothers." "Brothers" is a covenantal term referring to those in the church and not those outside the church.
  • Ephesians 4:25-28: Paul is writing to the church in Ephesus (v. 1:1) but is speaking to individuals as verse 25 states. Again, there is not a clear mandate for the church to share with nonbelievers in need.

50 See Luke 12:33; Proverbs 19:7, 22:9, and 28:27.
51 Jesus was apparently known for giving financially to the poor in John 13:29. 2 Corinthians 8:9 conveys his giving spiritually.
52 In Old Testament Ethics for the People of God, Christopher Wright says that, "The law typically addresses not the poor themselves but those who wield economic or social power. Whereas it is common to see ‘the poor’ as ‘a problem’, and to blame them or lecture them on what they must do to redeem their situation, Israel’s law puts the focus instead on those who actually have the power to do something, or whose power must be constrained in some way for the benefit of the poor. Thus the law addresses the creditor, not the debtor (Deuteronomy 24:6, 10-13); employers, not day labourers (Deuteronomy 24:14); slave-owners, not slaves (Exodus 21:20-21, 26-27; Deuteronomy 15:12-18)." (p. 174).
53 Acts 9:41 could be rendered that Peter "called the believers, including the widows." However, it was normal Jewish practice to help those who were poor in their midst.
54 Cornelius was not a believer in Christ yet but was God-fearing and not a pagan.
55 See Jer. 22:16; 1 John 3:16-18; Ex. 22:21.
56 Phil Ryken in his book, City on a Hill, on pages 158-159, excellently expounds on Matthew 25:31-46 and says that the six acts of charity described were done by his people because they were done by Christ first. Jesus feeds the hungry (John 6:35), quenches the thirsty (John 7:37), befriends the stranger (Colossians 1:21-22), clothes the naked (Romans 13:14), heals the sick (Matthew 4:23), and sets the captives free (Luke 4:18).
57 Phil Ryken, City on a Hill, 153-154.
58 See Matthew 10:42; 18:6; 18:10; and 18:14. Also, "brother" is a common term used throughout the New Testament for Jesus’ followers (See Matthew 12:49-50).
59 See Matthew 10:40-42; Mark 9:41; and Genesis 12:3.
60 R. S. Greenway, Let the Earth Hear His Voice, 916.
61 See Exodus 22:27; Deuteronomy 24:13, 19; and Deuteronomy 24:15.

November/December 2007

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