The Gospel Coalition

The Bible is full of explicit commands and implicit commendations to help the poor.

One thinks of the gleaning laws in Deuteronomy 25 or the command to "open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor" in Deuteronomy 15. We can read about Job's heart for the needy and oppressed in Job 29 to 31 or of God's special concern for the poor in Psalm 35 and Proverbs 14.

We also know Jesus was moved with compassion for the weak, the harassed, and the helpless (Matt. 9:35-36). We see in the early church that the needs of the poor and distressed was a constant priority (Acts 4:34-35; Acts 11:30; Gal. 2:10). And frequently we are command to love one another not only with words but in the concrete actions of generosity and material support (James 2:15-17; 1 John 3:16-18). Even the elders, who are to be devoted to the word of God and prayer, were told by Paul to help the weak (Acts 20:35).

Clearly, God cares about the poor and wants us to care about them too.

But how?

Maybe you're thinking: "Okay, I'm a Christian. I know God cares about the poor. I know I should care about the poor too. I do care about the poor. So what is my responsibility to help them?"

HOW SHOULD WE HELP THE POOR?

The question is deceptively complex. It's very easy (and altogether biblical) for folks to insist that Christians ought to "be concerned about the needy" or "do something about the poor." That's powerfully true, but it doesn't say nearly enough. In an age when easy travel and ubiquitous WiFi can connect us to billions of needs around the planet, how do we determine whom to care for and when to do something?

If Christians have an obligation to help the poor (and we do), does that mean we are obligated to help everyone everywhere in the same way in any circumstance of need? How should we think about our responsibility to help the poor?

I believe two critical principles can help us answer that question.

Principle 1: We are most responsible to help those closest to us.

In general, we ought to think of our sphere of responsibility as having expanding concentric circles. In the middle, with the closest circle, is our family. "If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever" (1 Tim. 5:8). This means that if you have the ability to help your (not lazy) children and don't, you are a pagan. If you have the necessary resources and yet you neglect your aging, helpless parents, you have turned from Christ.

In the next circle we have members of our church community. The principle is really the same: just as we have an obligation to provide for our natural family, so we ought to provide for our spiritual family. The New Testament frequently enjoins us---by example and by explicit command and warning---to care for the needs of the Christians in our local churches (Acts 2:45; 4:32-37; 6:1-6; James 2:15-17; 1 John 3:16-17). If there is a Christian in your church who is materially devastated by calamity or infirmity and we who have resources in abundance do nothing to help, we prove that we do not truly have the love of Christ or know Christ himself.

Next we have members of our Christian family whose needs are more distant. We still have an obligation to care for our brothers and sisters, but the Bible speaks less forcefully the farther away the needs become. So in 2 Corinthians 8 and 9 Paul clearly wants the Christians in Achaia to generously support the Christians in Macedonia, but he is stops short of laying down a command (8:8) or exacting a contribution from them (9:5).

In the outer circle we have the needs of non-Christians in the world. The church should still be ready to do good to all people, but this support is less obligatory than what we owe to Christians and is framed by "opportunity" rather than requirement (Gal. 6:10).

One other category should be mentioned. Sometimes we come across needs that are so obvious, so immediate, and we are in such a unique position to help, that it would be wrong to ignore them, whether the person is a family member, a church member, or a complete stranger. Regardless of prior affiliation or acquaintance the "closeness" of the need is too close to ignore. This seems to be the point of Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) and the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). If we see a child drowning in the pool, we should dive in. If a woman is being beaten up, we should intervene. If a minivan has collapsed on a barren stretch of highway, we should stop and lend a hand. The concentric circles are helpful as a general guideline for care, but they should not be used to justify the lack of care when someone needs our assistance right here and right now.

Principle 2: We are most responsible to help those least able to help themselves.

Here again we can think of expanding concentric circles of responsibility. The progression with this principle is a little different because if we go out far enough in these circles we are actually commanded not to help. So the logic needs to be tweaked, but the basic imagery is still useful.

At the center, we have those people whose situation is most desperate because their options are most limited. In the Bible this prototypically meant "orphans and widows" (James 1:27). But the principle applies to any person or persons who will crash unless we provide a safety net. Caring for believers in prison was another classic example in the ancient world (Heb. 10:34).

Outside of this inner circle, we find those who are less desperate but still depend on others for their well-being. In the New Testament this meant being generous with hospitality, especially to travelling evangelists who relied on the kindness of their brothers and sisters for their mission (Matt. 10:40-42; 25:31-46).

Next, we have those Christians with long term needs. The striking thing about almost all of the "poor" passages in Scripture is that they envision immediate, short-term acts of charity. There is nothing about community development (which doesn't make it unbiblical) and only a little about addressing situations of ongoing need. By putting these situations in this circle I don't mean to imply that we ought only to care about quick fixes. The point, rather, is that we must think more critically before committing to long-term assistance. In both Acts 6 and 1 Timothy 5 we see church leaders working hard to develop a fair and sustainable process for the regular distribution of resources to the poor. In particular, we see in 1 Timothy 5 that the widows who went on the official rolls had to meet certain requirements. The women had to be godly, older Christians in order to receive the church's care (1 Tim. 5:9-16). No doubt, the church sympathized with almost all widows, but they had to be wise with their resources. They did not want to support young women who could get married or fall into idle sinfulness. And as for the other requirements, I imagine the church knew it had to draw the line somewhere and requiring "a reputation of good works" ensured that the widows on the rolls were genuine, faithful, known Christians and not just busybodies looking for a handout.

In the farthest circle out we have people that must positively not be helped by the church. First, Christians should not provide hospitality for false teachers or do anything that would aid and abet their wicked works (2 John 10-11). Second, Christians should not support able-bodied persons who could provide for themselves, but prefer laziness instead (1 Thess. 4:11-12; 5:14; Prov. 24:30-34). The apostolic principle is clear: "If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat" (2 Thess. 3:10). In fact, Paul insists that church discipline be exercised on those who persist in idleness (2 Thess. 3:14). The Christian responsibility to charity does not extend to those who expect others to do for them what they could do for themselves. Helping the poor in these circumstances is no help at all.

BASIC PRINCIPLES FOR WISE DECISIONS

Obviously, I have not begun to answer the myriad of "What if...?" and "What about...?" questions that arise when churches start to work on actually caring for the poor. I can't give specific answers for every situation because the Bible doesn't give those answers either.

But what the Bible does do is provide the basic principles to inform wise decision-making. As you consider your personal obligation to the poor and your church's corporate obligation, keep in mind these two principles: proximity and necessity. The closer the person is to you (relationally, spiritually, or geographically) and the more acute the need (because it's immediate, urgent, or within your unique power to provide), the greater your obligation is to give, assist, and get involved. The farther out you go in either circle, the less "ought" you should feel and the more caution you should take.

But please don't use the two circles of responsibility as an excuse for apathy and inactivity. Use the biblical principles to help you set priorities wisely and respond in ways that are sustainable and effective.

This article originally appeared in the 9Marks Journal.


Comments:

Obligation to the Poor « Anthem Song

July 24, 2012 at 07:44 PM

[...] getting at. I’m in love with the path He has us on. I consider it a blessing. I read a recent article by Kevin DeYoung about Obligation, Stewardship, and the Poor. In the article he’s talking [...]

orphan advocate

July 21, 2012 at 10:28 PM

Wow, this article really surprises me, especially given you have a nephew who may not be alive had your brother not adopted him from Zambia. I guess the orphans in really far away places are just out of luck? I'm sure glad that Jesus expanded his compassion, mercy and forgiveness beyond the Jewish people.

Jake

July 21, 2012 at 09:32 AM

Normally love your blog posts but I was a little disappointed with this one...I guess it's just a little too pragmatic for me.

Lots of good information on serving the materially needy but no mention of how that translates into helping the spiritually needy. In the sermon on the mount, Jesus says be salt in a decaying world and light in the darkness so that others will see our good works and give glory to our Father in heaven. God is glorified when the wayward son returns, when enemies become sons. God is glorified when sinners repent. The primary burden is that of sin and all our efforts to relieve secondary burdens should keep this in mind.

Our church group hits on this constantly because it's really hard to find people in the US who are truly shackled by poverty, but it's exceedingly easy to find people who are truly shackled by sin.

Anyway. Keep writing. I love the blog and I love your books. Thanks.

-Jake

[...] Kevin DeYoung, Obligation, Stewardship, and the Poor [...]

Michael B.

July 20, 2012 at 08:28 AM

Wow, does this article so brilliantly sum up American Suburban Evangelical Christianity -- worry about myself, my wife, my 2.5 kids, my church friends and inner circle, and if there's time for it, anybody else.

R. Delaney

July 20, 2012 at 03:59 PM

This is why we should beware of concentric circles.

My old pastor used this model in order to explain why we only had fellowship with (and prayed for) churches that subscribed to our Confession of Faith. That's why the church a little way down the street was basically non existent to us, while we prayed for churches halfway across the country that we never met.

Seems like common sense is a better model than concentric circles. But...I see this article was published in 9Marks Journal. What a shocker!

TBR Recommends… « The Blessed Rebellion

July 19, 2012 at 11:28 PM

[...] DeYoung offers this post on caring for the poor.  He has also been preaching on the doctrine of Scripture and posted this list of helpful books in [...]

Joe

July 19, 2012 at 10:02 AM

Neither side of the aisle seems to have good policies for the poor. The left encourages abortions which are definitely skewed towards the poor and unproductive of society (the goal to lower this end of the population), while the right simply wants everything to trickle down. The left wants to hand out money, while the right doesn't seem to do anything to try and encourage education and life skills to break the poverty cycle. They both have methods to end poverty, but neither has the right effect.

Weekly Web Gems | Evan Vanderwey

July 19, 2012 at 05:44 AM

[...] And speaking of care . . . Kevin DeYoung lays out principles for how to really care for the poor. This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. ← “Why?” [...]

Caring for the poor

July 19, 2012 at 05:06 PM

[...] But how? Click here to read the remainder of this excellent article [...]

ChrisB

July 18, 2012 at 11:27 AM

@Jeffrey,

Re: your second comment, the problem there is that both parties really do think their policies help the poor. At least one of them is wrong, but neither side thinks it is theirs.

As to the first, I would point to the many recent articles that can be found on the web showing that our attempts to help from afar usually hurt more than they help. That doesn't mean we shouldn't try, but it does mean we should be cautious.

Also, remember that charity is also part of evangelism. Being a people who help our physical neighbors is a way of winning more of our neighbors for Christ. Eternal needs must outweigh temporal ones.

Jeffrey W Baldwin

July 18, 2012 at 10:29 AM

I am very disappointed by this article. It seems to me that it "doesn't say nearly enough." The age of the internet and our consciousness of living in a global economy should get us thinking in the opposite direction. I see at least two blind spots: (1) Helping those in need closest to you. OK, sure, and I realize some people don't do that, and please do reprimand them, but generally speaking, most people (and many unbelievers) naturally do this. But already, even many of the "poor" in the U.S. are living at a much higher standard than many other places in the rest of the world. You would think that the internet would teach us that what we call "needs" may not be actual needs, when compared to other countries. And let's not forget that the question about "who is my neighbor?" has already been given an answer, and it did NOT come from the first concentric circle. . . So why not start with where the need is greatest? How do we find the person who needs assistance here and now, when we are living in nice suburban communities? This would mean that all churches that are working in the inner city are constantly dealing with immediate needs of persons, while others are mowing their lawns in the suburbs and occasionally help the grandma across the street with her groceries. So, let's all just move to places where we don't find ourselves immersed in needs all around us! And too bad for the missionary who comes back to report about the great needs of a place far away . . .
(2) The other side of this is that government policies do affect the lives of all people, rich and poor. Our vote can influence policies that affect the life of the poor. If I am encouraging laws that make the poor poorer while I also help with charity, I am a walking contradiction. I am basically throwing them tidbits but making sure they stay where they are forever. When reading the NT we must remember believers did not have voting rights at the time, so we cannot judge them by the same standard. But we know from the OT that the law was sensitive both to the need for hard work and productivity, but also for justice toward those who were poor through no fault of their own. Our right to vote forces us to think for a moment like rulers who sense a responsibility for the whole of society, and ask ourselves what policies would be most fair and just for all.
Please re-think this.

[...] Obligation, Stewardship & The Poor - “Clearly, God cares about the poor and wants us to care about them too. But how?” Kevin DeYoung gives us two biblically-based principles to consider as we address this question. [...]

Tom

July 18, 2012 at 07:52 AM

Mark, perhaps like salvation, the narrow path is the biblical one.

Melody

July 17, 2012 at 11:59 AM

Excellent guidelines. For a while the big thing in my peer group was to say that we should focus our giving on the people with the most need anywhere. Being Americans this would mean that we would never give to our local churches and their outreach ministries because the poor in America are still many times better off than the poor in Africa. It would also mean not giving to our families, because even in crisis our families are better off than poor Americans.

That idea felt horrible, but on my own I had a hard time figuring out if I was wrong or they were. I ended up talking to a pastor at my church about it and his answer looked a lot like this blog post.

Nick McDonald

July 17, 2012 at 10:46 AM

So what does it mean to have the opportunity to help an unbeliever? As I reflect on the advent of technology and our ability to connect instantly with millions of needs worldwide (as you rightly point out, Kevin), when do the needs of unbelievers ever trump our obligation to our church? Maybe if the "opportunity" is an opportunity to clearly show God's grace and the gospel?

yankeegospelgirl

July 17, 2012 at 09:53 AM

The oft-quoted passage where Jesus says "ye did it unto me" is, I think, one of the most commonly misinterpreted sections of Scripture. Many great philanthropic works have been accomplished by people who took those verses as their motto and went about doing good for the world at large, but the text is pretty clear that Jesus is referring specifically to Christians. He says "the least of these MY BRETHREN," and we know that he used the word "brethren" to refer to people who believed on him. So for example, when he discusses things like prison visitations, he no doubt has in mind people who will be imprisoned in persecution. This then connects with what you were saying about how the needs of our brothers and sisters in Christ are the most urgent for us to meet.

Bernard

July 17, 2012 at 09:29 AM

This is tremendously helpful Kevin and I will return to it often as a key resource on the topic. One tiny correction: in 2 Cor 8 and 9 Paul is encouraging the Christians in Achaia to support the poor in Jerusalem rather than in Macedonia (see Romans 15:25-26).

Andrew Wilson

July 17, 2012 at 07:18 AM

Helpful as ever, Kevin. Thanks. One comment: the placing of non-Christians in the "outer circle", and describing helping them as not a "requirement", is challenged by Bruce Longenecker's recent monograph "Remember the Poor: Paul, Poverty and the Greco-Roman World", in which he argues that the poor in Gal 2:10 were not, as often thought, the Jerusalem Christians, but the poor in general in the cities of the empire. Worth a look if you haven't seen it.

Mark

July 17, 2012 at 04:25 PM

Kevin

It seems to me you consistently take the most narrow interpretation possible when it comes to charity and social justice. Just an observation.