A relative of mine, until recently a pastor in a Reformed church, recently forsook his wife of 34 years to commit adultery. Now, as the betrayed wife goes through a painful divorce, where his callousness and deceitful character become more apparent every week, she is faced with severe financial hardship. He, of course, lost his job as a consequence of his actions, and his new line of work has a notoriously uncertain income. There are very few assets to divide between the two. Her life has never included much work outside the home, and with a high school education and health concerns, her income potential seems low.
My household is closely involved as we seek counsel and assistance for the wife. It has caused me to think more about the role of the family and the church in providing charity and has revealed much about the modern church’s view of assisting the poor and downtrodden.
The family should be the first recourse for individual assistance in situations like this, according to 1 Timothy 5:16. The church is a backup, and supplement to, the family when the family cannot provide adequately for its own needy. So when the church provides material help, what should that look like? I would suggest three principles, but I would not want to imply that this list is complete. The first part of the article is devoted to the first two principles.
Is the Church a Gateway to the Welfare Office?
First, if the family’s resources are inadequate, the church should actually provide the assistance rather than directing the needy person to the state. The state is not, and cannot be, the proper avenue of charity. Its mission is that of justice (Romans 13:1-4). Charity is to be a voluntary act on the part of the individual, family, and church.
There are several practical as well as scriptural reasons for keeping the state away from the work of charity. One of these is that the state cannot keep a person accountable the way a family or church can. This is particularly so now, when the state is attempting to formally separate itself from Christian moral principles in favor of a vague and contradictory “pluralism.” Before the state began to provide welfare in its various forms, unemployment insurance, and Social Security, the family and the church were the primary sources of assistance for an individual suffering hardship. Thus, the individual who neglected family or church obligations, was quarrelsome, or isolated himself geographically from the family or church, became exposed to greater risk. This increased financial risk is a “here-and-now” penalty to immorality that should remind a person of the eternal consequences of forsaking God. The state — especially now that it is considered inappropriate to use Christian morals to decide whether or how to provide charity — is incapable of duplicating what the church and family have effectively done for millennia. If the church simply dumps its needy onto the state welfare rolls, it is giving ammunition to those who would contend that tax-funded welfare is necessary because private charity does not work.
Second, charity should take into account the spiritual state of the recipient. Those of the “household of faith” are quite properly the first to be cared for with limited charitable resources. This does not mean that the unbeliever or those deeply entrenched in sinful behavior cannot be ministered to charitably. But charity should be conditional in the sense that it should not be continually provided to those who refuse to dispose of sinful patterns of life. Second Thessalonians 3:10-12 and 1 Timothy 5 require conditions on charity. Jonathan Edwards wrote,
If they are come to want by a vicious idleness and prodigality; yet we are not thereby excused from all obligation to relieve them, unless they continue in those vices. If they continue not … and if their fault be forgiven, then it will not remain to be a bar in the way of our charitably relieving them….Now hath Christ loved us, pitied us, and greatly laid out himself to relieve us from that want and misery which we brought on ourselves.1
Furthermore, the charity should be administered in a way that takes into account the sinfulness of man and does not provide an opportunity for the assistance to be misdirected. It is common wisdom that it is better to provide the street beggar with a meal than with five dollars “for a meal.” It requires uncommon wisdom to apply this principle in a world where the situation can become much more complicated, and in a hurry. In the case in which my family is now involved, the former pastor’s church agreed to continue his salary and benefits for several months. This severance pay was not, as far as I am aware, a contractual obligation. It was an expression of goodwill, a form of charity. At least one person representing the church indicated that it was the church’s intent that the funds be used primarily for the benefit of the deserted wife. This approach might have worked, had the husband been a man of character who would divide his severance pay in accordance with their intent. But, as he had already demonstrated by his adultery and associated deceit, he was not a man of character. Toward the end of the severance period, he drained the joint bank account immediately after the next-to-last direct deposit from the church and demanded that the remaining paycheck be sent directly to him. This they were compelled to do, as they had contractually obligated themselves to continue his pay for that time. The result of the church’s decision on severance pay was to transfer a large amount of tithes and offerings to an unrepentant adulterer. In retrospect, it might have been more appropriate to provide no severance pay whatsoever and provide those same funds to the wife, as a gift.
No church will be perfect in its dealings with charity, much less a charity case complicated by tragedies such as illness, death, theft, or adultery and divorce. But the church has a responsibility to learn from its mistakes and to remember the character of those to whom it provides assistance.
1. Jonathan Edwards, Works, vol. 2, quoted in Timothy Keller, Ministries of Mercy, 1 st ed., p. 99.