Charity and Triage

1 Timothy 5:3-16 (NLT)


By Chuck Griffin

Some of Paul’s writings can seem difficult to process or even irrelevant because they are so tightly bound to cultural circumstances that seem far behind us. In today’s example, a reader might want to explore what it meant to be a widow in the early church as it existed in Ephesus, and what particular challenges the church faced at that time.

A trustworthy commentary or study Bible can help a reader uncover some of these important details of history, and such a learning process is always useful. That’s not where I am going today, though. Instead, I want to see if this seemingly anachronistic passage might hold some general principles that remain valuable now.

Let’s begin with a common point every church through time shares: Some churches may seem rich and some may seem poor, but all churches ultimately have finite resources. This means some care must be taken in how resources are distributed among people in need.

If we are to be good stewards, a form of charitable triage is required. In medicine, triage is a process where the wounded or ill are ranked for treatment so as to maximize the number of survivors. I see a kind of triage happening in this passage.

Of lowest priority would be those who demonstrate or express a need, but who also clearly have the ability to resolve their problems on their own. When encountering these situations, a church’s efforts should focus largely on education, showing people the path to independence.

In 2 Thessalonians 3:10, Paul gave this very direct comment regarding idleness: Even while we were with you, we gave you this command: “Those unwilling to work will not get to eat.”

In situations where people cannot resolve their problems on their own, church leaders still need to carefully analyze the family dynamics, exploring whether some sort of healing needs to happen in  the relationships there. The continuing importance of the family unit within the church comes through clearly in what Paul wrote to Timothy.

Where there is family, church support of people in need would again have to be somewhat conditional. As a pastor, I have seen families try to pass along responsibility for an impoverished or ill relative to the church, wanting to be free of the stress caused by the family member.

The family as a whole could very well need financial and spiritual assistance in supporting the relative. But the family still should take a demonstrably active role in the process, particularly if that family claims to abide by Christian values.

Of highest priority would be those who are truly alone and unable to help themselves. With careful stewardship of resources, a church should be able to offer these people God’s love in powerful and comforting ways.

In all of these situations, grace and gentleness should prevail, of course, with the goal of bringing everyone closer to God constantly in mind.

Dear Lord, may your Holy Spirit help us navigate the often difficult circumstances surrounding charitable work, and may your kingdom be glorified in all we do. Amen.

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