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.

Giving and Receiving

Proverbs 3:9-10

Honor the Lord with your substance
    and with the first fruits of all your produce;
then your barns will be filled with plenty,
    and your vats will be bursting with wine.

As we launch into the first work week of 2021, let’s think about what we plan to dedicate to the Lord this year, supporting the work of the church.

It’s good to start a new year deliberately praying about how we will participate through our tithes and offerings in the kingdom work that will happen. If we seek guidance from God, we will find clear answers, and from there we can make commitments satisfying to our souls.

In the Old Testament, a “tithe” usually is a reference to 10 percent of what a herd or field produces. That concept, of course, can apply to monetary income, too.

Mainly, I want us to understand the value of thinking in percentages—a percentage commitment can be made before we know for sure what we will receive. Wherever I have led as a pastor, I have encouraged people to write down a percentage commitment early in the year and post it where they will see it regularly, for example, on a bathroom or dresser mirror.

Once you’ve faithfully and bravely done all that, the rest is just a matter of following through.

I have to be careful with what I next say. The above proverb also promises abundance to those who make and keep such commitments. I don’t want to sound like a prosperity gospel televangelist, saying $10 will return to you for every dollar you contribute.

But simultaneously, I will always affirm that a life lived with God, a life where we conform our resources to God’s unselfish plan, is better than a life where we simply look out for ourselves. After all, we live as reflections of the God who rained manna where needed, who turned a few loaves and fishes into great abundance, and who gives us eternal life through the cross.

As we are blessed through our close walk with God, we may even find ourselves making offerings above our basic commitments, if for no other reason than to show gratitude.

Lord, guide us in regard to how we are to use our resources in 2021. We trust we will receive our daily bread; knowing that, we seek to better understand the purpose of any abundance we see. Amen.