PRINCIPLES OF MERCY MINISTRY PT. 2 1 Timothy 5:8-16
Pastor Dennis Bone
There is a story about a village whose local leadership decided to clean up their streets by rounding up the vagrants, the homeless, the unemployed and poor people who lived on the streets and putting them in jail. Living in this same village were three philanthropists who became aware of this situation and didn’t think the conditions at the jail were ideal for “these people.” The first philanthropist went to the jail and said, “I understand that my neighbors are without good drinking water and bedding; I want to use some of my money to provide them purified water and comfortable beds.” The jailers agreed and the man left glad he was able to offer kindness and charity to his neighbors.
The second philanthropist went to the jail and said, “I understand that the people here don’t have much food; it’s basically bread and water. I have a large farm so I want to donate the harvest of my crops to see that these people have good food to eat in jail. The jailers agreed, and the philanthropist left feeling good about helping his neighbors. The third philanthropist, although somewhat heartened by the acts of the other two, was disturbed that his neighbors remained unfairly in jail. Thus he went to the jail and paid to free them; and brought them to his nice big house, put them to work on his farm, and began to look for their family members to find out what had really happened, in order to meet their real needs.
Which philanthropist showed true mercy; which one truly loved their neighbor? The point is that mercy ministry is more than just acts of compassion or kindness that might bring temporary relief to a difficult circumstance (although sometimes that might be all you can do) but the goal of mercy and compassion should be first of all to lead to justice.
This means that we want to make things right for the individual who has real needs; or for the situation that needs to be corrected or resolved. God requires us to “act justly, love mercy and walk humbly.” This of course can be challenging and very difficult at times, both within our families and within the church and our community, which is why God gives us principles and guidelines to follow in His Word. This is what Paul is doing in I Timothy 5, which we began to look at last week and will continue today. The theme of this entire chapter, as you all remember, is accountability; and the main subject matter of the first section is widows within the church. Thus the three points on the outline could really be questions: How is the family accountable; how are the widows accountable and how is the church accountable?
The principles we learn here will teach us and guide us not only about meeting the real needs of widows, but also the real needs of others, as Christians and as the church. Let’s start with verse 8: “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.” Foundational to Paul’s teaching about helping those in need is the place of the family. The family should be the “first-responders” to widows in need – verse 4: “But if a widow has children or grandchildren, these should learn first of all to put their religion into practice by caring for their own family and so repaying their parents and grandparents, for this is pleasing to God.”
Accountability starts within the family. Of course families, and individuals, should look to the church for sound doctrinal instruction and teaching, for guidance and prayer, and for physical and material support when necessary; but all of these things – especially the financial and physical needs – begin in the family.
Paul’s point is that the church should not pre-empt the priority and duty of family to take care of their family first. The church is a spiritual support system that helps the family navigate through the needs, but does not act in place of the family unless circumstances merit such intervention. So the first principle is: mercy is demonstrated through biblical instruction and wise support of those in need. We have a widow in our church and we know of other widows in our families. I believe that all have family available to help and some have church families to offer support as well.
The church must seek to understand the situation and apply the criteria or qualifications that we talked about last week from this passage: family, faith and lifestyle; so that our actions to help or not help will be wise and responsible. We hold ourselves and others accountable to the biblical instruction and principles. Thus the second principle: Christians must assess “real needs” and determine how to best address them through biblical discernment. We need to make judgments when it comes to a person’s beliefs and behaviors so that we don’t do more harm than good. It’s not our job to tell people what to do, but it is our job to be accountable to what God tells us to do, thus we need to have and follow biblical principles. Thus the third principle: It’s the duty and witness of Christians to take care of physical and spiritual family members.
The implication of verse 8 is: “What kind of testimony are we giving as Christians if we are not actively involved in taking care of the real needs of our family?” James says that we demonstrate true faith by our actions; and John says that the love of God should move us to meet the material needs of our brothers. This activity is not to be arbitrary or out of guilt; or without biblical guidelines.
Accountability should not lead us to inaction, but to responsible actions. The church as the spiritual family of God works with the physical family, in order to hear God’s word, follow God’s word and meet the real needs in our midst. This leads us to the next point and next section of I Timothy 5: the accountability of widows. Paul gets more specific as to the guidelines for how to best help the widows in the church; and again the accountability involved in this process. So let’s hear what Paul says staring with verse 9 and 10.
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. Paul shifts from talking about the widows who need help and support, to the list of widows who can help provide the spiritual support in terms of teaching, counseling and visiting the sick and those in need. The spiritually qualified widows should serve and minister to other widows in the church.
Thus first, the church must consider maturity, purity and spiritual reputation of widows. Paul uses the age of sixty, not because it’s a magic number but because a widow would be less likely to re-marry (at least in his culture) and have a greater track record of service and spiritual reputation within the church. Paul is instructing Timothy to look for examples of women who have been faithful to and in their family, hospitable to travelers, and eager to serve. Of course they are not the only ones who should provide help, but they provide a support system. As we read this passage, and the one that follows it, we are again reminded of how the church is called to make judgments on people’s spirituality and accountability within the church.
Paul is teaching us that it is people’s spiritual connection to God and to God’s people that makes them effective and qualified to serve, even as it a person’s connection to God and to God’s people that qualifies them to be served by the church. In our society this may seem a little too personal or intrusive because even in the church most people do not want to be accountable. These guidelines for widows in the church are specific, in terms of this practical situation, but the principles are not different for anyone who wants to serve or minister to people within God’s church. Paul is elaborating on the important principles of faith, lifestyle and family; and how these things show our faith in God and our spiritual suitability to serve.
In verses 11-15 Paul speaks about the younger widows and why they should not be on this list: As for the younger widows, do not put them on such a list. For when their sensual desires overcome their dedication to Christ, they want to marry. Thus they bring judgment on themselves, because they have broken their first pledge. Besides, they get into the habit of being idle and going about from house to house. And not only do they become idlers, but also gossips and busybodies, saying things they ought not to. So I counsel younger widows to marry, to have children, to manage their homes and to give the enemy no opportunity for slander. Some have in fact already turned away to follow Satan.
So second, the church must consider the physical desires of younger widows as well as spiritual character and responsibilities. Again, this may seem intrusive and too personal to us, but in truth Paul is being very practical in his efforts to help keep people from sinning and turning to false teaching and behavior that leads them away from Christ and disrupts the church.
Women were considered widows not just by virtue of their husband dying, but some Christian women lost their husbands to desertion or adultery. Paul’s counsel is for them to not rashly or emotionally say: “I’ll never marry again; put me on the list.” This was a vow or a pledge one made to Christ – verse 11 – and younger women were not necessarily ready to make it. This was already happening and the result was that many younger women were becoming idle gossipers and busybodies – verse 13 – instead of committed servants. Unless they had the gift of celibacy their desires got the best of them, and they resented their vow of commitment.
This didn’t happen in every case, but Paul is teaching the church to take into consideration the real needs of younger widows; and the practical realities of life. Again it goes back to the theme of accountability and the responsibility of the church to help hold its members accountable, whatever their status or state in life, while at the same time recognizing the real needs that people have in their lives. For those women who did re-marry they are accountable for themselves, their children and their family – verse 14 – “So I counsel younger widows to marry, to have children, to manage their homes and to give the enemy no opportunity for slander.” In other words, instead of going on the list, when you are not ready for that commitment, find fulfillment in other areas of life and other responsibilities, which starts with your family.
More and more in our society, women who have been left alone for a variety of reasons, are having more children but not getting married and not being spiritually responsible, thus are unable or unwilling to manage their homes. The burden then falls to their family or to the church or to the government (nowadays) to figure out what to do.
Paul’s point is that the burden of accountability falls first to the family, and says in verse 16: 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. Thus the third point is that the church must consider the role of capable women in the church to support qualified widows in their family. Again Paul is point us back to the importance of the family in meeting the needs within their own family as a support to the church, which then gives the church a greater opportunity to help those who are in real need, which by definition are those who have no family to help, who are not in a position to help themselves and who meet the qualifications and biblical principles for the church to step in.
So this then takes us back to the accountability of the church and the overall principle that we can learn about mercy ministry as a church from this chapter. The general principle is that the church is called to meet the real needs of their members, exemplified first and foremost by widows. Widows were not the only needy members of the church but the most visible; and the most involved as we have seen from this passage, yet we know from experience and other passages of Scripture that they are not the only ones who can be recipients of mercy ministry. So I want to summarize the key principles that I’ve talked about this week and last week.
First, the church must demonstrate spiritual discernment by using biblical guidelines or principles to know who to help, when to help and how to help people in need. It’s not always easy to answer these questions but the way we answer them speaks to our commitment to Christ and to His Word; as well as our witness to the community.
Thus second, the church demonstrates true mercy when responsible compassion is given in love; and supported by accountability and produces hope. Think about how all these words work together and if we leave one out we will most likely default to one extreme or another: help that hurts; or no help that hurts. And then third, the church must seek to apply these same biblical principles used to qualify the real needs of widows to also address the real needs of people in our community. We have focused primarily within the church but the church has some accountability to the needs of the community around it as well.
As Paul reminds us in Galatians 6: “Therefore as we have opportunity let us do good to all people, but especially to those who belong to the family of God.” The principle of accountability starts with our physical and spiritual family and extends to the needs of our neighbors, which is a message for another time.
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