Sunday, August 13, 2006

Mercy Ministry and the Two Kingdoms, Part Five: An Overlooked Passage

Though the two most oft-quoted passages relating to mercy ministry are Luke 10:30-37 and Galatians 6:9-10, it would be a difficult task to prove their direct relevance by demonstrating that they provide instruction to the church, as such, for developing diaconal ministry.

But interestingly, there is one particular passage in the New Testament that explicitly addresses the issue of the church officially giving financial aid to those in need. In this passage we not only learn that the church is responsible for mercy ministry, but we also are provided with a checklist telling us exactly who qualifies. Ironically, however, this passage rarely finds its way into discussions of mercy ministries (due either to neglect, or the fact that we don't like its conclusions).

In I Timothy 5:3-16 we encounter the Apostle Paul giving specific instructions to his disciple regarding the financial aid that the church gives to widows. Paul begins with the less-than-sensitive statement that Timothy, as an overseer of the church, is to "honor widows who are truly widows" (v. 3). The obvious inference here is that there is more to a woman’s being a "widow" than her husband dying. According to the apostle, to qualify as a widow in need of financial assistance from the church, a woman must be thus described:

"[She has] set her hope on God and continues in supplications and prayers night and day… having a reputation for good works … she has brought up children, has shown hospitality, has washed the feet of the saints, has cared for the afflicted, and has devoted herself to every good work" (vv. 5, 10).

And this is not all. If she meets all of these requirements, but is either young enough to remarry or has children old enough to support her, she is not be given aid:

"But if a widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to show godliness to their own household and to make some return to their parents, for this is pleasing in the sight of God. She who is truly a widow, [is] left all alone...."

In fact, Paul is blunt enough to write:

"Let a widow be enrolled if she is not less than sixty years of age, having been the wife of one husband.... But refuse to enroll younger widows.... If any believing woman has relatives who are widows, let her care for them" (vv. 9, 11, 16).

Paul’s reasoning behind these strict instructions is clear: "Let the church not be burdened, so that it may care for those who are really widows" (v. 16).

OK, will someone please explain to me how this passage—undoubtedly the most relevant to the issue in the New Testament—is only NOW finding its way into our discussion of mercy ministry?

Why has all our talk about whether the church is "an agent of common grace" completely ignored the only text in the New Testament that actually addresses what we’ve been discussing?

And in the light of this pericope, can anyone still insist that a local church's diaconate is responsible for the needy outside the bounds of its immediate care?