Wise Benevolence: Fighting for the Poor Among Us

Benevolence ministries are some of the most stressful and frustrating ministries pastors and church staff oversee and carry out. No city or small town is in short supply of poor and needy people. Homelessness and joblessness leaves men and women without means to support themselves or their families. Some of this is due to personal moral failures, but there are also larger systemic problems that lead to generational poverty. There are literally thousands and even millions of people living in America who sleep under bridges, in brushes, and on the streets of our cities.

Because of these sobering realities and the overt biblical commands to love neighbor and fight for justice, the church must wrestle through ways to best minister to those living in poverty within their communities. Pastors and elders who question how to best care for the least of these and work on behalf of the weakest in society reflect the heart of God in both the Old and New Testaments.

However, providing temporary housing, food, or helping people find jobs is a stressful undertaking for a church that requires both diligence and discernment. 

Benevolence ministries require diligence. Being convicted that Scripture calls for radical love and care for the least of these is one thing. Being consistent in meeting needs and loving the needy is quite another. Pastors and church staff involved in benevolence ministries know all too well how frustrating it can be to come alongside someone struggling to find food or shelter only to see them arrested for drug possession a few months later. It is heart-wrenching and spiritually tolling to help someone get back on their feet only to see them repeatedly fall back on their face.

Diligence and faithfulness and perseverance are required to tackle a ministry that can make you feel like a fool. My meager experience with benevolence cases have shown me how dishonest and untrustworthy people can be. When someone takes advantage of your generosity, it is easy to grow bitter and cold. But when our hearts grow weary or cold to the poor, we must linger by the fire of the gospel to be reignited. Christ became poor for our sake so that we might be eternally rich in him. So, all ministries of benevolence will require gospel diligence to carry on when the struggle intensifies.

Benevolence ministries also require discernment. This is where clear distinctions must be made and held. It would be disobedient to God to ignore or neglect the poor in your community. But it would also be disobedient to poorly steward your funds in caring for the poor. A church’s entire budget could be designated toward caring for the poor in your community and it probably wouldn’t even make a dent. As mentioned above, there are larger systemic problems that need addressed in order for poverty to be diminished in our cities. Churches must steward their funds in such a way that best serves the poor in their community while first serving her own people. Churches are primarily responsible for shepherding and caring for her own members. To neglect the needs of those within the church for the sake of those outside the church is unwise, unbiblical, and irresponsible.

Knowing who to help and how much to help them is difficult. Tim Keller writes in his book, Generous Justice,

It is difficult to know ‘where to draw the line.’ Churches and Christian organizations must not be wooden and mechanical, yet they will have to come up with some agreed-upon guidelines, or find themselves endlessly arguing.

Each case must be evaluated on its own terms. In some cases, traditional help would actually do more harm. To say, “Yes,” to every request inevitably means the church would at times serve as enablers to the unhealthy and self-defeating lifestyles of some. And as hard as it is to do, sometimes we must say, “No.” One local church cannot help every need. But we can develop fundamental guidelines for helping the poor that can increase our abilities to address many needs we are faced with.

The realities of poverty in our communities lead us both to and away from benevolence ministries. Obviously, poverty leads the church to desire to help the poor. But in light of the diligence and discernment required to conduct such ministries, we are also naturally drawn away from helping the poor. Self-sacrifice for the sake of those who can give us nothing in return is unnatural to the flesh. No doubt we will all have and hear objections to benevolence ministries. “We don’t have the means.” “They have done this to themselves.” “We have our own problems.” This is where Jonathan Edwards can help with all of our objections to helping the poor. May this motivate us to consider how our churches can best address poverty in our communities.

We in many cases may, by the rule of the gospel, be obliged to give to others when we can’t without suffering ourselves…If our neighbor’s difficulties and necessities are much greater than ours and we see that they are not like to be relieved, we should be willing to suffer with them and to take part of their burden upon ourselves. Or else how is that rule fulfilled of bearing one another’s burdens? If we are never obliged to relieve others’ burdens but only when we can do it without burdening ourselves, then how do we bear our neighbor’s burdens, when we bear no burden at all?

Christ loved us, and was kind to us, and was willing to relieve us, though we were very hateful persons, of an evil disposition, not deserving of any good…so we should be willing to be kind to those who are…very undeserving.

— Jonathan Edwards, Works of Jonathan Edwards: Sermons and Discourses, 1730-1733, vol. 17, pp. 397-98

With robust diligence and rigid discernment, let’s work to alleviate the plight of the poor among us, because that is exactly what Christ has done for us.

Mathew Gilbert (B.A. Boyce College) is Associate Pastor for Children and Preschool at The Church at Trace Crossing in Tupelo, MS. He is married to his high school sweetheart, Erica. Mathew and Erica live in Tupelo with their son, Jude. You can follow him on Twitter @mat_gilbert.


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