Biblical Perspectives on Helping the Poor

By Thomas Williamson
3131 S. Archer Avenue
Chicago, Illinois 60608

"Blessed is he that considereth the poor: the LORD will deliver him in time of trouble." -Psalm 41:1.
"He that despiseth his neighbour sinneth: but he that hath mercy on the poor, happy is he." - Proverbs 14:21.
"Only they would that we should remember the poor; the same which I also was forward to do." Galatians 2:10.
"Give to every man that asketh of thee . . . love ye your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again." - Luke 6:30, 35.
We all understand the importance of helping the poor, a subject which is given great prominence in the Word of God. How shall we carry out a ministry of material assistance to the poor, on a practical basis?
Are we required, by the words of Christ in Luke 6:30, to give to everyone who asks us for money, without assessing the worthiness of those making the request? Do we have to give money to winos and junkies, knowing that they will make a beeline to the nearest liquor store or drug dealer with the money we give them?
The teaching from Christ and from the Bible in general, on giving to the poor and to those who ask us for assistance, should be considered in context with all that the New Testament teaches on that subject.
Paul wrote to the Thessalonians that "Neither did we eat any man's bread for nought; but wrought with labor and travail night and day, that we might not be chargeable to any of you. . . . even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat. For we hear that there are some which walk among you disorderly, working not at all, but are busybodies. Now them that are such we command and exhort by our Lord Jesus Christ, that with quietness they work, and eat their own bread." (2 Thessalonians 3:8-12.
In the context, it is clear that Paul is talking about disorderly and lazy people who were members of the church in Thessalonica, saying that they should be disciplined out of the church membership (2 Thessalonians 3:6).
If we are not under obligation to provide basic necessities like food to even members of our own churches, if they refuse to work, then certainly this would apply to non-members and non-Christians who choose not to work and who apply to us for assistance.
Therefore, I propose that all financial assistance by churches and individual Christians, on behalf of the poor, be structured in such a manner as to avoid giving assistance to those are able to work for a living and refuse to do so. I propose that we avoid charitable assistance that creates laziness and dependency on the part of the poor, and that we not lobby in favor of wasteful, socialistic government programs that create such dependency and encourage laziness.
We need not feel guilty about assessing and evaluating the worthiness of those who request financial assistance from us. The Apostle Paul encourages such efforts to distinguish between worthy and unworthy recipients of assistance in 1 Timothy 5:9-13 : "Let not a widow be taken into the number under threescore years old, having been the wife of one man, Well reported of for good works: if she have brought up children, if she have lodged strangers, if she have washed the saints' feet, if she have relieved the afflicted, if she have diligently followed every good work. But the younger widows refuse: for when they have begun to wax wanton against Christ, they will marry; Having damnation, because they have cast off their first faith. And withal they learn to be idle, wandering about from house to house; and not only idle, but tattlers also and busybodies, speaking things which they ought not."
Paul was talking here about whether or not to give charitable support to widows who were members in good standing of the churches. It is surprising but true that Paul counseled caution and discretion even in helping our own church members. Based on this principle, it would seem that we are allowed to evaluate the claims on our pocketbook made by the hordes of winos, junkies, grifters and itinerant con-men who are constantly trying to sponge off the resources of gullible religious people. And I believe we are allowed to "Just Say No" to them.
The fact of the matter is that our financial resources, as individual Christians and as congregations, are finite and limited. We do not have enough money to hand out to everyone and support them in idleness. We have to be discerning as to who is worthy and who really needs the money.
For the most part, those who receive our charitable assistance will be fellow Christians: "As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith." (Galatians 6:10).
The Apostle John also taught that we should not give our money to just anyone. In 3 John 5-6 he encouraged giving to financial needy traveling evangelists: "Beloved, thou doest faithfully whatsoever thou doest to the brethren, and to strangers; Which have borne witness of thy charity before the church: whom if thou bring forward on their journey after a godly sort, thou shalt do well."
However, in 2 John 10-11, he warned the churches not to financially assist itinerant preachers who were propagating false doctrine: "If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive not into your house, neither bid him God speed: For he that biddeth him God speed is partaker of his evil deeds."
I believe it is a New Testament principle that we are not under obligation to give money to everyone who demands it from us. Those who refuse to work or who propagate false doctrine should not be helped financially, however poor they may be.
The New Testament gives ample guidance on who should be helped. Those who have given themselves to the full-time ministry of God's Word should be liberally supported, 1 Corinthians 9:1-14.The ideal is that they not have to work full-time for a living, as Paul did in a pioneer church planting situation. In those days there were very few established churches with the financial means to support missionaries, but that is certainly not the case today.
Widows and orphans should be assisted: "Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world." (James 1:27). The death of the breadwinner in the family creates an urgent need that should be relieved in a liberal manner. Women who have been abandoned by their husbands, leaving them with no income and no support, are also a worthy subject for assistance.
Christians who are victims of persecution should be the objects of our charity. Hebrews 10:34 refers to Jewish Christians whose property was confiscated, whether by government fines or by the action of rioting mobs, because of their Christian testimony. We should come to the aid of those who have suffered for their faith.
Victims of natural disasters should be assisted financially. Acts 11:28-29 tells us of a collection for famine victims: "And there stood up one of them named Agabus, and signified by the Spirit that there should be a great dearth through all the world: which came to pass in the days of Claudius Caesar. Then the disciples, every man according to his ability, determined to send relief unto the brethren which dwelt in Judaea."
Many Christian organizations helped provide relief for the victims of the massive tidal wave in SE Asia in December, 2004. The BMA Department of Missions has organized fund-raising to help victims of such disasters as Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and Lebanese civilian victims of the Israeli bombing campaign in 2006. These and other disasters, caused by war, earthquakes, fires, tornadoes, hurricanes and other causes, can have a devastating effect on people who have worked hard all their lives and suddenly find themselves with nothing.
These types of needy persons are the ones to whom we should direct our charitable giving and assistance. Of course, if the charitable assistance is continued for too long, leading to dependence and laziness on the part of the recipients, then at some point the assistance may have to be cut off.
My suggestion is that we as Christians focus our efforts on these deserving classifications of people who are entitled to our assistance, and make sure that all of them are taken care of first, before we start handing out ready cash to all the winos, junkies and welfare cheats of the world.

Poverty in America - How Bad Is It?
Just how bad is poverty in America? Are there really millions of Americans who go to bed hungry every night? Should we feel guilty about that, and should we be lobbying our federal and state governments to raise taxes in order to expand our welfare programs and feed the poor?
It should be noted that most government funds spent on welfare do not go directly to the poor. Most of the money goes into the pockets of well-paid bureaucrats, social workers and contractors who make a good living off the poor, and who live a comfortable life in the suburbs while administering the poverty programs.To advocate the expansion of such programs may seem pious and compassionate, but to the extent that some of the poverty money actually filters down to the poor, it may only encourage laziness and attract more people to become "poor" so they can take advantage of all the government generosity.
From my perspective, I do not see a lot of poverty or genuine need in America. The Apostle Paul said in 1 Timothy 6:8, "And having food and raiment let us be therewith content." By that standard, I question whether there are many genuinely poor people in America. In some cases, people are needy because they refuse to work or they spend all their money on booze, drugs, gambling, lottery tickets and pornography.
Over the years, I have had plenty of opportunity to observe poverty and low-income people in Chicago, close-up. I live in inner-city Chicago and have been at the same location for 25 years. My zip code, 60608, is a lower-income area full of people who live under the poverty line, some of them in public housing projects. The population of the zip code where I live is 13% white and 87% non-white.
I used to work in real estate sales and management (I still have my real estate broker's license) and as a housing inspector, so I have been in the homes of many poor people.I also served as a landlord to poor people, renting out apartments to them in buildings that I owned. I have lived in the same house with poor people, and had friends and girlfriends from poor families.
In all my years living in Chicago, I do not feel that I have seen a lot of genuine poverty. The "poor" people I have observed over the years usually seemed to have enough money for whatever luxuries they wanted, including delivered pizza, televisions, stereos and extensive collections of popular musical recordings, stylish clothing, entertainment, whatever.
I have rented to tenants who did not have enough money to pay the rent, but they did have money for plenty of booze, tobacco, cable TV, musical CDs, cars, college tuitions, and recreation of whatever type they preferred. Their apartments always seemed to be heated to a stiflingly hot level in the winter, in spite of their alleged poverty.
I remember one lady who was my tenant, who told me she was so glad that she had divorced her husband and quit her job, thus making herself eligible for welfare. She told me the government was taking care of everything for her and the kids, and she showed me her welfare card entitling her family to free medical care. They lacked for nothing, and my apartment is still furnished in part with furniture that this lady on welfare did not want any more and gave to me. She and her children became more and more irresponsible in their idleness, and I eventually had to throw them out.
Then there were the tenants who constantly tried to borrow money from me, pleading that they had no food in the house. They were never short on beer and cigarettes, however. I finally had them forcibly evicted, and then had to spend hours just emptying out the half-full containers of beer, pop and fruit juice that they had left piled up in the apartment. There was plenty of spoiled and wasted food, some of it spilled all over the floor. I threw out an extensive collection of movie cassettes and hard-core pornographic posters - they had plenty of money to pay for those, but not to pay the rent.
I have been inside thousands of houses and apartments in inner-city Chicago and suburbs, and based on what I have seen, I am not deeply concerned about any shortage of food and raiment for these people, who live in an incredibly wasteful manner and leave behind vast amounts of useful and valuable stuff when they move out or are thrown out. There are of course some genuine hardship cases that need our assistance, but many of the "poor" are not really all that poor.
Another thing we do not need in the inner city is the well-meaning suburban motorists and tourists who hand out cash to the winos who beg for money at the major intersections. The winos take the money they collect directly to the nearest liquor store, and then loiter and hang out in residential areas, drinking, partying, yelling and cursing loudly, smashing beer bottles, relieving themselves in public, obstructing traffic and breaking into garages. They camp out on the front steps of residents' homes and businesses, and refuse to move when asked. Their activities are extremely destructive to the inner city, but they are funded by pious religious people who think they are somehow doing the Lord a service.
I believe that those who give money to the winos and junkies may be under the curse of Habakkuk 2:15, "Woe unto him that giveth his neighbour drink, that puttest thy bottle to him, and makest him drunken also" and that they will have to answer to the Lord for it some day. The winos and junkies refuse to work for a living, and we have already seen from the Word of God that we have no responsibility to provide for those who refuse to work.
I would invite all Christians who give money to the winos and junkies to stop and ask, "Have we as Christians taken care of all the deserving widows and orphans, poverty-stricken Christian workers, victims of persecution and of natural disasters?" before giving any money to the winos which will certainly use it to buy liquor and to destroy the struggling inner-city neighborhoods where the winos hang out.
I don't believe we are helping to turn the winos to Christ by giving them the money they need to pay for their addiction to substances that destroy their minds and souls. If the truth should be made known, we would know that most winos and beggars have nothing but contempt for Christianity and the weak-minded Christians who give them money.
I remember sitting on a park bench in St. Augustine, Florida watching a procession of priests at an ordination service at the historic Roman Catholic church. A man and a woman, who were plotting how to get a handout of cash from the priests, plopped down on the bench beside me. I heard the man say, "They have to give us the money - that's what those [expletive deleted] are for."
I hope those Roman Catholic priests were smarter than some evangelical Christians who think they are helping deserving people and somehow advancing the cause of Christ by giving money to people who absolutely will not be spiritually helped in any way by our misguided charity.
The best poverty-fighting program in America is available to all able-bodied poor people, and it is called "hard work." Let us be charitable to those who cannot work or who have suffered disaster through no fault of their own, but let us not give hand-outs to those who choose not to work. Their laziness is nothing other than a form of ungodliness and disorderliness (2 Thessalonians 3) which should not be subsidized or encouraged in any way by Christians.
I hope I have not come across in this article as having a harsh or uncaring attitude toward the poor. I once was poor myself. I worked my way out of poverty through hard physical labor, working 57 hours a week over a period of years, in a factory that was very cold in winter and very hot in summer. I have had many advantages in life that others have not had, and I realize that not everyone can work their way out of poverty as easily as I did, especially in Third World countries.
Since the Bible clearly teaches and commands generosity to the poor, I will continue to try to help the poor with my donations to recognized charitable organizations. But I will not knowingly give to able-bodied lazy people who refuse to work, or to depraved persons who spend whatever is given them at the nearest emporium of sin.