Published: 20 March 2023

What Is The Church’s Responsibility To The Poor?

Responsibility To The Poor

For Paul to have devoted so much of the letter of 1 Timothy to the topic of widows, there must have been a serious problem related to their care in the Ephesian church. It would seem Christians in Ephesus were not taking care of the widows in their family. This meant that the burden for their care fell to the church. We can also infer that the church was caring for widows who were behaving in such a way as to bring shame upon the church. Some were even leaving the faith. What is the church’s responsibility to the poor?

Paul made it clear in 1 Timothy 5 that the church does have a responsibility to the poor (specifically widows). Regardless, he also made it clear that the church is not some kind of glorified Red Cross. The church is not responsible for feeding the entire world.

Who is a “true widow?”

3 Honor widows who are truly widows. 4 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. 5 She who is truly a widow, left all alone, has set her hope on God and continues in supplications and prayers night and day, (1 Tim. 5:3–5 ESV)

Paul defines a “true widow” as one who has no one to help her. Thus, the aid under consideration here appears to be of a permanent nature. It doesn’t seem to be one time or temporary assistance, but ongoing. Why is assistance of a permanent nature implied? Because a “true widow” has no one to help her and she cannot provide for herself. Unless these circumstances change, she will require aid. The church has a responsibility to the poor in this case.

A true widow may be one who has no living relatives to care for her. However, a woman may also be a true widow due to the fact that she has deadbeat children and grandchildren who are too lazy or too selfish to help her. 

Worse than an infidel

As the old KJV puts it, someone who refuses to care for his relatives is worse than an infidel. An infidel is simply an unbeliever:

But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. (1 Tim. 5:8 ESV)

Why is this the case? Because even those who are not believers know they have a moral obligation to care for relatives who cannot care for themselves. This is such an obvious duty that even those who have no knowledge of God recognize it is shameful to neglect their parents and grandparents. Those who refuse to care for the needy of their own family are the lowest of the low not deserving to be called a Christian. 

“They are disobeying the teachings of the church, teachings going back to the fifth commandment, and their disobedience is the backdrop for this entire section. This is why their negligence is worse than that of the nonbelievers: they are knowingly breaking God’s law.”1 

“Let not the church be burdened”

If any believing woman has relatives who are widows, let her care for them. Let the church not be burdened, so that it may care for those who are truly widows. (1 Tim. 5:16 ESV)

God’s appointed way of caring for the poor is through their families, not through the church! Only when there is no family, and the widow has lived, and is living, a godly life is she to fall under the permanent care of the church. Let’s face it, the church is simply unable to care for every single person who has needs. It is unreasonable to expect the church to have a responsibility to the poor wherever they may be found. The church is not a welfare organization giving handouts to those who have other means of support. There are limits to the church’s financial resources. Therefore, only those truly in need should be beneficiaries of those resources.

Stipulations for receiving permanent aid

Even for those who are widows in need, there are stipulations to being provided with permanent aid:

9 Let a widow be enrolled if she is not less than sixty years of age, having been the wife of one husband, 10 and having a reputation for good works: if 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. (1 Tim. 5:9–10 ESV)

The church has no biblical authority to enroll a widow unless she meets certain characteristics. Essentially, she must be too old to provide for herself and she must have a reputation which makes her worthy of receiving the church’s support. In her youth, she developed a reputation for giving to those in need. Thus, now that she can no longer care for herself it is time for the community to return to her what she has been known to give.

Presumably the younger widows (those under 60) could find a way to support themselves and/or were able to remarry. These requirements in vv. 9-10 are probably not meant to be an exhaustive or rigid list, but rather a list to screen out those who had other means of support. 

Is this list comparable to the requirements for elders?

Why would this list not necessarily be exhaustive, but the requirements for overseers (1 Tim 3:1-7) is? Because with the exception of being able to teach, the list for overseers are qualities that all Christians are supposed to have or be striving toward. On the other hand, there is no biblical requirement for elderly women to be indigent! Comparing the requirements for enrollment as a needy widow with the qualifications for being an overseer is comparing apples and oranges. 

For example, what if a woman raised no children because she was barren? Do we deny her of care because of issues beyond her control? Not having children was not a disqualifier for being enrolled. In contrast, it would disqualify a man from being overseer because it left him unable to demonstrate his ability to lead. In the case of a childless widow, this may be the reason she needs support in the first place; she is a true widow because she has no children to care for her. 

What both lists have in common is that they are meant to screen out those who are lacking. Just as it would be disastrous to put an unqualified man in the position of overseer, it is equally disastrous to give aid to those who would abuse it. Those who receive aid and are undeserving of it are a drag on the church in terms of both finances and reputation. 

What Is The Church’s Responsibility To The Poor?

The church has an obligation to help the poor, but not all the poor. The church is to care for its own first. Contrary to the ideas of the social justice warriors and proponents of the social gospel, the church is not a glorified agency whose mission is to dispense aid to the world’s poor. 

The church’s primary benevolence obligation is to its own. This does not mean the church cannot help others, but it must not do so at the expense of its own family members.


  1. Mounce, William D. Word Biblical Commentary, Pastoral Epistles, Vol 46, Nelson, 2000, 593.