1 Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. 2 And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. 3 Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. 4 But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” 5 And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. 6 These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them. 7 And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith. Acts 6:1–7 (ESV)
To rightly understand the bite of these words, we must first read them against the rest of the Bible. In 1 Timothy Paul writes to Timothy to direct him on the working of the church. Paul writes:
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 Timothy 5:8 (ESV)
Thus, caring for the poor – particularly in one’s own family – is of extraordinary importance. One who will not care for his family is “worse than an unbeliever”!
What of widows who have no family? These are to be either cared for by the church or encouraged to become part of a new family by marriage (1 Tim. 5:9-16; this command obviously presents interesting challenges in the current societal structure where marriage is less than universally sought or obtained – particularly for widows).
When Paul met with James, Peter and John, the pillars gave him “the right hand of fellowship” and left Paul with a single charge:
Only, they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do. Galatians 2:10 (ESV)
Both James and John specifically condemn those who claim faith and yet will not care for the physical needs of the poor (James 2:14-17; 1 John 3:16-18). Both make plain that who does not actually care for the poor does not possess saving faith and does not bear the love of God!
So here we see that Peter, Paul, James & John all explicitly give commandment for the care of the poor – to the point that caring for the poor is a necessary coordinate of a truly redeemed believer. If we were to canvas the OT we would find repeated exhortations to care for the poor and repeated condemnation of those who refused to care for the poor. The words of Amos, in particular, have always haunted me:
6 Thus says the LORD: “For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment, because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals— 7 those who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth and turn aside the way of the afflicted; a man and his father go in to the same girl, so that my holy name is profaned; 8 they lay themselves down beside every altar on garments taken in pledge, and in the house of their God they drink the wine of those who have been fined. Amos 2:6–8 (ESV)
Without question, care for the poor, for the widow is of supreme concern for the Christian Church: it lies at near the very center of our life. However, there is one element which has even greater importance: prayer and the word.
There are two aspects to this hierarchy. First, without the word of God, without love and faith, such care for the poor fails. It is not the mere transfer of money which is needed. Material poverty, as awful as it is, is not the deepest danger and harm. Even the most wealthy and privileged human being will stand before God. On that day, wealth will not help:
For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? Mark 8:36 (ESV)
The deepest and most profound need of humanity is reconciliation with God. Our particular troubles are merely symptoms and warnings of the underlying rebellion against God. All human misery flows from the fountain of sin and death. Pain and misery and oppression are merely proof that sin is present – and only in Christ will sin be destroyed.
The grandest anti-poverty program in the world – even if it lived up to its grandest claims – would merely ease the poor into hell.
Thus, the work of the word was of more importance that care for the poor (as extraordinarily important as that is), because the word is the only means to convey life (John 6:63 – interestingly coming at the end of a confrontation where the poor wanted only food and were not interested in the words of life).
Second, even as a practical matter, immediate care for the poor without the sustaining work of true faith and love will fail. The damage to the poor is much more than mere material want. Giving money may ease one’s conscience but it does little to bring love to another human being.
Even as the welfare state has grown in the West, brutality has grown up alongside of it. The most old and the most young, the most vulnerable of all are killed to grant momentary comfort to those with more power and strength.
Along this line, there was an interesting article in the British Press, by Matthew Parris. Christianity Today recounted his argument as follows:
The problems in Africa cannot be solved with aid money alone, but Africans need to know God, contends an atheist journalist and former politician.
Religion offers change to the hearts and minds of people – something aid cannot do, argues Matthew Parris, a former conservative MP, in a column for The Times.
“Now a confirmed atheist, I’ve become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts,” writes Parris, who was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, but now lives in England. “These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do.”
He went on to say, “In Africa, Christianity changes people’s hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.”
In conclusion, the word of God is more important than even the best of good work, because only the word of God transforms the heart and reconciles humanity to God. Then, as a wonderful secondary effect, the transformed life in turn flows out in good work. This is precisely the movement which Paul recognizes in Ephesians 2 where he first posits justification on the ground of God’s free grace received by faith – but such faith turns inevitably into good work:
8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. Ephesians 2:8–10 (ESV)