In his book, The Patient Ferment of the Early Church: The Improbably Rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire, Alan Kreider identifies a number of features of the early local church that made it distinct from and attractive to the surrounding world. Despite high barriers to entry and belonging, these distinctive local communities of Christ grew patiently and persistently.
One of those characteristics was a practical care for the poor and needy, especially within the household of God, but also spilling over generously to those outsiders most in need—such as those trafficked, imprisoned or the abandoned sick.
Today, there are Christian ministries doing remarkable works among the most destitute and vulnerable. Nevertheless, I would suggest that the local church is not broadly known for being a place where the poor are welcomed to a common table of fellowship.
For many churches, ministry to the poor and needy can seem marginal—optional at best or a distraction at worst. With few exceptions, unlike the early church, care for the needy is not seen as a mark of a disciple, but a ministry program serviced by those so inclined and which may or may not be part of the central mission of a church.
But what if care for the needy is a central aspect of faithfulness to Christ as the people of God, distinctive and prophetic in the world?
In a remarkable passage in Jeremiah 22, God is explicit that the outflow of knowing God is justice and care for the poor. In contrast, exploiting others and demonstrating a lack of concern for the poor and needy is to forsake the covenant of the Lord and to be an idolater!
This article touches on the relationship between love for God and love for those in need. We will then consider how a lack of concern for the needy can be understood through the lens of covenant and idolatry.
Caring for the Vulnerable Has Never Been Optional for the Mission of God
Please read Jeremiah 22 for yourself. Here are some telling verses from the chapter:
3 This is what the LORD says: “Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of his oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the alien, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place … 5 But if you do not obey these commands,’ declares the LORD, I swear by myself that this palace will become a ruin … 8 People from many nations will pass by this city and will ask one another, ‘Why has the LORD done such a thing to this great city?’ 9 And the answer will be: ‘Because they have forsaken the covenant of the LORD their God and have worshiped and served other gods’ … 13 Woe to him who builds his palace by unrighteousness, his upper rooms by injustice, making his countrymen work for nothing, not paying them for their labor … 15 Does it make you a king to have more and more cedar? Did not your father have food and drink? He did what was right and just, so all went well with him. 16He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?” declares the LORD. 17 “But your eyes and your heart are set only on dishonest gain, on shedding innocent blood, and on oppression and extortion.” –Jeremiah 22:3, 5, 8, 9, 13, 15–17, emphasis added
These words were directed specifically to the kings of Judah, the covenant people of God. Today, I would suggest, they would apply to leaders of Christian communities in particular, and to anyone called by the name of Christ.
God makes it clear: to look out for the interests of the weak, vulnerable and disadvantaged is the outward expression of what it means to know God. The one who loves God cares for the poor.
“‘He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?’ declares the LORD” (Jer. 22:16).
This is a powerful and provocative passage that links our heart for God with how we treat other people—especially the needy among us. This, of course, is a theme that is emphasized again and again in the Bible. Many New Testament scriptures have the same ring to them:
• Jesus’ Great Commandment to love God and neighbor (Matt. 22:37–39)
• The parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 15) in which Jesus explains that our “neighbor” can be as broad as anyone in need that we come across
• John, in his first epistle, asks, “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?” (1 John 3:17), before going on to later state that “anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20b).
• In Matthew 25:31–46, Jesus declares, “Whatever you did for one of the least of my brothers of mine [whether looking after the needs of the hungry, thirsty, poor, lonely, sick or imprisoned], you did for me.” The converse is also true, as our Lord goes on to say, “Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”
What a privilege and high calling, then, to love one another and our neighbor in practical and justice-promoting ways.
Challengingly, Kreider highlights that in the first few centuries after Jesus, a lifestyle of giving to the poor was (often) prerequisite to baptism—so explicit was the link between faith in Christ and care for the needy.
To Neglect the Poor is Idolatry
Let’s turn our attention back to Jeremiah 22. In verse 9, God equated how kings exploited their people and oppressed or overlooked the interests of the weak, vulnerable and disadvantaged—with “forsak[ing] the covenant of the LORD their God and … worship[ing] and serv[ing] other gods.”
Wow! Forsaking the covenant! Worshipping and serving other gods! These are seriously strong words.
It seems extreme, we might think—but that’s what it says. Here are two ways we need to start understanding and teaching this in our congregations.
1. We belong to one another in God’s covenant community
First, when God establishes a covenant, it alters not only the relationship we have with Him, it also alters our relationship with one another.
In other words, God does not just have a string of individual covenant relationships; he establishes a covenant community, his family, his household, a new people that belong to him and to one another.
• “In Christ, we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” (Romans 12:5)
• In Ephesians 2, Paul explains that Jesus, in his death, resurrection, and outpouring of his Spirit, not only brought us near to God, he brought us near to one another, in order to build us together to be a dwelling place of God by the Spirit (Ephesians 2)
• Paul offers strong words and warnings to the Corinthian church about the way believers were treating each other as they gathered to fellowship and share communion: “Do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?…Anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord (i.e. the members of the body or Christ in the midst) eats and drinks judgment on himself” (1 Corinthians 11:22, 29).
• It should not surprise us, then, to find that in the New Testament church in Jerusalem, “there were no needy persons among them because all the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had”? (Acts 4:32-34; see also Acts 2:44-45)
If we overlook the needy in our midst (in our covenant community), then we are forsaking our covenant relationships and obligations—and, thereby, hindering the community instead of nurturing it.
2. Our (lack of) care for the needy reveals the orientation of our hearts
Second, how we are with others is a powerful reflection of whether we are living self-centered or Christ-centered, self-preserving or self-sacrificial, a life out of our own resources and energy or a life by the indwelling life of Christ. If self is still at the center—if materialism, greed, material security, comfort or Mammon is somehow “controlling” us—then we are effectively idolatrous.
• “For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy [covetousness] person—such a man is an idolater …” (Eph. 5:5)
• “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed [covetousness], which is idolatry.” (Col. 3:5)
We must understand: Taking advantage of—or overlooking the needs of—our brothers and sisters in Christ doesn’t just happen. It happens because something isn’t right. It happens because the flow of the love and life of God is hindered and self-interest is at work, which is idolatry.
But here is the good news—when we’ve lost our lives and found Christ and his life, we will love one another as he loved us.
By Jesus’ own words, we know, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). This is the distinctive and attractive aspect that Kreider describes of the early church.
A Call to Recover the Lost Connection Between Love for God and Care for the Poor
How do we respond to what we see so clearly here—that love for God is inextricably linked to care for the needy?
Let me offer some ideas, mostly in the form of questions. These are a start. And I look forward to hearing your thoughts.
What if a care for the poor and needy among us was restored as a corporate Christian practice of covenantal faithfulness in the local church? What if giving to the needy was not an on-the-side, if-you-feel-passionate-about-it ministry, but a leader-led, pulpit-proclaimed, embodied practice of the local church and a mark of healthy discipleship? Individual expressions of compassion for the needy will be seen as just that—but when the local church embodies this corporately, it’s witness to what God is really like will be seen on another level.
What could this look like? According to Kreider’s account, having a common fund was widely practiced in the local church. A fund to which every believer donated, according to their ability, and from which the community leaders distributed to needy members.
What if a common fund became commonplace in the local church today, as it was in first two centuries of Christianity?
This sort of corporate practice of covenantal faithfulness, I suggest, cuts at the root of some of the idolatry in the West: idols of individualism, covetousness, comfort and materialism.
Additionally, there are organizations out there that can help the local church find her way. Christians Against Poverty is a charity that started in the UK in 1996, and has since started serving in the Australia, New Zealand and Canada. It works through local churches to bring debt relief. It is a nationally recognized, award-winning charity, helping thousands of people, Christians and non-Christians alike, out of the crippling burden of unmanageable debt. In the process, many have come to faith in Christ.
As we consider partnering with organizations such as these, can the local church practice a fuller expression of “defending the cause of the poor and needy” among us, for “is that not (in part, at least) what it means to know” the Lord?
Whatever your reaction to this article, I invite you to respond to God by searching the Scriptures for yourself:
• See how often the Old Testament talks about God’s interest and action for the poor and needy, the orphans and widows, the stranger and the prisoner, the blind, the oppressed and those who are bowed low—for it is an expression of the reign of God through his Son Jesus, i.e. the good news.
• And explore afresh the New Testament’s call to live as an alternative, counter-cultural community, under the Lordship of Christ, i.e. the church, and what that looks like.
• Then ask yourself: Is practical care for “the needy among us” a central part of the mission of your church? How are we actively undermining the idolatry that prevents us from caring for the needy in covenantal faithfulness? What stories do you see around you of local churches doing this well together?