- the blessing of a caring assembly
Christianity is Christ and Christ is Care
The Lord Jesus’ invitation is still being heard and heeded, ‘Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light’. Compared to the treatment they may have received at the hands of the Pharisees, every comer to Christ has found Him to be true to His promise: His yoke is easy and His burden is light. He does not ‘bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders’, and lift not one finger to move them. Indeed when He was among men, He raised caring to a level that had never been known before. No other ministered to body, soul and spirit as Christ did. In bereavement and suffering He drew near with comfort and cheer. They saw His work and they wondered. They saw His weeping and they wondered. They learned that ‘he careth’. And He still does care.
The Lord’s own parable of the man journeying from Jerusalem to Jericho indicated that in the absence of the tender-hearted Samaritan the once-halfdead man would still need care. Over the ages others have heeded the instruction, ‘Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more when I come again I will repay thee’. They have found immense encouragement in the emphatic pronoun ‘I’ of that unambiguous command, ‘I will repay thee’. Conversely, they have soberly considered the behaviour of the evil servant, who in the absence of his Lord began ‘to smite his fellowservants and to eat and drink with the drunken’. Well they know the danger of lowering the standards of care and of a deteriorating appreciation of those for whom Christ died.
The requirement for care has always been part of Christian testimony
On 1 April 2002, the Scottish Parliament established a Care Commission to introduce for the first time national consistency in regulation of care. All services are inspected against the same national standards. In addition, the way that registration, inspection and enforcement action are carried out is the same across the country. But in the first century the New Testament already contained guidance on how consistent standards of care would be established and be sustained throughout the period of our Lord’s absence. The teaching of the apostles left a pattern that if followed would assure consistency of standards, and revealed how adherence to those standards would be unerringly assessed.
When Paul wrote to the Galatians, he made reference to meeting James, Peter and John, those men ‘who seemed to be pillars’ of the assembly in Jerusalem. They met to consider important doctrinal issues relating to the gospel, yet those very apostles required Paul and those Gentile believers who were with them to ‘remember the poor’. We note approvingly Paul’s reaction to that requirement, ‘the same which I also was forward to do’. Indeed, Paul reminded the Ephesian elders, when for the last time they were seeing him in the flesh, that he ‘showed them how that so labouring’ they ‘ought to support the weak, and to remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, It is more blessed to give than to receive’. Paul showed them and taught them the standards of care that belong to Christianity. By deed and word they learned ways in which they could give, and find joy in giving, care to the weak.
In the first century the poor included the weak and other categories of need – widows and orphans, the maimed, the halt, and the blind. Those categories have not disappeared, although in lands with a well-developed welfare system they are not as visible as they were in the first century, or as they are in the third world of the 21st century. But they are there, as the Lord said, ‘the poor always ye have with you’. A caring assembly will therefore be one that finds ways to minister to those many categories of need. It will be one that, ‘does good unto all men, especially unto them that are of the household of faith’. How demanding those two circles of care are that the Lord has set before us!
Christian care is more than an arm of the social services
At the end of the 19th century assembly believers like J. W. C. Fegan were working among alcoholics with some success. Their work was looked on sympathetically even by Charles Darwin, as the published correspondence of that era shows. Fegan also set up a ‘ragged schools’ for poor boys and an orphanage for boys. With great foresight he provided training for those for whom he cared. He was not alone: Thomas John Barnardo was associated with assemblies when he established his work, as was George Müller. They saw an opportunity to show the kindness of God to many a Mephibosheth (who was lame on both his feet) in such a way that material needs were met and the good seed of the gospel sown in young hearts.
The broader vision beyond our doorstep is a vital part of this ministry
And our brethren are doing so today in Africa among the millions stricken with AIDS, among the orphans and poor of Romania and the Ukraine, and even among the homeless and drug addicts of affluent western Europe. Ought we not to pray for those engaged in such good works? They need much wisdom that their good works should be seen and their Father which is in heaven glorified; otherwise they will become just another respected arm of the social services but no longer evangelical in outlook. They need wisdom not to be sucked into an unequal yoke with unbelievers of the many charities dispensing the wealth of their benefactors. A caring assembly is more than a channel of aid, more than a provider of care, more than an agency of the first world reaching out to the third world. A caring assembly supports the work of the gospel and practises the good works the Lord requires of it. The caring assembly will meet need locally where it occurs and have an international dimension to its work, the kind of dimension that developed in the churches of the Gentiles in first century filling the hands of Paul to go to Jerusalem ‘to minister unto them (the Jewish saints) in carnal things’; the Gentile believers were then making ‘a certain contribution for the poor saints … at Jerusalem’.
More abundant honour for the poor
The second circle of care identified in Galatians chapter 6 verse 10 was to be the primary focus of good works, as the phrase ‘especially … them that are of the household of faith’ confirms. In the family circle, if man failed to ‘provide for his own and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith and is worse than an infidel’. Widows would be cared for by their own extended family, but where there was no practical care extended to them by their own family, the assembly would meet their needs. Widows over sixty years of age were the particular object of Pauline instruction in that context, providing they had lived a life of devotion to the Lord and themselves practised good works. What is so staggering about such a practice is that it was prevalent from Acts chapter 6. Indeed that chapter opens with a reminder that ministrations to widows was on a daily basis in those days when none lacked in the assembly at Jerusalem, for worldly goods were not held for private enjoyment. James reminds us that, ‘Pure religion and undefiled … is … to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction’. Such a visitor would not call empty-handed; he would minister financially. Nor would he be empty-hearted: he would read and pray with the destitute family.
A word of caution may be needed. The principle of caring for elderly widows who are in need is enshrined in 1 Timothy chapter 5. However, the passage is not saying that there may not be needs among younger widows, perhaps those who care for young children and are unable to earn a living. In a world that knows little about how to share its resources, there are young families that struggle where the bread-winner may be lowly paid. All too few pray for such and fewer still minister to them. Certainly governments that are diligently wooing the voting elderly lavish on them at the expense of poor families. Sometimes it is unemployment that strikes, sometimes physical or mental health breaks down; then financial and spiritual help may be needed. All of us can help in some way in such situations: by visiting or telephoning or sending a gift.
We are not required to burden one more than another
The kind of care this paper considers requires much of an assembly: it requires both time and money. Saints of all ages in a caring assembly would have little time to indulge in the idle socializing and sports activities that occupy so much time in the world. They would also have choices to make about how to use the material resources at their disposal. Is this kind of work so demanding that only those with time and money in abundance can engage in it? Writing to the Corinthians, Paul’s answer is an emphatic No! God does not desire that some would be eased and you be burdened, but that the responsibility be shared, that there be equality. Every man is to bear his own light burden, his own light load of responsibilities. But in each there should be ‘a willing heart … (and) the same earnest care’, so that when a saint is seen to bear a heavy burden, the exhortation is obeyed, ‘Bear ye one another’s burdens and so fulfil the law of Christ’. Whether they are in deep poverty or deep waters, we can show the kindness of God to them and thus show the care for others that so characterized the ministry of Christ among men. Dorcas did; Philemon did; and so should we all if we are prepared to care.
It is a very unusual assembly that has no elderly, no ill health, no one hospitalized, no one in care to whom a touch of kindness might mean so much. Each of us is our brother’s and sister’s keeper. None of us is exempt from the youngest saint to the most experienced elder. Through our ministry of care those in need of it learn the care of Him that ‘careth for you’. We dare not leave it to the elders or to someone else. In a world that would leave care to institutions and the State, we need to show practically what a caring assembly can be to the kind of people that are so often neglected – the old, the infirm, the lonely and the harassed, the hurt and those who cannot help themselves. How grateful they would be to the Lord who moves towards them through a caring assembly! If the assembly you belong to is a caring one then you all know it is and so does everyone else!