In recent days, in response to those calling on Christians to have compassion on needy people from other countries, I have heard or read several people reference 1 Timothy 5:8: “But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel.”
In this same context, some have said things like, “As long as we have poor people here in the USA, or as long as we are not taking proper care of our veterans, we should not give one red cent to help those from other countries.” While some have limited the scope of their comments specifically to government aid, I have seen others suggest that even churches and Christian ministries would do well to limit their charitable efforts to needs within our own country.
Although I do not mean to imply that all supporters of the current president have been swayed by this line of thinking, there appears to be evidence suggesting that an America First approach is beginning to influence the mindset of some people with regard to our approach to good deeds and charity in general. In some ways, it is not surprising to me that non-Christians would take such a me-first approach to life. As my father used to say, some people’s motto in life is “make all you can, can all you make, sit on the lid, and poison the rest.” What is especially concerning—and disappointing—to me is to hear professing Christians from the United States adopt this type of attitude and rhetoric toward those from other countries and boldly claim that Scripture itself supports this position.
I would like to address first of all some interpretational issues with regard to 1 Timothy 5:8. The context of this verse is the guidelines given by the Apostle Paul to Christian families and the church in Ephesus, by way of his disciple Timothy, for financially taking care of widows in their midst. While entreating the church to be conscientious in their support of “widows indeed” who had no one else to look out for them, he simultaneously calls out the children, nephews, and nieces of these widows who do nothing to take care of their own destitute mothers or aunts, and says they are worse than infidels. The insinuation is that even those of the world do a better job than these at taking care of their needy family members.
The idea Paul is confronting in this verse, however, is not misguided generosity directed to others, but rather the indifference and selfishness of those who are able to help but decide to keep their resources for themselves and spend them on their own desires. It has nothing whatsoever to do with national or local group loyalty and solidarity. Interestingly enough, one of the requirements Paul suggests for the widows who might receive the aid of the church is that they must have “lodged strangers” (1 Timothy 5:10). The Greek word here, xenodocheó, literally means “to show hospitality toward foreigners.”
Now I freely recognize that this verse has nothing to say, one way or another, with regard to how much of its national budget the United States should spend on foreign aid or refugee resettlement. Since Christians in Bible times did not have the option of expressing their compassion toward others through public channels at the ballot box, instructions for doing so or refraining from doing so may only be gleaned by complex argumentation and tenuous insinuation. The overall tenor of Scripture, however, definitely favors a general stance of compassion and generosity toward destitute foreigners, whether on the part of Old Testament Israel, the New Testament Church, or individual believers.
Let me stop right here and say I am not arguing in favor of open borders or in any way neglecting necessary security measures to ensure the safety of our country. And though I do have some opinions about immigration and refugee resettlement laws, and the need for comprehensive immigration reform, that is not what I want to address here. I am talking about a general anti-foreigner, America-first, me-first attitude that seems to be gaining traction not only among Americans at large but among (at least some) Evangelical Christians in particular.
As I see it, it is basically the same attitude of those English church leaders in the room when missionary pioneer William Carey proposed going to India to evangelize the people there and received the reply, “Young man, sit down! You are an enthusiast. When God pleases to convert the heathen, he’ll do it without consulting you or me.” It is the same attitude of multitudes of “good church people” who have told new missionary candidates, “Why go all the way around the world to preach the gospel to those people over there when we have plenty of needs right here in our own backyard?” It is the same attitude of Christian parents of missionaries who refuse to support and bless their children’s ministry because they don’t like them raising their grandchildren in a country other than the United States.
For those who may have forgotten the sermons at the missions conference at your local church, let me remind you that Jesus commanded His disciples to preach the gospel to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. And He did not say, “Once Jerusalem is thoroughly saturated with the gospel, then you can move on to Judea; and when Judea is evangelized, to Samaria; and when Samaria is evangelized, to the ends of the earth.” Our God is a missionary God who sent His only Son to this world as a missionary. God so loved not this country or that country, but God so loved the world that He sent His only-begotten Son.
And just as God calls us to preach the gospel in word both at home and around the world, He also calls us to demonstrate the gospel in deed both at home and around the world. When Jesus said, “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me” (Matt 25:35-36), it was in the context of “gathering all the nations” (Matt 25:32), and the word “stranger” in v. 35 literally means “foreigner” or “alien.” The Apostle Paul praised the churches of Macedonia, who he says gave from a position of extreme poverty, according to their means, and beyond their means, not, in this case, to help the poor people around them in Macedonia, but for the relief of the saints in faraway Jerusalem. And in this same context he holds up the example of “our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9).
While it is true that we still have needy people among us, it is also true that here in America today we live in the most prosperous society that has ever existed on the face of this planet. And Jesus said, “To whom much is given, much is expected” (Luke 12:48). No, we should not neglect the poor among us; and yes, we should take good care of all those who have courageously and selflessly served our country in the line of duty. But that is no excuse for at the same time turning a deaf ear to the needs—be they physical, mental, social, or spiritual—of the teeming millions of the poverty-stricken nations of the world.