Churches and the Vulnerable
Jan. 14, 2024

Churches and the Vulnerable

Passage: Acts 6:1-6
Service Type:

Over the last couple of decades there have been some viral stories in the news about the shocking abuse of vulnerable people – particularly women and children – by pastors and other leaders of churches. There have been other narratives told about the startling contrast between rich churches and church members, and the poor neighborhoods they're sometimes nestled in. People read in the Bible what Jesus says about caring for the poor, and they see in the Bible how Jesus treated the widow and the orphan and the blind and the poor and the outcast, and sometimes they have serious questions about what they're actually seeing – or not seeing – in the lives of Christians and churches today.
Sadly, unfair or even abusive treatment of vulnerable people in churches began almost as soon as the first church began. We are reading about that today, in the sixth chapter of Acts. S&R Acts 6:1-7
Remember, the book of Acts is about the baptism in and the acts of the Holy Spirit in the first generation of Christianity after the Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension of Christ. Acts 6:1-7 are about how the Holy Spirit led the first church to identify, correct, and prevent the mistreatment of vulnerable widows in their church family. And therefore this story is here to help us see how the spirit of God can work in us gospel work to help the helpless and defend the defenseless and love the lost.
what they need to listen for
Let's take a few minutes to think about 3 principles God has for his moving his people to help the helpless and care for the needy and protect the vulnerable.

the first principle
COMPASSION: God has always commanded his people to help the helpless among them
We need to understand the absolute vulnerability of widows in the world of the Old Testament. Empires had no interest in actually helping the people over whom they ruled. There was no Social Security or welfare or Department of Social services. There was only marriage, family, and village or neighborhood life. If a woman didn't have a husband to provide for her or a family to care for her, there were few options for finding enough income to survive. She could beg, she could forage for whatever she could find in the streets or the fields or the forests, she could glean, or pick up the spare grain from a farmer's field if he would let her (like Ruth did for herself and her mother-in-law Naomi), she could remarry (which is what Ruth ended up doing when she married the farmer, Boaz), or she could just get involved in what is called the oldest profession in history. Prospects were similarly dim for orphans or foreigners or the disabled. That's why the Old Testament is full of commandments that God's people erect structures in their society to make sure that such people are cared for. Gleaning was just one of those structures in the Old Testament.
In the four gospels, we hear Jesus commanding his followers to strictly obey the commands of the Old Testament to care for the helpless and the needy. He practiced and preached absolute obedience to the law of Moses in this area, as in every area. He was a Jewish teacher teaching Jewish disciples, and he always told them to keep the Jewish law. The Jewish law had systems baked in to care for the vulnerable and the helpless. And like all good Jews, Jesus saw himself and his followers as a people distinct from the mighty empires that ruled over them.
In the rest New Testament, we again find God's people, the Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus, now called Christians, exercising the same care for the helpless and the vulnerable in their midst. They considered themselves to be the true Israel of God, and so took Jesus’ teaching about caring for the vulnerable in their midst with utmost seriousness. This is what Acts 6 is about: organizing God's people under competent leadership to be sure that none of the church’s widows goes without daily food.
the second principle
CONVICTION: God has always expected his people to distinguish between the truly helpless and those who only seem to be
The book of Proverbs in particular has three terms for people who are helpless and pitiful, but only because they make themselves that way: drunkard, sluggard, and fool. A drunkard as somebody who is so enslaved to alcohol or some other drug that he cannot live life effectively anymore. A sluggard is somebody who is so lazy that he's destroying his own life. A fool is somebody who won't listen to anybody else and won't ever learn. He just does what he wants and says what he thinks and never makes any progress. Just read through the Proverbs sometime and notice what it says about drunkards, sluggards, and fools. And notice how they are spoken of throughout the rest of the Bible, too.
What's essential for us is to notice that the Bible seems to have two classes of helpless, vulnerable people: those who are truly needy, and those whose need is faked or assumed or chosen. The English poor laws in the 1500’s distinguished between the “deserving” and the “undeserving” poor. They did that based on this biblical distinction between the truly oppressed and the sluggardly types.
We may not like this distinction, but the Bible does make it, repeatedly. In fact, Paul makes it, clearly, when he writes to Timothy about taking care of widows in the church at Ephesus. T&R 1Ti 5:1-16
I realize that there are several ways that what he has to say to Timothy in these words seem irrelevant to our modern situation. There's actually a couple of sermons to preach here to try to explain and apply all of this. Perhaps it's time to preach through First and Second Timothy. For now, just notice that 20 years after Acts 6, hundreds of miles away in the pagan city of Ephesus, in a church of mixed Jew and Gentile heritage, the mandate to care for the widows remains clear. This carries across the years, the miles, the cultural differences: God’s people care for the vulnerable among them. The notable difference is that in this case, Paul actually gives instructions to Timothy about how to make appropriate distinctions between those who are truly widows and those who are not.
This distinction is at the root of the Elizabethan English poor law distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor. Some widows are truly destitute and have no other options but for the church to simply support them. Others have family members that can take care of them, and others have steps they can take to see to their own needs. Paul says the church should not take care of them. What should we make of this?
We had one member of this church a number of years ago, a sweet, boisterous, delightful sister, who said that Paul was just a bigot and she didn't like him at all. She's not alone in the assessment. There are plenty of people in the modern world who agree with her. What we lovingly invited her to consider is that Paul's words are inspired by the Spirit of God and speak with the authority of Jesus Christ himself, so we don't have the option of simply calling him a bigot and ignoring what he says. And that's true about this passage as well. And what that means is that we have the responsibility as a church both to help those who are truly helpless and to help those who are idlers or busybodies or sluggards or drunkards to grow out of that joyless and Christless part of their character and grow into something better and more beautiful.
the third principle
CHRISTENDOM: God wants his people is to care for the vulnerable as part of a comprehensive effort to extend his Kingdom by discipling the nations
You have heard me mention a couple of times already the English poor laws of the 1500’s and how they were based on these biblical injunctions for God's people to take care of the poor and the widows and the orphans and the foreigners among them, and never to oppress or neglect them. We need to recognize that we live in a world today that has been shaped by 2000 years of the growing influence of Christianity. I know many of you share my concerns about how the last fifty years or so have seen the devastating effects of Marxism, feminism, the sexual revolution, the gay rights movement and the trans rights movement. What you need to know is that all of those movements are really just overextensions and misapplications of the biblical injunctions for God's people to help the poor and the widow and the helpless. X2
God's Word insists on a proper balance between conviction and compassion, between mercy and reality. People have tried to conform our culture to the values of the Kingdom (mercy, compassion, justice, inclusion), but without the real, historical, biblical King Jesus. They have tried to take the whole program secular, end avoid the necessity of submission to king Jesus. The result is that our enemy has taken the values of the Kingdom and done what he always does with God's good gifts: he has twisted them and turned them into something uniquely destructive. But let's go back the what the King commanded, and how his apostles put those commands into practice in the first churches. Then we'll learn something about what God really wants in the care of the vulnerable and the needy and the helpless.
In particular, let's take note of four mistakes that American Christians have been making for the last few decades and that we need to correct as we try to follow our Lord Jesus here in Dundalk today. And I do not mean that we have been making all these mistakes equally here in Dundalk as evangelicals across America have made them. Some we have. Some we haven’t. But all of them are things we need to be aware of.
We have been overlooking abuse
This is of course the most extreme form of mistreatment of the vulnerable in our churches. There's no need for me to rehash the shameful scandals that have plagued virtually every kind of Christianity practiced in the world over the last few decades. It is enough to note that in our own neck of the woods, the Southern Baptist Convention, and particularly The Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware, we have been taking and continue to take definite, concrete steps to be sure that the vulnerable are protected and cared for, not abused and exploited in our churches. And I thank God that we have had no such scandals here at Dundalk's First Baptist Church. This is no reason for self-congratulation though, and no cause for relaxation. There is work to do still. As we rebuild the ministries of this church, we will need to be careful to insist on the policies and protections that are already in place, and more conscientious than we’ve ever been.
We have been sidestepping compassion
Some conservative Christians habitually avoid direct contact with people that we think are needy or vulnerable. And we almost always have what sounds like a reasonable excuse. But each of us as an individual Christian is called by Christ our Lord to show compassion for those who have less money, resources, security, or agency than ourselves. And we as a church can do more than we're doing. True, we do make bread available for free every Lord's day, and we do take definite steps to care for members of our church who are struggling and vulnerable. In particular, we still do our best to look after our widows, and that's all good. But God wants more.
I'll be really honest with you when I say that I don't know everything he wants, but I'll also repeat to you something that I’ve said before. The Church of the Harbor operated a really good ministry of properly balancing conviction and compassion in reaching out to people to meet them where they are and move them closer to Jesus. The Lord wants something very much like what they had going on here going on here again.
One thing we absolutely cannot do is use our weakness or our smallness or our age or our inability as an excuse to sidestep compassion. Now I know that some of us take clear steps to reach out to people and help them regularly in our lives. I praise God for that! And I don't want to discount the good things that God is already doing. In particular, you ought to look around sometime to discover some of the ministries In Baltimore, Maryland, and Delaware that your giving supports as you give to this church. Hallelujah for all of those ministries! I just believe he wants more, and he will bless more as we do more.

We have been avoiding discipleship
What we need is to teach new believers plainly and simply that the way Christians get money is by working. We don't beg, we don't steal, we don't cheat. We work. We are laborers and we are businesspeople.
We don't neglect the things that God gives us responsibility for; we treat them with careful stewardship because we know that we will answer to the owner of all things one day. We know that we have everything we have on loan from him, and he will call us to account for what we have done with it. We are stewards.
T&R 1Thessalonians 4:1-12
Hard work and careful stewardship are as much a part of basic Christian living as moral purity and loving compassion.
We have been dodging discipline
What many of us don't realize is how serious our Lord Jesus is about this issue of the distinction between the deserving poor – like the widows and orphans of the ancient world – and the undeserving poor – like the sluggard and the drunkard and the fool. Listen to how Paul expanded and enforced his teaching for the Thessalonian Christians.
T&R 2 Thessalonians 3:6-12
Did you hear that? Refusing to work and instead mooching off of others is a kind of sinful behavior that can get someone strongly rebuked and even removed from a church, that is serious about doing what the Bible says.
This is because God loves us, he knows what is best for us, he wants what is best for us, and he commands what is best for us. His commands did not always feel loving to us at first, because often he commands us to do exactly the last thing we want to do. Do you believe that he loves you and that he wants what is best for you? Can you trust him enough to believe and obey?

We so deeply need to see these three principles:
COMPASSION: God has always commanded his people to help the helpless among them
CONVICTION: God has always expected his people to distinguish between the truly helpless and those who only seem to be
CHRISTENDOM: God wants his people to care for the vulnerable as part of a comprehensive effort to extend his Kingdom by discipling the nations
T&R Ruth 4:18-22
Do you ever wonder why the first line of the Sermon on the Mount is “blessed are the poor in spirit”? Jesus uses about the strongest word for “poor” in the Greek language: πτωχός. A πτωχός is a helpless beggar, somebody who legitimately can't do anything for himself. And Jesus says it is blessed for us to see ourselves that way. Every one of us stands before God as a lost sinner, helplessly, hopelessly encrusted with the grime of our own sin. In fact, the Bible even goes so far as to say that we are dead in sin by birth and by choice and by habit. We have nothing with which to commend ourselves to God. We are all helpless before God, as vulnerable as widows or orphans or the blind or the crippled in the ancient world. But far more, we are guilty. We are culpable in our helplessness. We are like the drunkard and the sluggard and the fool. We are rebels against God. All we like sheep have gone astray.
That's why the good news is that the Lord has laid upon Jesus the iniquity of us all. He who was rich became poor for us so that we who are poor might be made rich in him.
Repent and believe in Christ
Repent of your lack of compassion
Repent of your lack of conviction