We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? (I Jn.3:16-17).
The apostle John is very blunt. Caring for a “brother in need” is a vital aspect of the gospel. To neglect it is to be hypocritical.
Does this mean I should be caring for everyone in need? For anyone of us, this is impossible. There are limits. The text refers to a person who sees a brother in need. So, we are obligated to help a local believer in need. It is not any person, it is a brother; a member of Christ’s body.
Around the world at any given time, there are innumerable people in need. God does not hold me accountable for them, but He does require me to consider those in my immediate vicinity. Local people I can check on, to ascertain if their “needs” truly are genuine. I can visit their home, talk to their neighbours or friends, see what’s in their pantry, talk to their pastor or deacons, and draw my own conclusions. A “brother in need” should be a part of a family and a church, which can take charge of his care.
But an overseas person, someone outside my vicinity? It’s not so easy to verify their circumstances, so I’m not in a rush to do so, because they are not my responsibility. But I am interested and concerned in my locality, because that’s where God will hold me accountable.
Are there exceptions to this rule?
I think a scriptural one is the case when Paul launched an appeal for the needy church in Jerusalem (see II Cor.8-9). This clearly was an apostollically directed and overseen appeal, made initially to the churches of Macedonia, which the Corinthians were invited to share in.
International aid projects, when orchestrated and paid for by governments, are not legitimate exceptions. They lead to dependence on the part of the receiving party, and discourage the participation of the locals. Moreover, they have always been a recipe for corruption. Papua New Guinea is a classic case, and continues to be.
$3 million from a Western government turning up in a drought ravaged African or Asian nation goes to …whom? Very commonly, political cronies of a corrupt government, some local warlords, or someone else who should never receive it.
Westerners who want to assist a Third World community in need, do best to closely supervise their expenditure, and never accept the word of some government, that “We’ll look after the money for you.” Sure you will. You’ll see to it that you feather your own nest, first. It’s human nature, something us Christians should know a lot about. (Sometimes we forget).
We have to think of our own back yard, our own locality, and quietly going about establishing our own credibility. This will never be with a flash and a bang, but steady, faithful Christians and churches who understand their local responsibilities and opportunities, and begin to act on them. With churches, this should always be with the oversight of elders, as it was in the Bible (see Acts 6:1-8). This means starting small, thinking through all the issues, learning as we go, figuring out what works, and who should receive help.
There will be issues of resources. Places like Food Banks where cheap bulk food can be accessed, along with issues of food storage, like storage sheds and refrigeration, and transport. And there will always be questions about money, and people who want to help.
There will be trial and error. There will be those who say they want to help, but on their terms. There will be mistakes made, and regular decisions to be made, and so much will seem to be boring and inconsequential, and there will be the constant pressure from people to give them money or resources that they don’t deserve to get, and they are rude and sometimes even threaten violence when they are refused.
And there will be well-meaning Christian people who find this kind of pressure difficult to resist, and presently that is much of the church.
But as Zechariah explained, “Who has despised the day of small things?” (Zech.4:10) Foundations have to be laid for any project to be long-lasting, and this means proper preparations, all based in scripture. And it means preparing people for a day coming, when there will be a great need for established church charities to pick up a lot of responsibility in the community.
Actually, that need is now.
Authority begins with responsibility and credibility. Jesus began as a baby, progressed through His childhood, became a man, and at about 33 entered into His public ministry. His public ministry came about after 33 years of preparation.
We have to think similarly about ministries of welfare. They take time and effort to establish, along with significant doses of disappointment and frustration along the way.
But if they are established scripturally and continue to function that way, they can be an enormous source of good in any community, and a remarkable testimony.
Surely no achievements of the Christian Church are more truly great than those which it has effected in the sphere of charity” (Lecky).
Is that what you want to be a part of?
 W. E. H. Lecky, “The History of European Morals,” quoted in Ian Hodge, “Making Sense of your Dollars,” 1995, p.10.