The common perception by people – both within and outside of the religious world – is that churches are charitable organizations designed to help the poor. Denominational churches spend much time, energy, and money helping the poor. Those who are in need (or claim to be in need) often visit churches seeking a handout.
We are certain to be concerned for the poor (Galatians 2:10; Ephesians 4:28; James 2:15-17) and, as we have the opportunity (Galatians 6:10), help those with legitimate needs (cf. II Thessalonians 3:10 – "If anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either"). But the Lord's church is not a charity. He did not design or ordain it to be one. Instead, He designed and ordained the church for another purpose that is far more important than mere benevolence.
When John sent some of his disciples to find evidence that Jesus was the promised Messiah (Matthew 11:2-3), one of the proofs that Jesus cited was that "the poor have the gospel preached to them" (Matthew 11:5). Jesus did not mention feeding the poor, clothing them, or giving them money. Instead, the proof offered to John's disciples for Jesus' identity was that the poor were taught the good news of salvation.
There is no record in the gospels of Jesus ever giving money to those who asked for it. Was this because Jesus lacked compassion? Of course not! Yes, there were times when Jesus fed the crowds that followed Him (Matthew 14:14-21; 15:32-38) – not because they were poor, but because they were present. But His emphasis was always on teaching. Because of this, many who were seeking free food "withdrew and were not walking with Him anymore" (John 6:26, 60-66).
When Peter met the lame beggar at the temple gate, he did not give him a handout, even though we might agree that this man was certainly one who would have been worthy of assistance. Notice what Luke records: "When he saw Peter and John about to go into the temple, he began asking to receive alms. But Peter, along with John, fixed his gaze on him and said, 'Look at us!' And he began to give them his attention, expecting to receive something from them. But Peter said, 'I do not possess silver or gold, but what I do have I give to you: In the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene—walk!' And seizing him by the right hand, he raised him up; and immediately his feet and his ankles were strengthened. With a leap he stood upright and began to walk; and he entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God" (Acts 3:3-8).
Peter did not give the lame beggar at the temple a handout. Instead, Peter gave him what he had – the power to heal him. We cannot perform miracles like this today. But why did miracles exist then? They were done in order to confirm the word spoken in the preaching of the gospel (Mark 16:20). So, after healing the lame man, Peter preached, and many more than just this one man believed. Luke tells us that "the number of the men [who believed] came to be about five thousand" (Acts 4:4). Although it is not explicitly stated in the text, it is likely that the lame man was among the new believers since he was "with them" in the temple and "praising God" (Acts 3:8). Though this man had a legitimate financial need and could have used a handout from Peter and John, he received something that was far more valuable – the opportunity to hear the gospel of Christ.
Jesus said, "You always have the poor with you" (Matthew 26:11). Though we may want to help, we will not always be able to help the poor with their material needs. But who else will we always have with us? Sinners. They will exist in far greater numbers, too. We need to direct the efforts of the church, not to help the poor, but to teach the lost and build up those who are already saved.
As individuals, we cannot help everyone we find who is in need or give money to everyone who asks for it. But we can teach them of the blessings of righteousness and the reward for faithful service to Christ.
None of what I have written in this article is meant to minimize the importance of benevolence (as it is practiced according to the New Testament pattern), or to say that we should be unconcerned with the plight of the poor. Rather, it is meant to remind us of what is truly and eternally important – the state of the souls of men. To help with this, what we need is not anything that can be bought with money. We need "the gospel … the power of God for salvation" (Romans 1:16). The greatest help we can give to the poor (and anyone else) is to preach the gospel to them.
The Lord does not expect us to give people everything they want. But He has equipped us to give them everything they need. While we can and should "do good to all people" (Galatians 6:10) through the work of benevolence, we must be ready to give the poor (and all men) what they truly need – the word of God "which is able to save [their] souls" (James 1:21).