FeatureMissionary Life

Are You ‘Worse Than An Unbeliever’?

Instead of judging, let’s start helping the missionary who is struggling to get off the ground financially.
Dear Missionaries and MPD Trainers and Coaches,

Have you heard this one in ministry partner development (MPD) training? We’re in the midst of inviting people into God’s kingdom work through prayer and financial giving. A leader in MPD shares 1 Timothy 5:8: “But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”

Whoa.

So, we think, if my support is coming in slowly and I’m having trouble making ends meet, this is evidence I have denied the faith? That I’m (gulp!) worse than an unbeliever?

The teaching is typically directed at husbands, though the care of widows is a Christian thing according to Paul, not only a male responsibility:

“If any believing woman has relatives who are widows, let her care for them. Let the church not be burdened, so that it may care for those who are truly widows” (1 Tim. 5:16).

And because it is directed at husbands, a frequent unintended consequence may be increased marital strife. The support-raising husband hears the verse and feels incredibly guilty, shameful. The support-raising wife hears the verse and thinks or even voices the thought that her husband is not doing what God wants him to do.

But what is the verse all about? First Timothy 5:3-6 provides the crucial context to understand this verse. Verse 4:

“But if a widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to show godliness to their own household and to make some return to their parents, for this is pleasing in the sight of God.”

It’s the intentional neglect of caring for family in need that is addressed in Paul’s words to Timothy.

In other words, the charge here is that children look to help their parents who are in a state of need (“make some return to their parents”), or for grandchildren to consider how they can assist their grandparents, a widowed grandmother in particular. So we see an exhortation to care for needy extended family members, thus doing something “pleasing in the sight of God” (v. 4). It’s the intentional neglect of caring for family in need that is addressed in Paul’s words to Timothy.

Commentator Matthew Henry explains what Jesus exposed:

The Pharisees taught that a gift to the altar was more acceptable to God than relieving a poor parent, (Mt. 15:5). But here we are told that this [relieving a poor parent or grandparent] is better than all burnt-offerings and sacrifices; this is good and acceptable, etc.

Unfortunately, building a team of prayer and financial partners is not formulaic. To be sure, there are principles and practices we will continue to train and teach, but it’s not simply A + B = C. There are many variables that may play into slow progress on support. Would we fault a new missionary whose support is coming in slowly for these reasons below?

  • He or she has no church background and thus few Christians to invite to partner with him/her.

  • The missionary is an ethnic minority where MPD is not a common concept in their cultural community or in their church context.

  • The missionary’s immediate family is resistant to their support-raising efforts and are making it difficult for their son or daughter to connect with any family or friends of the family to join them in the mission.

  • The missionary has received inadequate (or no) training or coaching in how to communicate with people about their mission or how to invite others to join them.

  • The worker is foreign-born, but working on MPD in the U.S. The English language is (at best) their second language and expectations for communication are different in their culture, making it more difficult to navigate relationships and connections with Christians in America.

Are these people “worse than unbelievers” if their financial support is slow? If they struggle to make ends meet for a season during MPD? I think we’d be quick to answer “No. Of course not.” Just as we would not fault a Christian in our church who suddenly lost a job and found that their family was in financial crisis, we should not condemn those for whom support lags. Instead, like a church friend in trouble, we should consider how we might help them meet short term financial needs and we should rally around them to help them make plans to see things change for the future. This will take time, sacrifice, coaching, love, and concern on our part. It might look a little something like the church in Acts 2: “And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:44-45).

Just as we would not fault a Christian in our church who suddenly lost a job and found that their family was in financial crisis, we should not condemn those for whom support lags.

First Timothy 5:8 is God’s word. It is an important verse of warning for all Christians. But it is not a helpful verse taken out of context and thrown in a missionary’s face. Let’s rightly handle the word of truth. Let’s acknowledge the unlimited variables that may be contributing to a missionary’s slow support. Perhaps this has been your situation in MPD or is what you’re facing now.

Instead of placing undue (and unbiblical) burden on a struggling missionary, let’s work to help them, to advocate for them. If necessary, a ministry or church can consider with them whether or not God might be redirecting them to a different vocation. But let’s not assume even that. And let’s agree to no longer assume something worse—that a person’s soul might be in jeopardy because of slow support-raising.


Editor’s Note: You can support a struggling missionary during these difficult days. Give to a project or worker.

About the Author

Jason Ruch is Director of Infrastructure for Ministry Partner Development in Cru’s U.S. Ministries. He has trained and coached missionaries to raise teams of prayer and financial supporters since 2007 and has served with Cru since 1998. He and his wife, Erika, live in the Minneapolis area with their three sons. They belong to Bethlehem Baptist Church. Jason writes to equip and inspire missionaries and church members at jruch.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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