I read in 1 Timothy 5:8 that a believer who fails to care for his family is worse than an unbeliever. Exactly what obligations does a believer have to provide financially?
While our ministry does not offer personal counseling or advice, we can explain the meaning of 1 Tim 5:8. When seeking to interpret scripture, it’s important to understand the text in its proper context. The full context of 1 Timothy 5:8 is:
1Tim. 5:3 Honor widows who are widows indeed;
1Tim. 5:4 but if any widow has children or grandchildren, they must first learn to practice piety in regard to their own family and to make some return to their parents; for this is acceptable in the sight of God.
1Tim. 5:5 Now she who is a widow indeed and who has been left alone, has fixed her hope on God and continues in entreaties and prayers night and day.
1Tim. 5:6 But she who gives herself to wanton pleasure is dead even while she lives.
1Tim. 5:7 Prescribe these things as well, so that they may be above reproach.
1Tim. 5:8 But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.
In this passage, Paul gives the church a test for how to care for the weak and vulnerable within the body. In particular, Paul is focused on the needs of widows within the body of Christ. Widows in Paul’s day were especially vulnerable since they generally lacked income and could not possess property. The church body often came to the rescue of needy Christians, including widows, which is what the Lord intended.
Still, such charity must be applied in the right ways to prevent abuse, so Paul sets standards or tests for whether the body of Christ should provide financial support to a widow within the congregation. First, Paul says the church must ask if the widow has immediate family that can provide support to her. If so, then the widow's family must assume responsibility for her care before seeking assistance from the church body.
In Paul’s day there was no state welfare for the needy, so if a family could not care for a widow, their relative would be doomed to a life of poverty and likely death. Such neglect was considered a disgrace in Paul's day, so few if any families dared to be so cruel. Believers, on the other hand, had the church body to lean on for financial support in hard times, so if a family couldn’t afford to support a widow, the church might step into the gap. The church saw an opportunity to witness to the Lord of Christ by providing support to a believing widow rather than allowing a sister in the Lord to suffer.
Unfortunately, some believing families in Paul’s day were neglecting this responsibility to care for widows out a selfish desire to protect their own wealth. These families had the means to support their widows, yet they refused to do so expecting the church to provide for the widow instead. This is why Paul says such families were worse than unbelieving families. They weren’t willing to show the same common decency, love and selflessness that even unbelievers were willing to demonstrate for their families.
Secondly, Paul says if a widow is to receive support from the church body, the widow must be in good standing in the church body. If she is not living in a godly manner, than she has no right to expect the hard-working members of the body of Christ to sacrifice for her sake. This test of behavior is appropriate, since a church body would deeply resent being called to obey Christ by sacrificing to support a woman who was not herself seeking to be obedient to Christ.
What do we conclude from Paul’s teaching? In short, Christians must not neglect customary personal responsibilities even in cases where the church body is prepared to assume that responsibility for them. For example, if a Christian widow can afford to pay her bills, then she must do so. If a Christian retiree possess the ability to mow his own lawn, clean her own house, or do his own shopping, etc., then he or she should not lay those burdens on the church body instead.
The Lord has joined us to a church body so that we may serve and be served at times, but we must not abuse that relationship for our own advantage.