Having spent the last year living among Mozambicans whose income level is far below the levels and averages in the West, I have been pondering how best to go about giving to the poor. Literally I could walk out my front gate at this very moment and hand out money to people standing there waiting for a bus and I would be giving to “the poor”. The average income in my neighborhood is below the poverty line set by the United Nations and well below how we use the term “poor” in the United States. The Scriptures are very clear on the obligations of those of us who follow Christ to help the poor, so as you can imagine, having poverty in my face every day, I am interested in what I am supposed to do about it. (see Deuteronomy 15:11, Galatians 2:10 for a nice starting place on our biblical obligations to help the poor)
How did the church in Acts help the poor?
In the very early history of the church, seen in the earliest chapters of Acts, there seems to be a common pot of money from which the believers share. That is why Luke is able to say that there were no needy persons among them, because they were all pooling their money. People laid their money at the disciples’ feet and it was distributed as people needed it. However, that system doesn’t last very long, as the church expanded outside of Jerusalem.
There are several references in Acts to almsgiving/benevolence which is just an old fashioned way of saying: giving directly to the poor. Tabitha and Cornelius were known for their benevolence to the poor (Acts 9 & 10). However, what is not clear is exactly how this money was given to the poor. Clearly, there were beggars in the days of the early church (Acts 3), but I don’t see any reference of whether or how Christians should give money to beggars. Peter and John had the chance to give to a beggar in Acts 3, but they claimed not have any money, and instead just healed the man who was begging. (I would love to follow this model, but I’m not ready yet)
Then I came across this verse towards the end of the book: “After an absence of several years, I came to Jerusalem to bring my people gifts for the poor and to present offerings.” Acts 24:17
This passage is from Paul’s trial. What we translate as “bring my people gifts the poor” is the verb for almsgiving/benevolence giving. On first glance, that may seem like Paul is talking about handing money out to beggars. However, these gifts for the poor were not monies set aside to be handed out to beggars, but money that was collected in churches throughout the Gentile world to help the poor at the church in Jerusalem.
What I find interesting is that Paul uses the term “almsgiving” for this action. In his mind, pooling money from other churches for the distribution at the Jerusalem church is almsgiving.
How our family chooses to give to the poor
So following this model, our family thinks the best way to give to the poor is through the local church. We regularly give a portion of our salary to some of the churches we work with, and those churches distribute the money to people in our community who are in the most need. This money isn’t for the regular operations of the church, but specifically to help those in need. But because we give through our church we have never given money to those who beg.
If your church has a special fund for helping those in your community who are in need, you should contribute to it. However, I would also encourage you to look into supporting organizations that work with the poor outside of the United States as well. My very favorite organization that specializes in poverty relief and works exclusively through local churches is Compassion International. Sponsoring a child through Compassion is the easiest and I’m convinced, one of the most effective ways of giving directly to the poor around the world through a local church.