If sheer number of mentions in the Bible is any indication, one thing that is close to God’s heart is the protection of widows, orphans and strangers. Literally dozens of times in the Old Testament, we find exhortations and warnings to kings and judges about defending those who lack the strength and means to protect themselves. Righteous men are to “plead the cause of the poor and needy,” and not turn a deaf ear to the cry of the fatherless and widow.
No wonder that in His first recorded public reading from the Scriptures, the Lord Jesus commented on a passage which marked His ministry by a concern for the poor, the broken-hearted and the prisoner (Luke 4:16-19). His values in this were passed on to the apostles, as seen in such actions as the care of widows in the church, and the reminder given to Paul and Barnabas by the twelve apostles to remember the poor during their ministry travels (Galatians 2:9-10).
Living in an affluent country, people in many assemblies find little occasion to take these things literally. Of course there are the missionaries, and they have contact with poor people, and we share with them financially, but that’s about the extent of it in some churches.
It is not out of place, then, to remind elders how relevant this principle is in virtually every Christian church—of the concern for the weaker among us! To see this, we must look at things from different angles. Consider the following examples:
Illustrations to ponder
The shy individual in the assembly who finds it difficult to initiate a conversation hears a message charging every Christian to evangelize others. However, no where is it stated in Scripture that all believers are evangelists. Instead, we learn that all are witnesses. One basic difference between these two is that the evangelist initiates and the witness responds. How many quiet people have been made to feel like second class Christians over comments that equate an aggressive personality with spirituality?
Consider the single mother or widow who feels “out of the loop” because there is no one to talk over the discussions and decisions made among the men of the church. Plans are made and new courses of action are adopted with input from leaders and couples, while those who live alone “will hear eventually.”
Think of the youth and the new Christians who may not be confident or polished in their participation in the life of the church. Harsh words from critical older ones can do some serious damage to their sensitive spirits.
Then there are those whose chief service for the Lord is prayer in secret. Is it clear to all that those who labor in prayer make a priceless contribution to the church? Or are they made to feel that public (that is, visible) service is most pleasing to the Lord, and prayer is reserved for shut ins and others who are unable to really produce?
The list could be multiplied. Think of those with handicaps or disabilities. Think of the elderly or those with chronic illness. Think of the illustrious place given to certain spiritual gifts in the body such as the pastor or the teacher, while the one gifted in mercy or the person with the humble gift of “helps” goes along in the background.
Now someone will say that these will have their reward from the Lord, and this is certainly true. In that sense, the more hidden our service for the Lord, the better. But that is beside the point. Key ingredients of unity and harmony in the assembly are things that preserve fellowship, and elders must always be sensitive to those who, through no fault of their own, might be pushed out to the fringes of the “family” circle. All these need the protection and defense provided by shepherds who are sensitive to the shy, the quiet and the weak of the flock.
How can elders help?
What can elders do to ensure that the local church is an environment in which all believes can blossom into maturity and fruitfulness? Three Scriptures provide a starting point. First, elders must know the state of their flock (Proverbs 27:23), and that includes an awareness of those who may need extra help to simply survive.
Second, elders must be convinced that this is one very important part of their work. Hebrews 13:17 tells us that those who lead “watch for your souls…” (KJV). Many students of the Word believe that in referring to the soul, the Lord is calling attention to the intangible parts of a person such as the mind, will and emotions. True shepherd care for the flock involves the whole person, and this goes beyond spiritual protection from false doctrine or the need for physical safety. So Paul writes to the Corinthians regarding a possible visit from Timothy: “Now if Timothy come, see that he may be with you without fear” (I Cor. 16:10). In order to be secure in a loving fellowship, there must be a freedom from fear, loneliness, isolation, intimidation, harsh criticism, etc.
Most of this is probably common sense. Just as in any family the quieter ones must be drawn out and appreciated and the more vocal one kept from dominating, so it is in God’s spiritual family. However, this often neglected aspect of church life is true shepherds’ work, and will go a long way toward building an assembly known for warm fellowship and discipleship that reaches out to all.