Public Aid and Ecclesiastical Responsibilities

The previous subsection argued that the responsibility of individuals and families to care for themselves does not, in and of itself, prohibit Christians from accepting public aid. This new subsection considers a related question: does the church’s responsibility to care for its needy members imply that it should provide all the assistance they require and should thus advise needy members to refuse public assistance?

The following discussion takes a couple of things for granted without argument. First, the church has a weighty yet wonderful responsibility to care for its needy members. Its generosity in doing so is profoundly Christlike (e.g., 2 Cor. 8:9). Second, the church’s ministry is fundamentally independent of the legitimate work of civil government. Presbyterian and most other Reformed churches have quite rightly rejected Erastianism.[1]

These two important truths do not provide a neat and simple solution to the question, however. For one thing, corporate bodies other than the church have obligations toward their own needy members. This is obviously true with respect to families. It is also true for the political community. Even a government merely seeking to perform its bare-minimum function of providing justice for victims of violence must be specially attentive to the needy, who are generally the most vulnerable and easily overlooked members of society. And since many needy people are members of multiple corporate bodies, it is far from obvious that the responsibilities of one body (such as the church) eliminate the responsibilities of another (such as the government). For another thing, while church and state are properly independent, they still interact and have mutual interests in this world. If someone vandalizes a church building or threatens people with a gun in the church parking lot, both the church and the civil government have an interest in redressing the situation. The church calls the police and requests assistance. Of course, there are more difficult cases. The Covid-19 pandemic created situations of conflict between the government’s jurisdiction over public health and safety and the church’s jurisdiction over its worship. In a complicated world, cases of conflict or at least potential conflict arise. Jurisdictions potentially overlap.

What, then, about care for the needy? We might begin by considering whether the church’s independence from the state requires the church to refuse all benefits from service-provision government functions. The answer is clearly negative. The church takes advantage of government-provided roads as its members drive to worship on Sundays, and it calls on government-funded firefighters if a blaze breaks out in its building. Such cases are relatively uncomplicated, since Christ does not call his church to build roads or fight fires. But Christ does call his church to provide diaconal aid for its needy, so we need to inquire further about issues regarding public aid.

Most Reformed churches (in the United States) already accept some government benefits that support its diaconal work, indirectly but substantially. They do so by embracing the legal status of being a charitable organization. Churches are exempt from property taxes, and its members can write off their donations from their income taxes. Churches also typically designate part of their pastors’ remuneration as housing allowance, which is tax exempt. Such benefits stretch the resources of the church beyond what they would otherwise be. At the very least, churches that accept such favorable tax status should be mindful of potential inconsistency if they insist on the impropriety of their needy members accepting public aid.

But to focus the question before us: Does the church neglect its obligation to care for its needy members if it permits or even encourages them to accept public aid? 1 Timothy 5:3–16 indicates that this is not the case. This text provides the most detailed New Testament instructions about the church’s care for its needy.

1 Timothy 5 focuses on care for widows. It is not surprising that the early church’s greatest diaconal needs arose among this group (cf. Acts 6:1), given widows’ special vulnerability in the socio-economic setting of that day, as in many other times. But widows then and now are not the only vulnerable group. We might think, for example, of how often the Old Testament classed widows alongside orphans and sojourners. The principles of 1 Timothy 5 are surely applicable for other needy members too.

One of the prime principles of 1 Timothy 5 is that the church is not to be provider of first resort for its members’ needs.[2] Paul refers three times to those who are truly (ontōs, ὄντως) widows (5:3, 5, 16), those who are “left all alone” (5:5). These are the widows the church should support. Young widows should generally secure their own care by remarrying (5:14), and Christians who have widows in their family should provide their care (5:4, 8, 16). Paul’s final statement in this discussion seems to capture the main point: “Let the church not be burdened (bareisthō, βαρείσθω), so that it may care for those who are truly widows” (5:16).[3] Paul’s concern about not burdening the church also emerges in 2 Thessalonians 3. He says he worked hard and refused remuneration for his ministry so that “we might not be a burden (epibarēsa, ἐπιβαρῆσαί) to any of you.” He did this as “an example to imitate” (3:8–9). These texts clearly obligate individuals and families to strive not to strain the church’s finances. But 1 Timothy 5 also obligates the church to enforce this, as it were, by withholding support from those who are not actually in desperate straights (5:9–16).

This is a weighty moral-ecclesiastical concern with bearing on our question. Some Christians may be inclined to refuse public aid because of objection to government overreach and to expect diaconal help from the church instead. They should be sure they are taking seriously the biblical command not to burden the church unnecessarily. Objection to government overreach is a debatable personal judgment, but not burdening the church is a divinely-mandated obligation. Is one’s personal political opinion of such moment that it justifies taking resources from the church that the church could use to meet the needs of fellow believers who have no other source of help? Likewise, a church inclined to provide for a member who refuses lawful public aid ought to weigh whether it is being faithful to 1 Timothy 5, insofar as such help depletes funds available for more desperate members.

Of course, 1 Timothy 5 speaks of families’ obligation to help their own, not civil government’s. The Christian community should not lose this emphasis upon familial responsibility. Yet the fact that Paul so stresses families’ obligation to help their own demonstrates that the church’s diaconal calling does not nullify the legitimacy of Christians receiving aid from outside the church. To be put it more sharply, this obligation of families demonstrates that the church’s diaconal calling does not nullify the legitimacy of Christians receiving aid from creation-order, common-grace institutions. This is the sort of institution the family is (Gen 1:28; 2:22–24; 9:1, 7). It is worth noting that in 1 Timothy 5 Paul speaks of family obligations not as some uniquely Christian duty but as a natural duty binding upon and understandable to all people. The duty involves making “some return to their parents,” or paying back recompense (amoibas apodidonai, ἀμοιβὰς ἀποδιδόναι) to them (5:4). Parents raise their children, and as a matter of simple justice children should care for their parents in their own time of need. A Christian who fails to do this is “worse than an unbeliever” (5:8), which is to say, even unbelievers understand this principle of natural justice and typically follow it.[4]

In short, 1 Timothy 5 contradicts the idea that the church’s obligation to help its needy members prohibits Christians from accepting aid from other sources. Paul appealed to the family’s obligations to help its own needy members, but not because the family is a special redemptive institution. Paul’s point was that the church’s obligation toward its needy members does not cancel out natural obligations rooted in the orders of creation and/or common grace. Civil government is grounded in this natural order. This means, at least, that the church’s obligation toward needy members is not sufficient reason for Christians to reject public aid.

Pastors and Public Aid

One question remains: May pastors accept public aid? Another way to ask it is whether churches, as they fulfill the responsibility to support their pastors, should encourage or discourage them from accepting government assistance.

On the one hand, we should not think of ministers as a different kind of Christian who stand in fundamentally different relationship to civil society from other Christians. Reformed churches have rejected traditional Roman Catholic claims that their clergy are exempt from civil jurisdiction.[5] Pastors have all the legal liabilities of other citizens and have a right to vote and hold political opinions, although they must avoid getting engrossed in public affairs (see 2 Tim. 2:4). So, at the most general level, there is no reason to conclude that pastors should not receive public aid that other Christians may receive.

On the other hand, a church’s obligation to support its pastor is not identical to the church’s obligation to support its needy members. While the church should only provide for genuinely needy members without other recourse, as considered above, the church should be the primary provider for its pastor. The church does not help its pastor when he becomes needy but remunerates him so he does not become needy in the first place. This is a very important ecclesiastical responsibility. It is wonderful that the OPC is committed to remunerating the ministers it calls so that they might be free from worldly care, in distinction from many churches that call ministers but require them to raise their own support. Hence, it is worth considering what implications this responsibility might have with respect to public aid.

1 Corinthians 9 provides the most detailed explanation of the obligation to remunerate pastors. Paul’s main concern here is his apostolic ministry. But it becomes clear that what he says applies to all ministers of the Word, as captured in 9:14: “the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.” The presenting issue in 1 Corinthians 9 is the fact that Paul had not accepted remuneration from the Corinthian church. He defends both his right to receive remuneration and his right to decline it for the sake of the gospel. But his entire argument hinges on the general right of ministers to be compensated for their labors. Moreover, this general right does not depend on some special status of the church as the kingdom of Christ but instead rests on an ordinary natural-law reality. Let us consider a few of the details.

The principle that launches Paul’s discussion about ministerial remuneration is implicit in 9:6: Paul and Barnabas, as all other preachers, have a right (exousian, ἐξουσίαν)[6] not to work (mē ergazesthai, μὴ ἐργάζεσθαι), that is, not to work beyond their gospel labors (though Paul had done so: 2 Thess. 3:8). The rationale follows: “Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard without eating any of its fruit? Or who tends a flock without getting some of the milk” (1 Cor. 9:7)? This is not complicated or profound but a reality of the natural order. Workers can not devote themselves to service if they do not get compensated for it, and those who labor at something rightly claim a share of the profit. These are not theological claims but a moral argument kata anthrōpon (9:8, κατὰ ἄνθρωπον)—literally, according to man. Paul confirms his conclusion by appealing to the general equity of the Mosaic law (9:8–10; cf. 9:13) and then returns to natural principles of justice: ministers sow Spiritual things, so they rightly reap material things (9:11). Other ministers have this right and so also do Paul and Barnabas (9:12). Elsewhere Paul also cited a natural principle of justice when commanding ministerial remuneration: “The laborer deserves his wages” (1 Tim. 5:18; cf. Luke 10:7).

For present purposes, it is important to note that Paul does not claim that ministers’ support must come from the church and from no other source. That cannot be the case, since Paul is so adamant to defend his decision not to receive support from the Corinthian church (1 Cor. 9:15–18). What, then, is Paul’s claim? It is that ministers who devote themselves to gospel proclamation have no obligation to engage in other remunerative employment. They have a right not to work (9:6). If ministers accept public aid, there is no violation of this right or transgression of Paul’s moral concern in 1 Corinthians 9. This suggests that if a minister falls into need in the exigencies of life, it is just as valid for him to accept public aid as for any other Christian.

But what if a ministerial need arises not from the exigencies of life but as part of the church’s own plan? For example, a church calls a minister and promises to support him so that he will be free from worldly care. But the terms of the call leave the minister below a certain income line, which makes his family eligible for public aid benefits, and he will be free from worldly care only if he accepts this. Is such a call consistent with the moral and ecclesiological considerations addressed thus far?

If the church can afford to provide its pastor with whatever benefit the public aid might otherwise provide, such a call is difficult to justify. As considered above, Christians have an obligation to work hard and support themselves if possible. No Christian should desire to be dependent financially on others. Why then would the church want to make its pastor dependent on the civil government?

But the situation is different if the church cannot in fact provide full support to a pastor. The alternative to asking the pastor to accept public aid may be to have no pastor at all. This is hardly an enviable situation, but it happens. 1 Corinthians 9 again provides insight. Paul’s overarching zeal in this text is not about finances but about “winning” people (9:19) and “saving some” (9:22): “I do it all for the sake of the gospel” (9:23). Financial decisions should serve this end. It seems odd that a church would refuse to call a gospel-preaching minister in order to avoid having a minister who receives public aid. That would abandon the most important concern for the sake of upholding a subordinate concern.

As a final thought, I simply note that the government does not give such public aid to ministers as ministers, but simply as citizens. Support for indigent ministers is not a line-item on any American state’s budget. Most American Reformed pastors are happy to receive the benefit of a tax-exempt housing allowance, and most Reformed churches are happy to incorporate this into their calculations about ministerial remuneration, yet this is tied to pastors’ status as ministers. If it is permissible to accept this benefit from the government, which is direct assistance to the church, it is difficult to see why a poor church is prohibited from taking advantage of lawful indirect assistance when the alternative is an empty pulpit.


Scripture does not directly address whether governments should give public aid or whether Christians may accept it. This should make believers cautious about offering dogmatic conclusions about these issues. This article has argued that even Christians who are generally skeptical about the propriety of public aid have morally legitimate reasons, on at least some occasions, to accept public aid and to approve of other Christians doing so. Individuals and families must be industrious and financially responsible, and the church should generously support needy members and their pastors. But the exegetical rationales for these important moral principles, in and of themselves, do not provide sufficient reason for Christians to reject public aid in times of genuine need. They may, in fact, provide weighty considerations for accepting it.


[1] People often use the term “Erastianism” loosely. I use it here to designate the denial of the church’s spiritual authority, independent of the civil magistrate, to govern her own affairs and carry out her ministry. For an example of Reformed engagement with and rejection of Erastianism, see Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol. 3, trans. George Musgrave Giger, ed. James T. Dennison, Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1997), 274–81.

[2] As Robert W. Yarbrough puts it, “Church relief . . . should be the last and not the first resort.” See The Letters to Timothy and Titus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018), 284.

[3] As noted, e.g., in George W. Knight III, The Pastoral Epistles: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 231; and Philip H. Towner, The Letters to Timothy and Titus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 358.

[4] See similar comments in Knight, The Pastoral Epistles, 221; and Towner, Timothy and Titus, 345.

[5] E.g., see the argument in Turretin, Institutes, 3.258–68.

[6] On the translation of exousia here as “right” or “authority,” cf. Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 444.

David VanDrunen is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and serves as the Robert B. Strimple professor of Systematic Theology and Christian Ethics at Westminster Seminary California, Escondido, California.

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Ordained Servant: May 2023

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