We need to actually care for women and kids
Katherine Thompson argues for greater protection
The book of James tells us that, “religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27). I wonder if we often skip over these words and read it as meaning we need to be nice people and not get caught up in things that are obviously ungodly in our culture.
Perhaps this is precisely where we go wrong, as it is less costly to be a Pharisee than it is to get our hands dirty and actually meet someone at the point of their emotional, physical and social need.
We are naive and blind if we think exclusion does not occur within our church community …
We miss the most vulnerable in our Australian society because they do not take the biblical form of orphans and widows.
To understand what James is referring to, we need to understand that to become a widow in New Testament Israel was a social, economic and cultural tragedy. It often meant a marginal existence and a life of poverty without the protection of the patriarchal society.
The widow needed to provide for her children, work and pay off any debts that her husband left. She was vulnerable to losing any property left for her to care for and to being exploited by other people. She suffered the loss and grief of her distressing and lonely situation, possibly estranged from her husband’s family.
Jesus warned the Jews that they deserved punishment if they were exploiting these widows by cheating them out of their homes while, at the same time, appearing pious in saying lengthy prayers in public (Mark 12:40). Jesus also clearly states that when we help the vulnerable in our society – the sick, the hungry, the imprisoned and homeless – we are actually ministering for him (Matthew 25:31-40).
Similarly, the New Testament church recognised the need to care for the widows in their community and chose seven men who were “known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom” (Acts 6:3), to care for them, in order to free up the apostles for prayer and the ministry of the word.
We certainly still have widows in our society but the cultural, social and legal ramifications are different from those stated in Scripture. Widows are generally older women, and they are welcome in church and mostly retain the support and protection of their family, friends and community.
While it remains our collective responsibility to care for these women, their vulnerability is often not as extreme as what occurred in New Testament times.
I would like to argue that the church needs to rethink the application of this scripture in James 1:27 and extend its protection to include all vulnerable women and children who are marginalised and facing social, economic and cultural exclusion.
We are naive and blind if we think exclusion does not occur within our church community, never mind in our wider Australian society. Yet, as a woman who attends church, and who works with people who are struggling with the consequences of adversity, I hear too many people lamenting how followers of Christ offer judgment and do nothing to meet their actual needs.
We need to genuinely love other people …
We find it easier to turn a blind eye than stand against a husband who has been unfaithful. We say there is always fault on both sides, but this can be one of those justifications that contains only a small element of truth. The deception of infidelity causes family breakdown and has long-lasting, multigenerational financial and emotional consequences.
We fail to stand in solidarity with victims of abuse. Child abuse is too hard to face and we don’t wish to believe the worst of someone and realise they have been physically and emotionally mistreating their family. We justify our lack of response by saying that the perpetrator appears to be a person of upright character, not realising that our failure to listen to the victim isolates them and implies they are lying. The silence this forces upon them can be equally as painful and destructive as the original abuse. Silencing is a form of social exclusion.
We pass judgment when a single mother is living in poverty with her children and is stressed and distressed. We choose to think the worst rather than see that she is trying her best under very difficult circumstances. We tell her children that their mother must not be a real Christian if she is divorced or unmarried, or worse still we write her off as having loose morals.
We have a social blind spot when it comes to recognising the value of single women in our church community. They feel rejected because they are not wives or mothers. Married men can make them feel like an uncomfortable threat, like they are unsafe to be around, when all they want is to be accepted as a valued individual.
Surely if the Book of Job teaches us anything, it is to get alongside people who are suffering and listen, rather than taking the easier option of judging or giving advice. We need to genuinely love other people, and show it by being willing to walk with them in their distress, and support in every area of their life.
Jesus lived this kind of life, eating with tax collectors and sinners, and shows us an example of how to be in the world and not become “stained” by it.
When we fail to be Christ to them they will leave our doors
Unfortunately the church is not untouched by sexual immorality, child abuse, domestic violence, social exclusion and sexism. All women and children who profess a faith in Christ should be welcomed into our community with love and understanding. They need to be taken seriously. They need to be safe and able to trust. When we fail to be Christ to them they will leave our doors and possibly wonder why they were not loved and whether God even loves them as we could not.
We are at fault if we only want a sanitised church community that welcomes the Pharisees who look like fine moral people while ignoring the distressed, lonely, marginalised and socially outcast.
We are also blind to the emotional and spiritual consequences of the hurt we are causing Christian women and children who are living in these difficult circumstances. If we cannot love and support the vulnerable in the church, we will certainly struggle to offer more than superficial care for people who do not know Christ.
Dr Katherine Thompson works as a Mental Health Social Worker in private practice in Melbourne, Victoria. She works with youth aged 12-25 years old, and missions organisations and their staff. She is the author of Christ Centred Mindfulness, due out mid 2018.