Caring for orphans and widows
by Keith McFarland
Christians know instinctively that it is good to care for orphans and widows. It is because the church provides both missionaries and funding in needy cross-cultural settings that ministries to orphans like New Hope Uganda can exist. The global AIDS pandemic has created further awareness and compassion regarding the growing orphan problem worldwide.
Yet, when asked if there is any biblical responsibility to care for orphans, many Christians cannot get beyond Jesus’ command to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’.
The only New Testament verse that speaks directly of the church’s responsibility to care for orphans is James 1:27, which says, ‘Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world’.1 Though this verse is very powerful, it is often passed over without our grasping the full implication of what James is saying.
Faith and works
If we are going to understand James 1:27 and its implications for us today, we need to have a good grasp of the letter as a whole. James is writing to mainly Jewish Christians scattered among the nations who are facing trials and hardships and struggling with socio-economic issues within the church.
For example, partiality has been shown favouring the rich over the poor (2:1-15) and divisive speech has revealed disturbing levels of selfish ambition, worldliness, anger and jealousy (3:1-4:17).
More than anything, there were people who claimed to believe but denied by their deeds the very faith they professed – either through lack of action (1:22; 2:15-16) or through mistreatment of the needy and one another (2:2-4; 4:1-2).
It is in this context that James presents the character of true faith. This is shown best in 2:14 where he asks, ‘What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works?’ The obvious answer is ‘no good at all’.
Genuine faith will have works as its natural outflow – brought about by the Holy Spirit living in the believer (cf. 2 Corinthians 3:18; Galatians 5:22-23). That is why James can properly say that ‘faith apart from works is useless’ (2:20).
This is the context of 1:26-27 where James contrasts true religion (a genuine living out of the faith) with worthless religion (that which profits nothing). We must be ‘doers’ who obey God’s Word, not hearers only (1:22-25).
This leads to verse 27 where James describes ‘true religion’ as that which is ‘pure and undefiled before God, the Father’. In essence he is saying, ‘Here’s what Christianity lived out should really look like’. How does this ‘pure and undefiled’ outworking of the faith manifest itself? James exemplifies it thus – it is ‘to visit orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained from the world’.
The second of these statements makes perfect sense. To remain unstained by the world is to reject the sinful and God-denying ways and attitudes of the world.
But the first statement catches us off guard. James doesn’t say that pure religion is ‘to care for the poor and needy in your midst’, though he could have put it that way – as he does in the next chapter where he urges believers to treat the poor with respect and provide food and clothing for the needy (2:1-16).
However, in 1:27 James focuses on a specific group of needy people – orphans and widows. Why does caring for this specific group embody a ‘pure and undefiled’ outworking of the Christian faith?
To provide a full answer we would need to survey the many Old Testament passages that talk specifically about the orphan and the widow – and what they reveal about God himself. But suffice it to say that James considered caring for orphans and widows ‘in their distress’ to be an expression of the fatherhood of God.
God and Father
Like the Lord Jesus himself, James makes special use of the word ‘Father’ in referring to God. He first uses it in 1:17 where he speaks of the gifts that the Father has given us.
For James the term ‘Father’ is not simply a title for God, but underlines a profound spiritual reality – it is the Father who ‘brought us forth’ of his own will by the word of truth (1:18). James uses ‘Father’ in direct connection to God’s ‘birthing’ us as his children. This powerful image helps us understand that the gifts he gives us are not arbitrary but reflect the Father-child
relationship into which we are brought by regeneration and adoption.
The title ‘Father’ is also used strategically in 1:27. James says that caring for orphans and widows is pure religion before ‘the God and Father’ (literal translation).
The emphasis on the Fatherhood of God is brought out clearly in the Greek – he does not use it as a title ‘God the Father’ but writes ‘God and Father’ (see also 3:9).
It is the fatherhood of God towards believers – who were fatherless before they trusted Christ – that gives rise to our own calling to reflect his fatherhood in our care for the fatherless and the widow.
A sense of responsibility
James tells us that pure religion is to ‘visit’ orphans and widows in their affliction. This does not mean casually dropping in to check up on such people. The NIV translates the word ‘visit’ as ‘look after’. Other translations use the term ‘care for’.
Each translation is trying to get to the heart of the Greek word episkeptomai, which carries the idea of looking after and being concerned about someone (see Matthew 25:35). One book helpfully points out that even when episkeptomai means ‘to seek out someone’ in the NT, it never implies merely ‘to visit’ them but always ‘to be concerned’ about them with a sense of responsibility.
James makes it clear that Christians have a responsibility to care compassionately for needy orphans and widows. This is ‘true’ religion lived out! The challenge remains for us today.
The Father has placed each of us in a situation where we are surrounded by orphans, widows, fatherless children and single moms. In Uganda, there are so many fatherless children that most families contain both birth children and children of relatives who have died.
For various reasons many of these families are unable to care properly for the children entrusted to them, so there is a great place for the church to take these children in or support such needy families.
In the West the need is the same, even if the situation looks different. Though the government controls the care of full orphans, families continue to break down, leaving more and more children to grow up fatherless. Likewise many mothers are left to function in effective widowhood. How should the church respond to this desperate need?
One obvious way is for Christians to get involved in foster-care or to adopt children into their families (a powerful and beautiful picture of our own adoption by God). This can be either a legal adoption or a ‘relational adoption’ – a commitment to provide long term care to fatherless or motherless children in your community.
Subject to the necessary child-protection safeguards, even busy Christians can single out a fatherless child in their church or in their neighborhood (or both) and build a relationship with him or her. It will take time and patience but over time God may give opportunities for parenting the child on an increasingly open basis.
Go out for lunch
Another easy thing to do is to have both mother and children into your home on a regular basis. Let them see biblical fatherhood and motherhood played out in your own family.
Visit the children in their home and seek to build relationships with the mother or family members. Go out for lunch together and just talk about life. Look for opportunities to speak lovingly to the heart of that fatherless family and see God use you as a vessel to bring the experience of his spiritual fatherhood to them.
Finally, pray! Pray that God will break down the walls that naturally form around the heart of a fatherless child or widow. Pray that our God and Father will powerfully bring his own fatherhood to these people through you and through the body of Christ.
As God’s people, seeking by faith to live ‘pure and undefiled’ lives before God, strive to reflect and bring his fatherhood to the fatherless and widow – through your own compassionate care for them.
The author works for Action International
1. Bible quotations are taken from the ESV translation of the Bible (Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers, 2001).
2. Theological dictionary of the New Testament (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids).