Family Care—How Far Does It Extend?
“AFRICAN culture tells me that I am my brother’s keeper,” said Nigerian writer S. A. Jegede. “African culture calls for respect and care for one’s parents.” Yes, in Africa and other parts of the world, helping out family members is a way of life.
Often, though, “family” is thought to include aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, and nephews—even people who are simply from the same village! But as African families leave the rurals for city jobs, such extended family members have become a potential source of problems. Transplanted families often find themselves besieged by relatives requesting money or lodging. Because of the unique demands of city life, however, helping distant relatives or people from the same village is often difficult, if not impossible.
The Bible states: “Certainly if anyone does not provide for those who are his own, and especially for those who are members of his household, he has disowned the faith and is worse than a person without faith.” (1 Timothy 5:8) How far, though, does the principle of family care extend? Is a Christian obliged to provide for extended family members in all circumstances? Or is it as the above-quoted Nigerian writer asserts: “The abuse of the extended family system has no room in African culture or in the Bible”?
Parents and Children
The extended family system existed in Bible times. Yet, in obligating a Christian to “provide for those who are his own,” the Bible nowhere indicates that this necessarily includes all the relatives and others of the extended family system.
The Bible particularly stresses the obligations of parents toward children. Regarding a congregation’s helping him, the apostle Paul wrote: “For the children ought not to lay up for their parents, but the parents for their children.” (2 Corinthians 12:14) H. B. Clark, a famous law authority, commented: “A natural and moral obligation rests upon a father to support his child.” As the God-appointed head of the family unit, the father has the prime responsibility to be the breadwinner. Often the wife assists by caring for the home efficiently, spending wisely, even working outside the home when circumstances demand it.—Compare Proverbs 31:10-31.
Note, though, that parents are encouraged to do more than simply earn money. They are urged to “lay up” some earnings in behalf of their children. Parents that follow this wise counsel are often able to assist their children even after they have grown up and left home. Particularly is this appropriate when children pursue the full-time Christian ministry and occasionally need financial assistance to remain in that service. No mention is made of parents’ having to “lay up” for innumerable extended family members.
This loving care on the part of parents is not to go unrewarded. The apostle Paul says at 1 Timothy 5:4: “But if any widow has children or grandchildren, let these learn first to practice godly devotion in their own household and to keep paying a due compensation to their parents and grandparents, for this is acceptable in God’s sight.” Such support of an aging parent or grandparent would certainly harmonize with the Bible’s command to honor one’s parents.—Ephesians 6:2; Exodus 20:12.
Again, note that Paul evidently laid no obligations upon distant relatives to care for such widows. Back then, in cases where no close relatives were on hand to care for a Christian widow with a record of faithful service, the congregation was to bear the burden of her support.—1 Timothy 5:3, 9, 10.
The Christian obligation to provide “for those who are his own” thus definitely includes a person’s marriage mate and children, parents and grandparents. A responsibility of this sort exists even when such dependent ones are unbelievers or are physically disabled in some way. It continues as long as such ones are alive. And if one is married, it may even include helping one’s mate to honor his or her parents. Serious marital difficulties have sometimes arisen when this principle has been overlooked or disregarded.
Provide What? When?
Nevertheless, parents should not conclude that they can squander their resources in the belief that they can, at any time, demand material support from their children. Nor does it mean that they should make unreasonable demands for attention from their offspring, who often have families of their own to whom their first obligation belongs. This view is in line with Paul’s words: “Children ought not to lay up for their parents, but the parents for their children.”—2 Corinthians 12:14.
In the normal course of events, parents may be able to acquire their own home, property, and source of income (including company or government retirement pay) that may sustain them in their old age. “Money is for a protection,” and by ‘laying up’ for themselves prudently, parents can often avoid placing a great financial or emotional burden on their children later on in life.—Ecclesiastes 7:12.
Solomon’s words at Ecclesiastes 9:11, however, remind us that even the best-laid plans are subject to “time and unforeseen occurrence.” So, what if, in spite of careful planning, a couple’s means of support fails or needs supplementing? Their God-fearing children would naturally be moved to help them in some reasonable way. This may mean providing financial assistance, inviting the parents to live with or near them, or, when necessary, arranging for institutional care. Of course, aged parents or grandparents certainly should be reasonable, not expecting their offspring to provide a lavish life-style, for the Bible’s counsel is: “Having sustenance and covering, we shall be content with these things.”—1 Timothy 6:8.
In many cases, government social-security programs, pensions, old-age benefits, and personal savings can provide adequate, albeit modest, support for aged parents or grandparents. It is wise to find out what provisions are available to those who qualify.—Romans 13:6.
Avoid Pharisaical Reasoning
Jesus chastised the scribes and the Pharisees because they said to needy parents: “Whatever I have by which you might get benefit from me is a gift dedicated to God.” (Matthew 15:5) In Jesus’ day, pious Jews could set aside money or property for eventual donation to the temple. The Pharisees fostered the view that once dedicated, such goods could under no circumstances be used for any other purpose—including caring for aged parents.
Christ condemned this Pharisaical thinking as being out of harmony with the spirit of God’s Law. In his view, honoring one’s parents took priority over a man-made rule. Similarly today, some Christians have devoted their lives to the ministry, perhaps serving as missionaries, pioneers, or traveling overseers. Upon learning that their parents were in need, they tried hard to find ways to care for their folks while still continuing in their form of ministry. But when no such arrangements could in any way be worked out, they did not reason that their privileges in the ministry were more important than honoring their parents. Such ones are to be warmly commended for making adjustments in their lives—often at great personal sacrifice—so as to meet their family obligations.
Working What Is Good Toward All
Though the Bible obligates Christians to care for needy members of their immediate family, this does not rule out reasonably showing love to members of the extended family. At times certain aunts, cousins, or nephews seem as close as immediate family members! The Bible encourages us to “work what is good toward all.” (Galatians 6:10) If a Christian has the means to help such a one, certainly he would not have to ‘shut the door of his tender compassions.’ Indeed, he may feel morally obligated to help.—1 John 3:17.
Nevertheless, a Christian’s primary obligation is toward his immediate family—marriage mate, children, parents, and grandparents. He would therefore give serious thought before taking on a responsibility that could harm them—financially, emotionally, or spiritually.
The Bible’s advice on family care is thus kind and reasonable. Applying it can relieve a Christian of much unnecessary anxiety, and it can help him to set his priorities. All of this is to the praise of Jehovah, “the Father, to whom every family in heaven and on earth owes its name.”—Ephesians 3:14, 15.
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Christian parents have a primary obligation toward their own children
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Christian responsibilities may extend to aged parents as well as to one’s children