Should we prioritize Christians before helping others in greater need?

Should we be helping other Christians before we help non-Christians in greater need?

This question came into even sharper focus recently when the Trump administration announced that its nominee to become director general of the United Nations’ International Organization for Migration (IOM) was Ken Isaacs.

The IOM has an annual budget of over $1 billion and is tasked with providing secure, reliable, flexible and cost-effective services for those needing international migration assistance. Refugees, basically.

So alarm bells started sounding for some when it was revealed that Ken Isaacs, currently the head of international relief for Franklin Graham’s Samaritan’s Purse, has made comments that in some cases Christians should receive preferential treatment when being resettled from hostile areas. These comments appear to have been made on social media, reflecting on the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, and were coupled with disparaging references to Islam as a violent religion.

Mr Isaacs has since apologized for these remarks and said, “I pledge to hold myself to the highest standards of humanity, human dignity and equality if chosen to lead IOM.”

Okay, give the guy his due. He has been committed to helping refugees and has a long history of assisting those who are suffering. But his remarks, though retracted, reveal an underlying belief within the Christian community that we should help Christians before helping people of another religious faith (or no faith).

I fear it is becoming an entrenched assumption by many Christians that “charity begins at home”.


Those who think we should prioritize Christians in international aid often cite Paul’s words in Galatians 6:10, “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.”

It’s the use of especially they seize on. They agree we should help others, but insist that Paul is saying that we should prioritize assisting other Christians. That makes sense, I guess, if you look at this verse in isolation (which lots of people apparently do). But if you read it in its broader context, the meaning is somewhat different.

In the preceding section, Paul had just warned his readers to avoid sin, or to use his phrase, “sowing to please their flesh” (v.8). Instead, he insists, we should “sow to please the Spirit” and “not become weary in doing good” (v.8-9). So, doing good in this context refers to avoiding sin and pursuing spiritual things. When Paul concludes his argument by saying we should “do good to all people,” he means we should be helping everyone avoid sin and pursue the Spirit. So, it makes perfect sense that he would say “especially those who belong to the family of believers” because it’s particularly applicable to other spiritual people like the church members in Galatia.

This passage isn’t about providing practical assistance at all.

Another Pauline passage often cited in this context is 1 Timothy 5:8, “Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”  This verse is in the context of Paul’s discussion about the need for church families to care for the widows in their midst, and is most certainly referring to practical assistance. At that time, widows were extremely vulnerable members of society, particularly those without children or extended family to care for them. Paul insists that the church as a whole care for those widows with no family support, but that individual families had responsibility to “provide for their relatives” and not expect the rest of the church to carry them. It’s very practical advice, but it can’t be used to defend the idea we should only take care of fellow Christians.


Another passage that could be used to make the case that we should show favoritism to Christians when helping the needy is Jesus’ Parable of the Sheep and Goats (Mt. 25:31-46). In that story people are separated into two groups – those who did feed, clothe, house and comfort “the least of these brothers and sisters of mine” and those who didn’t. The latter are sent away to eternal punishment, while the former receive eternal life.

For a long time, “the least of these” was assumed to refer to the poor in general. But this was a problematic interpretation. Was Jesus saying that our eternal salvation is earned by feeding and clothing the poor? Surely this contradicts the biblical teaching on salvation by grace alone (Eph. 2:8-9).

More recent interpretations have concluded that “the least of these brothers and sisters of mine” just refers to Christians in need – those spiritual brothers and sisters of Jesus. They would be in need of food and clothing and housing, and especially being attended to in prison, if they were persecuted Christians, possibly evangelists and teachers. Those who refuse to help supply their material needs are presumably also those who reject their message.

If “the least of these” are Jesus’ messengers, then it makes sense for Jesus to say your salvation is based on your response to their message – that is, the Gospel.

In other words, even if the Parable of the Sheep and Goats does refer to helping Christians, it isn’t making a case for prioritizing them over others in need. It’s a comment on the acceptance or rejection of the Gospel.


Whether Ken Isaacs cites Galatians 6 or Matthew 25 I don’t know. His work in Syria and other parts of the Middle East has, no doubt, has put him face to face with the terrible persecution being meted out to the church there, and his comments about prioritizing Christians might reflect this.

What is more difficult to understand is the attitude of the US President, Donald Trump, and the Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, neither of whom present as devout Christian men. Both Mr Trump and Mr Turnbull have publicly stated they will prioritize Christian refugees over others.

In fact, in their very first telephone conversation together, Mr Turnbull congratulated Mr Trump for such an approach,

We are very much of the same mind. It is very interesting to know how you prioritise the minorities in your executive order. This is exactly what we have done with the program to bring in 12,000 Syrian refugees, 90 per cent of which will be Christians. It will be quite deliberate and the position I have taken — I have been very open about it — is that it is a tragic fact of life that when the situation in the Middle East settles down — the people that are going to be most unlikely to have a continuing home are those Christian minorities.

This is based in some measure on a belief that Christians are more persecuted than other religions, particularly in the Middle East. But the data doesn’t bear that out. While Mr Turnbull wants 90% of his refugee intake to be Christians (the actual figure is closer to 80%), the UNHCR says Christians comprise only 15% of total refugees from Iraq and less than 1% from Syria. And Human Rights Watch, while not denying that the church has been persecuted in Iraq and Syria, points out that “Muslims have overwhelmingly borne the brunt of most of the atrocities by ISIS and the Assad regime.”

It’s very hard to get away from the view that it is a form of state-supported prejudice against Muslims. Mr Trump’s proposed travel ban against certain Muslim-majority countries reinforces this. As concerning as it is for secular states to engage in this kind of prejudice, my other worry is that Christians are being infected by this prejudice, believing it actually honors God for us to show favoritism toward other Christians.


A far more helpful passage of Scripture to consider in this discussion is another of Jesus’ parables, the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).  The story is well known. A man is set upon by thieves, beaten to within an inch of his life, and left dying by the side of the road. Two fellow Jews – one a priest, the other a Levite – ignore the man, while a Samaritan – despised by the Jews – not only lends some assistance, but does so at great personal cost. The moral of the story: be like the good Samaritan.

Jesus told this parable in response to a man asking whether it was true that the Law of Moses required you to love your neighbor as yourself. When Jesus agreed, the guy, looking for a loophole, asked, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus’ answer-in-the-form-of-a-parable is, quite simply, anyone you encounter who is in need.

It’s interesting that Ken Isaacs, the man currently in hot water about his nomination to the International Organization for Migration, currently works for Samaritan’s Purse. In Jesus’ story, the Samaritan’s purse was open to whomever was in need, not only his fellow Samaritans. As Christians we need to go back to the question of who is our neighbor, and also ask, what does it say about us if we’re only interested in saving our own kind?

Human rights lawyer with the Refugee Council of Australia, Asher Hirsch sums it up well,

Our position is that refugees shouldn’t be selected based on religion, but that we should prioritise the most vulnerable (women and children, elderly, disabled, those at severe risk of harm where they are living, etc). This may be Christians but often won’t be.

Of course, we should want to help our sisters and brothers in Christ. But we also have a moral obligation to reject a policy that sees a secular state selecting refugees based on their religious beliefs. Today it’s Muslims who suffer from this favoritism, but a time might come when it’s Christians who are prejudiced against, and who could blame them if we looked around on that day and found our Muslim neighbors unwilling to help us.

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25 thoughts on “Should we prioritize Christians before helping others in greater need?

  1. Gee Mike, I know it is hard to fit The Parable of the Sheep & Goats with Ephesians 2 and salvation by grace through faith, but surely it is a long stretch to say ….

    1. “the least of these brothers and sisters of mine” just refers to Christians in need – a big jump, especially as there were no “christians” when Jesus spoke, just Jews who were following rabbi Jesus.

    2. These christians in need may have been “persecuted Christians, possibly evangelists and teachers. “. That narrows Jesus’ command down an awful lot.

    3. Those who refuse to help supply their material needs are presumably also those who reject their message. That’s another enormous jump. Does that mean all who today don’t provide financial support to persecuted christians have rejected the gospel?

    They seem to me to be three enormous and unjustified jumps. I know faith vs works wasn’t the main point of your post, and I agree with your main point, but this argument seems to me to be theological casuistry.

    I think we need to review our dichotomy of either faith or works but not both, rather than resolve it in this way. Sorry to disagree. 🙂

    1. Very happy to hear the disagreement, Eric. I should point out, though, that that interpretation of Matt 25 isn’t my personal one. It’s a widely accepted view these days. It’s true there weren’t any ‘Christians’ around when Jesus told the parable, but it’s an eschatological parable, set in the time of future judgement when Jesus knew the church would be growing and experiencing persecution. The two sticking points in interpreting the parable have always been (a) who are “the least of these brothers and sisters of mine”, and (b) if they are ALL poor and imprisoned people, how does Jesus’ linking their care with eternal life fit with the doctrine of salvation by grace. Both issues are resolved when we see the “brothers and sisters of mine” as his followers. Earlier, Jesus had said that his brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, were those who do his will, so it’s not odd to think “brothers and sisters of mine” refers to his followers/disciples. And to your third point, in the early centuries of the Christian church the only people who would have visited persecuted Christians in prison would have been other Christians, so I don’t think it’s a huge leap to see that those who feed, clothe, house, visit the “least of these brothers and sisters of mine” as those who have accepted the gospel. This isn’t to say there isn’t a biblical basis for helping ALL people in need, but Matt 25 isn’t the simplest way to do it.

      1. I did wonder if it was your view, or not. But I feel it is quite wrong to explain away the plain meaning of a passage because it doesn’t agree with our theology or our interpretation of another passage. OT scholar Peter Enns talks a lot about how the Jewish scriptures speak with more than one voice, more a conversation than a text book, and I think we should take this approach to the NT as well. I’d like to see us accept the plain teaching of both Matthew 25 and Ephesians 2, hold them in tension, and see how we can gain new understandings. I think there are ways to resolve that dilemma, much better than just re-interpreting one of these texts. Anyway, thanks for hearing my gripe, I’ll leave off so not to divert away from the point you were making.

        1. Sure. But interpreting “the least of these brothers and sisters of mine” as his followers/disciples IS the plain meaning of the passage.

          1. I can’t help feeling that equating “the least of these brothers and sisters of mine” with christians is a very 21st century christian understanding. I think this parable (and it is a parable, not a direct statement about God) should be interpreted in the light of other parables like the Good Samaritan, where the neighbour was decidedly NOT a fellow believer (that was the point). Jesus is saying in both parables that we should interpret brothers, sisters, neighbours as everyone, not just family, tribe, religious group, etc.

          2. Thanks for the continued pushback. I’m not sure of your rationale for thinking we should interpret Mt 25 in light of the other parables, but not in light of Eph 2. Of course, we should interpret all passages in light of the rest of Scripture. But I see no problem with Luke 10 calling us to love our neighbor (implied: ALL neighbors) and Mt 25 telling us we’ll be sent to everlasting punishment if we reject Jesus’ followers (implied: and their message). Parables can and do have different, not contradictory, meanings.

          3. Surely we should understand Jesus’ mission and Paul’s teachings in their historical context, and then see how we can apply both today? And I would have thought that breaking down the exclusiveness of the religious elites, by welcoming women, “sinners”, the poor and uneducated, lepers, other social outcasts, and non-Jews was a fundamental aspect of Jesus’ teaching and mission, that continued into Acts (e.g. Cornelius). So I’d need a lot of convincing to see Matthew 25 as you have outlined, especially as we see teachings that seem to soften or question the ideas in Ephesians 2 in James, in other of Jesus’ teachings, and even in other places in the NT. And of course Eph 2 is supported by many passages as well.

            So I don’t think it’s a matter of allowing one scripture to re-interpret another, but rather to grapple with two different strands that both permeate the NT, rather than allow one strand to reinterpret the other.

            But I don’t want to keep “pushing back”, so I’ll leave it at that. I have enjoyed your blog from the beginning, and agree with your main point here. I just have seen too much (IMO) distortion of scripture in an attempt to make it all say the same thing. Thanks for your patience.

          4. I agree that a Christian should give help “In the Name of the Lord” to anyone who needs it – and especially to fellow believers in our tithes and in our freewill offerings.
            I would include the Jewish people in that also, because they are God’s Chosen people. In fact the Jewish people are the very ones around whom so much prophecy revolves and it is to Jerusalem that our Lord will return. Imo Christians should be reaching out to Jews, getting to know them and what they believe; loving them because Jesus loves them.

      2. I agree with Eric, disagree with Mike

    2. It’s also important to remember that Samaritans WERE Jews. They just weren’t Israelites.

  2. This is a response to the discourse between the original poster Mike and Eric, first I want to say that in my kjv bible it says my brethren doesn’t mention sisters, although by brethren I think it includes sisters.
    Ephesians 2:8 says “For by Grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God”
    Remember Paul was appointed by God to minister to the Gentiles and includes them into the Body of the church, and how does Paul describe gentiles prior to being saved by Grace through faith in and by the Blood of Jesus Christ? Well it explains it in Ephesians 4:17-22.

    As I write this Matthew 18:11-14 comes to mind, “Even so it is not the will of your Father which is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish” even people who profess to be Christian are not guaranteed salvation where was it that Jesus said not everyone who crys unto me “Lord Lord” shall not see the kingdom. By the Holy Spirit knowing that by grace we are saved through the faith of the gospel in and by the blood of Jesus Christ should we help others, whomsoever the Lord and the Holy Spirit compels us.

    Now it’s no mystery that the Grace of God is abundant as is His mercy that whosoever should believe on Jesus Christ who he is and what he did that they should live everlastingly and not perish to a gentile (People who are not Jews), if God’s mercy extended to gentiles why should it not extend to people who are not of the Christian faith such as the early gentiles. Through our faith, praying it be strong we should act in a way that the Holy Spirit compels us to act toward our fellow man

  3. […] homelessness by helping people find jobs while providing for them materially and spiritually.Should we prioritize Christians before helping others in greater need …Feb 8, 2018 … They agree we should help others, but insist that Paul is saying that we should […]

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  5. Jesus said “Who is my Mother & my Brothers?” Whoever that does the will of my Father in Heaven……. “the bretheren”, “the sheep”. you take care of this group financially. Who do you Love? Everyone. What is Love? Grace and Truth from Jesus. So to love all is to share grace and truth (the gospel) with all…. but if the reject it, no need to visit in prison over and over, keep paying their utility bills as they lie, cheat, steal…. but as I type this I can admit, I’m always wrong about everything and Jesus is right about everything.

  6. I would just like to put my two cents in here. When Trump prioritize Christians in the middle East as refugees, he was prioritizing the most persecuted group in the middle East. it’s not like he’s saying the other refugees are less important, but he is saying that the other refugees are not as persecuted. Christians are the most hated group in the middle East and they need to be prioritized because if they stay they will die.

  7. This is a hodgepodge of cherry-picked statements and mental gymnastics to make the bible suit your views. Your first argument makes no sense; Paul specifies that we should help Christians especially and means precisely that. There’s no reasonable way to “put it into context” and derive a conclusion that he didn’t actually mean that because he said we ought to especially help Christians (more than others or before others). It means what it means and it does not mean that we shouldn’t help others, but that, yes, Christians get preference. You seem to be uncomfortable with that because of your personal political beliefs and are trying to twist around scripture to suit those beliefs.

    There’s nothing wrong with prioritizing helping Christians first: as you mentioned, it’s in the Bible, like it or not. Scripture doesn’t change because of the current political climate or fashionable beliefs surrounding Islam or immigration.

    1. Kevin, I didn’t read your comment any further after the opening line about “a hodgepodge of cherry-picked statements and mental gymnastics to make the bible suit your views.” If you want me to do you the honor of taking your point of view seriously and with respect, you need to show that you can do the same for me. Maybe what you wrote here was insightful, but I didn’t read past the opening line.

      1. A family should protect and take care of its own precisely so that it can be of real assistance to others in need. Who wants to be part of a family that doesn’t protect, serve and prioritize the members of that family? The point is that Christians are family members and should be prioritized. It’s so plainly true that it takes a lot of effort to work around. Not prioritizing family members uncovers a deeper issue that probably needs to be dealt with prior to any outreach.
        Having said all this , countries are not Christian communities. Heads of state determining to help those more aligned with their politics seems rational.

      2. Michael,

        Try to follow Christ’s example and not be so thin-skinned and easily offended. Right? The Bible says to expect troubles in life as a Believer and be prepared to answer detractors.

        Your thin-skinned response is 100% why non-christians are sheepish about conversing with Christians, too many Christians being so easily offended. Easily offended IS NOT Christ’s example.

        You don’t know where Kevin is coming from and yet you shut him out. Honestly, shame on you. Respect is earned not given. Grow up.

    2. So true. Help your Brothers in Christ and who ever
      The Holy Spirit put in your path… the Bible is clear and those who are not followers are going to hell. So how are we to help them.. all we can do
      Is tell them the truth and the way…leave the rest to the Holy Spirit.. .. did God really tell us to go..
      For me I will help those in my path remembering man does not live by bread alone but it a good strategy for serving our Father

  8. I don’t agree with your interpretation either! In reading the New Testament I came to see in Paul’s pastoral letters that he is talking about giving to the saints as well as our enemies..
    Romans 12 “Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. 13 Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.”
    Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,”[d] says the Lord. 20 On the contrary:

    “If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
    if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
    In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”[e]

    21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,”[d] says the Lord. 20 On the contrary:

    “If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
    if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
    In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”[e]

    21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
    I think the issue for today is that as the Body of Christ we in the West should especially remember those parts of the Body who are experiencing persecution, imprisonment, poverty and death. In my own country it is easy for the tender hearted to give money to humanitarian charities, whilst neglecting Christian brothers and sisters who are hungry and penniless.
    James 2 says
    “14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? 15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”
    So whilst I believe we should help anyone if it is in our power to do so, our priority should be the Body of Christ, wherever they live.

  9. Jesus, as a man was Jewish. When He refers to “these brothers of mine” then, it seems reasonable that He is talking about other Jews. Taking this teaching in context here in Matthew it is pretty clear that Jesus is talking about the mistreatment of Jews during tribulation.
    Those who treat Jews well during that time are the sheep and those who treat them poorly are the goats.
    Taking this section of scripture from Matthew out of context has unnecessarily caused guilt and angst for many Christians. Good news: it doesn’t apply to us. It only applies to those living during the tribulation period.

  10. So, it appears to me that there are above three different questions in debate here:

    1) Is it wrong for Christians/churches/Christian organizations to prioritize helping Christians/churches over other individuals/groups?

    My opinion is that God calls different Christian individuals and groups to focus on different areas of ministry. So, to my mind, it would not be wrong for a given Christian or church to specialize on helping other Christians, while another Christian or other church is called to specialize on helping nonbelievers.

    2) Are Jesus’ words in Matthew to be taken parabolically, prophetically (eschatologically) or instructively for believers today?

    While I believe we do need to be careful with Jesus’ warnings about potential future events, I believe the Bible clearly teaches us to do good to others, regardless of who they are, and in general preferably regardless of what reward or consequence might ensue.

    3) What does the Bible teach about the role of works in the theology of eternal salvation?

    While today generally only conservative evangelicals hold to the teaching of sola gratia, sola fideus (i.e. the doctrine of eternal salvation being solely through the grace of God, thru our accepting the Gospel message in our hearts, through the power of the Holy Spirit), I myself, being one of those, do believe that this is what the Bible teaches, and that our actions play no part in our eternal salvation, except to demonstrate to others that we are truly saved, and possibly as a basis for rewards in the life to come.

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