Charity, in Christian thought, the highest form of love, signifying the reciprocal love between God and man that is made manifest in unselfish love of one's fellow men. St. Paul's classical description of charity is found in the New Testament (I Cor. 13).
In Christian theology and ethics, charity (a translation of the Greek word agape, also meaning “love”) is most eloquently shown in the life, teachings, and death of Jesus Christ. St. Augustine summarized much of Christian thought about charity when he wrote: “Charity is a virtue which, when our affections are perfectly ordered, unites us to God, for by it we love him.” Using this definition and others from the Christian tradition, the medieval theologians, especially St. Thomas Aquinas, placed charity in the context of the other Christian virtues and specified its role as “the foundation or root” of them all..
Although the controversies of the Reformation dealt more with the definition of faith than with either hope or charity, the Reformers identified the uniqueness of God’s agape for man as unmerited love; therefore, they required that charity, as man’s love for man, be based not upon the desirability of its object but upon the transformation of its subject through the power of divine agape.
Modern philosophical discussions of charity have compared it to other terms and concepts of love, notably to eros, which is understood as desire or yearning.
What does the Bible say about charity?
The word charity is found in the Bible, and it nearly always means “love.” In the great “love Chapter”—1 Corinthians 13—the Bible translates agape as “charity” while the modern translations render it more accurately as “love.” The only use of the word charity to indicate “giving” is Acts 9:36, which refers to Dorcas, a woman “full of good works and charity.” The Greek word here means “compassion, as exercised towards the poor; beneficence.” The Bible translates it “almsgiving.”
The Bible has much to say about this second type of charity and how we are to care for the poor and needy among us. Perhaps one of the most famous passages on caring for those in need is in Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats. He says, “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me . . . I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me’” (Matthew 25:34-36, 40). Clearly, when we care for someone in need, we do the will of Christ.
John writes, “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?” (1 John 3:17-18). Similarly, James says, “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (James 2:14-17). The way in which we care for the needy is a reflection of our love for Christ and our position as His children. In other words, it is evidence of our salvation and the presence of the Holy Spirit within us.
When considering a specific act of charity or a charitable organization in which to become involved, we are to exercise wisdom and discernment. God does not call us to blindly give to every need, but to seek His will on the matter. We are to be good stewards and do our best to ensure that the time, money and talents we give to charity are being used properly. Paul gave Timothy detailed instructions for caring for widows in the church, complete with what type of women should be included on the list and warnings about what could happen if charity was given improperly (1 Timothy 5:3-16).
Charity need not always be in the form of money or what we would consider a typically “charitable” act. When Peter and John met a crippled beggar, rather than give the man coins, Peter said, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk” (Acts 3:6). Charity is giving of whatever resources we have in order to meet the need of another. God’s instructions to the Israelites in Deuteronomy set the example for charitable giving for the Israelites. “When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the alien, the fatherless and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over the branches a second time. Leave what remains for the alien, the fatherless and the widow. When you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, do not go over the vines again. Leave what remains for the alien, the fatherless and the widow. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt. This is why I command you to do this” (Deuteronomy 24:19-22). The primary thing to remember in charity is that all we have belongs to God, and all we give is a response to His love for us (1 John 4:19).
When we see our resources not only as God’s provision for us but as tools He desires us to use to care for others, we begin to understand the vastness of His love and sovereignty. As spiritual children of Abraham, we, too, are “blessed to be a blessing” (Genesis 12:1-3). We are invited into relationship with God and with His people. When we care for those He loves, we care for Him. “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Luke 6:38).
We at EMI progressively work together and believe that evangelization and charity are two sides of the same coin.