My Convictions on Benevolence from the Church Treasury
My Convictions on Benevolence from the Church Treasury
Sadly, disagreements over how to use a church’s treasury for benevolence still divide the body today. Many churches get involved in benevolent works for the community, such as supporting orphan homes, founding hospitals, opening soup kitchens, providing space for AA meetings and polling locations. While these benevolent works are good and should be pursued when possible by individual Christians, I am convinced that Scripture authorizes a limited use for the church’s treasury.
Several passages in the New Testament discuss occasions when churches used their treasuries for benevolence. A pattern emerges:
And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all (Acts 2:44-45; cf. 6:1-3).
And the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul... There was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales and lay them at the apostles’ feet, and they would be distributed to each as any had need (Acts 4:32-35).
In the proportion that any of the disciples had means, each of them determined to send a contribution for the relief of the brethren living in Judea. And this they did, sending it in charge of Barnabas and Saul to the elders (Acts 11:27-30).
Be devoted to one another ... contributing to the needs of the saints... (Romans 12:10-13).
Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make a contribution for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem... (Romans 15:26).
Now concerning the collection for the saints... (1 Corinthians 16:1-2).
...for the favor of participation in the support of the saints... The ministry of this service is not only fully supplying the needs of the saints, but is also overflowing through many thanksgivings to God (2 Corinthians 8:1-3; 9:12-15).
This pattern shows me that, at least in the main, God intends the church to use the collection for members of the body of Christ. And this makes sense. It is a point of righteous boasting that the church cares for its own. Surely there were many needy in Jerusalem, but “among them,” among Christians, there were no needy people, because the church acted like the very best kind of family. The world is watching—let Social Security fail, let FEMA fail, but let the world see that saints care for one another!
Furthermore—and this is a crucial point—Paul suggests that one church’s abundance supply another church’s need, “that there may be equality” (2 Corinthians 8:14). It is hard to see how the body of Christ, tiny by comparison, could ever bring financial equality to the world at large.
Now, there are other passages that do not specify limited benevolence. James 1:27 just speaks of the care of widows and orphans. I believe it makes the most sense to view this passage in the greater context of the Acts pattern of limited benevolence.
This is a hermeneutical principle we use often—for example, defining Phoebe’s role in Romans 16:1 in the greater context of the qualifications of 1 Tim. 3:8-13, or interpreting the “as often” of 1 Cor. 11:26 in light of the “first day of the week” of Acts 20:7. James 1:27 reminds us that we must compassionately care for widows and orphans, or our faith is anemic. When I look at the list of qualifications for a widow who is supported by the church, and the admonition to set up the care of widows so “the church will not be burdened” (1 Tim. 5:3-16), I’m convinced that James 1:27 functions best within the boundaries of limited benevolence, or in the homes of individual Christians. The same could be said for other general statements like Eph. 4:28, Phil. 2:4, and etc.
Harder is Galatians 6:9-10, which says, “let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (though, also compare 1 Timothy 4:10). It is possible, I suppose, to view this as the Holy Spirit providing authority for the church to “do good to all people” from its treasury. But, viewing the admonition as geared more toward our responsibility as individual Christians rather than as a church body makes sense to me. It’s either that or view it as a non-negotiable commandment to found hospitals, nursing homes, and rec centers. But, the real mission that Jesus gave the church (a mission which no other entity can carry out) is to preach the gospel and save souls. “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation” (Mark 16:15). If we, as a congregation, would focus our minds and energies on doing an excellent job in this regard, we would glorify Christ. If instead we focus on healing the body and promoting political causes, what have we got except a bunch of healthy Republicans who are lost?
Jesus did a lot of compassionate work, healing Jews and sometimes Gentiles too (Matt. 15:21-28, Luke 17:16). But He did so to demonstrate His nature as the Son of God, and His ability to cure sin. He healed the blind to show He is the light of the world (John 9:39); He fed the 5,000 to show He is the bread of life (John 6:35). As a Christian, I will be kind and compassionate and helpful where I can. But my brethren and I can do these things without having to ignore the narrow authority found in Scripture for the uses of the treasury for benevolence for saints.