BY WHAT AUTHORITY DOES THE CHURCH TAKE CARE OF ITS NEEDY?
by Dave Brown
As with all of the other “authority” subjects, we look to biblical commands, approved apostolic examples and necessary inferences to assure ourselves that this is a function that the local church should be involved in. We know that it is a good work, so that is not the question. Many good works, such as training up your children, are not the responsibility of the church. So, how do we know that this type of benevolence is the work of the church? and in what way, if any, is it limited?
Let’s start with the basics. The early church had many who were truly in need, and there are clear apostolic approved examples of the church taking on the responsibility of caring for them. These passages speak for themselves:
· Acts 2:44-45: “And all that believed were together, and had all things common; and they sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all, according as any man had need.” This shows the spirit of the first century Christians in this regard; we will see that the selling of possessions is not a general requirement and was not the general practice even in the first century. This is true of the following passage as well.
· Acts 4:32: “And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and soul: and not one (of them) said that aught of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common.”
· Acts 6:1-4 “Now in these days, when the number of the disciples was multiplying, there arose a murmuring of the Grecian Jews against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration. And the twelve called the multitude of the disciples unto them, and said, It is not fit that we should forsake the word of God, and serve tables. Look ye out therefore, brethren, from among you seven men of good report, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business. But we will continue stedfastly in prayer, and in the ministry of the word.” Now, while this records one of the very first problems that occurred within the first century church, the question was not at all about whether their needy should be taken care of or not. We would guess that this is because that this was the common practice in the synagogues, and at this point the church was still made up exclusively of Jews.
EXTENSION TO HELP BETWEEN/AMONG THE CHURCHES
The following passages establish authority for local churches to help other local churches when a need arises that is local to a given area:
· Acts 11:27-30: “Now in these days there came down prophets from Jerusalem unto Antioch. And there stood up one of them named Agabus, and signified by the Spirit that there should be a great famine over all the world: which came to pass in the days of Claudius. And the disciples, every man according to his ability, determined to send relief unto the brethren that dwelt in Judea: which also they did, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul.” It should be noted that this was not commanded or in any way directed by “Jerusalem.” It was an initiative of Antioch in response to a reported need. The following verse follows up on this action.
· Acts 12:25: “And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem, when they had fulfilled their ministration, taking with them John whose surname was Mark.”
· Rom. 15:25-27: “ … but now, I (say), I go unto Jerusalem, ministering unto the saints. For it hath been the good pleasure of Macedonia and Achaia to make a certain contribution for the poor among the saints that are at Jerusalem. Yea, it hath been their good pleasure; and their debtors they are. For if the Gentiles have been made partakers of their spiritual things, they owe it (to them) also to minister unto them in carnal things.”
· 1 Cor. 16:1-4: “Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I gave order to the churches of Galatia, so also do ye. Upon the first day of the week let each one of you lay by him in store, as he may prosper, that no collections be made when I come. And when I arrive, whomsoever ye shall approve, them will I send with letters to carry your bounty unto Jerusalem: and if it be meet for me to go also, they shall go with me.” This shows the other local churches that were involved, but also further demonstrates that all of this was at the initiative of the contributing churches.
· 2 Cor. 8-9. These two chapters provide even more detail both with regard to the attitude of the early Christians and the method by which this work was accomplished.
RESTRICTIONS AND LIMITATATIONS
The passages given above clearly demonstrate that the church has a responsibility to take care of the needy. In the first section we saw that this was limited to those who were members of the local church. If the section above it was extended to needy Christians in other places. This is not an arbitrary limitation that we have concocted. Please note that very definitive specifics are given (see the article on Generic and Specific Authority). In the passages above, for example:
· Acts 11:27-30: “… And the disciples, …, determined to send relief unto the brethren …
· Rom. 15:25-27: “ … but now, I (say), I go unto Jerusalem, ministering unto the saints.”
· 1 Cor. 16:1-4: “Now concerning the collection for the saints, …”
· 2 Cor. 9:1: “For as touching the ministering to the saints, …”
The examples that we have are quite clear on this. It should be added that this limitation is only to the work of the local church, it is not a restriction to individuals. Individuals have a responsibility to help all as the opportunity arises: “So then, as we have opportunity, let us work that which is good toward all men, and especially toward them that are of the household of the faith” (Gal. 6:10). Christians may do this individually or through other charitable institutions that are established for that purpose. There is nothing to prevent an individual Christian from participating in such an organization or even in starting one. However, this must remain the work of the individual; it is extremely problematic and divisive when such organizations attempt to be supported by local churches, since clearly there are literally thousands of such organizations that could be supported. However, this is not the reason that local churches are not to support secular institutions; the reason is that there is no authority for such.
There are two other limitations to the support that the church is to provide even to its own members. In brief, the local church is not to provide help when:
· The individual in need who refuse to work. Apparently there were some in the first century that were taking advantage of the good attitude on the part of their fellow Christians. With regard to these, the apostle Paul stated: “For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, If any will not work, neither let him eat. For we hear of some that walk among you disorderly, that work not at all, but are busybodies. Now them that are such we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ, that with quietness they work, and eat their own bread” (2 Thess. 3:10-12).
· The individual who has other family members that are in a position to take care of them, as clearly indicated in 1 Tim. 5:16: “If any woman who is a believer has widows in her family, she should help them and not let the church be burdened with them, so that the church can help those widows who are really in need.”
This last passage clearly differentiates between the responsibility of the church and that of individuals. No one can read this passage and say that the bible is ambiguous on this point. The church has a clear God-given mission, and for us to divert it from that ultimately turns it into nothing more than a human organization.
For more on the subject of the responsibilities that all Christians have in their various relationships today, see Relationships that All Christians Have under the Church vs. Individual Responsibility topic.