The Expository Files

The Local Church and Benevolence

New Testament Church Series #11

It is easy for us to let our feelings, rather than scripture, determine our conclusions when it comes to such an emotionally charged discussion as providing for the physical needs of those in distress. But let's try to study this subject as dispassionately as possible.

In reaching accurate conclusions regarding this matter, we must approach the study with certain attitudes. First, as indicated above, let the objective study of scripture rather than the subjective feelings of our hearts (human wisdom), lead us to the proper conclusion. Then, let's make sure that the passage(s) we use to authorize local churches acting in benevolence are clearly demonstrating local churches, rather than an individual Christian or individual Christians, acting. Remember that the authority for an individual Christian or individual Christians to act is not the same as the authority for a collective (local church) of Christians to act. Then, we need to look for a pattern. That is, do we have enough information from all the passages to allow us to conclude that a consistent practice was engaged in? If we do, then let's determine that we'll abide by that pattern.

Let's look at all the passages in the New Testament dealing with collective benevolence and then see what conclusions can be drawn. As always, the reader is urged to read all verses in their context to determine if the inferences of the writer are accurate (Acts 17:11).

The church in Jerusalem

Acts 2:44-45
Who was provided for: "all...any man", vs. 45
Who did the providing: "all that believed", vs. 44
What was given to alleviate the need: "their possessions and goods", vs. 45
To whom it was given: "to all", vs. 45

Acts 4:32-35
Who did the providing: "the multitude of them that believed", vs. 32
Who was provided for: those "among them...anyone who had need", vss. 34, 35
What was given: "the prices of the things that were sold", vs. 34
To whom it was given: "anyone who had need...among them", vss. 34, 35

Acts 6:1-6
Who did the providing: "the disciples", vss. 1-2
Who was provided for: "the Grecian Jews...their widows", vs. 1
What necessitated the relief: neglect "in the daily ministration", vs. 1
To whom was help given: "the Grecian Jews...their widows", vs. 1

The church in Antioch

Acts 11:27-30
Who did the providing: "the disciples", vs. 29
Who was provided for: "the brethren that dwelt in Judaea", vs. 29
What necessitated the relief: "a great famine" vs. 28
What was sent: "relief", vs. 29
To whom it was sent: "the brethren that dwelt in Judaea"

Congregations in Macedonia, Achaia and Galatia (all the following passages refer to the same relief effort)

Acts 24:17
Who was provided for: "my nation"
What was sent: "alms"

Rom. 15:25-32
Who was provided for: "the saints...the poor among the saints", vs. 25,26
What was sent: "minisration" vs. 31
To whom it was sent: "the poor among the saints that are at Jerusalem", vs. 26
Who provided the relief: "Macedonia and Achaia" vs. 26

1 Cor. 16:1-3
Who was provided for: "the saints", vs. 1
What was sent: "bounty", vs. 3
To whom it was sent: "the saints", vs. 1
Who provided the relief: "the churches of Galatia"

2 Cor. 8-9
Who was provided for: "the saints", 8:4; 9:1, 13
Who provided the relief: "the churches", vs. 23
What necessitated the relief: "want", 8:14; 9:12
Who did the providing: "the churches of Macedonia", 8:1;

Any congregation

1 Tim. 5:9-16
Who is to be provided for: "widows indeed", vs. 16
Who is to do the providing: "the church", vs. 16
What is to be provided: relief, vs. 16
What can we conclude from these passages about the benevolent work of local churches in the first century?

They provided for the relief of Christians only. The context of every passage listed above necessarily leads to this conclusion. No passage even remotely suggests any other recipients. Context, if not specific words, force us to this conclusion. The consistent practice (i.e., the pattern) of New Testament churches was to restrict their collective benevolence to fellow-Christians.

"General" benevolence---i.e., providing for the physical needs of men and women who are not Christians---is not an "of Christ" activity. As a human being I have certain humanitarian obligations. I had these before I became a Christian and continue to have them after becoming a child of God. Consequently, there are numerous humanitarian organizations that exist that I can use in meeting those responsibilities. However, as a Christian I not only continue to have these humanitarian obligations, I take upon myself some new ones---obligations that are peculiar to my being a Christians (i.e., "of Christ") and churches which are "of Christ" are limited to providing for such responsibilities.

As there is a love peculiar to being a Christian (1 Jo. 3:8-14; 4:20-5:3), there is likewise a benevolence peculiar to being a Christian since benevolence springs from love (2 Cor. 8:8,24). And, if one can love another Christian in a special way without being against loving non-Christians, so one can restrict collective benevolence to Christians without being guilty of not loving and not being concerned about the benevolent needs of non-Christians.

They sent directly to where the need was: either to the individual(s) or the local congregation. There is no evidence of a "middle man" congregation. They never sent funds to a congregation that was not itself truly needy so that the receiving congregation could in turn sponsor some relief program.

The purpose of sending funds from one church to another was always for benevolent purposes, never for such "needs" as erecting a church building or preaching the gospel. Such "needs" hardly fall under the heading of the following words, all of which appear in the list of passages used as the basis for our study, and describing either what was sent or what necessitated the sending.
In Acts 6:1; 11:29; Rom. 15:31; 2 Cor. 8:4 and 9:1 the word "relief" (Grk. "diakonia") is used. Thayer says the word refers to "the relief of...want", p. 138

In 2 Cor. 8:14 and 9:12 we find the word "want" (Grk. "husterema") which means "need, poverty, want", Vine, p. 1208

In 1 Cor. 16:3 the word "bounty" (Grk. "charis") is "used of alms", Thayer, p. 666

Acts 24:17 uses the word "alms" (Grk., eleemosune) which means "mercy, pity, particularly in giving alms" Vine, 40.

Should individual Christians be concerned about and active in the relief of the physical needs of all men and women regardless of their relationship to Christ? Absolutely (Lk. 10:25-37). Nothing said in this study can be fairly used to make a contrary accusation.

Should churches of Christ be concerned about who they collectively provide for and the manner in which that is done and if there is a pattern in such matters should that pattern be respected? Certainly so. If we can ignore what seems to be a very clear pattern in regard to the benevolent work of local churches, we can ignore similar patterns that we see in regard to the type of music local churches provided for and the day upon which the Lord's supper was provided.

Let us respect God's pattern in this and all other matters and not run the risk of having our candlestick removed (Rev. 2:5) because of engaging in activities grounded in human, rather than Divine, wisdom.


By David Smitherman
From Expository Files 5.11; November 1998