The Work of the Local Church: Inter-Congregational Benevolence
From the pages of the New Testament we can discern the existence of what we call “local” churches, spoken of as the ekklesia, church, in a given city (e.g. Corinth, 1 Corinthians 1:2; Thessalonica, 1 Thessalonians 1:1), or as the ekklesiai, churches, in a given area (e.g. churches of Galatia, Galatians 1:2; churches of Asia, 1 Corinthians 16:19). Paul speaks of these as the “churches of Christ” in Romans 16:16. Ideally they reflected the members of the “universal” church in their local areas at that time. Where present a plurality of qualified men shepherded an individual local church with deacons serving at their discretion (Acts 14:23, Philippians 1:1, 1 Timothy 3:1-12, 1 Peter 5:1-4). While the majority of the work to be done to serve the Lord Jesus falls upon individual Christians to accomplish, the New Testament authorizes and expects every local church, as a corporate collective, to also accomplish the works of benevolence, evangelism, and edification (Acts 2:41-47, 4:34-35, 6:1-6, 11:28-30, 1 Corinthians 9:14, 2 Corinthians 11:8-9, Ephesians 4:11-16).
Benevolence means “to do good”; congregational benevolence involves providing material resources as a gift. In the New Testament local congregations provided benevolence both intra-congregationally (within a local congregation; e.g. Acts 4:34-35) and inter-congregationally (between one local congregation and another local congregation; e.g. Acts 11:28-30).
New Testament commands and examples of inter-congregational benevolence can be found in Acts 11:27-30, Romans 15:25-27, 1 Corinthians 16:1-4, and 2 Corinthians 8:1-9:15. In Acts a prophet named Agabus prophesies before the church in Antioch a famine which would take place in the days of Claudius (ca. 41-44 CE; Acts 11:27-28). In response the disciples in Antioch decided to give as they had ability for the Christians in Judea; this money was collected, entrusted to Barnabas and Saul, and given to the elders of the church in Jerusalem (Acts 11:29-30).
The rest of the passages feature collections of money for the relief of Christians in Judea by the Christians in the churches of Galatia, Macedonia, and Achaia. Paul explains the purpose for this collection to the Christians in Rome: he is going up to Jerusalem before he heads to Spain because the Christians of Macedonia and Achaia wished to make a contribution to the poor Christians in Jerusalem, and this is right, for since the Gentile Christians have become a partaker with Jewish Christians in spiritual blessings, it is good for them to provide material benefits to them (ca. 57; Romans 15:25-27). Previously Paul had made commandment to the church in Corinth as he had made commandment among the churches of Galatia: the Christians were to make weekly collections for the needs of these saints on the first day of the week so no collections would be made when Paul arrived; whomever the Corinthians would commend by letter would take the gift on to Jerusalem (ca. 55; 1 Corinthians 16:1-4). Soon after Paul felt compelled to provide greater exhortations to the Corinthians about their gift, pointing them to the example of the Macedonian Christians who had given beyond their ability, setting forth his boasts about how the Achaeans were just as ready to give, and reminding them of God’s blessings which come to those who give cheerfully and the glory God is given when Christians help Christians (ca. 57; 2 Corinthians 8:1-9:15).
From these examples and exhortations the New Testament authorizes local congregations to provide financial assistance to fellow Christians in need who are members of other local churches. This financial assistance is to be given to the elders of the local church in which the need exists by the chosen representative of the giving congregation. The need may exist on account of an emergency situation but is not limited to emergencies; a local church may give to the members of another if they perceive a need for material relief.
These examples display the autonomy of local churches. We see no indication that resources or funds had to be channeled through a centralized authority; even when multiple churches gave for the same need, representatives from each congregation or at least an accounting of what each congregation was giving went forth with the gift (1 Corinthians 16:3, Acts 21:29). The resources belonged to their originating congregation(s) until handed over to the elders of the receiving church; at that point the originating church had no further claim on the money. Exhortations were made for people in these congregations to give but all participation remained strictly voluntary (2 Corinthians 9:7). First century Christians knew that God had blessed them with all they had and they wished to share in those blessings with those who shared their faith yet were materially less fortunate.
The Church of Christ, as the manifestation of the Kingdom of God in Christ on earth at this time, is primarily concerned about the spiritual things of that spiritual Kingdom (John 18:36, Colossians 1:13, Revelation 1:6, 9; cf. Ephesians 4:11-16). Nevertheless the Lord expects His people to take care of the material needs of fellow Christians both near and far, manifesting our love for each other in deed and truth and not only in word (John 13:35, 1 John 3:17-18). Let us seek to accomplish the Lord’s will in His Kingdom to His glory and honor!
Ethan R. Longhenry