The Work of the Local Church: Intra-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 intra-congregational benevolence can be found in Acts 2:41-47, 4:34-5:11, 6:1-6, and in 1 Timothy 5:3-16. The examples in the book of Acts center on the church in Jerusalem and their provisions for the needy among them. We are informed that 3,000 obeyed the Gospel on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:41) and by the time Peter and John preached in the Temple 5,000 men had converted, let alone women (or does Luke mean that an additional 5,000 men heard and converted?; Acts 4:4). Many of these converts would have been among the poor; many others were pilgrims from other parts of the known world and would most likely have not brought enough money to cover their needs for a longer-than-expected stay (cf. Acts 2:8-11). These early Christians sold their goods and brought the proceeds before the Apostles who distributed to all their fellow Christians who had a need (Acts 4:34-5:11). A difficulty arose when the Hellenistic Jewish Christian widows were being neglected in the daily “ministration”; the Apostles directed the congregation to appoint seven men to “serve [these] tables” (Acts 6:1-6). This daily ministration may have involved financial disbursement but also could have involved the actual serving of food.
In 1 Timothy 5:3-16 Paul gives commandment and direction to Timothy regarding enrolling “widows indeed,” implying local congregations maintained a list of widows who received continual financial support. These widows were to meet certain qualifications and have no believing family members who are able to provide continual support for them in order for them to be thus enrolled. In the ancient Roman world “Social Security” did not exist; if a widow did not have living family members she would be reduced to impoverishment and begging (cf. Mark 12:42-44). Such a “widow indeed” would have no one else to provide for her; God therefore expects the local church to make continual provision for such people, and therefore a local church must maintain some sort of treasury to keep what has been collected and to make disbursements when necessary. Nevertheless Paul expected the church to be the provider of last resort: a local church should only enroll and thus continually support a widow had no believing family members, “nuclear” but even “extended,” to provide for her (1 Timothy 5:16). Likewise Paul did not want this continual support to be justification or license for idleness and other forms of immoral behavior: the widows must meet certain qualifications, and if they are not met, the widow should remarry and find continual support elsewhere (1 Timothy 5:9-15).
On the basis of these commands and examples a local church is authorized to maintain a treasury and to provide financial and/or other material support to its constituent members as benevolence. Such benevolence would be provided at the discretion of the elders, or in the absence of elders, by the determination of the constituent members of the congregation. The examples of intra-congregational benevolence in the New Testament involve emergency situations and as a source of assistance of last resort; continual benevolence was to be given only in special circumstances with defined qualifications so as to discourage idleness and laziness. At no point does the New Testament declare or suggest that any local church, as a corporate collective, provided benevolence to unbelievers; this support was given to believing Christians who were members of their constituent local churches.
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 their own, 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