“For the Saints”Categories: Iron sharpens iron
The Bible tells us we ought to help those in need, both in the Old Testament moral principles (e.g. De 24.20-22) and in several notes in the New Testament, perhaps most clearly in James 1.27:
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.
In this verse, James makes it clear he’s not talking about the church as a body taking care of orphans and widows, because the next phrase is “keep oneself unstained from the world.” It’s an individual mandate, and while the church is made up of individuals, there’s a difference between individuals making their own choices to do good deeds, and the church doing it on their behalf.
Sometimes we see Christians in the New Testament making contributions, and churches sending money to other churches for this sort of purpose (e.g. Ac 11.27-30, 1Co 16.1-3, 2Co 8.1-4, 9.1-12, Ro 15.25-28). We also see individual Christians contributing to this sort of work locally (Ac 2.44-45, 4.34-37). However, we never see churches sending money to outside organizations. If he saw these practices today, Paul might ask, as he did in 1 Corinthians 6.4, “why do you lay them before those who have no standing in the church?” That passage concerns a different matter, lawsuits, but it’s a similar instance of taking something that the church should handle itself, and putting in the hands of outsiders.
Furthermore, a feature common to practically all of the passages in the New Testament that concern the church’s money is this: “for the saints.” This phrase appears in 1 Corinthians 16.1 and 2 Corinthians 9.1, while in 2 Corinthians 8.4 it’s “the relief of the saints,” and “aid to the saints” in Romans 15.25. In Acts 11.29 it’s “relief to the brothers,” and the passages in Acts 2 and Acts 4, noted above, are both clearly about the distribution of money and other help to members of the church. It’s the same for the service of the widows in Acts 6, and Paul’s instructions that the church should help support elders and destitute widows in 1 Timothy 5 also pertain to members of the church, and so do the many passages that say the church ought to finance its ministers—preachers, teachers, and evangelists—when needed.
But while there are numerous indications that individual Christians ought to perform acts of charity, even to outsiders (e.g. Mt 5.42, Mt 19.21, Lk 6.34, Ro 12.20, Ep 4.28, 1Ti 6.18, He 13.16), there is not a single instruction or example in the New Testament to the effect that the church should provide financial assistance to outsiders. On the contrary, Peter explicitly denied this to a needy man who was not a Christian:
Seeing Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked to receive alms. And Peter directed his gaze at him, as did John, and said, “Look at us.” And he fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them. But Peter said, “I have no silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!” (Acts 3.3-6)
This passage comes just after we’re told that the first crop of Christians took care of each other financially. As an apostle Peter surely has access to the church’s funds, but he doesn’t share with them with this outsider—he focuses on the church’s real ministry to the world, which is sharing the gospel, and gives him a much greater gift—the message preached to him and the crowd for the rest of the chapter, and backed up by a miracle, a gift of healing from Jesus himself.
The idea of the church supporting outside organizations, or even making direct payments to needy outsiders, is not one found in the Bible. It’s our duty as individuals to be generous even with non-Christians, but the church has a more important role in proclaiming Christ. The aim is to save their souls, not just their bodies.
Sadly, this issue divided the church in the mid- to late-20th century, with those on the more conservative side of things labeling the practice “institutionalism.” Labels like this one often do plenty of harm themselves, because they discourage consideration of the real moral dilemma involved, and instead encourage tribalism and the write-off of anyone who disagrees. It turns into sectarianism, a practice Jesus condemns in Luke 9.49-50, and Paul in 1 Corinthians 1.10-17. The Jews in the first century were divided into sects, and throughout Acts, Luke labels them αἱρέσεις-haireseis-“divisions.” We even learn (in Ac 24.5, 24.14, and 28.22) that Jewish outsiders considered Christians to be just another αἵρεσις-hairesis at first. It’s not too difficult to see how this term evolved into our modern English word, “heresy.”
Unfortunately, most members of congregations on the more liberal side don’t see the problem, let alone see it as a “heresy.” They usually have no idea there’s controversy over the practice, and see it as an important aspect of both their service to their communities, and their outreach efforts, since it doubles as advertising. But that doesn’t make it right. There ought not to be divisions in the church. But as God told the Israelites among the first set of laws at Sinai, “You shall not fall in with the many to do evil” (Ex 23.2).