Speaking Sound Doctrine

The Work Of The Church

VI.    A Work Of The Church: Benevolence Of Needy Saints

A.                Benevolence Among Individuals

Our primary purpose of this study is to examine the work of the church as a local, corporate institution in contrast to the work of individual Christians.  However, we will begin considering benevolence by discussing the role God has placed upon the individual.  This will help us make the distinction when we later come to discuss the work of the church as a body in this area.

1.          Individual responsibility

The scriptures make clear that God places responsibility on every living human to be attentive to the physical needs of all others, whether of those within the church or without (Matthew 25:31-46). The contexts of following verses clearly indicate that the instructions are directed to individuals, not to the church as a corporate body.

Romans 12:10-13  Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love… 13 distributing to the needs of the saints, given to hospitality.

Galatians 6:9, 10  And let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart. 10 Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith.

Ephesians 4:28  Let him who stole steal no longer, but rather let him labor, working with his hands what is good, that he may have something to give him who has need.

1 Timothy 6:17, 18  Command those who are rich in this present age not to be haughty, nor to trust in uncertain riches but in the living God, who gives us richly all things to enjoy. 18 Let them do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to give, willing to share.

Hebrews 13:16  But do not forget to do good and to share, for with such sacrifices God is well pleased.

James 1:27  Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.

1 John 3:17  But whoever has this world's goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him?

"Visit" in James 1:27 translates EPISKEPTOMAI {ep-ee-skep'-tom-ahee} which means "1) to look upon or after, to inspect, examine with the eyes 1a) in order to see how he is, i.e. to visit, go to see one 1a1) the poor and afflicted, the sick 1b) to look upon in order to help or to benefit 1b1) to look after, have care for, provide for…" (JHT).  This includes more than just stopping by to say "hello" (James 2:15, 16).

2.          The scope of benevolence among individuals

Though God places the responsibility of benevolence upon all and for all, He places the primary responsibility for the benevolent care of others upon their families (Matthew 15:1-9).

1 Timothy 5:3-8  Honor widows who are really widows. 4 But if any widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to show piety at home and to repay their parents; for this is good and acceptable before God…. 8 But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.

Notwithstanding, God has imposed a limit upon who is eligible to receive our benevolence, whether by the individual or by the church.  He commands that we not assist those who are in need from an unwillingness to work.  Assisting them will only drive them to further laziness rather than motivating them (Matthew 25:24-30).

2 Thessalonians 3:10, 11  For even when we were with you, we commanded you this: If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat. 11 For we hear that there are some who walk among you in a disorderly manner, not working at all, but are busybodies.

3.          Hospitality

The word "hospitality" in scripture translates PHILONEXIA {fil-on-ex-ee'-ah}, meaning, "1) love to strangers…" (JHT).  This word and its verb form occurs in scripture five times (Romans 12:13; 1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:8; 1 Peter 4:9).

Hebrews 13:2  Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some have unwittingly entertained angels.

Notably, scripture never uses these words to describe the work of the church as a body – always the individual.  The corporate church is not a hospitality club; it has no authority to provide coffee and donuts for Bible study gatherings.

B.                Benevolence Within The Church

We now turn our attention to benevolence performed by the church as a corporate body.

1.          Scriptural examples

From the inception of the church, we see a sharing spirit among Christians.  The Bible shows by recorded examples that the local church has the responsibility to take care of the physical needs of saints among them who are unable to take care of themselves on their own.  Let's observe the scriptures revealing this.

Acts 2:44, 45  And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need.

Acts 4:32-35  Now the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and one soul; neither did anyone say that any of the things he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common. 33 And with great power the apostles gave witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And great grace was upon them all. 34 Nor was there anyone among them who lacked; for all who were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of the things that were sold, 35 and laid them at the apostles' feet; and they distributed to each as anyone had need.

Acts 6:1-4  Now in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplying, there arose a complaint against the Hebrews by the Hellenists, because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution. 2 Then the twelve summoned the multitude of the disciples and said, "It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables. 3 Therefore, brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business; 4 but we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word."

Acts 11:26-30  And when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. So it was that for a whole year they assembled with the church and taught a great many people.  And the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch. 27 And in these days prophets came from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28 Then one of them, named Agabus, stood up and showed by the Spirit that there was going to be a great famine throughout all the world, which also happened in the days of Claudius Caesar. 29 Then the disciples, each according to his ability, determined to send relief to the brethren dwelling in Judea. 30 This they also did, and sent it to the elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul.

Romans 15:25-28  But now, I am going to Jerusalem serving the saints. 26 For Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make a contribution for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem. 27 It pleased them indeed, and they are their debtors.  For if the Gentiles have been partakers of their spiritual things, their duty is also to minister to them in material things. 28 Therefore, when I have performed this and have sealed to them this fruit, I shall go by way of you to Spain.

1 Corinthians 16:1-3  Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I have given orders to the churches of Galatia, so you must do also: 2 On the first day of the week let each one of you lay something aside, storing up as he may prosper, that there be no collections when I come. 3 And when I come, whomever you approve by your letters I will send to bear your gift to Jerusalem.

The entire chapters of 2 Corinthians 8 and 9 reveal much about this work, but these excerpts are presented for the discussion.

2 Corinthians 8:1-6  Moreover, brethren, we make known to you the grace of God bestowed on the churches of Macedonia: 2 that in a great trial of affliction the abundance of their joy and their deep poverty abounded in the riches of their liberality.  For I bear witness that according to their ability, yes, and beyond their ability, they were freely willing, 4 imploring us with much urgency that we would receive the gift and the fellowship of the ministering to the saints. 5 And not only as we had hoped, but they first gave themselves to the Lord, and then to us by the will of God. 6 So we urged Titus, that as he had begun, so he would also complete this grace in you as well.

2 Corinthians 8:13-15  For I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened; 14 but by an equality, that now at this time your abundance may supply their lack, that their abundance also may supply your lack -- that there may be equality. 15 As it is written, "He who gathered much had nothing left over, and he who gathered little had no lack."

2 Corinthians 8:19-23  And not only that, but who was also chosen by the churches to travel with us with this gift, which is administered by us to the glory of the Lord Himself and to show your ready mind… 23 If anyone inquires about Titus, he is my partner and fellow worker concerning you. Or if our brethren are inquired about, they are messengers of the churches, the glory of Christ.

2 Corinthians 9:1  Now concerning the ministering to the saints, it is superfluous for me to write to you.

NAU 2 Corinthians 9:12, 13  For the ministry of this service is not only fully supplying the needs of the saints, but is also overflowing through many thanksgivings to God. 13 Because of the proof given by this ministry, they will glorify God for your obedience to your confession of the gospel of Christ and for the liberality of your contribution to them and to all.

1 Timothy 5:5-16  Now she who is really a widow, and left alone, trusts in God and continues in supplications and prayers night and day. 6 But she who lives in pleasure is dead while she lives. 7 And these things command, that they may be blameless. 8 But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. 9 Do not let a widow under sixty years old be taken into the number, and not unless she has been the wife of one man, 10 well reported for good works: if she has brought up children, if she has lodged strangers, if she has washed the saints' feet, if she has relieved the afflicted, if she has diligently followed every good work. 11 But refuse the younger widows; for when they have begun to grow wanton against Christ, they desire to marry, 12 having condemnation because they have cast off their first faith. 13 And besides they learn to be idle, wandering about from house to house, and not only idle but also gossips and busybodies, saying things which they ought not. 14 Therefore I desire that the younger widows marry, bear children, manage the house, give no opportunity to the adversary to speak reproachfully. 15 For some have already turned aside after Satan. 16 If any believing man or woman has widows, let them relieve them, and do not let the church be burdened, that it may relieve those who are really widows.

2.          Limited responsibility of the church

a.      To saints

In all cases where we see the church as a body acting in the benevolent relief of the needy, it is exclusively for the saints – the brethren, faithful Christians.  Those who proclaim that the church has responsibility in benevolence toward "all men," including those outside the church, will sometimes cite 2 Corinthians 9:13 for their attempted proof.  The KJV renders the end of that verse as "your liberal distribution unto them, and unto all men."  Note carefully that the word "men" is added by the translators.  The phrase is more accurately rendered "and to all," as in the NAU and YLT.  To determine the antecedent of "all" we must look at the context to see who the writer is talking about.  Having concluded his remarks about the repentant fornicator and about Titus in chapter 7, the author begins discussing benevolence of the church back in chapter 8, identifying "the ministering to the saints" as his new subject matter (vs. 4).  He reminds us what he is talking about in 9:1: "the ministering to the saints."  He reiterates it once more in 9:12, stating that their ministry "supplies the needs of the saints."  When Paul says "all" in verse 13, we are forced to conclude he is talking about all saints, which would be those they are now supporting and all those they might in like manner support in the future.

Those who teach benevolent church responsibility toward all men sometimes also cite Acts 2:45 for attempted proof, which states the disciples "were sharing … with all, as anyone might have need."  In the same manner, we need to determine by the context the antecedent of "all" and "anyone."  In verses 41 through 44, they are identified as those who "gladly received his word and were baptized," those who continued "in the apostles' doctrine," and "all who believed."  The same logic is applicable in Acts 4:32-35. This does not open the door for any non-saints to receive benevolence from the church as a body.

The church as a collective body is never seen in scripture ministering to the physical needs of people of the whole world, only Christians.  In fact, the church could not do it if it tried.  If the church were to assume this universal responsibility without limitation or bias, it would immediately and totally drain all treasury funds, as there is no end to poverty, sickness, and suffering in the world.  This would consume all the needed resources for the greater spiritual work of teaching the gospel.  In God's wisdom, the burden of ministering to the needs of people outside the church has been placed upon individuals and not the church so that it may do what God has actually appointed it to do.

Intuitively, a Christian who falls away from the faith is an unworthy saint: no longer eligible for benevolence from the church (Romans 16:2).  This will become more clear when the characteristics of saints are examined in later sections of this study.

b.      To the needy

The word translated "need" in Acts 2:45; 4:35, Romans 12:13, Ephesians 4:28, and 1 John 3:17 is CHREIA {khri'-ah}.  Thayer indicates it is that which is a "necessity" (Acts 6:3, YLT).  Much of the instruction in scripture regarding benevolence in the church pertains to the necessary food that would be lacking when the prophesied famine strikes (Acts 11:28, 29).  In our prosperous, North American society today, we abuse the word "need."  Most of what we claim we "need" are only things we "want" in reality.  Considering this, we commonly recognize the necessities of life to be limited to food, clothing, and shelter (1 Kings 17:1-16; 2 Kings 4:8-11).  Beyond this are luxuries.

Psalm 37:25  I have been young, and now am old; Yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken, Nor his descendants begging bread.

1 Timothy 6:8  And having food and clothing, with these we shall be content.

James 2:15, 16  If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food,….

Those who need to have their car repaired, lawn treated, grass mowed, or garage cleaned are not truly in need.  It is wonderful to see individual brethren help others in efforts like this, but it is not the work of the church as a body to assist in such non-essential things.

In Acts 6 and 1 Timothy 5, the benevolence is for needy widows in particular.  In almost any era and culture, widows are especially vulnerable.  There appears to be no mention of health or life insurance in scripture, but secular history indicates there were early societies for care and help with funeral expenses during Greek and Roman rule (ref: TBA).  Though the law of Moses made provision for the care of orphans and widows (Deuteronomy 24), the neglect of widows was commonplace in New Testament times.  A parable of Jesus relates to a widow who had to continually annoy a judge in order to obtain justice (Luke 18:1-5).  In the law of Christ, our Lord makes sure that needy widows are not neglected.

In Acts 6, a need arose concerning widows going hungry.  To meet this need, seven men were appointed by that local church for the distribution of their food.  If that need went away, the relief and their work would also have gone away.  Where there is no legitimate need, there is no benevolence from the church.

c.       To widows indeed

In Timothy 5:5-16, the inspired apostle stipulates further limitations on who is eligible for benevolence from the church.  The text presents an apparent contradiction which deserves some explaining.  In this passage, relief is authorized only for widows meeting some very specific qualifications, but in other passages cited, the church is sending support not to widows only but to all Christians in the Judean churches in need of famine relief.  To harmonize the verses, we should note carefully what is essentially different between the relief for needy saints in general and that for the widows indeed.

In 1 Timothy 5, the widow to receive benevolence is destitute with no possible means of future recovery.  She is old enough that remarriage is in all practicality not an option, and she is alone, with no children or grandchildren to support her.  This need will therefore never go away until her passing, and hence, the support, once started, ought never go away, as long as she maintains her godliness.  Correspondingly, the verb "burdened" in verse 16 is in the imperative mood and the present tense, which "signifies action in progress or state in persistence" (Dana and Mantey), if she qualified.  However, the church is not to be so burdened if she is younger or has family, since her need will eventually go away when she either remarries or her family steps up to their responsibility.  If a young widow were to be placed on full-time, perpetual support from the church, she would be tempted to avoid remarrying in order to honor the church's commitment or to not lose her benefit.  Then, as physical desires naturally develop, she could easily be drawn away by Satan from purity and into fornication.  On the other hand, if she is never placed on this support in the first place, she will be all the more encouraged to remarry, as is God's will to avoid fornication (1 Corinthians 7:1-9).

Similarly, if a widow with family were to be placed on full-time, continuous support, her family would have little practical reason to ever give her aid as God has ordained.  It would be unjust for them to escape this responsibility while others are made to bear it.  Our Lord makes abundantly clear His contempt for those who claim a loophole from their family responsibilities (Mark 7:6-13).  On the other hand, if she is never placed on this support in the first place, her family will be all the more encouraged to shoulder their responsibility, if for no other reason to avoid the shame of being marked as disorderly and disfellowshipped by the church, if they are Christians (1 Corinthians 5; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15).

Let us now compare this with the circumstances of benevolence to needy Christians in general elsewhere.  In Acts 11:28-30, Luke records that the disciples determined to send a gift, that they then also did, and that the famine actually happened.  All those verbs occur in the aorist tense, which Dana and Mantey explain: "The fundamental significance of the aorist is to denote action simply as occurring….  It presents the action or event as a 'point,' and hence is called 'punctiliar.'"  This is a one-time contribution in response to a one-time circumstance.  In Romans 15:26-28, the action is likewise expressed in the aorist tense, and Paul declares that he intends to finish it (NAU).  He similarly urges the Corinthians to complete a contribution which they had begun (2 Corinthians 8:6), which would bring it to a conclusive end.

To summarize, the difference is that 1 Timothy 5 describes the special circumstance of on-going contributions for a qualified and continually sustained need.  Other benevolence revealed in scripture not so bound by these special qualifications apply to different circumstances involving one-time contributions for transient needs only.

3.          Qualifications of widows examined

a.      Wife of one husband

Further discussion is warranted regarding the widows indeed in 1 Timothy 5.  One qualification is that she was to have been the wife of one man (verse 9).  In the original language, this is expressed as a simple idiom: "one man woman."  Koine Greek has no special words for "wife" or "husband."  When we read about men and husbands or women and wives in our English New Testament, the same words are used for both in the Greek.  The distinct English words indicating the married state are chosen by the translators as the context suggests.  Thayer defines the terms as follows:

         ANER {an'-ayr} 1) with reference to sex 1a) of a male 1b) of a husband 1c) of a betrothed or future husband….

         GUNE {goo-nay'} 1) a woman of any age, whether a virgin, or married, or a widow 2) a wife 2a) of a betrothed woman.

An identical idiom is used in the qualification of elders, except with the genders reversed and in the present tense (state in persistence): "one woman man" (Titus 1:6). 

As these words describe men and women unmarried, about to be married, currently married, and formerly married alike, the reasonable understanding is that the idioms remove the ambiguity in the absence of words for "husband" and "wife" in the vocabulary.  It is a married man or woman.

The word "one" is from MIA {mee'-ah}, defined as "1) only one, someone," (JHT).  This word is used both to exclude the plural and also to indicate an individual, a particular one, as a certain city (Luke 5:12) or a certain day (Luke 5:17).  The context will indicate whether or not the intention is numeric.  For the qualification of the widow (and of an elder as well), it is not numeric.  Furthermore, as this is expressed in the genitive case, indicating a relationship, an equally valid translation is "the woman of a man."

To expound, consider a man whose wife of his youth deceased early in their marriage, but he remarried and raised children together with his second wife of now over 40 years.  It is unreasonable that such a man could not be elder because he had more than one wife in his lifetime.  The law of God is not illogical (Acts 17:2).  The stipulation is simply that an elder must be a currently married man.  Likewise, the stipulation for the widow is that she had to actually have been married.  If she had lawfully remarried and both her husbands were deceased, she would still be qualified.

This begs another question.  If "widow" (CHERA {khay'-rah}) means "a woman whose husband has died" (Louw-Nida), then why would Paul add "has been the wife of one man," if it means nothing more?  The answer is for emphasis: the same reason he adds "really" in verses 3, 5, and 16, which translates ONTOS {on'-toce}, meaning "1) truly, in reality, in point of fact, as [opposed] to what is pretended, fictitious, false, conjectural 2) that which is truly etc., that which is indeed" (JHT).  This unequivocally removes all speculative circumstances and disqualifies any woman:

         who claims to have been previously married but cannot produce evidence for it,

         who previously lived in adultery with a man now deceased, for which she has repented,

         who is alone without the man yet living from whom she is divorced.

If we learn nothing else from this, be sure that the Holy Spirit is here stating that we need to be careful about how the Lord's treasury is used, that it is not abused for illegitimate purposes.

b.      Well reported for good works

In verse 10, Paul states another qualification: "well reported for good works."  The punctuation provided by the NKJ and YLT translators suggests that the following points are simply non-exhaustive examples of the kinds of deeds that would characterize such a woman:

         if she has brought up children,

         if she has lodged strangers,

         if she has washed the saints' feet,

         if she has relieved the afflicted,

         if she has diligently followed every good work.

Closer examination shows that the punctuation is appropriate.  In each case, the particle "if" is EI {i}, and the verb is in the indicative.  Thayer translates this: "if, whether."  Friberg explains that this conditional particle, meaning "if" or "since," has many special usages, including "(1) with the indicative to express a condition of fact regarded as true or settled: since, because (Romans 2:17)…."

In simpler terms, Paul is not enumerating a compliance checklist of specific actions the widow must have executed; he is illustrating in general the kind of behavior typical of good works.  Even in English, the word "if" does not always indicate a condition of acceptance but sometimes a condition of fact:

1 John 3:13  Do not marvel, my brethren, if (EI) the world hates you.

Consider a woman who did all those things, except she never washed saint's feet, which could be very likely in today's culture where foot washing is unnecessary with modern shoes and paved walkways.  How silly to require a woman today to execute this contrived formality in order to be put on the list.  Consider also a legitimately needy widow who was never able to conceive children, which would contribute all the more to the likelihood of her being in need.  These specific examples do not limit the generic requirement, "well reported of good works."

In contrast, for a condition of acceptance, one thing is not permitted as long as another thing is not produced.  For this idea, a different word in Greek is typically used, EAN ME {eh-an' may}, meaning "if not, unless, except (Matthew 5:20)" (Friberg).

Matthew 6:15  But if (EAN ME) you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

Luke 13:3  I tell you, no; but unless (EAN ME) you repent you will all likewise perish.

James 2:17  Thus also faith by itself, if (EAN ME) it does not have works, is dead.

The qualities listed in 1 Timothy 5:10 indicate conditions of fact (EI); they are not conditions required for acceptance (EAN ME).

C.                Church Co-operation In Benevolence

Scripture indicates that churches in the first century cooperated with one another in the realm of benevolence.  However, we see this only by approved examples; we have no direct recorded commands or statements concerning this.  Review again the following texts:

         Acts 11:28-30

         Romans 15:25-28

         1 Corinthians 16:1-3 

         2 Corinthians 8, 9

The recorded examples indicate that funds from one church were always sent directly to another church for those elders to distribute to the needy saints among them as they deemed appropriate.  Churches did not send their contributions to a benevolent society, orphan's home, or any other man-made institution.  As these examples are uniform, we must conclude that the authority had to be specific and follow the pattern to the same degree.  Some people think that the church as a body is being unreasonable and uncaring if it is not involved in tending to the physical needs of the world.  However, there is no scriptural precedence for doing so.  Scriptural relief for needy saints can therefore be simply diagrammed this way:

Church  —$—>  Another Church c/o Elders  —$—>  Needy Saints Among Them

Note in scripture that those who managed the delivery of the funds of the churches were always messengers of those churches, not messengers of a benevolent society.  Individuals selected by the churches did the delivery, not other churches or man-made organizations.  Thereby, the glory in all things sacred always goes to the church, not a human institution.

D.                Heresy In The Church Today Over Benevolence

1.          Church-supported orphan children

Since church benevolence is limited only to the saints, we need to understand who saints are in order to understand the scope of this work of the church.  The word "saint" translates HAGIOS {hag'-ee-os}.  Its definitions from Greek scholars include the following:

         Thayer: "2. set apart for God, to be, as it were, exclusively his."

         Friberg: "…(2) of persons holy, pure, consecrated to God,… 5) as a substantive,… as human beings belonging to God: saints, God's people, believers."

         Louw-Nida: "pertaining to being holy in the sense of superior moral qualities and possessing certain essentially divine qualities in contrast with what is human…."

         UBS: "set apart to or by God, consecrated; holy, morally pure."

This word in scripture describes the following individuals:

         Faithful believers, devoted members of the church, the body of Christ (Ephesians 1:15-23);

         Those in whom Christ dwells through faith and who comprehend His love (Ephesians 3:17-19);

         Those who have made the conscious decision to deny fleshly desires and commit themselves to Christ (Ephesians 5:3; Revelation 14:12);

         Those willing to endure imprisonment or death for their religious convictions (Acts 26:10);

         The called out and elect whom God justifies and for whom Christ makes intercession (Romans 8:26-34);

         Those who have been sanctified, calling upon the name of the Lord (1 Corinthians 1:2);

         Those capable of judging righteousness in the world (1 Corinthians 6:2).

This rules out any non-Christian, including infants and small children.  Infants and children are sinless and innocent (Matthew 18:3; 19:14).  Infants do not inherit the sin of their ancestors (Ezekiel 18:20).  Sin is a conscious act of defiance against the law of God (James 1:14, 15).  Small children are incapable of such awareness and hence not accountable (Jonah 4:11).  They have not the cognitive ability to perceive right and wrong on their own (Isaiah 7:16).  Having no sin nor need for forgiveness, they have not called upon the name of the Lord, and they have not separated themselves from sin unto the Lord.  Moreover, God has no need to sanctify them or justify them, and Christ has no need to make intercession for them.  Small children are not consecrated believers and hence are not saints: not subjects of church benevolence.

Children, by nature, must depend upon others for sustenance.  According to God's plan from the beginning, this task is assigned to their family.  A sad circumstance occurs when a child's parents die.  As tragic as this is, it is a mistake to automatically assume that the church as a body has the authority to support them.  Had God ordained His church for this task, He would have revealed it in His word.  Though we may think the church ought to take the responsibility in the matter, there is no scriptural basis for it.  Factually, there are other means God has appointed for the support of orphan children other than by His church.

With further consideration, we can see God's wisdom in this.  There is a point in the life of a child when he goes from exemption and innocence (Deuteronomy 1:39; Jeremiah 19:4, 5) to accountability and guilt (Romans 3:23; Hebrews 4:12, 13).  This point, which we accommodatively call the "age of accountability," is not a fixed age revealed by scripture, but it varies with the maturing of each individual.  Others cannot know when this actually occurs, but each individual and God, who searches the hearts of men, will know (Acts 1:24).  For Jesus, this apparently occurred at around age twelve (Luke 2:40-52).  Here resides a dilemma; the age at which a child matures enough to be independent and self-providing does not usually coincide with his age of accountability.  It is therefore possible for an orphan to still require full support and yet be in open, conscience rebellion to the law of God.  It is inequitable that such an individual be supported by the church; light has no fellowship with darkness (1 John 1:5, 6).  If a church supports such an individual, they could be fellowshipping evil unaware.  However, God, in His wisdom, prevents this by authorizing church benevolence for saints alone.  Even if we cannot see the wisdom in this, we should be content with what God has ordained in His scriptures (Isaiah 55:9).

On the other hand, note that a dependent orphan of accountable age who obeys the gospel is a saint, a consecrated believer, and is eligible for direct support from the church, should he be legitimately in need.

2.          Church-supported benevolent societies

When man forms benevolent societies and human organizations to care for needy saints, he supplants the divinely instituted organization for this task: the church.  Again, we cannot come up with a better way than God's.  Man forms an unscriptural arrangement when he inserts a different organization or institution into the process of delivering relief from the church treasury to saints in need.  Moreover, churches act without authority if they distribute treasury funds to anyone other than needy saints.  The following arrangements are unscriptural:

Church  —$—>  Benevolent Society  —$—>  Needy Saints

Church  —$—>  Orphans' Home  —$—>  Non-Saints

When the inserted institution is another church, it is simply a church acting as a benevolent society, and no such arrangement is revealed in scripture.  The following arrangement is unscriptural:

Church  —$—>  Another Church  —$—>  Church With Needy Saints

Scripture indicates that each church is autonomous and supervises its own work.  No church ever relinquishes the control of its contributions for another church to distribute to other churches according to their own judgment.  Such an arrangement is not an expediency, because it adds another layer of management and compromises church autonomy.  True expediencies add or subtract nothing.

It is important to note in scripture that support was only sent from one church to another when there was a needy saint among them.  A church never received contributions from other churches to build up a surplus fund to have on hand in case needs arose.  Each church generated its own treasury storage by collections every first day of the week.  Also, churches with an abundance always sent relief to churches having needy among them, never the other way around.  Human reasoning might suggest building a "super church" with deep pockets ready to serve any needy saint anywhere.  The scriptures do not support an arrangement such as this:

Church With Needy  —$—>  Another Church With Abundance  —$—>  Saints Not Among Them

This arrangement would create an imbalance in the churches, which ought not be:

2 Corinthians 8:13-15  For I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened; 14 but by an equality, that now at this time your abundance may supply their lack, that their abundance also may supply your lack – that there may be equality. 15 As it is written, "He who gathered much had nothing left over, and he who gathered little had no lack."

3.          Direct support of needy saints not among the local church

A church as a corporate body engages in unscriptural practice if it directly takes care of the needy saints of another local body.  The elders' oversight is limited to their own local body; elders have no oversight in other local bodies.  The following action is unscriptural:

Church  —$—>  Needy Saints Not Among Them

A common ploy is sometimes observed when a visitor to the worship assembly of a local church claims he is a Christian but is in need of money for his hungry family.  This man ought to be associated with a local church somewhere or be intending to do so (Acts 9:26-28).  The responsibility for his need for benevolence falls not upon the church he is visiting but on the local church with whom he is affiliated.  That body and its elders will know for certain whether he is a faithful Christian deserving aid.  If that church does not have the financial ability to aid him, other churches are to send support to them so that they may (Acts 11:30).  Churches ought not side-step this pattern by giving relief directly to one not among them, which would relieve the elders of the other church of their duty.  We frankly do not have any other Bible pattern for the church, and we dare not act outside the revealed pattern.  If individual Christians would decide to make a gift for him independent of the church's treasury, they can certainly do so (Galatians 6:10), but adhering to the Bible pattern for the church as a body prevents the possibility of church funds being used to support someone unworthy.  Again, we may think the matter is insignificant, but any action without God's authority is sin.

E.                 Benevolent Societies

To clarify, there is nothing inherently wrong about a man-made benevolent society that gives relief to all men.  Consider our earlier examination of evangelizing.  Man sins when he forms an institution by which Christians work cooperatively to teach the gospel free of charge.  The reason it is sin is because God has already designed and appointed the church to do precisely that, so any human corporation assuming its role supplants the church.  However, regarding the benevolent relief of all mankind, God has established no divine institution.  If He had, we could not lawfully devise a substitute for it but could only act within that divine institution for that divine purpose.  Therefore, since God has not appointed any such organization, man supplants no divine institution if he establishes his own.  We are free to devise and support all kinds of benevolent, business, social, health, or political organizations, as long as they are doing nothing inherently unwholesome and are not doing the work that God has precisely appointed for His church.

The only problem with benevolent societies involves who is providing their funding.  Remember that God authorizes individuals in things He does not authorize the church as a body.  An individual has every right to contribute to a benevolent society if he so desires.  It is an expedient way of doing good unto all men (1 Timothy 6:18).  Moreover, since God has not ordained any human institutions, He has no rule over them, except in what would be inherently immoral.  Therefore, the ABC Cupcake Company has every right to contribute to the XYZ Benevolent Society.

However, the church is a divine corporation, and God certainly has rule and control over its function (Ephesians 1:22).  God has not ordained that His church as a corporate body be responsible for the benevolent relief of all mankind.  Therefore, a church contributing to an orphans' home, hospital, or school is not an expediency, because something other than the appointed work of the church is being accomplished.  God has ordained that funding for those legitimate organizations be acquired from sources other than His church.

The following actions are scriptural:

Individuals  —$—>  Needy People

Individuals  —$—>  Benevolent Society  —$—>  Needy People

Human Institutions  —$—>  Needy People

Human Institutions  —$—>  Benevolent Society  —$—>  Needy People

The following actions are unscriptural:

Churches  —$—>  All Needy People

Churches  —$—>  Benevolent Society  —$—>  All Needy People

Churches  —$—>  Benevolent Society  —$—>  Needy Saints

Note that even if the man-made benevolent society is ensuring that it only gives relief to faithful Christians, there is no authority for a church to contribute to it.  This is contrary to the divine pattern (Exodus 25:40).  It relieves the church of its obligation to manage its own work; the duty to prove the worthiness of the recipients is passed off to others who are not a church.  If a man-made benevolent society is doing the work God has ordained for the church, it supplants the church and robs God of His glory (Ephesians 3:21).

F.                 Misunderstanding Church Benevolence

Many arguments can be heard by people today trying to defend the practice of churches supporting the needs of non-Christians or contributing to man-made benevolent societies.  However, we find no scriptural authority for such action by the church as a body, neither by a command, example, or necessary inference.  The responsibility of supporting orphan homes and schools is placed upon the individual, not the church as a corporate body:

James 1:22-27  But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. 23 For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man observing his natural face in a mirror; 24 for he observes himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was. 25 But he who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work, this one will be blessed in what he does. 26 If anyone among you thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this one's religion is useless. 27 Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.

Observe that in this context, the exhortation is clearly directed to individual Christians, not the church as a corporate body:  vs. 22 "prove yourselves...," vs. 23 "if anyone...," vs. 24 "...kind of person...," vs. 25 "but one...," vs. 26 "anyone thinks himself...," vs. 27 "keep oneself unstained...."  If we can disregard that the instruction given here is to individual Christians, we must disregard it everywhere.

Here are some arguments commonly presented by some trying to justify the church supporting man-made benevolent societies.  Responses follow:

1.          Misunderstanding individual and corporate distinction

Argument:  "Whether it is the individual worshiping or the congregation worshiping cannot be distinguished.  It is unreasonable to consistently interpret all passages on nothing more than pronouns to make a distinction binding something only on individuals and saying there is no relevancy to the body of Christ."

Response:  Simply because someone says something is indistinguishable or unreasonable does not make it so.  Human reasoning is not our source of authority.  Where God's word makes a distinction, we must make a distinction.  Our examination of scripture so far demonstrates that making a determination between individual and corporate applicability is not as difficult as those who argue against it would suggest (Hebrews 5:12-14).

2.          Misunderstanding religion

Argument:  "Pure and undefiled religion involves caring for orphans and anyone in need, not just saints (James 1:27, Galatians 6:10).  It is irrational to suggest that the church cannot practice true religion."

Response:  The word "religion" in James 1:26, 27 translates THRESKEIA {thrace-ki'-ah} meaning, "Appropriate beliefs and devout practice of obligations relating to supernatural persons and powers - 'religion, piety'" (Louw-Nida).  The word applies to worship both in the generic sense of everyday uprightness and in the special sense of offering obeisance, whether by an individual or the church as a body.  However, we are not forced to conclude that any activity having a personal religious significance necessarily has a place in corporate church function.  For instance, true religion also involves an individual bridling his tongue, and this is not something the church as a body can do for anyone.  Moreover, regarding certain widows that some teachers would claim should be assisted by the church, Paul says, "Do not let the church be burdened" (1 Timothy 5:16).

3.          Misunderstanding sound reasoning

Argument:  "To not allow the church to support orphans' homes makes the church a group of orphan haters – heartless and unloving.  How could an all-loving God deny support from the church treasury for these innocent little ones who comprise the kingdom of heaven?"

Response:  A study of hermeneutics will expose some fallacies of reasoning.  This argument involves the fallacy of pity, which tries to persuade from considering the supposed unfortunate consequences that will befall others if a certain premise is true.  Another is the fallacy of emotion, which utilizes language intended to arouse strong feelings that have no actual bearing on truth.

In truth, God most certainly has not left orphans or any other needy people without aid; He has simply not commissioned His church to that task in every case.  Through the church, God has appointed to provide relief specifically for those who are "needy saints," but even then with limitations and restrictions.  However, through individuals, God has appointed to provide benevolent relief for all others.

We ought to be willing to follow the Lord's instruction for no other reason than He has revealed it to us.  Notwithstanding, with closer inspection, we can see God's wisdom in putting the responsibility for helping needy non-saints upon individuals.

If individuals are each doing their part to help the needy, it can result in more face-to-face interaction with those suffering.  We observed earlier that "visit" in James 1:27 means more than merely going and seeing, however, it most certainly does include going and seeing.  People who are in physical need inevitably have emotional needs, too.  If we simply throw money into a pot to pay for others to go and do the work of encouraging and consoling, we ought not think we are actually helping them directly.  When Jesus is foretelling the judgment scene in Matthew 25:31-46, speaking to the righteous, He does not say, "I was sick, and you paid someone to visit Me; I was in prison, and you paid someone to come to Me."

Additionally, any resulting personal interaction of individuals seeing to the needs of those outside the church creates situations ideal for teaching them the gospel.  Jesus performed some miracles to do nothing more than demonstrate His divinity, such as turning water into wine.  However, by going out to the people and by His innumerable miracles of healing, He also demonstrates His compassion.  Those He would heal He would also often teach (Matthew 4:23-5:2).  Similarly, the needy of the world will know that we are His servants if we personally bring them not only what they physically need but also what they spiritually need.

4.          Misunderstanding the silence of the scriptures

Argument:  "James 1:22-27 gives no authority to condemn the congregation made up of individual members from doing the action described collectively as a body from its treasury."

Response:  Authority is established on the basis of what the Bible says, not on what the Bible does not say (Hebrews 7:14).  No sound Bible student will proclaim that James 1:22-27 forbids the church as a body from supporting orphan's homes but only that it approves individuals doing it.  If someone is looking for the scripture that authorizes the church as a body to do so, he will have to look elsewhere.  Such a scripture has not yet been found.

5.          Misunderstanding expediencies

Argument:  "We have general directions from the Scriptures and can deal with the treasury in matters of expediencies.  We can expedite the command to help orphans either through the congregational treasury or by individuals as we may freely choose."

Response:  This opens a Pandora's box.  Someone else has just as much right to argue that something else is an expediency.  You can't just say supporting an orphan's home is a matter of expediency but supporting other good works such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the YMCA, Planned Parenthood, the National Cancer Society, hospitals, health clubs, daycare centers, and political campaigns are not.  If you take one, you have to take them all, and there will be no end.  That which proves too much proves nothing.

This is effectively where religion has gone today; religious organizations are supporting all kinds of institutions doing good like this, but biblical authority for the church as a body to be generically doing good has not yet been found.  God places the responsibility for doing these things squarely upon the individual, not the corporate church.

Besides, a study of authority will reveal that there are rules for expediencies.  According to one rule, for a thing to be expedient, it must be lawful.  There are many lawful human organizations through which we can expedite helping the needy of the world if we want to, but God has not ordained the church as a body to do so, and we must not force our will upon it (Colossians 3:17).

6.          Misunderstanding the authoritative source

Argument:  "We cannot find Bible authority for water fountains, sinks, and commodes, so we don't necessarily need authority for the church to support orphan's homes."

Response:  Remember, the responsibility to show delegated authority rests upon those who would do a thing, not those who would not (1 Peter 3:15).  It is absurd to think that authority for what we do rests in the things others do without authority.  Besides, a study of hermeneutics will show that we actually do have authority for drinking fountains and such things as expediencies for the bodily needs of people when assembled.

7.          Misunderstanding incidentals

Argument:  "We have no Bible authority for red, blue, or green carpeting in the building that is paid for from the congregational treasury."

Response:  Whether we have carpet or tile in our building is neither here nor there.  It has nothing to do with supporting orphans homes.  These are incidental matters.  In the same way, many lights in an upper room have nothing to do with the Lord's Supper (Acts 20:7, 8).  We will examine incidental matters in greater detail when we later discuss things which are not the work of the church.

G.                Summary

The pattern is consistent throughout the New Testament.  The church is seen in scripture functioning autonomously as a collective body, and these are fundamentally the only things they are doing:

         Teaching the gospel (1 Timothy 3:15),

         Assembled worship (1 Corinthians 14:23-26),

         Benevolence of needy saints (2 Corinthians 8, 9),

         Withdrawal of unruly saints (1 Corinthians 5).

Activity in the corporate church beyond this is stepping outside the bounds of God's word (2 John 9).

Questions And Thoughts For Review: Benevolence Of The Saints

1.      Is hospitality a work of the church as a corporate body?  Is every action with a religious significance necessarily a work of the collective church?

2.      Whom do the scriptures indicate are the ones having the first responsibility toward the needy?

3.      Are there any limitations or guidelines on who an individual should offer benevolence to?  If so, what?  Explain your response.

4.      Describe concisely for whom the church as a body is responsible for benevolent assistance.  Explain the limitations of this benevolence.

5.      What is the significant difference between the famine relief for the needy Judean saints in Acts 11:28-30 and the "widows indeed" in 1 Timothy 5:5-16?

6.      When churches cooperated in benevolence as revealed in scripture, did one church ever send relief funds directly to the needy saints of another local body?

7.      When churches cooperated in benevolence as revealed in scripture, did one church ever channel relief funds through another church for them to distribute to yet other churches having members in need?

8.      When churches cooperated in benevolence as revealed in scripture, did one church ever send relief funds to a man-made benevolent organization for them to distribute to the needy? 

9.      Are man-made benevolent societies just expediencies for the church in the relief of needy saints?  If not, why ­– what is added, lost, or otherwise changed?

10.  Are man-made benevolent societies scripturally unauthorized or inherently sinful?


Some material in this study is derived or directly quoted from the following texts, which are suggested for further study and additional information:

         (BDB) "Revised Whittaker's Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew-English Lexicon," 1906, 1997, Logos Research Systems, Inc.

         (JHT) "A Greek-English Lexicon Of The New Testament," Joseph Henry Thayer, 1979, Zondervan Publishing House

         "Greek-English Lexicon Of The New Testament: Based On Semantic Domains," Johannes P. Louw and Eugene A. Nida, 1989, New York: United Bible Societies

         "Analytical Lexicon to the Greek New Testament,", Timothy and Barbara Friberg, 1994

         (WEV) "Expository Dictionary Of New Testament Words," W. E. Vine, 1966, Flemming H. Revell Co.

         "A Manual Grammar Of The Greek New Testament," 1927, 1955, Dana and Mantey, Macmillan Co.

         LXX Septuaginta (LXT) (Old Greek Jewish Scriptures) edited by Alfred Rahlfs, 1935, the German Bible Society

         "New Testament Words," William Barclay, SCM Press Ltd., 1964

         (TBA) "The Bible Almanac," Packer, Tenney, White, Jr., 1980, Thomas Nelson Publishers

         (OED) Online Etymology Dictionary, http://www.etymonline.com

         "The Bible in English: Its History and Influence," 2003, David Daniell

         "Walking By Faith," Roy E. Cogdill, 1957, 1967, The Gospel Guardian Company

         "Old Issues Do Not Fade Away – A Study In Centralization Of Churches And Institutionalism," Gene Frost, 1975, 1976, Gospel Anchor

         (M-W) The Merriam-Webster American English Dictionary Online, 2012

         Wikipedia: web-based free-content encyclopedia, 2012


Bible translations referenced in this work include:

KJV:      King James Version (1611)

ASV:     American Standard Version (1901)

NKJ:     New King James Version (1982)

NAU:    New American Standard Bible (1995)

YLT:      Young's Literal Translation (1862, 1898)

TNT:     Tyndale New Testament (1534)

Bible quotations in this work are from the NKJ unless otherwise indicated.  Anglicized equivalents of Greek and Hebrew words appear in all upper case characters with the approximate pronunciation following in braces.


Copyright 2012, Speaking Sound Doctrine