New Testament churches show us how benevolence ought to be performed, who should receive assistance from churches, how funds are raised for that purpose, and how churches may cooperate with each other in relief work.
Let us examine New Testament instances that describe churches at work in benevolence.
The Jerusalem Church
The Jerusalem church supplied what some lacked. “And all that believed were together, and had all things common; And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need” (Acts 2:44,45). Jews had come to Jerusalem from every nation for the feast of Pentecost where many were converted to Christ. There was a spirit of love, generosity, kindness, and willingness to share with each other. Possessions and goods were voluntarily sold that needs might be met.
“And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that aught of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common … Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, and laid them down at the apostles’ feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need” (Acts 4:32-37).
In Acts 6:1-6, a problem arose in the Jerusalem church pertaining to widows and their assistance. The Grecians murmured against the Hebrews because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration. “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.“ Qualified men were to be selected whom the apostles would appoint over this work, “But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word.” Seven men were chosen by fellow brethren to do this work in order for the apostles to devote themselves to prayer and teaching. The Jerusalem church looked after the needs of its own members by caring for the needy saints.
The Antioch Church
We are informed in Acts 11:27-30 that prophets from Jerusalem came to Antioch, and one named Agabus “signified by the Spirit that there should be a great dearth throughout all the world: which came to pass in the days of Claudius Caesar. Then the disciples, every man according to his ability, determined to send relief unto the brethren which dwelt in Judea: Which also they did, and sent it to the elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul.”
This illustrates how the church in one locality may assist needy brethren in other places. The relief was sent to the elders in Judea by the hand of Barnabas and Saul.
Here we see the benevolent spirit of the early day saints demonstrating what a church can do and should do in helping the needy. Every church of Christ is, therefore, a benevolent society, and Christians need no other society in which to do such work.
The Macedonia and Achaia Churches
Paul gave instructions to the church at Corinth “concerning the collection for the saints” (1 Cor. 16:1-4). The same teaching had been given already to the churches of Galatia. The manner of raising funds was by giving, as they prospered, on the first day of the week. The recipients were specific to the saints at Jerusalem.
The church would select its own messengers to bear its gift. “… Whomsoever you shall approve by your letters, them will I send to bring your liberality to Jerusalem.”
Later, in another letter to the Corinthians, Paul reminded them of the collection for the saints (2 Cor. 8; 9), and urged them to give liberally. Although in deep poverty the Macedonian churches had given much, which is a good example for all churches to emulate.
Another reference to this collection for the needy saints at Jerusalem is found in Paul’s letter to the Romans. “But now I go unto Jerusalem to minister unto the saints. For it hath pleased them of Macedonia and Achaia to make a certain contribution for the poor saints which are at Jerusalem” (Rom. 15:25,26). This is an example of predominate Gentile churches assisting Jewish brethren in Jerusalem. “For if the Gentiles have been made partakers of their spiritual things, their duty is also to minister unto them in carnal things.”
Each local church did its own work in benevolence. When another congregation was given assistance, it was because there was a genuine need. This plan of operation is scriptural, practical, and designed to bring honor to God.
Another matter that needs to be considered is the case of widows indeed (1 Tim. 5:3-16). Paul instructed, “Honor widows that are widows indeed.” They are to be honored with respect and material assistance. Any woman who has lost her husband through death is a widow. Not all widows are “widows indeed.”
Paul explains that a “widow indeed” is one who has no relatives, such as children or grandchildren, to care for her needs. She is at least sixty years of age. She is a godly woman who has been deserted. She is described as to character and conduct in verses 5 and 10.
A “widow indeed” may be “taken into the number“. This refers to enrolling widows for having their physical needs supplied by the church. Paul says nothing about these widows being employed to do church work and receiving wages.
Verse 16 says, “If any man or woman that believes have widows, let them relieve them, and let not the church be charged, that it may relieve them that are widows indeed.” This verse clearly distinguishes between individual obligations and what the church is obligated to do. The first responsibility rests with individuals who have relatives that are widowed. They should provide for them that the church is not burdened. “Widows indeed” should be sustained, supported, and helped by the church.
The church can help any saint, or group of saints, that has a genuine need. Widows indeed are permanent charges of the church. Some contend that in America we don’t have “widows indeed” as did biblical churches. Even so, because many are in favor of reducing or entirely eliminating government and social welfare programs, it is plausible that modern day churches of Christ may one day have to take on the role of assisting “widows indeed” even as the early day saints did.
To keep the benevolent work of the church in its proper perspective we need to study and follow New Testament examples of benevolence, and not what worldly churches and organizations are doing.