Limited Benevolence


"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." Acts 4:32

When a natural disaster strikes, here or abroad, the question usually comes up “Why doesn’t your church give money to org’s that do good works for others?” Or “Why doesn’t your church operate a food pantry or help people who walk in off the street?” It’s true as a congregation we do not offer benevolence from the churches treasury to just anybody who ask and we don’t give money from the church’s treasury to support benevolence organizations, whether it be the Red Cross, or a local community outreach organization. But why? Why do we practice limited benevolence from the churches treasury? Why do we only use the church’s treasury to only help a limited number of people? Since it’s a Bible question, we’ll give it a Bible answer.

The New Testament Is Our Authority – In order to properly answer our question we must first establish what our standard of authority is going to be. Is our standard going to be the ever shifting thoughts of man or is it going to be the unchanging wisdom of God’s word? It’s quite clear, we need to establish our authority of the unchanging wisdom of God’s word. And for us as believers in His church that’s the New Testament. So let’s look at church benevolence in the New Testament and learn how we as churches are supposed to help the needy around us today.

From the New Testament we learn two principles that guide us as a church in distributing benevolence. The first principle is Families Help First. And the second is The Church Helps Its Own. Let’s take each of these in order to learn how they govern a church in practicing limited benevolence.

Families Help First – The principle that Families Help First comes from Paul’s instruction to Timothy to practice limited benevolence at the church at Ephesus (1 Tim 1:3) by only helping widows who were truly in need.

In 1 Tim 5:3-16, Paul discusses benevolence toward widows. To alleviate the church from becoming “burdened” (1 Tim 5:16) with caring for many widows, Paul instructed Timothy to teach, Families Help First. That’s why in 1 Tim 5:4 he said, “But if any widow had 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.” What is good and acceptable before God? A family helping first is what is good and acceptable before God. This principle was so important to Paul that he restated it in 1 Tim 5:16 say, “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.”

When the church follows God’s word it will practice limited benevolence from it treasury by requiring families to help first. Now there are cases when a widow does not have family that can care for them (Paul calls them “those who are really widows” or “widows indeed”). In those cases the church would but the exception proves the rule that a church is to practice limited benevolence. The church wasn’t to care for every widow that didn’t have a family, only its own widows that didn’t have families.

The Church Helps Its Own – Whether the need for relief came from a famine (Act 11:27-30) or from poverty (Acts 2:44-47, 4:32-37, 6:1-7); whether it was a local need (as in Jerusalem) or one abroad (Antioch sending relief to Jerusalem), the church of the New Testament practiced limited benevolence by only helping its own.

As soon as the church in Jerusalem began there was a need for the group to help their own. Notice what is said in Acts 2:44-47:

“Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, (45) and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need. (46) So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, (47) praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.”

Who is the subject of this passage? It is those who believed; those who made up the church there in Jerusalem. It was those who believed that had all things in common. It was those who believed that sold their possessions and goods. It was those who believed that divided them among all who had need. And who were those in need? Go back to Act 2:44, it was those who believed and were worshipping with the church as seen inAct 2:46-47. When the church at Jerusalem wanted to help needy people did they help all the needy people in Jerusalem? No, the church at Jerusalem practiced limited benevolence by only helping its own with the funds that the church had.

Again in Act 4:32-37 we have reference to the church at Jerusalem helping the needy by distributing benevolence, but again the focus is on the church practicing limited benevolence by only helping its own from the monies that were contributed to the church.

Later in Act 6:1-7 we read that the church at Jerusalem had a daily distribution of benevolence that was given to widows. Was it given to just any widows? No it wasn’t, look at the subject of this passage, it is the disciples; the passage begins and ends with the emphasis being on the disciples. So we see that the church at Jerusalem practiced limited benevolence by supporting its own widows.

Are we to suppose think that the only needy people or needy widows in Jerusalem where Christians? Of course not, there would have been many needy people in Jerusalem. Nevertheless, these examples show us that the New Testament church practiced limited benevolence by using money from the church treasury to only help its own.

But there were two times when the church at Jerusalem could not meet the needs of its own people. It was then that other churches, the church at Antioch (Act 11:27-30) and churches from Macedonia and Achaia (Rom 15:25-27; cf. 1 Cor 16:2-4; 2 Cor 8:1-9:15), sent relief to help the needy saints in Jerusalem. Notice who was the recipient of the benevolence sent from these generous churches:

“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.” (Acts 11:27-30)

“But now I am going to Jerusalem to minister to the saints. (26) For it pleased those from Macedonia and Achaia to make a certain contribution for the poor among the saints who are 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.” (Rom 15:25-27)

The church at Antioch and the churches of Macedonia and Achaia sent benevolence only to the saints in Judea and Jerusalem, or in other words, they sent benevolence to only their own. Are we supposed to think that it was only Christians who were suffering from the famine? Of course not, but since the New Testament church practiced limited benevolence in that they only sent help to other Christians, or in other terms, their own.

Let’s recap: Why do we practice limited benevolence as a church? We practice limited benevolence as a church because the church of the New Testament practiced limited benevolence. They practiced limited benevolence by insisting families help first, and by only helping their own, whether they were local or abroad. Since the church of the New Testament did this, we to should seek to follow their pattern today by practicing limited benevolence from the churches treasury in the same way they did.

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