The Authority of God
Discover God’s authority
When we ask if we can do something or not as a local church, we must ask the question if we have the authority of God to do so. 1 John 3:4 tells us that sin is lawlessness. Therefore, we must act within the law of God otherwise we are in sin. In Acts 15 we see the three principle ways of discovering the authority of God. In Acts 15, the disciples are trying to determine if there was authority for Gentiles to be baptized to be saved. We will notice that they used direct command, necessary inference, and approved example to discover the authority of God. In Acts 15:7-11 Peter recounts what had happened to him in Acts 10. In verse 8 he says that the Gentiles received the Holy Spirit just as the apostles did, making no distinction. Peter made a necessary inference for this event that Gentiles had been offered salvation. In Acts 15:12 Paul and Barnabas declared the many miracles and wonders that God had worked through them among the Gentiles. Here we see the use of an approved example. Paul and Barnabas say that they already having been doing work and miracles by the power of God among the Gentiles. In Acts 15:13-19 James relates the direct command of God, quoting Amos 9:11-12, to show that Gentiles could be saved. James says that the things were taking place were previously spoken of by the Lord. This is the way the apostles discovered the authority of God, and it is the way we discover God’s authority today.
Authority to the individual for benevolence
There is authority given for individuals to show benevolence toward Christians and to unbelievers. Notice 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?” Galatians 6:10, “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith.” In 1 Timothy 6:17-19 those who are rich are commanded to be rich in good works, to do good, be ready to give, and willing to share. In Matthew 25:31-46 Jesus says that what we do toward our brethren in physical things is what we are doing toward Jesus himself. The parable of the good samaritan ends with Jesus saying, “Go and do likewise.” I want to impress these passages upon us because these are commands that are given by our Lord. As individuals we are to do good toward all. We are all rich and therefore need to heed the words of Paul to Timothy that we need to be rich in good works and do good with the things that we have.
Maybe this is a good place for me to make a recommendation. Here I will give my opinion as we talk about benevolence to the individual. We must understand that there are people in this world who are trying to cheat and scam. Many on our street corners that are asking for money have been found to have jobs and are simply playing upon people’s hearts. Others are unwilling to help themselves by getting a job. As Paul said in 2 Thessalonians 3:10, “If anyone will not work, neither will he eat.” So what can we do to know if people are in legitimate need or not? While there is never going to be a fool proof plan and we need to use our wisdom when we are trying to do good, one useful thing that I have found is to never give money. By giving money, we no longer have any control over how the money is used. The money may be used for things that it is not intended like alcohol and so forth. Instead, offer them goods and services. If they need gas, offer to fill up their tank. If they need food, offer to buy them a meal. This weeds out some, but certainly not all, of the scam artists. One person came to me wanting money for food and gas. I offered to fill up a man’s tank and buy him lunch, but he refused because he wanted the money. Obviously he wanted the money for other purposes. But we cannot stop doing good toward all people even though there are cheats. We must continue to be like Christ.
Authority for the local church to work benevolence
There is also authority for the local church to use its funds for benevolence. But we are going to notice is that there are restrictions upon the use of a local church treasury. While the individual is left up to good judgment in the realm of benevolence, a local church has limited authority from God. In 1 Corinthians 16:1-2 we receive the command to collect funds. On the first day of the week, each person is to lay something aside. But notice carefully verse 1 again. The collection is “for the saints.” We are not told that the collection is “of the saints” or “given by the saints,” which is sometimes how we understand this passage. The money collected is for the saints. We will notice that money used for benevolence out of a local church treasury was always for the saints.
In Romans 15:25-26 we read, “but now I am going to Jerusalem to minister to the saints. For it pleased those from Macedonia and Achaia to make a certain contribution for the poor saints who are in Jerusalem.” Who was the contribution for? The poor saints in Jerusalem. Turn to Acts 11:27-30. Here we read about a famine that would take place through out all the world. In verse 29 we read, “Then the disciples, each according to his ability, determined to send relief to the brethren dwelling in Judea.” Again we see the money was sent only to the saints. In Acts 4:32-37 we read of “the multitude of those who believed” had all things in common. It was the saints who had sold their possessions and the goods were distributed to each one who had need. We see this same situation from the very beginning in Acts 2:44-45. We read, “Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need.” Who are the people in need? All who believed. We can prove this even further when we move into Acts 3. As we have noticed, the possessions and goods are being sold and are being laid at the apostles’ feet for the distribution to needy saints.
Now notice what happens in Acts 3:1-6. Peter and John encounter a lame man on the way to the temple. In verse 3 the lame man asks for alms. Peter says in verse 6, “Silver and gold I do not have…” Is Peter lying? We know that he had plenty of money and goods available to him from the selling of the possessions of the saints that took place seven verses earlier. We know that he was not lying. What we learn is that a local church is not to use its fund for all the needy. The funds were to be used for needy saints only.
James 1:27-authority for the individual
Now what about James 1:27? Some argue that this is authority for a local church to use its funds for the orphans and widows in this world. The question that we must ask is this: is this verse addressed to a local church or is it addressed to individuals? It does not take too much work to determine the answer to this, for we simply need to look at the context of the passage. We must back up in the text to find the nearest reference for this command. Verse 26 says anyone, so we are talking about individuals. The verse further says “he,” “his tongue,” “his own heart,” and “one’s religion.” The text is clearly talking about what the individual ought to do. This can be seen all the way back up to verse 19, “let every man…” James 1:27 gives authority to individuals to take care of widows and orphans. The treasury of the local church is limited to needy saints when it comes to the work of benevolence.
Limits Upon a Local Church Helping Needy Saints
Must be helping self (1 Timothy 5:8; 2 Thessalonians 3:10)
What is interesting is that the Lord placed limits upon when a local church could use its funds to help even needy Christians. If a Christian has need, the local church is not to immediately step in and help. We already noticed 2 Thessalonians 3:10, but let us make the point again. Here Paul says, “For even when we were with you, we commanded you this: If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat.” This principle is given again in 1 Timothy 5:8, “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.” If a person was unwilling to work, a local church has no responsibility to help and in fact must not help until the person is ready to take a job.
Family ought to help (1 Timothy 5:4)
We also see that not only must the person be willing to work before the local church can help, but the family is to help before the local church helps as well. 1 Timothy 5:4 shows this principle. Here we read, “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.” A widow was not allowed to be put upon the role until the family options were exhausted. The children and grandchildren are responsible for taking care of them, not the local church. Family is expected to contribute before the local church does.
A local church is last resort (1 Timothy 5:16)
Here Paul says to not let the church be burdened. This is an important principle. The local church has a responsibility to needy saints. If a local church were to decide to use its funds to help all the poor in the city, it would quickly go broke and not accomplish the task. Can you imagine if we tried to feed and clothe all the people in West Palm Beach? It is a task that our governments cannot accomplish, must less local churches. We must see that resources are quickly sapped away when a local church uses its funds in a way that is not authorized by God. Consider all the needy people that lived during the days of the New Testament. Did the apostles set up shelters, orphanages, nursing homes, day care centers, or other institutions to take care of the needy? We must see that while trying to accomplish such a task is noble, it leaves the local church without funds to do the work God has given it to do in evangelism, edification, and benevolence. A local church should be last to be called upon to give to needy saints. But when these criteria have been met, then we must understand that a local church has to duty to help those saints who are in need. We must be careful that we are not too quick to give money to the needy, and not too reluctant to give where need exists.
If a local church was unable to met the need, other local churches can help
In Acts 11 and 2 Corinthians 8-9 that a local church were unable to met the need of the saints in their location. So other local churches sent money to aid those needy saints. Here is the only instance we have of one local church sending money to another local church. The money was not sent nor used for any other reason. Nor do we see these receiving churches turning around and sending it to other churches. The saints did not set up a benevolent society to give to all needy people in the world. Nor did they use a local church to be an agency to give aid to all needy people. There is no authority for establishing a controlling local church to be in charge of all the needy in south Florida. The only people receiving this help were needy Christians.
The Error of Supporting Earthy Organizations
Many have tried to teach that a local church needs to use its funds to support all of the charities and needs that exist today. Some want to use the treasury of the local church to send funds to nursing homes, day cares, orphanages, hospitals, shelters, the Red Cross, United Way, or any other charitable organization. While all of these maybe worthy goals and works that need to be done, there is no authority for the funds of a local church to be used in this capacity. No where do we read a command, have a necessary inference, nor see an example of any local church supporting any such organization. Further, we do not find any authority for a local church to give its funds to those who are not needy saints. Remember what we noted in Acts 3. Peter and John did not give the lame man who sat at the gate of the temple any money. In fact they said they could not give him money. Why not? Our only necessary inference is that the money was not to be used for anyone other than needy saints.
Authority only for needy saints
I want to impress upon us this fact one more time. The only recipients of funds from a local church were Christians in dire economic need. Go back and read the passages where those Christians were in need. Look at Acts 11:27-30 and 2 Corinthians 8-9. Why did these Christians need help? They did not need help because they did not feel like working. They did not need help because they had ran up their credit cards on frivolous expenses. They were experiencing an immense economic depression, if we were to put into today’s language. There was a famine in the land. In 2 Corinthians 8 we read that it was the poor giving to the poorer. Christians were enduring a economic tragedy. I think a modern example would be when hurricane Andrew destroyed south Florida. Many Christians needed help and many churches stepped in to help those who had suffered and were in need. Let the money only be used for needy saints.
The primary work of a local church is spiritual
When we get into the middle of these discussions it is easy to forget the primary work of a local church is spiritual. The local church was never meant to become a welfare system or an agency to meet physical needs. It exists to meet spiritual needs. Peter and John gave the lame man something more important than gold and silver. They healed him so that he and others who knew him became a believer in Jesus Christ. Our faith is the more important thing that we can give to people.
We shirk our individual responsibility
I believe why many want to establish these organizations or support these charitable institutions is so they do not have to do anything themselves. Because they write their contribution check to the local church each Sunday, their conscience is eased because they believe they have been charitable. But this is simply shirking our individual responsibility. I have had many people suggest that we ought to do something for those people in the nursing home. I always say that it is a great idea. You organize it and we will get individuals to help. No, they want to send a check to them. Why is this helping someone?
Are we against shelters, nursing homes, orphanages, day cares, or other charitable organizations? Not at all. But we cannot use the funds of a local church to support these institutions. I would go further to say that when our Lord commanded us to do good to all and to visit the widows and orphans, he was not talking about cutting a check. He was talking about putting in real work and effort to help. We need to see that this is an individual responsibility. Remember Galatians 6:10, “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith.” When we have opportunity we must take advantage of them to help in any capacity we can. Individuals have been given the work to help believers and non-believers in the area of benevolence. It is up to each of us to determine how we are going to help in the opportunities we have.