Limited or Unlimited Benevolence?
“Open your hand wide,” was the posture Moses instructed Israel to have toward the poor (Deut. 15:7-11). But, what the Old Law had put on paper, Jesus put in flesh. He was the One who taught us about the good Samaritan, and fed the crowds when they were hungry. He was by far the most magnanimous, generous, most lavish giver the world had ever seen. He humbly confessed, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give His life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Those two verbs, “serve” and “give,” tell you almost all you need to know about what made Jesus, Jesus.
That same gracious, giving attitude should be seen in His disciples, and indeed it was. The early chapters of Acts are full of a wonderful spirit of generosity that pervaded the whole church (Acts 2:45; 4:32-37). Those who had received the abundant grace of God could not contain their desire to give graciously themselves. That’s the only way you can explain how the Macedonians gave. Paul says that out of their great affliction and deep poverty they “abounded in the riches of their liberality imploring us with much urgency that we would receive the gift and the fellowship of the ministering to the saints” (2 Cor. 8:2,4). Here’s the poor begging not to get, but to give! Now, how do you explain a desire like that? Paul says, “There is only one word to explain what they did, and that word is grace.” If we are interested in restoring New Testament Christianity then we must devote ourselves to generating the same joyful, sacrificial, gracious generosity that characterized those first believers.
When we begin to examine the generosity of those early disciples we find there were times when the expression of their generosity was to be limited. For example, Paul taught the church in Thessalonica, “If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat” (2 Thess. 3:10). It is not a blessing to aid the lazy in their lifestyle. In addition, Paul instructed Timothy that the church should show honor to their widows by providing for their needs (1 Tim. 5:3-16). And yet, he placed restrictions on the type of widow who could be supported on a permanent basis by the church. She had to have a certain character, and if she had a believing family that was able they were to supply her needs. Why? Certainly the church could have supplied for her needs more lavishly and easily than an individual. This restriction did two things, it liberated the family to experience the blessings of personal sacrifice and service, and it enabled the church to help others.
In light of these verses I don’t believe the question is, “Is the local church limited in the expression of its generosity?” but rather, “In what areas is the church limited?” I find it compelling that among the many examples of the church’s liberal generosity the recipients were always Christians*. One revealing instance is in Acts 11. The disciples in Antioch learn of a devastating famine and determine “to send relief to the brethren dwelling in Judea” (Acts 11:29). Why did they limit their gifts to the brethren? Was it because they did not care for the suffering of unbelievers? Certainly not. I believe it’s just another evidence of the limited nature of a local church’s mission in the area of financial assistance. The church must not be distracted, in focus or resources, from its primary purpose of making disciples (Matt. 28:19).
There is no shortage of evidence that the disciple is to “do good to all” (Gal. 6:10). The above verses do not negate this responsibility. I might suggest, however, that as we read these passages we remain aware of who is under consideration. Is this something the author expected the local church to do collectively? Or, is this something the author intended to be expressed in the daily life of the disciple? We don’t have this problem when we come to passages about the home or the workplace. We understand they find expression in the individual Christian’s daily walk. Using that same faculty will help us see that the disciple’s responsibility toward the world differs from the local church’s assignment in regard to financial assistance.
Those in our government proposing “Faith Based Initiatives” for the care of the needy will not understand our desire for a “thus says the Lord,” before we participate. We may be labeled ugly names for not changing our focus. However, when they look at our lives they should be able to say two things. First, “They certainly have a respect for the Words of their God.” And second, “Their lives definitely demonstrate an undeniable, sacrificial, liberal generosity.” May it be so!
*Investigate for yourself, Acts 2:44-45, 4:32-35, 6:1-6, 11:27-30; Rom. 15:25-31, 1 Cor. 16:1-3; 2 Cor. 8:1-9:15, 1 Tim. 5:16.