Arguments for Unlimited Helping Answered

Can a church use the pooled funds of its members, the contribution for the Lord’s work, to provide assistance for any person who has a material need? Many say “Yes, of course!” and offer what they deem to be powerful reasons authorizing the church treasury to be used for financial assistance to non-Christians. Let’s examine these arguments.

“You are mean and hard-hearted!”

Limiting financial assistance to disciples only is not evidence or indicative of a lack of compassion on the part of Christians. Obviously, Christians are to be kind toward all as God is toward men (Titus 3:4,5). When brethren advocate “limited benevolence” (assisting only believers), they should not recommend anything less than the kindness of our Lord owed to all (Romans 13:8). Practicing limited benevolence as a church is no excuse for individuals lacking compassion as seen in the Levite and priest in the Good Samaritan parable. Nor is a belief in limited benevolence a convenient excuse for the local church to hoard the Lord’s money.

“This is a great need today — many are homeless and hurting.”

As important as feeding the hungry is, as much compassion as this should generate in all of us, feeding starving souls is more important and should breed an even greater compassion. This great mission the Lord gave to the church is urgent and critical. Souls need filling! “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). Any attempt to make the world a better place— to abolish hunger and human suffering—is noble, but sin and its inequities will never be completely eradicated from the face of the earth, “For the poor you always have with you…” (Mark 14:7). In the end, the world and all it contains will be set on fire (2 Peter 3). What then?

Why should a local church practice limited benevolence? Just meeting the material needs of members is burdensome to the local church. “Serving tables” (the task of seeing to the material needs of believing widows) required special men to be appointed so that the Apostles would not neglect the ministry of the word (Acts 6:1-5). Not that the physical needs of these widows were unimportant, but the overarching concern of the Apostles pertained to saving souls.

An even greater danger lurks in the local church’s decision about the needy. The issue is one of the Lord’s authority and our complete submission to Him and His higher ways and thoughts (Isaiah 55:8,9). If we reject the Lord’s authority, His pattern here, could we not consistently reject it elsewhere? Someone will object, “This is a small, nitpicky issue,” but violating the Lord’s revealed will is never a small thing to God (2 Samuel 6). No one should presume to improve upon God’s wisdom or act without His authority. The fact is that the Lord never instructed the local church to eliminate hunger in the world.

According to 1 Timothy 5:16, the local church is under obligation to assist “widows indeed.” Family members were to assist widows whenever possible, relieving the church as a whole from this responsibility. Paul affirms, “…let not the church be burdened.” We should be compelled to ask: Why does meeting a material need among its members burden the church? She has a primary spiritual mission! 1 Timothy 3:15 clearly enunciates the surpassing truthmission of the church: preaching the truth.

“Several passages authorize unlimited benevolence.”

Several New Testament texts are misconstrued and misinterpreted in order to prop up arguments for “unlimited benevolence” (providing financial assistance from the treasury of the local church to anyone who has a need). Improper appeals are made to Galatians 6:10, 2 Corinthians 9:13 and James 1:27. In all three cases, the conclusions drawn are possible inferences, but examining the contexts of those statements reveals they are not correct or necessary inferences. Though Galatians 6:10 uses the word “we,” Paul is not authorizing corporate action. Note the previous verse, Galatians 6:9. The “us” and “we” are accomplished by individual action. In 2 Corinthians 9:13, it is also argued “to them and to all” refers to a group larger than disciples. But Paul clearly identifies the entire group as believers. He styles the collection “this ministry to the saints” (9:1), a ministry “supplying the needs of the saints…overflowing through many thanksgivings to God” (9:12). The recipients—”to them and to all”—”will glorify God” and pray for the brethren who gave (9:14). In the last text, James 1:27, the erroneous argument is made that the church can do whatever the individual is responsible and instructed to do. The New Testament clearly draws a distinction between the two. And what makes us think, by an impersonal contribution of money, we have fulfilled our obligation “to visit” (Gr. episkeptomai)? “Visit” means to inspect, to go to see, relieve, and involves more than just throwing money at something and then allowing someone to do our work by proxy.

The importance of understanding limited benevolence was brought home to me recently. I received information through the mail about “Churches Of Christ Disaster Relief Effort, Inc.” In the last 12 years, the organization has distributed $30 million in emergency food and supplies to thousands of disaster victims in 35 states. Last year, 1,775 congregations participated. I commend the compassion of those involved, but is this the work the Lord wants the local church to do? What if these vast resources of money and energy had been spent in meeting the needs of souls? Providing a meal helps the needy for a day. Providing truth helps to fill the greater need of the soul for all eternity! That’s our collective mission, brethren! Other organizations and compassionate Christians will help feed the hungry. Every Christian should display kindness and compassion to all and assist the needy with whom we come in contact. “…let us do good to all men, especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10). But the Lord has charged “the church” with the mission of dispensing the truth to the lost. Who is going to do that great work if the local church does not?

Yes, this article warns against something the local church is unauthorized to do, but make positive application. We must do more than avoid error. Tenaciously pursuing what is right, each local church should exhaust the resources at her disposal in the support of teaching God’s truth throughout the world. Individual Christians should give sacrificially to enable this greatest of works to be done.

The Lord’s people will be tempted to mimic the denominations in their goal “to make the world a better place.” Why? Most everyone applauds the feeding of the hungry. Stamping out hunger is popular and commended. Communities now expect churches to be involved in such programs. Our government even encourages churches to do that work, filling that niche in society. On the other hand, feeding souls is much more difficult and receives much more opposition. But what work has God given the church to do? To engage in unlimited benevolence is to act without divine authority, implicates the consciences of all involved and sidetracks the church from her supreme mission to feed souls.