Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
June 8, 1983
NUMBER 6, PAGE 6-7,14a

The Benevolent Work Of The Church

David Henry Bobo

Continuing our study of the mission of the church, we notice its mission with regard to works of benevolence. The church could not partake of the spirit of her divine Lord and not have a heart of compassion and sympathy toward all who need such compassion. This feeling is ingrained in true Christianity. Its practical application is expressed by Paul in Galatians 6:10 where he says: "So then, as we have opportunity, let us work that which is good toward all men, and especially toward them that are of the household of the faith." As to the general spirit of the church, in such matters there would seem to be no doubt or misunderstanding whatever. The thing that needs definition and determination is the "how" or methods for doing the benevolent work of Christianity.

In this phase of its mission as well as in its work of preaching the gospel to the world, the church must be governed by the teaching and examples of the New Testament. If it is important that we follow the teaching of the New Testament at all, it is just as important that we follow it here as in gospel obedience, in the worship, and in church government. If we are not going to try to follow it here, we needn't bother to follow it anywhere else. In this as in some other matters, the temptation and tendency is to conform to the practices of the religious bodies about us rather than to see what the Bible teaches and to follow it. We have gone far in following the nations about us rather than the New Testament in such matters. Some even hold up the practice of religious denominations, that care nothing for New Testament precedents, to try to shame us into following their ways. It is high time we began to study these matters from the standpoint of New Testament teaching and example.

First of all, it is a fundamental principle of New Testament teaching that the elders of each local congregation have the oversight of the work of that congregation, and that each congregation is thus independently governed. No one set of elders has oversight over more than one congregation. That means that each church does its own work under its own eldership. That does not mean that churches cannot cooperate or work collaterally, but it does mean that there is no giant super-organization embracing a number of congregations at once and directing their work. If it is the work of the church as a body, it is to be done under the eldership of that church. Well-intentioned departures from this simple principle have resulted in the development of hierarchies and ecclesiastical monsters that have destroyed all individual action and local autonomy. We must never be guilty of planting the seeds of such monsters. The church's work can best be done in the way the Lord has ordained. There is nothing to be gained by resorting to human contrivances. They may seem to be a help at first, but in the long run, they always prove to be a curse.

As we have already seen in other matters, this work of benevolence may be done individually or by the church as a body. If I want to do some work individually, I should do that out of my own pocket and not out of the church's treasury. If a work is to be supported from the church treasury, it then ceases to be my individual work and becomes the work of all the members combined; and is not to be done under individual management, but under the direction of the elders of the church. This distinction must be made and kept clear, or else every "Tom," "Dick," and "Harry" can go out and start something and then fasten it upon the church for support; and he will always find some churches thoughtless and careless enough to line up with his scheme and support it. If others decline, then confusion and division results because of a failure to recognize and preserve this principle.

But now, what examples do we find in the New Testament itself? First of all, the vast majority of the work of benevolence in the New Testament was of a temporary and emergency nature. The forming or setting up of permanent institutions for doing this benevolence was an entirely unheard-of thing. Their benevolence consisted of acts and not of institutions. This is vitally important. Acts are transient things and do not become permanent issues, but institutions almost universally become bones of contention and strife. First of all, they are unscriptural in the work of the church. There is just as much authority for a missionary society as there is for a benevolent institution doing the work God gave the church to do and drawing its funds from the treasuries of the churches. The cases are parallel.

Almost immediately after the establishment of the church in Jerusalem, there arose an emergency condition when many gave all their property to the church to be used for distributing to those in need. "And all that believed were together, and had all things common; and they sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all, according as any man had need." (Acts 2:44,45) How this distribution took place is recorded later. "And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and soul: and not one of them said that aught of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common.... For 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 at the apostles' feet: and distribution was made unto each, according as anyone had need." (Acts 4:32, 34, 35) This, of course, was only temporary and not a permanent institution. But it was done through the church by the guidance of the apostles. In Acts 6 we come to a more permanent arrangement, but still in keeping with the principles already noticed. Here the church was distributing to widows. There arose a contention on the part of the Grecian Jews that their widows were being neglected. The apostles then directed that seven men be chosen, commonly spoken of as deacons, to look after the distribution of what was given. This was still being done by the church through its own divinely authorized officers and not by some self-appointed board of benevolence.

Later, there was a famine in Judea and another emergency was created. So the brethren of Antioch made up a contribution as relief for the brethren of Judea and sent it "to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul." (Acts 11:27-30) Here again it was temporary relief and was handled under the direction of the elders of the church. Finally Paul and his associates raised another contribution among the gentile churches for the poor in Judea which Paul tells about in Romans 15:25-28 as follows: "but now, I say, I go unto Jerusalem, ministering unto the saints. For it hath been the good pleasure of Macedonia and Achaia to make a certain contribution for the poor among the saints that are at Jerusalem. Yea, it hath been their good pleasure; and their debtors they are. For if the gentiles have been made partakers of their spiritual things, they owe it to them also to minister unto them in carnal things. When therefore I have accomplished this, and have sealed to them this fruit, I will go on by you into Spain." This contribution was taken to the elders in Jerusalem. (Acts 21:17,18) There are the examples of benevolent works in the New Testament so far as the church is concerned. In those examples we cannot fail to observe that it was only a temporary or emergency measure, and was done through the elders and deacons of the Jerusalem congregation. If New Testament example means anything, this should be a pattern for churches of Christ today. It was done directly by the church without the intervention or human institutions, self-appointed boards, et cetera.

The classic text, however, for the benevolence of the church is James 1:27, where we find this statement: Pure religion and undefiled before our God and Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and keep oneself unspotted from the world." First of all, James is not discussing the action of the church as a body in its official capacity, but individual religion. The individual who practices pure religion will visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction and keep himself unspotted from the world. There is not a hint in this passage of establishing a mammoth organization and taking over the complete custody of the widow and orphans. Of course every man has a right to do as he will with his own home. If he wishes to take a widow and orphans into this home and take care of them, that is his personal business, but he has no right then to ask the church to pay for his house, his furniture, and his food. The taking of them into his home was his own personal act and an act for which the church as a body was not responsible. Then, too, this verse leaves the widowed mother and her children together to maintain their own home, and does not suggest breaking it up by sending the widow to one institution and the children to others. What does it mean to visit someone in his affliction? Certainly it implies ministering to them according to their need, but does not imply institutionalizing them or taking permanent custody of them. The word used here is the same one which Jesus used when he said, "I was sick and ye visited me." (Matt. 25:36) To visit the sick does not imply taking over the complete custody of them. Dorcus was evidently one who practiced pure religion, for after her death the widows stood by weeping and showing the garments she had made for them while she lived. May God give us more Dorcases who as individual Christians can practice pure religion without some pompous human organization.

There is the one exception authorized in the Bible and that is the custody of certain widows who can qualify for such custody. It is still the church and not a man-made organization that is doing the work. In 1 Tim. 5:10, Paul instructs thus: "Honor widows that are widows indeed. But if any widow hath children or grandchildren, let them learn first to show piety toward their own family, and to requite their parents, for this is acceptable in the sight of God. Now she that is a widow indeed, and desolate, hath her hope set on God, and continueth in supplications and prayers night and day. But she that giveth herself to pleasure is dead while she liveth. These things also command that they may be without reproach. But if any provideth not for his own, and specially his own household, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an unbeliever. Let none be enrolled as a widow under threescore years old, having been the wife of one man, well reported of for good works, if she hath brought up children, if she hath used hospitality to strangers, if she hath washed the saints' feet, if she hath relieved the afflicted, if she hath diligently followed every good work." Of this kind of person, the church is authorized to take over the complete custody.

The New Testament plan will work if we will work it. It establishes a close and intimate connection between the church and those to whom the church ministers. Above all, it is the divine plan.

— Indianapolis, Indiana