Sadly, disagreements over how to use a church’s treasury for benevolence still divide the body today (as do use of the treasury for evangelistic outreach, for buildings, and mechanisms of cooperation for distributing funds, but these are different subjects).
Many churches get involved in benevolent works for the community, such as supporting orphan homes, founding hospitals, opening soup kitchens, providing space for AA meetings and polling locations.
While these benevolent works are good and should be pursued when possible by individuals, I am convinced that Scripture authorizes a narrow use for the church’s treasury.
Several passages in the New Testament discuss occasions when churches used their treasuries for benevolence. A pattern emerges:
And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all (Acts 2:44–45; cf. 6:1–3).
And the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul… There was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales and lay them at the apostles’ feet, and they would be distributed to each as any had need (Acts 4:32–35).
In the proportion that any of the disciples had means, each of them determined to send a contribution for the relief of the brethren living in Judea. And this they did, sending it in charge of Barnabas and Saul to the elders (Acts 11:27–30).
Be devoted to one another … contributing to the needs of the saints… (Romans 12:10–13).
Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make a contribution for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem… (Romans 15:26).
Now concerning the collection for the saints… (1 Corinthians 16:1–2).
…for the favor of participation in the support of the saints… The ministry of this service is not only fully supplying the needs of the saints, but is also overflowing through many thanksgivings to God (2 Corinthians 8:1–3; 9:12-15).
This pattern shows me that, at least in the main, God’s intends the church to use the collection for members of the body of Christ. And this makes sense. It is a point of righteous boasting that the church cares for its own. Surely there were many needy in Jerusalem, but “among them,” among Christians, there were no needy people, because the church acted like the very best kind of family. Let Social Security fail, let FEMA fail, but let the world see that saints care for one another!
Furthermore, Paul suggests that one church’s abundance supply another church’s need, “that there may be equality” (2 Corinthians 8:14). It is hard to see how the body of Christ, tiny by comparison, could ever bring financial equality to the world at large!
Now, there are other passages that do not specify limited benevolence. James 1:27 speaks of the care of widows and orphans. I believe it makes the most sense to view this passage in the greater context of the Biblical pattern of limited benevolence. This is a principle of interpretation we use often—for example, defining Phoebe’s role in Romans 16:1 in the greater context of the qualifications of 1 Timothy 3:8-13, or interpreting the “as often” of 1 Corinthians 11:26 in light of the “first day of the week” of Acts 20:7. So, James 1:27 reminds us that we must compassionately care for widows and orphans, or our faith is anemic. But when I look at the list of qualifications for a widow who is supported by the church, and the admonition to set up the care of widows so “the church will not be burdened” (1 Timothy 5:3-16), I’m convinced that James 1:27 functions best within the boundaries of limited benevolence, or in the homes of individual Christians. In other words, there are easy ways to fulfill James 1:27 without cancelling out the principle of limited benevolence that I see elsewhere.
Harder is Galatians 6:9-10, which says, “let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (though, also compare 1 Timothy 4:10). It is possible, I suppose, to view this as the Holy Spirit providing authority for the church to “do good to all people” from its treasury. But, viewing the admonition as geared more toward our responsibility as individual Christians rather than as a church body makes sense to me. It’s that, or view it as a non-negotiable commandment to found hospitals, nursing homes, and rec centers. But, the real mission that Jesus gave the church–a mission which no other entity can carry out–is to preach the gospel and save souls (Mark 16:15). If the church focused its energies on doing an excellent job in this regard, it would glorify Christ. If instead we focus on healing the body, we have gained nothing but a bunch of healthy people who are lost.
Jesus did a lot of compassionate work, healing Jews and sometimes Gentiles too (Matt. 15:21-28, Luke 17:16). But He did so to demonstrate His nature as the Son of God, and His ability to cure sin. He healed the blind to show He is the light of the world (John 9:39); He fed the 5,000 to show He is the bread of life (John 6:35). As a Christian, I will be kind and compassionate and helpful where I can. I will even volunteer at school and donate blood. But I and my brethren can do these things without misunderstanding the limited uses of the treasury set forth by the pattern of Scripture. –John Guzzetta