“The Collection "for the Saints"”
When the Biblical authors use the word “church” they refer to a special group of people. In the New Testament, “church” (ekklesia) usually describes the body of people that have responded in faith to the good news about Jesus. That group of people, arranged locally in groups also called “churches” across the world, is busy continuing God’s work. God’s church, built by Christ himself (Mt. 16:18), is both the product of his redemptive work on the cross (Acts 2:41, 47) and the vehicle through which he continues his work (Eph. 3:10).
In the New Testament, the church was regularly engaged in what Luke and others call “fellowship” (Acts 2:42), which basically has to do with sharing. Christian communities in the first century were busy sharing their lives, their energy, their resources and stuff with each other (Acts 2:43-47; 4:32-35). When a great need arose as a result of a terrible famine (Acts 11:28), many local churches banded together in a relief effort to collect money for the saints in Judea who were most adversly affected by the famine.
Christians were exercising benevolence for one another by sending their monetary support by the hand of Paul and others to Jerusalem (1 Cor. 16:1-4; Rom. 15:25-27, etc.). The word “benevolence” is translated from the Greek compound word “eunoia” which means “good will” (eu – well/good, nous – the mind/will). This word is used literally in Ephesians 6:7, “With good will render service, as to the Lord, and not to men.” The local churches were willing good toward their poor brethren in Jerusalem in the form of material support.
This effort was something to be done collectively, that is, as a church. But for a collective effort to materialize, each individual must do his part (1 Cor. 16:1-2). Individual Christians are instructed to be the most benevolent people (Jas. 1:27) rendering good will to all men, especially to Christians (Gal. 6:10). Part of a faithful response to the gospel is sharing what you have with your neighbor in need (Lk. 10:27-37). But there is a difference between the proper use of the individual Christian’s money (which may be freely given to any in need, Lk. 10:37, Gal. 6:10; Jas. 1:27) and the money gathered by a collective church (which Paul regulates in places like 1 Cor. 16:1-4; 2 Cor. 8-9).
When it comes to this action of spreading good will to people, the question is not, “Do individual Christians have a responsibility to the poor?” They most certainly do. Nor is the question, “Who among the poor is the individual Christian to assist?” He must be a good neighbor to all (Lk. 10:37; Gal. 6:10). The question is, “Who among the poor is the church (collectively) to assist?” This is a slightly different question. Note the following passages concerning various collections that local churches were taking part in and who was receiving the aid:
- (Acts 2:44-46) — “And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts”
- (Acts 4:32-35) — “Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common... There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.”
- (Acts 11:27-30) — “Now in these days prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. And one of them named Agabus stood up and foretold by the Spirit that there would be a great famine over all the world (this took place in the days of Claudius). So the disciples determined, every one according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea. And they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul.”
- (Rom. 15:25) — “At present, however, I am going to Jerusalem bringing aid to the saints.”
- (Rom. 15:26) — “For Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make some contribution for the poor among the saints at Jerusalem.”
- (1 Cor. 16:1) — “Now concerning the collection for the saints: as I directed the churches of Galatia, so you also are to do.”
- (2 Cor. 8:3-4) — “For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints”
- (2 Cor. 9:1)— “Now it is superfluous for me to write to you about the ministry for the saints”
Clearly, the pattern set by the example of the early church was for individuals to do good to everyone with a premium on their spiritual brethren (Gal. 6:10) but for local churches to take up collections for a more specific use. These collected funds were always used to benefit poor Christians, as evidenced in the above passages with the words “saints,” “believers” and “brethren," and were not used as charity to the community outside the church.
Christians are instructed to give a freewill offering, according to their ability, motivated by the grace of God on behalf of their brethren in need (1 Cor. 16:1ff; 2 Cor. 8:1ff). When a believer contributes to this "work of grace," that money is set aside for the needs of the church to be spent in ways God has authorized. On one occasion, Christians were extending this grace to their less fortunate brothers and sisters by selling off their property and possessions and bringing the proceeds to the apostles to be distributed (Acts 4:32-37). While the property, and by extension, the monetary value of the property, remained unsold, it still belonged to the individual to be used as he or she saw fit. But once it was sold with the intention of giving it to the church, it no longer belonged to that individual and therefore was to be used for God's specific purposes (see Ananias & Sapphira, Acts 5:1-4).
Why is it important to make a distinction between what an individual Christian can do with his or her money and what a church can do with its money? Misunderstanding this principle has led many congregations to use their funds collected on Sunday to subsidize, not individual needy saints or needy local churches as we see in Scripture, but other institutions.
A case may be made that financially supporting good institutions like colleges, orphan’s homes or missionary societies from the treasury of a local church effectively outsources the work that individual Christians are responsible for. Attaining knowledge, caring for the poor and sharing the gospel are all emphasized in Scripture. But we simply have no Scriptural example of the collected funds of a local church ever being used in this way. Institutions that function to serve these purposes can be good and we are free to be charitable to any good cause as individual Christians. But local churches must be careful to use their collected funds in ways that align with the pattern we find in the New Testament.