Financial support for poor churches

The following is a portion of a research paper submitted to Phoenix Seminary in 2012.

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OBLIGATIONS OF THE LOCAL CHURCH TO THE IMPOVERISHED CHURCH ABROAD  

Today, millions of Christians have financial resources at their disposal. A substantial portion of these funds are given via tithes and offerings to the local church.  Given the relative economic prosperity of the American church, what are the moral obligations of a local church body to provide financial assistance to church bodies abroad?   Scripture teaches that affluent local churches are obliged to generously give to meet the life-sustaining needs of other churches, regardless of their geographic location.

This paper will argue that the plain teaching of scripture is that Christians are to provide for the needs, not only of the poor, but also other local churches abroad. This paper will examine the biblical principles for church-to-church support, the nature of affluent local churches, discerning when a church needs support and geographic considerations regarding moral obligations.

CHURCH-TO-CHURCH SUPPORT

How Christians should handle their money is a topic of much discussion in the American church. Programs for financial stewardship such as Financial Peace University and Crown Financial continue to grow in popularity amongst affluent evangelicals, perhaps due to their emphasis on staying out of debt, making wise investments and giving to the local church. This increase in awareness of biblical teaching on financial management is laudable and should be celebrated.  Also recently, America has experienced a great recession that has caused many individuals, as well as local Christian congregations to reconfigure their budgets, cut unnecessary expenses and focus on getting the most out of their money.[1]  This recent financial situation has also provided us with an opportunity to think beyond ourselves and specifically consider the responsibility of the local church in meeting the needs of others by engaging in church-to-church financial support.

 

THE BIBLICAL MANDATE FOR GENEROSITY

The Bible is the authoritative word of God and is applicable to all aspects of life. Evangelical churches are specifically marked for their belief that the teachings of the scriptures are the final authority.  However, modern atheist scholars are attempting to show that science can provide a means to moral direction. Interestingly, Sam Harris’ book, Moral Landscape, has little to say about giving to the marginalized as a moral mandate.[2] In fact, his methods of moral reasoning will perhaps show that giving to the poor is not even a moral question. As our increasingly affluent culture potentially drifts away from an understanding of its moral responsibility to poor, Christ-followers must be vigilant in promoting the biblical teaching on assisting the poor and needy.

God often identifies Himself as one who looks out for the poor (Psalm 140.12, Isaiah 25:4, Isaiah 41:17, Psalm 10:14).  Not only does God promise to affiliate with and serve the poor, he calls his followers to do the same by providing resources to people in need.  Moses writes in Leviticus that his readers are to provide assistance to those around them who are unable to meet their own needs.

“If one of your countrymen becomes poor and is unable to support himself among you, help him as you would an alien or a temporary resident, so he can continue to live among you. Do not take interest of any kind from him, but fear your God, so that your countrymen may continue to live among you…” (Lev 25:35-36 NIV).

Moses also writes that God’s people are to give a tithe of their produce to those in need.

“When you have finished paying all the tithe of your produce in the third year, which is the year of tithing, giving it to the Levite, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, so that they may eat within your towns and be filled” (Deut 26:12 ESV).

The trajectory of these commands for generosity to the poor and marginalized continues throughout the scriptures. The teaching of our Lord highlights this trajectory when he states “Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.” (Matt 5:42 ESV).

These teachings of Jesus manifest themselves in the lives of the early church. In Luke’s chronicle of the early Christians, we find that the church in Jerusalem “had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.” (Acts 2:44b-45 ESV). In his book, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, Ronald Sider observes that:

The early church continued the pattern of economic sharing practiced by Jesus. Immediately after reporting the three thousand conversions at Pentecost, Acts notes that “all who believed were together and had all things in common” (2:44). Whenever anyone was in need, they shared. Giving surplus to the needy brothers and sisters was not enough. They regularly dipped into capital reserves and sold property to aid the needy.[3]

This culture of sacrificial giving and brotherly love became the model for the church early on.

A GLOBAL GENEROSITY

While these texts are a wonderful example of how to care for and serve one another, they are almost always local in their scope. In fact, it appears that the majority of the biblical teachings on generosity have in mind a local context in which money or resources are provided for someone in the community.  This may cause some to ask if the church’s call to meet the needs of the poor is limited to its local context.  The answer, in short, is no. God’s command to generosity is certainly global in its range, and we need to look no further than the Apostle Paul for our model.

Ironically, in 46 A.D.[4] the same church in Jerusalem that so vividly modeled sacrificial generosity towards the poor was subjected to an extreme famine that brought starvation, poverty and death.  It appears that there were not enough local resources to provide for the needs of those within the church. This presented a unique opportunity for congregations abroad to assist in meeting the needs of the Jerusalem church.

Paul, probably in keeping with his eager desire to “remember the poor” (Gal 2:10b ESV) had set out on an international campaign to raise funds for the starving Christians in Jerusalem. Luke records that those in Antioch that Paul encountered “determined, according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea.” (Acts 11:29 ESV).  Moreover, Paul himself records that the Macedonian church “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” (II Cor 8:3-4 ESV). The Macedonian church’s response is especially interesting because they appear to have been of lesser means themselves. Though they were poor, and a great distance away from the Jerusalem church, they understood the call to generosity to be global in scope.

 

A MODEL FOR CHURCH-TO-CHURCH SUPPORT

Paul’s fundraising campaign with the Corinthian church on behalf of the impoverished Jerusalem church provides a model for modern affluent churches today.  In the letter of II Corinthians, we see that Paul calls the Corinthians to give globally, voluntarily and towards a Christ-centered equality.

First, Paul provides the example that the Macedonians have sacrificed for a church that was a great distance outside the context of their immediate community.  Paul calls the Corinthians to give globally, just as the Macedonians did. He does not hesitate in asking for a generous gift simply because the recipients resided on another continent. He recognized that Christians are a family “grounded in the unity of Christ and expressed in mutual care and in self-limiting regard for others”[5], regardless of geo-political boundaries.  Because of bonding blood of Christ, the Macedonians seem to have felt a sense of responsibility for their Judean brothers.

“For the earliest Christians, oneness in Christ meant sweeping liability for and availability to the other members of Christ’s body.”[6]

Second, Paul calls the Corinthian church to give voluntarily. He does not desire to exercise his apostolic authority and exact some sort of obligatory tribute. Rather, he longs for the Corinthians go give generously, freely, and with a cheerful heart. He states “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” 2 Cor 9:7 ESV).  The voluntary nature of this gift also serves Paul’s greater cause in working toward building Christ-centered bridges between previously alienated groups.  One commentator notes

The dominant contribution of Paul’s mission and theology is the actualized eschatological vision is uniting formerly alienated peoples into one body in Jesus Christ…the relief gift is the material embodiment of the symbolic world that Jews and Gentile are one in Jesus Christ[7].

The unifying nature of the financial gift may have been lost had it been exacted via Paul’s authority, rather than given freely by the Corinthian Church.

Finally, Paul explains that the principle he is employing is not some sort of monastic, self-imposed poverty that degrades material possessions. Rather, he is promoting a form of ecclesiastical equality. He states “For I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but that as a matter of fairness your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be fairness.” (II Cor 8:13-14 ESV).  Paul strives to be clear that he is calling on the Corinthians to help the Jerusalem church because the Corinthians were, at the present time, experiencing a season of abundance in financial resources. He states that if the roles were reversed, he would call on the Jerusalem church to do the same. This principle serves as a form of brotherly reciprocity.  Colin Kruse makes the point well when he says:

It is worth noting that it is from the abundance or surplus of those who are better-off that Paul expects the needs of those who are worse-off to be met. He does not advocate that those who are better-off reduce themselves to poverty also. The reciprocity of giving and receiving is meant to promote an equality.[8]

EFFECTS OF CHURCH-TO-CHURCH SUPPORT

This model of churches generously sacrificing for other churches produces much more than physical needs being met. We see that this form of generosity has the capacity to foster unity in the global church, make manifest a biblical brotherly love and strengthen the witness of the Church to a lost and dying world.

As previously stated, the early church was noted for the strength of its community. Contrary to many modern western evangelicals, it appears that believers in the early church understood their relationship with Jesus to be inseparable from their relationship with his body, the Church. Victor Furnish, a Pauline scholar notes

The conception of Salvation as an individual matter between man and God is utterly foreign to Paul’s preaching….the individual does not stand apart from the whole people of God. The call to men to belong to their Lord is at the same time a call to belong to one another. Incorporation into Christ’s death and resurrection does not occur apart from participation in the household of faith.[9]

An understanding of our responsibility to meet the needs of the church across the globe stems from the realization that we are a part of the same household of faith. We are a family founded upon and centered on Christ. We are one body, serving one Lord, believing in one faith and receiving one baptism.

Church-to-church support also makes manifest our verbalized brotherly love. Local congregants often feel some level of sentiment for the church abroad. However, many do not engage with Christians outside of their local church. By engaging in sacrificial and generous church-to-church support, local parishioners are able to show their love for Christians abroad in a tangible way.  Perhaps this is why the Macedonian Church called their participation in the Jerusalem fundraiser a “grace” (II Cor 8:4 ESV). Barclay notes “No gift can be in any real sense a gift unless the giver gives with it a bit of himself. That is why personal giving is always the highest kind, and that is the kind of giving of which Jesus Christ is the supreme example.”[10]

Finally, the giving of an affluent western church to the impoverished church abroad strengthens its witness to a culture that places a high value on money. The consumer-oriented western culture has become disenfranchised with the often consumer-oriented western church. Many un-churched people believe that local churches are just looking to grow their numbers by getting more converts.  In unChristian, David Kinnaman, president of the Barna group, posits that many disregard Christianity as a legitimate option because it is perceived as empty and baseless. Speaking of the large number of people that have professed a faith in Jesus and yet seemingly remain unchanged, he states

If that many Americans have made decisions to follow Jesus, our culture and our world would be revolutionized if they simply lived that faith. It is easy to embrace a costless form of Christianity in America today, and we have probably contributed to that by giving people a superficial understanding of the gospel and focusing only on their decision to convert.[11]

When Christians give sacrificially to meet the needs of people they have never personally met because that’s what Jesus did, it showcases the wonder and worth of Jesus.  As a stark contrast to the modern secular perspective on the church, history reveals that Christian charity was counted as one of the primary reasons for its rapid expansion in a Roman Empire plagued by disease and death. Historian Rodney Stark states

Perhaps even more revolutionary was the principle that Christian love and charity must extend beyond the boundaries of family and tribe, that it must extend to ‘all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (I Cor 1:2)… This was revolutionary stuff. Indeed, it was the cultural basis for the revitalization of the Roman world groaning under a host of miseries.[12]

It may be that the modern western church’s unwillingness to generously sacrifice for its global brothers and sisters is one of the reasons for the apparent atrophy in church growth in the West.

 

THE NATURE OF AN AFFLUENT LOCAL CHURCH

Thus far we have looked at the biblical mandate and model for church-to-church giving as well as a brief exploration of its potential effects. Now we address a more practical question. Namely, how does one determine an affluent church? Located in Achaia, or Southern Greece, the Corinthian church was part of a bustling, multi-cultural city with a strong economy and progressive culture[13]. Compared to their counterparts in Jerusalem, the Corinthians were a people who had discretionary income. Paul discerns the relative affluence of the Corinthian church by comparing it to the Jerusalem church. “your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need” (II Cor 8:14 ESV). The Corinthian church was affluent by comparison to their impoverished brothers, not to modern western society.  When one asks whether or not their local church is responsible to provide for the needs of another, one should compare their resources with that of the less-fortunate church.

THE MACEDONIAN EXCEPTION

It is convicting to note the powerful manner in which the relatively poor Macedonian church strives to participate in Paul’s fundraising efforts. “Because of their own situation, what they gave was probably quite a small amount, but measured against their extreme poverty it represented a wealth of liberality.”[14]  In light of this model, local churches should compare their desire meet the needs of poor church across the globe with their desire to meet their own needs such as staff salaries, mortgages, building campaigns etc.

 

DISCERNINIG WHEN A CHURCH REQUIRES SUPPORT

Paul does not call the Corinthians to engage in a capital gifts campaign for a new temple in Jerusalem. He calls them to provide funding in order to meet very specific, life-sustaining needs.  The original language speaks of their deep poverty which could also be stated, “their poverty down to the death of it.”[15] The need of the Jerusalem church was not extravagant. It was a need for life-sustaining elements. But these needs are not specifically laid out in the text. Is there a biblical principle that can be applied when we consider what needs to assist in?  We need look no further than the words of our Lord.

For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,  I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’  Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you?  And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’  And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’(Matt 25:35-40 ESV)

Here Jesus lists four specific needs: Hunger, thirst, exposure and sickness. These life-sustaining needs can be met by providing food, drinkable water, shelter clothing and medicine. Jesus not only lists the needs and items given, he himself associates with those who were in need (the church is, after all, his body). When these needs are present within a local church, and the immediate community cannot meet these needs, the responsibility to meet these needs falls to churches abroad that have the means to provide for them.

 

GEOGRAPHIIC CONSIDERATIONS FOR MORAL PROXIMITY

But what churches are we morally obligated to assist? Are there any boundaries such as geographic distance that increase or decrease our obligation? Some argue that the Bible teaches a form of moral proximity that holds us responsible to meet the needs of those closest to us. Kevin Deyoung states that

the closer the moral proximity of the poor the greater the moral obligation to help. Moral proximity does not refer to geography, though that can be part of the equation. Moral proximity refers to how connected we are to someone by virtue of familiarity, kinship, space or time. Therefore, in terms of moral proximity I am closer to my brothers and sisters at University Baptist just down the road from us in East Lansing than I am to First Baptist in Tuscaloosa (I’m assuming there’s a First Baptist there). But physical distance is not the only consideration. In terms of moral proximity, I am closer to my brother-in-law who lives in Australia than to a stranger I haven’t met who lives on the other side of Lansing.[16]

This perspective understands that the closer one is to you relationally and geographically, the closer they are in moral proximity. The closer they are in moral proximity to you, the higher the level of obligation you have to meet their need. As DeYoung states, this does not necessarily only refer to geography. Certainly there must be consideration for those closest to us, such as family, before considering the needs of those across the globe. However, we must take into account that we are residents of an ever-shrinking planet. Considering international flight, wire transfers and telecommunications, we are, in many ways, closer to our brothers and sisters in Uganda than the Corinthians were from their Jerusalem counterparts.  Relationally speaking, we can now know more than ever about our global brothers and sisters. We are not lacking information on the needs of other churches across the globe. Nor is it outside of our capacity to offer generous financial assistance to church families thousands of miles away.

However, these churches are very far away, geographically speaking. Does this great distance between us diminish our responsibility to provide for their life-sustaining needs? Shouldn’t geographic separation be calculated into our understanding of our obligation to help brothers and sisters outside of our region? It does not appear that Paul believed so. The distance from Corinth to Jerusalem is over 800 miles and yet Paul collects funds from one for the other without regard for the geography that separates them. One may even argue that with modern technology such as air travel and telecommunications, geographic distance should no longer play a primary role in determining moral proximity within the Church. Paul’s example shows us that we should not consider any local churches to be outside (or even on the outer rings) of our moral proximity.

 

CONCLUSION

The Bible teaches that Christians are part of a family, united by Jesus. As members of this family, we are responsible for each other’s welfare and are called to meet each other’s needs. This mandate calls us to make our brotherly love manifest by sacrificing and giving generously to other believers, regardless of political boundaries or geographic distance. Local churches should think and pray though how their budgets, marketing and infrastructure mobilize their congregations to meet the needs of their starving brothers and sisters abroad.

 


[1] Barna Group, “The Economy’s Impact on Churches: Congregational Budgets (Part 1 of 3)” Barna Group, 11 January 2010, < http://www.barna.org/barna-update/article/18-congregations/327-the-economys-impact-on-churches-congregational-budgets-part-1-of-3> (23 November 2012).

[2] Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (New York: Free, 2010).

[3] Ronald J. Sider, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. 5th ed. Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, 2005), 77.

[4] Ronald J. Sider, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. 5th ed. Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, 2005), 81.

[5] Wayne A. Meeks, The Moral World of the First Christians, Philadelphia: Westminster, 1986) , 131.

[6] Ronald J. Sider, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. 5th ed. Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, 2005), 79.

[7] Willary M. Swartley, Covenant of Peace: The Missing Piece in New Testament Theology and Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub., 2006), 402.

[8] Colin G. Kruse, 2 Corinthians: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 154.

[9] Victor Paul Furnish, Theology and Ethics in Paul (Nashville: Abingdon, 1968), 203.

[10] William Barclay, The Letter to the Corinthians. Revised (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Westminister Press, 1975), 230.

[11] David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, Unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity– and Why It Matters, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 2012), 73.

[12] Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries (San Francisco, California: Harper San Francisco, 1997), 212.

[13] William Barclay, The Letter to the Corinthians. Revised (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Westminister Press, 1975), 2.

[14] Colin G. Kruse, 2 Corinthians: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 148.

[15] Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset and David Brown, Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), 2 Co 8:2.

[16] Kevin Deyoung “Social Justice and the Poor” Gospel Coalition, 19 August 2009, http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/2009/08/19/social-justice-and-poor-1/ (23 November 2012).

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