Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
May 3, 1956
NUMBER 1, PAGE 10-13a

The Benevolent Work Of The Church

Charles A. Holt, Franklin, Tennessee

This study has to do with the ministry to the poor, the widows and orphans which is to be performed by the church of the Lord. The New Testament has much to say about such work. In the main it is an individual obligation, but under certain circumstances the church as such has duties in this field. It should be clearly understood, however, that the church is not a big Red Cross organization, nor was it founded to function in the material realm of providing the physical necessities for the poor and needy. The primary work and mission of the church is to provide spiritual needs — not physical needs; to save spiritual life — not physical life! The one transcends the other in importance as much as the divine transcends the human. The benevolent work of the church is very limited and restricted, and such work is purely secondary and subsidiary to the great work of soul saving.

The Performance Of This Ministry

The New Testament plan of operation in performing this ministry to the poor and needy, provides for two avenues in accomplishing the task. The first and main is individual action on the part of all Christians. Most of the teaching along this line is directed to the Christian individual and has to do with practicing "pure religion." As Jesus "went about doing good," so must His followers. In rendering assistance to their fellow-man when he is in need, Christians are practicing "pure religion" and their influence radiates for the glory of God. Two purposes are accomplished in addition: (1) The individual himself is helped spiritually; and (2) Those in need are relieved. Truly "it is more blessed to give than to receive."

James 1:27 reads: "Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world." There seems to be no doubt but that this instruction is to the Christian individual, pointing up in general terms the requirements of that religion which is both pure and undefiled. It is not instruction to the church authorizing congregational act on. From the context this is readily seen. Verse 26 is definitely addressed to the individual. The latter part of verse 27 — "Keep himself unspotted from the world" — makes sure and certain that this is for individual application.

"To visit," in James 1:27, embraces the idea of supplying the needs of the fatherless and widows. This, Christians are to do as they have the ability and opportunity. The lesson of doing for others — serving others — is one that is sorely needed in our day. Jesus taught that greatness comes as a result of service to others. In leaving us an example (1 Pet. 2:21) Christ came to minister and not to be ministered unto. We must serve others ourselves. We can not hire others "to visit" the fatherless and widows for us anymore than we can hire another to "keep unspotted from the world" for us. It is the idea of serving by proxy; turning over such obligations to others that has involved the churches in the present controversy over human institutions. We live in a day of "let George do it," or paying some institution to do for us what we need to do ourselves. Both as churches and individuals we are prone to take the easy way out. We are neglecting a means of real spiritual development when we fail to act for ourselves to the limit of our ability and opportunity in serving others. Some of the richest experiences of life come in this manner.

In Vincent's Word Studies In The New Testament, Volume 1, page 736, commenting on James 1:27, we have this excellent comment:

"To visit ... James strikes a downright blow here at ministry by proxy, or by mere gifts of money. Pure and undefiled religion demands personal contact with the world's sorrow: to visit the afflicted, and to visit them in their affliction. The rich man, prodigal of money, which is to him of little value, but altogether incapable of devoting any personal attention to the object of his alms, often injures society by his donations; but this is rarely the case with that far nobler charity which makes men familiar with the haunts of wretchedness, and follows the object of its care through all the phases of his life!"

Upon our service and help to others our eternal destiny depends. (Matthew 25:31-46. Read these verses please!) Can we really expect to hear the Lord say: "Come, ye blessed of my Father ... inasmuch as ye have done it unto me," if ours has been a ministry by proxy or accomplished for us through some human organization?

Galatians 6:10 which reads as follows: "As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith," is more instruction, like James 1:27, which is addressed to the individual. It is found among sundry instructions governing the duties of the Christian. However, even if it be assumed, that James 1:27 and Galatians 6:10 have to do with congregational action, there is absolutely no justification in either passage, nor in any other, for churches to build and maintain some humanly-devised benevolent society as a supplement to the church, through which to accomplish this work! Religion by proxy on the part of the individual or the church, is not the "pure religion" commanded. One who thinks he finds divine authority in either of the passages for the brotherhood benevolent societies such as have been fastened upon the church today as appendages (and some even claim them as necessary supplements) through which the church may do benevolent work, 'should certainly have no trouble in seeing authority in the great commission (Matthew 28) for the missionary 'society!

As Christian individuals we must "bear our own burdens" and provide for our relatives when they are in need. There is no clearer teaching in the New Testament than this. Listen to it: "Honor widows that are widows indeed. But if any widow have children or nephews, let them learn first to show piety at home, and to requite their parents: for that is good and acceptable before God . . . and these things give in charge, that they may be blameless. But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel." (1 Timothy 5:3-8) Much teaching needs to be done along this line. Many have reached the place that they want to burden the church with the duties of the individual. Some churches seemingly think it right to assume such and do so. This Paul positively forbids and says of one who fails to discharge his responsibility along this line, that he "hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel." This is a terrible condemnation. Let us fulfill our obligations in this field That we may indeed be "blameless." Let us learn to provide for our own — widows, children, and others — when they are in need, knowing that such is "good and acceptable before God." It is as necessary as partaking of the Lord's Supper. Churches cannot scripturally, and should not, for the good of the individual, assume the duty of the individual. Neither do churches have the right to build and maintain orphan homes, homes for widows and the aged, such as we have today, which so readily become a "dumping ground" for individuals who do not desire to bear their own burdens! Such is the general situation with our benevolent societies today. If an individual reaches a place where he cannot provide for his own and he has no relatives who should help out in such instances, the church may and should step in and help him meet his own obligation. The church dare not assume the responsibility for him, but only assist him by supplying what he lacks or needs to do it himself.

Congregational Action In Benevolence

The second channel of operation in performing this work of ministry is by and through the congregation — congregational action. That churches as such provided benevolence in certain instances and under certain circumstances is a matter too plainly set forth in the New Testament to be denied by anyone. The Jerusalem church very early in its existence found it necessary to provide for some who were in "need?' '(Acts 2:4346) This was a temporary and emergency situation and it was met by the church.

Later on the Grecian widows were neglected in "the daily ministration." The apostles met this situation by divine guidance and it was handled by The church without any trouble, and certainly without the formation of some supplementary organization through which to do it. (Acts 6:1-7.)

Several years afterwards we read about "a great dearth" which came to pass. Agabus, a prophet, foretold of its coming. "Then the disciples, every man according to his ability, determined to send relief unto the brethren which dwelt in Judea: which also they did, and sent it to the elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul." (Acts 11:27-30) Thus a record of the Antioch church sending "relief unto the brethren in Judea. This "relief" was not sent to nor through some man-made benevolent society. The "relief" was sent to the elders in Judea. The "relief" was sent because "the brethren" in Judea were in need and were unable to supply their own necessities due to the "great dearth." To send such "relief" was never thought of before it was prophesied there would be a need, and the "relief" stopped when the need was supplied!

Nearly thirteen years later the Jerusalem church was in "want." Paul urged the churches in Macedonia, Galatia and Corinth to send to relieve the "want" of these saints. (1 Corinthians 16:1-3; 2 Corinthians 8-9) The "collection for the saints" had been urged and promised a year before it was finally gathered up for delivery. It was time for it to be delivered to the Jerusalem church. The Macedonian churches had given liberally, "yea, and beyond their power" for this "ministering to the saints." Paul now urges the Corinthian church to "perform the doing" of that which they had promised. He wrote them:"For I mean not that other men be eased, and ye burdened: But by an equality, that now at this time your abundance may be a supply for their want, that their abundance also may be a supply for your want, that there may be equality." (2 Corinthians 8:13-14) Paul points out that these churches were to give out of their "abundance." These churches were able to help the Jerusalem church in this time of need. From their "abundance" they were to "supply" the "want" — make up the deficiency — of the Jerusalem church so she (Jerusalem) could meet her exclusive obligation of caring for her own.

In passing let us note these facts:

  1. There is no precept, approved example or necessary inference that one church ever sent a financial contribution to another church except when and where the receiving church was in want — need.
  2. That one church helped another church only when the receiving church was unable to accomplish the work of providing for its own needy.
  3. That churches never contributed of their resources, or agreed to do so, to another church to help the receiving church set up any kind of benevolent society; whether it was to provide care for orphans, widows or others.
  4. The sending church (es) sent to the elders and the elders, within the framework of the local congregation and without the necessity of any man-made appendage, supervised the work of benevolence.

Benevolence Limited To Saints

Another significant fact concerning the benevolent work of the church is that the church never carried on such a work among "outsiders" or aliens. If it did, where is the passage that says so? There is much loose and baseless talk today relative to the obligation of the church to provide for all the widows, poor, afflicted, and all the dependent and neglected children in the world. Quite often some one gives the churches a "word-lashing" for its miserable failure in this respect, and they argue that we need to build and maintain more human institutions through which to do this work. Quite a touching and appealing picture is painted of the unfortunate of earth. Our efforts in caring for such are compared to what the Catholics, Baptists and others are doing and, of course, we are far behind! They have many more orphan homes, homes for widows, bread lines, hospitals, homes for unmarried mothers, clinics and such like than we do! The argument seems to be that we can never expect to compete with them and win the world to Christ as long as we fail so miserably in providing the physical necessities of life through such agencies. Thus some seem to want to make such organizations and benevolent societies for the church indispensable to the salvation of the world.

Where is the passage that binds upon the church the obligation of providing the physical needs of all the world, or even those in any given community for that matter? Where is it? Surely before such a tremendous burden is laid upon the Lord's church, there should be some authorization from "the Head" concerning it and how such should be done! Such is not taught! Christ has not ordered the church to undertake such a task or to even operate in the field of supplying the physical need of the world. The Lord has provided no facilities or organization for the church to function in this realm. Moreover, the church is engaged in a far greater work. Surely only those who are blinded by zeal without knowledge could desire to bring the church down from its high and exalted work of saving souls and bind on it a work of caring for bodies! The work of saving souls shall last for time and eternity, while helping the body is only temporary.

Let no one conclude that we are opposed to helping people in need. We are as desirous as anyone to see the physical necessities of every person in the world supplied. It is a good and noble work. Our only concern is with keeping overly-zealous people from binding upon the church this obligation and seeking to engage the church in such inferior work (relatively speaking) and thus turn the resources of the church into this channel.

The work of benevolence for the church has been greatly over-emphasized. The idea of some seems to be that if we can feed all the hungry, look after all the widows and orphans, build some hospitals, etc., that we can make an impression on the world and convert them to Christ. Efforts along this line have been made in recent years. The work in Germany and Italy was launched through making the church a benevolent society. Clothing and food were sent in abundance; even to the point of requiring several full-time workers to handle the program. Gospel teaching went begging while benevolence took precedence. "Feed and clothe them first, and then preach to them" was the idea. This proved to be a complete failure and the wrong approach. Hundreds came while the food and clothing lasted, but the attendance dwindled to nearly nothing when such stopped. The wrong impression of the church had been instilled in the minds of the people. Here is a truth that needs to burn in the mind of all. Benevolence was never used as a means of introducing the gospel to the people! Benevolence was a fruit of gospel teaching, exemplified in the lives of Christian individuals as they went about doing good.

Church To Care For Its Own

Many are busy trying to burden the church with benevolent obligations that the Lord never bound upon it. It is the obligation of each congregation to care for the needs of its own to the extent of its own ability. This is the limit of the benevolent obligation of the church.

In every passage of scripture concerning the church operating in the field of benevolence, one will find that only Christians (and those who were their obligation) were relieved. When the church acted in the benevolent realm it was to help other Christians who were in want to meet their own obligations. Note the instances:

  1. Acts 2:43-46. Here only "all that believed" were involved.
  2. Acts 6:1-6. We learn here how the Jerusalem church cared for some widows. The context shows that those under consideration were all disciples.
  3. Acts 11:27-30. Here we learn that the disciples sent "relief unto the brethren . . . and sent it to the elders." It does not say or indicate in the least that they sent relief for all the suffering in Judea. Surely if the church was suffering others were also. Was this the proper Christian spirit? These disciples were concerned about their brethren! Was this narrow? Call it what we may, it was God's will. We dare not be presumptuous and go beyond such restriction.
  4. 1 Cor. 16:1-2. "Now concerning the collection for the saints." This collection from other churches was for the benefit of the saints and not all the poor and needy.
  5. 2 Cor. 8:1-4. ". . . ministering to the saints." They were not called upon to minister to the whole world, not even to all in Jerusalem. Neither were the churches called upon to finance the building of some home for the poor in Jerusalem!
  6. 2 Cor. 9:1-5. ". . . as touching the ministering to the saints." This is the same as the one above.
  7. Rom. 16:25-31. ". . . ministering Ito the saints." This has reference to the relief being sent to the Jerusalem church.
  8. 1 Tim. 5:9-16. Here Paul instructs that the church may provide for certain widows — "widows indeed." Certainly this does not embrace all widows for the qualifications of a "widow indeed" are laid down. (9-10.) There is no question but that these widows were all saints.

The only conclusion that can be reached from these passages is that the church is to care for its own when the need arises and to assist other churches meet an emergency in caring for their own. Dare we, brethren, go beyond what is written?

Benevolence Among Saints Limited

The church is even restricted in providing for the saints. The church cannot assume the obligations of the individual. The individual must provide for his own. (1 Tim. 5:8) The church is forbidden to take into the number (provide care for) any but the "widows indeed." (1 Tim. 5:9) Paul positively says: "But the younger widows refuse." ('1 Tim. 5:11) He further forbids that the church be "charged" when there are relatives who can and should provide for those in need. "If any man or woman that believeth have widows, let them relieve them, and let not the church be charged" in such cases. (1 Tim. 5:16) Why this restriction? The church will have all the benevolent work it needs to do in relieving "them that are widows indeed." The church then may provide care for only "widows indeed" — those who are unable to care for themselves and who have no relatives to do so, and for only the dependent and neglected children who are in the same condition! This is a part of sound doctrine and it needs to be taught today. Children without relatives to care for them and who have a right to look to a congregation for that which they are unable to provide for themselves may become the "charge" of the church. Their right to look to a congregation for such depends upon their connection with said church through relatives or association. Unless these restrictions are respected and followed, there is no way to measure the extent of the responsibility of the church in this respect. Besides this if there are no such restrictions, then the churches may throw open the doors to any and all, and exhaust their resources without ever touching "the hem of the garment" in providing the physical needs of all the world!

How To Do Such Work

The question naturally arises, How shall the churches provide the care for those that are their responsibility? This deserves serious study. There should be no need in pointing out that there is but one organization divinely given through which the churches may operate in benevolence or evangelism. That organization is the local congregation! All the work the Lord has assigned to the church can and must be done in and through the divine framework of the local church and under the oversight of the elders. The local church is the largest, the smallest and the only organization the Lord has provided. There is absolutely no authority in the New Testament for such benevolent societies and human institutions as we have today. They had no such in the days of the apostolic church and yet they took care of their benevolent obligations. Moreover, in the New Testament no eldership ever had or assumed the oversight of a benevolent program for more than the congregation in and over which they were elders.

Where is the authority (precept, example or necessary inference) for churches to organize human institutions through which to do their benevolent work? When such is found, the authority will at the same time be found for the formation of human organizations (missionary societies) through which churches may do their evangelistic work. It is as much a lack of faith in the all-sufficiency of the church to argue for the necessity of a brotherhood orphan home as to argue that a missionary society is needed. Since the Lord has not authorized any such institutions, this means there is no need for such. For men to organize such and lead churches to work through such human agencies is to declare by ACT that the church alone is not sufficient to perform the work assigned to it. It means that the divinely-built and divinely-organized church must be supplemented by creations of human wisdom! These institutions undertake the care (as the obligation of the church) of those who are NOT scripturally the burden of the church and in so doing violate the word of God. (1 Tim. 5:1-16) The vast majority of the children in the orphan homes have relatives and others who can and should care for them. The churches should not be "charged" in such cases. The same is true with the majority in the homes for old folks. With respect to those who are "widows indeed" and the dependent and neglected children who are the obligation of churches, let each congregation care for its own. This is scriptural and beyond this we dare not go.

Two Kinds Of Homes

There are two different arrangements in vogue today as pertains to orphan homes. One type is formed and governed by a board of directors; made up of men from various places. This arrangement is in no way connected with any particular local church, but purports to be the work of churches in general; a method by which and through which any and all churches may work.

The other type of home is under a "local eldership." These homes were first incorporated as separate institutions and then placed under an eldership. Some erroneously think this justifies such a human supplement for church operation. The missionary society could be placed under an eldership in the same way.

Fundamentally, there is no basic difference in the two arrangements. Both present a medium for brotherhood action; the activating of the universal church. In the one case it is universal church action through a board of directors. In the other it is the same unscriptural concept of church action through a "local eldership." God did not intend that the "church general" should function through some "local eldership." No set of elders has the scriptural right to undertake and oversee such a work for the brotherhood or any segment of it. This is the "brotherhood institutional" idea — one church doing the work of many churches. It violates the autonomy, as well as the independence and equality of the congregations (as other articles in this series will no doubt establish). The work of elders begins and ends with the congregation in which and over which they are elders. (1 Pet. 5:1-3; Acts 20:28) All such institutions as they exist today are a promoted work — a created need, and, therefore, represent an effort to "help" God.

Methods — Means — Modes

Since we have learned that the benevolent work of the church is to be accomplished by and through the local congregations, each acting independently and in its own capacity, what method shall be used in providing for those in need. The selection of methods, means or modes is left to the discretion of each congregation. There are many ways which a congregation might use to care for the fatherless and widows. The only restrictions are such as have already been pointed out. Here are some suggested ways:

  1. The children might be placed in a private institution that specializes in child care. The church pays the organization for "services rendered," just like when they utilize the services of a hotel in keeping a preacher. The church provides for the children in this way.
  2. The children might be placed in the home of some members and the members paid to care for them.
  3. The church could, if such was deemed wise and necessary, buy a piece of ground; build a house and supply it with the needed equipment; hire the necessary help and place the children in such. This is simply a local church in action — the work of a local church. It is not a human institution in the objectionable sense any more than when the church provides a home for the preacher. This is certainly not a brotherhood project.

In these and perhaps other ways each church can provide for the needs of all for whom they are responsible. Remembering the restrictions and limitations placed upon the church in benevolence, and, also, the fact that the church has a far greater mission to perform the obligations of the church in this realm are not very great and can be handled without any organizations or supplements of human invention.