The Law of Christ gives explicit instructions to Christians regarding the need to practice benevolence. James described "pure and undefiled religion" as being comprised of two elements: benevolence ("to visit orphans and widows in their trouble") and personal purity ("to keep oneself unspotted from the world" -- 1:27). The apostle Paul wrote that we should take advantage of opportunities to do good (Gal. 6:10).
The early disciples left us examples of their determination to show love and mercy toward one another. Those members of the Jerusalem church who were needy were provided for by other members who had an abundance (Acts 2:44-45; 4:32-37). Later in the history of the first century church, the congregation at Antioch sent aid to their needy brethren in Judea (Acts 11:27-30). The congregation in Jerusalem was unable to help its own needy members on still another occasion and so congregations from Achaia and Macedonia sent aid, as encouraged by the apostle Paul (Romans 15:26; 1 Corinthians 16:1-4; 2 Corinthians 8-9).
A careful reading of the passages that describe the collective benevolence of these congregations will reveal an interesting fact. Whenever Christians pooled their funds for the purpose of benevolence, the object of their benevolence was always other Christians (Acts 4:34-35; 11:29 - "the disciples...determined to send relief to the brethren dwelling in Judea"; Romans 15:26 - "for the poor among the saints"; 1 Corinthians 16:1 - "Now concerning the collection for the saints"; 2 Corinthians 8:4 - "the gift and the fellowship of the ministering to the saints"; 9:1 - "Now concerning the ministering to the saints"; 9:12 - "For the administration of this service not only supplies the needs of the saints,"). Thus we have no example of a first century congregation using its collective funds to help non-Christians. In addition, we have no command that would authorize this practice. Are we forgetting about James 1:27 or Galatians 6:10? Would not these passages authorize congregations to use their collective funds to help non- Christians? Certainly non-Christians are included as recipients of benevolence in these passages. A close study of the context of these verses, however, indicates that the inspired writers were addressing the responsibility of individuals. Note, for instance, the following phrases in James chapter one: verse 19 - "every man"; verse 23 - "anyone...he"; verse 25 - "he who looks...this one"; verse 26 - "anyone among you...this one's religion"; verse 27 - "to keep oneself unspotted". The same conclusion can be drawn from the context of Galatians 6.
It would seem reasonable
that if the individual Christian is authorized by Scripture to extend
benevolence to both saint and non-saint, then groups of Christians, i.e.,
congregations, could do the same. However, Paul's instructions to Timothy
concerning the support of widows by a congregation contradict this idea.
Paul noted that a congregation should "honor" (support) widows with
certain qualifications (1 Tim. 5:3-16). A widow with living family members
should not be supported by the church; her family should assume the
responsibility of her sustenance (vs. 4, 8, 16). It would appear that,
while individual Christians are commanded to extend benevolence toward
widows and orphans (Jam. 1:27), some restrictions apply to the benevolence
which a congregation may extend. Clearly we cannot conclude that the
responsibility of the individual is the same as that of the congregation.
As noted early in this article, the anger of the Lord is aroused by those
who display a lack of compassion for the needy. May we fulfill our
benevolence responsibilities on both an individual and a congregational