The Church's Work of Benevolence
Christ is the builder (Matthew 16:18), head (Ephesians 1:22-23; 5:23), and purchaser of the church (Acts 20:28). Since Christ built, purchased, and is head over the church, He determines what sort of work the church ought to engage in. If we are going to make sure we do all things, “in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Colossians 3:17, NKJV), we have to make sure we have His authority for the work the church is engaged in.
The primary focus of the church is the spreading of the gospel. We can see this from the fact the church is described as, “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15, NKJV). The apostles refused to be distracted from the primary work of teaching the word by other aspects of the church’s work (Acts 6:2-4). As we consider the work of the church in the realm of benevolence, we need to not allow the church’s benevolent work to lead us to neglect the important work of teaching the gospel.
The church from its very beginning was involved in benevolent work (Acts 2:44-45). Benevolence is obviously an approved part of the church’s work. When it comes to the church’s work in the realm of benevolence, it is obvious there must be some limit to it or it could consume all the resources and energy of the Lord’s church (Mark 14:7). Part of the pattern we observe as we examine how the Lord’s church engaged in this work of benevolence is that the benevolence was limited to needy saints. Acts 2:44-45 makes it plain we are talking about, “all who believed” (NKJV). Acts 4:32 speaks about, “the multitude of those who believed” (NKJV), having all things in common. Acts 4:34-37 speaks about, “nor was there anyone among them who lacked” (NKJV), because brethren were making sure their needs were being met. Acts 6:1 describes how some widows among the number of the disciples were being neglected in the daily distribution. Acts 11:29-30 tells about how the church at Antioch sent aid to help, “the brethren dwelling in Judea” (NKJV), in a time of famine. A famine would not only impact the brethren in Judea but all the people in Judea and yet the church’s collective work of benevolence was limited to caring for needy brethren. Paul describes a collection he was taking to needy saints in Jerusalem and yet it is plain this aid was limited to the saints in Jerusalem (Romans 15:25-27; 1 Corinthians 16:1-4; 2 Corinthians 8:4; 9:1, 12). Paul taught Timothy certain needy widows among the saints could be cared for on an ongoing basis by the church (1 Timothy 5:3-16). Sadly many people in the world view the church as a benevolent agency for anyone who has some sort of material need. Christ did not establish the church though to be an aid society for all the needy in the world. Such is simply not the mission of the church. When churches get involved in such works, they are becoming distracted from their God-given work of evangelism, edification, and limited benevolence.
As our area has recently experienced a hurricane which has brought damage to people’s homes, disrupted their lives, etc. I have noticed denominations and churches claiming to be the church of Christ engaged in helping these needy individuals as a collective. I saw people from the church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints or Mormons who came and were helping remove debris. I saw where the Jasper church of Christ had something like a church of Christ disaster relief group come and hand out supplies to people who were in need. It is good for people as individuals to help whoever they find who is in need as they have ability and opportunity (Luke 10:25-37; Galatians 6:10). However, such is not part of the work God has given to the church as a collective. 1 Timothy 5:16 makes it plain there is a distinction in the realm of benevolence between what an individual can do and what the church is authorized by God to do. When people engage in a work which God has not authorized (such as the church giving benevolence to all the needy in the world), they are not truly involved in a good work. Those things which are good works are authorized by the scriptures (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
Many people engaged in these activities are certainly proud of all the good they accomplished. Yet I am reminded of what Jesus said in Matthew 7:21-23. He said, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your names, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’” (NKJV). Sadly many people think they are doing great things in service to God but really are engaged in lawlessness because they are doing things for which there is no authority.