(Continuation of Part 2)
We have learned till now how the poor and needy were on the priority list of the early church’s financial budget. The book of Acts reveals how some believers gave up even their property to help the needy (Acts 4:32ff). But is there place in the church’s finance to support Christian servant leaders? Of course, there is! Although the money in the early church was used primarily to help the poor and needy, giving priority to those within the family of God, there are few exhortations which speak about assisting Christian leaders too. Those who give themselves to the extensive ministry of the Word and labor in expanding His Kingdom are worthy of generous support. Let us look at the following Scriptures:
• 1 Corinthians 9:14 - In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel. (Said within the context of the rights of an apostle)
• Gal. 6:6 - Anyone who receives instruction in the word must share all good things with his instructor. (Of course, this text is debated among biblical scholars whether it refers to sharing monetary things with the instructors. The language isn’t readily apparent, leaving room for different opinions)
• 3 John 5-8 – Dear friend, you are faithful in what you are doing for the brothers, even though they are strangers to you. They have told the church about your love. You will do well to send them on their way in a manner worthy of God. It was for the sake of the Name that they went out, receiving no help from the pagans. We ought therefore to show hospitality to such men so that we may work together for the truth. (cf. Tit. 3:13-14) (Written about traveling evangelists and apostles)
• 1 Timothy 5:17 - The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching. (Spoken about the shepherds of the church)
Now, let us come to the issue about how the early churches, although generally lacking affluence, were able give so much priority to the poor and needy people, without neglecting to support the laborious preachers and teachers of the word. There are two reasons why this was possible:
First, the early church gathered as small communities in a simple, informal structure, like a house (Acts 2:46; 8:3; 12:5, 12; 16:40; 20:7-8; Rom. 16:3,5; 1 Cor. 16:19; Col. 4:15; Phm.1-2; 2 Jn. 10). There was no huge investment for buying properties and constructing buildings for church gathering, including for its maintenance. In fact, they sold their property and gave to the needy people rather than taking money from people to acquire property.
It is a well known fact of our day that most of the church’s money is spent in constructing buildings and maintaining them rather than meeting the needs of the poor and missions. I appreciate those few churches, besides investing in buildings and salaries, giving generously to help the needy. But I am sad at those many churches that neglect the poor, needy and missions, and just increase the offerings in their bank account month after month and spend for structures than to support people. I am also troubled by those leaders who emphasize to believers on bringing tithes unto them while ignoring to motivate them to help the needy and to support missions.
Well, keeping all these troubles and sad examples aside, isn’t it still a good model to gather as small communities in an informal structure, like in a spacious house, or in an economical rented place, or build a simple hall, and use money for better purposes? The commentators of Life Application Bible Commentary of Mark, warned, “If our churches spend large amounts on their physical buildings and ignore missions, evangelism, and CARE FOR THE POOR, they will likewise come under God’s judgment” (Brue B. Baton, et.al., - Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1994, 319)
Secondly, it is important to note that in the early church there were primarily two kinds of ministries— itinerant and local ministry. Gordon Fee, a highly respected New Testament scholar and commentator, points out that leadership in the New Testament was generally of two kinds – itinerant and local. (Listening to the Spirit in the Text (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1959, 141)
The itinerant teachers, evangelists and church planters were constantly on the move and therefore required help from the churches. But the local church leaders who were settled in their own locale, known as elders or pastors, were generally bi-vocational, which means, shepherding the church as a volunteer with another occupation to support themselves. To these local leaders, Paul exhorted, “You yourselves know that these hands of mine have supplied my own needs and the needs of my companions. In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: 'It is more blessed to give than to receive.” (Acts 20:34-35)
Of course, Paul did say in 1 Tim. 5:17, “The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work (literally in Greek, 'labor,' i.e. work until exhaustion) is preaching and teaching.” There are workers, though not all, in the body of Christ who labor extensively in preaching and teaching and such laborers ought to be helped by the church (we need to think whether giving a sermon on Sunday with few activities during the week is truly what labor is in ministry?). But to claim that whosoever aspires to lead a church must resign from his job and be completely dependent on the church for his sustenance is something not known or taught in the New Testament Scriptures.
Jackson W. Carroll, Professor Emeritus of Religion and Society at Duke University Divinity School, notes, “Christianity has a long tradition of bivocational pastoral leadership… Indeed, most pastoral leaders in the early church were bivocational.” (God's Potters: Pastoral Leadership and the Shaping of Congregations (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2006, 79)
Well-known author of Understanding and Applying the Bible, Robertson McQuilkin, implies that one reason why the early church gave more to help the poor and also to support missions is that there were no church buildings and the local ministers were bivocational. (Five Smooth Stones: Essentials Principes for Biblical Ministry (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2007, 139). Space would not be sufficient to provide plethora of evidences on how the early local church leaders were practicing bi-vocational church ministry.
Well, what is the point I am trying to make? I am in no way condemning the traditional practice of church buildings and salaried local shepherds. My whole concern is how best we can use the resources of God—in helping the poor and needy, supporting itinerant teachers and missionaries and also helping those few local church leaders who labor in preaching and teaching—by practicing the simple, yet efficient, model of the early church.
One of the best contemporary models I have seen and studied are the churches planted by Dr. Joy David. He is a native of India, born and brought up in the state of Kerala. He had done his PhD in Engineering and while working as a professor in a university, he felt the leading of God to commit himself to missionary work. He took voluntary retirement service and gave himself to planting churches and building them since twenty three years. He, along with his team, had planted some good churches, especially in south India, and raised many leaders. I am glad to know him personally and am blessed through his exemplary lifestyle.
Unlike many I have witnessed, it is amazing to see how the churches Dr. Joy David had planted are faithful stewards of God’s resources. The churches generally gather in simple structures, as small communities, and follow the NT pattern of plural leadership. With very few being in full-time preaching and teaching, most of the local leaders are bi-vocational. Therefore, all the money that comes to these churches are used to help the needy, missions, the orphans, and also to support itinerant workers….etc. Since the believers know how carefully and generously the money is spent to meet the appropriate needs, thousands of rupees from all the churches are given every month as love offerings, even without any emphasis of giving from the leaders.
May the Lord plant such charity-mission-centered churches that would use its finances in a way God honored in His word!
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