What did the church in the New Testament era do with its money? Mostly, it used it to feed and care for the poor in its midst. It didn’t build buildings or buy works or art. It didn’t run publicity campaigns or programs of any sort. It didn’t lobby the Roman Senate. In general, when the church took an offering or accepted gifts, the purpose was to support the needy.
The Local Congregation
The church’s tradition of caring for its poor began on the very first day of its existence. Starting on the day of Pentecost, believers “sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.” (Acts 2:45). Acts 4 says the same thing with slightly different words.
For there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales and lay them at the apostles’ feet, and they would be distributed to each as any had need. Acts 4:34-35
By Acts 6, the care of the poor was becoming institutionalized. As the church grew larger, so did the number of those needing care, and that caused some arguments about whether everyone was being treated fairly. As a result of the need to address this problem, a new office of the church was born.
So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.” Acts 6:2-4
The first differentiation of roles within the church, then, took place in order to provide for the feeding of the poor. Following the tradition of the church, we’ll call these table supervisors “deacons”, even though that word comes from the letters of Paul and not from the Book of Acts.
By the time that 1 Timothy was written, the task of caring for the poor had grown so large that it also needed some rules. If a widow had a family, for example, the family should care for her so that the church’s resources might be available for those in greater need. Similarly, younger widows should marry if they have the opportunity. If a widow really needed the the church’s support, she would get it, but the church also had the right to expect certain behaviors from those receiving aid. (1 Timothy 5:3-16). What began as a spontaneous and informal outpouring of love became formalized and regulated when the church grew larger.
The Global Church
Caring for the church’s poor was not purely a local matter. After the church began to move out of Jersualem into the world,
Some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. One of them, named Agabus, stood up and through the Spirit predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world. (This happened during the reign of Claudius.) The disciples, as each one was able, decided to provide help for the brothers and sisters living in Judea. This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul. Acts 11:27-30
Paul continually solicited offerings from the churches of Asia and Europe to help the members of the impoverished church at Jerusalem. In writing to the Galatians, Paul said that the Jerusalem elders “only asked us to remember the poor—the very thing I also was eager to do.” (Galatians 2:10). The offering for Jerusalem’s poor would help bring Gentiles and Jews together in the church of Jesus Christ.
Just as Paul asked the Galatians to take a collection for the poor, so he asked others.
Now about the collection for the Lord’s people: Do what I told the Galatian churches to do. On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with your income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made. Then, when I arrive, I will give letters of introduction to the men you approve and send them with your gift to Jerusalem. 1 Corinthians 16:1-3.
The earliest mention of a regular Sunday offering, then, is related solely to helping the poor and hungry of Jerusalem. Paul follows up on this topic in 2 Corinthians 8-9, two full chapters devoted to contributions by God’s people, for God’s people in need.
It’s also worth noting that Paul considered this offering so important that he risked his life to bring it to Jerusalem, where he was such a controversial figure that his presence incited violence. Paul was arrested, and in his trial before Felix he stated stated the purpose for of his mission.
After an absence of several years, I came to Jerusalem to bring my people gifts for the poor and to present offerings. Acts 24:17
Paul’s trip to Jerusalem began as an act of charity for the poor, but it eventually led him to a Roman prison.
Support of the Clergy
The church also supported its clergy and its missionaries, but that activity also really fell under the category of “caring for the poor.” In 1 Timothy 5, for example, the requirement to provide for the church’s elders follows immediately after a discussion of caring for widows.
Caring for the clergy was caring for the poor. In the New Testament era, being the leader of the church wasn’t a profession; rather, it often required one to forego ordinary employment. When Paul thanks the Philippians for its financial gift in Philippians 4, he says that he knows how to be content whether he is well fed or hungry, living in plenty or in want. While Paul provided for his own support for most of his career, he wrote the Philippian letter from prison. Without the Philippians’ financial support, he would have been on the “hungry” side of equation.
What about Today?
Helping the poor in their midst was so important to early Christians that they sacrificed their own comfort and even risked death to help those in need. They institutionalized care for the poor through the establishment of a permanent diaconate and a regular Sunday offering to insure that this work went on. The created rules to ensure that the offering was (as far as possible) fairly distributed and sustainable. This is what they did with their money.
I make this observation, not so that we can go back to the good old days, but so that we can learn from them. Buildings are useful for the church, as are the other things that money can buy. It takes money to educate clergy, and the members of the clergy want to be able to provide for their families. There are a lot of things that the church does with its money that glorify God and make a difference people’s lives. I think the church has both the freedom and the responsibility to make decisions in this area. Whatever else the church does with its money, though, if it is not caring for its poorer members, it is not following the example of its earliest forebears.