In the Acts of the Apostles, where we have the historical account of the foundation and development of the church from its early beginning in Jerusalem until there were many local assemblies planted in the main centres of the Roman Empire, it is remarkable how little is said about how the work was supported financially. There must have been considerable expense in the extensive journeys of the apostle Paul and his fellow-workers, yet the subject is scarcely mentioned. This is in startling contrast to present day high pressure advertising and the strident appeals for large sums of money to carry on certain phases of the work of God. Paul tells us that the church at Philippi sent once and again to supply his needs, Phil. 4. 15-16, but we do not read that the church at Antioch which commended him to the work ever sent him any financial help.
Our Lord, both in His teaching and in His parables in the Gospels, has a lot to say about money and the relationship of His disciples to it. They were to regard themselves as stewards and not as proprietors of the material things in their possession. When we come to the Epistles, we find the development of this basic teaching. The early believers, with some exceptions, were mostly poor in material things but rich in faith. Then, as now, it is often those who have the least of this world’s goods that give the most. Of the Macedonian believers, we are told that “in a great trial of affliction the abundance of their joy and their deep poverty abounded unto the riches of their liberality”, 2 Cor. 8. 2.
The two Corinthian letters are our chief source of information as to how the early churches financed the various activities in which they were engaged. We are told that on the first day of the week, which obviously was the day on which the whole church was accustomed to meet together, each one was to lay by him in store as God had prospered him, 1 Cor. 16. 1-2. There was no coercion or compulsion; the motive was love and the sense of responsibility in returning to God what He had bestowed. 1 Corinthians 9 lays down the principles concerning the support of labourers in the Gospel and 2 Corinthians 8-9 give teaching on specific needs such as helping suffering saints under famine conditions.
In these Pastoral Epistles we have a number of supplementary instructions concerning this important theme. At least four items are dealt with:
Teaching Concerning the Use and Abuse of Riches,
1 Tim. 6. 6-19. Many years ago., William Kelly, at a Bible reading in Dr. Cronin’s house, suggested that this chapter about riches is addressed
(i) At the beginning, to those who haven’t them.
(ii) At the end, to those who have them.
(iii) In between, to the man of God in relation to both.
The former are warned against those who suppose that gain is godliness, but in contrast are told that godliness with contentment is great gain. The rich are exhorted to “do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to distribute, willing to communicate; laying up in store for themselves a good foundation against the time to come”, vv. 18-19. Timothy is warned about men who “will be rich” and also against the love of money. He is told to “flee these things; and to follow after righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, meekness",, v. 11.
The Relief of Needy and Destitute Widows, 1 Tim. 5. 3-16. In the Old Testament God is the Judge of the widow, Ps. 68. 5. Mosaic law pronounced a curse on those that afflicted the widow, Deut. 27. 19. Luke in his Gospel mentions a number of widows, always sympathetically. James 1. 27 says, “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”.
The Jews had an established fund in the temple for the relief of widows and orphans. When widows who had been receiving support from the temple were converted and became Christians, this support was naturally cut off and the early church became responsible for caring for them. Acts 6 describes the procedure and the murmuring that arose concerning alleged partiality in its administration. The story of Dorcas in Acts 9 illustrates that widows as a class were prominent in other Christian communities. In 1 Timothy 5 Paul gives directions as to the class of persons worthy of such relief. Out of the body of widows a certain number were listed, the qualifications being:
i. That they were not under sixty years of age. ii. That they had been the wife of one man, probably meaning that they had been but once married, iii. That they had lived useful and charitable lives, w. 9-10.
The main idea seems to be that they were really destitute and deserving and that there were no immediate relatives to care for them.
We can be thankful today, that in many parts of the world, there is a real exercise about the care of God’s aged saints. This is seen in the number of eventide homes where dedicated men and women have given themselves to this very necessary work. They deserve the prayerful interest and financial support both of individuals and assemblies.
Those who Labour in the Word and Doctrine, 1 Tim. 5. 17-18. “Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine”, v. 17. While the word “elder’ used in verse 17 usually means an elder in the local assembly, in this context it could denote a wider sphere, that of a leader who moved about in the ministry of the Word. Again, while the word “honour” has the meaning of respect, yet it also has the connotation of financial support. This is borne out by what immediately follows in verse 18 and also by the fact that, in the case of widows, the honour due to them was linked with material support, vv. 3-4. This is possibly the meaning of double honour, both the esteem in which they should be held and also that they are not allowed to suffer material need. A literal rendering of the text would be: Let the elders who are good leaders be counted worthy of twofold recognition, especially they who work hard at preaching and teaching. The word “labour” means to work hard, toil, grow weary, and is the same word used in Luke 5. 5, “Master, we have toiled all the night, and have taken nothing”. This would naturally refer to the shepherd-teacher, who gives much or all of his time to this work. The passage does not give any encouragement to a one-man salaried pastorate, as some would interpret it. Such a functionary is foreign to the spirit and teaching of the New Testament; see 1 Tim. 3. 3; 1 Pet. 5. 2.
Travelling Servants of God, Titus 3. 13. “Bring Zenas the lawyer and Apollos on their journey diligently, that nothing be wanting unto them.” It is possible that Zenas the lawyer was a business or professional brother, while Apollos was a full-time servant of God. But one of the good works of the Christians in Crete was to see that they lacked nothing in carrying on the work in which they were engaged. Zenas and Apollos are representative of many of God’s honoured servants today, who, to serve the saints and minister to their spiritual needs, undertake expensive and tiring journeys. The true servant of God looks to God alone for the supply of his material needs and never mentions or hints at finances, but on the other hand, it is the responsibility of assemblies and the Lord’s stewards to act intelligently about the distribution of funds and not be influenced unduly by every strident appeal that comes their way.