Alms, Ante and Independence

By Robert F. Turner

Many churches that claim to believe in congregational independence, plan “their work” (?) on the basis of funding from a number of contributing churches. As sponsoring churches they plan to exercise oversight of some project on behalf of contributing churches (who also claim to be independent). We believe the principles of congregational independence are being violated by both the sponsoring and the sending churches. An “independent” church is “not dependent” on oversight or contributions from outside sources to carry out its divinely assigned functions. It “has a competency” as the dictionary says. But to understand “independence” (meaning “not dependent”) we must know the means of determining when a church is “dependent,” and to this we turn our attention.

If some family should claim to be “in want” and ask assistance, how would you determine the validity of this claim? If they had adequate housing, food, clothing, necessary medical attention, etc., would you say they were dependent? To illustrate let us use a simple dollar basis (not necessarily geared to the present economy). If the basic needs for the family were $50 per day, and the family had an income of $150 per day, would they be “in want”? Of course not. On the other hand, if the family income was only $25 per day, they would clearly be “dependent” on outside assistance to maintain themselves. Note, a condition fo “want” (do not confuse with the verb “desire”) is determined in relation to needs for the essentials of life and maintenance, the means of sustenance. And what is true regarding a family, is true in principle regarding a church.

In 2 Corinthians 8:13-14 Paul says, “For I say not this that others may be eased and ye distressed; but by equality your abundance being a supply at this present time for their want, that their abundance also may become a supply for your want; (should these conditions be reversed at some future time, rft) that there may be equality.” The two terms “want” and “abundance” are obvious extremes. The “equality” that is between these terms is freedom from want, or sufficiency, adequacy, or the like. Paul evidently had in mind the condition of want that existed in Jerusalem, the “poor saints” of Romans 15:26; and he had urged the collection of “alms” (Acts 24:17) by which this “want” could be relieved. To put this in terms of our dollar illustration, a church that needed $500 for self maintenance, but had only $300, would be an object of charity or alms. If the church had $500 it would have a sufficiency and would not be in want. If it had $700 it would have an abundance. It is just that simple.

Of course the next step is to determine the basic needs of a local church. It must have a sufficiency for what? The answer requires a clear distinction in self maintenance (that which is essential to its existence), and those things it does to meet its world obligations. Under “self maintenance” would be its worship, self edification, and the physical needs of its own members; and under “world obligations,” its duty to preach the word to every creature, and assist needy saints and churches elsewhere. This separation of functions is necessary because only self maintenance needs can be used to determine if a church has a “sufficiency” to function. No church can meet all world needs: do the total world teaching job or relieve all needy churches and saints. In this field no local church can be adequate, all would be sadly lacking. World obligations can only be met to the extent of the ability of an independent church. This is an extremely important point.

There is divine approval for churches sending to another church to relieve its condition of want. We can see from Acts 2:44-45, 4:34-37, and 6:1-4 that the early church in Jerusalem had difficulty in caring for its own needy saints. This initial condition may have resulted from conversion of many who had come for the Jewish Passover and Pentecost (2:5-11). A famine added to their need (Acts 11:27-30) and brethren in Antioch sent relief in care of the elders of Judea, including Jerusalem (12:25). The condition continued (Rom. 15:25-27) and Paul urged churches to supply this need (1 Cor. 16:1-3), ministering to the saints (2 Cor. 8:9). Alms were sent, to a church or churches, who were dependent unable to meet their own needs for self maintenance. We must not confuse alms with ante. Evidence does not warrant the assumption that these churches pooled their funds in an independent church, under sponsoring elders, for some “brotherhood” (churchhood) project.

Saints pool their funds in a local church treasury. To play a bit on words, they “ante up,” each putting his part into a common fund. In so doing they give up independent use of the funds contributed and that money is now one means by which the collectivity functions. Legally, I believe it belongs to the purpose for which it was given, and church overseers hold it in trust. When money is given for divinely authorized work it must be used as nearly as possible (cy pres) in conformity with that intent. It is administered by the team’s overseers for the team’s work. God has authorized team activity on the part of saints (Phil. 4:15; 2 Cor. 11:8; 1 Tim. 5:16; etc.), but this is the extent of church organization. There is no divine authority for churches to pool their funds, and no authority for overseers of such a conglomeration.

Alms giving is the work of the giver, done under the giver’s oversight. In alms giving the end or purpose is achieved in relief of the dependent recipient. But in the pooling of funds (ante) the givers form a means of acting collectively toward an end or purpose yet to be achieved. When contributing churches put this means at the disposal of a “sponsoring church,” they give up their independent use of those funds, and entrust the “sponsoring elders” with the oversight of achieving some future purpose. Clearly alms and ante are distinctly different, and Scriptures that warrant churches giving alms to a dependent church can not justify churches “anteing up” (pooling) funds in the treasury of an independent church.

When churches become units in something larger that one church, they approach the organizational essence of denominationalism. One definition of “denomination” given in Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary is: “. . . 3; a religious organization uniting in a single legal and administrative body a number of congregations.” Methodists have their “Conference,” Lutherans their “Synod,” Baptists, their “Association. ” While all differ, they have one thing in common: they provide the means for collective action of churches. Funds from many churches are pooled under some form of executive board, and used on behalf of the “team” of churches. We know that few institutional brethren acknowledge a denominational status, but the problem is more than “what this may lead to. ” Brotherhood (churchhood) benevolent, evangelistic and edifying projects violate the principle of congregational sufficiency, and embrace the essence of denominational organization. Brethren, it is later than you think.

Guardian of Truth XXXIII: 20, pp. 613-614
October 19, 1989