By Keith Sharp
Truth is the reasonable course between extremes. This old cliche, while not an inspired safeguard against error, is certainly a general truism. In the church of Christ today there are two opposite extremes being taken toward church finances. Both of these radical positions stem from a failure to recognize the divine pattern for church finances. I believe inspired truth is to be discovered about mid-way between these poles.
On the one hand, with examples so numerous I will not burden you with their repetition, many avowed churches of Christ have begun using denominational methods of raising money for congregational endeavors. Selling tickets to dinners, seminars and even movies are becoming fairly common. In this and other regards, such churches directly parallel the movement to denominational status of the Christian Church in the 19th century. In the 1800’s
. . . a portion of the church made a transition in the last half of the century from s system of fund-gathering by weekly contributions to more organized methods. The change was typical of the denominational evolution taking place In the church… (David E. Harrell, Jr., The Social Sources Of Division In The Disciples Of Christ 1865-1900, p. 62)
A century later “progressive” churches of Christ follow belatedly along.
On the other hand, some members of the Lord’s church deny the very necessity of a contribution to the local church each first day of the week. In an article written specifically to debunk the idea of a binding pattern of Lord’s day public collections, one brother demanded:
How can it be dogmatically said that a weekly pooling of funds is a FACT taught in 1 Cor. 16:1, 2? (Donald W. Trash, “Lay By Him In Store: A Study of 1 Corinthians 16:1, 2,” Sentinel of Truth, May, 1970).
I believe the truth lies between these extremes. In this study we will seek to answer the inquiry: Did first century churches have regular Lord’s day contributions?
From the very beginning of the church of Christ on Pentecost following the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, public collections were a regular activity of local churches. “And all that believed were together, and had all things common” (Acts 2:44). A “treasury” is “the place of deposit and disbursement of collected funds. . . the funds. . . kept or held to be kept in such a depository (Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, unabridged, p. 2434). Thus, in having “all things common,” the Jerusalem church, from the very’ beginning, had a treasury.
This practice of gathering individual funds into a public treasury for the collective work of the congregation continued, without revealed interruption, throughout the first century (Acts 4:32-37; 5:1-11; 11:27-30; Rom. 15:25-28; 1 Cor. 16:1-4; 2 Cor. 8 and 9). There are those who have contended with me, in private conversation, that a congregation could conceivably exist scripturally for years with no treasury and no collection. This not only contradicts the examples and commands we just cited but also violates the nature and work of the local congregation.
A local church of Christ is simply a group of disciples of Christ in a given locality who agree to worship God together on a regular basis and to do God’s work collectively (cf. Acts 2:44-46). New Testament congregations worked through the planned use of collected funds (cf. Phil. 4:14-18). These principles being true, without a treasury and a collection, Christians violate the very nature of the local church and do no work as a church.
From a practical viewpoint, would you want to be a member of a congregation that did no work at all? How can a church do a scriptural, collective work without a treasury compiled through a Lord’s day contribution? Those who would fail to give on the first day of the week , or who hold back some of what they might have contributed either are refusing to give to the Lord’s work altogether or claim to have superior wisdom to the elders of the church in selecting spiritual uses for such funds. Is either attitude pleasing to God?
The only passage which details the “how” and “when” of this collection is 1 Cor. 16:1-2. It says, “Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I have given order to the churches of Galatia, even so do ye. Upon the first day of the week let every one of you lay by him in store, as God hath prospered him, that there be no gatherings when I come.”
Paul did not merely make a suggestion in this passage. This contribution was a command. He declared, “as I have given order to the churches of Galatia, even so do ye.” The term “given order” means “to appoint, arrange, charge, give orders to” (W.E. Vine, An Expository Dictionary Of New Testament Words, III, 145, so J.H. Thayer, A Greek English Lexicon Of The New Testament, p. 142); “order, direct, command” (W.F. Arndt and F.W. Gingrich, A Greek English Lexicon Of The New Testament, p. 188). Cf. Lk. 17:9-10; Acts 18:2; 23:1; 1 Cor. 7:17.
Some argue that this collection could not be a command since it is a matter of free will.
Would not the requirement to give be in contradiction to: Acts 5:4; 11:29; 2 Cor. 8, 9? Does not God provide us with opportunity and leave us free to determine if, when, and how much we give?” (Trask, Ibid).
Obedience to the Gospel is of one’s own free will (Rev. 22:17). Is obedience to the Gospel commanded? Old Testament “free will” offerings were commanded (Ex. 35:4-9; Deut. 16:10-11). God commands a first day of the week contribution. We exercise free will in determining whether or not to obey and how liberally to give.
Does this passage authorize a collection for purposes other than the relief of needy saints? Most assuredly the local church has a collective work to do in addition to the work of individual Christians (1 Tim. 5:16). This includes the use of its resources to provide for edification (Heb. 10:24-25; 1 Tim. 5:17-18) and evangelism (Phil. 4:14-18), as well as the relief of needy saints. The passage before us is the only one in the New Testament which specifies how the resources for that collective work are to be raised, and it thus constitutes the New Testament pattern on how the local congregation can raise its funds.
A great number of lexicons and commentaries, in discussing 1 Cor. 16:2, assert that “lay by him in store” means to “put aside at home something from his weekly earnings” (The Abingdon Bible Commentary, p. 1194, as quoted by Trask). Several translations render the wording in agreement with this position. Thus, we are told, 1 Cor. 16:1-4 has no reference to a congregational collection, but only to a private saving.
This position is neither supported nor contradicted by the Greek. It is a matter of Biblical interpretation. When a lexicon of accepted quality defines a word, that carries significant weight. When it gives the opinion of the author on the use of a word in a particular context, it is acting as a human commentary and carries no more weight than any other human opinion. Noted scholars can be quoted on both sides of this question.
However, I believe the context destroys the “private savings” position. If this were something to be done at home, why were they to perform this act on the “first day of the week” (v. 2), the very day the saints assembled to commemorate the Lord’s death (Acts 20:7)? If no public contributions were being made, would this not necessitate a special collection for the needy saints when Paul arrived in Corinth, the very thing he sought to avoid (v. 2)?
The apostle’s meaning is, that every first day of the week each of the Corinthians was to separate, from the gains of the preceding week, such a sum as he could spare, and put it into the treasury; that there might be no occasion to make collections when the apostle came (James MacKnight, Apostolical Epistles, p. 208).
The term “lay by” teaches stewardship giving. In this collection we are laying up treasures in Heaven (Matt. 6:19-21). The word “himself” along with “every one of you” emphasizes the individual responsibility of each Christian to so give.
How often was this contribution taken? The apostle simply stated, “Upon the first day of the week.” The literal translation of the phrase is “Every one of a week” meaning “On the first day of every week” (Alfred Marshall, The Interlinear Greek-English New Testament, p. 704). As regularly as the first day of the week arrived, such a collection was to take place. Was this to be done in the assembly? Why else would the first day of the week, the day when all Christians assemble, be specified as the time for the collection? How else would such a congregational collection be carried out? I believe the passage necessarily implies the collection took place in the assembly.
Therefore, I conclude that the New Testament evidence warrants these conclusions. Churches of Christ in apostolic times had treasuries and regular collections. At least by the time the apostle Paul wrote the first letter to Corinth (ca. 55 or 56 A.D.), the divinely commanded practice was a public contribution of the members of the local church each first day of the week.
This constitutes the New Testament pattern of church finances. Local congregations should solicit funds in no other way. Individual Christians are obligated to give as they have been prospered each first day of the week into the treasury of the church that the work of the church might go forth. This is the truth between extremes. Let us diligently follow this God ordained rule.
Truth Magazine XXII: 1, pp. 8-10
January 5, 1978