“Her princes in her midst are roaring lions; Her judges are evening wolves That leave not a bone till morning” (Zephaniah 3:3). With these words the prophet Zephaniah described the heartlessness of the leaders of Judah. They were like ravenous predators rather than caring pastors of the flock and protectors of the weak. Unfortunately, the time of Zephaniah was not unique in Israel’s history. Although the writings of God’s prophets reflect various themes, including moral wickedness and covenant unfaithfulness in general, social injustice is a prominent one. Rather than assist the needy, often the rich and the powerful took every opportunity to mistreat them. A reoccurring thought in the prophetic writings is that religious ritual separated from the daily practice of mercy and justice is of little value (Micah 6:6-8).
The foundation of the prophetic preaching was the Law of Moses. We would expect, then, to find in the Old Law provisions for the protection of the poor, commandments like the prohibition against harvests so thorough that the poor of the land could find nothing afterward (Leviticus 19:9-10). Like so many other laws, the ordinances demanding benevolence find their basis in the need to love one’s neighbor as oneself. The need to practice benevolence is emphasized by many of the regulations of the Old Law which demanded mercy in one form or another.
We are, of course, not responsible to obey the Old Law. However, the emphasis which the Law placed on benevolence is not lacking in the letter of the Law of Christ nor in the examples of the early disciples. When Jesus described the scene of the final judgment, the measure used to separate the two groups (“sheep” and “goats”) was benevolence (Matthew 25:31-46). Jesus was not suggesting that we will be judged only in the matter of benevolence, but he certainly gave importance to that responsibility. James chose an example of benevolence to illustrate the necessity of active faith (James 2:14-17).
The Law of Christ gives explicit instructions to Christians regarding the need to practice benevolence. James described “pure and undefiled religion” as being comprised of two elements: benevolence (“to visit orphans and widows in their trouble”) and personal purity (“to keep oneself unspotted from the world” — 1:27). The apostle Paul wrote that we should take advantage of opportunities to do good (Gal. 6:10).
The early disciples left us examples of their determination to show love and mercy toward one another. Those members of the Jerusalem church who were needy were provided for by other members who had an abundance (Acts 2:44-45; 4:32-37). Later in the history of the first century church, the congregation at Antioch sent aid to their needy brethren in Judea (Acts 11:27-30). The congregation in Jerusalem was unable to help its own needy members on still another occasion and so congregations from Achaia and Macedonia sent aid, as encouraged by the apostle Paul (Romans 15:26; 1 Corinthians 16:1-4; 2 Corinthians 8-9).
A careful reading of the passages which describe the collective benevolence of these congregations will reveal an interesting fact. Whenever Christians pooled their funds for the purpose of benevolence, the object of their benevolence was always other Christians (Acts 4:34-35; 11:29 - “the disciples...determined to send relief to the brethren dwelling in Judea”; Romans 15:26 - “for the poor among the saints”; 1 Corinthians 16:1 - “Now concerning the collection for the saints”; 2 Corinthians 8:4 - “the gift and the fellowship of the ministering to the saints”; 9:1 - “Now concerning the ministering to the saints”; 9:12 - “For the administration of this service not only supplies the needs of the saints,”). Thus we have no example of a first century congregation using its collective funds to help non-Christians. In addition, we have no command which would authorize this practice. Are we forgetting about James 1:27 or Galatians 6:10? Would not these passages authorize congregations to use their collective funds to help non- Christians? Certainly non-Christians are included as recipients of benevolence in these passages. A close study of the context of these verses, however, indicates that the inspired writers were addressing the responsibility of individuals. Note, for instance, the following phrases in James chapter one: verse 19 - “every man”; verse 23 - “anyone...he”; verse 25 - “he who looks...this one”; verse 26 - “anyone among you...this one’s religion”; verse 27 - “to keep oneself unspotted”. The same conclusion can be drawn from the context of Galatians 6.
It would seem reasonable that if the individual Christian is authorized by Scripture to extend benevolence to both saint and non-saint, then groups of Christians, i.e., congregations, could do the same. However, Paul’s instructions to Timothy concerning the support of widows by a congregation contradict this idea. Paul noted that a congregation should “honor” (support) widows with certain qualifications (1 Tim. 5:3-16). A widow with living family members should not be supported by the church; her family should assume the responsibility of her sustenance (vs. 4, 8, 16). It would appear that, while individual Christians are commanded to extend benevolence toward widows and orphans (Jam. 1:27), some restrictions apply to the benevolence which a congregation may extend. Clearly we cannot conclude that the responsibility of the individual is the same as that of the congregation. As noted early in this article, the anger of the Lord is aroused by those who display a lack of compassion for the needy. May we fulfill our benevolence responsibilities on both an individual and a congregational level.