Is a Church Obligated to Support Mission Work?
"A missionary was recently passing through our area. He called to ask a local preacher whether he might be able to make a presentation regarding his work to the congregation. The preacher told him that at this time they were not taking on any mission work. The missionary asked if he could simply inform the congregation of his mission work without making any appeal for monetary support, and perhaps in the future, when they were in better financial condition, they might possibly consider his effort. The preacher abruptly declined.
“Assuming that the missionary is faithful in doctrine and practice, is this a spiritual response? Is there a general, biblical obligation for ‘churches’ to help others, especially by supporting the preaching of the gospel in other places?”
We usually do not comment on specific problems in various places. It is impossible to know all of the facts surrounding certain events. And it is impossible to know what is in the hearts of those involved.
We can, however, address some general biblical principles. It will be up to individuals or congregations to make the appropriate application where needed. Such is the case with this question.
The Great Commission
In Matthew 28:19-20, the Lord instructed his disciples to:
“Go ye therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in to the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I commanded you: and lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.”
Again, in Mark 16:15:
“And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to the whole creation.”
Similar words of Christ are recorded in Luke 24:47 and in Acts 1:8.
Christ’s commands are not unclear. His disciples’ primary objective is to spread the gospel to every human being they possibly can reach. Any resistance to fulfilling this mission is a hindrance to the cause of Christ.
The Example of the Early Church
It is important to look at the application of this principle in the lives of the first century church, especially as they were being guided directly by Christ, through the Holy Spirit and his apostles.
We have a direct example of the mission work principle in Acts chapter 13.
“Now there were at Antioch, in the church that was there, prophets and teachers, Barnabas, and Symeon that was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen the foster-brother of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. And as they ministered to the Lord, and fasted, the Holy Spirit said, Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them. Then, when they had fasted and prayed and laid their hands on them, they sent them away” (vv. 1-3).
Note these facts.
- A congregation of Christ’s church had been established in the city of Antioch.
- The church had an abundance of resources, namely, prophets and teachers, five of whom are named.
- These abundant resources served the spiritual needs of the congregation. They were constantly ministering (present tense).
- Also, they regularly fasted. This demonstrated, among other things, their devotion to spiritual matters. This act of self-control on their part fostered the spiritual attitude of selflessness.
- The Holy Spirit commanded that some of their resources be diverted to another work. It is especially interesting to note that the term “called” is in the middle voice, perfect tense. The Holy Spirit was in effect commanding the Antioch church, “I have called Baranabas and Saul for my work. Give them up so I may use them.”
- Regardless of how useful they were to the church in Antioch, the brethren faithfully obeyed. Did the brethren wonder, “Will we be able to make it without Saul and Barnabas?” There is not the slightest hint of any such reservation. With a true spirit of faith, they gave up their self-interests, and with prayer, fasting, and aid, they sent them forth.
Thus began the first recorded missionary journey of Saul and Barnabas from their “home” church in Antioch to neighboring provinces surrounding the Mediterranean Sea.
The brethren at Antioch — through their fellowship with the missionaries, obedience to Christ’s commission, and submitting to the Spirit’s instructions — were instrumental in many souls being converted to the Lord. While they certainly would have been able to accomplish many great things in the city of Antioch with these men, there was an additional principle of stretching beyond themselves to reach others in distant lands.
It surely would have been a sad day had these brethren replied to the Spirit, “Not right now. We have other priorities.” A congregation with such a disposition, in spite of some good things they may be doing locally, is not fulfilling all that the Spirit commanded in reference to His work!
But the church in Antioch had embraced the golden rule. As they had been blessed abundantly, they shared their resources with others when the opportunity presented itself. They did not hesitate, they did not need convincing. They looked at this mission effort with spiritual eyes. They had faith that the Lord would provide for their needs at Antioch, even as they were providing for the needs of others.
Some Christian Principles that Apply to the Church
Here is an important point that needs to be understood. There are many spiritual principles that apply generally to the individual Christian, but that also apply equally to the church as a whole.
The point is quite clear in Paul’s directions to the church in Corinth.
In 1 Corinthians 16:1-2, Paul commands:
“Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I gave order to the churches of Galatia, so also do ye. Upon the first day of every week, let each one of you lay by him in store, as he may prosper, that no collections be made when I come.”
Paul, being directed by Christ, commanded that each Christian give as he or she has prospered on each Lord’s day. In this case, there was a specific purpose. Paul would be travelling through the area taking up a collection to aid the saints living in Judea, where a famine had placed these brethren in dire need. The apostle commands this collection, so that when he came to Corinth, they would be able to contribute to this relief effort.
Thus, the general pattern of church finances suggests that Christ’s disciples ought to make sacrificial offerings, as they have been prospered by God, so that the church collectively may provide for the needs of the kingdom; at home and abroad.
The Corinthian brethren, however, neglected this obligation. They had verbally expressed a desire and willingness to participate. But they were short on action to back up their words.
Paul addresses this spiritual problem in 2 Corinthians 8:1-9:15. These two chapters powerfully address the attitudes and actions of congregational giving. Here we find great refrains such as,
“But as ye abound in everything, in faith, and utterance, and knowledge, and in all earnestness, and in your love to us, see that ye abound in this grace also.”
“For ye yourselves know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet he became poor, that ye through his poverty might become rich.”
“For if the readiness is there, it is acceptable according as a man hath, not according as he hath not. 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; that there may be equality: as it is written, He that gathered much had nothing left over; and he that gathered little had no lack.”
Paul tries to motivate the lethargic Corinthians to become zealous in the grace of giving, not by his command alone (since they were already ignoring his initial directive – cf. 1 Cor. 16:1-9). Rather, he tries to motivate them by the example of Christ, and the benevolence of other brethren.
How can we refuse to provide what others are lacking in the face of the cross, especially in the case of missionaries? Do we fail to realize that whatever blessings we have were not given to us for our solitary benefit? No, our cup runneth over, not to be spilled in wrecklessness, nor to be guzzled in selfishness, nor to be hoarded until a “convenient season” comes along. God showers his blessings upon us so that we may have every opportunity to be generous like him.
These verses have been quoted time and time again to demonstrate the individual Christian’s responsibility to give generously into the treasury of the church. And rightly so.
But Paul’s instructions here are in reference to the congregation as a whole, that had not fulfilled a sacrifice of giving to assist needy saints in another location.
Nothing has changed. Congregations do have the liberty of making judgements over what missions and needs they will support. And they ought to apply wisdom in doing so. They do not have the option, however, of entertaining the attitude, “We will not help anyone, for any need” —in actuality or in practice.
It is an amazing thing that some congregations can have an “abundance,” yet for some reason go year after year without finding any worthy mission effort to support. That mindset demonstrates the “me-first” mentality reminiscent of Diotrephes, who exerted his influence over the church (3 Jn.) to deny assistance to the missionaries sent by the beloved apostle. Thank God for people like Gaius!
There may be limits to what a specific congregation can do. There are practical limits and spiritual limits. There must be balance. Each congregation must, by nature of its obligation provide a place of worship. Each congregation must provide for true benevolence, and use its resources to proclaim the gospel. And each congregation must see to it that it helps to take the gospel beyond its own community.
It is a violation of a church’s charter (the New Testament) to develop unscriptural or imbalanced approaches to raising church funds. It is equally wrong to develop imbalanced or unscriptural plans of church spending.
Those who profess to love Christ will find a way to demonstrate that love to others, especially those within the household of faith. Love and concern are not simply professions made with the lips. They reflect an attitude of the heart that is demonstrated through faith in actions (Jas. 2:16).
Not everyone is given great abundance, but then, “it is acceptable as a man hath, not according has he hath not.” Even the widow could do something (Mk. 12:41-44).
Gospel preachers, of all people, should see the value of supporting other faithful evangelists in the mission fields, both foreign and domestic – with wisdom, whenever the opportunity presents itself, and as God provides the ability.