This is an era of turbulent change—both in society, and certainly in the church. Increasingly, points of teaching, long cherished, are coming under critical dispute.
One such controversial issue appeared in a recent article titled, “The Collection for The Saints,” published on a blog called Voice. The gist of the piece, by a sincere, intelligent young brother, is this. Paul’s instruction in 1 Corinthians 16:1-2 regarding the Sunday collection was unique to the first century. Supposedly “implicit” in the apostle’s admonition is the reality that: “there was no regular weekly collection before this point, only a personal spontaneous yet cheerful giving of ones own liberty” (Joyce, 2010, 1).
The following comments are offered with genuine brotherly concern.
The author contends that giving on the first day of the week was “not an item of worship” in the early church assembly. He alleges the apostle merely “urged” the brethren to give. Yet, by way of contrast, today we recklessly “command” it. The gentleman contends there is nothing in the context that justifies hoarding “money for rainy days, building funds, and ministerial salaries” (2).
The brother concludes that the motive behind Paul’s admonition was to cement Jew/Gentile relations, and such has no bearing upon the modern church. Thus, “we should abandon the traditional reading of the text, which has Paul commanding and extorting 21st century saints by guilt and condemnation, to give every week, primarily to maintain the building and pay someone’s salary....” (3).
Respectfully, we must respond. While Jew/Gentile tension was a portion of that package, it does not exhaust the scope of the sacred text. The problems with the essay under review are several.
- It cannot be established that systematic giving in the early church began only with the Galatian/Corinthian situation.
- The writer fails to distinguish the general authorization for raising money in the early church, from the particular use of the funds in the Galatian/Corinthian situations.
- The article provides no serious analysis of the Corinthian text.
- The author ignores considerable scholarship, both in and out of the New Testament church, of some of the best Bible expositors—past and present.
- The testimony of early church history is overlooked or discounted.
The Establishment of the Church
The church of Jesus Christ was established on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2). When a great crowd obeyed the gospel that day, Luke recorded that they “were steadfastly continuing in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and the prayers” (v. 42). The expression “were steadfastly continuing” denotes a “steady course of action” with reference to the items mentioned.
koinonia) is a comprehensive term that most surely can embrace the idea of “contribution” (cf. Romans 15:26; 2 Corinthians 8:4; 9:13; Hebrews 13:16). J. A. Alexander argued that “charitable distribution” is the prevailing meaning of the term in the New Testament (90).
Koinoneo is used specifically of providing support for gospel preachers in Paul’s Galatian letter (6:6).
Acts 2:42 provides strong circumstantial evidence that regular giving, as an act of worship (along with teaching, the Lord’s supper, and prayer), predated the Corinthian letter perhaps by a quarter of a century (cf. Campbell, 18; Hackett, 55; Woods, 120; Williams, 60). For an excellent discussion of “giving” as an act of corporate worship, see Cottrell (449-450).
It is worthy of mention, however, that not every aspect of church polity was fully and formally in place on the first day of its existence. For instance “elders” are not mentioned until Acts 11:30, which was at least ten years after Pentecost.
In his New Commentary on Acts, J. W. McGarvey observed that Luke wrote his record “after the churches had been fully organized, and all of the officials and their duties had become well known” (231). Some elements of New Testament doctrine were incrementally set in place.
The New Testament Pattern of Giving
Has God given a “pattern” for church finance? Is it reasonable to assume that an organization as complex as the church, with the need for monetary resources to do its work in a variety of areas, has been left without any guidance concerning how to secure its financial necessities? Such an assumption is not logical.
“Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I gave order to the churches of Galatia, so also do you. Upon the first day of the week let each one of you lay by him in store, as he may prosper, that no collections be made when I come” (1 Corinthians 16:1-2 ASV).
There are several important elements in this context.
A giving pattern
Since the apostle was answering questions submitted to him by these brothers (“Now concerning....”—1 Corinthians 7:1; 8:1; 12:1, etc.), they must have known something about church contributions into the local treasury already, but they needed some clarification (cf. Godet, II.453). The passage suggests that systematic giving for the support of the Lord’s work is a serious responsibility.
The term “order” denotes a command (Danker, 237; cf. Matthew 11:1; Luke 8:55; 17:9-10, etc.)—not a mere “urging,” as alleged in the article under review. Christian giving is not an option; it is an obligation.
In spite of its obligatory nature, giving should be viewed as a thrilling blessing, not as a burdensome matter for grumbling (cf. 2 Corinthians 9:7).
In this connection, it must be emphasized that “giving” is the only authorized method for financing the work of the church of God. The church, as an organized body, is not authorized to operate businesses, conduct pay-at-the-door concerts, etc. The kingdom of Christ is not a commercial enterprise.
Of course if there is no “pattern” for raising church finances, the door is wide open for any moral method for obtaining income.
Giving every Sunday
The Christian is to contribute every Sunday. The Greek text reads, “[U]pon the first day of every week . . .” (see NASB, ESV). Moreover, the verb “lay by” is a present tense form, suggesting a regular, intermittent activity. Each week the Christian is blessed with prosperity, he/she must give for the support of the Lord’s work.
Incidentally, if this text provides no evidence that there was a regular contribution prior to this time, as asserted, does it likewise provide evidence that the early church did not worship regularly on Sunday until this time? There is no previous explicit record of such. (Note: The Corinthian letter was written before the events of Acts 20:7.)
And then what of this; why would “every Sunday” be specified, if this text were merely a recommendation? We must insist that while the specific use of this collection involved relief of the destitute among the saints in Jerusalem (Romans 15:26), the underlying principle of the passage serves as a precedent for the manner in which the church is to gather its financial resources for the implementation of any divinely authorized work.
Though Paul addressed problems unique to certain churches, the principles he laid down were binding universally. Several times in this letter the apostle emphasizes that his instructions are not unique to this congregation (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:2; 4:17; 7:17; 11:16; 14:33-34). It is a serious error to suppose that this text has no application today.
Are churches who take a regular Sunday collection apostate groups? Are preachers supported from the church treasury innovators?
The responsibility to contribute toward the support of the kingdom belongs to “each” Christian. Whether one is a business man, pensioner, or a Christian teen with an income, the obligation to give, consistent with one’s prosperity, is obligatory. In dual-income households, contributions should come from both salaries.
While it certainly is possible (and desirable) that church members give of their incomes for the support of good works on an individual basis (Mark 14:7), there also is the responsibility of each saint to give collectively into the local treasury on the first day of every week.
Some church members never make up their contributions after they have missed a Sunday service. Malachi once asked: “Will a man rob God?” (Malachi 3:8). The answer is: “He certainly will; and quicker than he would steal from fellow humans!”
The notion that one may freelance his contribution, with no weekly obligation to the local church, is a myth contrived by those lacking a sense of “family” responsibility.
Paul says the contributor is to “lay by him” [or, “by itself”] his gift. The masculine and neuter genders carry the same form in Greek (see Green, 16, 50; McGarvey, 161; McKnight, 208). Danker renders it, “put something aside” each Sunday (268).
Ferguson says the phrase also can embody the sense of “in his own judgment” (cf. Romans 12:16; 1 Corinthians 3:19; 2 Corinthians 1:17), “referring to the decision of each person [concerning] how much to give (2 Corinthians 9:7)” (240).
Location of giving specified
The Greek term
thesaurizoon, rendered “in store,” conveys the idea, “put into the treasury” (McGarvey, 161). Bengal adds “at the public meeting” (II.343). McKnight translates the verse:
“On the first day of every week let each of you lay somewhat by itself, according as he may have prospered, putting it into the treasury, that when I come there may then be no collections” (208; cf. McCord, 343).
As Prof. Hodge of Princeton observed:
“The only reason that can be assigned for requiring the thing to be done on the first day of the week, is that on that day the Christians were accustomed to meet, and what each one had laid aside from his weekly gains could be treasured up, i.e., put into the common treasury of the church” (364; cf. Mare, 293; Sadler, 299; Barnes, 227).
Even within Jesus’ band of apostles, during the Lord’s ministry, the principle of a “treasury,” as an orderly means of handling finances, was recognized (John 12:6; 13:29; cf. Danker, 202).
It is erroneous to suggest that Paul was merely urging his brethren to save something “at home” (a common assertion, which is a misguided interpretation, not an accurate translation). This would have defeated the apostle’s explicitly stated purpose of not being forced to contact each Christian individually when he came.
Leon Morris observed that while the “lay-by-at-home” theory is common, since “Paul expressly deprecates the collecting of the money when he arrives (which would be necessary if they all had it laid by at home) it is perhaps better to think of it as being stored in the church treasury” (238). See “Addendum” below.
Other scholars have made the same observation:
“The mention of the first day of every week along with the purpose that when I come no collections will have to be made suggests that the setting aside of money would not be just the setting apart within one’s own possessions but the setting aside of the money by presenting it to the leaders of the church (cf. Acts 4:34-5:2)” (Rosner/Ciampa, In Loco).
The proportional pattern
Each Christian is to give “as he may prosper,” or “according to his ability” (Acts 11:29). This is proportional giving. Amazingly, some in the early church gave even beyond their ability (2 Corinthians 8:3).
Those who have more should give more (both in amount and percentage). When the more prosperous generously give of their abundance to compensate for the deficit of the poorer folk, the type of “equality” that God desires will prevail (see 2 Corinthians 8:12-15).
British scholar J.R. Woodford wrote:
“This passage [16:2] constitutes the great Scripture warrant for the weekly Offertory. St. Paul enforces a regular systematic giving of alms, rather than a forced extraordinary effort. The systematic giving is to take place on Sunday, and is so to be connected with religious worship. Similar contributions both in money and in kind, appear from ecclesiastical history to have continued uniformly in the Church from the beginning” (In Loco).
Another writer emphasizes: “Such regular disciplined giving on the part of every member is the only means whereby a church may meet its responsibilities to the poor and sustain its own Christian work” (Short, 10.256-257).
Prominent church historian Everett Ferguson has persuasively argued that the New Testament authorizes “a public contribution to a church treasury.” He introduces a half-dozen strong arguments for this position.
- The “common day” indicates corporate activity, not mere individual action.
- It follows the earlier Jewish pattern of weekly contributions for the poor.
- The word
logeia, (collection) seems to refer to a public action, not a private one.
- The admonition to “complete” the collection (2 Corinthians 8:6) implies group activity that fell short.
- A private gift would negate Paul’s expressed will.
- The reference to congregational “messengers” (2 Corinthians 8:23) implies an organized church activity (240).
John Mosheim (1694-1755), widely applauded for his historical objectivity and scholarship, noted that the first century church, “at the conclusion of [their] meetings, testified their mutual love, partly by their liberality to the poor” (1.19).
Justin Martyr (2nd C. A.D.) mentioned contributions being made on Sunday (Apology 1.67.6). In the Epistle of Clement (ca. A.D. 30-100), reference is made to “enjoined offerings” to be made at the “appointed times and hours” (40).
The conclusion is clear. Any effort to negate the biblical instruction on Sunday giving is an error of serious magnitude. It is our prayer that those who have fallen into this mistaken teaching/practice will demonstrate integrity and courage, and renounce such.
As noted above, the expression “by himself” (a reflexive pronoun) is interpreted by many to mean “at home.” This interpretation even finds its way into a number of Greek reference works (e.g., Thayer, 163). But, as observed already, this reflects personal interpretation—not legitimate translation. As Thayer confessed elsewhere:
“The nature and use of the New Testament writings require that the lexicographer should not be hampered by to rigid adherence to the rules of scientific lexicography. A student often wants to know not so much the inherent meaning of a word as the particular sense it bears in a given context or discussion: — or, to state the same truth from another point of view, the lexicographer often cannot assign a particular New Testament reference to one or another of the acknowledged significations of a word without indicating his exposition of the passage in which the reference occurs. In such a case he is compelled to assume, at least to some extent, the functions of the exegete, although he can and should refrain from rehearsing the general arguments which support the interpretation adopted, as well as from arraying the objections to opposing interpretations” (vii).
The distinctive phrase “at home” is found twice elsewhere in this letter. “If any man is hungry, let him eat at home” (11:34). Women were not to disrupt a church service by aggressive interruptions with questions. Instead, they were to wait and “ask their own husbands at home” (14:35).
If the apostle had intended to enjoin a private contribution “at home,” he certainly was capable of expressing that matter clearly. But the expression is conspicuously absent here.
heautou (himself or itself) is employed 321 times in the New Testament. Can it be shown in any literal translation that it is legitimately rendered as “at home”?
Finally, as emphasized earlier, the “at home” theory would have defeated the explicit instruction of Paul regarding his anticipated visit.