“The Mirror of God’s Grace”
Pastor Mark D. Vroegop
Every church is a community, a collective group of people who have gathered for the express purpose of meeting with God and to celebrate spiritual dependence upon Him.
True spiritual dependence upon God creates a secondary dependence, a dependence upon one another. It is important to note two dimensions that are present in community. One (and first) is vertical. The other is horizontal.
A church whose passion is to delight in God will find delight in corporate interdependency. Spiritual growth is fundamentally experienced together. Corporate joy is far better than just isolated joy.
Corporate interdependency is the way in which people within the body come to see that they need one another. There are few times more significant for corporate interdependency than a benevolence need arising in one or multiple families in the ministry. How a church responds to these needs will have a great effect upon the kind of community that is built and encouraged in the church.
Most churches have a program of benevolence, but this program or ministry is usually merely reacting to the needs that are presented both inside and outside the church. What if benevolence (corporate interdependency) could be something intentional, celebrated and spiritually meaningful? What if benevolence became a central component of the values of the church?
The goal of this article is to examine a biblical theology of benevolence and to attempt to learn how benevolence relates to community, spiritual growth and joy. I am assuming that benevolence is NOT just about money, but that it is essentially about community.
The impetus for this article is a deep concern for tangible ministry to be encouraged toward those who need the community the most. Too often benevolence is relegated to the crisis management of constant requests, limited dollars, perceptions of need and many questions regarding effectiveness.
Benevolence is not usually intentional. Because of this, I fear it may not be operating in a clear Biblical framework. It seems fitting to take a step back and look carefully at a Biblical theology of benevolence. Our goal is to see where the Biblical data will lead us in regard to community, spiritual growth and joy.
What is benevolence?
In order to understand the Biblical data regarding this issue, we need to first come to terms with what we mean by “benevolence”. I am using the term in a very broad context.
By benevolence, I mean the ministry of provision (money, food, clothing, time, etc) to people inside and outside a church community who are in need. The equation is fairly simple. A person has a need. The church, be it by virtue of the budget, an offering, food bank or an individual step forward to meet the need of the person. This could be once, or it could be one hundred times. It could be through a food bank; it could be through a cash gift or it could be through personal presence.
The means are immaterial and secondary. The critical issue is to understand the Scriptural principles that should guide the motivation, collection, and distribution of these resources.
Old Testament Backdrop
Community is central to an understanding of the Old Testament and how benevolence is viewed. The Old Testament reflects the following ideals:
- The needs of the poor must be viewed in light of God’s treatment of His people.
The Mosaic Law required that the fields and vineyards were harvested in such a way as to provide for the poor. The basis of this was the people’s relationship with God.
9 And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not wholly reap the corners of thy field, neither shalt thou gather the gleanings of thy harvest. 10 And thou shalt not glean thy vineyard, neither shalt thou gather every grape of thy vineyard; thou shalt leave them for the poor and stranger: I am the LORD your God. Lev 19:9-10
It is interesting to note that the harvester had to plan to give to the poor by virtue of his method of harvesting. He did not need to wait for the need. The need was assumed and anticipated.
God’s redemption of his people is THE hallmark motivation for dealing with poor. Over and over in the Old Testament, instruction is given regarding the poor, but frequently in context of God’s gracious relationship with His people (Lev 23:22; 25:35-43).
The implication is stunning: Those who understand God’s redemption will be redemptive in their dealings with the needy.
- The needs of insiders and outsiders of the community are addressed
The provision for the poor in the practice of gleaning (leaving the corners unharvested), was to provide for the poor and the stranger. The covenant community was to be gracious, not only to their own, but also to those who were not part of their community.
22 And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not make clean riddance of the corners of thy field when thou reapest, neither shalt thou gather any gleaning of thy harvest: thou shalt leave them unto the poor, and to the stranger: I am the LORD your God (Lev 23:22 ).
The stranger and the poor were both part of God’s design for the community. They were a part of the community for a reason and the community’s graciousness would result in blessing. Hardening of the heart toward either was simply inexcusable.
9 Beware that there be not a thought in thy wicked heart, saying, The seventh year, the year of release, is at hand; and thine eye be evil against thy poor brother, and thou givest him nought; and he cry unto the LORD against thee, and it be sin unto thee. 10 Thou shalt surely give him, and thine heart shall not be grieved when thou givest unto him: because that for this thing the LORD thy God shall bless thee in all thy works, and in all that thou puttest thine hand unto. 11 For the poor shall never cease out of the land: therefore I command thee, saying, Thou shalt open thine hand wide unto thy brother, to thy poor, and to thy needy, in thy land (Deut 15:9-11).
Benevolence was not limited to those inside the community. The people of God were to assist both the poor “inside” and those “outside” the community.
- Meeting the needs of the poor must be balanced with grace and fairness.
The Old Testament recognized that there would be some who were poor due to life circumstances beyond their control. The widow and the fatherless were likely poor, and because of circumstances beyond their control.
Others were poor because of their bad or even sinful choices. However, even if a person was forced to sell him or herself into slavery in order to pay for their debts, they were to be released at the year of jubilee.
39 And if thy brother that dwelleth by thee be waxen poor, and be sold unto thee; thou shalt not compel him to serve as a bondservant: 40 But as an hired servant, and as a sojourner, he shall be with thee, and shall serve thee unto the year of jubilee: 41 And then shall he depart from thee, both he and his children with him, and shall return unto his own family, and unto the possession of his fathers shall he return (Lev 25:39-41).
Yet, the poor were not to be favored in judgment. They were to be treated graciously and fairly, even in their poverty. Justice could not be circumvented simply because they were poor.
3 You shall not show partiality to a poor man in his dispute (Ex 23:2-3).
We must also remember that the practice of gleaning required work for those who were to benefit. There was place for unconditional charity, but there was also a place for work on the part of the beneficiary.
It would not be unfair to assume that there were even some who were in a perpetual state of dependency. It also seems plausible that there were some who may have been in this state by their own doing. Proverbs warns about character issues that will lead to poverty. However, the law does not seem to make a distinction between those who are at fault in their poverty and those who were victim of circumstances.
Certainly these issues could have been considered, but no farmer had the right to put preconditions on those who would be gleaners. In this respect, the Scriptures indicate a fundamental balance of fairness and grace. The burden of benevolence seems to be on the side of God’s graciousness in dealing with all of us, who are equally undeserving of His graciousness.
- True worship cannot exist while the poor are neglected.
The bent of one’s heart toward the poor is a great concern to God. A lack of concern for the poor would result in unacceptable worship no matter how pure the worship form. True worship and social justice had to come from the right motivation.
Fasting was worthless if the poor were not helped. True worship could not exist in the midst of a culture where the poor are neglected.
7 The righteous is concerned for the rights of the poor, The wicked does not understand such concern (Prov 29:7).
5 Is it such a fast that I have chosen? a day for a man to afflict his soul? is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the LORD? 6 Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? 7 Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh? (Isa 58:5-7)
It also appears that ignorance is not justifiable. It is the wicked that do not understand the concern for the poor and there are numerous warnings regarding hiding yourself (or face) from the poor. The poor are the responsibility of the community not because they are worthy, but because no one is worthy!
- Giving to the needy creates a unity of joy in the Lord
During seasons of celebration in which the Lord’s provision was celebrated, the poor were to be included. The poor were to be blessed by the blessings received by others. The reason is quite simple: The harvester, who is blessed by God in a good crop, should in his celebration of God’s goodness, treat others in the manner in which he has been treated.
Once again we see that personal deliverance becomes the reference point for the motivation for giving.
10 And thou shalt keep the feast of weeks unto the LORD thy God with a tribute of a freewill offering of thine hand, which thou shalt give unto the LORD thy God, according as the LORD thy God hath blessed thee: 11 And thou shalt rejoice before the LORD thy God, thou, and thy son, and thy daughter, and thy manservant, and thy maidservant, and the Levite that is within thy gates, and the stranger, and the fatherless, and the widow, that are among you, in the place which the LORD thy God hath chosen to place his name there. 12 And thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in Egypt (Deut 16:10-12).
He was to gather all those within his gates and to share the bounty of the Lord with them.
The result would be collective joy!
14 And thou shalt rejoice in thy feast, thou, and thy son, and thy daughter, and thy manservant, and thy maidservant, and the Levite, the stranger, and the fatherless, and the widow, that are within thy gates. 15 Seven days shalt thou keep a solemn feast unto the LORD thy God in the place which the LORD shall choose: because the LORD thy God shall bless thee in all thine increase, and in all the works of thine hands, therefore thou shalt surely rejoice (Deut 16:14-15).
This is a beautiful scene! Those who are marginalized by virtue of their need are now embraced in worship before the Lord. The wealthy realize and affirm in their giving that they are merely the beneficiaries of God’s goodness. Their giving and embracing the poor only serves to maximize their joy in God.
- Treatment of the poor reflects one’s view of God.
This could be considered the summary ethic of benevolence in the Old Testament. More than rules, laws or regulations, how one treated with the poor was reflective of one’s view of God.
Assisting the poor is a mirror through which one gets a very clear reflection of how redemption is viewed. When the community missed the internal motivation in worship, it was reflected in the neglect of the poor.
The conclusion was that the people had missed the point of redemption.
Isaiah scathes the people for their fake worship. They were spreading their hands to heaven in prayer. They were offering many sacrifices, but God was unimpressed. Their hearts are far from him and it is seen in their disinterest in the poor.
15 And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide mine eyes from you: yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood. 16 Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; 17 Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow (Isa 1:15-17).
Treatment of the poor was one of many signs of the heart condition of the people.
Everything about the treatment of the needy in the Old Testament points to a view of God as redeemer and His people as unable to redeem themselves. The Law was filled with regulations designed to define the ethic of benevolence. This ethic was to view the needy through the deliverance of God, and to make specific preparation for the provision of the poor.
The treatment of the needy became a harbinger of the individual and national heart. A redeemed slave must never forget God’s graciousness. The needy were part of the community by divine design to be living landmarks of God’s graciousness.
New Testament Context
What the Old regulated in part, the New guarantees in whole. It is by the work of Christ and the coming of the Spirit that giving to the needy takes on new meaning and significance.
The redemptive pointer is no longer the Exodus, but rather the cross. God’s graciousness in Christ becomes an even greater motivation for the treatment of the needy. Redemptively inspired, Spirit empowered and faith affirming are the new and chief characteristics of the divine design of benevolence.
1. Giving to the needy is a sign of true faith
In very stark terms, the New Testament uses the treatment of the poor as a sign of true faith. Those who know the graciousness of God will be gracious to those who are in need. As a result, Jesus uses the subject of giving to expose false faith. To the rich young ruler, he says:
If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me (Matt 19:21).
Regarding Zachaeus, Jesus affirmed his genuine faith, and the genuineness of it was demonstrated by a new concern for the needy.
8 And Zacchaeus stood, and said unto the Lord; Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken any thing from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold. 9 And Jesus said unto him, This day is salvation come to this house (Luke 19:8-9).
The argument could not be any clearer than in 1 John. Probably better than any other passage, 1 John 3:16-18 captures the ethic and the resulting action that is required. Knowing God’s love is critical. However, feeling love is meaningless unless it is expressed in action.
16 Hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. 17 But whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him? 18 My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth (1 John 3:16-18).
2. Ministry to needy represents spirituality at its summa bona (highest good)
Not only is giving to the needy a sign of true faith, but it also appears to be one of the highest marks of spirituality.
When Paul wants to exalt the primacy of love, he sets love at contrast with what appears to be the highest ends to which a person’s spiritual life could attain: martyrdom and giving all to the needy.
3 And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing (1 Cor 13:3).
James echoes this, but places the theme in the category of “pure and undefiled religion”
27 Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world (James 1:27).
Benevolence in its many forms is very spiritual and God honoring.
3. Treating the poor with contempt violates the central ethic of Scripture
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart……and love your neighbor as yourself”. This is central ethic of the New Testament. To treat the poor with contempt is to run roughshod over the heart of the gospel.
As a result, believers must be careful that their “evil thoughts”(based upon earthly values) do not get the best of them.
2 For if there should come into your assembly a man with gold rings, in fine apparel, and there should also come in a poor man in filthy clothes, 3 and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say to him, “You sit here in a good place,” and say to the poor man, “You stand there,” or, “Sit here at my footstool,” 4 have you not shown partiality among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? 5 Listen, my beloved brethren: Has God not chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor man. Do not the rich oppress you and drag you into the courts? 7 Do they not blaspheme that noble name by which you are called? 8 If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you do well; 9 but if you show partiality, you commit sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors (James 2:1-9).
Partiality to the rich over the poor is sinful and reflects a sinful heart condition. Evil actions come from evil hearts.
Further, the motivation is amplified in treating the poor in a manner “as unto Christ”. In giving to the poor, one is actually serving Christ.
Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me (Matt 25:40).
4. Giving to the needy stores up a greater treasure
One of the most quoted passages regarding giving is “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also”. However, the context of the statement in Luke 12, is very interesting and instructive. One provides treasure in heaven by giving to the poor.
33 Sell what you have and give alms; provide yourselves money bags which do not grow old, a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches nor moth destroys. 34 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Luke 12:33-34).
Certainly this does not preclude other giving or infer that it is only gifts to the poor that result in stored heavenly treasures. However, the celebrated New Testament ethic is this: giving to the poor is an excellent investment! This is a very important perspective that is unique to those who value God and His kingdom.
Perhaps the reason for this emphasis is that the giver receives no earthy or immediate “payback” for giving to one who is needy. In this way, the gift must be given with heavenly values in view.
5. The provision of the needy was an important part of the ministry of the early church
The early church was undeniably involved in the provision of the needy. It is an obvious ministry and it was central to the description of the early church. Benevolence ministry was not an appendix; it was a central organ issue for the church.
- a. All things in common
The early church valued meeting the needs of those in the body more than they valued their own possessions. There is a fair amount of debate as to what “all things in common” really looked like. However, the spirit of the phrase seems to be that the people held their earthy possessions loosely. When there was a need, they were quick to sell what they had and bring it for the benefit of others.
34 Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, 35 And laid them down at the apostles’ feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need (Acts 4:34-35).
Unstated in Acts 4 is the fact that someone (or a group) had to be responsible to evaluate the need and distribute the resources appropriately. This administration soon became problematic and the result was a major church issue.
And in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplied, there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration. 2 Then the twelve called the multitude of the disciples unto them, and said, It is not reason that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables (Acts 6:1-2).
It is interesting to note that the administration of this kind of ministry, while very important, could not take over other more important issues in the ministry of the church. The apostles clearly delineated their priorities and appointed faithful men to handle these matters.
This provides a compelling case for pastor and deacon roles in the church ministry as it relates specifically to benevolence.
b. The collection for the saints in Jerusalem
The other very familiar matter is the collection for the impoverished saints in Jerusalem. Paul sought funds from many different churches. The Macedonians were renown for their generosity in the midst of their need. He used their example to motivate the Corinthians in their giving and summarized very well God’s “benevolence economy”.
13 For I mean not that other men be eased, and ye burdened: 14 But by an equality, that now at this time your abundance may be a supply for their want, that their abundance also may be a supply for your want: that there may be equality: 15 As it is written, He that had gathered much had nothing over; and he that had gathered little had no lack (2 Cor 8:13-15).
It is should also be noted here that Paul went to great lengths to ensure a good offering for this cause. He sent Titus in advance of his coming to make sure the offering would be ready (2 Cor 8:6). He instructed that the church should start making weekly provision (1 Cor 16:2) so that there would not be a need for a collection when he came.
They had made a commitment to support the needy in Jerusalem and Paul implemented a plan to ensure that their giving would be completed.
5. Giving to the needy produces a two directional delight
The goal of giving is not just to meet needs. Giving creates a beautiful cycle of delight.
12 For the administration of this service not only supplies the needs of the saints, but also is abounding through many thanksgivings to God, 13 while, through the proof of this ministry, they glorify God for the obedience of your confession to the gospel of Christ, and for your liberal sharing with them and all men, 14 and by their prayer for you, who long for you because of the exceeding grace of God in you. 15 Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift (2 Cor 9:12-15).
The receiver rejoices at the receiving of a gift, which produces thankfulness to God. The receiver glorifies God because of the obedience of the giver and prays for those who have been so generous. Grace is seen in the life of the giver, for which the receiver glorifies God. The cycle brings everyone back to God’s indescribable gift in Christ (see 2 Cor. 9:15).
Givers and receivers end up embracing in delightful corporate gazing at God’s glory!
6. Giving is a grace in which we are to abound
It is no wonder why Paul would want to see giving take place in the life of the church! In fact, He calls it a grace and commends the church at Corinth to abound in this grace.
6 So we urged Titus, that as he had begun, so he would also complete this grace in you as well. 7 But as you abound in everything–in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in all diligence, and in your love for us–see that you abound in this grace also (2 Cor 8:5-7).
The grace of giving may seem at first glance to be most beneficial to the receiver. However, that is only if it is viewed from a limited and earthly perspective. Giving produces a substantial reminder of the grace of God in believer’s lives, and provides a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate how valuable that grace really is.
The work of Christ and the provision of the Spirit, make giving guaranteed by Divine Design. Giving to the needy comes from a heart that has experienced redemptive grace and from a heart that understands God’s grace to mankind.
True faith, true concern, and true love are all expressed in the community’s embracing of the needs of the poor. What was regulated in the Old is now empowered in the New.
The summary of the New Testament is this: Those who know grace show grace to others, especially those in need.
Implications for Ministry in Holland, Michigan
Having wrestled through these passages and knowing the present context of ministry at Calvary Baptist Church in Holland, I would suggest the following implications for our consideration:
1. Benevolence must be more Biblically defined
The impetus for this paper was a fear that the divine plan for benevolence is not fully embraced at Calvary Baptist Church. We are expending money and doing a fair job at assisting people, but the broad philosophical issues need to be addressed.
Benevolence is not about money. It is about delight in God. Caring for the needy flows from a personal vision of God’s care of me. My vision of God directly relates to my vision for those who are in need. Graciousness needs to be the norm not the exception, since this has been God’s way of treating me.
Benevolence cannot just be relegated to a committee, but it is a good place to start. The heart issues of benevolence must be seen as a primary pastoral concern. Maturity in the body will be seen in the way in which people embrace the needs of others.
2. Benevolence must be a central-organ issue
Caring for the needs of the congregation cannot remain at the margins of ministry. It is a central component of the ministry and needs to be a central part of fellowship-centered ministries (like Sunday schools).
Can true fellowship take place without a concern for benevolence? My answer is: No! In fact, I believe the converse to be true. If benevolence is not taking place, then fellowship is merely a veneer.
Benevolence must be important to church leadership or it will never be viewed as an important issue for the congregation. It cannot remain as just a few offerings, a line item in the budget and a private committee.
Creative ways need to be investigated in bringing benevolence into the center of the ministry.
3. Benevolence must be intentional
Reactionary ministry will not work. The Bible seems very proactive with benevolence, almost as though we should be searching for the needs of the poor. It seems that we ought to be comfortable asking questions of those we love if they have needs to determine how we can be of help. We ought not wait to find out.
Most often, what is driving benevolence is money or other resources. A specific strategy for meeting a variety of needs such as: cash gifts, food assistance, debt relief, credit counseling, work projects, etc. needs to be developed.
As well, greater priority needs to be given to the collection of funds for the benevolence fund. A regular offering in Sunday School classes and/or after the Lord’s Table seem obvious. The church should not just respond to needs, but to plan for them.
If the church is intentional, then more people would give and even more would receive.
What could benevolence look like if it were $10,000 or $20,000 per year?
4. Benevolence must be celebrated
Receiving assistance to many is a dirty little secret, which has come about as a last resort. There is presently very little public “delight” taking place in the meeting of needs. Some kind of response / worship vehicle needs to be created whereby a person would be able to thank God for the way in which He has provided through the church family.
A regular accounting of the number of people that were helped by the church needs to be communicated. Benevolence cannot be buried in the budget
5. Benevolence must have administration
The one lesson from the early church is that the administration of benevolence is going to take more than pastoral staff. Needs have to be evaluated. Histories of problems and potential solutions need to be examined. There are a large number of matters that need to be addressed.
Benevolence cannot simply be a subsidy program, nor can we justify allowing people to fall between the cracks. Godly men and women need to be a part of this process.
Guidelines and policy need to be set, but always keeping in mind that the goal is not to make a good investment, but to be gracious and helpful. Guidelines should be written to prevent the enablement of sinful behavior. However, these policies should not be written with the goal of ensuring that the church is not “taken advantage of”. The goal is graciousness not protection.
6. Benevolence must be subjective
Benevolence is about grace and people. Given the nature of both, it will be inherently subjective and not necessarily fair. The goal of benevolence should not be fairness, but grace.
For this reason, the people serving in benevolence ministry need to be discerning and wise. As well, it would be good to have most benevolence needs in a church brought to a group of people who have experience and history in dealing with these matters. The nature of this kind of ministry means that it will be very subjective.
A community of life change, delighting in God through the Word. That is what Calvary Baptist Church is and becoming. The divine plan for benevolence fits extremely well into that mission and passion.
It is my hope that this paper will assist us in laying down a Biblical grid through which we can view the future of this important ministry.
We are most honoring to God when we graciously treat others in a way that looks like Him!