Can Church Funds Be Used for Those Who Aren't Members of the Church?

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Today's question is as follows: There was an argument in the congregation where I worship. Some members were of the opinion that the church’s collection is only for the use of the church and its members and that it biblically wrong for the church to use its money outside the church (for example giving to the less privileged, orphans, etc.). They believe the collection is for the saints quoting 1 Corinthians 16:1 and other passages. I want to know if it is wrong for the church to use its money outside of the church and its members.
Before Moses built the tabernacle using the instructions God gave Him, God warned, “See to it that you make them according to the pattern” (Exodus 25:40; cf. Hebrews 8:5). Patterns clearly are important to God. Searching for and abiding by God-given patterns is an effort that one must undertake in order to live faithfully even today.

How do you determine whether or not something constitutes a pattern? Answering this question will help us to navigate the question we are considering, namely, whether or not it is wrong for the church to use the money it collects for those who are not Christians.  

When searching for a pattern, care must be taken to differentiate between patterns, principles, and mere possibilities. A pattern represents a binding course of belief or behavior. A principle informs a belief or behavior. A possibility represents a way that something could be done but not the only way it could be done.

Let’s try to differentiate these three things as they are found in the following reading:

“Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I have given orders to the churches of Galatia, so you must do also: On the first day of the week let each one of you lay something aside, storing up as he may prosper, that there be no collections when I come. And when I come, whomever you approve by your letters I will send to bear your gift to Jerusalem. But if it is fitting that I go also, they will go with me” (1 Corinthians 16:1-4).

The phrase that opens the reading (“Now concerning the collection for the saints”) could be understood as Paul providing a pattern for giving if it were not for how Paul uses “Now concerning” in 1 Corinthians. Note the following verses that come before 1 Corinthians 16:1:
  • “Now concerning the things of which you wrote to me” (7:1)
  • “Now concerning virgins” (7:25)
  • “Now concerning things offered to idols” (8:1)
  • “Now concerning spiritual gifts” (12:1).

From 1 Corinthians 7:1 onwards, Paul turns his attention from his response to the troubling report he received from the household of Chloe (1:10) to his response to a letter they had written. “Now concerning” is both a header for new topics of discussion and an indication of what it was the Corinthians had written Paul asking about. Thus, “the collection for the saints” is not what Paul was calling the offering, but a topic header stemming from a question the Corinthian church had asked in its letter.

“As I have given orders to the churches of Galatia,” is language that indicates a command, a hallmark of a pattern. The key components of the command are the day (literally, as in the NASB/ESV, “on the first day of every week”), the amount (“as he may prosper,” i.e., in accordance with prosperity), and the location of the money (“store it up” in the ESV, i.e., placed in a communal treasury to avoid separate, individual gatherings).

Paul’s statements about conveying the money to Jerusalem identify the “saints” of 1 Corinthians 16:1 and bring clarity to the whole “saints only” discussion that sometimes arises from this text. If this were a part of the pattern, then church collections could only be used to fund the needs of Christians in Jerusalem. Given that Paul states elsewhere in the epistle the right for preachers to receive financial support from the church by the Lord’s decree (1 Corinthians 9:14) and that he provides no other means for this money to be gathered from the church other than what is mentioned here, it appears that “for Jerusalem saints” is not the only way a church can use its gathered funds. “For the saints” simply represents a possibility presented by the text.

To round out our discussion of 1 Corinthians 16:1-4, two principles that arise from the text would be 1) churches should look to the needs of those outside of their local membership and 2) church money should be handled honestly and carefully (the funds for Jerusalem from Corinth were only travel with individuals approved by letters). No doubt other principles would arise from the text upon further meditation.

The church is the living body of Christ (Ephesians 1:22-23). To say that the church is forbidden to do what Jesus did with its collected funds, namely, to go “about doing good” (Acts 10:38) based upon some kind of restriction from 1 Corinthians 16 seems to miss the spirit of the text and ignore Jesus’ example. Yes, Jesus did help those who were already God’s children first, and likewise the church is instructed, “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10). But Jesus also did “good to all,” and, as it has opportunity, so should the church.
-Patrick Swayne