One ongoing project that Paul pursued throughout his missionary journeys was that of collecting money for congregations in Judea suffering economic hardship. He mentions this collection not only here but also in Galatians 2:10, and he explains the theological rationale for it more thoroughly in Romans 15:25–31 and 2 Corinthians 8–9. For our purposes, it is important to note that, according to Paul, part of what a believer earns should be given for the benefit of those who cannot provide adequately for themselves. For Paul, one of the essential functions of the church is to take care of its worldwide members’ needs. The Old Testament prescribed both fixed tithes and free-will offerings, which together supported the operations of the temple, the maintenance of the state, and the relief of the poor. But this system had ceased with the demise of the Jewish kingdoms. Paul’s collection for the poor in Judea essentially assumes for the church the relief aspect once provided by the Old Testament tithes and offerings.
The New Testament nowhere affirms certain fixed percentages, but Paul encourages generosity (see 2 Cor. 8–9), which would hardly mean less than Old Testament levels. Over the next several centuries, as the church grew, its role as a social service provider became an essential element of society, outlasting even the Roman Empire. Whatever the amount given, believers are expected to determine it ahead of time as a part of their budget and bring their offerings regularly to the weekly gatherings of the congregation. In other words, it takes a sustained lifestyle change to reach this level of generosity. We are not talking about pocket change.
These principles demand renewed consideration in our time. Governments have displaced the church as the prime providers of social welfare, but are there some forms of service that God equips Christians to do uniquely well? Could Christians’ work, investment, and other economic activity be a means of serving those facing economic hardship? In Paul’s day, there was limited scope for Christians to start businesses, engage in trade, or provide training and education, but today those could be means of creating jobs or providing for economically disadvantaged people. Is the purpose of giving merely to bind the church more closely together around the world (certainly one of Paul’s objectives), or also to care for our neighbors? Could it be that today God calls believers to give money and to conduct business, government, education, and every other form of work as a means of taking care of people in hardship? (These questions are explored in depth in “Provision and Wealth” at www.theologyofwork.org.)
For an overview, see Scot McKnight, “Collection for the Saints” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, ed. Gerald F. Hawthorne et al. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 143–47.
See E. P. Sanders, Judaism: Practice and Belief, 63 BCE-66 CE (London: SCM Press, 1992).
Jeannine E. Olson, Calvin and Social Welfare (Selinsgrove, PA: Susquehanna University Press, 1989), 18.