In many congregations Paul’s instructions to the Corinthian church, in 1 Corinthians 16.1-4, is read before the saints make their offerings. It’s a good passage for that. Below are four thoughts on this blessed text.
1. The blessing of limitations
The church of Jesus Christ does not go beyond what is written, 1 Corinthians 4.6. Our practice is restricted to what is commanded. We do not invent new practices. So in order to finance the Lord’s work and express our solidarity with the brotherhood, the family of faith acts within the limitations of his commandments.
This means at least two things. First, the church only makes offerings. God’s people do not engage in bazaars nor do they sponsor or participate in fund-raising projects to raise monies.
Second, the saints make their offerings only on Sundays. We have no command nor example of doing so on other days of the week. Modern religion does not observe this limitation. Offerings are solicted frequently. This highlights the pecuniary interest of such religions.
By the offering being limited to Sundays, the Lord’s church is spared a focus on money. The work of the Lord does not revolve around finances.
2. Offering as fellowship
This citation by a Catholic author reflecting on Paul’s offering command provokes thought about the brotherhood today:
“In the 20th Century [and still in the 21st], we react easily against the excesses of centralization. In the primitive Church, however, the risk was much more of atomization” (Michel Quesnel, As Epístolas aos Coríntios, 88).
In the religious world, people do act against centralization. For the human tendency is to concentrate power in the hands of a few. Centralization in and of itself, and not only excesses, is unbiblical.
In God’s church, all power and authority belong exclusively to Jesus, Matthew 28.18. Each congregation answers to him as Lord. In the New Testament, no hierarchy exists. Or, rather, the biblical hierarchy has only two levels: the top one, occupied by the Lord Jesus Christ; and the bottom one, where are all the faithful saints.
Among us, there is in some places a tendency toward atomization. That means that congregations isolate themselves. They fail to express concretely their fellowship with all the saints. The offering is an excellent and necessary means of avoiding this problem.
3. No strings attached
If the offering is an expression of fellowship, it means that money is never used to control others. Help is given with no strings attached.
The American brotherhood has a bad habit. It may reach the level of sin in places. The preacher is an employee. Watch the language used. He preaches “for” the congregation. This is unbiblical language, as much so as the centralization of power mentioned above.
This sets him up to be told what to do. Where in the New Testament do you see such power struggles?
Missionaries are also subject to attempts to control their work through the offering of funds or their withdrawal. I once gave up most of my support because elders who had never visited the field and had no idea of my gifts and opportunities thought they knew better than I how to do my work.
I’d rather do without than than be subject to the whims of despots.
4. Everything above board
Verses 3 and 4 often get short shrift in our readings and comments. Paul is concerned that everything be done transparently and honestly. He also wants the Corinthian church to be represented in Jerusalem. Even with their offerings being sent, there is nothing like physical presence.
Verse 4 almost sounds as if Paul is taking over the project by saying that, if he goes, then the representatives will go with him. He doesn’t say he’ll go with them. Paul may be staving off criticisms. Or it may be a question of them fitting into his time frame. Or, even, instead of sending letters of recommendation, he will recommend them personally and be their introduction to the Jerusalem church. He shows then that he desires to work with them and to make sure that everyone is blameless in handling funds.
Paul uses a word often translated “worthy” in verse 4. It’s often translated here by the versions as advisable, suitable or appropriate. He is always thinking of acting in the most appropriate way. He wants to maximize his efforts and please the greatest number of people possible, in order that they might be saved, 1 Corinthians 10.33.
It’s worthy of note that G. Barbaglio translates the phrase thus: “If you think that I also ought to go, they will go with me” (As Cartas de Paulo, I, 372; my translation). He sees the phrase as referring, again, to actions and decisions left up to the Corinthians.
Paul’s short instructions about the offering offer today’s Christians much to consider. Those who take seriously the New Testament as the model for faith and action will ponder its meaning and seek to apply faithfully its directions.