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Home > Bible on Money > Major Themes > 1 and 2 Corinthians

Collection for the Poor

By Jason Hood
with assistance from Generous Giving staff

As Christians, we are called to care for those people who are neglected by society, especially the poor. In the days of the early church, the apostle Paul considered his most important ministerial tasks to be church planting, discipling leaders, and collecting money for the poor. Theologian Scot McKnight refers to the latter as “Paul’s obsession for nearly two decades.” Indeed, references to the collection for the poor permeate Paul’s writings, and the collection even helped him decide when and where to travel (see Galatians 2:10; Acts 24:17; Romans 15:24-28; 1 Corinthians 16:3, 4; 2 Corinthians 1:15; 8-9). The collection orchestrated by Paul was driven by three key biblical principles that have implications for us here and now:
  • The principle of family. Some argue that Christian obligation only extends to those whom we know directly, particularly our own families. In contrast, Paul asks the Corinthians to bridge a major cultural and geographic divide in order to relieve the suffering of strangers. He consistently asks new churches not only to aid the needy in their own communities, but especially to support the people in Judaea who were in dire need due to famine and other hardships. At the heart of Paul’s gospel message is the conviction that in the sacrifice and death of Jesus, God has made us one family with Jesus as the head (Ephesians 3:4-7; 2:13-22). This is such a critical part of the gospel that when Peter chose to eat only with Jews, Paul accused him of having lost the gospel (Galatians 2:11-14). Similarly, Jesus taught that failure to care for “his family” (the church) like they are our own flesh and blood will be a sign that we have rejected him (Matthew 25:31-46). Paul stresses that this collection for the poor reflects the grace of being one united family, created by God from people of every nation as a testimony that will lead to his praise (2 Corinthians 9:11-15). Paul carries out his mission to the poor despite—indeed, because of—the dangerous ethnic tension that permeated the early church. Paul had no guarantee that his labors would be acceptable to the church at Jerusalem, and he asked the Romans to pray for the success of this mission of cross-cultural generosity (Romans 15:30-32).

    This principle of family teaches us to love sacrificially as Jesus loved, that he might bring us into the family of God (2 Corinthians 9:9). Paul taught his congregations to broaden their horizon so that they might see the need of their brothers and sisters all over the world. As we learn to see Christ’s church as a single, unified family with resources and needs, we understand that God has provided the former so that we may meet the latter—so that he may get the glory (2 Corinthians 9:8, 12-15). May the Lord change our priorities so that they reflect his own.

  • The principle of priority. In North America, Christians often have been reluctant to engage in “holistic ministry” and relief for the poor. One reason for this is the supposed superiority of “spiritual” missionary activity. But Jesus never merely spoke the word; he also supported his words by healing, befriending and feeding those in need. The New Testament consistently teaches that one cannot pick and choose between the “spiritual” and material aspects of the good news (Matthew 25:31-46; Luke 4:18-19; 16:19-31; James 2:14-24; 1 John 3:16-18). Caring for the poor was such a priority for Paul that he was willing to postpone evangelistic, missionary endeavors for the sake of this collection for the poor (Romans 15:24-28); his commission from the Jewish apostles featured the sole requirement that he “remember the poor” (Galatians 2:10). The collection for the poor was even what led him to Jerusalem to be arrested (Acts 24:17), and it is likely that “the presence of those Gentiles who aided in the collection led to the very occasion for Paul’s arrest (Acts 21:29).” (Scot McKnight, “Collection for the Saints,” Dictionary of Paul and His Letters [InterVarsity, 1993], 146.) We learn from Paul’s commitment and the unified teaching of Scripture that those who have resources but neglect the poor have no claim on the title “Christian.”

    This principle of priority teaches us that we should examine our financial priorities not only as individuals but as churches and denominations as well. Care for the poor cannot be an “add-on” or afterthought in our ministries or an optional, flexible part of our budget to which we dedicate the “leftovers” (note Paul asks them to contribute every week as God has blessed them, 1 Corinthians 16:1-2). Are our churches committing to care for those in need at home and abroad, or are our offerings going primarily to serve ourselves and our congregations? Has the love of self infected not only individuals but also individual congregations and denominations?

  • The principle of equality. Equality and fairness are not popular words in a capitalistic culture, but Paul believes this is the goal of Christian giving (2 Corinthians 8:13-15). He is not seeking to eradicate all economic differences, but he does want those who have the means to give charitably to those who do not; if the situation were reversed, others would do the same for them (2 Corinthians 8:14). The parallels with Acts 2:44 and 4:34-47 are significant. Ownership and personal rights are not the most important issues when we think about our possessions; the most critical considerations are the needs of others and the kingdom in light of the gift of Jesus (2 Corinthians 8:9). In Acts 4:32 we read, “None of those with possessions claimed them as their own, but they had everything in common.” The result in Acts 4:34, that there were “no poor among them,” was the result Paul intended in this situation. Ironically, the funds he was collecting were going to the church that practiced such care for those in need (Acts 2, 4 and 6). In fact, that church probably had exhausted all of its resources, in part through generous care for those in their midst in need.

    Christians today must carefully study and wholeheartedly imitate the commitment of Jesus, Paul and Scripture to care for the poor and suffering. The principle of equality means that we pay careful attention to injustices and to the absence of necessities around the world. If we have been blessed with more than the essentials, we must commit ourselves to alleviating the material needs of others around the corner and around the world. This applies not only to material necessities such as food and medicine, but also to spiritual necessities and resources (Romans 15:27): Do we share the relative wealth of spiritual benefits and education with our under-resourced brothers and sisters? Let us follow the example of Jesus and Paul by giving generously to the spiritual and material needs of people throughout the world.

Related Passages: Exodus 22:21-27; 23:10-11, Leviticus 14:22 (cf. Luke 2:24); 19:9-10, 15; 23:22; 25:23-55; Deuteronomy 10:17-19; 15:4-11; 24:12-15; Ruth 2; 1 Samuel 2:1-8; Esther 9:1-22; Psalms 9:17-18; 10; 12; 15:1, 5; 35:10; 41:1; 70; 72; 74:18-23; 109; 112:9 (compare 111:3, 5 and 113:5-8); Proverbs 10:15; 13:18 and 13:23 in tandem (two kinds of poverty); 14:20-23, 31; 16:18-19; 17:5; 19:17; 21:3, 13; 22:9, 16, 22-23; 28:8, 19, 27; 29:7-14; 31:1-9, 20; Isaiah 1:11-27; 3:14-26; 10:1-3; 11:1-4; 58; 61:1-6; Jeremiah 5:23-29; 22:13-19; Ezekiel 16:46-52; 22:29-31; Amos 2:6-7; 5:4-15, 22-24; 8:1-12; Micah 6:6-8; Zechariah 7:8-14; Matthew 6:1-4; 11:2-5; 19:21; 25:31-46; Mark 14:7; Luke 1:48-53; 3:7-14; 4:16-19; 6:20; 10:25-37; 12:33-34; 14:12-14; 16:19-31; 18:22-24; 19:1-10; Acts 2:42-47; 4:34-37; 5:1-11; 6:1-6; 11:28-30; 20:35; 24:17; Romans 15:24-32; 1 Corinthians 11:17-21; 16:1-4; 2 Corinthians 8-9; Galatians 2:6-10; 6:2, 9-10; Ephesians 4:28; Philippians 4:10-19; 1 Timothy 6:8-10, 17-19; Hebrews 13:16; James 1:9-11; 2:1-10; 2:11-24; 5:1-6; 1 Peter 4:9; 1 John 3:16-18 (4:19-21); Revelation 2:8-11

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