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Helping Needy Non-Christians

by Aaron

We all agree that individual Christians are to help those in need, regardless of their spiritual status. We are to “do good to everyone” (Galatians 6:10; 1 Thessalonians 5:15). However, there is disagreement about whether churches have that responsibility. Some believe churches may use the treasury to help all those in need, while others say the treasury can be used only to help members. These positions can properly be identified as “saints first” versus “saints only.”


The “saints first” doctrine says that Christians are to be the priority when needs arise, but that non-saints can also be helped by the church; while the “saints only” doctrine says that non-Christians may not receive assistance from the church under any circumstances. So, which is it?





The weakness of an argument is often exposed in the realm of “consistency.” If it is wrong for the church to provide for the needs of non-saints, then it is not permissible to let them drink from the water fountain. After all, the fountain has been purchased and maintained with money from the treasury. (And calling it an “expedient” or “incidental” doesn’t change that fact). Moreover, if the church can provide them with something to drink, why couldn’t it provide them with something to eat? Why can it satisfy their thirst but not satisfy their hunger?



If the “saints only” doctrine were true, it would be wrong for the church to provide non-Christians shelter during a storm, a diaper from the nursery, or a tissue from the restroom. Think about it. The building and all its amenities have been supplied through the treasury; therefore, one would have to turn those folks away to be consistent. If the Lord’s money cannot be used to help needy non-saints, then they would have to be denied.






The weakness of an argument is also exposed in the realm of “absurdity.” Those who embrace the “saints only” doctrine have no problem using the treasury to maintain the building and its grounds. Hence, they will spend the Lord’s money to feed the lawn (fertilizer) but will not take a dime to buy food for starving children. To do that, we are told, would be an offense worthy of damnation. If you think this is an exaggeration, consider a proposition that was defended in public debate:



“The Bible teaches that it is a sin for the church to take money from the treasury to buy food for hungry destitute children, and those who do so will go to hell.” (A. C. Grider debate with W. L. Totty)



Surely one can see that this is an absurd position that completely contradicts the loving and compassionate spirit of Jesus Christ. He was deeply concerned about the wellbeing of little children (Mark 10:13-16), yet we are told that His church should let them starve rather than take money from the treasury for food.



Those who embrace the “saints only” doctrine will permit the church to “take” from non-saints, but not “give” to them in times of distress. Though generous members often step up in such situations, one can see how bad this doctrine makes the church look. You can help it, but it can’t help you!



God the Father & Jesus



God has always required His people to be benevolent, even to those outside His own. He made sure provisions were set aside for all the needy (Deuteronomy 14:28-29); and it is obvious that the Lord’s disciples were in the habit of using their treasury for all the poor in society (John 12:5; 13:29). It is no wonder then that the “churches of Galatia” and the “church of the Thessalonians” were told to “do good to everyone” (Galatians 6:10; 1 Thessalonians 5:15). They were to follow that same benevolent spirit.



Everyone acknowledges that Jesus did not practice limited benevolence, yet the “saints only” brethren say that His body must do so or be condemned. They label any congregation that would dare follow the Lord’s example in helping a non-believer “apostate” or “unsound.” Think about that. Any church that follows the example of Christ in the sphere of benevolence will not be accepted by “saints only” brethren. 



Jesus said that those who love “only their brothers” are no better than tax collectors and Gentiles (Matthew 5:46-48). Would that principle not apply to the church, or is it only individual Christians who must be better than them in showing love to everyone? This is devastating to the “saints only” position, for it encourages churches to practice the very kind of “selective love” that Jesus spoke against!






Two passages that draw a lot of attention in this discussion are Galatians 6:10 and James 1:27. Both of those verses speak of helping more than just Christians. They say we are to help “everyone” and especially the most vulnerable in society like “orphans and widows.” However, those who embrace the “saints only” doctrine argue that this is strictly for individuals and that the church must be excluded from such work. Is that true?



While it is true that Galatians 6:10 and James 1:27 are for individuals, they are not for individuals only. The “saints only” advocates draw a line of distinction that was never intended. We will consider each passage separately.



Galatians 6:10. The fact that Paul addressed “the churches of Galatia” (Galatians 1:2) and used plural pronouns indicate that collective action was not being prohibited. Furthermore, earlier in chapter six Paul said to “restore” those caught in a transgression (6:1) and to “share” with the preacher (6:6). Could the church assist in efforts to restore and share? Then why couldn’t the church assist in efforts to “do good to everyone” a few verses later? That seems inconsistent. Those who embrace the “saints only” doctrine draw a line of distinction that was never intended; a line that no one would conclude on their own without help from “saints only” proponents.



James 1:27. The fact that James addressed “the twelve tribes in the Dispersion” (James 1:1), which is a reference to the church, and used plural pronouns indicate that collective action was not being prohibited. He also discussed behavior in the assembly just a few verses later (2:2), dispelling the argument that he intended to distinguish between individual and collective action.



Some say the word “himself” in James 1:27 proves that it is exclusively for the individual. However, it is not uncommon for personal pronouns to be used when the church is being addressed. For instance, the seven letters in Revelation 2 and 3 repeatedly use “he” and “him” even though they were sent to churches. That is because churches are made up of individuals!



James 1:27 defines “pure and undefiled religion” as helping the most vulnerable in society — orphans and widows. Yet the “saints only” brethren say churches cannot do that and be pleasing to God. To them, it is an egregious sin for any congregation to practice pure and undefiled religion.



When a writer in the New Testament wanted to make a distinction between the church and the individual, he said so clearly (1 Timothy 5:16). That is not the case in Galatians 6:10 or James 1:27. There is nothing stated anywhere in those texts to indicate collective action was being forbidden.



Those who embrace the “saints only” doctrine point to passages where a collection was earmarked for needy Christians and argue that this is the exclusive pattern for the church. However, Paul said the collection was “for them and for all others” (2 Corinthians 9:13). Since “all others” is from a Greek term used of non-saints in many other passages (pantas — John 12:32; Acts 5:11; Romans 16:19; Galatians 6:10; Ephesians 3:9; 1 Thessalonians 3:12; 5:15; 2 Timothy 2:24; 1 Peter 2:17, etc), it is certainly plausible that they were to be included. Even if one does not think it is a probability, he should at least be willing to admit that it is a possibility. Therefore, we should not be overly dogmatic in saying non-saints must be excluded.






While it is not the church’s responsibility to eliminate poverty from the world, which is an impossibility (Mark 14:7), it is to do good as means and opportunity permit. That task is not just for the individual. I hope that has now been proven. The Scriptures teach saints first, but not saints only.



If a congregation does not want to use the treasury to help non-saints, that is their decision. However, they should not condemn those churches who decide differently. It is a shame that lines have been drawn and fellowship severed over this issue. I would suggest that we respect autonomy rather than require allegiance in such matters. As for me, I would rather stand before God having done too much to help others than not enough.






(1) If the church cannot provide a hungry non-Christian with food, how can it provide a thirsty non-Christian with water? To be consistent, wouldn’t the water fountain need to be for saints only?

(2) What kind of religion is the church to practice? Is it to practice pure religion, impure religion, or no religion at all? See James 1:27.

(3) Is it scriptural for the church to buy fertilizer to feed the lawn? If so, is it okay to feed grass but not needy people?


(4) Did God the Father practice limit benevolence?


(5) Did Jesus and the apostles practice limited benevolence?

(6) Suppose a widow needs financial assistance after her husband’s sudden death. He was a devout Christian, but she is not. Could the church help her and the kids?


(7) Could a church participate in efforts to “restore” those caught in a transgression (Galatians 6:1) and to “share” with the preacher (Galatians 6:6)? If so, why couldn’t the church also participate in efforts to “do good to everyone” a few verses later (Galatians 6:10)?


(8) Does the teaching of Jesus about “loving more than just your brothers” in Matthew 5:46-48 apply to the church or is it only individual Christians who must show love to everyone?   

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