In this post I will consider the use of 1 Corinthians 16:1-4 among Churches of Christ as a legal prescription or pattern for weekly giving as an act of worship in the Sunday assembly. My purpose is to illustrate the use of the CEI hermeneutic to establish biblical authority. In my next few posts I will offer an alternative hermeneutical approach.
Stone-Campbell Historical Perspective
Alexander Campbell, like many British dissenters before him and even John Calvin himself, believed Acts 2:42 provided a guideline for Christian assemblies. He identified “the fellowship” as the sharing of monetary resources (or, the contribution). In his Christian Baptist series on the “Restoration of the Ancient Order of Things” he authors only one article on “The Fellowship” (January 2, 1826, 209-211). “The contribution,” Campbell writes, “the weekly contribution–the distribution to the poor saints, we contend is a part of the religion of Jesus Christ.” He bases this conclusion on 1 Corinthians 16:1-4: “That every christian congregation should follow the examples of those which were set in order by the apostles, is, I trust, a proposition which few of those who love the founder of the christian institution, will question. And that the apostles did give orders to the congregations in Galatia and to the Corinthians to make a weekly contribution for the poor saints, is a matter that cannot be disputed.”
While Campbell believed “the contribution” was an apostolic institution, he did not think his version of the “Restoration of the Ancient Order of Things” should be used “as a test of christian character or terms of christian communion” (Christian Baptist, September 3, 1827, 370). He thought it was apostolic practice, but it was not a test of fellowship.
In contrast to Campbell’s attitude, between 1865-1875 a legal attitude developed regarding worship activities in the assembly based on the notion of “positive law.” In 1870, H. Turner asked the question “Does the New Testament determine the elements of the public worship?” His answer was that there are “five public acts of worship” (the first time I have seen that phrase in Stone-Campbell literature): teaching, fellowship, breaking bread, prayers, and singing (Christian Quarterly, January 1870, 250-258). This became an exclusive and required list because “in all acts of worship, we must do only what is prescribed in the New Testament” (Moses Lard, “True Worship of God,” Lard’s Quarterly 4 [October 1867], 395). “The original worship, in all of its items,” Benjamin Franklin wrote, “must be maintained or all is lost” (“Distinctive Plea,” American Christian Review 14 [5 December 1871], 388). The “five acts of worship”–without subtraction or addition–became a legal test of a faithful Sunday assembly. It was, apparently, all or nothing in terms of worshipping in “spirit and truth.”
In 1865 Albert Allen wrote a landmark article for Lard’s Quarterly (“The Contribution,” October 1864, 64-72) in which he articulated a clear hermeneutic for the contribution as a prescribed weekly act of worship in the assembly. Acts 2:42 suggested to Allen that the contribution was apostolic practice. Consequently, “we may presume,” Allen wrote, “to find some law regulating the observance of this duty, and the object for which done” (my emphasis; p. 69). [Did anyone hear the Reformed reguative principle in that statement?] Allen presumes that if it was an apostolic practice, then it must have specific legal regulations. Why would he presume that? Because the Baconian method, the Regulative principle, and a constitutional literary model demanded that every practice have some legal regulations. Consequently, since he saw 1 Corinthians 16:1-4 as that regulatory text, he identified the laws of giving as:
- That it must be done on every first day of the week.
- That the amount thus obtained was to be put into the treasury of the church.
- That each ought to give as he was prospered of the Lord
George Austen, in a follow-up article on “The Contribution” (Lard’s Quarterly [April 1865], 264), suggested that the “laws which govern” the contribution must identify “time, place, circumstance.” These are:
- On the first day of the week (every week).
- When assembled with the church.
- As the Lord has prospered the worshiper.
In addition, Austen understood this “fixed law of God” as intended for the “wants of the poor and the furtherance of the gospel” (p. 265).
If God intended the contribution as an “act of worship,” according to the hermeneutical presuppositions, then somewhere Scripture must regulate this. Consequently, Bible study meant searching Scripture for the “regulations” or “laws” that governed this act of worship. Identifying the act of worship in Acts 2:42, Allen and Austen found the regulative laws in 1 Corinthians 16:1-2. If this text does not regulate the contribution, then no text does and it becomes an unauthorized act to take up money in the assembly on Sunday because every act of worship in the assembly needs prescriptive authority…so the argument goes. Since congregations take up a contribution, and everyone agrees that this is a good thing, then there must be prescriptive authority for it and regulatory guidelines somewhere in the New Testament concerning it!
During the 1870s the segment of the Stone-Campbell Movement ultimately identified as “Churches of Christ” became solidified in their understanding of the “five acts of worship” as an exclusive legal requirement for faithful churches. The weekly contribution is one of those acts and without such an act in the weekly assembly there is no true worship. A church must have a weekly contribution to remain faithful and keep their candlestick in the presence of Jesus.
God, then, has specificed when, who, and how we should support the financial needs of the kingdom of God. But did he specify for what? Well, that becomes quite controversial among Churches of Christ in the 20th century.
The Pattern Argument
Roy Deaver, “The Corinthian Collection–God’s Financial Plan for His Church,” in Studies in 1 Corinthians, ed. Dub McClish (Denton, TX: Pearl Street Church of Christ, 1982), 263-71) provides a good example of the pattern argument from 1 Corinthians 16:1-4. There are, of course, many other examples of this argument.
Deaver’s presuppositions are important. In 1 Corinthians 16:1-4, “Paul (inspiration) sets out God’s financial plan for his (God’s) churches. These instructions were not given for the Corinthan brethren only” as 1 Corinthians 4:17 states that Timothy will remind the Corinthians about his “ways which are in Christ, even as” Paul teaches “everywhere in every church” (p. 264). The argument, then, is that whatever Paul taught the Corinthians, he taught every church. Whatever is taught every church is normative for all churches throughout history. Therefore, every congregation today must collect money during the Sunday weekly assembly.
The assumption is that what Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 16:1-4 is what he teaches in “every church.” Interesting, is it not, that he had not previously taught the Corinthians about it until this letter and then only in response to a question from the Corinthians (“now concerning…”)? They had to ask a question about the collection of money, but if Paul had previously taught the Corinthians his “ways” (Timothy was to remind them) then they should have already known. Apparently, “God’s financial plan” was not part of the “ways” that Paul was talking about, that is, it was not part of what Paul taught in every church.
Deaver argues tht Paul commanded a specific arrangement–on every first day of the week every person (or family unit) must contribute to the church treasury (“treasuring up” or “storing up”) according to how God has prospered them. “This is God’s plan for financing his work. God’s plan is the best plan, and God’s plan is the only right plan” (p. 269).
The text is explicitly occasional and specific–a collection for churches in Judea from Gentile churches (Galatia and Achaia–it does not include Macedonia). It appears as an expedient arrangement in the context of Paul’s third missionary journey. Indeed, it seems Paul introduces a new practice in response to a question from the Corinthians about how to proceed with the collection. It may be that there were no other churches practicing this and it appears that the Galatians and Corinthians were not practicing it prior to the instruction. There is also considerable ambiguity in the text about what it means to “store up” (treasury or putting personal money aside?) and where (home or assembly?). The verb understood as “command” by Deaver has more the force of setting up an arrangement (e.g., do it this way or putting things in a particular order) rather than an imperative that derives from the nature of things (or the character of God). If it is a command for all churches, why are the Macedonians not included in this arrangement (2 Corinthians 8:1-5), and–in fact–he does not intend to command the Corinthians at all (2 Corinthians 8:8).
But let’s grant the exegesis offered by Deaver, that is, corporate weekly Sunday giving into a common fund for the poor in Jerusalem. While I exegetically tend to favor this understanding, it is not certain; there are some ambiguities in the text (e.g., did they put it aside at home or was it given in an assembly). Rather, I want to raise some questions about the hermeneutical use of this text to construct a pattern.
Broadly, the argument assumes that everything Paul “commands” Corinth is something he commanded all of the congregations he planted. It further assumes that everything he commands Corinth (and every other congregation he planted) is normative for every congregation in the history of the church, including congregations today. In other words, it is the Texas two-step–Paul commands X, therefore we do X.
More specifically, the use of this text within patternistic constructionism illustrates how one discerns the pattern, including the limits and boundaries of the patternl and how complicated that process is. Indeed, it is a process that would be unavailable to the Corinthians themselves when the read their own letter since they would not have the full resources that the hermeneutic demands in order to discern the pattern in the text.
1. Is the purpose for which the church gave an exclusive one? This collection was for the poor saints in Jerusalem. Should Sunday contributions be limited to such since this is all that is specified in this authorizing text? One might say that this is a specific application of a generic principle, that is, the church may use this method in order to meet any legitimate need and is not necessarily limited to this specific need (cf. Guy N. Woods, Open Forum, 1976, p. 356). The legitimate need would thus expand to include buildings, ministerial salaries, janitorial staff, landscaping, international evangelistic work, etc. Here is where the complexity arises. One must decide what is generic and what is specific because within the hermeneutic whatever is intentionally specific is exclusive of all other coordinating particulars (e.g., “sing” excludes “play” because “play” is a coordinate of “sing” under the generic category of “music”). So, what is specific and what is generic in this text? What does the generic include? How does one identify the generic? How does one determine “legitimate need” according to the pattern?
A result of this discussion has been divisions over whether to use church funds to put a kitchen in the building, whether to support full-time preachers, whether to building gyms, whether to fund social/recreational activities, etc. Churches have divided over those issues as they attempted to discern the “pattern” inherent in 1 Corinthians 16:1-4.
2. Is the contribution into the common fund something exclusive to Sunday? The text specifies the first day of the week and reading it within the context of the epistle there is no other time specified. Is the “contribution” as an act of public worship is limited to Sunday only in much the same way that the Lord’s Supper–based on one text in Acts 20:7 (the only text that identifies the specific day as “first day of the week”)–is limited to Sunday only for many within Churches of Christ? Here is where the complexity arises. The contribution is not limited to Sunday if one can find examples or infer principles from other texts within the New Testament that one might also take up a contribution on other days of the week. Consequently, 1 Corinthians 16:1-4 does not limit giving to Sunday because there are other examples or principles that negate such a restriction while Acts 20:7 limits the Lord’s Supper to Sunday because there are no other examples or principles that negate that restriction. But is there any clear, explicit example in the New Testament of Christians giving on any day other than Sunday? Even if there was, this would not have been available to the Corinthian readers and apparently Paul had not taught them about “timing” previous to this text.
While it has not been a common point, I have heard it argued on occasion that churches should not take up a collection on Wednesday evening because it belongs only to Sunday (my father was one of these at one point in his life). I have heard objections to missionaries taking up collections, for example, on a Wednesday evening because there is no authority in the New Testament for the church to do such a thing except on Sunday. I have even experienced the compromise that a collection would be taken up after the closing prayer of the Wednesday evening service so that it would be “officially” an act of public worship but a contribution by individuals. Given the patternist concern and their deep conviction to be biblical, I understand their point! Unfortunately, those who do not know the “common sense” method, think the whole discussion is frivolous.
3. Is a free will offering the only way a Christian may give to the common fund? To put it another way, are other forms of fundraising excluded by this specific injunction in 1 Corinthians 16:1-4? Does this specific exclude all other forms of collecting money? Again, the complexity rests in the nature of the specific/generic construction. Is this free will offering on Sunday a specific of a broader generic (e.g., Corinth, like Galatia, should raise money this way but it does not mean it is the only way to do it) or is it a specific that excludes any other coordinate fundraising method? The method proposes that if there are not other examples of fundraising then the silence regarding other methods verifies the exclusivity of this method.
This, too, has divided churches and created aggitation within congregations. May the Youth Group conduct a car wash to raise money for a mission trip or to feed hungry children? May a Bible Class host a Yard Sale on the church parking lot to supplement the church budget? May a church buy a house and then sell it for a profit to supplement their budget? May a church put their money in a CD to earn interest on their money?
4. Must Christians give every week? If the text is a legal prescription, then Christians must give every week in the assembly. They cannot use bank drafts (because it is not in the assembly), or give monthly, or give annually. We might say that they give as they have been prospered and if they are paid monthly, then they give monthly. But this does not fit the specifics of the text itself–it “commands” the Christians to give every week in the Sunday assembly. Is the specific indeed a real specific that excludes other alternatives (monthly, annually, etc.) or is a generic principle that includes other alternatives? The complexity of the hermeneutic forces us into another seemingly frivolous discussion.
While I have not known any church divisions over this point, I have it heard it passionately discussed. It is the fruit of the hermeneutic that whether a believer gives to his congregation annually, monthly, bi-weekly or weekly becomes a point of passionate contention about worshipping in “spirit and truth.”
My point in this post is not to offer an alternative reading of 1 Corinthians 16:1-4. Rather, it is to understand the presuppositions, assumptions, particular exegetical decisions, and the complexity of the process by which Churches of Christ have generally concluded that:
Every Christian ought to contribute weekly to the common fund (treasury) of their local congregation, every congregation ought to take up a weekly contribution as part of their Sunday assembly as an act of worship necessary for faithful assembling (worshipping in “spirit and truth”), free will offerings are the only legitimate method for raising money for the common fund of the congregation, and the common fund is only for the legitimate needs of the church’s life and ministry.
I wonder if Paul had all that in mind when he penned 1 Corinthians 16:1-4. (And there are still questions unanswered–how do we determine a “legitimate need,” for example?) The CEI method–seeking a pattern, determining the nature of what we must find, and applying conceptual distinctions to the text that are alien to it–forces Paul to say this.
Ultimately, the method (regulative principle, CEI, Baconianism, constitutional literary model, etc.) decides not only what the apostles practiced, but also determines for Scripture what it must tell us about what they practiced. If they practiced “fellowship,” then Scripture must tell how, when, for what, and where they practiced it so that we might legally conform to the pattern in the text. We presume Scripture must do this because we read Scripture as Baconian hermeneuters through the lens of a constitutional literary model. In other words, the method tells Scripture what Scripture must provide. And if we go to Scripture expecting to find X (when, for what, where, and how), we will probably find it, even if it is not there.
At bottom, the method abuses Paul’s words and makes him say something he did not say.
Is there a better way of reading and applying those words? I think so…but that is for the next couple of posts. This one is already too long.