SUPPORTING MISSION IN THE EARLY CHURCH
Everything started with a self-sacrificing spirit.
By Jean-Luc Lezeau
The biblical book, Acts of the Apostles, stands as our major source of information about the first steps of the Christian church and how thousands of new believers were converted every day.1 It describes their struggle to organize themselves to live as true disciples of Christ and be prepared to accept the commission Jesus gave before He left: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them . . . teaching them.”2 This was the beginning of a story that would change the world. The New Testament is not prolix about tithing principles. Among the few passages related to tithing, we infer fxrom the words of Jesus when scolding the scribes and the Pharisees that He was in support of tithing practices.3 So how was mission supported in the early church?
The perfect example of generosity that Jesus showed to His disciples was the widow in the temple.4 She was so sorry not to be able to give more because she was giving the smallest coin that existed! But in the original Greek she gave bios, “herself,” her existence. She gave all she had! And nobody there wondered what she was going to live on the next day! Do we have any doubt that God provided for her needs? That is the kind of dependence that Jesus wanted His disciples to experience.
The information that is clearly disclosed about the financial support of the burgeoning Christian church was that not only did they share the same spirit, but “they put what they had in common and sold their possessions and goods.”5 They went beyond the exercise of calculating how much they should return in tithe and how much should be given as offering. They gave profusely. And beyond that they first gave their hearts to the Lord. That is the biblical model of radical stewardship! Was that enough to fund Jesus’ mission to go “to all nations”?
They did go on mission trips,6 and soon they had to flee persecution.7 One may wonder how they financed all these trips? Did they follow Jesus’ order8 and take no gold or silver with them, nor bag nor sandals? If that was the case the defunct treasurer, Judas, could have rejoiced because he wouldn’t have had to disburse any money!
The Two Models
Their commitment to mission was revealed through both witnessing and supporting mission with their resources.
In reading Acts of the Apostles, we discover the application of two different models for supporting mission. First, mission was patronized by those comprising the body of Christ.9 And several Bible texts support the practice.10 Their commitment to mission was revealed through both witnessing and supporting mission with their resources. Many passages testify that the itinerant missionaries were staying in the homes of the brethren.11 The disciples would regularly write in advance to the brethren to welcome the traveling preachers.12 The second model was the one adopted frequently by Paul. In many instances, he was a self-supporting missionary. He wanted to be “totally dependent upon God for His provision,”13 and this was in sync with Jesus’ model of sending His disciples. It was the perfect way for sent-out missionaries to see for themselves the miracles that God wanted to perform on a daily basis. Their needs were taken care of, and faith in the Master was strengthened. Paul decided not to be dependent on the brethren for anything (Acts 20:33, 34). He worked his way through when he stayed with Aquila, who was a tentmaker like himself.14 Paul’s travel was intensive. He stayed several months at a time in the towns he visited;15 in some cases he rented a place for several years.16
These two models were not mutually exclusive. Apostle Paul, an epitome of self-supporting mission, knew that he was entitled to receive support from the body of believers.17 He pointed out that the other apostles were supported by the liberality of the community of believers. And in one instance, he received material support for his ministry (Phil. 4:15). Both models of support for mission are valid today, and each fills a need depending on our varying circumstances. In some countries “regular” remunerated missionaries are not allowed to enter. Self-supporting missionaries, hence, are needed. What is important is that they all work together to finish the work.
To conclude, I wish that we could all experience what the Macedonians did “in their deep poverty.”18 Not only were they giving a freewill offering “according to their ability19 but, yes, beyond their ability.” How can we give beyond our ability? Ask Jesus. “Imploring us with much urgency that we would receive the gift.”20 Giving is a privilege.21
- Acts 2:41, 47; 4:4; 5:14; 6:1, 7; 16:5; 17:12; 11:21, 24; 2 Cor. 11:9; Phil. 5:15, 16
- Matt. 29:19
- Matt. 23:23
- Mark 12:43
- Acts 2:44, 45; 4:32, 34-37
- Acts 8:4; 8:14
- Acts 11:19
- Matt. 10:9, 10
- Acts 28:10; 1 Cor. 7; 1 Cor. 9
- Lev. 6:16, 26; Lev. 76: 31; Num. 18:8-31; Deut. 18:1; Lev. 7; 1 Cor. 9:13, 14; Matt. 10:10; Luke 10:7, 8; 1 Tim. 5:18; Rom. 1:15
- Acts 9:19, 43; 10:7; 16:15; 21:8; 28:10
- Acts 18:27
- Mark 6:8
- Acts 18:2; 1 Cor. 9:7-10
- Acts 14:3, 28; 18:7-11; 19:40
- Acts 28:30
- 1 Cor. 11:12b-18; 1 Cor. 9:15-18; 2 Tim 2:6
- 2 Cor. 8:2
- 2 Cor. 8:3
- 2 Cor. 8:4
- Acts 20:35