THE ORIGIN OF SYSTEMATIC BENEVOLENCE
One of the most important decisions of the growing Adventist church was taken in 1859. The Three Angels’ Message, the truth about the sanctuary and the observance of the seventh-day Sabbath constituted a teaching different from what other Protestant churches were preaching. In 1857, the economic crisis had also affected the income of Adventist believers. Despite this, the desire to know more about the teachings of God caused members to ask for pastoral help. The few pastors that did exist focused their efforts on the weekends since the remainder of the week was spent providing sustenance for their own families. In reality, the congregations received only one or two visits a month. It was then that a commission, presided over by J. N. Andrews, met in Battle Creek, Michigan. It presented its report to the church on January 29, 1859. At this time, the practice of “systematic benevolence” was recommended. This important and historic action took place more than one hundred and fifty years go.
The question before us is this: "What were their actual findings and what did they recommend?"
The question before us is this: "What were their actual findings and what did they recommend?" The other Protestant churches highlighted the study of the New Testament because they believed the books of the Old Testament indicated more of a Jewish economy in contrast to a Christian church that had a fresh, new and different message. Thus, the Adventist pioneers also initially concentrated on the New Testament, specifically on what the Apostle Paul had recommended to the churches located in the Roman province of Galatia and to the church in Corinth. He said, “Now about the collection for God’s people: Do what I told the Galatian churches to do. On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income, saving it up, so that when I come, no collection will have to be made” (1 Cor. 16:1,2 NIV). The pioneers discovered several significant principles in these texts:
1. They noticed that Paul indicated a principle of regularity (“the first day of every week”). Why the first day of the week? At that time (57 C.E.), the governing power was Imperial Rome. Its pagan religion recognized Sunday as the day of the sun—an important day for their religion and for commerce.
The decision to give to the Lord was not to be made at the last minute, as the offering was being collected. It was something that had to be considered at home and set aside according to the dictates of their hearts.
2. In the text, they noticed that the apostle also indicated the principle of participation (“each one of you”). Even though some received a greater income and others received less, every one had the opportunity to feel part of the church and part of the mission.
3. The third principle they noticed was that of foresight and the need to plan ahead (“set aside a sum of money”). The decision to give to the Lord was not to be made at the last minute, as the offering was being collected. It was something that had to be considered at home and set aside according to the dictates of their hearts.
4. The fourth was the principle of proportion (“in keeping with his income”). It was not expected that everyone give the same amount because they did not all receive the same. It was logical that those who received more were in a better position to be able to contribute more. It was not fair to require the poor to give the same amount as those who had more resources.
5. The fifth was the principle of promotion. Behind this concept lies the question of how frequently and how intensely promotion should be done. In comparison with Bible study and the preaching of the Word, how much time should be dedicated to promotion? The apostle was clear in his recommendation: The service should be dedicated principally to worship and spiritual development. Thus, the apostle indicates, “When I come no collection will have to be made” (1 Cor. 16:1,2 NIV).
Today, more than one hundred and fifty years after that historic decision of the early Adventist church (1859), we see a world church that is able to use modern means of communication to proclaim the Three Angel’s Message to every nation, tribe and people twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Those principles that were discovered by the Adventist pioneers are still valid, practical and applicable in our day. The church today must be careful to preserve, not only its historical inheritance of Bible study and the proclamation of the message, but also the practice of these vital principles of systematic benevolence.