Christ and the Church

by Rev. Matthew C. Harrison

What does koinonia mean when members of the fellowship are in need? “All who believed were together and had all things in common [ta koina]. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:44–45). “There was not a needy person among them” (4:34). The fellowship of believers acted in Acts 6 to meet the need of the Greek-speaking Jewish widows being overlooked in the daily diakonia or distribution of food. It was the formal beginning to the Church’s intentional, ordered life of mercy. It is also the beginning of what is popularly called stewardship.

Paul was converted in 36 A.D. just after the martyrdom of Stephen1.  By 45–46 A.D., he was in Syrian Antioch (11:25–26). The Christians in Antioch decided “to send relief [diakonian] to the brothers living in Judea” (11:29). The persecution and martyrdom continued, and refugees fleeing Jerusalem for Antioch kept the latter well-informed. The general famine announced by Agabus must have hit the already persecuted Christians in Jerusalem with intensity. Fields were fallow in 47 A.D. in Palestine because of a Sabbath year, which made the situation all the worse. . . .

It is significant that the first account of the proclamation of the Gospel in Acts to Gentiles coincides (11:20) with the first collection. The collection for the poor is born at the rough edge of the Church’s mission to the Gentiles. Mercy and mission go hand in hand. Where there is Christ, there is the Church (Ignatius to Smyrnaeans 8.2). Loehe said that, “Mission is nothing but the one church of God in motion. ] Where the Church is in motion, there is mission, mercy and money.

The controversy over Gentile converts and what to do about circumcision grew quickly until the Apostolic Council of Acts 15 dealt with the issue definitively. . . . The apostle describes the resolution to the circumcision controversy: “And when James and Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given to me, they gave the right hand of fellowship [koinonias] to Barnabas and me, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. Only, they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do” (Gal. 2:9–10).

Paul “went to the Gentiles” and demonstrated that he was “eager” to remember the poor. For Paul, fellowship is doctrinal agreement with ethical ramifications with a focus on care for the needy. Koinonia is vertical and horizontal. St. Paul took this fellowship (collection) so seriously that it occupied him for over a decade. . . .

The collection was the reason for this last trip to Jerusalem (Rom. 15:28). Paul’s life was put on the path to Rome and eventually martyrdom because he was apprehended while delivering the collection for the poor (Acts 24:17). 2 Corinthians 8 and 9 are Paul’s great explanation of the collection. In those chapters, he works to convince the wealthy Corinthian Christian community to give generously. It is from these two chapters that many of the popular stewardship texts come. Read some of them: 8:5, 7, 9, 12, 14; 9:6, 7, 10.

This list of texts should cause one to pause. The primary reason for giving money in the New Testament is for poor and suffering Christians. The giving begins with Christ giving of Himself unto death for our sins. Giving is also a demonstration of fellowship. St. Paul spent well over a decade of his working life organizing, arranging, leading, and bringing to a conclusion the great collection for the poor in Jerusalem. Is this what takes place in the Church today?

Excerpted from Christ, Have Mercy (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House)

[1] For New Testament dates, I am relying on the delightful and insightful book by Bo Reicke, Re-examining Paul’s Letters: The History of the Pauline Correspondence (Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 2001).

[2] Three Books About the Church (Fort Wayne: CTS Press, 1989), p. 59.

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