Collection for the Saints in Jerusalem
Rev Robinson Kariuki Mwangi Deputy Principle of St Andrew’s College, Kabare, Kenya draws a A paradigm for church partnership in the 21st century from the Biblical accounts of the monies collected for the saints in Jerusalem.
This paper attempts to highlight the historical setting, rationale and outcome of the collection for the Jerusalem church. It will further explore at length a paradigm of partnership in the Pauline letters at both the spiritual and economic levels, and what this might imply for the 21st century church, presently at the point of schism.
About poverty of the Jerusalem church, S. McKnight comments on some possible causes such as relief of the widows (Acts 6:1-7); pilgrimages to Jerusalem; communal life (Acts 4:32-5:11) and the economic hardships caused by famine (Acts 11:27-30) (1993:144). Whatever the underlying reasons, the churches in Jerusalem were poor and in need of relief. Matthew Harrison asserts that a famine occurred in Palestine about AD 46 and Agabus, a prophet from Jerusalem, foretold the coming famine (Acts 11:27) during the reign of Emperor Claudius (2007:5). So the disciples resolved that everyone, according to his ability, should send relief to the brothers living in Judea. And they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul (Acts 11:29-30). According to Harrison, Jerusalem’s soil is of poor quality clay and, since it had relatively higher standard of living, the cost of living was also high (2007:9). So in time of need aid from the Diaspora was welcome.
Rationale for the Collection
The collection appeared to have occupied a central place in Paul’s work among gentile churches. It was certainly an ambitious project within the Corinthian and Roman letters. No wonder, Matthew Harrison argues, that numerous significant points of St Paul’s theology converge at the collection (2007:3). The collection sums up to a unique degree the way in which Paul’s theology, missionary work, and pastoral concern hold together. But just what was it about the collection that motivated Paul to the extent that he was willing to sacrifice his life to achieve it?
In his letter to the Galatians, Paul writes a polemical narrative of the Jerusalem council (Galatians 2:1-10). He contends that the council had asked him to do one more thing: remember the poor. Previously, in 1 Corinthians 16:1-4, Paul had instructed the Galatian converts to set side money on the first day of each week for the collection. However, we have little evidence as to why the saints in Jerusalem had so many poor among them (Bruce F.F, 1993: 686). Whilst in the reference to the ‘poor’ in Galatians 2:10 it is difficult to determine if it is economic or eschatological poverty; further references to the ‘poor among the saints of Jerusalem’, in 2 Corinthians 9:12 and Romans 15:26, do seem to make it clear that there was at least some part of the Jerusalem church that was poor in the economic sense.
This being the case, the concept of helping poor Christians in Jerusalem (Galatians 6:10) would therefore be logical. It was the traditional viewpoint to demonstrate love of God that Gentiles had found in Christ (2 Cor. 8:8-9). Whilst economic hardship may have precipitated the request for funds, the length of time Paul took to complete the collection, which Sze-Kar Wan suggest was about a year and a half (2000:194) might well indicate that it was not intended to relieve one specific crisis.
The unity of the church could as well be another dimension of looking at it. Paul’s argument in his letter upholds his vision of koinonia and agape amongst the Jewish and gentile churches. He refers to this work as a ‘ministry’ (τῆς διακονίας) 2 Cor. 9:1. It appears to be evidence of the grace at work among them, overflowing in a generosity towards others in response to the generosity of God to them in salvation. He wanted probably to demonstrate that the church was comprised of both Gentiles and Jews. Implicit in the collection, therefore, was Paul’s desire to create a sense of unity and brotherhood between the two branches of Christianity. Maybe he wanted to show that his gospel was in harmony with the Jerusalem churches. So he encouraged his churches to give voluntarily and generously as a demonstration to the Jerusalem churches that the Gentile Christians of the Diaspora wanted to be involved in the relief efforts.
In Romans 15:27, Paul turns theological: “If Gentiles have shared in the Jews’ spiritual blessings, they owe it to the Jews to share with them their material blessings”. He explains to the Romans that the spiritual blessings of the gospel enjoyed by the Gentile Christians have come to them from the Christian community in Jerusalem. Paul Barnett says that ‘the Gentiles owe them a spiritual debt which is to be repaid by material blessings (1988:139). He saw the collection as his sacrificial offering (Romans 15:31), though Luke’s comment (Acts 20:22) reflects Paul’s concern about the response of the Jerusalem church which might jeopardize his mission and the unity of the church. James Dunn adds that this opposition was probably influenced by Jewish nationalistic feeling which led to their revolt in A.D. 66. Such feeling would tend to view the offering of Gentiles with increased suspicion (1988:879-880). Paul’s fear was thus justifiable that his gentile gift might be refused.
Results of the Collection
Luke records that Jerusalem received the gift warmly (Acts 21:17), praised God for what was happening in the Gentile world (Acts 21:20). The presence of those Gentiles who aided in the collection led to the very occasion for Paul’s arrest (Acts 21:29). He was accused of defiling the temple since Trophimus, a Greek from Ephesus, had accompanied him to the city; the assumption was that Paul had taken him into the forbidden area. Any Gentiles found within the bounds of the court of Israel would be killed. Trophimus suffered no attack, thus rendering this accusation null and void. No wonder they asked Paul to demonstrate his commitment to the law and to the Jewish people by undertaking a vow of purification (Acts 21:21-26). We can infer from this that the collection was received with gratitude, with perhaps some residual suspicions regarding the Gentile Christians’ commitment to the law (McKnight, 1993:146).
McKnight further alleges that according to some scholars the collection did not accomplish its purposes since the saints remained poor. The tension between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians continued (1993:146). In spite of the fact that Paul’s gospel may have continued to remain a sore spot for the Jerusalem Christians, the concluding chapters of Acts have no evidence that the Christians refused to stand with him. But the gesture might have impressed the Judean Christians enough to assume church unity around one gospel, one Lord, one Spirit amidst diversity.
What Does This Mean About Church Partnership?
Partnership is a biblical idea and Apostle Paul speaks about it in many of his letters, as we have seen. The collection itself seems to explain this fact and Paul exploits it to fulfill his duty to the Jerusalem church. The church at Philippi was the apostle’s key partnership church with the likes of Lydia (businesswoman), a slave girl and the Jailer. This young church joined Paul as a partner in the gospel, sending him financial and personal assistance (Phi. 4:15). When he was in prison, Philippi sent a personal representative in the person of Epaphroditus to take care of his needs (Philippians 2:25). Paul can rightly speak of them as his partners from the first day until the present (Philippians 1:5). This idea of local partnership helped Paul in his missionary outreach and, consequently, impacted the Jerusalem church with a ‘great harvest’.
Paul talks about partnership in ‘the matter of giving and receiving’ (4:15). So partnership is also about money: who needs it, who has it and what to do with it. For Paul, money is not about power and control, but about ministry and opportunity. He talks about it easily, noting that the Philippian church was one of those Macedonian churches that gave generously out of conditions of extreme poverty (see 2 Cor. 8:1-4). He uses the language of accounting to describe their partnership in monetary support of his mission.
Partnership in the gospel, Paul writes to the Philippians, is all about prayer (Philippians 1:3, 4), about joy (v.4), about love and attachment (vv. 7, 8), about sharing together in grace (v. 7), about confident endurance vv. 5, 6). These are the kinds of beliefs and behaviors that sustain relationships over a long time. Partnership is therefore rooted in relationship. The National Council of Churches of Kenya is explicitly right; a political model of partnership, based on ethnic balance is foreign to a biblical demonstration of koinonia. When the task is completed, the partnership dissolves. For believers ,partnership in the gospel continues until it finds its completion in the day of Christ.
Relationships lie at the core of global church partnerships. They are meant to reflect theological realities. Our oneness in Jesus is what we call the Church, described variously as the Body of Christ or the people of God. This is what Paul addresses in his letter to the Corinthians about the need that the various parts of the Body of Christ have for each other, when he states that ‘we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body’ (1 Cor. 12:13). Although there are many local churches, there is only one Church, that of the first born (Hebrews 12:23), purchased by the death of Jesus (Acts 20:28). Christians are not just individuals living isolated lives before God, but persons in community, and that community comprises local churches. These local churches are themselves part of the larger community, in our case the Anglican Communion. It is theologically appropriate, therefore, to affirm that local churches partner together in vital relationships to demonstrate the work of God in Christ on the cross.
Implications for the 21st Century Church
As churches in different countries and cultures, we need each other. Jews and Gentiles needed each other. God has created diversity in culture in order to bring glory to himself. He has entrusted different resources to different churches that we might learn to give to each other. If the church in the west has the majority of the world’s financial and theological and pastoral resources and does not give to the non-western church, it is a scandal. If the church in the developing world knows how to flourish in the face of adversity and does not bring this gift to the affluent church, it is a scandal. The point here is that the affluent church ought to understand how a church in hardship survives and looks for ways to alleviate the difficulty. Likewise, a church in a poor context needs to know how a wealthy church serves God in such an environment. As David Maranz rightly put it, ‘solidarity means interdependence rather than independence. It also means living in a community rather than in social or spiritual isolation’ (2001:95). Thus, we should partner to help one another; create room to converse and listen as partners in spite of the apparent differences.
Partnering with other churches across cultures teaches us to appreciate the diverse creativity of our creator. We see the world in different ways and express our joy or grief differently. It might be difficult to understand another church’s culture, but it is not so hard to appreciate others praising the same Lord, albeit in different way. The church should prayerfully and with a lot of restraint cultivate room for dialogue. Our difference should not be the point at which we cannot appreciate other people’s point of view. To sever the Anglican Communion over differences in what we perceive ‘to be rightful sexual orientation’ is at the best bizarre. It would be interesting, without prejudice, to listen and converse with practicing homosexual Christians. There was confusion in Kenya when a church group from the UK was accosted and embarrassed for having sympathized with the homosexual community. The group had to cut short their visit, even though it has partnered with a church in Kenya for over twenty years. What went wrong? Cross-cultural partnership should allow us to see ourselves as the other sees us, teaching us humility and bringing us to a more human home.
We have looked at the historical setting, rationale and outcome of the collection for the Jerusalem church. We have seen a ‘fitting’ paradigm of partnership in the Pauline letters, both spiritual and economic, and what that implies for the 21st century church at the point of schism over homosexuality. We need to encourage a two-way traffic, because partnerships are grounded on relationships. May God grant us the wisdom to listen, to learn from, and serve with each other through word and deed.
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Bruce, F, F, 1993, ‘Paul in Acts and Letters’ in Hawthorne, G, F, etal (eds), Dictionary of Paul and his Letters. Leicester, England: Intervarsity Press, pp 679-692.
Dunn, J, 1988, Word Biblical commentary (Romans 9-16). Dallas, Texas: Word Books.
Harrison, M, 2007, Paul’s Collection for Jerusalem. St Loius, Missouri: LCMS World Relief and Human Care.
Maranz, D, 2001, African Friends and Money Matters. Dallas: SIL International.
McKnight, S, 1993, ‘Collection for the Saints’, in Hawthorne, G, F, etal (eds), Dictionary of Paul and his Letters. Leicester, England: Intervarsity Press, pp 143-147.
Sze-Kar Wan, 2000, ‘Collection for the Saints as anticolonial act’, in Horsley, R, (ed), Paul and Politics: Ekklesia, Israel, Imperium, Interpretation. Pennysylvania: Trinity Press International.