by Jefferson David Tant
From time to time, when discussing the mission and work of the church, questions are raised about certain practices that some will claim are not authorized in Scripture. The response often given is “But it’s a good work.” This has been a standard thought when discussions arise about orphan homes, “Christian” colleges, old folks’ homes, food pantries, sports teams for young people, and such enterprises that seek support from church treasuries. Homeless shelters and medical facilities, such as hospitals, can also be added to the list.
The Bible does encourage “good works” in many passages. "Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10). We could continue with several such passages, but these will suffice to establish the point. But to whom are these injunctions directed -- to individuals or to churches? An examination of the context shows that these are directed to individuals.
So, if it is a “good work,” does that mean that churches should support it just because it is a good work? That’s the question. Well, where do we stop? Is a Fire Department a good work? (Some rural communities could use one.) An ambulance service? A plumbing company? (We do get leaks and stopped up commodes on occasion.) What about home care services for the elderly? A daycare service for children? A sports program? (I read of two churches that were in a competition as to who had the biggest tennis court.) We could go on and on.
But consider something that was very good, but which was not authorized, not a part of God’s plan. King David had a great idea. He was living well in a nice house but was distressed that there was not a suitable place for the Lord’s presence in Israel.
"Now it came about when the king lived in his house, and the LORD had given him rest on every side from all his enemies, that the king said to Nathan the prophet, "See now, I dwell in a house of cedar, but the ark of God dwells within tent curtains." Nathan said to the king, "Go, do all that is in your mind, for the LORD is with you." But in the same night the word of the LORD came to Nathan, saying, "Go and say to My servant David, Thus says the LORD, ‘Are you the one who should build Me a house to dwell in? For I have not dwelt in a house since the day I brought up the sons of Israel from Egypt, even to this day; but I have been moving about in a tent, even in a tabernacle. Wherever I have gone with all the sons of Israel, did I speak a word with one of the tribes of Israel, which I commanded to shepherd My people Israel, saying, 'Why have you not built Me a house of cedar?'" (II Samuel 7:1-7).
Did David have a good motive? Did he want to do something to honor God? Was this a good thing that he wanted to do, to build a house for the Lord? Who could deny it? But God’s reply was, “Where have I ever commanded anyone to build Me a house?”
What’s the point? David wanted to do something in service to God, for which there was no authority! We do know that God gave authority to David’s son, Solomon, to build the temple, and it was done “according to the pattern,” even as the tabernacle was built (Exodus 25:9). But there was no authority from God, no “thus sayeth the Lord” for David to perform the “good work” he wanted to do.
On another occasion, King David had an idea for a “good work,” and carried it out. The Ark of the Covenant had been captured by the Philistines, and David set out to return this sacred item to its rightful place in Jerusalem. The story is told in I Chronicles 13:1-7:
“Then David consulted with the captains of the thousands and the hundreds, even with every leader. David said to all the assembly of Israel, "If it seems good to you, and if it is from the LORD our God, let us send everywhere to our kinsmen who remain in all the land of Israel, also to the priests and Levites who are with them in their cities with pasture lands, that they may meet with us, and let us bring back the ark of our God to us, for we did not seek it in the days of Saul." Then all the assembly said that they would do so, for the thing was right in the eyes of all the people. So David assembled all Israel together, from the Shihor of Egypt even to the entrance of Hamath, to bring the ark of God from Kiriath-jearim. David and all Israel went up to Baalah, that is, to Kiriath-jearim, which belongs to Judah, to bring up from there the ark of God, the LORD who is enthroned above the cherubim, where His name is called. They carried the ark of God on a new cart from the house of Abinadab, and Uzza and Ahio drove the cart.”
But something happened as they came along on the journey. Consider I Chronicles 13:9-10:
“When they came to the threshing floor of Chidon, Uzza put out his hand to hold the ark, because the oxen nearly upset it. The anger of the LORD burned against Uzza, so He struck him down because he put out his hand to the ark; and he died there before God.”
We need to go backward in time and get a bit of history in order to understand what has happened that caused Uzza to be struck dead. In Deuteronomy 10:8, we have the following recorded: “At that time the LORD set apart the tribe of Levi to carry the ark of the covenant of the LORD, to stand before the LORD to serve Him and to bless in His name until this day.” Notice it says that the tribe of Levi is to carry the ark. Notice also in Numbers 7:9 that the ark was to be carried “on the shoulder:” “But he did not give any to the sons of Kohath because theirs was the service of the holy objects, which they carried on the shoulder.”
Others had been given carts and oxen, but God had a special responsibility for the sons of Kohath. They were to carry the ark on their shoulders. Rings had been placed on the sides of the ark, and poles were put through the rings to facilitate the carrying of the ark.
There is one other matter to consider before the point it made. No one was to touch this sacred vessel. "When Aaron and his sons have finished covering the holy objects and all the furnishings of the sanctuary, when the camp is to set out, after that the sons of Kohath shall come to carry them, so that they will not touch the holy objects and die. These are the things in the tent of meeting which the sons of Kohath are to carry” (Numbers 4:15).
So, putting this all together, we see King David and Uzza both doing a “good work.” David realized the ark had to be carried for some distance, so he had a new cart made to be pulled by oxen to transport the ark so as to save any hardship for the men who would have had to walk a considerable distance carrying the ark. Who could argue that David didn’t consider this something good to do? After all, nowhere do we find a prohibition concerning this.
And it should be obvious that Uzza was doing what he considered a “good work,” as he sought to steady the ark to keep it from falling off the cart and suffering damage. But remember that God had told Moses that the ark should not be touched.
After this tragedy, sometime later David made arrangements for the ark to finish its journey to Jerusalem.
“Then David called for Zadok and Abiathar the priests, and for the Levites, for Uriel, Asaiah, Joel, Shemaiah, Eliel and Amminadab, and said to them, "You are the heads of the fathers' households of the Levites; consecrate yourselves both you and your relatives, that you may bring up the ark of the LORD God of Israel to the place that I have prepared for it. "Because you did not carry it at the first, the LORD our God made an outburst on us, for we did not seek Him according to the ordinance" (I Chronicles 15:11-13).
Look again at what David said was the cause of the “outburst” God had brought — "for we did not seek Him according to the ordinance." It may have been a “good work” in the minds of David and Uzza, but there was no authority for what they had done.
So why do we have a rather extensive record of these events in the Old Testament? “For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, so that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4).
Consider a New Testament example. “Many will say to Me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?' "And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from me, you who practice lawlessness'” (Matthew 7:21-23).
The people were saying, “But Lord, look at all the good deeds we were doing. What’s wrong?” The problem was that their “good deeds” were not “authorized deeds.” The word “lawlessness” is from the Greek “anomia.” This is the negative form of “nomos” — “law.” When the “a” (alpha) is put in front of a word it negates the word, thus making the meaning “unlawful,” or “without authority,” etc. We do the same in English with “healthy” and “unhealthy,” or “wise’ and “unwise.” These people were doing things for which there was no authority.
We must also remember that there is a distinction between the individual and the church. There may be many things that an individual may do which is a good work, but it’s not a work of the church. An example of this is found in I Timothy 5:16. In I Timothy 5:9-10 Paul gives the qualifications for widows who are in need to be supported by the church. Then in I TImohty 5:16 he writes: “If any woman who is a believer has dependent widows, she must assist them and the church must not be burdened, so that it may assist those who are widows indeed.”
Thus the church is authorized to care for certain widows, but the church was not authorized to provide care for those who had family members to provide for them. If, as some claim, what the individual does, the church is doing it, then I TImothy 5:16 is nonsense.
With respect to the church, we must respect the fact that it has a Head, who has all authority—Jesus Christ. “And He put all things in subjection under His feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all” (Ephesians 1:22-23).
My head (brain) controls my body. If parts of my body begin to act apart from the head, I’m in trouble. Likewise, if the church operates apart from its head, Jesus Christ, according to Christ’s statement in Matthew 7, it will be rejected.
Is it good for young people to have a sports program? Obviously so, and I see many churches with their teams, and signs out front advertising cheerleader tryouts, etc. Is this the work of the church? If so, please show me the passage authorizing it. If it can’t be found, I’ll leave that for parents and the community and schools to provide. Is it good to feed the hungry of the world? Assuredly so. Is it the work of the church? Cite the scripture.
We do have examples of churches sending relief during a time of famine. “Now at this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. One of them named Agabus stood up and began to indicate by the Spirit that there would certainly be a great famine all over the world. And this took place in the reign of Claudius. And in the proportion that any of the disciples had means, each of them determined to send a contribution for the relief of the brethren living in Judea. And this they did, sending it in charge of Barnabas and Saul to the elders” (Acts 11:27-30).
Paul wrote to the church at Corinth about sending relief. “Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I directed the churches of Galatia, so do you also. On the first day of every week each one of you is to put aside and save, as he may prosper, so that no collections be made when I come. When I arrive, whomever you may approve, I will send them with letters to carry your gift to Jerusalem” (I Corinthians 16:1-3)
There are various other passages dealing with churches sending relief to other churches. But notice something. The prophet Abagus said there would be a widespread famine. So who were the recipients of the relief? Fellow Christians in Jerusalem/Judea. Weren’t other people hungry? Assuredly so. But if the church took every dollar to feed the hungry of the world, it could not touch the hem of the garment, and then there would be no money left for the chief mission of the church — the preaching of the gospel. And notice what Paul wrote to the church at Corinth: “Now concerning the collection for the saints…”
If the famine was widespread, why send the money just to Jerusalem, and why just to the Christians? We go back to Pentecost in Acts 2 when there were some 3,000 people that were converted that day, and thousands more were added in the following days. There were people from 16 different nations. The converted travelers remained in Jerusalem for a time to be taught before going back home in Acts 8. In time they had no more money to provide for themselves, as they had not intended to remain in Jerusalem for any length of time. The believers who lived in Jerusalem then sold possessions to provide for their visiting fellow Christians.
“And the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul; and not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own, but all things were common property to them. And with great power the apostles were giving testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and abundant grace was upon them all. For there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales and lay them at the apostles' feet, and they would be distributed to each as any had need” (Acts 4:32-35).
So, while the famine may have impacted Macedonia and Corinth, etc., they were still better off than those in Jerusalem. But remember the churches that contributed sent help to fellow Christians only, not to all. It is quite likely that Christians living in Jerusalem and other places who had the ability would have individually helped their neighbors as they had an opportunity. Among other passages, Galatians 6:9-10 addresses this charge to individuals: “Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary. So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith.”
While something may seem “good” to us for the church to do, we better check it out with God’s word, our “Operator’s Manuel.” Solomon had a wise proverb for us: “There is a way which seems right to a man, But its end is the way of death” (Proverbs 14:12).
A final thought comes back to the matter of authority. The apostle Paul gave this charge to the church at Colossae: “Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father" (Colossians 3:17). “In the name of” means “by the authority of,” as when a policeman knocks on your door and says, “Open up, in the name of the law.” So, what we do in “word,” our teaching, and “deed,” our action, is to be done “by the authority of the Lord Jesus.”
It is not up to fallible man to think we can add to, subtract from, or change what God has written. We have been warned concerning this in Revelation 22:18-19: “I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues which are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his part from the tree of life and from the holy city, which are written in this book.”
Do you want your church to have a daycare center, a sports program, a job placement program, a food pantry, a hospital, a fire station, etc? These are all “good works,” but if they are authorized works of the church, give me the Scripture. Give me the authority. Give me a “thus sayeth the Lord.”