Self-Reliance or Mutual Dependence? A Vision for the Worldwide Church

by Sigurd Grindheim

Drawing from 2 Corinthians 8, the author digs deeper into the truth that to be a Christian is to
be both a recipient and a giver.

A church that desires to be an authentic witness of the gospel cannot ignore the importance of money. Many missiologists have concluded that a church cannot be truly indigenous unless it is also truly self-reliant (cf. Dayton and Fraser 1980, 357–359). The Apostle Paul also has a great deal to say about money, but his emphasis lies elsewhere.

The Collection for Jerusalem
If the frequency of the theme is a guide, economic fellowship was a central theme in Paul’s theology. Almost all of his early letters mentioned the collection for Jerusalem (1 Cor. 16:1-4; 2 Cor. 8:1-9,15; Rom. 15:25-28; cf. Gal. 2:1-10). For Paul, this collection was more than a desperate solution made necessary by a severe crisis. This was how he described it in Romans 15:25-27:

Now, however, I am on my way to Jerusalem in the service of the saints there. For Macedonia and Achaia were pleased to make a contribution for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem. They were pleased to do it, and indeed they owe it to them. For if the Gentiles have shared in the Jews’ spiritual blessings, they owe it to the Jews to share with them their material blessings.

The collection became a manifestation of the fellowship among the churches. An important theological principle came to expression when the Gentiles brought their contributions to the church in Jerusalem. The deep spiritual fellowship that existed between the mother church and the new churches was tangibly expressed through an economic fellowship and through the reversal of the flow of gifts. The flow of gifts had first run from Jerusalem to the Gentiles, and it consisted of spiritual gifts. Now the flow ran the other way, and it consisted of material gifts.

Taking a Deeper Look at 2 Corinthians
Paul’s most extensive treatment of the collection is found in 2 Corinthians. In order to motivate the Corinthians to participate in the collection, he directed their attention to the churches in Macedonia (2 Cor. 8:1), where Philippi was the center. Despite the fact that these churches experienced deep poverty, they made generous contributions to Jerusalem (2 Cor. 8:2-3).

It is not difficult to understand what Paul was getting at: when the poor Macedonians had given so much, should not the Corinthians also show their wealth by contributing to this gift (2 Cor. 8:7)? Paul likely intended to provoke the Corinthians, who were proud of their spiritual riches (cf. 1 Cor. 1:5, 7). In contrast to the Corinthians, the Macedonians did not see it as a burden to participate. On the contrary, they gave voluntarily (2 Cor. 8:3), even earnestly begging for the privilege of participating (2 Cor. 8:4).

What could be the cause of such an attitude? Paul mentioned two reasons. First, they considered the gift as an opportunity to share “in the fellowship of service to God’s holy people” (2 Cor. 8:4). In the New Testament, “fellowship” (koinonia) frequently refers to spiritual fellowship (1 Cor. 1:9; 10:16; 2 Cor. 6:14; 13:13; Phil. 2:1; 3:10; Phile. 6; 1 John 1:3, 6-7), but the fellowship between believers was not exclusively of a spiritual nature. The spiritual fellowship was made manifest through an external fellowship. Where it was natural, the spiritual fellowship manifested itself in economic fellowship. This fellowship was so strong that the Christians in Macedonia gave beyond their means (2 Cor. 8:3), and to Christians they had never even met—those in poverty in Jerusalem.

Second, Paul pointed out that the Macedonians “gave themselves first to the Lord and, by the will of God, to us” (2 Cor. 8:5). Here lies the foundation. The reason why the Macedonians were so willing to give was that they had already given. They had not only given their time or their possessions. They had given themselves to the Lord. They knew that their lives belonged to the Lord; they no longer belonged to themselves (Rom. 14:8; 2 Cor. 5:15).

It followed as a natural consequence that they gave themselves to the Church, which is the Body of Christ (Rom. 12:4-5; 1 Cor. 12:12-13, 20, 27; Eph. 1:23; 3:6; 4:4, 12; 5:23, 30; Col. 1:24; 3:15). Churches all over the world belong together as a living organism. Economic fellowship is a natural consequence of that (Verkuyl 1978, 312).

As Paul motivated the Corinthians to participate in the collection, he emphasized that what he said should not be construed as a command (2 Cor. 8:8). Unlike the Jewish institution of the temple tax, the collection was not regulated as a law. All free, adult men were required to pay the temple tax, and the amount was fixed precisely. But Paul gave no regulations like that. Participation in the collection was completely voluntary, and everyone was free to give whatever amount they wanted (Nickle 1966, 74–99).

The motivation for participating in the collection was not to be found in the law, but in the gospel. For that reason, Paul did not want to use any form of coercion in connection with the collection. He wanted the Christians to be motivated from the inside. He wanted them to participate because they were fired up by the gospel, like the Macedonians.

The motivation for participating comes from fellowship with Jesus Christ himself: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9).

Second Corinthians 8:9 is one of the most wonderful summaries of the gospel in the entire New Testament. But we do well to note that this great summary occurs in a context where Paul speaks about money. The application is very concrete: as Christ gave up his heavenly riches to make us rich, so should the Corinthians use their material wealth to help their Christian brothers and sisters (Furnish 1984, 417–418).

Economic Fellowship in the Body of Christ
Economic fellowship among believers is therefore directly related to the very essence of the gospel. That Jesus has given of his heavenly riches is tangibly expressed in how we share our material wealth with one another. The new reality which we share through the gospel is not only a hope for the future, but something we experience here and now, through the fellowship made up by believers (Georgi 1992, 141–165).

As a consequence of this fellowship, Christians should experience equality (2 Cor. 8:13-15). In the early Church, those who had abundance shared with those in need (Acts 2:44-45). This principle did not only apply internally in the local church—it had an international application.

To take part in giving to Christian brothers and sisters who are less fortunate is, in other words, a direct consequence of the gospel and our fellowship with Christ. When there is equality among Christians, the gospel comes to a concrete expression. To give to believers in other parts of the world is a service to God.

Paul and the Church in Philippi
Paul’s thoughts on economic fellowship are also reflected in the letter he wrote to the church in Philippi. Toward the end of the letter, Paul made reference to the gift he received from the Philippians (Phil. 4:10-20). Even though he evidently appreciated what the Philippians did for him (4:10), he never explicitly said “thank you.” Instead, he directed the praise to God (Phil. 4:20).

He underscored how he was more concerned with the fruit of the gift than with the gift itself (4:17). By giving to Paul’s ministry, the Philippians gave a “sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God” (4:18). To contribute to Paul’s ministry must therefore be considered a privilege.

The relationship between Paul and the Philippians has often been compared to the social institution of patronage. In a society where few people could be very rich, and the vast majority was very poor, people of limited means had the option of becoming clients of a patron. The patrons took it upon themselves to care for the clients financially, whereas the clients were obliged to show the patrons complete loyalty and to provide the services required by the patrons.

Even if such a relationship was voluntary for both parties, the relationship was entirely asymmetrical, and the clients found themselves in a constant debt of gratitude to the patrons. The power always lay with the patron, and the client remained the unworthy one, the submissive recipient of the patron’s favor. For the patrons, the advantage of having a client was to increase their own social status. The patrons could expect that clients would express their gratitude and thus contribute to the general honor and prestige of the patrons. The patrons emerged as superior in social status and became known as the generous benefactors (Neyrey 2005, 467–468).

Several scholars have concluded that the relationship between Paul and the church in Philippi was a patron-client relationship. They maintain that Paul, as the patron of the Philippian church, was embarrassed when he received their monetary gift. For such a gift would have threatened his position as the superior patron.

This interpretation is unlikely, however. Paul emphasized that the relationship between he and the Philippians was of a completely different nature. Even though Paul had a unique position as an apostle and as founder of the church, the relationship was in no way between a superior patron and a subordinate client.

Instead, Paul underscored that he and the Philippians belonged together in fellowship. They were in a relationship between equals, for they stood together in dependence upon and gratitude towards God. Therefore, one of the parties cannot have had as their purpose to give honor and status to the other. The gratitude and the honor went to God from both of them (Marshall 1987, 157–164; Bockmuehl 1997, 36–37; Schnabel 2004, 1448).

Again we see how the principle of equality was important to Paul. No one, not even the apostle, was on a higher level than his or her Christian brothers and sisters. All stood in the same relationship to God, as totally dependent upon him. And all stood in the same fellowship of believers. When the resources were divided evenly, God was the One to whom the praise was due.

Conclusion and Application
To be a Christian is to be a recipient. It is to receive the gift of salvation from God, and subsequently to receive all things from him. But to be a Christian is also to be a giver. As Christians, we are conformed to Christ; as he gave, we are called to give, first to him and then to one another. A Christian or a church which is only a recipient is incomplete. The goal for all Christians must be to participate in giving and contributing to the fellowship, and in these ways expressing our union with Christ.

A biblical focus on self-reliance can therefore not mean that a church should become independent or autonomous, but that it should take part in the privilege of giving. Our goal should not be that new churches become self-reliant. Instead, our goal should be that new churches become complete members of the Body of Christ.

The goal should not be that churches become self-sufficient. Instead, the goal should be that they become givers in the fellowship that is constituted by God’s Church worldwide. This does not mean they will not need financial assistance from other churches; it does mean that they do not find their place exclusively and passively as recipients. They must be included in a fellowship that is both spiritual and material.

At a given point in time, there may be a higher concentration of spiritual resources in some places and a lower concentration in other areas. This is how it was in the early Church, when the spiritual resources were concentrated in Jerusalem. At the same time, the material resources may be found more abundantly in some areas than in others, as it was in Paul’s time, when the churches outside Jerusalem had better economic conditions.

The natural solidarity among the family of God will then mean that those who have much share with those who have less. Paul advocated the ideal of a fellowship where the churches stood together. He does not appear to have envisioned a situation where every church was left to its own devices and managed as best it could on its own. The fellowship entailed that the resources were flowing, sometimes in one direction, other times in the other direction.

Today, the challenge is that the relationships between old and young churches often have become purely one-way. The old churches give, the young churches receive. The old churches in the West are much wealthier than the new churches in the South, and it is unlikely that the economic resources will flow more than one way. At the same time, the old churches often have a much older history and more extensive spiritual experience. For that reason, it may be considered natural that the old churches provide spiritual advice and support for the new churches. In the spiritual realm as well, the relationship has therefore been a one-way relationship.

Some might compare the relationship between old and young churches to a relationship between patrons and clients. The old churches provide resources for the young churches, and the relationship is in no way a relationship between equals. Like the client, so do the young churches have as their purpose to increase the honor and status of the old churches.

Through their one-sided relationship with the young churches, the old churches can maintain their status as generous benefactors and significant mission agencies.

The attitude that often prevails is expressed in an episode told by James Knutson:

The Church in Sudan had sent her request to the brothers and sisters in England to help the Church in Sudan with bicycles for the pastors and evangelists. The mission society in England responded positively and was ready to send the bicycles. However, then another letter came from the Sudan asking what the church in Sudan could do for the Christians in England. The mission society responded by saying, “There is nothing you can do for us.” The church leadership of Sudan repeated this question three times and the response was “nothing.” Then the church in Sudan sent the following message: “If we cannot do anything for you, then you cannot do anything for us. Therefore, we do not want your bicycles.” (Helander and Niwagila 1996, 85)

The biblical answer to the challenge we are facing cannot be that the new churches tear themselves away and in every way become independent of the old churches. Such a solution would be to trade one error for another. The answer must be that a one-way relationship develops into a two-way relationship.

One wonders if the challenge in this area lies more with the old churches than the new ones. Are we in the old churches willing to give up our role as those on top? Are we willing to abandon our position as patrons, with a comfortable one-way relationship to the new churches?

Are we willing to strive for a two-way relationship, a relationship that presupposes mutual dependence? Are we willing to make ourselves vulnerable and be open to the possibility that our partners in the new churches can teach us something? Are we open to the possibility that our relationship to the new churches can give us something more than the status of being missionaries and generous benefactors? I pray the answer is yes.

Bockmuehl, Markus. 1997. The Epistle to the Philippians. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.

Dayton, Edward R. and David A. Fraser. 1980. Planning Strategies for World Evangelization. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

Furnish, Victor Paul. 1984. II Corinthians: Translated with Introduction, Notes and Commentary. New York: Doubleday.

Georgi, Dieter. 1992. Remembering the Poor: The History of Paul’s Collection for Jerusalem. Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon.

Helander, Eila and Wilson B. Niwagila. 1996. The Partnership and Power: A Quest for Reconstruction in Mission. Makumira Publications 7. Erlangen, Germany: Verlag der Ev.-Luth. Mission.

Marshall, Peter. 1987. Enmity in Corinth: Social Conventions in Paul’s Relations with the Corinthians. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck.

Neyrey, Jerome H. 2005. “God, Benefactor and Patron: The Major Cultural Model for Interpreting the Deity in Greco-Roman Antiquity.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 27:465–492.

Nickle, Keith F. 1966. The Collection: A Study in Paul’s Strategy. London: SCM.

Schnabel, Eckhard J. 2004. Paul and the Early Church. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.

Verkuyl, Johannes. 1978. Contemporary Missiology: An Introduction. Trans. and ed. Dale Cooper. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.


Sigurd Grindheim has a PhD in New Testament studies from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. For the past four years, he has served as a biblical studies professor in Ethiopia. He is currently pastoring the Norwegian Lutheran Memorial Church in Chicago.

EMQ, Vol. 47, No. 2, pp. 170-175. Copyright  © 2011 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.


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