What is the “Collection”?
Paul initiated the Collection as a part of his mission to the Gentiles (1 Cor 16:1-4). Before the first missionary journey in Acts 13, Paul had delivered funds to Jerusalem collected by the Antioch church. This famine relief visit is the subject of Gal 2:1-10. In Gal 2:10 Paul said that the James had only encouraged him to “remember the poor.” The “poor” likely refers to the community in Jerusalem, the people the famine visit was intended to help. This “famine relief” visit indicates the Jewish Christian churches in the Diaspora were not living in common as Jerusalem was, but they also felt a responsibility to support the Jerusalem believers financially.
The Jerusalem community appears to be still living in a sort of shared community, supported by gifts when Paul returns to Jerusalem in Acts 21. It is possible Judea was suffering from another famine and possibly the effects of a Jubilee year. If this was the case, then the poor in Jerusalem were even more dependent on Antioch than ever. Paul uses the word “relief” (ESV, translating διακονία, service, assistance) in 2 Cor 8:4 and in 9:12 the same word describes the collection as an opportunity for service for the poor in Jerusalem.
When Paul spoke of the “collection” in 1 Cor 16:1, he used a word (λογεία) associated with an irregular tax or contribution of money for some charitable or sacred purpose (MM, BDAG). In 2 Maccabees 12:43 Judas Maccabees takes up a collection from his men to be sent to Jerusalem to pay for a sin offering on behalf of the soldiers who had been killed in battle. The word appears in a Theban ostraca of date 4 Aug. A.D. 63 with reference to a tax for the priests of Isis (Deissmann, LAE, 104).
The Greco-Roman world used a system of public benefaction to help the poor, but there was nothing like a modern “fund-raiser” where people solicit money to be distributed to the poor. In Judaism the poor received alms from individuals, but money was not collected by any organization to be re-distributed to the poor. The only exception appears to be Queen Abiabene, who brought relief to Jerusalem (Antiq. 20:51-51).
It is possible Paul picks up this word from the word from a letter from the Corinthians themselves. They may have considered this collection as a kind of tax (a millage?) like a Greek temple collecting funds to meet the need of the priests. But that is not Paul’s point at all: this is not a tax but rather a special way to share a gracious gift in order to meet a very serious need in Jerusalem.
Since this collection was unprecedented, it would have looked very suspicious to outsiders. What is Paul doing with this money? Paul is careful to bring representatives of the Gentile churches to assure the churches he was not going to disappear with the funds. Since traveling with such a large amount of money was dangerous, a large group would be required to protect the collection. During Paul’s second stay in Corinth he arranged for the Collection to be brought to Jerusalem (Romans 15:22-29; Acts 20:1-6). Paul plans to travel from Corinth to Jerusalem with an entourage of representatives of the Gentile churches. The list of travel companions in Acts 20:4 includes Greek names, representatives of the now successful Gentile mission.
Paul’s plan, therefore, is to collect a gift for the poor believers in Jerusalem who are suffering from famine and poverty. Based on Acts, it appears Paul wants to deliver the gift at Pentecost as a kind of “first fruits” from his harvest among the Gentiles. That is really the point of the collection, to show the church at Jerusalem that God has already done great things among the Gentiles. This is not a bribe to the apostles or a payment to them to remain an apostle, but a way to demonstrate the way God has been working among the Gentiles.
But according to 2 Corinthians 8, the church at Corinth was slow to participate in this collection. Paul describes the generosity of the poor churches in Macedonia (vv. 1-5) and compares this service to Jesus, who was rich yet he became poor (v. 9). This is a similar argument to Philippians 1 where Paul encourage the church to follow the example of Jesus who did not think equality with God was something to be grasped but took on the form of a human servant. If anyone in Corinth was thinking their social standing was too high to participate in this particular project, Jesus is the ultimate challenge!
To what extent is Paul trying to shame the Corinthians? Compared to the churches in Macedonia, they are wealthy and have not experienced any persecution which would have resulted in a similar kind of poverty. Paul himself was able to spend 18 months in their community, more time than he was able to spend in all of the other communities combined.
The Corinthian church has already made a commitment to participating in Paul’s collection for Jerusalem, but because of the conflict between Paul and the church (and perhaps some suspicious thinking prompted by Paul’s opponents), they have been slow in following through on that commitment. Paul legitimately is shaming them for their dishonorable lack of commitment to the Collection. If the Macedonians can participate, and if the ultimately rich and power Jesus can set equality with God aside in order to become poor in order to serve us in his death, then the Corinthian church can make good on their commitment to offer a gift to support the Jerusalem church.
Honor and Shame were powerful motivations in the Greco-Roman world, and Paul has resorted to shaming the Corinthians several times in 1-2 Corinthians. But this is very difficult for a modern preacher to apply since a rhetorical “shaming” is likely to have the opposite effect on church member in America today. Paul’s collection is often used by preachers to encourage people to give regularly to the church or other ministries. “Giving a gift” should not be considered an obligation or tax, as it has been at various times in history. In America “pew rentals” helped churches to raise funds. If you wanted a good seat, you had to pay for it.
Is this passage an encouragement for regular giving to the local church?
Bibliography: D. J. Downs, “The Collection in 2 Corinthians” in Martin, 2 Corinthians (Second Edition); Witherington, Acts, 429; Bruce Winter, “Acts and Food Shortages” in The Book of Acts in its Greco-Roman Setting, 2: 59-78.