Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Why do we give?

The other day, Eric Carpenter had a blog post about something R.C. Sproul wrote on tithing. I read the same thing from Sproul and had a similar reaction and as I said in response I have a hard time taking Sproul seriously when the topic turns to giving when I get daily pleas for money from Ligonier.

What I found interesting was a comment from Alan Knox:

First, refusing to put money in an offering plate in order to support an organizational structure is not the same as supporting the church. In the same way, refusing to put money in an offering plate in order to support an organizational structure is not the same as failing to support the church. In fact, if you see the organizational structure as detrimental to the church, then perhaps it is better NOT to support that organization.

That is right on. If you view, as I do, most of the organized, tradition bound church as an impediment to the making of disciples and equipping believers, why in the world would you support that system financially? It is irresponsible to keep pouring money into a system without asking the hard questions just because tradition and the loudest voices say so. Unfortunately, a reasonable and eminently Biblical question like that rises to the level of wicked rebelliousness in some eyes. I have been accused in the past of failing to support "The Church" financially. In fact, one guy on Facebook described refusing to put money in the plate to support clerical staff at a local church as "evil". He was dead serious and outraged that anyone would even question the whole system.

Of course the opposite is just as dangerous and un-Biblical. Cynically refusing to give to others is simply unacceptable for a Christian. Giving of our resources in support of one another and the needy is a fundamental feature of the life of a believer and reflective of a changed life. So we ought to be giving deeply of our resources which includes not just money but our time, our love, our compassion, our talents. We need to think through why we give and how we give because just putting some money in the plate and letting others worry about where it goes is and giving little thought to how it is being spent is not healthy or helpful either.

Having said that, Kingdom giving is not the same thing as writing a check to sustain a local church organization and the confusion between the two is a problem. I want to take a lengthy look at giving in the NT church because I think we assume a lot of things about giving, where we should give, how we should give and what the purpose of giving is.

When we see the church giving in the New Testament, there are a couple of important things going on. First, the early church didn't "tithe" in the sense of paying a fixed percentage out of obligation, but gave completely and sacrificially and joyfully. Second, they gave to help others and by helping others I mean meeting the physical needs of believers and others. Let's look at some examples of giving in the New Testament (keeping in mind that the model under the Old Covenant is no longer applicable under the New Covenant in the church so we cannot appeal there for direction). Lets start with Acts 2: 44-45 and Acts 4: 32-35:

And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. (Acts 2: 44-45)

Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. (Acts 4:32-35)

The first thing that jumps out at me here is that this is a sacrificial giving, not a miserly tithe. I don’t think that this mandates that all Christians have all things in common but I certainly do see the advantages of that among believers and I likewise think that any believer who withholds from another when the other believer is in need has a troubling understanding of money and possessions. You certainly have a hard time reconciling the idea of giving a percentage of what is left over after taking care of all of your expenses and savings for retirement to the church and feeling that you are satisfying the call to support others.

The second thing, and this will be a recurring theme, is that the funds are being given as any had need. Not to fund a program or an institution but going to Christians who were in need. It sounds to me like it was “see a need, fill a need” situation. As someone has a need, it was fulfilled so that none were without. That would mean that some would have far less materially than they might have otherwise (i.e. Barnabas who sold his real estate and gave it to the church to be distributed to others in Acts 4: 36-37) but that was OK and expected.

Next we move to Acts 11: 27-30

Now in these days prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. And one of them named Agabus stood up and foretold by the Spirit that there would be a great famine over all the world (this took place in the days of Claudius). So the disciples determined, everyone according to his ability, to 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: 27-30)

Here we see a specific need that was prophesied as besetting the church in Judea that the rest of the church took up offerings for and delivered by hand for the relief of those saints. The church around the region was made aware of a need that wold impact a church in a completely different region and they gave to see to it that the needs of those brothers was met. This is a recurring theme....

Now concerning the collection for the saints: as I directed the churches of Galatia, so you also are to do. On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come. And when I arrive, I will send those whom you accredit by letter to carry your gift to Jerusalem. (1 Cor 16: 1-3)

We see here a special collection being taken at the church but not to stay in the coffers of the church in Corinth (and previously Galatia) but rather to be gathered and taken to Jerusalem for the severe need there, spoken of in a number of places throughout the New Testament.

Let’s look at the praise heaped upon the church in Macedonia for their generosity that was so extraordinary that Paul took the time to mention it in his letter to the church in Corinth. Paul devotes virtually all of two chapters to giving (2 Corinthians 8-9) but we often only hear about the "God loves a cheerful giver" portion (2 Cor 9: 6-8) from pulpits as a plea for greater giving to the local church when the offering is down, even though that has nothing to do with what Paul is talking about.

We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints— and this, not as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us. (2 Corinthians 8: 1-5)

In a time of severe trial, the Christians in Macedonia gave generously, “beyond their means” for….the relief of the saints. What a far cry from the situation in America where tens of thousands of churches across the land each have their own bank account, jealously guarded, where untold millions (billions?) are hoarded away for the needs of that local church. Going on further…

For I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but that as a matter of fairness your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be fairness. As it is written, “Whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack.” (2 Corinthians 8: 13-15)

The expectation again is that as some saints prosper, they help those who are less prosperous wherever they may be and not just in that particular local church. Given what Paul said about the saints in Maecdonia giving generously even in their poverty, I think that "prospering" means something very different to Paul than it does to us. So that means that we should feel a burden for the care of the saints beyond the “members” of out local church and include other believers in our area and indeed around the world. Can you imagine a traditional evangelical church in Nebraska where they decided that the offering for the next month would be bundled up, 100%, and sent to a community of Christian in Detroit who were suffering? It is hard to imagine because it would seem so out of place and out of character and because almost every local church has monthly bills that need to be paid. Nevertheless, that is precisely what was going on in the early church. Paul continues this conversation in the next chapter where he urges the Corinthians to be ready for the promised offering so as not to be embarrassed by a shortfall (2 Corinthians 9: 1-5). Then we get into the “cheerful giver” passages (2 Corinthians 9: 6-8). That is where the discussion often stops, but Paul goes on….

For the ministry of this service is not only supplying the needs of the saints but is also overflowing in many thanksgivings to God. By their approval of this service, they will glorify God because of your submission flowing from your confession of the gospel of Christ, and the generosity of your contribution for them and for all others, while they long for you and pray for you, because of the surpassing grace of God upon you. (2 Corinthians 9: 12-14)

How are they glorifying God? By buying new carpet or adding a new wing on their “church” or hiring a youth minister? By saving money up in their bank account? No, they were glorifying God by supplying the needs of the saints, taking up a contribution for others who are not even part of their local church and who they probably never had and never would meet this side of eternity.

In a more general sense, under the marks of a true Christian in Romans 12, we see this admonition in verse 13:

Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality. (Romans 12:13)

"Contribute to the needs of the saints". Notice that the mark of a true Christian is not sustaining the local church organization, it is again caring for the needs of the saints.

An interesting passage shows up in 2 Corinthians 11: 7-9, where Paul talks about receiving financial support from the church:

Or did I commit a sin in humbling myself so that you might be exalted, because I preached God's gospel to you free of charge? I robbed other churches by accepting support from them in order to serve you. And when I was with you and was in need, I did not burden anyone, for the brothers who came from Macedonia supplied my need. So I refrained and will refrain from burdening you in any way. (2 Cor 11: 7-9)

What is interesting here is that Paul is receiving support from other churches in order to serve the Corinthian church rather than burdening the Corinthian church and impeding his right to boast in the Gospel (this is consistent with 1 Corinthians 9: 1-23 where Paul talks about rejecting payment for preaching the Gospel so that his getting paid would not be an obstacle to the Gospel proclamation [see 1 Cor 9:12] ). In fact Paul sees the support he was receiving from these other churches as robbing those churches. I think it is fair to say that Paul saw the support he was receiving from these other churches as taking away from caring for the poor and needy among the saints in those areas. Given the lengths to which Paul reminded the church that he worked to provide for himself with his own hands, we can see a picture where caring for the needs of people is seen as the primary reason for giving in the church. Certainly there are occasions when money is diverted to support missionaries and church planters to use the traditional terminology but I tend to see that as the exception rather than the norm.

How did we arrive at the point where we transformed Biblical support for giving to meet the needs of the saints into giving to prop up the machinery of the institution? We give to sustain the church instead of giving to support the need of the Church. Here is what I mean...

You can give generously to The Church, i.e. other Christians as they have need, without giving to the church, i.e. the local organization where you meet with other believers. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give to your local church but it does mean that you should be very cautious in doing so. Giving is not the price of admission nor is funding the operations of a local religious organization an especially pious act and certainly giving to the local church organization should not replace giving to care for the needs of the saints, the poor, widows and orphans. I have often heard it said that you should give to your local church first and then after fulfilling that obligation give to others. I think the opposite is more Biblical. We should give generously, sacrificially and joyfully to the needs of others as our first priority. The local church can and should be a part of that giving and distributing but it should not the primary beneficiary of that giving.

If we are people who take the Bible seriously, and most people who read and comment here fall into that category, ought we not see what the Bible has to say about the issue of giving, generosity and money? There are few things more contentious in the church than how we deal with giving and spending. Little wonder when we view these issues as we do, through the lens of tradition, instead of asking what the Bible has to say about it. Before I even started to look at this topic I had an idea of what I thought I would find but I was a little surprised by how overwhelmingly the Bible depicts the act of giving as being something that is primarily designed to meet the needs of others.

What do you think? Am I missing something or overstating my case? How do you think Christians would view giving if it were something that was mostly aimed at meeting the needs (I would argue primarily physical needs like hunger) of others instead of perpetuating the local church?

1 comment:

John Mureiko said...

I agree absolutely with everything you said. As believers our financial generosity needs to be specifically centered around the true church and not the building church. I suppose I'm just wondering now what you think about the blog post that Ligonier did put up on tithing. What do you think Jesus was trying to convey in Matthew 23:23? I'm just curious. Do you think he was speaking specifically to a Jewish tradition of "tithing" that doesn't carry over to into our church lives? It may be that I simply don't understand the nature of the Jewish tithe.