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Giving To and Through the Church (Part 2)

[See Part 1 for the series introduction.]

Part 2: Two Primary New Testament Reasons for Giving to the Church

If someone asked you to list two primary reasons to give to your local church, what would you say? In this post I want to consider two reasons that appear early and often in the New Testament.

Let’s begin in Acts, where giving to the church begins almost as soon as the church itself begins:

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)

Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty.” (Acts 6:1-3)

Imagine you are Luke, who wrote these passages. Why did you write them? Why did you record the giving practices of the early Christians? What do you want us to learn about giving to and through the church from these passages?

(Bible scholars have valid debates about the extent to which the narrative passages of Acts provide a model for the church today. My thoughts: While NT commands usually carry more normative weight than NT stories, both need to be interpreted in their historical contexts and both should help guide us today. I think one of the reasons why Acts was written was to equip us to learn from the strengths and weaknesses of the Spirit-guided church in its dynamic infancy.)

At minimum, we can likely agree on the following observations from these Acts passages:

  • The early Christians did give to the church.
  • Their giving was a result of the unity and grace found in the gospel.
  • Church leaders received and distributed the money.
  • The church soon learned that some leaders should be appointed to oversee church giving programs so that other leaders were free to focus on preaching the word of God.
  • There was one initial purpose for the giving—to support needy local Christians.

This gives us our first reason for giving to the church: to support needy local Christians. If we, like the first believers, know unity and grace through the gospel, then we, too, will share with needy Christians in our local fellowships.

Here are some more passages that support this reason for giving to the church (hover over the references to read the verses): 1 Timothy 5:3, 9-10, 16 (about supporting widows), James 1:27; 2:15-16 (about caring for widows, orphans, and anyone lacking clothes or daily food), and 1 John 3:16-18 (about showing love by sharing goods with brothers in need). Some of these verses can be obeyed by direct, personal giving as well as by giving through the church, but all focus on giving to needy fellow Christians. And all match what was happening through the church giving described in Acts.

Can you think of another reason why early believers gave to the church? Here are more Scriptures, beginning again with Acts:

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, every one 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 11:28-30)

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 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. (2 Cor. 8:1-4)

These passages show a second primary reason for giving to the church: to send relief to distant Christians. This is an important theme in NT theology. Two different collections are described above, and local churches in four different cities or regions are mentioned as participating in the giving. The second collection (the one in the last two passages) actually involved additional churches, and it was a central purpose for Paul’s third missionary journey. Paul described the purpose of this gift in a letter to the church at Rome:

At present, however, I am going to Jerusalem bringing aid to the saints. For Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make some contribution for the poor among the saints at Jerusalem. For they were pleased to do it, and indeed they owe it to them. For if the Gentiles have come to share in their spiritual blessings, they ought also to be of service to them in material blessings. (Rom. 15:25-27)

This collection was important enough to Paul that he devoted two complete chapters to the topic in 2 Corinthians. (Of course, the chapter divisions weren’t created by Paul.) This is the longest single passage in the NT on the topic of giving. It includes these famous lines:

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich. ( 2 Cor. 8:9)

Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. (2 Cor. 9:6)

God loves a cheerful giver. (2 Cor. 9:7)

Paul ends this passage with an amazing crescendo of theology, practice, and doxology (truth, deeds, and praise):

You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God. 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 that comes 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. Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift! (2 Cor. 9:11-15)

So there you have it—two primary NT reasons for giving to and through your local church: (1) to support needy local Christians and (2) to send relief to distant Christians. These are the reasons found in the first NT passage describing church giving and in the longest NT passage about giving.

How are these reasons reflected in your church? Is a large portion of your church’s offerings devoted to caring for the physical needs of Christians near and far? Does this focus on physical needs surprise you? Does your church see such giving as a basic expression of the gospel? What are some ways our churches could grow in these kinds of giving? And what do you think will be the third primary NT reason I’ll observe for giving to and through the church?

Share your responses and questions below!

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Giving To and Through the Church (Part 1)

[I expect to be away from the Internet for much of the next few weeks, so I thought I’d prepare a series of posts for you to enjoy while I’m gone. If technology is kind to us, you should see a new post every three or four days. Please comment and share freely in my absence (although new comment-ators will need to wait to have their website comments approved). I’ll join the conversation, God willing, after I return. Grace and peace to you!]

Part 1: Introduction

Brace yourself. The next month will flood you with opportunities to give. Over last Christmas—yes, I used that word already—a pile of papers rose on my desk, each inviting me to share with some worthy cause. The pile, I’m ashamed to admit, lasted for months. Already this year I have “The Most Important Gift Catalog in the World” atop the beginnings of a new pile. But I’ve been proactive enough to send a few requests directly to file 13—with a brief prayer on the way, of course.

The needs are real, and each one tugs. And it is fitting, with Thanksgiving and Christmas near at hand (or past, if you’re Canadian and referring to Thanksgiving), to think about giving.

But what about giving to your local church? Does your church send you special requests for money as the year fades to white? Does giving to your local church go up or down in December, as competing needs clamor for attention? Do you even know? Does your local church have a budget, with carefully planned giving goals? (This was the practice of my former church in NYC, and I had the mixed pleasure for several years of helping draft detailed budgets for the missions committee or for the church.) Or does your church achieve its giving goals more informally, with only a flexible offering schedule and occasional invitations to support urgent needs? (This is the practice of the church where I now attend.)

Many people have strong opinions about giving to the church. Tithing, of course, is often the hot potato. It would be unfair of me to mention it without telling you what I think, so… stay tuned! But there are plenty of other sizzling items to digest. Should pastors be salaried? Or voluntarily supported? Or self-employed? In what ratio? What qualifies as “giving to the church”? Does supporting missionaries count? If your wallet is tight and you have to choose, may you give to Christian Aid Ministries, or should you first give to your local church? What about the alms or deacons fund? Who qualifies for such support? Who gets to (or has to) decide? And should giving to brotherhood aid plans (sharing health care costs) be counted as “giving”?

In this series I’d like to mention some of these questions (certainly not all of them). But mostly I’d like to consider an underlying question: What does the New Testament say about giving to and through the church?

I’ll divide my thoughts into at least six blog posts, as follows:

  1. Introduction (this post)
  2. Two Primary New Testament Reasons for Giving to the Church
  3. Another Primary New Testament Reason for Giving to the Church
  4. A Controversial Topic About Giving to the Church
  5. Another Controversial Topic About Giving to the Church
  6. A Handful of Concluding Thoughts About Giving to the Church

As you can see, I’m not about to tip my hand. You’ll have to read each post for the juicy details!

I should also clarify two things this series will not do: First, I will not attempt to be comprehensive in our survey of NT evidence. Rather, I hope to hit the main NT themes by considering representative passages. Second, I am not addressing other important NT giving themes, such as (a) giving to family members or (b) personal giving that is not channeled through the church. I am skipping these topics to remain focused, but not because I think they are unimportant.

As food for thought, I’d like to return to hot potatoes as I close this post. Before we start considering NT evidence in my next post, here are two readings from the early church. Both readings mention the tithe, but with differing emphases. The first reading comes from The Didache, or “The Teaching of the Twelve.” This was written about 40 to 80 years after the death of Christ. The Didache includes a church instruction manual. In that manual is the following paragraph:

A genuine prophet… who wishes to make his home with you has a right to a livelihood. (Similarly, a genuine teacher is as much entitled to his keep as a manual labourer.) You are therefore to take the first products of your winepress, your threshing-floor, your oxen and your sheep, and give them as first-fruits to the prophets, for nowadays it is they who are your ‘High Priests’. If there is no prophet among you, give them to the poor. And when you bake a batch of loaves, take the first of them and give it away, as the commandment directs. Similarly when you broach a jar of wine or oil, take the first portion to give to the prophets. So, too, with your money, and your clothing, and all your possessions; take a tithe of them in whatever way you think best, and make a gift of it, as the commandment bids you. (Translated by Maxwell Staniforth, in Early Christian Writings (London: Penguin, 1968), 196-197.)

Second, here are some words from Irenaeus, a bishop in Lyons, France, writing about A.D. 185:

We are bound… to offer to God the first-fruits of His creation, as Moses also says, “Thou shalt not appear in the presence of the Lord thy God empty…” There were sacrifices among the [Jewish] people; there are sacrifices, too, in the Church: but… the offering is now made, not by slaves, but by free men… [The Jews] offered the tithes of their goods, but those who have received liberty set apart all their possessions for the Lord’s use, cheerfully and freely giving them. (From Against Heresies, translation adapted from several sources, including Ante-Nicene Fathers: Volume 1, ed. by Philip Schaff.)

So, what do you think? Are The Didache and Irenaeus in agreement? If yes, how do you synthesis their differences? If not, which, if either, is right?

And to bring it home to us, what do you think: Do Christians have a duty to give to the church? Why or why not? If yes, how much?

Leave a comment below with your response or a question that you think this series should address. Depending how things go, I may add one more post to the series to respond to your questions and comments.

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