[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:
- Introduction (this post)
- Two Primary New Testament Reasons for Giving to the Church
- Another Primary New Testament Reason for Giving to the Church
- A Controversial Topic About Giving to the Church
- Another Controversial Topic About Giving to the Church
- 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.