[See Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 in this series.]

Part 4: A Controversial Topic About Giving to the Church

After my last post, you might think that I got my titles mixed up. Isn’t pastoral support a controversial issue? Yes, it is. But this post addresses a topic that, at least for some people, is even more controversial.

First, a brief review. I suggested that the NT describes and teaches three main reasons for giving to and through the church: (1) to support needy local Christians, (2) to send relief to distant Christians, and (3) to support gospel proclaimers. The first of these soon became quite systematized, with daily distributions and widows lists. The other two seem to have occurred, at least based on NT evidence, more on an as-need basis, prompted by things like specific famines or missionary trips.

There are other kinds of giving that are also emphasized in the NT, such as caring for family or individuals giving directly to needs. Giving happens on a spectrum, in all kinds of situations, and all individual Christians are also simultaneously members of Christ’s church according to NT thinking, so it I don’t want to force an imaginary line between church giving and giving done by families or individuals. But the three reasons I have noted are, I think, primary NT reasons for giving collectively, to and through local churches.

Is there any reason for giving that you are surprised not to see on my list? If you compared this list with the average giving patterns of most American churches, what unmentioned reason for giving might stand out?

The answer to my question is, surely, giving to pay for church buildings. (There, I promised this would be controversial!) In a survey of American evangelical churches conducted in 2012 by the Evangelical Christian Credit Union (see here), average church expenses broke down as follows:

  • Personnel Expenses: 58%
  • Facilities/Occupancy Expenses: 18%
  • Programs Expenses: 14%
  • Administration Expenses: 6%
  • Other Expenses: 3%

Here are several other findings:

  • The largest single sub-category was Pastoral/Executive Salaries, at 36%.
  • Only 3% was given to either Local/National Benevolence or International Benevolence, the subcategories that best match the first two reasons for giving that I cited.
  • Building Fund expenses constitute a third of the Other Expenses category, so that effectively bumps Facilities/Occupancy Expenses up to 19%.
  • For whatever reasons, Facilities/Occupancy Expenses are much lower for micro (14%), small (18%), and medium churches (15%) than for large churches (29%).

Other studies have yielded different percentages, but the general pattern seems accurate: personnel expenses forms the largest portion of most American church budgets, followed by expenses related to buildings. What would a survey of conservative Anabaptists find? I don’t know, but I suspect that personnel expenses would be way down (not entirely for good reasons—see my last post), giving to benevolence causes would be considerably up, and facilities/occupancy expenses might be roughly similar. What do you think?

How do we square these giving priorities with the NT? After all, not one text in the NT either commands or describes giving to pay for church buildings.

Here is a sample of the evidence I find in the NT about this topic. What conclusions do you think we should draw from these verses?

When he [Peter] realized this [that he had been delivered from prison by an angel], he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying. (Acts 12:12)

And he [Paul] reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and tried to persuade Jews and Greeks. When Silas and Timothy arrived from Macedonia, Paul was occupied with the word, testifying to the Jews that the Christ was Jesus. And when they opposed and reviled him, he shook out his garments and said to them, “Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.” And he left there and went to the house of a man named Titius Justus, a worshiper of God. His house was next door to the synagogue. (Acts 18:4-7)

Gaius, who is host to me and to the whole church, greets you. Erastus, the city treasurer, and our brother Quartus, greet you. (Romans 16:23)

The churches of Asia send you greetings. Aquila and Prisca, together with the church in their house, send you hearty greetings in the Lord. (1 Corinthians 16:19)

Give my greetings to the brothers at Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house. (Colossians 4:15)

Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our beloved fellow worker and Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church in your house… (Philemon 1:1-2)

Analyzing historical evidence based on such slim evidence is tricky (although I haven’t post it all), and drawing valid theological and practical conclusions for today is even trickier. But let me take some risks.

First, historical conclusions. The early church didn’t have single-use church buildings. Instead, as they were pushed out of the synagogues by unbelieving Jews, they met in public spaces and in private homes. This explains why no commands to support building projects are found in the New Testament. In place of church buildings and building funds, we find that Christians who were wealthy enough to own large houses gave to the church by hosting the church in their own homes. According to Archaeology Magazine, the world’s oldest known church building (located in eastern Syrian in the ancient town of Dura-Europos) was not built until around AD 241. “Inside is the earliest known baptismal font.” This church building was located, not surprisingly, “in a house.”

People debate why the early church did not build church buildings. Was it because they were too poor? Was it because their congregations were so small? Was it because of persecution? While each of these factors undoubtedly played a role, none of them were universally true for the first 200 years of the church. I don’t think any of them explain fully why the pagans built temples, the Jews built synagogues, but the Christians didn’t build church buildings. I suspect a better answer is found in the theological nature of the church as a spiritual household, a missional body, and a heavenly citizenship, but that is a topic too big for this post.

Second, what theological and practical conclusions can we draw from the historical evidence? At minimum, I think, these:

  • Local Christians should work together to provide space for the church to gather, whether in homes or other buildings. The church does need space to meet, and this means some people will need to give to make this possible.
  • Richer members of the local congregation should be willing to give more than their poorer brothers and sisters. In fact, poor Christians should never be pressured to pay for church buildings.
  • Church building projects should not distract the church from its primary giving goals: supporting gospel workers and caring for poor Christians near and far. If church building expenses become the central focus of our giving and our talk about giving, then we have severe vision problems.

What else might we learn from the example of the early church here? What might we learn from the global house church movement today? (For example, Nexus: The World House Church Movement Reader, edited by Rad Zdero. See [amazon text=here&asin=087808374X].) How might we adapt our assumptions about church meeting places, church sizes, and church giving patterns to streamline them for missional goals? How many large church buildings does each community really need? Might some people be drawn to church buildings rather than to Christ? Or, at minimum, do some of us have trouble imagining how we could follow the Homeless Man without well-equipped, expansive and expensive church buildings?

More could be said, but it is your turn. Tell us what you think in the comments below!