[See Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5 in this series.]
Part 6: A Handful of Concluding Thoughts About Giving to the Church
Now that this series is nearly over, perhaps I should discuss my title. Did you notice that it’s a little clunky? “Giving To and Through the Church.” Why two prepositions–to and through? And why did I capitalize them, contrary to standard practice? (You might not have noticed unless you’re reading by email.)
Good questions. Thanks for asking!
I chose this title because I wish to draw attention to something I’ve noticed as I’ve read the New Testament with an eye for what it says about church and giving. Unless I’m forgetting something, I don’t think we read any commands in the NT to “give to the church.” We read commands to give to needy Christians and to gospel proclaimers. We read encouragements to give to church leaders who are overseeing and distributing collections for needy Christians. But we don’t find any commands to give to the church.
In other words, I think we are quite missing the point if we simply teach people that they should put money in the offering plate on Sunday, thereby fulfilling their duty to “give to the church.”
The church offering is not a destination for your giving; it is a channel for your giving. In the NT the closest we read of people giving “to the church” is when they were giving money “to” church leaders (such as the apostles in Jerusalem or Paul visiting his young churches) with the express purpose that it would flow “through” these leaders and on “to” needy Christians. The goal in such giving was not to fulfill some legal demand that Christians must faithfully give to their local church. Rather, the goal in such giving was to meet actual physical needs. People were hungry!
In some cases it just so happens that it is most effective to meet physical needs through a systematic effort organized by church leaders, rather than by disorganized individual donations. But to give “to the church” simply for the sake of giving to the church is as insensible as giving to Voice of the Martyrs merely for the sake of fulfilling some abstract sense of duty rather than out of compassion for suffering Christians. “To” the offering plate is useless on its own; “through” the offering plate is powerful when the money actually goes “to” needy Christians.
After all, “the church” is a term that refers in the NT to people, not to a building, a bank account, or a denominational body. If this is true, then our vision for giving to Christ’s church should extend beyond our local congregation and even beyond our church fellowship, conference, or alliance. We follow the NT pattern of giving “to and through the church” when we give to local leaders who distribute funds to local Christians. But we also follow this NT pattern when we give to Destinations International or Christian Aid Ministries. We follow this NT pattern when we organize local collections for that lonely Catholic widow, or for that sick Pentecostal father of eight whom God hasn’t yet healed. The church is bigger than your local congregation, so giving to and through the church is bigger, too.
Since the church is like a family, we should give “especially [to] members of [our] household” (cf. 1 Tim. 5:8), that is, to the saints whom we see regularly in our own church gatherings. The brother I can see (1 John 3:17), the brother I can speak to (James 2:15-16), is the brother I am most responsible to care for. But when Scripture says we are to give “especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal. 6:10), do not imagine for a moment that this household is limited to your local congregation.
In other words, when we consider my title, we would do well to ponder not only the clunky prepositions, but also what the NT means when it speaks of church. Then we should let our observations shape what we do when we “give to and through the church.”
Let me summarize this series by quoting Paul’s words to the churches of Galatia. Notice, in the middle, the gospel motivations for giving (reaping eternal life from the Spirit). And notice, at the beginning and the end, the instructions about where our gifts should go:
Let the one who is taught the word share all good things with the one who teaches. Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith. (Gal. 6:6-10)
Systemizing biblical data, as I’ve done in this series, is important and ultimately inevitable. Yet it carries the potential risk of leading us to read the data through our own patterns. Sometimes we force data to fit our patterns, and sometimes we entirely miss other data that our patterns don’t prompt us to be looking for. I’m sure I’ve done some of both in this series. I’ve argued that there are three main NT 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. I’ve suggested that church building expenses must not detract us from these primary reasons, and that churches should not command tithing but rather exalt giving as a gospel grace. And I’ve reminded us that “the church” is much bigger than your local congregation and the Sunday morning offering plate.
What have I missed? Where have I been imbalanced? Which other NT passages should I have included in my survey?
Share your insights and questions below. If there is enough feedback, I might respond in one final post for this series. Thanks much for reading! And thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!
PS: If you enjoyed this series on giving, please consider making a donation to Open Hands. (Visit their Website or Facebook page to learn more, or send a donation to Open Hands, 1245 Old Route 15, New Columbia, PA 17856.) Why should you consider giving to Open Hands?
- It is a great way to put to practice what you just read! (Here is a quote from their website: “Open Hands operates savings and credit associations in countries where Anabaptist missions are working with people who are experiencing the effects of poverty. We hire and train national Christian individuals to form and supervise savings groups in association with local churches. Our objective is to assist the local churches by helping people grow in Christ, and by teaching them to save funds in order to operate micro-businesses. The Open Hands program will increase their income and will result in stronger, more self-sufficient churches.”)
- I adapted this series on giving from some curriculum that Open Hands hired me to help write. Without Open Hands, this series wouldn’t have happened. (Disclaimer: This series has been significantly adapted and personalized according to my own perspectives. Open Hands may not agree with everything in this series.)