It is probably safe to say that money is the most thought about subject. We spend an inordinate amount of time and energy thinking about how to get money, what to do with the money we have, how to survive without money, and myriads of other questions. Money is not only the “root of all evil,” but also it is one of the factors that control our lives. If money guides much of our lives as individuals, then it is equally correct to say that money guides much of the life of our churches.
I’ve never done a survey, but I suspect the biggest complaint people have about the church centers around the issue of money. You’ve heard people say, “All that church wants is my money.” We frequently hear stories about church leaders abusing money given by members and living extravagant lifestyles.
I have an extensive background in studying and teaching biblical stewardship. Even though my views on the subject changed over the years, the importance of the relationship between the church and money is something I still strive to understand.
The ability of a church to raise funds is strictly dependent upon the intended use of the money. For example, in the matter of capital-fund raising, everyone in the business knows it is easier to raise money for a new sanctuary than for a classroom building. The most challenging capital fund project for raising money is debt elimination. It seems that paying off debt doesn’t excite church folks nearly as much as getting a new worship center.
When it comes to raising money for other needs, missions tops the list. Inspiring people to give to share the Gospel, especially in the far corners of the world, is not that difficult. Another good fund-raising project is children. When I was a pastor if we had children who needed money to attend camp all we had to do was make an announcement, and the money would be quickly provided.
Once again I will pose the question of what your church would look like if you took money out of the equation. In other words, if your church had no money, zero income, what would happen?
The changes would be immediate and extensive. Probably the first thing that would happen is that the staff would begin submitting resignation letters. I’m not suggesting that the ministers of your church work for the money only, but for most of them, the church provides their living. They would immediately begin searching for other employment—people do have bills to pay and need to eat.
Perhaps the next significant change for a church with no money is that the utilities would be shut off. It usually takes a month or two of non-payment for this to happen so you could continue meeting for awhile. If the church happens to have a mortgage or debt associated with the building then in a few months the bank will begin foreclosure proceedings.
I’m pretty confident that by the time all of this happens, attendance at church functions would be quite small. Only a few diehards would remain, meeting in a cold, dark building with foreclosure notices on the front door.
That’s an absurd situation that will never happen, but it does illustrate the dependence of the church on having money. The answer to the question of what happens if you remove money from your church is that it will cease to exist. But that shouldn’t be the case. The church was not designed to be reliant upon money for survival. Yet, when you raise the subject of money and the church, many are quick to pick up their Bible and come to the defense of the current situation.
The most frequently referenced passage concerning giving money to the local church is found in the Old Testament (Malachi 3). This is problematic for a very simple reason—there was no church during Old Testament times. If we are to read scripture from the perspective of context and how it spoke to the historical era that it was written, then I think I’m on safe ground in saying the Old Testament has nothing to tell us about funding the New Testament church. There are no Old Testament scriptures that provide guidance about funding the local church.
Since the Old Testament has nothing to say about how to operate the church, we must focus our attention on the New Testament. Since the church today requires money in order to exist, there must be a great deal of guidance on the matter on the pages between Matthew to Revelation. However, there’s not.
Sharing of the early church – Acts
Perhaps the passage appealed to most often in support of giving money to the church is the story of the early days of the church recorded in Acts. After the shocking experience at Pentecost where Peter preached, and thousands turned to Jesus, these new believers, the first church, had to do something.
Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles. And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved. (Acts 2:43-47)
This is not a picture of a massive garage sale and then a pooling of the resources. It describes people sharing what they had with those who had needs. If the need was food, then food was provided, if clothing, then clothing provided. If the need was money, then something was sold in order to provide the money. When people can share financially like this, something special has happened.
An important aspect of their fellowship was the way they shared their goods. Property and possessions were disposed in order to provide for those in need. This is not necessarily a common purse but rather a common concern for one another. Those who had were willing to give to those who did not have.
This early church in Jerusalem consisted of many Jews who had traveled a great distance to celebrate the Feast of Pentecost. Upon their conversion to Christ, they remained in the city, without homes or means of support. The need was great for people to share their resources.
A similar experience is recorded two chapters later.
And the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul; and not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own, but all things were common property to them. And with great power the apostles were giving testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and abundant grace was upon them all. For there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales and lay them at the apostles’ feet, and they would be distributed to each as any had need. (Acts 4:32-35)
The overriding similarity between these two experiences is that the money was given specifically to meet the physical and financial needs of the other believers. They were distributing the resources to help the poor among them.
In no way is this similar to the way churches today collect money. While it is true that today the money is used for believers, but most of it for the purpose of believers having a beautiful building, paid holy men/women, and first-class entertainment. If money is used to feed the hungry or care for the needy, it is a small percentage of what churches receive.
“What a contrast we see between the early church and today’s churches. In order to help the poor, the first thing the early church did was sell all their extra land and buildings. The first thing a church does today is buy extra land and buildings.” (Jacobson, Richard. Unchurching: Christianity Without Churchianity (Kindle Locations 549-551)
Offering for Jerusalem – 2 Cor. 8
A second experience of Christian giving in the early church is found in the books of First and Second Corinthians. In order to understand these references, we must examine the context. Apparently, the believers in Jerusalem were experiencing difficult times. We know that persecution of Christians began in Jerusalem and spread out from there.
Since they were being persecuted, we can be certain they were not wealthy. The world does not persecute the wealthy. The church in Jerusalem was in crisis—poor and oppressed. If anyone understood persecution in the first century, it would have been Paul. Remember, he is the one who was leading the persecution brigade when he miraculously met Jesus on the Damascus Road.
Paul knew of the suffering of the Jerusalem Christians, so he spread the word to other churches around the world. It seems that when he arrived and reported to the churches in Macedonia, something wonderful happened. The churches of Macedonia included Thessalonica, Berea, and Philippi. These people were not wealthy and in the midst of persecution of their own. But listen to Paul’s description that he provided when he wrote to the Corinthians.
Now, brethren, we wish to make known to you the grace of God which has been given in the churches of Macedonia, that in a great ordeal of affliction their abundance of joy and their deep poverty overflowed in the wealth of their liberality. For I testify that according to their ability, and beyond their ability, they gave of their own accord, begging us with much urging for the favor of participation in the support of the saints, and this, not as we had expected, but they first gave themselves to the Lord and to us by the will of God. So we urged Titus that as he had previously made a beginning, so he would also complete in you this gracious work as well. (2 Corinthians 8:1-6)
Paul describes the giving of the Macedonians as “the grace of God.” In the midst of their “great ordeal of affliction… and deep poverty” they gave in way that can only be described as the “wealth of their liberality.” He goes on to add that they actually gave beyond their ability, even to the point of begging for the opportunity to give.
They were not giving to put a new roof on the sanctuary or to construct a children’s recreation center for themselves. They were giving to ease the suffering of others. Paul was not collecting money so they could meet the annual budget—they had no annual budget. There were (and still are) plenty of reasons for Christians to give that have nothing to do with our own comfort and pleasure.
Earlier, in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, we are introduced to the collection he is gathering.
Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I directed the churches of Galatia, so do you also. On the first day of every week each one of you is to put aside and save, as he may prosper, so that no collections be made when I come. When I arrive, whomever you may approve, I will send them with letters to carry your gift to Jerusalem; and if it is fitting for me to go also, they will go with me. (1 Corinthians 16:4)
It seems that on a previous visit to Corinth, the believers had committed to Paul they would gather an offering that he could take with him to Jerusalem. Word got back to the Apostle that they were not living up to their commitment to give to others, so he wrote to encourage them to finish what they had started.
These verses have frequently been used to encourage Christians to give money to their church. I know this is true because I did it myself for many years. Yet, I have come to realize this has nothing to do with paying church bills, meeting the church budget, or constructing new church buildings. It is simply what it purports to be—an offering given to relieve the financial suffering of believers in another part of the world.
Gift to Paul
There is one other verse in the New Testament that speaks to the issue of the church and money. We know from the Book of Acts that Paul traveled around the known world preaching the gospel, starting churches, and preaching the Good News of Jesus. However, we also know that he paid his own way, working as a tentmaker.
One of his favorite churches was the one in Philippi. We know this because of the loving way he spoke to them although the Book of Philippians. They were special to him in many ways. They loved him as well, and they demonstrated that love by giving him an offering.
You yourselves also know, Philippians, that at the first preaching of the gospel, after I left Macedonia, no church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving but you alone; for even in Thessalonica you sent a gift more than once for my needs. (Philippians 4:15-16)
Did you notice that he identified them as the only church that shared with him? In addition, they gave to him “more than once” for his needs, even sending a gift while he was ministering in a neighboring city.
There is not one example of the New Testament church needing money or asking people to give to pay for a building, staff salaries, evangelistic outreach, or any of the things churches typically finance. The few times they were asked to give it was always for the purpose of helping the poor and needy.
The reason for this is quite simple—the early church did not need money.