How do we fund our churches?

Back in high school I invited a schoolmate to my church. After the service he confessed he was really bothered by the offering plates.

Right after the worship songs, but before the karaoke (Christians call it “special music”—it’s where someone gets on stage and sings along to an instrumental track, i.e. karaoke), we passed offering plates. People put money in ’em. Sometimes in envelopes, so you couldn’t see how little they gave. Sometimes not, so you could.

This bugged him: In the church where he was raised, they had an offering box in back of the auditorium, and if people wanted to put money in it (or, too often, trash), they could. He felt the box was way more appropriate than our ostentatious “Look what I gave” display, which reminded him too much of this story:

Mark 12.41-42 KWL
41 Sitting opposite the temple treasury, Jesus watched how the crowds threw money into the treasury.
Many wealthy people threw in much.
42 One poor widow who came by, threw in two coppers, worth a quadrans. [5¢]

That, and he didn’t like the fact we interrupted the service to beg for money. People should just give, he figured.

Me, I’d grown up hearing you funded your church through tithes. Ten percent of every paycheck—gross, not net—went onto the offering plate. And if you didn’t cough up the dough, you’d be cursed. No, an usher wouldn’t shout, “Tithe, motherf---er!” although that’d be awesome; I didn’t say cursed at. It meant we expected this bit of Malachi to come true:

Malachi 3.8-9 KWL
8 “Does any human cheat God like all of you cheat me? You say, ‘How do we cheat you?’
In tithes. In offerings. 9 You’ve cursed yourselves. The whole nation is cheating me.”

We’d suffer shriveling finances. We’d heard scary stories about people who stopped tithing, and suddenly they couldn’t live within their means anymore. Apparently if God doesn’t get his cut, he takes it out of us in other ways. Ways we won’t like.

The pastors preached this because it’s what they were taught. They thought it was the biblical principle of how tithes work. They never bothered to investigate beyond Malachi and see if the bible doesn’t teach more about the subject. It does; I just wrote about it.

When I bothered to investigate, I also discovered tithing, as a means of financing Christian churches, is actually a recent doctrine. It only cropped up in the United States, a very short time after the year 1776. That bit of information give you any hint as to why churches suddenly began to preach about tithing?

Right you are: Because from the Edict of Milan in the year 313, to the American Revolution in 1776, churches were funded by the state. Our tax dollars took care of ’em. (Well, considering the United States used to be British colonies, our tax pounds.)

State-sponsored churches.

In just about every religion, people bring offerings to temple, church, mosque, religious meetings, whatever. Do these offerings cover all the religion’s expenses?—pay the priests’ salaries, pay for the facilities’ upkeep and utilities? Sometimes. But not always.

In ancient times, religions frequently latched onto a rich benefactor. The richest of course was the government. In monarchies, that’s the king and his family. And most religious seriously sucked up to the king, and even made him one of their gods: The Sumerians, Egyptians, and Romans did so. Notice how many demigods became kings in Greek mythology; notice how many ancient kings claimed they, too, were descended from gods. Japan still has this myth as part of their emperor’s history.

So with rare exceptions, this was how religions were financed. And after the Roman Empire legalized Christianity in 313, that’s how we were financed: The Roman senate paid for the upkeep of Christian churches and schools.

When Christianity spread into a new kingdom or duchy, the king or duke paid for the church. When kings were replaced with parliaments or democratic governments, the new government simply picked up where the monarchs left off. In every nation which has an official church, government funds church. Often by necessity: Membership in these churches (and sadly, often the whole nation) sucks.

Back to North America: Virginia was an English colony, so its official church was the Church of England. Parliament financed the church, and after the House of Burgesses was created, Virginia’s local government financed it. Owned its buildings, paid its vicars, and actually passed laws decreeing how people would worship.

Massachusetts was founded by separatists, people who didn’t wanna be in the Church of England, but do their own thing. As part of their own thing, they created their own local governments. Which financed their churches. And they expected everyone in the colony to be a Christian and church member—so you should have no problem at all with your taxes paying for church. It was a government’s duty, they taught, to be the “nursing fathers” Is 49.23 KJV of the church.

So imagine if the United States had a Department of Religion, where the Feds owned your church building, and hired your pastors and church leadership. Kind of a creepy idea, isn’t it? The United States has had separation of church and state for two centuries, so the whole idea of state-run churches sounds wrong. (And yet we kinda have something like this: Visit a military base, and check out their chapel.)

It weirds a lot of Americans out whenever we visit a country which still has state-sponsored churches. We often assume they’re dead churches, too; and state funding is only keeping ’em on life support. But ’tain’t necessarily so.

When separation of church and state first kicked in, it did wreak a little havoc. The colonies declared independence from Britain and wrote their constitutions… and realized if they weren’t English anymore, should they still fund the Church of England? Was a majority of their population even in the Church of England? Legislators tried a compromise: When people paid taxes, they could indicate which church their tax money should go to. Citizens of Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Maryland, and Georgia passed religious tax laws.

In Virginia, pushback came from the Baptists. (See, back then Baptists believed in separation of church and state.) They wanted their churches to remain independent of any government influence. And purse strings are definitely influence. After all, what if the government grew displeased with your church and cut off the money?

The religious tax laws got repealed as states realized they violated the religious freedom rights of their constitutions—and later, of the U.S. Constitution. Baptists got hassled for it, ’cause state-sponsored churches realized coming up with their own support was gonna be hard.

But it actually wasn’t. Churches quickly found other ways to raise money. Some of ’em created endowments. (For those of you who slept through economics, that’s when you get a big pile of money, invest it so you get big fat dividends, and live off the dividends.) Some went with dues and subscriptions. And some adopted the newly-discovered “biblical principle” of tithing.

Funding the early church.

Bounce back before the year 313, when the ancient Christians had to fund church, and definitely couldn’t get government support. How’d they do it? Acts describes it thisaway:

Acts 2.44-47 KWL
44 Every believer looked out for one another, and put everything in common use:
45 They sold possessions and property, and divided proceeds among all, just because some were needy.
46 Those who hewed close, were unanimously in temple daily,
breaking bread at home, happily, generously, wholeheartedly sharing food,
47 praising God, showing grace to all people.
The Master added saved people to them daily.

The “everything in common” idea—which Mammonists tend to call communism, and suspect there’s something too Marxist and subversive about it—is the natural, obvious result of Jesus’s teachings on money. Of “sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven.” Mk 10.21 KJV But like Pharisees, we tend to look for loopholes, or alternative explanations which permit us to remain miserly.

The result of the “everything in common” plan was a Christian community where nobody was deprived.

Acts 4.32-35 KWL
32 The number of believers were one in thinking and lifestyle.
Not one of their possessions was said to be their own; everything of theirs was instead “common.”
33 The apostles, in great power, gave their witness of Master Jesus’s resurrection.
Great grace was upon them all, 34 for they had no needy:
Whoever among them owned land or houses were selling whatever was sellable
35 and placed the proceeds at the apostles’ feet. This was passed along to everyone—whoever had need.

When people had a need, ancient Christians didn’t respond, “Well we took an offering, but it only put this much in the budget, so we can afford to give this much to the needy.” They sold stuff. They gave up their worldly possessions for the needy’s sake. They shared food with the needy. Some figured they ate together. I don’t figure the text has to mean that, but eating together was a common early Christian practice, so why not. Clearly they shared their lives with one another.

Contrast that practice with our own. It oughta embarrass us, and drive us to repent. It exposes just how materialistic so many of our own churches are. We have to regularly beg the people of our churches for money. We shouldn’t have to do any such thing. But our people are addicted to possessions, money, and comfort. And instead of rebuking them, we fear they might call us communist, so we accommodate them.

Those Christians who claim tithing was always how Christians financed church, miss the fact these early Christians were still going to temple for worship. Ac 2.46 Still putting offerings in the temple treasury. Paying temple tax, same as Jesus and Peter. Mt 17.24-27 The first Christians were still Jews, and still contributed to the existing system. And if they paid the three tithes the Pharisees demanded of them, you think it’s realistic they paid a fourth tithe to the apostles? Nope.

As I said in my article on tithing, the Pharisees’ three tithes were invalid: There was only one tithe. That, plus the usual sacrifices and offerings to temple, were the only things the Law really required. The Pharisees were going overboard as usual. But the ancient Christians also kinda went overboard… because they gave everything. Just like the poor widow in temple whom Jesus praised, Christians practiced pure generosity. It was great grace. Ac 4.33 For while the larger Jewish society still had their needy, the Christians had no needy. Ac 4.34 God’s kingdom was working.

Why does tithing appear to work?

One of my former pastors was fond of proclaiming, “I’ll offer you a money-back guarantee. Tithe! Try it a few months. If you don’t see results in your own finances, come talk to me and I’ll give you your money back. But I guarantee you will see results.”

Bold move. He was totally serious, too. I don’t know how many people took him up on it. Hopefully not many. But it’s based on testimonies I’ve heard all my life: “We never used to tithe. We couldn’t see how we could afford to. Money was always tight. But one day we decided God really wanted us to tithe. So we stepped out in faith and started tithing. And even though our income hasn’t gone up any, somehow—miraculously!—we have more than enough. That never happened before! It’s all because of tithing.”

Variations of this story are used all the time as anecdotal evidence how tithing is precisely what God wants every one of us Christians to practice. In fact what they’ve done is stumbled upon the kingdom’s principle of generosity.

Luke 6.38 KWL
“Give, and it’ll be given you:
They’ll pour a good measurement, packed in, shaken, overflowing, into your apron.
The measurement you measure with, will measure you again.”

A lot of churches use this verse to preach on tithing. It’s not about tithing: Jesus means generosity in general. Giving to anyone—to the needy, to charity, to your church. Giving means you’ll receive. Not just a reciprocal amount, but more.

So once people decide to give to God—that he’s a priority in their finances—they’re no longer purely living for themselves and their own. They’re living for others. Like God always wanted. They’re being generous—also as God always wanted. They’re growing his kingdom. And if they can be responsible with the small amounts God gives them, he’ll frequently decide to make them responsible for larger amounts. Lk 19.16-19

However, when we get stingy or lazy with God’s blessings, why should he give us more of them? Like Jesus points out in his story of the minas:

Luke 19.26 KWL
“I tell you to all who have, it’ll be given.
From those who don’t have, what they do have will also be taken away.”

So these folks who discover tithing works: They’re actually discovering generosity works.

Another incidental reason why tithing works: In figuring out what 10 percent of our incomes are, some people for the first time in their lives are learning to budget. Too many people simply don’t know how much comes in, how much goes out, and where it all goes. All they know is they’re always in the red, and don’t entirely know why. People who tithe, learn why. It’s not that their finances miraculously sort themselves out: They sort ’em out.

So how much should we give our churches?

In principle we should be willing to give everything to the people of our churches, same as the ancient Christians. In practice, 10 percent of our incomes is a good start.

Yeah, it sounds like I’m saying, “Tithing as it’s practiced nowadays isn’t actually biblical… but go ahead and tithe anyway.” No; I’m saying giving 10 percent is a good start. Some of us can’t afford to give that much. Some of us obviously can, and should.

Problem is, when that 10 percent is a huge amount, people get antsy. Say you make $10 million a year. (Those who covet money are probably drooling at the idea. Stop that.) If you make $10 million a year, 10 percent is a million dollars. If you’re giving your church a million dollars a year, it’s gonna significantly change the way your church ministers. And, unfortunately, it’s gonna ruin them if you switch churches.

I could get into the many ways churches manage and mismanage money. But not today. Suffice to say we Christians need to support our churches when they have needs. Support ’em when they do good deeds which grow God’s kingdom. Support them when they help the needy. And when they don’t, don’t.

I know: Plenty of churches instruct us to give to our churches no matter what. ’Cause it’s God’s money and God’s church, and we’re supposed to be obedient and “bring the whole tithe to the storehouse.” This means, they claim, the full 10 percent needs to go to church. Don’t divvy it up between your church, your favorite charities, and those dollars you occasionally give to beggars.

But since their instruction on tithing comes from tradition not bible, you’re not obligated to do any such thing. On the contrary: God entrusted us with this money. Ac 5.4 It’s our duty and responsibility to give it to wise stewards, and withhold it from fools and fake prophets. If your church leaders can’t be trusted with money, ’cause they overpay the pastors, build fancy buildings but support no food closet or clothes closet or anything for the needy: Either fix your church, or find a better one. But absolutely don’t give ’em money.

We need to give. But not give blindly, thoughtlessly, stupidly. Power corrupts, and money’s a form of power. If money turns your church leadership into morons who splurge on every stupid thing they’ve ever coveted, you’re doing them a favor by giving God’s money to wiser people. I’ve got one church in mind who sent me a fundraising letter: They wanna buy a $5,000 commercial espresso machine. They feel they’d be such a blessing to their visitors if they could offer ’em free espresso. (And certainly their staff would enjoy free espresso throughout the week!) Plenty of suggestions immediately came to my mind of other things they could ingest. But I digress.

Churches are made of people, and people can be wonderful or awful, generous or stingy, wise or dumb. So we shouldn’t be dumb, give indiscriminately, and ignore what our churches do with God’s money. We’re trying to grow God’s kingdom, and if your church isn’t doing that, stop funding them. Invest in the kingdom wisely.