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02 March 2017

So… how do churches pay for stuff?

Some of ’em accept donations… and some get government funding.

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

See, right after the worship songs, but before the karaoke (i.e. where someone gets on stage and sings along to music-only tracks; Christians call it “special music” but the talent ain’t all that special), we passed around offering plates. People’d put money on them. Sometimes in envelopes, so you couldn’t see how much they gave; sometimes not, so you could.

This bugged him. In the church where he grew up, there was an offering box in the back of the hall. If people wanted to put money in it, they could. (And if they wanted to put pocket lint in it, they could. Always the problem with anonymous offering boxes.) The box, he felt, was more appropriate. Not our ostentatious “Look what I gave” display, which reminded him of when first-century Jews loudly threw coins into the temple treasury’s offering horns. Mk 12.41

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

Me, I’d grown up hearing you funded your church through tithes: Ten percent of every paycheck goes onto the offering plate, and if you don’t cough up the dough, you were cursed. No, nobody’d proclaim over you, “Till you start tithing, may your finances shrivel!” Nut that’s how we were taught to think about this bit in Malachi

Malachi 3.8-10 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.
10 Bring your whole tithe to my treasury: There’s unclean food in my house!
Please test me in this,” says the LORD of War.
See if I don’t open heaven’s floodgates and pour down blessing till you overflow.”

Of course the pastors thought this was the biblical context of tithing, and didn’t discover there was another one. Neither did I, for years. I recently wrote about it.

What I also discovered was how tithing-as-financing is actually a recent doctrine. It only cropped up in the past… oh, 240 years or so. That precise number should give you a hint as to why. Can you guess it?

Right you are: Because churches used to state-sponsored. Funded by our tax dollars. (Well, considering the United States used to be British, tax pounds.)

State-sponsored churches.

In just about every religion, people bring offerings to temple. (Or church, mosque, what have you.) Now, do the offerings cover all the temple’s expenses?—pay the priests’ salaries, pay for temple upkeep, pay the 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. In fact a lot of ’em sucked up to the king, and even made him one of their gods: The Sumerians, Egyptians, and Romans did that. Notice how many demigods became king in Greek mythology; notice how many ancient kings claimed they 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 Christianity became legal in the year 313, that’s how it became financed: The Roman senate gradually grew to pay 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, the government funds the church. Often by necessity: These churches certainly don’t have enough members to support ’em to the level they’re accustomed to.

On to America: Virginia was an English colony. Its official church was therefore the Church of England. Parliament initially financed the church, and after the House of Burgesses was created, local government financed it. Owned its buildings, paid its vicars, and actually passed laws decreeing how it’d 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 governments—which financed their churches. They expected everybody in the colony to be a Christian and church member. So there should be no issue at all if your taxes went to the upkeep of your church. It was a government’s duty, they taught, to be the “nursing fathers” Is 49.23 KJV of the church.

I know; hard to fathom nowadays, isn’t it? We’ve had separation of church and state for two centuries, so this idea of state-sponsored churches sounds wrong to us. Weirds Americans out whenever we visit a country which has state-sponsored churches. (We often assume they’re dead churches, too; that state funding is only keeping ’em on life support. But ’tain’t necessarily so.)

Separation of church and state did in fact wreak a little havoc when it first kicked in. When the colonies declared independence and wrote their constitutions, they realized having a state religion wasn’t gonna work anymore. Too much religious freedom had been practiced already, and the result was too many people of too many different churches. If you put it to a vote, the masses might even choose a different official church than the current one. So legislators tried a compromise: Everybody had to pay a religious tax, but everybody could indicate which church the tax money went to.

Pushback came from the Baptists. (See, back then Baptists believed in the separation of church and state.) Their movement had been rapidly growing in numbers thanks to the Great Awakening revivals. They wanted their churches to remain independent from any government influence. And purse strings are definitely influence: What if the government grew displeased with your church and cut off the money?

Citizens of Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Maryland, and Georgia passed religious tax laws. Virginia tried from 1784 to 86… and failed. Those other laws got repealed, as governments realized they violated the religious freedom rights of their constitutions—and later, of the U.S. Constitution. Baptists got blamed, and hassled for it, ’cause state-sponsored churches figured having to come up with their own support would ruin them.

But it didn’t. Churches came up with alternative forms of financing. 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 them.) Some went with dues and subscriptions. And some adopted the newly-discovered “biblical principle” of tithing.

Financing the early church.

American churches had to learn how to pay their own way. Same as other, non-state-sponsored churches, had done for centuries. Their folks gave what they could for the continuation of their ministries. What they often aspired to do was follow the principle of the very first Christians, as found in Acts.

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 unanimously were 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 all 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 the 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.
Instead, everything of theirs was commonly used.
33 The apostles gave their witness of Master Jesus’s resurrection in great power.
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 them 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 that 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 ask 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. But anyway.

Those Christians who claim tithing was the way Christians always financed our churches, miss the fact these early Christians were still going to temple to worship. Ac 2.46 Still putting offerings in the temple treasury. Paying temple tax, like Jesus and Peter had. Mt 17.24-27 They were all still Jews, and therefore they were all still contributing to the existing system—if not paying all three tithes the Pharisees demanded of them. Plus there were their taxes to the Romans; now they had to pay 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; it was to be eaten two years out of three, and the third year put in the city’s storehouse for the needy. Separately there were the usual sacrifices and offerings to temple. That’s all the Law really required. The Pharisees were going overboard as usual. But what the early Christians did also went overboard: It was above and beyond what the Law obligated them to do. It was pure generosity. It was great grace. Ac 4.33 For while the larger Jewish society (despite Pharisee overtithing) still had their needy, the Christians had no needy. Ac 4.34 God’s kingdom was working like he always intended.

So… why does tithing appear to work?

My former pastor was fond of proclaiming, “I’ll offer you a money-back guarantee. Tithe! Try it for 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. I don’t know how many people took him up on getting their money back. Hopefully not many. (Not sure whether that’s because nobody took his guarantee seriously, even though he was totally serious.)

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, figured out what 10 percent was, 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 it’s now a priority in their lives and 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 their income consists of, some people are—for the first time in their lives—looking at their income, expenses, and budget. Too many people simply don’t do that. All they know is they’re always in the red, and don’t entirely know why. People who tithe, learn why—in the process of figuring out how on earth they can afford to give that 10 percent. They learn to budget. It’s not that their finances sort themselves out; they sort ’em out.

So… how much should we give our churches?

In principle? We should be willing to give everything, same as the early Christians did.

In practice? Ten percent is a good start.

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

Problem is, the bigger that 10 percent adds up to, the more antsy people get about the way their church leadership spends it. If you make $10 million a year, that’s a million-dollar tithe, and significantly changes the way churches minister. (Or—unfortunately—suck up to their million-dollar benefactors.)

I could get into the 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 not to second-guess the setup; we’re just supposed to be obedient and “bring the whole tithe to the storehouse.” All 10 percent needs to go to your church; don’t divvy it up between your church, your favorite charity, and those dollars you occasionally give to beggars.

Well, since the setup comes from tradition, not bible, we’re not obligated to do any such thing. On the contrary: We’re the people whom God entrusted this money to. Ac 5.4 It’s our responsibility and duty to withhold it from fools and fake prophets. If your church can’t be trusted with money, ’cause it pays the pastor enough to build a million-dollar home, or ’cause it spends a ton of money on a multimedia setup but supports no food closet or clothes closet for the needy: Either fix the church, or find a better one. But don’t fund wasteful leaders.

Our duty is to give, not give blindly and thoughtlessly. Power corrupts, and money is a form of power. If regularly giving your church a lot of money turns ’em into morons who splurge on every stupid thing they’ve ever coveted, you’re doing them a favor by putting God’s money elsewhere. 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. (What they don’t mention is the staff would certainly 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 foolish. Let’s not be foolish, give indiscriminately, and ignore what our churches are doing 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.