On not giving to certain churches.

Recently the subject came up about funding one’s church… and about whether we oughta fund churches which really doesn’t need the money.

Fr’instance a megachurch. People assume bigger churches are successful, and flush with cash, so it doesn’t matter whether they give these churches any money: The churches already have money. The Roman Catholic Church is loaded with expensive buildings, priceless artwork, huge tracts of land; heck, Vatican City is a sovereign nation-state which prints money and postage stamps. Hence whenever a Catholic diocese actually does need money, most people’s first response is, “Oh come on; you guys have money.” And don’t give.

Now yes, churches with a lot of people are gonna need a lot of resources. More pastors, obviously. More support staff: More secretaries and assistants, janitors and groundskeepers, bookkeepers, security guards, IT and website personnel, counselors and life coaches, drivers and pilots… the organization can get pretty huge. Plus bigger buildings, more land, higher electric bills, and so forth. So they’re gonna need more donations.

Now when big churches have a surplus, what we should see is they fund more missionaries and community good works—like this one megachurch in my town. We see ’em legitimately, publicly contributing to the growth of God’s kingdom.

But what we tend to see, especially in prosperity-gospel churches, is better-paid pastors who drive better-model cars. Whose “outreaches” tend to consist of conferences and schools which charge for entry. Whose support staff consists of a lot of unpaid interns, or who make minimum wage with no benefits. Like this other megachurch in my town.

Everybody knows—pagans especially!—that Christians are supposed to reject materialism. That Jesus publicly made a point of rejecting materialism. So you’d think Christians, who know this too, would make a point of not sending our donations to materialistic churches.

But yeah, we’ve been conned into thinking and doing otherwise.

“Bring your whole tithe to the storehouse!”

Largely the deed was done by what Evangelicals teach about tithing. Once American churches stopped being funded by our colonial governments, we had to come up with alternative funding, and came up with “tithing.” In the bible tithing’s about celebrating the firstfruits of your harvest, but Evangelicals make it sound like it’s entirely about funding the church.

And, they claim, it’s a “biblical principle.” God expects us to tithe. We have to tithe. It’s not an option. It’s a command. Well, it’s not, ’cause God doesn’t expressly command people anywhere to give to our churches. But people commonly treat “biblical principles” functionally the same as commands… which means disobeying these principles is functionally sin.

Plus there’s that threat of what misery God might rain down upon us when we don’t tithe.

Malachi 3.10-12 NRSV
10 Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in my house, and thus put me to the test, says the LORD of hosts; see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing. 11 I will rebuke the locust for you, so that it will not destroy the produce of your soil; and your vine in the field shall not be barren, says the LORD of hosts. 12 Then all nations will count you happy, for you will be a land of delight, says the LORD of hosts.

If you don’t tithe, he’s gonna send locusts.

But I should remind you: The LORD’s statement in Malachi isn’t about the Jews not funding his temple. According to the LORD’s actual biblical commands, every third year, instead of partying with their tithe, they were supposed to donate it to the local storehouse for the Levites and the poor. They were supposed to forego partying and help the needy. It was never about funding temple, or even the local synagogue. It’s about helping the poor and hungry… and y’know, if we’re not already doing that, maybe we’d better start!

But of course Evangelicals never bother to read Malachi in the context of Deuteronomy, so most of us still think “storehouse” means church.

And our pastors, whenever they quote this passage, of course figure “storehouse” means their church. You need to bring your full tithe to their church. Your full tithe: Not part of the tithe. Don’t go divvying up your tithe into percentages, and give a percentage to this ministry and that, and the rest to your local church. Give them the entire 10 percent of your gross income. Because it’s biblical.

Well… but what if your church is run by fools?

Mine’s not, thank God. But I’ve been in churches which were. I once had a pastor who had the bad habit of buying every little church novelty he found on the internet, and using our church’s debit card for it. One of our other pastors eventually had to take away the card. We couldn’t afford all that crap! And it really was crap. But the pastor was used to working for a much larger church with a far bigger budget, whose bookkeepers never bothered to ask questions. So he’d grown used to spending like a college student who’d just been given their first credit card. (He had a lot of self-discipline problems, which should be a giant red flag when you’re hiring pastors.)

Other churches had board members who were robbing donations. Or spending money unwisely—because they had a lot of it, and figured God would easily replenish it. And of course there are those churches where too much prosperity-gospel thinking has leaked in and warped the leaders.

Bad church stewardship means your church has too much money. Simple solution: Don’t give ’em money. And maybe consider attending a church where the leaders aren’t robbing God.

But do give. Instead of giving that money to a misbehaving church, give it to some other church. One which is obviously doing good deeds with the money. Or some other charity which helps the needy. Y’know the missionaries your church supports?—maybe you can send money directly to them, instead of using your church as a middleman.

The inevitable pushback.

Yeah, certain pastors freak out at this advice. ’Cause they grew up, same as I did, hearing we have to give to the churches we’re in. They worry it is sin to stop funding our churches, to stop giving the whole “tithe” to the “storehouse.” Even if they’re fully aware Malachi has been misinterpreted, the behavior is so well-ingrained in them, change is uncomfortable.

And to be fair, some of them are striving their best to be responsible with their church’s finances. And worry this is gonna undermine the donations. Y’know, it might. There are two usual reasons people don’t donate to their churches:

  • They can’t afford to donate.
  • They love money, and are looking for any reason not to donate.

It’s already an uphill battle to fight selfishness, greed, and small-mindedness. And whenever I tell people they don’t have to donate, it surely doesn’t help their struggling churches.

I get that. But I’m not gonna misquote bible, nor obfuscate nor hide the truth, just so I can get the donations to tick upward. God’s kingdom isn’t gonna grow by conning people out of their money; you’re just gonna wind up with more Mammonism.

In fact if more Christians realize this, what we might get are more Christians who stop donating to money-hungry Mammonists, and megachurches which are clearly squandering what they’ve been given… and instead start funding ministries which truly need the money. Like missionaries, church plants, outreaches, community services, food closets, pregnancy resource centers, children’s centers, not-for-profit preschools, health clinics, and disaster relief. Groups which are always begging for money, who need it far more than any megachurch pastor needs a private jet.

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.