Financial Support for the Local Church
In May 2017 I spent a literal month of Sundays teaching on the topic of generosity. I made the claim that the words of Jesus, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’ (Acts 20:35), are the basis for giving in the Christian church, not the Levitical tithe. Generosity should be as natural as breathing to the Christian - generosity in thought, word and deed. When we were planning for the first half 2019 I felt that I should address the issue again, not because I had changed my mind, but because I am becoming more and more concerned that many people end up leaving their local church because they feel they can’t meet the 10 per cent tithe standard (and, incidentally other standards like church attendance, time allocated to prayer, and ‘volunteering’). Christianity is not about meeting standards, although this is not licence to live in a way that undermines our position as ambassadors of Christ (2 Cor 5:20).
Earlier this month I shared with our congregation that I had been studying tithing off and on since I was 14 years old. That’s 48 years! My first real education about tithing came when my English teacher’s father wrote me a letter from England outlining the three tithes of the Old Testament. Back then I earned pocket money by mowing lawns. After I read his letter, I carefully put aside three tithes, one for the church, one for holidays and one for the poor. Mind you, I was only earning $3-$5 a week, depending on how many lawns needed mowing. Although I am grateful that my English teacher’s father took enough interest in me to teach me about tithing I now respectfully think he was wrong. In this blog and one or two to follow, I’ll explain where my studies have brought me.
Arguably, this blog should be the last in the series, but I want to start with 2 Cor 9, a chapter that is often quoted in the context of giving to the local church, sometimes in general terms and sometimes with reference to special giving (often called a ‘faith’ offering).
I argue that, when read in context, 2 Cor 9 is about making a spiritual decision or commitment to giving for a particular need among brothers and sisters in Christ. In this case it was the Christian church in Jerusalem. The context is not giving to the local church. Furthermore, this kind of giving is clearly of the ‘heart’, that is, it is motivated by the action of the Holy Spirit on the people concerned (‘Let giving flow from your heart, not from a sense of religious duty. Let it spring up freely from the joy of giving - all because God loves hilarious generosity’, v. 7, The Passion translation).
I further argue that the basis for giving to the local church is found in 1 Cor 9 (and 1 Tim 5:17-18). The discourse here is a strong defence of the right of apostles (and their wives) to be supported by those to whom the apostles minister. The model of the apostle and spouse is not quite the same as in the twenty-first century because priests/ministers/pastors are no longer itinerant (some are), but have a ‘home base’ which is the local church. I believe that the context of 1 Cor 9 allows application to the local church, unlike the context of 2 Cor 9. The one who ‘spiritually’ ploughs and treads out grain expects a harvest (see v. 10, The Passion translation). Of course, Paul renounced his right to a harvest for the sake of the Gospel, but he did not have this expectation of apostles generally.
Some of the arguments of 1 Cor 9 are repeated in 1 Tim 5:17-18. Verse 17 adds, ‘The pastors who lead the church well should be paid well. They should receive double honour…’ (The Passion Translation). ‘Double honour’ literally means ‘double payment’, although it is not clear what is the baseline.
In summary, then, it seems to me that 1 Cor 9 (and 1 Tim 5:17-18) establishes a basis for financial support of the local church. The notion of double honour makes generous support the principle. On the other hand, 2 Cor 9 provides the basis for giving for the needy brothers and sisters in other churches.
The principle of generous support of the local church will outwork differently for different people. We should bear in mind what Jesus said about the poor widow who gave generously (see Mk 12:41-44 and Luke 21:1-4). ‘This poor widow has given a larger offering than any of the wealthy. For the rich give only out of their surplus, but she sacrificed out of her poverty…’ (vv. 3-4, The Passion Translation).
Notice that there is no mention of tithing in either 1 Cor 9 or 2 Cor 9. In a future blog, I will address tithing in the Old and New Testaments. However, I can say now that I will not be concluding that tithing is the basis for supporting the local church. The basis is generosity.