Few issues are as pertinent for the contemporary church as the issue of financial stewardship. Simply put, organizations need resources, especially financial resources. Without income, no organization can maintain its facilities, staff, or substantial programs. Marketing, carefully controlled budgets, and salaried employees are crucial to most organizations’ success. Hence it should come as no surprise that organized churches utilize each of these tools in building and supporting their infrastructures.
Is there a valid theological foundation for this system in the church of Jesus Christ? The question may sound odd to pragmatists, but it will strike a chord with those who look for the spiritual meaning of the church. Church practice informs, and is informed by, church teaching. The way we do things as God’s family conveys just as much about us as what we say, if not more. What concrete, visible form are we giving to our doctrine? What are we telling the world by the way we, as churches, use our financial resources? Most importantly, what direction is laid out for us in holy Scripture?
√ The Tithe
Many churches depend upon members “tithing,” that is, giving ten percent of their incomes to the organization. The ten percent is based not on net income but on gross (“the first fruits”). The practice is based on Israelite legal requirements as recorded in the Law and the Prophets.
The Mosaic laws regarding tithing were many and complex. One of the principle functions of the tithe was to maintain the priestly institution in Israel: “I give to the Levites all the tithes in Israel as their inheritance in return for the work they do while serving at the Tent of Meeting” (Num. 18:21, NIV). “Now the law requires the descendants of Levi who become priests to collect a tenth from the people” (Heb. 7:5a, NIV). By sharing their resources in this way, rank-and-file Israelites enabled the priests to dedicate their full energies to serving God, first in the tabernacle and then in the Temple.
In the third century after Christ, when the Christian church was beginning to set apart its leaders as priests, this practice was revived. Cyprian of Carthage, for example, argued that “every one honoured by the divine priesthood, and ordained in the clerical service, ought to serve only the altar and sacrifices, and to have leisure for prayer and supplications.” He then wrote of:
The form of which ordination and engagement the Levites formerly observed under the law…Which plan and rule is now maintained in respect of the clergy, that they who are promoted by clerical ordination in the Church of the Lord may be called off in no respect from the divine administration, nor be tied down by worldly anxieties and matters; but in the honour of the brethren who contribute, receiving as it were tenths of the fruits, they may not withdraw from the altars and sacrifices, but may serve day and night in heavenly and spiritual things (Epistle 65.1). Reference1
To this day, Catholic and Protestant Christians alike appeal to this old covenant protocol. Many of us have heard more than one sermon from Protestant pulpits comparing our tithes and offerings to the sacrifices of old which the Israelites shared with their priests. We are also told that in withholding this tithe, we are robbing God of what is rightly His. On the other hand, we are told, God’s blessings will rest on us if we tithe as we should (Mal. 3:8-10).
Sometimes it is even described as a sort of investment plan whereby we may be assured of financial solvency if we give our ten percent to the church organization, whether we can ostensibly afford it or not. If necessary, it may be portrayed as an act of faith.
The unfortunate flaw in this system is its failure to consider the full ramifications of the cross. The Gospels tell us that when Jesus died on the cross, the Temple curtain before the Most Holy Place was torn in two “from top to bottom” (NIV). Hebrews 8 through 10 spells out the theological meaning of this remarkable event. At that moment, the sacrificial system was fulfilled. Jesus’ death brought the old covenant to completion and initiated a new covenant, sealed in his holy blood. The religious institution, complete with its Temple, its priesthood, and its sacrifices, was replaced with the organic reality of Christ’s body. With his subsequent resurrection and giving of the Holy Spirit, the process was complete.
Now Jesus is the only mediator. No Temple curtain, no institution, no priesthood stands between God and man. Christ’s body, the church, is now a nation of kings and priests (Rev. 1:6), “a royal priesthood” (1 Pet. 2:9, NIV). Nowhere in the New Testament can we find the idea that our churches are filled with “lay people” who are to financially support “the clergy” or “priesthood” and the buildings of mortar and stone we call “houses of God.” As Stephen put it before the Sanhedrin, “the Most High does not live in houses made by men” (Acts 7:48, NIV).
While acknowledging this fundamental change between the covenants, some argue that the law of the tithe is not grounded in Mosaic Law but in a more enduring divine principle. The practice is traced back prior to Moses, all the way back to Abraham, who gave a tithe to Melchizedek (Gen. 14:18-20; Heb. 7:1-10). This argument not only de-emphasizes the cross as the fulcrum of the new covenant; it also fails to note that Abraham gave his tithe to Melchizedek
the priest (Gen. 14:8; Heb. 7:1). The tithe is part and parcel of this sacramental religious system, and as such has no place in the life of the new covenant. Nowhere does the New Testament teach that Christians are to tithe.
√ The Pastoral Salary
Nevertheless, if practitioners of the system under consideration cannot produce sound theological arguments, surely they can argue from apostolic precedent that leaders in the church are to be set apart, financially supported so that they can dedicate their energies to full-time ministry. The principle text is taken from 1 Timothy 5:17,18:
The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, “Do not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain,” and “The worker deserves his wages.”
It is often pointed out that the Greek word for “honor,” time, can be understood as an honorarium. But that usage is rare and far removed from the time of the first century. Reference2 Furthermore, the context itself suggests another interpretation.
The word time is also used in the next chapter of 1 Timothy. There we read that Christian slaves were to “consider their masters worthy of full respect” (6:1, NIV). The word for “respect” in this verse is also time. No one extrapolates from this that slaves were to provide their masters with annual salaries; clearly “honor” or “respect” is the correct meaning. And certainly diligent leaders in the church are worthy of double respect (1 Thess. 5:12,13).
Neither does verse 18 of chapter 5 imply that elders were to be salaried. Notice carefully the structure of the argument. The elders are no more identified with the wage-earning worker than they are identified with the ox. Reference3
The point is clear: As the ox is not to be muzzled, and as the worker is to be paid, so the leader is to be given respect. This meaning is also more in keeping with verse 19, which states that accusations are not to be brought against elders without two or three witnesses. This practice is consistent with the principle that elders are to be trusted and held in high esteem.
This does not rule out all financial remuneration. The first part of the chapter calls Christians likewise to “give proper recognition to those widows who are really in need” (v. 3, NIV). Although this would primarily involve helping with chores and other forms of care, financial assistance would also be in view.
Similarly, in Galatians 6:6.
Paul writes that “Anyone who receives instruction in the word must share all good things with his instructor” (NIV). Again, financial gifts may very well be part of that sharing. But even so, a financial bonus is a far cry from a burdensome annual salary with benefits.
But what about the Apostle Paul? Did he not write to the Corinthians that he was fully deserving of complete financial support, had he wished to claim it (1 Cor. 9:1-15)? Yes, but not as an elder in the church. The financial support that Paul deserved was the support due an apostle or itinerant evangelist. Unlike established church leaders, itinerant evangelists had to rely more heavily on the hospitality of others (cf. Luke 10:1-7). Yet Paul, himself a travelling evangelist, usually chose to forego this privilege. In Acts 20:33-35 Luke records a most telling reason for this denial. The context is Paul’s last meeting with the Ephesian pastors/elders.
“I have not coveted anyone’s silver or gold or clothing. You yourselves know that these hands of mine have supplied my own needs and the needs of my companions. In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive'” (NIV).
Notice this remarkable turnabout! Rather than receiving the “first fruits” of the church’s labors, the elders themselves were asked to give! Paul himself chose not to exercise his prerogative to be well compensated as an example to those who had even less business earning a living off the gospel. The doctrine of the professional elder is difficult to find in the pages of the New Testament documents.
It may be objected that the distinction described here between the apostle (1 Cor. 9) and the elder (1 Tim. 5) breaks down in 1 Corinthians 9:5 where Paul rhetorically compares himself to James and Peter, both of whom were counted as elders (cf. Acts 15; 21:18; 1 Pet. 5:1). However, it is James and Peter in their capacity as travelling evangelists that Paul has in mind, since he describes their “right to take a believing wife along with” them (NIV). James in particular appears to have been stationed in Jerusalem as a leading figure, but this would not have ruled out short-term missionary endeavors.
It may also be objected that Paul’s application of Deuteronomy 25:4 (1 Cor. 9:9), here clearly with reference to financial remuneration, should dictate Paul’s meaning when he cites it in 1 Timothy 5:18. This may indeed weaken the distinction between 1 Corinthians 9 and 1Timothy 5. However, the base principle Paul has in mind may be simply that of honor, which may or may not entail financial remuneration (certainly in 1 Cor. 9, possibly in 1 Tim. 5).
Finally, one may wish to argue that Paul’s imagery in 1 Corinthians 9:13,14 closely parallels Cyprian’s doctrine cited earlier. There Paul writes: “Don’t you know that those who work in the temple get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in what is offered on the altar? In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel” (NIV). But this is an analogy which falls far short of actually applying the old covenant law, or casting some Christians in the role of “clergy” as opposed to “laity.” The analogy could well hinge on the distinction between the priests who served at the altar directly and the thousands of other priests who didn’t. Otherwise, Paul would have severely mitigated the priesthood of all believers so frequently affirmed in the New Testament. In addition, the “preaching” described here denotes the work of travelling evangelists proclaiming the gospel – not local teachers preparing polished oratories for Sunday morning services.
The New Testament supports neither the doctrine of tithing nor the doctrine of the salaried pastor. But this is not to suggest that the church ought not to give. On the contrary, the new covenant principle is that the church ought to give even more. But on what basis?
Today tithes and offerings are ritually collected in offering plates which are passed among the congregation during Sunday morning services. Often little envelopes can be found tucked into the backs of pews for the convenience of the giver. Frequently one can find a verse, like 1 Corinthians 16:2a, printed on the envelope as Scriptural justification for the practice: “On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income” (NIV).
What is not often realized is that this verse belongs to a very specific context. A terrible famine had racked Judea, and Paul was gathering money from the Gentile churches to assist Jewish Christians during this most difficult of times. In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul urged his readers to save money ahead of time so that he could collect it on his arrival: “so that when I come no collections will have to be made” (v. 2b, NIV).
The Gentile Christians were giving money for a specific, identifiable, personal need. The money was not earmarked for mortgages or salaries, but for a pressing social crisis. In his next letter to the Corinthians, chapters 8 and 9, Paul explored in much greater detail the new covenant principles of giving. The principle is not based on percentages or ritual, but upon the premise, first, that God already owns all that we have. The Macedonian churches, for example, “gave themselves first to the Lord” (v. 5, NIV) and then, in keeping with God’s will, vied for the privilege of sharing their resources with other saints. The second principle is bound up in the first: Since we are merely stewards of God’s resources, we ought to share what we have freely, whether we can spare only two percent or whether we can afford to give fifty. “Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor. 9:7, NIV).
In sharing our resources with others, Paul writes, we ensure greater equity among ourselves (2 Cor. 8:13-15). In this way Paul confirms the principles of giving expressed in Luke’s writings. For example, in Luke 12:33 Jesus says, “Sell your possessions and give to the poor.” Dismissing this teaching as impracticable, many believers regard it as culturally bound to the time of Jesus’ ministry only. Yet Luke later shows us how such difficult teachings can find practical expression: Within the community of faith. “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had” (Acts 4:32, NIV).
This last passage, too, is frequently dismissed as an outdated phase of early church history. Unique conditions in the early Jerusalem church, it is argued, created the need for this temporary arrangement. Yet Luke does not describe it as such. We read in verse 33 that “much grace was upon them all,” and in verse 34 that “There were no needy persons among them” (NIV). What translations such as the NIV and the NRSV don’t tell us, however, is that there is a preposition between verses 33 and 34. (The NASV preserves the preposition, but maintains the sentence break.)
The passage should more accurately read, “much grace was upon them all, for there were no needy persons among them.” God’s grace rested upon the Jerusalem Christians because they were caring for their own.
This arrangement is no mere accident of history. It is rather one more way, Luke is telling us, in which the church is confirmed as God’s covenant community. Consider Deuteronomy 15:4,5,7,9:
“However, there should be no poor among you, for in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the LORD your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today. If there is a poor man among your brothers in any of the towns of the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother. Rather be openhanded and freely lend him whatever he needs” (NIV).
In sharing their resources, the early Christians nurtured a community spirit (not necessarily a “commune”) in which individual needs were met. This practice, as we have seen, was confirmed among the Pauline churches (2 Cor. 8:13-15).
To Believers Only?
But are Christians to share their resources only with one another? What about those outside the church? Just how generous should the church be?
It is true that we read most about the early Christians sharing with one another. When Paul collected money for the famine in Judea, we are not told that he was collecting money on behalf of those outside the church. In addition, we are told by some th at the church should offer spiritual bread to the world prior to offering material bread. Our calling is to preach the gospel, not to feed the poor who will always be with us (cf. John 12:8). Our resources should be saved for evangelism instead.
This approach represents a false dichotomy. Jesus came preaching not only spiritual salvation but also freedom from social oppression (cf. Luke 4:18-20). The two go hand in hand. When Jesus asked us to give to the poor, he did not specify the Christian poor only. On the contrary, Jesus told us to share without asking questions (Matt. 5:42)! He also commanded us to be all-inclusive in our love (Matt. 5:43-48). Hence our giving is not to be limited to Christians only.
In Galatians 6:10 Paul confirms this principle. He writes, “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers” (NIV). Note that the family comes first, then those who aren’t part of the family; but the good is ultimately to be spread among all people, not believers only. As God was not tight-fisted with us, neither are we to be tight-fisted with others.
House Church Finances
The house church setting is ideal for this free exercise of financial giving. Without institutional facilities and professional clergy to support, the financial resources of house church members are freed for more pressing tasks. Without a temple or a priesthood, the tithe is unnecessary; and in the intimate setting of members’ homes, families’ needs can be more readily recognized. Both evangelism and social ministry benefit from this ideal arrangement. “On a practical note,” writes Bill Grimes, “who is best able to sponsor missionaries, an institutional church of 1000 members that is saddled with a mortgage payment, utilities, janitorial fees, building maintenance and pastoral salaries 3/4 or a network of 1000 house church people with no staff to pay nor buildings to upkeep? According to a 1989 survey of U.S. Protestant congregations, 82% of church revenues go to buildings, staff and internal programs, leaving only 18% for outreach. With house churches the percentages are reversed!” Reference4
Let us not be satisfied with tithing our resources to self-perpetuating institutions. Let us instead dedicate our full energies, and as many resources as we can manage, to the Lord and His work.