21. Giving (and spending)
Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, and laid them down at the apostles’ feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need.
Distributing to the necessity of saints.
For I mean not that other men be eased, and ye burdened: but by an equality, that now at this time your abundance may be a supply for their want, that their abundance also may be a supply for your want: that there may be equality: as it is written, He that had gathered much had nothing over; and he that had gathered little had no lack.
---II Corinthians 8:13-15
Most readers here are well aware that “the Lord loves a cheerful giver.” Also we are familiar with the teaching that we are to set aside money for the church of Jesus Christ “upon the first day of the week,” I Cor. 16:2.
This chapter, however, is not about well-known principles of giving but about the allocation of these gifts. How are church funds to be spent? This chapter is essential to the book for the reason that the way the church spends its money reflects its attitudes, motivations, and values the same as it does in individuals and households.
Of course when one gives to the church the allocations are largely out of his or her control. However every believer who contributes to the church implicitly endorses the allocations we call “church expenditures.”
Under the Old Covenant the priests and Levites were supported by a tithe from the Israelites. Unlike the other eleven tribes they had no inheritance in the land.
Under the New Covenant all are priests of God and thus there is no basis in this fact for perpetuating the old system. If the churches long ago found a basis in Scripture for making the New Testament pastorate a professional office meriting contractual payments—and they surely did—it should have been on some other basis than a continuation of the Old Covenant priest-hood into the New Covenant. These purported justifications will be noted.
In the New Testament we find church collections made for three purposes. First, for the poor saints, including “widows indeed,” cf. I Tim. 5. Second, for the support of evangelists, those we call “missionaries” today. Third, pastors (elders) are worthy of double honour, “especially they who labour in the word and doctrine,” I Tim. 5:17. Also in this category are teachers. Galatians 6:6 says, “Let him that is taught in the word communicate unto him that teacheth in all good things.” Let us look at this third category.
The word “honour,” according to W.E. Vine, may indicate an honorarium, which is a gift voluntary, non-contractual, and an expression of genuine fellowship. While I Timothy 5:17 does not rule out a professional contract, it does not indicate one, either. And we search the rest of the New Testament in vain for teachings that would confirm the pastorate is a profession. But we do have teaching in I Peter 5:2 that the elders should take the oversight “not for filthy lucre.” Does this passage reprobate pastoring for hire, or only wrong motives? Perhaps it is the latter. Or perhaps the meaning is that making the pastorate a paid office is serving filthy lucre. In either event there is no strong evidence found for making the pastorate a means of living.
Concerning teachers, the word translated communicate in Galatians 6:6 is synonymous with “share.” Significantly the Greek word translated communicate is koinonio, a word we readily recognize as meaning fellowship but which has become dissociated from mutual participation in all the church ordinances. Giving is one of the fellowship-ordinances. We are to share with our teachers. Again, where are “regular wages” found here? In the early days of the church itinerant teachers were received by the hospitality of the saints. False teachers were to be rejected, “If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine (i.e., the doctrine of Christ), receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed.” II Jn. 10.
The collection for the poor saints including “widows indeed” is the highest priority for the simple reason that the church can hardly afford to support evangelists while the people starve. In Jerusalem, cf. Acts 6, there was a daily ministry for the widows, and we may presume these were “widows indeed,” i.e., widows without a family to support them. The controversy was simply over the Grecian Jews’ widows being neglected in the daily ministry. However once the needs of the members of the church are met, the funding of evangelists for their work becomes the next priority, though we might also include in this category the support of poor saints in other churches. Of course, if the elders and/or teachers are truly poor they take priority with the other poor saints. In this case they fall in the first cate-gory. (While this may seem outrageous to those accustomed to “supporting the pastor abundantly,” the New Testament never remotely indicates that pastors and teachers are either richer or poorer than the rest of the people.)
It is important to keep in mind a New Testament definition of poor as truly needy, in contrast with what we westerners call poor. I realize there are truly poor among us in the west, but this does not necessarily correlate with the government’s definition of “poverty.”
This whole argument is difficult to make in the apostasy. We have marked class stratification in western culture, and this is apparent in the churches as well. Not only so, we have churches that largely appeal to various economic classes. But it makes no difference, for the problem is not “how much to pay the pastor” but that the pastorate was long ago made into a paid, professional office. Adding insult to injury, were the pastorate indeed a paid, professional office, we are paying the wrong men. If the reigning system were applied to the pastorate actually found in the New Testament, even the smallest churches would have two or three men on payroll. The larger churches, in exchanging their five pastors under the current system for the eldership, would find themselves supporting 15-20 elders! This is of course financially untenable.
Paul made tents. While he had the right to minister while economically supported by the saints, he eschewed this right at various times. Certainly evangelists have the right to expect the full support of the churches. In I Corinthians 9:13-14 Paul wrote,
Do ye not know that they which minister about holy things live of the things of the temple? and they which wait at the altar are partakers with the altar? Even so hath the Lord ordained that they which preach the gospel should live of the gospel.
This is one of the most misinterpreted passages in the Bible. There is no parallel drawn between the Old Covenant priesthood and the New Testament pastorate. It certainly does not mean that the church’s pastors should live of the gospel. It means what it says, and what it says is that those who preach the gospel should live of the gospel. Those who preach the gospel are those worthy of support in the same way that the Old Covenant priesthood was worthy of and required support. And who are these preachers of the gospel? They are the evangelists, those called “missionaries” today.
While pastors and teachers are worthy of support, it does not necessarily follow that the New Testament requires or even indicates paying them wages. In Chapter VIII of Thomas Hughes Milner’s book, “The Christian Ministry According to the Apostles,” he wrote,
“Only by a return to the primitive order may men greedy of filthy lucre be excluded from the functions of the ministry. But a most effectual bar to all such this return certainly would prove. With no fixed stipulated salaries to bargain for, no such calls as render ‘a larger sphere synonymous with ‘a higher stipend,’ with no monetary inducement beyond confidence in the Lord and in his people that need would be supplied, none save men of faith would find any temptation to give themselves wholly to the work. But so long as ‘the ministry’ is made a trade or profession, so long as ‘its money value’ is put forth as a consideration to the acceptance of a charge, so long will men confound gain with godliness, and make merchandise of souls.”
We have no doubt that many of those in the professional pastorate have the best motives. However, how does one ascertain this from the fact of their ministry being made “a trade or profession?” We do not question the motives of butchers and bakers and candlestick makers. We do not chal-lenge the motives of engineers and doctors and lawyers. But Christianity a paid profession? Certainly in the eyes of a skeptical world, professional pastors are suspected of “working for hire.” All are called into question by this, and this includes all those who sincerely desire to honor God.
Then Milner wrote,
“And the purity of the church and of the doctrine taught will also ever be affected by this question. How few men who have entered a situation, induced in part at least by its worth in money, have grace or fortitude sufficient to correct the errors, and rebuke the sins, of those on whose contributions themselves and families depend! How few such have the moral courage to reject all who ought to be rejected, when their reception or retention would certainly add to the emoluments of the office held!”
It is surely a moral hazard for a pastor to be “put on payroll.” And if one says, “my pastor has integrity,” how does he know what has gone unsaid by this man due to “monetary considerations?” Or if he says, “my pastor regularly corrects and rebukes based on the Word,” these are generalities. Does he direct these to you, personally? That is the test. (It would normally be private rather than public admonition.) It is easy enough to believe that general admonitions and rebukes issued from the pulpit apply to “unnamed individuals in the church.” Besides, I have little doubt that in too many churches, churches that attract mere professors along with believers due to the grace that abounds there (perhaps to the point of antinomian-ism), at some point the pastors become hesitant to weigh-in on moral issues that will disgust the theological and political liberals. Why? “Well, we need to meet our budget in order to fund the Lord’s ministries.” Thus they compromise. I do not know this for a fact. What I do know for a fact is that antinomian liberals (these are theological liberals, first; their political views are derivative) hide in these churches and are quite comfortable.
For the same reason that the churches should not make the pastorate a profession, the evangelist by contrast warrants the full economic support of the churches. Howso? The evangelist warrants the full economic support of the churches for the reason that he or she is to “take nothing of the Gen-tiles,” III Jn. 7. “Gentiles” in the context means pagan or unconverted. If an evangelist comes to an unconverted tribe or people “desiring to raise funds for his ministry,” will he not be suspected of, at best, mixed motives? But if he or she comes to them freely they have no reason for suspecting he is serving “filthy lucre.” We give to the church after we are saved, not before.
The same argument, however, applies to the pastorate. For if a man evangelizes a people supported by the funding of other Christians, and he then proceeds to a pastoral ministry in this newly planted church funded by the new converts, will not the same suspicions arise? Paul wrote Corinth, “I seek not yours, but you.” II Cor. 12:14. He was of course speaking as an apostle and an evangelist (a spiritual “parent”). Why does this not also apply to the pastoral office?
Characteristically in the New Testament, the allocation principle is “distributing to the necessity of saints,” meaning poor or needy saints. Or perhaps the principle may be reduced to a word: equality. This applies to our evangelists as well: they merit support on par with the collective standard of living of those who support them, no more and no less.
To those of us living in a wealthy society, unlike the first churches, it may appear Paul required a “communist economy” in the churches. To us, and not to the poor Christians scattered over the earth, this seems a hard teaching of Paul’s. But the fact is, communism is controlled by despots at the top. Paul’s admonition is absolutely to voluntary giving, for “the Lord loveth a cheerful giver.” However he certainly sets the bar high for us in our giving. He wants us even to excel in this grace as in others, II Cor. 8:7.
And what is the end of these contributions? It is that none of the saints suffer want. Out of my abundance I am to supply others’ wants. The day may well come when they are able to supply my wants. Again, this is hard to understand in a wealthy society in which many of us are “never needy.” Our society, however, is atypical in the history of the world.
Paul was not arguing for communism, which is totalitarian and godless. But he certainly was arguing for the church as a private welfare community for its people. Or what other meaning is possible for II Corinthians 8:13-15? There is a world of difference between communism and community. Communism is godless. Community or communion–koinonia–is the will of God for His saints. This is koinonia in its all-encompassing aspect. It is not only observance of the Lord’s supper but fellowship in all the ordinances of the church, including giving for the support of the brethren. James 2:15-16 says, describing an example of a work demonstrating saving faith,
If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, and one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?
Neglect of a church’s poor is tangible and temporal evidence of an absence of community. Our community is not only spiritual, it is also temporal. Or perhaps it is better to say that the temporal is in this case proof of the spiritual. Can we neglect the temporal at no cost to the spiritual? And if our church has no poor, then praise the Lord for His provision. Or let us seek out the poor, that they be converted and saved from the wrath to come.
When it says in Acts 4:32-37 that the saints sold their possessions and “had all things common,” was this normative, i.e., an inspired example which the faithful are expected to imitate? Evidently not, since the balance of New Testament teaching on the subject, which might have confirmed the practice, never remotely suggests this. However the example in Acts 4 is indeed an example for us to consider. Not a few Christians have in faith “sold all.” Acts 4:32-37, neither law, nor required by the law of Christ, is surely intended by God to inspire us in our giving.
Poverty has no doubt characterized the world since shortly after the banishment of Adam and Eve from the garden. Wealth is atypical. No doubt part of our problem is that in America the “welfare state” takes care of our poor. Of course this is a manifestation of the social gospel and liberal Christianity. In exchange for private and voluntary charity liberal Christians long ago advocated for “economic justice” and “income redistribution”—in the public sector and not the private. Many Bible believers have gone along with this. And what has been the result in the churches? We do not support our own poor, or worse perhaps, we have no poor to support in our churches. Laodicea says, “I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing.” We do not say this necessarily applies in the East. It surely applies in the West.
If a church truly has no poor meriting its support, or only a few poor, then just so much more funding is available for evangelists to take the gospel of Christ crucified to all the peoples and tribes of the earth, or for the poor and/or persecuted saints in far away places. (As an example of a ministry to the latter may I recommend “The Voice of the Martyrs?” Or, as an example of a gospel mission to the down-and-outers in our own society, Pacific Garden Mission in Chicago?)
Church expenditures reflect the priorities and values of the givers. Indeed they reflect the church’s collective understanding of church order and polity. The question is, do these expenditures reflect the teachings of the New Testament?