When we come to the matter of finances in the New Testament church I think we all tend to tighten up a little bit, for inevitably it deals with something which is very dear to the hearts of most Americans—money. I, too, am a bit apprehensive, for I recall all too well an encounter between a friend of mine and his pastor. The pastor had just given a rousing sermon on stewardship, and so far as I know, attempted to stir up the troops to give even greater sums of money into the church treasury.
My friend, whose name is Carl, and who is quite outspoken, was not too impressed with the sermon. When Carl got to the doorway there was the pastor shaking hands with those who were leaving. The pastor, whose name was Vince, knew that if there was anyone in the church who would level with him about his message that morning it was Carl. With very little prompting Carl concisely summarized the matter with this statement, “Vince, the way I look at it, your sermons cost me twenty-five bucks a piece, and frankly, Vince, you and I both know they’re not worth it.” With this in mind let us carefully proceed with this matter of finances in the New Testament church.
From the amount of time spent on this matter of finances in some churches you might conclude that it is the only matter of importance, at least to the preachers. But in spite of the undue emphasis upon money in some churches, money and giving is a vital part of New Testament Christianity. Certainly we see this in the second chapter of Acts where the newly-born church is described:
And they were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. And everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles. And all those who had believed were together, and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions, and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need (Acts 2:42-45).
I would suspect that when we read of ‘wonders and signs’ taking place in the church we would think of miraculous healings and such, but in my mind the greatest miracle is when naturally self-seeking, materialistic men and women begin to sell their property and share with everyone their hard-earned assets. Now here is a true miracle. How many people do you know who are willing to renounce possession of their material goods and share with those who have material needs? How many Christians like this do you know of? As I said, here, indeed, is a greater wonder, a manifestation of some great change which has taken place because of the Lord Jesus and the coming of His Spirit to the church.
Probably the major reason why Christians have so much trouble with this matter of money and material goods is that they have a wrong view of it. Before we go any further, let’s be sure that we have a right view of material blessings.
(1) Contrary to current thought in some churches, money and material goods are not evil, but a blessing from God. In 1 Timothy chapter four and verses 1-5 Paul had to caution Timothy about those false teachers who would forbid marriage and certain foods as evil. To the contrary, Paul said, “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, if it is received with gratitude” (1 Tim. 4:4).
Later in this same epistle Paul wrote: “Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy” (1 Tim. 6:17).
(2) Worldly riches are not only for us to enjoy, they are also for us to share with those in need: “Instruct them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is life indeed” (1 Tim. 6:18-19).
In the early chapters of Acts the actions of the Christians of selling their goods and meeting the needs of other Christians proved in a tangible way the reality of their faith and the strength of the bond between Christians.
(3) Money is a stewardship. Rather than viewing money as an indication of spirituality, or that spirituality guarantees prosperity (1 Tim. 6:5), a misconception common to many in New Testament times and today, it was to be understood as a stewardship, something that is to be wisely used and invested, rather than hoarded or lavished upon ourselves (cf. James 5:1-6; 1 Tim. 6:18-19; Luke 16:1-13; 19:11-27).
(4) Material possessions in the Bible are never viewed as an end in themselves. Pursuing after riches has caused great heartache and difficulty to many Christians (1 Tim. 6:7-10). Material goods are to be understood rather as a means, a means by which we can prove our love for God (cf. 2 Cor. 8:1-5; Luke 18:18-25), and our love for our brethren (Luke 10:25-37).
(5) Our possessions don’t belong solely to us. One final observation we should make about material goods from the early chapters of Acts is that the Christians did not regard their possessions as belonging solely to them. That is they did not claim their right of ownership. Listen to this description from the historian, Luke: “And the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul; and not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own; but all things were common property to them” (Acts 4:32).
Now I know that some have said this was a form of communism, but surely that is not what Luke has described to us. First of all, there is no compulsory collection of goods and money from anyone. This is most clear in Peter’s words to Ananias and Sapphira: “While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not under your control?” (Acts 5:4a).
The land belonged to Ananias and Sapphira. They could do with it what they wished. They did not have to sell the land, or to give any part of the proceeds to be used for the poor. The sin of Ananias and Sapphira was that of deception, lying to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:3-4).
Second, the text does not say that everyone sold everything they had and pooled it all together. It says that no one made selfish use of his right of ownership. I want you to see that actual ownership did not change except in the case of property that was sold. Luke said, “… not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own …” (Acts 4:32).
Property still belonged to its owner, but the owner did not claim exclusive rights to his property. This was because the congregation was ‘of one heart and soul.’ There was such love and concern for one another that whatever anyone had that someone else needed was his to use. To put this into more modern terms, the slave owner might loan his Cadillac to his Christian slave to take the children to school or to go shopping. One individual might loan his rototiller to his Christian neighbor who did not own one. The man with a large house would volunteer to host a large gathering of Christians that could not fit comfortably into another house. Someone who had an extra room might make it available for visiting Christians to stay in.
Material blessings, then, are not simply for us to enjoy, but for us to share with others who are in need; they are a tangible means of expressing Christian love and unity to believers and to demonstrate the life-transforming power of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
How different the budgets of most churches today are from that of the New Testament. In the New Testament times things were far less complicated, so far as the Scriptures inform us. Today, much of the money given to the church goes for physical facilities, church buildings, parking lots, maintenance, salaries, staff and the like. Now I realize that many of these things are necessary and good, but in the fact of these budgetary needs we may have lost sight of what should be a priority in our giving.
Before I give the reasons for giving in the New Testament, it is essential for me to first of all say that people never gave for the purpose of tithing in the New Testament. Tithing was a practice specified in the Old Testament law, and was not carried over into the New Testament. Our Lord never required it, nor did His apostles and the church ever practice it. We are not under law, but under grace. Now some of you may use this as an excuse for not giving, and that would be wrong. If in the Old Testament, a portion belonged to God, in the New Testament everything is His, and we are stewards of it, who will some day give account for (of?) our stewardship (cf. Luke 19:11-27; 1 Cor. 4:1-5; 2 Cor. 5:10).
Now concerning the reasons for which Christians gave.
(1) By far, the greatest proportion of the Scriptures in the New Testament (by my estimates, nearly 90%) have to do with money given to meet the physical needs of the saints. In some ways it seems amusing, but by and large, it is pathetic that the passages which are used to encourage people to give are specifically addressed to the matter of meeting the needs of the poor saints. In the past several weeks I have heard individuals exhort Christians to give to a Christian radio station and to a Christian college, both noble and worthy works, but they were exhorting us to give from 2 Corinthians 8 and 9, a passage where Paul is exhorting the saints to give to the poor in Jerusalem. Every instance of a church collection being taken (so far as I can discern) in the book of Acts is for the poor. The passage in 1 Corinthians 16:1-9 is directed to those who have made a commitment to give to the poor. Now there are other passages dealing with giving, but the vast majority have to do with the poor.
In Acts 6:1-6 and 1 Timothy 5:3-16, the specific area of concern for the needy is the widows of the church. In Acts there was some kind of daily provision of food for them, and in 1 Timothy Paul taught that some of the older widows should be regularly supported by the church.
Perhaps the greatest area of neglect, however, is in the area of one church giving financial assistance to another. If the unity of the local body of believers is demonstrated by the believers of one another, even more so is the unity of the universal body of believers demonstrated by the more prosperous church giving to the financial needs of the needy church. Such was the case when on at least one occasion the Macedonian and Achaian churches gave to the Jerusalem church (cf. Acts 11:27-30; 1 Cor. 16:1-9; 2 Cor. 8 & 9). In my estimation, this is one very great area of opportunity for affluent churches to minister to churches in Guatemala and other parts of the world when some great disaster or need arises.
(2) A second area of responsibility in church giving is that of giving to those who minister. Paul’s words are very clear in his first epistle to the Corinthians: “So also the Lord directed those who proclaim the gospel to get their living from the gospel” (1 Cor. 9:14).
Again Paul wrote to Timothy: “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing,’ and ‘The laborer is worthy of his wages’” (1 Tim. 5:17-18).
Another interesting passage, stressing the individual responsibility toward those who minister, is found in Galatians where Paul writes: “And let the one who is taught the word share all good things with him who teaches,” (Gal. 6:6).
Although money is not excluded, I do not think that it is primarily in Paul’s mind. This seems to be the case since in 1 Timothy 5:17-18 the obligation of determining the amount of salary received by a minister (or teaching elder) is upon the leadership of the church. In Galatians Paul seems to be stressing the obligation of those who are ministered to, to minister in return with ‘all good things.’ I now see the emphasis to be upon the words ‘all’ and ‘good.’ Not only should the servant be worthy of his wages, but he should share in the ‘good things’ of life, which those who are taught possess. If I understand Paul’s inference, this would mean that the farmer might share some of his ‘good things’ such as meat or potatoes, even black-eyed peas. I know from personal experience that some have shared tickets to see the Dallas Cowboys and to go to Six Flags. These are expressions of appreciation to those who minister. As the teacher shares with the church the blessings of the Word of God, the congregation shares of its material blessings.
Now perhaps you think I am putting in a bit of a plug for myself. You should read further in the Galatians 6 passage and you will see that these ‘good things’ should be shared not only with those who teach, but with all believers, and even the unsaved, “let us do good to all men, and especially …” (cf. v. 10).
(3) Finally, as far as the Scriptures are concerned, there is the giving of funds to those who minister beyond the confines of our local church. The Philippian church is a wonderful example of those who greatly desired to help Paul in a tangible way in his ministry of proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ. Not only did they send money (Phil. 1:5; 4:15ff), but they sent Epaphroditus as well (Phil. 2:25-30). What a wonderful encouragement and help both were to Paul. The Apostle John likewise encourages Christians to minister in a material way to those preachers of the gospel who are passing by our way:
Beloved, you are acting faithfully in whatever you accomplish for the brethren, and especially when they are strangers; and they bear witness to your love before the church, and you will do well to send them on their way in a manner worthy of God. For they went out for the sake of the Name, accepting nothing from the Gentiles. Therefore we ought to support such men, that we may be fellow-workers with the truth (3 John 5-8).
These, then, are the New Testament reasons for giving: to meet the needs of those who lack, both in the local congregation and in the church at large, to care for the widows, to minister to those who minister to us, and to participate in the ministry of those who minister to the church at large. Whatever other financial needs we may have, these, it would seem to me, must be high priorities in our giving.
In these days of bake sales, church-wide canvassing, bazaars, and the like,32 it is imperative that we take a closer look at this matter of the collection and distribution of funds in the New Testament.
When we come to this matter of the collection of money in the church I am reminded of the story of a church that was attempting to raise funds to support a particular ministry.
Two sisters called upon a member and asked him for a donation. The member exclaimed, “I can’t give anything. I owe nearly everybody in this town already.” “But,” said one of the sisters, “don’t you think you owe the Lord something, too?” “I do, sister,” said the man, “But He ain’t pushing me like my other creditors are.”33
Apparently this gentleman hasn’t been to very many churches, for the church seems to have developed ways of leaning on its members for money which makes professional fund-raisers look like amateurs. This is a far cry from the practice of the apostles in the New Testament. From the practice of the New Testament church we learn several principles concerning the collection of money.
(1) The Apostle Paul had no reservations about making the needs of others known. When it became apparent that there would be great needs in the church at Jerusalem there was no hesitancy to make these needs known to those who were able to help (cf. Acts 11:27-30; 1 Cor. 16:1ff; 2 Cor. 8-9). Paul also encouraged the church to meet the needs of Phoebe (Rom. 16:1-2), Zenas and Apollos (Titus 3:13-14).
(2) Although Paul never hesitated to make the needs of others known and solicit help for them, he never did this for himself. In Philippians Paul taught that we are to “… let our (your) requests be made known to God” (Phil. 4:6) Paul had learned to be content with little or much (Phil. 4:12) and although he accepted the gift of the Philippians gratefully, he in no way solicited this gift or future gifts (cf. Phil. 4:10-20).
(3) Paul not only made the needs of others known, he strongly encouraged the saints to give to meet the needs of others (Rom. 12:13; Gal. 6:6-10). Paul’s encouragement is to be found throughout chapters 8 and 9 of 2 Corinthians. Personally, I see no reason why the leadership of the church should not continue the practice of informing and encouraging the church in this matter of giving to those in need.
(4) Finally, although there is strong encouragement for individuals to give to the needs of others there is absolutely no pressure or underhanded tactics to induce people to give. In 2 Corinthians we see that Paul encouraged the saints to give to the aid of the saints in Jerusalem. Apparently they had made some kind of commitment nearly a year previous to Paul’s second recorded epistle to the Corinthians (2 Cor. 8:10). They had been saving up for the purpose of making a contribution to the poor in Jerusalem, each week setting aside an amount, for when Paul would come with others to carry this gift to Jerusalem (1 Cor. 16:1-5). Paul deliberately directed that the collection be taken before he arrived (1 Cor. 16:2), I think because he wanted their giving to be strictly to the Lord, and not to give just for the sake of pleasing Paul. Paul made it very clear that his encouragement to give was not a command, but an exhortation (2 Cor. 8:8).
What a far cry today’s fund-raising is from New Testament days. Some churches hire professional fund-raisers, who keep a large portion for themselves. Others appeal to the pride of the giver, or offer to him some kind of public acclaim or recognition for his gift, a direct violation of our Lord’s instruction that we are ‘not to let our left hand know what our right hand is doing’ in matters of giving (Matt. 6:3-4). Some unashamedly use methods which come straight from Madison Avenue, first of all getting the potential giver to take some forward steps, to get him, in effect, to say yes several times, pre-conditioning him to say yes to giving. They may have you sign your name on a card, insisting that you fill in no amount, just your name. Then while all heads are bowed you are to then and there make a pledge of whatever amount you should give. The decision is to be made in the heat of emotional fervor, a commitment which nearly all have second thoughts about later when they have had time to think things over. They insist that you make a commitment right now, rather than to go home and discuss it, pray about it, look at your financial status and consider your obligations and priorities.
The Apostle Paul encouraged the saints to decide to give to help the needy in Jerusalem, but he did not ask them to give what they did not have (2 Cor. 8:12), but each week, as the Lord had prospered, a decision was to be made and funds were to be set aside (1 Cor. 16:1-2). This is New Testament giving, deliberate, systematic, appropriate to our income and our financial status at the moment, cheerfully given.
Now concerning the distribution of funds, again, the New Testament gives us some clear guidelines. By and large money was distributed through the church. The money was collected for the needy in Jerusalem (Acts 11:30). In the earliest days of the church the proceeds of the sale of properties was laid at the apostles’ feet (Acts 4:34-35), and until the matter became overwhelming, distribution seemed to be the responsibility of the apostles (cf. Acts 6:1-6).
Now listen carefully, I said money was given through the church, not to the church. There is considerable difference, I believe. Ultimately, money given to those in need is given to the Lord as an act of worship (Phil. 4:18; Heb. 13:16). Money is never really given to the church, but through the church, the church being the disbursing and distributing agency. Of course, we can see the wisdom in this. Who is more qualified to make wise decisions about the disbursing of funds than the elders? Who should have more knowledge of the real and legitimate needs of the members of their body than the elders? But so far as I understand the New Testament, people knew what their money was going to be used for when they gave it. Although the specific individuals who would receive funds were not known, nor the exact amount each would receive, people gave through the church to the church in need, and that church distributed these funds. I am sure that people gave without always knowing exactly how their money was being spent, but so far as the evidence of the Scriptures is concerned, there is no recorded ‘offering’ to which people gave without having any idea how it was to be used.
Giving a certain percentage of our money to the church without any knowledge of how it is to be used is a temptation for it relieves us of the soul-searching decisions as to how it can best be used. But so far as I understand the New Testament, Christians were responsible as stewards of God’s resources to give wisely and knowingly.
Priority in the distribution of funds is always given to those who are believers, in Jesus Christ. In Acts chapter 11 Agabus, one of the prophets who had come down from Jerusalem, prophesied that there would be a great famine all over the world (v. 28), and yet the collection was sent exclusively for the saints who lived in Judaea (v. 29). Certainly the unbelievers were in dire need, too, but the money was sent for the needs of the saints. This priority to saints is consistently taught and practiced in the New Testament. In Galatians Paul taught: “So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all men, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith” (Gal. 6:10).
Distribution of funds was on the basis of two factors, need and ministry. Funds in Acts were disbursed ‘as any had need’ (2:45; 4:35). Widows who could be supported by relatives were not to be put on the church role for regular support (1 Tim. 5:3-16, cf. especially vss. 3, 5, 8, 16). Although Paul could have claimed the right of support (1 Cor. 9:5-14) while he ministered among the Thessalonians, he did not do so partially because there were greater needs within the church (cf. 2 Thess. 3:6-15). Rather than be a burden on the church, Paul worked himself, night and day (2 Thess. 3:8) in order to minister to the needs of others.
Need, then, is the highest priority in giving, so far as I understand it. If there were pressing needs which could not otherwise be met, I think it would be best for myself to get a job to support my own family and needs, so that money which could otherwise gratefully be accepted for my ministry might be dispersed to meet the needs of others unable to support themselves. When such conditions do not exist I would understand that those who minister should be supported in their ministry based upon the quantity and quality of their ministry (1 Tim. 5:17-18) and upon their individual needs (cf. 1 Cor. 9:5; Phil. 1:5; 4:15f; 2 Thess. 3:6-15).
The only giving which is biblical giving is properly motivated. Although the passage in 2 Corinthians chapters 8 and 9 is specially related to the matter of giving to the poor in Jerusalem, there are nevertheless some important principles related to giving which I believe relate to all Christian giving.
(1) Biblical giving is never done out of constraint, but always done willingly and cheerfully. Paul instructs: “Let each one do just as he has purposed in his heart; not grudgingly or under compulsion; for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor. 9:7).
(2) Biblical giving is to be done thoughtfully and purposefully. All too often our conception of giving is that we sit in a church service and suddenly are jolted by the fact that the offering plate is on its way down the pew. We quickly fumble in our wallet or purse and snatch out something to put in the plate as it passes by. I do not see that kind of giving in the Scriptures. Rather there is a decision to give made in advance of the actual giving. Then, systematically and thoughtfully a decision is made as to how much should be given to the Lord: “On the first day of every week let each one of you put aside and save, as he may prosper, that no collections be made when I come” (1 Cor. 16:2).
As I understand this passage the decision to give has been made previously. The decision of how much to give is dependent upon one’s financial status at that point. Every individual is to consider his financial condition and then determine how much he will set aside for giving.
I wonder if this wouldn’t be a rather exciting adventure in the matter of giving for us to practice. Husband and wife can sit down together and discuss what amount they can designate to the Lord’s work. If you are paid weekly, this would probably be done weekly. If monthly, then I would think once a month would be the way to handle this matter. Each of our children, if they are given an allowance, or if they have earned money in one way or another, should be encouraged to make a similar decision. The amount in each case can be discreetly and privately turned over to the appropriate agency, so that this matter is one between ourselves and the Lord.
(3) Finally, giving is to be carried out realistically and proportionately. As Paul made clear in 2 Corinthians 8:12 we are to give out of what we have, not what we do not have. If there has been a change in our income or perhaps in expenditures for necessities our giving will likely reflect this. Although we may not agree with the source of this statement, there is some degree of truth in its sentiment: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” It might not work in communism, but it does work in Christianity.
Since I always desire to end on a positive note, let me conclude by reminding you of some of the many benefits that result in Christian giving.
(1) Christian giving is a blessing to others in that it expresses our deep love for them in Jesus Christ, and in addition, it meets very real needs. It is then God’s way of providing for the needs of His people. The gift of the Christians at Antioch met the physical needs of the Judean saints in time of famine, but it was also a tangible expression of the unity of the body of Christ which encompasses Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor alike.
(2) Christian giving is a witness to the unbelieving world of the reality of the life-changing power of Jesus Christ, a power which even conquers a man’s wallet. Throughout the early chapters of Acts this caring for and sharing with one another is linked with a powerful witness to unbelievers. Notice these words of the writer, Luke: “And with great power the apostles were giving witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and abundant grace was upon them all. For there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of lands or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales” (Acts 4:33-34).
(3) Christian giving brings praise and glory to God, especially the praise which goes up to God from the one who is ministered to. Paul told the Corinthian saints:
For the ministry of this service is not only fully supplying the needs of the saints, but is also overflowing through many thanksgivings to God. Because of the proof given by this ministry they will glorify God for your obedience to your confession of the gospel of Christ, and for the liberality of your contribution to them and to all (2 Cor. 9:12-13).
(4) Christian giving not only demonstrates Christian fellowship, but in many ways deepens it. The Apostle Paul referred to the gift of the Philippians as their ‘fellowship,’ and such it was for it demonstrated their common participation in the proclamation of the gospel (Phil. 1:5). But Paul says that sharing deepens the relationship between the giver and the recipient: “While they also, by prayer on your behalf, yearn for you because of the surpassing grace of God in you” (2 Cor. 9:14).
At the outset of Acts chapter 11 the Judean Jews called Peter on the carpet for preaching to the Gentiles (cf. Acts 10). What a difference there must have been in the attitude of the Judean saints after they received the gift from the Antiochian saints mentioned at the end of chapter 11.
(5) Finally, Christian giving is a great blessing to the giver, for he has the great joy of knowing he has been God’s instrument to minister to His own, and he has the opportunity to see God provide for his own needs as precipitated by his generosity. Paul actually promises God’s provision for us to help others, for he writes:
And God is able to make all grace abound to you, that always having all sufficiency in everything, you may have an abundance for every good deed; as it is written, “He scattered abroad, He gave to the poor, His righteousness abides forever.” Now He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food, will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness; you will be enriched in everything for all liberality (2 Cor. 9:8-11a).
Again, Paul writes to the Philippians, who had generously given to him in his need: “And my God shall supply all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:19).
My Christian friend, have you discovered the joy of giving? It is one of the most satisfying experiences in the Christian life. It really is better to give than to receive. May I encourage you to become very sensitive to this matter of Christian giving. One means that many Christians have found exciting and fulfilling is to establish a separate bank account, just as Paul described in 1 Corinthians 16, specifically for the purpose of meeting the needs of others as they arise. As you begin to accumulate a little money in that account you will find yourself much more anxious to give, much more conscious of needs, much more prayerful about how that money should be spent.
For far too many Christian homes there has been no real excitement in Christian living, no real opportunity to experience New Testament Christianity. Our wages are relatively certain, our health and lives are insured, our economy is supposed to improve. There is no greater experience than for a Christian to give so much that he must look to God to provide. Many of us feel far too secure and far too comfortable for our own good. May I encourage you to seriously consider the needs of those outside our church family, and to respond to the needs of saints in other parts of Dallas, or of our nation, or of the world. God has given a great deal to most of us. May He touch our hearts to reach out to those in need in a very tangible way to demonstrate the love of Jesus Christ.