I know full well that most evangelical churches teach or strongly suggest this very habit, but the nature of the devoted-biblicist orientation in the Church of Christ gave the idea a special focus.
As nearly as I can tell or remember, the chief text that suggests that such a contribution is 1 Corinthians 16:1-2. Here, supposedly, one is told a) to contribute b) weekly, on Sunday.
Problem is, there are hermeneutical issues on several matters in this text.
Matter one. First off, I would ask how “lay by in store” equates to “take it out of your pocket/purse and put it in a plate.” I suppose we could say that the church treasury is the “storehouse” into which we’re “laying by,” but few church treasuries I’ve known about could aptly be characterized as being in existence to address physical needs, which was presumably the situation in view in 1 Corinthians.
Matter two. There is another phrase that, at least in my memory, the religious professionals conveniently left out. You see, even the King James has it right: “lay by him in store,” yet the way I remember it was “lay by in store.” Catch the difference? If we leave out the “by him,” it’s easier to justify an institutional collection. Other NT uses of this word, e.g., in Luke 12:21, also appear to communicate storing up for, or by, oneself.
The NASB renders it “put aside and save,” with a note that sent me scurrying to Greek resources. (You’d think I’d have done this long ago, feeling as I do, but I’m not that devoted.) Sure enough: there are three original wordings that translate roughly as 1) putting 2) by oneself, and 3) storing up.
The long & short: contributing to a plate for the sake of institutional support could only vaguely be suggested by 1 Corinthians 16.
Matter three. We at least ought to question the first-day-of-the-week “rule.” Might the expression “as he is prospered” imply some chronological correspondence with financial intake, in addition to relating giving to total prosperity? In other words, a) if one has no income, or b) if that income is taken in on a schedule other than weekly on Fridays or Saturdays, it seems to me that every-Sunday contribution makes little sense. The passive-voice, subjunctive-mood Greek tense of the verb (which doesn’t always appear this way in English) “might be prospered” would further appear to suggest that it is not a given that everyone is always “prospered” and therefore will be storing up. No, the “prospering” involves an implied “if.” ²
Incidentally, some churches (maybe yours?) offer means of giving “online” — which really isn’t completely online anymore, since so much is wireless, but that’s beside the point. Maybe you want to use that convenience. For me, online giving wouldn’t really be preferable unless I could set it up as a recurring, automatic “payment,” but that’s bad, because giving for God’s purposes would be in the category of bill-paying. This is the case for us with giving to World Vision. I have to admit that I don’t think about the small, monthly, automatic “gift” we make until we get some correspondence from this organization. Anyway, some might at least enjoy the freedom of matching “when I get paid” with “when I contribute.”
A comparative hermeneutical glance might also be cast in the direction of 2 Corinthians 8:2. The notion of giving as one is able, or according to what he has, is present there, as well.
Those who don’t feel lists of responsibilities in life might not be bothered by the notion that writings a check is just something you have to do every Sunday, but I am. I would be more impelled by, say, spontaneity, purposeful giving, desire to be generous because of heart, cognizance of generosity I have experienced, etc. Somehow, the checking off of the “write check” box on a Sunday “list” doesn’t get it for me.
I hasten to add that such preferences or likes/dislikes of mine wouldn’t matter if scripture clearly instructed otherwise. Fact is, though, that while there are historical, institutional, and even individual conscience reasons for church contributions, freedom exists in this arena, scripturally speaking.
Matter four: what should be made of the occasional nature of the letter to the Corinthian believers? If we understand all scripture (really? all of it?) as prescriptive — as a sort of blueprint — we’re a) illogical and b) in trouble! This “1 Corinthians” letter was, after all, written to people in Corinth in a certain time and place. It seems as though there was a specific situation that Paul wanted them to be ready for. A principle of saving (or an overall life-ideal of using “margin”) might be extracted, but a legal practice for all time isn’t in view here. The virtuous principle of generosity is admirable, and to be practiced, but, moreover, when Jesus affirmed the woman with the two bits, I doubt she was giving to the establishment or to the new temple fund.
So, just recently I was reconsidering all this, having decided to contribute some to our church according to our monthly pay schedule. Our church hasn’t made me feel uncomfortable about not contributing regularly . . . and it’s a good thing — we’re living in the red, so I might facetiously ask for alms if someone asked why I didn’t drop a check in the plate! The vested interests of the leadership in most churches would make people pretty uncomfortable, though, if pew-people thought they should contribute according to their paychecks. Making “giving” more connected to “prosperity” (and less of a habit) might reduce the overall church income. And that would be bad in terms of fiscal affairs.
[Please, no one bring up the word “tithe.” The tithe was for the support of Levitical priests, wasn’t it? It is not directly related to the Christian age.]
I grew up feeling that contributing to a church treasury was a godly principle and practice, and I don’t think it was just me.¹ It’s not that it’s not godly to give; of course it is. But the rationales and practices deserve some challenge and have led to unfounded guilt that I am trying, finally, to get rid of. Its vestiges still give me a bit of discomfort.
I have the distinct feeling that if I had not had an unhelpful notion of giving solidifying in me for all these years, I would now find it less of an effort to be charitable and generous.
But, if you should be shaking your head at my questions and challenges in tradition-submissive churchmanship, you might smile again if you knew that, during the final editing of this essay, I wrote a check to our (fairly traditional) church. I am doing it because I want to, because I’m thinking of dear hearts there and their desires to do good, and because I have experienced God’s blessing in the last couple of days. Incidentally, it happens to be payday two days later. Maybe I should have waited till next Sunday. Nah. . . .
¹ Here’s another “maybe it was just me” post: Communion
² Hmm. It strikes me to mention that certain televangelisty theology assumes financial prosperity for faithful Christians, while Paul does not assume that here. Not surprising that there’s a philosophical gap between the two.