An ill-conceived brochure on tithing

I invite readers to consider churchianity’s affirmation of the practice of tithing.  While tithing per se is no longer applicable to believers, some form of this practice is assumed by nearly all established churches.  Certainly, generous giving can be a good thing, yet God’s purposes can also be subverted by greedy institutionalisms and doctrinaire concoctions related to tithing.

Some might not understand the energy with which I pursue this topic.  In my mind, at least, it is not a “hobby” (see introductory last post here); rather, it is a real concern that should be considered by more serious believers.  Why not just be nice boys and girls and give money to your local church, not worrying about whether it’s considered a tithe?  Again, there is much to be said for simple generosity and for supporting bona fide benevolence, outreach, and teaching efforts with one’s money.  However, the problems related to tithing per se run deep, and they call for elucidation.  Here, I hope to facilitate consideration and growth in understanding.


Last fall I was in a large, contemporary church building for a couple of events, and I happened to amble over to a rack full of brochures.  One of them was called “Guidelines for Giving,” and I should never have picked up a copy.  Or maybe I should have.  The brochure was replete with a hermenuetical error, not to mention some other carelessness.  The fundamental error, seen in its best light, is a lack of discrimination that melds Old Covenant Torah law & the Levitical priesthood with the contemporary Christian church’s M.O.

Here is the inside of the brochure, with a few of my markings:

givingbrochure

Depending on your device/computer and its applications and settings, you may be able to click on the image and see as much as you’re interested in.  Essentially, my highlights and notes acknowledge that sincere love may be seen in giving.  They also point out that most of the proof texts employed are found in the Hebrew scriptures (Old Testament).  When God told (past tense) ancient Israelites to do something, that telling cannot logically be pressed into the Christian age without a hermeneutical jump or gyration of some kind.   Moreover, I would suggest that the author of this brochure manifests a rather flat, non-granular view of scripture.

Now, here are some separate bits from the other page of this tri-fold, with commentary below each insertion:

tithe2The make-believe dialogue hits me as . . . well, made up.  Who really asks, “What if I can’t afford to tithe?”  Not as many people as the institutional church wishes, I’m sure!  When a church fabricates this question, it makes for itself an opportunity to say, “Give to me!  This church!  Give to us!”

I don’t mind that this denomination used and defined the expression “spirit of poverty,” but I don’t find it to be a particularly scripture-based phrase, and I wish the brochure had acknowledged that fact.  Furthermore, connecting a monetary contribution to the notion of “stepping out in faith and obedience” risks an improper tie between a denomination or its pastor on the one hand and God on the other.  In other words, obeying a denomination’s or pastor’s whims is not tantamount to obeying God.  (The difference between the notion of papal infallibility and hierarchically induced accountability to a protestant pastor or creed is a matter of degree.)

The advice set off between the bold lines (ahem . . . besides having a word missing) perpetuates the ignorance by presuming 10% is (still) some sort of magical God-ration.  In terms of general financial stewardship, it’s obviously a good idea to have a budget and not to overspend it.  I’ll give them that, BUT … being “faithful to tithe” is an Old-Covenant idea, not to be equated with Christian obedience.

tithe3

They go on.  I can hardly believe someone had the uneducated gall to put that assertion in print.  I beg to differ that “the Bible is very clear” here.  The church that was distributing this brochure meets in Missouri, so I demand, as if a good Missourian, “Show me!”  I counter-assert that there is no such passage in Christian scripture that says any such thing.  Not only is there no clarity on this; there is no solid information at all, really, and precious little hint.  The very phrase “the local church” above has taken on an identity beyond mere locale, suggesting an institution and a building with doors—doors that, by the way, wear out and need replacing, remember, so we need your money to buy new ones.  The idea of contributing to your local church is rather obviously not inherently bad, but neither is it a topic of scripture.  Further, the notion that any kind of giving is an “act of worship” is an extension of worship ideas at best and an adulteration of them at worst.  It would have been better to say something like this:  “The heart that wants to worship God vertically will also likely want to give money horizontally in order to help people—perhaps first in one’s own locale, but also beyond.”

Below is my own paraphrase of 1Corinthians 16:2.  (For more detail and translations of the surrounding context, see this blogpost.)

2 On the first day of the week, each one, put some money aside—saving it up (according to your financial prosperity)—so a focused collection effort as such shouldn’t be necessary when I get there.

Here, individuals are to set money aside, planning ahead for a specific need.  While there is some room for alternate translation, interpretation, and follow through here, it should also be said that the above text is really the only one in the Christian scriptures that suggests anything remotely connected to an institutional offering.¹  The connection is ostensibly negative:  Paul doesn’t want to have the hassle of a collection later.  We might surmise further, then, that a regular collection would not have been normative in Corinth, or else he might have just used that method-in-place when he got there.  No, the collective funding he was after was no regular occurrence but a one-time thing.  There is no ongoing, institutional common treasury suggested here; the picture painted is rather one of specific purpose, of a timely response to a need in one particular time period.

#3 offers helpful procedural advice, but it is a trifle self-serving for a church organization to be saying such things.  It comes off to me like salesmanspeak:  answering potential objections, closing the sale.

One can find good reason to contribute.  There are psychological/altruistic reasons to give charitably, and theologically based ones, and community-based ones.  Sure, give $ to your church collection plate if you want to, but don’t do it because it’s a “tithe” (originally a tax to support the Levites).  The simple fact is that habitual, institution-supporting weekly giving to a church treasury is not explicitly supported—or dealt with at all—in canonical Christian scripture.

Thus ends what some may feel was a ride on a hobby horse.  In the future, should I feel like yanking the ol’ gray mare down from her hook to take a spin, maybe I’ll have the restraint simply to refer to this post.


¹ I suppose the “widow’s mite” story could be seen as positively connected to institutional offering, but that was an observation in Jewish context.  Moreover, the lesson to be learned here may be primarily, or even exclusively, a negative one about the pharisees rather than a positive one about the widow.  Consider the surrounding context in Mark 12 and Luke 21.

Not an enjoyable hobby (intro)

A couple decades ago, I came to associate the churchian use of the expression “riding his hobby horse” with narrow-minded preachers and writers and editors of slanted periodicals.  These guys were said to have “hobbies”—preoccupations that amounted to masses of material, Image result for hobby horsefilling way too many sermons and pages of books.  For a given person, a ride on the “hobby” topic might not have been balanced with other, more important topics, or the stance (trot? gallop?) on a topic might have seemed dumb.  Sometimes, the ride taken on a hobby horse appeared to be childish, as though it were not a real thing being ridden.  In all cases, when so-and-so had a theological “hobby” he was pursuing, it was not a good thing that so-and-so did so.

I wonder every now and then whether I myself could be rightly accused of theological hobbies.  Probably.  I do have topical areas that I tend to return to a lot.  (Is having many hobbies a good thing?)  There are several different toy horses labeled “hobby horse,” and there’s quite a cultural history with these odd objects.  Whether my hobbies are strange preoccupations or just entertaining motifs I’m not sure.  I try not to let them lead to imbalance, but at times, it might seem that I am doing little but taking a childish ride on a hobby horse.

The sheer weight of some topics will keep me from worrying too much about the accusation of having a hobby.  In other words, some things are just so important that I don’t care how hobby-ish they might seem to others.  For instance, I have spoken and written volumes about the Kingdom of God, about authentic worship, and about responsible reading and interpretation of scripture.  The insistent, convicted (if not prophetic) voice within simply will not allow me to stop putting my foot in the stirrups on some of these steeds.

Other topics are not very significant, when seen in perspective, making them less deserving “hobbies”:

  • mistaken ideas about Sabbath
  • inaccurate construction of possessives, plurals, and possessive plurals
  • whether music is shown on a PowerPoint screen

Some topics and practices might fall somewhere in the middle:

  • Hierarchical clergy-laity systems
  • False or overblown denominational egos
  • Communion practices

I may vigorously affirm (or vociferously object to) this or that practice or doctrine, but I do try to put things in perspective, even when practices are ill-advised or just plain dumb.

Speaking transparently, I will in my next post invite readers to consider again one topical area that may be a hobby for me (not as significant an issue as many others I write about):  Churchianity’s affirmation of the practice of tithing.  Which category does it fit into—the central, the important, or the sideline concerns?

While the tithe per se is no longer applicable to believers, some form of it is assumed by nearly all established churches, and I actually believe that any over-emphasis on my part is okay, compared to the potential harm done to God’s purposes by assumptions of tithing.  This periodic “ride,” if you want to call it that, is for the sake of others, and it gives no pleasure to me.  Still, I may be a little imbalanced.  You be the judge.

To be continued . . .

An e-response to e-opinions about e-giving

I’m all for ease and efficiency, and I love systems that work.  I am not, however, in favor of weekly church contributions that are electronically set up on a recurring basis—for more than one reason.  A recent article brought up this question, and several official church leaders were interviewed.  Below is an expanded version of the original comment I made under that article.

Sincere individuals will frequently have very nice, spiritually minded ways of working something like electronic contributions out for themselves.  The folks interviewed for the article, for instance, presented a nicely balanced, thoughtful view of the e-giving conundrum.  Thinking about the masses, though, I would put forward three reasons not to move in the direction of e-contributions:

  1. As pointed out, it tends to be neither very personal nor very communal to click or tap in a charity app—especially if that click/tap is for a one-time setup for a recurring transaction that it’s so easy to be unaware of later.
  2. Some of the “pro” rationale strikes me as very institutionally motivated rather than Reign-of-God-motivated.  Contributing to building upkeep and salaries as a member of an institution may be fine for some, but it is not as compelling for those of us more interested in simple/organic concepts and missions.
  3. Giving charitably is good, but the tithe, after all—and we simply must realize this—is not a New Covenant thing.  A payment service calling itself “easyTithe” is perpetuating the problem.  Other e-giving options may be less problematic in terms of overt nomenclature and illegitimate association with ancient Israel’s priestly tithe system, yet the very idea of regular contributions appears more connected to paying dues in a club than to the goals of the apostolic church.

I found it interesting that a (pretty good!) translation of 1Cor 16:2 was included in the above-referenced article.  It bears emphasis here that the import of the first few verses of 1Cor 16 is not a little ambiguous.  This passage certainly cannot be inextricably linked to weekly contributions to today’s church treasuries, though.

For more on this topic, please see the following posts:

In the second of the above posts, this on-target quotation appears:

There is no indication given whether this is meant to be a tithe (no such prescription occurs in the New Testament); but is is implied that it is proportional and substantial.  It seems this is to be done on a family basis and the funds kept at home.”  (emphasis the authors’, not mine)   – Orr and Walther, The Anchor Bible Translation and Commentary, v. 32, 1 Corinthians (1976), p. 356.

One can object to my objections on any one of several grounds (e.g., community-based, tradition-based), but the simple fact is that habitual, institution-supporting weekly giving to a church treasury is not explicitly supported—or dealt with at all—in canonical Christian scripture.

Translations of 1Cor 16:1-6

During recent months, I’ve been involved in 1Corinthians as a translation project, along with a group of others whose Greek skills are far better than mine.  As part of this program, a short description of which may be found at http://coffeewithpaul.com/gnt3/ (scroll down to #3 under “More Information”), study partners work on both a “literal” and a “paraphrase” or “idiomatic” translation and receive feedback both in a live presentation and via e-mail.  As I’m able, I become somewhat familiar with other translators’ texts, and I learn along the way, but this is the third time I’ve tried my hand; 16:1-6 was my text this time.  [My first text was 4:1-5 (one blogpost here); my second was 11:23-26 (which I may post soon).]

Below I’m offering my translations of 16:1-6.  If you have questions or comments, I’m all ears.  “Why did you translate _____ instead of _____ or ______?”  “Why did you go in X direction with Y phrase?”  I may or may not have a good answer to your question, but I’ll appreciate the question, just the same.

One difficulty I had with this text—and there were many—was the very use of the word “collection” when Paul is clearly not recommending a weekly collection of funds into a common treasury.  An eventual bringing-together of the stored funds is in view in v2, but I’ve opted for “scare quotes” in the idiomatic translation of v1.

Should you want to compare my renderings with more reputable but less salient 🙂  English translations, here’s one place to go (opens a 2nd window).

LITERAL

1 Now, about the for-the-saints collection . . . as I instructed the Galatian churches, so also you should all do:   2 On the first [day] of the week, each of you should put aside [money], storing it, according to how well things are going,[1] so that no collections[2] need occur when I get there. 3 Then, whenever I arrive, I will send the approved ones [3] with letters so they may convey the gift to Jerusalem; 4 and, if my going is advisable,[4] as well, it’s with me they’ll go.

5 And I will come to you when I’ve passed through Macedonia[5]—and I will pass through Macedonia—6 and I will perhaps remain with you or even spend the winter there, so that you might send me on my way to wherever I should go.

PARAPHRASE

1 Now, getting to the matter of the “collection” for the ones who’ve been made holy . . . all of you, please do follow the same directions that I gave the Galatian churches:

2 On the first day of the week, each one, put some money aside—saving it up (according to your financial prosperity)—so a focused collection effort as such shouldn’t be necessary when I get there.

3 Then, when I do show up, I will send these you’ve approved, commissioning the combined gift onward to Jerusalem with my endorsements. 4 If at that point my also traveling seems to be a good idea, well, then it’s with me they’ll go.

5 And I will visit you in conjunction with my journey through Macedonia—yes, I’ll definitely be going through there—6 and I might stay a long while with you, up to and including wintering there, so that you can send me on my way wherever I go next.

[1] εὐοδῶται | euodōtai—traditionally, “how you are being prospered” or some such. BDAG offers, “. . . in our lit. only the pass. is used, and not literally ‘be led along a good road.’” The word (used only 3x in the NT: here, Rom. 1:10, and 3John 2) appears to suggest how things are going financially, i.e., how one is prospering. The NRSV goes a bit further with “whatever extra you earn,” and some have suggested allusion to any recent business deals. These translations leave the particular reference open here, rather speaking to a general sense of “how things have been going.”

[2] λογειαι | logeiaiL-N suggests a verbal meaning for this plural noun (a word used only in 1Cor 16 in the NT): “the act of collecting contributions, especially those involving voluntary response.” Other lexicographers have pointed out the distinction between this “collection” on the one hand and the Jewish tithe for Levites on the other. Found primarily in inscriptions and papyri, λογειαι has connotations of being voluntary (i.e., no “taxation” sense) and for “religious purposes.” This plural would seem to have a different shade of meaning than the singular λογεία in 16:1. I read the 16:1 instance as a nonstandard or special-sense use of “collection”—perhaps with the “scare quotes” I have included in the paraphrase—since Paul goes on in v2 to prescribe individual action. At some point, v3, the individual reserves are come together in some sort of collected whole.

[3] Greek texts differ in where a comma is inserted to segment the passage. The resultant question is whether the words διʼ ἐπιστολῶν | di’ epistolōn go with the verb πέμψω | pempsō or with the verb δοκιμάσητε | dokimasēte. That is to say, the comma-less Greek text does not clarify whether the Corinthians are writing approval letters or Paul is writing letters to send with them to Jerusalem. To an extent, my translations leave this question open.

[4] Or, fitting, worthwhile, or valuable.

[5] Lit., Μακεδονίαν | Makedonian. English convention has been to render the kappa with a c.

Negative effects of positive #s

Pagan Christianity? (2002, 2008, 2012), a book with a title clearly designed to shock the eye, systematically examines a series of routines inculcated in most churchespagan xianity, pointing out the pagan origins of many practices—and tacitly challenging the thoughtful, courageous reader to do something about them.  A few days ago I posted some of this book’s thoughts about the preacher’s role and sermons.  

Below are some strong words from Viola regarding tithing and clergy salaries, from pp. 171ff in the book.

$$$

[Malachi 3:8-10] seems to be many Christian leaders’ favorite Bible text, especially when giving is at low tide.  If you have spent any time in the contemporary church, you have heard this passage read from the pulpit on numerous occasions.  Consider the rhetoric that goes with it:

“God has commanded you to faithfully give your tithes.  If you do not tithe, you are robbing God Almighty, and you put yourself under a curse.”

“Your tithes and offerings are necessary if God’s work will go on!”

(“God’s work,” of course, includes paying the pastoral staff and footing the monthly electric bill to keep the building afloat.)

. . .

Tithing does appear in the Bible.  So, yes, tithing is biblical.  But it is not Christian.  The tithe belongs to ancient Israel.  It was essentially their income tax.  Never do you find first century Christians tithing in the New Testament.

. . .

Herein is the heart of God in Malachi 3:8-10:  He opposes oppression of the poor.  In scores of sermons I have heard on tithing, I was never told what the passage was actually talking about.

. . .

We are all priests now . . . all Christians should tithe to one another.

Long ago, I read an essay by one Charles Holt, who was from a Restoration church and was a friend of a friend.  The essay was titled “Stop Paying the Bills,” and it rather forcefully, even belligerently, argued that serious Christians should simply stop financially supporting their congregations (and, by extension, their sects / denominations).  That way, the un-biblical systems would break down, he figured.  And it’s true:  if enough people did this, some kind of change would be forced.  However, it seems to me that few pew-packers will be influenced by extreme rhetoric, whether or not it’s on target.

Of course, most Yellow-Pages-identifiable churches assume, and/or explicitly request, that their adherents contribute money regularly.  Some make the assumption/request in a more palatable manner than others.  For Restoration Movement churches, no exceptions to this norm, the offering/collection becomes another item in the list of musts—the list of ways that those who purport to serve God should act, in relation to the principles and laws in scripture . . . the problem being that no such principle or law can be found.  Side note:  Also in RM churches, one frequently encounters a feigning of separation—the silly declaration that the collection is “separate and apart” from the Lord’s Supper—when the reality was that it wasn’t separate at all, given how the acts were just performed.

I may be a little unique (read:  odd) in some ways, but I am run-of-the-mill in this:  I always, always experience a surge of resistance when church staff members spend time publicly encouraging a higher contribution level.  This M.O. seems so obviously self-serving that it embarrasses me for them.  “Give more money, please, so I can continue to draw my salary or maybe even get a raise . . . and remember that the Lord said, ‘Bring forth the whole tithe.’”  Aarrgghh.

However one feels about one’s specific church finances, the fact is, both the historical tithe proportion (10%) and the legislated action are Hebrew, not Christian.

For a couple of decades, I have not regularly contributed to a congregational “pot”—I find it to be a) a questionable use of limited funds, b) not requested by the Lord, and c) non-intentional and non-specific, and so, d) less meaningful.  However, although I share Holt’s underlying frustration, I think his advice is stated a bit too vehemently, so I’m not making it convenient for readers of this blog to access his essay.  The more calmly thoughtful, methodical approach offered by Viola in his Pagan Christianity chapter appears more likely to produce positive results in people’s minds, if not in their “church lives.”  (Hint:  in the last sentence lies an implicit challenge to you and to me.)

The simple fact that tithing is not a Christian thing ought to make all sober Christians stop and think about using their resources more purposefully, if nothing else.

1.  Charitable, free giving is one thing, and one may certainly freely give to his/her congregation as well as to other good things.

2.  The presumed perpetuation of legislated tithing is quite another thing, and the targeted words of 1Cor 16:1-4 aren’t directly related to tithing.


Next in this series:  
“Affirming positives from Viola”

For more on the offering collection, here are two links:

https://blcasey.wordpress.com/2014/03/29/collecting-my-thoughts/, at which is found a longish essay

https://blcasey.wordpress.com/2011/04/01/inhospitability-considered-further/, at which I decry the inhospitable pressure put on people by handing them collection plates

Dollar drop

I think often of all the things we do poorly or even wrong as parents.  We want our little boy to experience life safely and well . . . and with joy, when possible.  We make a few good decisions, probably more bad ones, and way too many non-decisions (which is probably worse than bad decisions).

Anyway, our current congregation has the habit of singing a song while the children drop dollar bills in an offering jar, up near the place where the leaders USdollarstand.  I call this activity the “dollar drop.”  A weekly event, it never fails to make a large number of people smile, including the children.

The first Sunday, of course, we didn’t know what was going on.  We had a decision to make.  You see, the situation can get out of hand with just the right mixture of chilluns and adults, so we felt we should set a limit.  We wanted our son to experience this whole thing, mostly for him but also for the life of the church . . . but we didn’t want him to run around excessively, drawing too much attention.

So we came up with a rule — a practice for our son.  Each Sunday, he takes one dollar from us and puts it in the jar, then he is allowed to take one more dollar from one of the adults who are, fern-like, smiliningly dangling dollars all around the hall.  After he’s done, with a lot of energy and a big smile himself, our nearly-five-year-old returns to his seat.  He knows his rule and has even told others about it.  He seems comfortable with it.

Sometimes I wonder if we have stolen some of Jedd’s joy.  In other words, if he could run around and grab four or five more dollars, would he learn more of the joy of giving?

For now, I think it is fine the way it is.  We’re not ones who believe children should get too much focus when in groups of adults.  This is plenty, and I think it is going fine.  A few adults may think we are too hard on him, but that is okay with me.  (At least, it is better than the other way around.)  We know Jedd better than they do, and He seems both obedient and happy.  I should be so obedient and happy!

We’re comfortable with the effect of the way he, as a member of our family, does the dollar drop.  But, believe me, we don’t always make parenting decisions that turn out this seemingly well.  Good thing we’re blessed with a child who doesn’t require a lot of correction.  He is not particularly strong-willed, so we don’t have battles of will.  He likes pleasing others and being affectionate and hanging out and helping.  He also thinks of others fairly often.

Hey, isn’t this backwards?  He’s more of a good example for me than the other way around!

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Collecting (my thoughts)

collection plateMaybe it was just me,¹ but I grew up thinking that contributing to a collection plate every Sunday was a practice legislated by the Bible.

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 forchurchupkeep 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. . . .

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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.

Inhospitability, considered further (2)

Neither visitors nor regular members of a church should be guilted into contributing money.  I “contributed” toward this kind of guilt inducement last Sunday myself, and I repent.  This post continues from yesterday’s.

I vaguely recall that Tommy, a fellow leader at a church in Texas years ago, was of the mind to link communion and collection even more solidly and inextricably than most–by intentionally connecting 1) what Jesus gave to 2) what we give.  On the surface, this seems as logical as it is spiritual.  What could motivate us more to give money but a fuller realization of the fact that Jesus gave it all?  Strains of gospel songs waft over the Christian airstreams:

Jesus paid it all!  All to Him I owe.
Sin had left a crimson stain.  He washed it white as snow.

~ ~ ~

But drops of grief can ne’er repay the debt of love I owe.

~ ~ ~

Savior, Thy dying love Thou gavest me.
Nor should I aught withhold, dear Lord, from Thee.
In love my soul would bow, my heart fulfill its vow,
Some off’ring bring Thee now–something for Thee.

~ ~ ~

Why did my Savior come to earth and to the humble go? …
Why did He drink the bitter cup of sorrow, pain, and woe? …
He gave His precious life for me because He loved me so.

~ ~ ~

I led the immediately preceding song last Sunday, and I’m afraid it contributed to a negative kind of guilt induction.  Follow the line?  “He gave His precious life” naturally leads, at that time in the official Sunday proceedings, to “well, at least I can give 50 bucks like everyone else.” This is not what the Lord had in mind with communion … and He doesn’t appear to have had anything in mind at all with regard to the Sunday collection of an offering, since there is no example of, or instruction related to, such an offering.

Perhaps the worst of all is the song I have led around communion and collection in past years (many churches would call this song the “offertory”):

I gave my life for thee; my precious bled I shed,
That thou might’st ransomed be, and quickened from the dead.
I gave, I gave my life for thee.
What hast thou given for me?

The crowning glory embarrassment is in the final stanza:

And I have brought to thee, down from My home above,
Salvation full and free–my pardon and My love;
I bring, I bring rich gifts to thee.
What hast thou brought to Me?

See what we have here, in the words of this song?  Jesus standing there in front of our adoring eyes, having left glory, having died lovingly and sacrificially, and having re-ascended to glory, now imploring us, “I gave my physical life willingly.  I gave you the salvation of your souls.  This is a lot.  Can’t you give money to Me?”  (In our warped, legacy-ridden minds, the “Me” of the last line is somehow morphed into “church treasury.”  Please don’t overlook this parenthesis; it is really quite material to these thoughts.)

Does Jesus want our money?  Well, yes.  But He wants so much more, and the monetary angle of the institutional church has been so corrupted through the centuries that I think it’s both logically and spiritually dangerous to link His gift to us only to our gift of money.

In themselves, the words of Frances Havergal’s song seem apt enough, almost unique, and worthy of the Christian’s time.  But not at the time of collecting money, as though we could possibly satisfy the debt we owe to our Lord by dropping a check in the plate.  Not as though our response to Him is summed up, or even answered in any substantive way, by offering money.

I’m sorry that, last Sunday, I went along with the program and led a song that contributed to a concept I don’t believe in.  I don’t intend to do that again, and I shall never, ever lead “I Gave My Life for Thee” in connection with the collection.

Inhospitability, considered further

Many moons ago, I published words to the effect that even hinting to a visitor in a church that s/he should contribute to that church’s bill-paying fund is inhospitable.  I find abhorrent the slightest glance in the direction of someone you don’t know, as you’re passing the collection plate.  (Find this earlier post here.)  No, let a person in a pew make the first move toward dropping money in the plate.  No usher or table servant should be in the position of demanding money.

I’d like to add to these thoughts the idea that even those within a church–even the regular members–should not be guilted into contributing.  I “contributed” toward this kind of guilt inducement last Sunday myself, and I repent.

In the Church of Christ, we have this odd legacy that leaves us with three parts of communion:  the bread, the juice, and the collection.  Many churches have been accustomed to making a point of separating the first two from the last through the use of the words “separate and apart,” but it really hasn’t been separate at all.  Some of this, I imagine, developed out of convenience:  those men serving the elements of communion were already up out of their pews and in their service mode, so why not just use them, right then and there, to pass the collection trays?  It’s efficient, and I get this.  But the feigning of separation–the silly declaration that it was separate when the reality was that it wasn’t separate at all–has not served our assemblies or our minds and hearts well.

On rare occasion, when I have been in charge of such things, I have made a point of switching up the order and having the collection first (understand that it would have been my first choice not to have it at all, and I’ve often inadvertently almost left it out, but it would have been too radical to do this intentionally!).  This change in pattern has never lasted; the linking of communion and collection in the practices of the Church of Christ now appears fixed.

Tomorrow:  guilt-inducing thoughts in song texts, and my vow

Tithing by choice (2 – practicalities)

This post jumps right on in to perhaps even more troubled waters after the toe-dipping of yesterday’s post.  I’d like to offer practicalities, philosophies, and other thoughts related to tithing and contributing.

Nowhere in all the New Covenant documents is the tithe enjoined upon believers.  Charitable giving is a choice—a good one, but a choice nonetheless.  Yes, “God loves a cheerful giver,” but He does not say, “First, love me.  Next, love your neighbor.  Third, give 10% of your money.”  The decision to give, and the percentage are up to the individual.

I once felt good about approaching 10% and even surpassing it over a fiscal year or two, way back when.  As I recall, more than half of this was given to Christian organizations other than my church, and that was because I found the church budget philosophically and practically wanting.  I would have been found in direct contradiction to scripture if scripture had any command for Christians to tithe, but it doesn’t.  (There is no Levitical priesthood in the church, so there is no reason to tithe.  That part of it really is that simple.)

Since then, I have had to feel good about smaller amounts.  It’s not easy, because I would like to give more to Christian and humanitarian charities I believe in.  If I had more of a surplus for daily living, I would give more.  Remember the widow with the two pennies, I try to tell myself in my discouragement.  But I still have questions.  Here are some more.

Should we “tithe” according to our pay schedules—every two weeks, on Fridays?  bi-monthly on the 15th and 30th? or every month, in some cases?

In calculating, does the 10% come off the top, or after tax?  Should we wait to calculate until after the final reckoning of the tax return? How can we know how we’ve “prospered” until after April 15? What would the institutional church do if no one paid the bills until sometime after April 15 every year?

Would the answer be different if paying taxes to Caesar were a choice and not exacted by mandated withholding?

What about tithing by credit card? (Although that might be convenient and get me “rewards” which I could then tithe based upon (!), it sure does seem cold and institutionalized.)

When a Christian college student receives a paycheck for $72.51 for two weeks of every-other-day work, does he exempt himself from tithing because he is a poor college student, or does he give $7.26 (rounding up would seem to be safer than cheating God out of a half-penny) to the collection plate next Sunday?  Does he hold Christians around him to a different tithing standard because they’re not college students?

When college students or foreign missionaries receive care packages from Aunt Sue or Martha Supportive, do they offer 10% of the cookies to poorer students or to indigenous neighbors?

Does contributing to the Red Cross or to Hope International or to the World Bible Translation Center “count” as part of your tithe?

Does an individual have the right or responsibility to approve or support the spending of the money she tithes?

This last question makes me think of the question of ownership of a retail establishment and spending money in that store.  For instance, at one time, a large grocery store chain was owned by Mormons.  Did buying a gallon of milk there give me the right to say “No, you can’t send a penny of my $2 to the LDS Church”?  Well, no, but it did give me pause about patronizing that store when I had a choice.)  In this age of mobility, global communication, and lots and lots of free choice, I figure I have some responsibility to be prudent in where I spend and contribute money.

If large portions of a church budget are allocated to salaries for staff positions I don’t believe in, or for physical plant/facilities, it makes me look elsewhere for a greater “return” on my dollar.  While this may seem overly humanistic and even crass in its monetary outlook, the alternative, for me, is a careless, thoughtless, or even halfhearted dropping of a check into a plate–which ends up being a gesture of upholding the status quo and religion’s establishments than a faith-based offering to advance God’s Kingdom.

All this would be pretty troubling if tithing were an in-force law, wouldn’t it?  🙂

~ ~ ~

For further reading:

  1. This prior post, (which says some of the same things I’ve said above in different ways), and/or
  2. This one on the inhospitable nature of church offerings, and/or
  3. This brief article (not my own), with caution and with the caveat that I do not necessarily endorse its spirit or even the ramifications of the actions suggested therein.