The Christmas season is often called “the season of giving.” Those of us who follow this tradition, whether Christian or not, give and receive gifts this time of year. For some Christians, this includes giving a little extra to their local church—an especially helpful gift at a time of year when many churches are struggling to meet their budgets.
Giving to local churches has declined in recent decades. To a certain extent this has simply followed the similar decline in membership and attendance, but there are other reasons also. Fewer people are donating to charity than in the past, and, when they do give, their donations are going to a wider variety of causes and organizations.
This is not all bad. Large, cause-specific organizations like MCC or MDS can do things that a local church or even church conference cannot do. But this does raise a question: Why should Christians give to their local church at all?
The New Testament has quite a bit to say about money, including giving within the local gathering of believers, the local church.
In stark contrast to the Old Testament expectation based on the Law of Moses, the New Testament ideal is not a “tithe,” everyone giving a set percentage of their income (say, 10%), but rather “generous giving according to one’s means” (e.g. 2 Cor 8:9-15). This frees those who have little from the burden of giving a tithe they cannot afford, a tithe that can leave them without enough for their own necessities. It also frees those who have much to give more than a mere 10% when they can certainly afford to do so.
The New Testament describes at least two broad reasons for giving within the context of the local church.
The earliest Christians gave to support the preaching and teaching ministry of the church. “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honour [that is, respect plus remuneration], especially those who labor in preaching and teaching” (1 Tim 5:17). This was based on the teaching of Jesus that “the laborer deserves to be paid” (Luke 10:7; 1 Tim 5:18); or, as Paul puts it, “the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel” (1 Cor 9:4-14).
The earliest Christians also gave to help those in material need, both those within the church and those beyond it. Within the local congregation this was predominantly widows, who were some of the most economically vulnerable people in society (Acts 6:1-6; 1 Tim 5:3-16). Beyond the local congregation this was “the poor” more generally, including poor believers in other places (e.g. Gal 2:10; 2 Cor 8-10).
The goal of this giving was what might be called “essential economic equity”: to ensure that everyone had their basic material needs met, their “daily bread” (Matt 6:11). “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise” (Luke 3:11; cf. Jas 2:15-17; 1 John 3:17). “As it is written, ‘The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little’” (2 Cor 8:15).
The motive for this giving? Following the teaching and example of Jesus. “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing” (Matt 25:31-46). “You know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9).
Things have evolved since the New Testament era, some would say not entirely for the better. Now most churches have full budgets that include everything from church facilities to staff salaries to programs in education and outreach and more. That’s some ways away from small gatherings of believers pooling their money to pay the elder teaching on a given Lord’s Day, or to provide food for the widows and orphans among them without family support.
Still, the New Testament teachings on local church giving can guide us today. They should prompt us to ask some probing questions of ourselves as churches and as individual Christians.
- To what extent do our church budgets reflect the core ministries of the church? Do they support the teaching of Scripture and the preaching of the gospel? Do they assist those in material need, both within the church and beyond it? If not, what needs to change?
- Am I truly giving generously according to my means? If my basic needs are met through my income, can I give more than I already am?
- Do I really value my church’s preaching and teaching ministries, enough to show it not only through my attendance at worship services, Bible studies, and Sunday school, but also through my financial support?
- Do I really need that [insert first-world comfort item here], when there are people in the world, even right in my church and community, who are struggling simply to feed and clothe and house themselves and their families?
Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work. (2 Cor 9:7-8)