On Giving to Your Local Church

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)

Bishop Curry, Luke and Acts, and “Christianity Lite”

There was a lot of buzz this past weekend about the wedding of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry, now the Duchess and Duke of Sussex. And a good bit of that buzz was about the sermon by Bishop Michael Curry, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church.

Responses to Bishop Curry’s sermon have ranged from astonishment to amusement, from enthusiastic applause to sharp criticism. Some of that criticism has come from Christians, including a former chaplain to Her Majesty the Queen who claimed that Bishop Curry’s sermon represented a watered down version of Christianity, a kind of “Christianity Lite.” The specific critiques are diverse, but in general they seem to boil down to three things: there was too much love, too much social justice, and not enough cross.

However, if this is “Christianity Lite”—showing compassionate love for all including the unrighteous and unrepentant, seeking equitable justice for all and especially the vulnerable and marginalized and oppressed, and all this without a strong penal substitutionary view of Jesus’ death—then Luke the Evangelist, author of a good 27% of our New Testament, is also implicated.

Yep: Luke and Acts are also “Christianity Lite.”

Consider the cross.

Like Bishop Curry in his sermon, Luke does in fact mention Jesus’ death—dozens of times in the Gospel and Acts. What’s more, Jesus’ death is mentioned at significant points in Luke’s accounts of Jesus and the Apostles: in the Gospel’s creed-like “passion predictions” taken up from Mark’s Gospel, anticipating Jesus’ death yet to come; in the Gospel’s “passion narrative,” as rich in meaning as that of any of the Gospels; and in Acts’ several “evangelistic speeches,” where the saving message about Jesus is proclaimed to those who don’t yet believe. In other words, as with Bishop Curry, the cross is pretty important to Luke’s theology.

However, the cross isn’t talked about by Luke in the way at least some of Bishop Curry’s detractors call for. There’s no “You’re a sinner and you’re going to hell, but—good news!—Jesus has died to pay the penalty for your sins” in Luke or Acts—not even in the Apostles’ evangelistic speeches. In fact, “penal substitution” is entirely absent from Luke’s presentation of Jesus’ death—there is nothing in Luke or Acts indicating that Jesus is punished on the cross for our sins, paying a penalty that should be ours to pay.

For Luke, that “Christ died for our sins” means that “Christ died because of our sins,” and “Christ died to show us the way out of our sins.”

The most common interpretation of Jesus’ death by Luke is this stark contrast: human powers have killed Jesus, but God has raised Jesus from the dead. This idea is found in both the Gospel and Acts, explicitly and repeatedly. This refrain fits a Christus victor view of atonement: God has resurrected the crucified Jesus, thus declaring him to be Lord over all powers. The necessary response? Repentance of our collaboration with the evil powers of this world—rulers and idols alike—and walking in the Way in full allegiance to Jesus, Messiah and Lord. And this, of course, is where the gospel preaching of Acts always goes.

The next most common interpretation of Jesus’ death in Luke-Acts is that of Jesus as example to follow: Jesus has taught the way of nonviolent, self-giving love for both neighbours and enemies, and in his own suffering and death he exemplifies this teaching. This is “the way of peace” anticipated by John the Baptist’s father. These are “the things that make for peace” that Jesus laments the people of Jerusalem have missed. Jesus’ followers are to “deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow him” in these very ways—following Jesus in bringing about peace through nonviolent, self-giving love.

That’s the cross in Luke’s writings—unlikely to pass inspection from at least some of Bishop Curry’s critics. How about love?

Luke’s Gospel, of course, has the same key references to love found in Mark’s Gospel (which Luke almost certainly used) and Matthew’s (which Luke probably used). Love as the Greatest Commandment that sums up the whole Law of Moses: loving God with our whole being, and loving our neighbour as ourselves. Love of enemy as a distinctive hallmark of Jesus-followers.

But Luke also blends in a good-sized helping of other sayings and stories of Jesus about love.

Ferdinand Hodler, The Good Samaritan

It is Luke’s Gospel that fleshes out love of neighbour by telling the story of the Good Samaritan—shockingly making a despised foreigner the epitome of neighbour love. It is Luke’s Gospel that has all three stories of lostness: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. In this last story the father’s love for his prodigal son is particularly scandalous: generous from start to finish, watching for the prodigal and running for him without care for propriety, welcoming him home without any amends made or demanded.

Luke’s Gospel has more than the normal quota of stories of Jesus healing people and sharing meals with them, crossing bounds of purity and propriety to do so. He also tells his share of stories about Jesus forgiving sins on God’s behalf—sometimes in response to repentance, sometimes not. And it is Luke’s Gospel (or some manuscripts of it) that has Jesus calling on God to forgive his executioners even as he hangs on the cross, even while they remain ignorant of their heinous sin.

I suspect, then, that Luke’s Gospel has far too much emphasis on love for some—which brings us right to social justice.

One of the strangest criticisms of Bishop Curry’s sermon I’ve seen is that it focused too much on things like racial justice and poverty and the like. The thinking goes like this: the goal of Jesus’ ministry was to bring people into “the kingdom of heaven” (by which is meant simply “heaven,” or “an eternal, spiritual afterlife with God”). His ministry was “spiritual,” not “political”—and, in any case, things like sexism or racism or poverty aren’t really going to change in this world (you know, “the poor you will always have with you”).

But Luke the Evangelist will have none of this.

Leave aside the fact that “kingdom of heaven” is parallel to “kingdom of God,” and that the Jewish expectation of “God’s kingdom” was very much a this-earthly reality. Leave aside the fact that “give to Caesar that which belongs to Caesar and give to God that which belongs to God” would make any devout Jew think, “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.” And leave aside the fact that “the poor you will always have with you” is an allusion to Deuteronomy 15:11 where Moses is in fact urging generosity toward the poor.

Quite apart from these things, Luke’s Gospel is explicit in promoting what we today call “social justice,” even specifically along the lines of sex, race, and economics. There’s far too much to mention, so let’s just consider the issue of poverty.

James Tissot, Le magnificat

It is Luke’s Gospel that has Mary sing these words in anticipation of Jesus’ birth: “The Lord has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

It is Luke that makes Isaiah 61 into Jesus’ personal mission statement: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (in other words, Jubilee—look it up).

It is Luke that presents Jesus’ beatitudes this way: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.” And he includes some accompanying woes in case we’re tempted to spiritualize this: “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.” And just to hammer this home, these are among his following words: “Give to everyone who begs from you.”

It is Luke’s Gospel that says, “When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” It is Luke that tells the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, making sure his hearers know the rich man was being judged for his callous disregard of poor Lazarus at his very gate. It is Luke that tells the story of Zacchaeus, declaring, once Zacchaeus had promised to give half his wealth to the poor and make restitution to any he had defrauded, that “Today salvation has come to this house.”

It is Luke that tells of the early Christians selling their property and giving to the poor among them, even holding all their possessions in common. It is Luke that describes the Apostles’ concern for widows in need, ensuring all received sufficient help regardless of cultural background. It is Luke that mentions the concern of believers in Antioch to provide aid for the poor in Jerusalem affected by famine.

If this is “Christianity Lite”—showing compassionate love for all including the unrighteous and unrepentant, seeking equitable justice for all and especially the vulnerable and marginalized and oppressed, and all this without a strong penal substitutionary view of Jesus’ death—then it’s not just Bishop Curry who is guilty of it. That’s Luke the Evangelist implicated as well, and—at least according to Luke—even Jesus himself.

Not bad company, I’d say.

Adult Bible Study Online Supplements

I’ve not been blogging much here lately, but I have been writing short weekly pieces for MennoMedia’s online supplements to their adult Bible study curriculum. That began the first week of December and will go through February 2018.

UPDATE: These are now posted on my website. Links are updated to reflect this.