Since the time of Abraham, dedicated followers of God have given of their wealth to the One who provides all wealth. God blessed Abraham with much and Abraham gave a tenth to Melchizedek, priest of God most High (Genesis 14:20). Jacob, an heir to the great promise, vowed to give a tenth to God, probably giving it to a priest in the order of Melchizedek as well (Genesis 28:22). The law of Moses commanded all Israel to give a tenth to the tribe of Levi, who in turn was commanded to give a tenth to the priests of God (Numbers 18:24-32; Deuteronomy 14:22-29). In addition to these obligatory offerings each year, the people of God were periodically called to give freewill offerings for the work of the Lord (Exodus 35:29; 36:2-7; Ezra 2:68; Malachi 3:10).
Jesus spoke of giving to the Lord when he said to render to Caesar what belonged to Caesar and to God what belonged to God (Matthew 22:21). He likewise spoke of contributing to the temple treasury in the story of the widow’s mite (Luke 21:1-4). When speaking about spending our money to take care of aged parents, he made it clear that such expense is over and above that which is given to God (Mark 7:1-10).
As soon as the New Testament church began in Jerusalem, the Christians began giving into a common treasury of the church, a treasury which was administered by the body of spiritual leaders. The word translated “fellowship” in Acts 2:42 probably refers to the ancient practice of contributing money on the Lord’s day. Because of the many guests from out of town in those early days, and the needs of those guests, many sold land or property, and brought the money from those sales “and laid it at the apostles’ feet and it was distributed to anyone as he had need,” (Acts 4:34-37; 5:1-2).
Later, because of a famine, the church in Antioch sent aid to the brethren in Judaea, and “this they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul,” (Acts 11:29-30). In his instructions to Timothy, Paul also gives instructions about enrolling destitute widows who meet certain qualifications on the permanent support roles of the church if they promise to remain single and devote themselves to the Lord’s work (1 Timothy 5:1-16). These instructions clearly imply the existence of this common church fund and its administration by church leaders. This was another good purpose for the funds collected by the church.
In the epistles of Paul to the churches, it is clear that this collection of Christian monies by the church and its distribution by the church leaders continued. This practice was the norm created by Paul for the churches in Corinth, Galatia and elsewhere (1 Corinthians 16:1-2; 2 Corinthians 8-9). The contribution into the common treasury (Gk. Thesaurus), was done on the first day of the week when the Christians gathered (1 Corinthians 16:1-2).
In the second century, this practice of contributing on the first day of the week was the practice of churches everywhere as Justin Martyr makes very clear. As Justin Martyr explains the practices of churches all over the empire, he tells the emperor, “And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read,” … (there follows an account of how instruction is given and the Lord’s Supper is taken) then… “And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the one presiding,” (Apology I.67). This seems to be in agreement with the practice established by the apostles in the first century.
Not only was the money from this common fund used by church leaders to help those in need, but from Paul’s epistles, it is clear that much of this money was used to support the preaching of the gospel. Paul’s instructions to Timothy encourage him to use church funds to help support preaching elders (1 Timothy 5:17-18). Paul explains to the Corinthians that God has ordained that those who preach the gospel should make their living from the gospel (1 Corinthians 9:13-14). The church at Philippi is a prime example of a church that supported Paul’s preaching of the gospel over a long period of time (Philippians 1:5; 4:14-19).
When the church participates in this kind of giving, it is considered giving to God (Philippians 4:18; 2 Corinthians 9:6-7). In the epistle to the Galatians, Paul denounces those who tried to preach Judaism among the Christians, while assuring them that the one who teaches the true gospel should expect those who are taught to share their wealth with him (Galatians 6:6). When the church supports good preaching, we sow to the Spirit and will reap eternal life (Galatians 6:7-8).
God promised that people who gave liberally and willingly would be blessed by God so that they could continue in the grace of giving (2 Corinthians 9:10ff; cf. Malachi 3:10). It is worthy of note that the monies contributed by the church were handled in such a manner as to erase any doubt about whether they were used properly or not (2 Corinthians 8:20-21).
Now, consider whether these statements are true. First, God established that the church should maintain a common treasury made up of freewill offerings from its members. Secondly, the spiritual leaders of the church were given responsibility for the distribution of those funds. Thirdly, in the New Testament, it was God’s church that was given the responsibility of the work of the Lord under the guidance of its spiritual leaders, the apostles, evangelists, and elders. As in the Old Testament where the tithing of Israel was deposited with the Levites and priests, the giving of the New Testament church was deposited with the spiritual leaders of the church.
Giving to God Today
Many in today’s church have become pragmatic instead of scriptural in their thinking about how to give their money and how to do God’s work. Numerous para-church organizations have sprung up, organizations that do good work, but have no accountability to a group of elders anywhere. Among these are Christian Colleges, orphan’s homes, and various organizations devoted to church plantings and mission efforts of different kinds. All of these organizations do good things and there is nothing wrong with giving to support them, but this is not the same thing as our duty to give to God’s church.
As Christians, we are told to do good unto all men (Galatians 6:9-10), to minister to widows and orphans (James 1:27), and to do good whenever and wherever we find opportunity (Hebrews 13:2; Titus 3:8). Most of these passages are admonitions to individual Christians about how to conduct our daily lives and have nothing to do with the distribution of funds from the church treasury.
In other words, we all have individual responsibility to do good toward others. God does not want us to call the church every time we see a need. He wants us to act as individuals with grace, kindness, and benevolence. When we spend our own money in doing good for others, this does not in any way take the place of our duty to give to the Lord’s church. There is nothing wrong with giving to para-church organizations like those mentioned above, but this kind of giving does not take the place of our duty to give to God’s church.
God, in his wisdom, has entrusted the work of training evangelists, the work of evangelism, and the oversight of church benevolence to the spiritual leaders of the church. God wants those who do his work to be accountable to the recognized leaders of the church, so that they will teach the truth of God’s word and promote only those things that God has commanded us to do. Some are not to be helped with benevolence from the church (2 Thessalonians 3:10). Some are not to be supported in their teaching because they are teaching what is contrary to Jesus and the apostles (2 John 9-11). Our true giving to God, in the tradition of the Old Testament tithes and the New Testament giving into a common treasury, is our giving to the Lord’s church. That giving should come first and should be viewed as a gift from the giver directly to God.
The giving to the Lord’s church is our duty, our Christian obligation. Other free will giving to other people and organizations should be done over and above our committed contribution to the Lord’s church. Many do not understand this, and the more they are courted by para-church organizations, the more they fall prey to thinking that their responsibility to God is fulfilled in this way and they don’t need to give to the church.
This kind of thinking is not biblical and it causes not only a hardship on the church, but often results in the support of unbiblical things as well as the support of good things. God is most pleased and glorified when his church, under the leadership of its chosen leaders, is carrying out his work with funds given by baptized believers. This is the plan of God and it brings glory to God through his church.
So, what is the bottom line of this article? Christian, fulfill your obligation to God first by giving to his church willingly and liberally. Then do all you desire to do above and beyond that obligation as long as it is something approved by God. Don’t neglect the Lord’s blood bought church in order to do other things. If your church family is not doing the Lord’s work, find a biblical church family that is doing the Lord’s work and support it with your attendance and your money. God will richly bless those who give to Him!
By Dan R. Owen, Ph.D.
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