May 2, 2021 - Stewardship

Audio file of this program

 

Today we want to talk about church finances – “stewardship,” a fancy word for “management,” usually meaning how we manage our money (and other treasures), how much of that money we give to God, and how we should spend it in God’s church.

 

How should God’s church be financed? Does God need our money? Or is it our money at all? How much of the money in our pocket belongs to God as a part of our joyful obedience? How shall we channel our offerings to God? And how should those offerings be spent? Should we pay some of God’s servants, or should all of God’s work be done as an offering of our time and talent?

 

A lot of people feel like the Church is always asking for money, as if that’s all they care about, and it’s not always clear exactly why the Church needs it. If the answer is “to pay their bills,” we might wonder, “So what? And doesn’t God already have enough money? Why does God need mine?” These are good questions. Let me try to connect the dots between the truth of God’s word on this subject, and what that means for me and you.

 

All we have belongs to God: every cent in our pockets, every stitch of our clothing, every inch of the home we live in or the car we drive. Every breath we take, every heartbeat, every bit of talent, comes on loan from God. It’s not “our” body. It’s not “our” life. Paul writes to the Corinthians, “You are not your own; you were bought with a price.” God owns 100%. It’s not a question of how much of our stuff we offer to God, it’s a matter of how much of God’s treasure that God lets us keep for the necessities of life.

 

So how do we surrender God’s money back to God? Church finance has come a long way from the days of the early church, or the days of the Hebrew priests and Levites. Which raises the question: Have we gone so far that we have departed from the Biblical foundations for what we are doing? We give, but for what purpose, beyond obedience and/or love and worship offered to God?

 

How does God intend us to put our offerings to use? How does God intend us to provide for the work that God wants us to do, specifically, for the workers who are doing it? Should God’s servants all volunteer their labor? If so, what does God want us to do with the rest of what we receive in our tithes and offerings? What would God say about how we are following God’s original intentions for church compensation expressed in Scripture? And are there any course corrections we should make?

 

Beginning in the Hebrew Bible, we find several income streams for finance in the house of God. First, there were sacrifices. Some sacrifices were to be consumed by God entirely (by fire). Some were eaten partially by the priests who offered them. If they were free will offerings, part of the meat could be eaten by the worshippers who offered them. Grain and drink offerings followed similar guidelines.

 

In addition, there were the tithes of animal and vegetable produce, which were stored and then used to provide for the ongoing needs of the priests and Levites, as well as for daily offerings to God. The annual half-shekel tax (Exodus 30:13-15) provided for other needs of the sanctuary. The half-shekel tax was one example of a broad free-will offering category called the terumah. During the time of Solomon’s Temple, there was also a monetary collection on-site for a Temple maintenance and repair fund (2 Kings 12:6-15).

 

The Hebrew term terumah is first used in Exodus 25:2 for the free-will building fund collection for the construction of the Hebrew portable sanctuary in the desert. The ḥallah or dough offering in Numbers 15:17-21 is called a terumah. Also, Numbers 18:8-29 describes extra support offerings for the Levites in addition to the tithe. Some churches today have used the terumah as their term for salary support for their pastoral staff.

 

And as the great theologian Catherine Hobson has reminded me, the priests and Levites had no 403b or other retirement account: Deuteronomy 18:2 says, “The Lord is their inheritance.” True, the Levites were given plots of land scattered within the boundaries of other tribes, but nothing permanent that they could call “mine.”

 

Nehemiah 13:10 shows us a scene in post-exilic Judah where the people had neglected their support for the house of God, to where it says that the Levites and temple musicians “had gone back, each to their field.” So Nehemiah has a confrontation with government leaders, asking them, “Why is the house of God forsaken?” Then, as governor, Nehemiah fixes that compensation problem, to restore God’s servants to the work from which they had been driven by the need to provide for their households (13:11-14).

 

In the New Testament period, tithes were always collected as food. The Pharisees had it all catalogued when and how to tithe what. Only wild plants were exempt from being tithed. Jesus says in Matthew 23:23 that the Pharisees tithe even the herbs they grow in their gardens, but they neglect weightier matters like justice, mercy, and faith. But what does Jesus say? “These things you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.” Jesus clearly expects both committed giving and committed living. Unlike his broad call to “Give to whomever begs from you” (Matthew 5:42), I see no reason not to take Jesus literally on tithing as a practice still intended for us today.

 

In addition to tithing produce, the Temple was supported by the same sacrifices and free-will offerings provided for in the Hebrew Bible. In Mark 12:41-44, we see a poor widow putting two copper coins into the Temple treasury, while rich people were putting in large sums of cash. In Matthew 17:24-27, Jesus pays the half-shekel Temple tax, an act no doubt cited by Matthew as an example to Jewish followers of Jesus to do the same.

 

What about local synagogues? They were run entirely by lay leaders, like Jairus (Mark 5:22); the only cost was construction and maintenance (Luke 7:1-5). What about rabbis? How did they earn a living? As I stated in a blog post called “Christ the Builder,” rabbis in the New Testament period had secular jobs for self-support. Shammai was a carpenter. Hillel was a day laborer. Saul of Tarsus was a tentmaker.

 

Jesus did not practice his profession once he left Nazareth to proclaim God’s word. He appears to have relied on the hospitality of those who benefited from his ministry. Luke 8:1-3 names some women of wealth who followed him and provided for him. This fits with the practice of the rabbis, who often could not earn enough by part-time labor to keep themselves out of poverty, and who survived only by the additional generosity of others.

 

But Jesus issues a new directive aside from Temple support, to be applied to the funding of the work of his servants: “The laborer is worthy of his wages.” (Luke 10:7) Paul quotes Jesus’ teaching verbatim in 1 Timothy 5:18, and echoes it again in Galatians 6:6: “Let the one who is taught the word share all good things with the one who teaches.” Paul also writes, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor (the word timē also means “price” or “compensation”), especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.” (1 Timothy 5:17) Both Jesus and Paul declare that full-time laborers for the Gospel deserve to be paid.

 

In Didachē 13:1-7 (95 AD), the early church transfers their Temple tithe to the support of prophets, teachers, and the poor. As Paul shows in 1 Corinthians 16:2 and 2 Corinthians 8-9, Gentiles had to be trained to do the same kind of systematic giving to which their Jewish fellow believers were already accustomed. We also find this to be true today in countries where the local religion had no tradition for systematic giving to God.

 

So how Biblical are we today in the area of compensation for God’s servants? We’ve come a long way from the days when God’s servants were paid in food. Health and retirement plans are modern innovations. These do qualify as “all good things” (Galatians 6:6), but can churches or mission boards afford the cost? Is that an expense problem, or a giving problem?

 

How can we attract and retain the best and the brightest to God’s service? High salaries are no guarantee; they can attract the greedy along with the good. Only God can persuade the best people to serve in situations where they could easily be paid more elsewhere. But we don’t have to make God always perform miracles by making it harder financially to respond to God’s call. The alternative is to give faithfully enough that God’s servants won’t have to go back to their income-producing fields to make ends meet.

 

One fact is certain: without faithful giving, the work of God suffers (Nehemiah 13:10-11). God can plow around that stumbling block, but God is glorified when we remove that stumbling block instead. It would be ideal if everything in our churches could be done by volunteers, but most people cannot afford to do that full time, year after year.

 

As many churches are growing smaller, such churches are increasingly moving to part-time and lay pastors to lead them. In many ways, this can be a healthy development. When more of the church’s work is done by volunteers, this often makes for members who are more knowledgeable and skilled in their faith. But Jesus and Paul still say, “The laborer is worthy of their hire.”

 

We must try to use God’s money in the way we believe that God would use that money if God were standing in our shoes making those same choices. That is true, whether God’s money is still in our pockets, or after it arrives in God’s house. We must not be wasteful or stingy with God’s money. God’s church must use the money that God provides for the maximum benefit of God’s kingdom, which includes meeting human needs outside the Church in the name of Christ.

 

While the money is still in our pockets, God also cares about what we do with the 90%. Do we spend or invest it wisely, or foolishly? You might be surprised that in 1 Timothy 6:17, God says some of what he gives us may be used for our “enjoyment.” Some of what God gives us is for the needs of our family. God can tell you how much you need, how much is for pure enjoyment, and how much is meant for other purposes for which God gave it.

 

All of this is part of what that word “stewardship” means: our responsibility to manage God’s resources faithfully. Your home, your vehicle, your technology, they all belong to God. You have a nice home? There’s nothing wrong with that, but are you willing to offer your home to be used by God, like Gaius Titius Justus of Corinth, whose home was big enough for the entire Corinthian church to meet there? John Wesley, founder of the Methodist church, had a number of helpful suggestions on faithfully managing what God has given us. One of them is to ask, “In spending this money, am I acting like I own it, or am I acting like the Lord’s trustee?”

 

Why is generous giving important? One answer is because good causes starve for lack of resources. How many important needs go unmet because the money isn’t there? Yes, there is much good we can do in this world that doesn’t cost a dime. But when you think about what it takes to provide relief to disaster victims, or broadcast the message of Christ to the mission field, money is often a vital necessity in achieving such goals. Buildings, vehicles, supplies, skilled labor – they all require money or other forms of generous giving. There is always a cost to someone.

 

People today aren’t interesting in giving just to help some institution survive. They give to make things happen. They invest in ideas or people they believe in. Giving is best when we give for the sake of the eternal purposes of God. Helping people catch God’s dream for the world is the best way to unleash the kind of sold-out generosity shown by Mary when she pours her entire life’s treasure out on Jesus. In Mark 14, Mary takes a bottle of perfume made from spikenard from the Himalayas, the kind used to anoint Roman emperors, worth an entire year’s salary (as much as a new car), and pours it out on Jesus. No doubt Mary is filled with gratitude for raising her brother Lazarus from the dead. But by pouring this incredibly expensive ointment out on Jesus, Mary treats Jesus like God, not even knowing yet what she was doing. Such giving can only be inspired by gratitude.

 

Or take a look at the story of that nameless poor widow in the Temple who puts 2 copper coins into the Temple treasury. What she gave was 1/200 of a day’s wage. It was enough to buy 3 figs or 1/8 of a loaf of bread. It would have taken 5 of those coins to buy 1 sparrow, 1 Chicken McNugget. But Jesus says, “This poor widow gave more than them all! They all gave out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.” This poor widow had no idea where next week’s income was coming from. The 100% giving of this poor widow can be an inspiration to us all. Sold-out love for God is the only way to explain what she did.

 

We can’t build God’s kingdom by nickel-and-diming God. Building God’s kingdom takes the kind of systematic, proportionate giving that God challenges us to do in the Bible. God tells the Hebrews that 10% of their income belongs to God. Jesus agrees. Some take 10% as a command. Some take this as a challenge goal. You need to talk to God and ask God what Jesus meant when he said, “These things you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.” Jesus wants both committed living and committed giving.

 

Part of what I am called to do on this program is to encourage you to give to your local Bible-believing church. Some of you live in places where the only way that people are going to hear the Gospel of salvation by the grace of God is through your church. They should be your first priority. In addition, God has raised up ministries who are there to help the local church do its ministry. One of them is this radio program. If we are equipping you in your knowledge of God’s word, and/or if we are reaching people that you want to reach, we’d be thrilled if you choose to invest part of your investment in God’s kingdom through us. I do this program entirely as a volunteer: 100% of what you give goes to air time. You can give online by going to www.wellspringutah.org and choose “Radio Show,” or use the link on one of our 2 websites.

 

There are a lot of good ministries out there who serve as extensions of the local church’s ministry, ministries that deserve our support. My wife and I aim to be faithful managers of the resources that God has placed in our hands. We ask God to show us how God wants us to divide up our giving. Some will go to our own local church. Some will go to ministries in Utah who are reaching souls that we want to reach, like the Coffee Depot in Mt Pleasant and the Solid Rock Café in Ephraim. Some of our tithe gets invested in this radio program. Some of it will go to ministries to unreached peoples in the Arab and Central Asian parts of the world. What ministries has God placed on your heart, and how can you invest in those ministries?

 

Your giving makes a difference. You can change the world through your giving. I don’t give because God commands me to (although I’m glad God has told us what he wants). I don’t give to bail out somebody’s struggling institution. I give out of love for God and because I want to participate in what God is doing to change the world.

 

Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 6:20, “You are not your own; you were bought with a price.” It’s not our stuff. It’s not our body. It’s not our life. It all belongs to God. Therefore, Paul says, “glorify God with your body.” Paul’s talking here about sexual morality to Christians in a very sexually active city. Does the Bible have one consistent sexual ethic, or does it contain multiple contradictory teachings? And if the Bible has only one consistent sexual ethic, where exactly can we find it? We’ll talk about that next time on Biblical Words and World.