Friday, November 03, 2006

Church money and the poor

Frequently at this site, readers lecture me about how the church, rather than the government, should care for the poor. I know we will continue to debate this point in the future.

Not long ago a friend sent me a link to an extremely interesting article by Ray Mayhew ("Embezzlement: The Corporate sin of Contemporary Christianity?"). I found Mayhew's ideas compelling. What follows are a few quotes for your consideration.

While reading some patristic documents recently, I was startled to discover that the Church Fathers are univocal in their insistence that the bulk of the revenue collected by a local church belonged by right to the poor. There was no expectation among them that a large percentage of what was collected by a local congregation would be used for its own maintenance and ministry. In fact, to do so would have been viewed by them as a misappropriation of funds. . . .

. . .the assumption of most church leaders today is that we have the right to spend our revenue in ways that we believe would be most beneficial to the work for which we are responsible. Budgets are drawn up, employees paid, buildings built and maintained, and missionaries supported. This is the way things are done, and as long as there is an annual audit and no misappropriations of funds, all is well. But is it?

All of the above is built on two assumptions that are rarely, if ever questioned. The first is that revenue collected is "ours," belonging by right to the congregation that gave it and who now, therefore, has the right to spend it. The fact that some churches tithe their income and give away ten percent to other ministries only reflects how deeply we believe it is "ours" to use in the first place. The second assumption is that how this money is spent is a pragmatic decision that varies from congregation to congregation (and culture to culture), depending on the perceived needs and objectives of each local church. I believe that both of these assumptions need to be reexamined in light of scripture and church history. . . .

. . .The record is unambiguous, church revenue, prior to Constantine, was used, both locally and in other parts of the Empire, primarily for the welfare of the sick, the poor, the imprisoned, the widow and the orphan. The local congregation did not expect a large percentage of what was given to be used for its own maintenance and ministry. In fact, to do so would have been viewed by most of them as a misappropriation of funds.

In the second century, Tertullian provided us with details of the church services in North Africa. He spoke of every man bringing money. . ."You might call them the trust funds of piety. They are spent on the support and burial of the poor."

Justin Martyr provides us with similar insight from the second century practice of the Roman church. Speaking of the Sunday service he says, "the money thus collected is deposited with the president who takes care of the orphans and widows and those who are in straits because of sickness or any other cause and those in prison, and visitors form other parts. In short, he looks after all who are in need."

. . .Giving in this way was not seen as generosity, it was viewed as an act of restitution. It belonged to the poor by right. Augustine instructed his own church to set aside at least a tenth of all their possessions and income for the poor (not the church). This was actually a concession to what he saw as greed because his congregation was not prepared to give up everything that was "superfluous"!

. . .We should also not miss the obvious: when the Old Testament tithe was given, it was given away to others. It was given to the Levites, a tribe to which those doing the giving did not belong. In contrast, when I give to the church, it is not "given away" at all. I am the church! Revenue given to the church directly benefits me as a believer in providing pastoral care, Bible teaching, family counseling, facilities for my children and a building for me to worship in. In that sense, very little is given away. Most of the money I give to the church is spent by the church on meeting my needs and those of my family. For this I am very grateful. However, I am also suspicious as to whether I am a valid recipient of such expenditure.

. . .Today, if we are going to teach the tithe as a benchmark of faithful stewardship, we need to also teach how the early church used these trust funds in ministering to the needy.

. . .In the late fourth century, John Chrysostom echoed Matthew 25 in lamenting, "thou hast been bidden to give freely to the hungry. . .but thou dost not count him deserving even of a loaf; but thy dog is fed to fullness while Christ wastes with hunger."

. . .Cyprian maintained that prayer and fasting was of no avail unless accompanied by giving to the poor, while Origen ranked almsgiving third in importance behind baptism and martyrdom. However, their definition of almsgiving went far beyond giving their loose change to the hungry and homeless. It was defined as spending on oneself only that which was absolutely necessary and giving the remainder away. Nothing superfluous should be kept as long as others lacked the necessities of life.

. . .Ignatius characterized heretics as those who had "no care for the widow, the orphan, the oppressed, the hungry or the thirsty."

Lots to think about here for church people, huh?

Read the essay in its entirety at:


Anonymous said...

Once again you have pointed out the fallacies of the country's masses doing church. We build huge facilities for our own use and give little to those who really need help in living day to day. I have been found guilty of the way I use my "tithe". Lord help us all if we don't change our ways and stop ignoring the poverty around us. Thanks again for calling us to be accountable.

Larry James said...

Paul, thanks for your post. And, even more, for the way you consistently reach out to and assist people who are battling to do better for themselves and their families. We love you!

Anonymous said...

funny how no one much comments today???? where are all the christians and church members???

Brice said...

Excellent! And just in time for our first 2007 church budget meeting tomorrow morning. This will be fun... Thanks, Larry!

Matt said...

Very challenging and a very good compilation of resources you have there. It really makes you wonder how much time and money we spend propagating ourselves and our facilities rather than propagating (if that is the right word) Christ and his kingdom. That is certainly a challenging post for someone who receives income from the church budget.

Is there a next step? Do we scrap all these trappings that took us centuries to accumulate!?! What would church look like if we took these things seriously and how would it impact our society at large?

Anonymous said...

It makes no sense to me why churches would need to raise millions of dollars to build and maintain the nicest buildings in town. Why is a public park not an even better place to meet and worship?


Justin said...

I hardly ever give money to church. I like to keep it in my bank account so its there when I run into someone in need on the street.

I feel guilty giving money to church cause I know its paying for me to be comfortable on Sunday mornings.

Anonymous said...

So what is the best way to give alms? Do we donate to a group such as Central Dallas Ministries? Do we just go down the street handing cash directly to poor people until we've given enough away?

Larry James said...

Anonymous 11:34, thanks for the question. In my opinion, you need to find the group or groups in your area that are committed, at the grassroots level, to seeing life improve for the weakest in your community and who take the assets of those folks as seriously as they take the assets of the rich. In same cases that could be your church. In most it will be a non-profit organization that you can identify. The key is to get involved personally and sacrifically. And, yes, at times it may be you just out there engaging people one-on-one and giving away money!