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Economics in the Church

February 14, 2013

Economics in the Church
Contrary to what many might conclude based on the lack of intelligent discussion of the topic among Christians, the Bible has a great deal to say on the subject of economics. The Old Testament Law is full of mandates on economic matters. The Old Testament prophets pronounce strong condemnation of the lack of economic justice. And, the New Testament as well addresses economic practice in the Church. For the context of this post, I am going to limit my comments to the issue of economics in the Church based on the New Testament practice and teaching. More may follow later on the broader issues.
If there is any teaching at all in Church congregations today on the topic of economics, or giving, it is generally limited to one of two perspectives. The very most evil of these two is the horrendous heresy of “Prosperity Theology” under one of its various labels. This is not only not Biblical, it is an error that has many parallels to the selling of indulgences at the time of Martin Luther. In fact it can be argued rather convincingly that it is even a greater evil than the one that precipitated the Reformation. The second perspective that is commonly taught is that the Biblical requisite for giving in the tithe. It is my belief that the tithe is also NOT intended to be the pattern of giving intended for the Church today. I believe this because: A) Giving a tithe was never taught by Jesus in the Gospels nor is it taught anywhere in the rest of the New Testament. B) What Jesus did teach about giving was quite different from tithing. He taught stewardship of all that we have and He illustrated giving by holding up as an example the widow who gave all that she had. C) Implicit in the concept of giving a tithe, is the assumption that by giving 10% we have fulfilled our obligation and the remainder is ours to do with as we choose. So a Mitt Romney, though he is a Mormon and that distinction for another discussion and he is just being used as an example of a mindset, can report income of $43 million and give $4.3 and be left with $38.7 million to do as he wishes with. D) In the New Testament there were no church building to be constructed or maintained so much of what tithe teaching suggests the tithe be used for didn’t even exist during that portion of Church history. In the Old Testament, no tithe or portion of a tithe was ever to be used for buildings. I am not suggesting that therefore buildings are bad or that congregations should not own buildings, only that they should not be used as justification for teaching tithing. E) There is other teaching in the New Testament which offers a very different perspective on giving from the tithe that is generally ignored and I believe it needs to be taught and heeded.
I need to emphasize again for purposes of this writing, I am speaking only to the issue of economics within the Church. To start, as much as many would like to, we cannot ignore the practice of the Church at Jerusalem in the early chapters of the book of Acts. We are told that the members of the congregation there sold their possessions and brought the proceeds to the apostles for distribution to those who had need. It also states that they held all things in common. The word for common is the base of the word fellowship in Greek. Those who are uncomfortable with this kind of communalism like to suggest that Ananias and Sapphira demonstrated the fact that this kind of utopianism didn’t work, and imply that the practice went away after that failure. I would point out that there is no reason behind the assumption that the communal practice ended in Jerusalem after Ananias and Saphira, and quite to the contrary it was still in practice after that as evidenced by the need to appoint deacons chapters later. The deacons role was specifically to distribute resources according to need. So there was giving in the Church at Jerusalem and it seems to have been for two purposes, to provide sustenance for the apostles and to provide for the physical needs of the poor among them. It is also very clear that the expected giving was not a tithe from everyone, but much more than that from some and nothing at all from others.
Some years later, the Church at Jerusalem was going through some very difficult economic times. As Paul travelled he gathered offering in other cities from the believers to be sent to Jerusalem to meet their needs. In writing to the Corinthian Church in the eighth chapter of his second letter to them, Paul sets forth a principle. “I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but that as a matter of equality your abundance at the present time should supply their want, so that their abundance may supply your want, that there may be equality. As it is written,’He who gathered much had nothing over, and he who gathered little had no lack.’” I am well aware that this is a very different perspective from the economic perspective of our culture at large. This is very much why I wrote in my earlier blog about practicing different values from the culture in which we live. Equality is Paul’s word and not mine. It is Paul who is teaching redistribution of wealth. It is Paul’s principle that economic resources should be flowing consistently from excess to need. And Paul makes no provision for accumulation. I have a good friend who put things very well when he said, “There is nothing wrong with making a lot of money. The question is, are you a conduit or a reservoir?”
I believe that the key principle for giving in the New Testament is – EXCESS SHOULD ALWAYS BE FLOWING TO NEED. Now, I will admit that there is plenty of room for discussion as to how we should define excess and need. I would welcome that discussion, but it hasn’t even started. I can name examples in the very city where I live where resources taken from the neediest members of a congregation went toward buying extravagant homes for pastors. Unfortunately sometimes the flow of resources goes in the wrong direction. I believe that the resources possessed by the Church are sufficient to meet the needs of the Church. But the problem is that the resources are often in the wrong places. When Benny Hinn flies in his private jet and stays in hotel suites costing several thousand dollars a night, that takes resources from real needs. I know well members of the Body who have lost homes because of outrageous medical bills. Some members of the Body drive the latest BMW while others can’t afford a ten year old Toyota. Something in this picture is very wrong. What exactly would it look like if the Church practiced New Testament economics? I am not completely certain. But, it would be very different from the way it is today.

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