Giving in the Church: What It Is

Giving in the Church: What It Is

Editor’s Note: This is the second article about Giving in the Church. In this article, we will focus on what the New Testament says about giving practically. You can find the first article, second article and associated Q&A, and third article using the links. 

In the last article, we saw that the sacrificial system of the Old Testament has been done away with in Christ. Tithing was part of that sacrificial system, and the language of tithing does not apply to Christians. In fact, Christian giving is described extensively in the New Testament without using the term “tithe.” So what is Christian giving all about?

Just because the old sacrificial system is gone, that does not mean that God has not given Christians ways to give in the New Covenant. As we have already seen, we can give in many categories: through praise and worship, offering our lives, rejecting sin and evil, choosing the transformed and renewed mind, just to name some examples. Christians can also give liberally in the financial category. What do Acts and the Epistles have to say about Christians giving financially? As we will see, the three main categories for giving in the New Testament are: for the support of the ministry, for missionary purposes, and for the poor among believers.[1] We will look at each of these in turn. First, we will explore supporting the ministry.

I Corinthians 9:13-14 (ESV)
Do you not know that those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in the sacrificial offerings?
In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.

The whole context of this record is helpful background. Paul, by revelation, is saying, “Look, the Levites and priests were able to live from the work of the ministry. Why shouldn’t we get some financial support?” God’s design is for people who are operating a God-given ministry to be supported financially at least to the level of need. The priests and Levites did not own property, but they did have all of their physical needs met.[2] Another item of note is this: even though Paul felt strongly that he deserved to be paid, he did not compel anyone to support him financially. This can be seen readily from I Corinthians 9:15ff.

Galatians 6:6 (ESV)
Let the one who is taught the word share all good things with the one who teaches.

The one being taught has a responsibility to help the one who is teaching. This can include financial as well as other categories of life.

I Timothy 5:17-18 (ESV)
Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.
For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.”

Those who labor for God through preaching, teaching, and other ministries deserve to earn a basic “wage” to cover their needs. Paul, at times, experienced this support:

Philippians 4:15-16 (ESV)
And you Philippians yourselves know that in the beginning of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church entered into partnership with me in giving and receiving, except you only.
Even in Thessalonica you sent me help for my needs once and again.

What a wonderful joy it is to support those ministries that bless you, encourage you, strengthen you, and sustain you!

Next, Christians could use money for missionary purposes, sometimes to help those less fortunate in another area of the world and sometimes to further God’s goals for the world in a broader sense. Missions work involves teaching the gospel. Whatever supports that teaching of the gospel could be considered missions work. For example, suppose a large organization has a bookstore. People that work in that bookstore and who send packages of books and materials to teach the gospel are supporting missions work. And many times, supporting missionary purposes and supporting ministers are the same thing. We have already seen where people supported Paul as a minister, but Paul also traveled from place to place planting churches. This is also missions work. So many of the verses that we just reviewed about supporting ministers could also be cross-referenced to supporting missions work, especially Philippians 4:15-16 and I Corinthians 9:13-14. Where else can we read about supporting missions in the New Testament?

Acts 13:1-4 (ESV)
Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a lifelong friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul.
While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”
Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.
So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia, and from there they sailed to Cyprus.

Clearly, mission work is important to God (Acts 1:8, Acts 13:47, Mark 16:15, Romans 10:13-15), and Christians must be diligent to support such work financially. Mission activities can take a variety of shapes and supporting missions can incorporate many types of activities. As long as the work being done is leading to moving the gospel, it is missions work. And it is important to recognize that in foreign countries, missions work is often accompanied by basic aid (food, water, and supplies). Due to the physical needs of the people, the gospel is shared as physical needs are met.

Next, Christians should help poor Christians in our home congregation and our communities. There is quite a bit on this in the New Testament, and here are some key passages:

Acts 2:44-45 (ESV)
And all who believed were together and had all things in common.
And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.

This section is a synopsis of the time immediately following the day of Pentecost. The ESV translates this section particularly well. The verbs “selling” and “distributing” are both imperfect, which indicates continual action. The word “as” here is the Greek word kathoti, which most literally means “according to, or because.”[3] These Christians were selling their possessions and distributing the proceeds to the ones who had needs as the needs arose!

Acts 4:34-35 (ESV)
There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold
and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.

Many of these verbs are also in the imperfect tense. People continued to give and distribution was made as the needs arose!

Acts 6:1-2 (ESV)
Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution.
And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables.

Here is one major example of giving—food distribution to poor and needy people. The early church in Jerusalem had something akin to the first Christian soup kitchen, a way of distributing food to those less fortunate.

Acts 11:29 (ESV)
So the disciples determined, every one according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea.

This is one of several references to disciples of Christ sending relief, possibly in the form of food, to those in the church in Judea. This gift was the direct result of the ministry of a prophet, named Agabus, who warned about a coming famine.

Acts 20:33-35 (ESV)
I coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel.
You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities and to those who were with me.
In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.'”

Paul often was not supported during his ministry work. When he was not being supported, he was an example to the Christians that they could work hard to support their families along with those less fortunate financially. Another verse to consider in light of this category is II Thessalonians 3:10, which says that if people are able to work and do not, then they should not eat. God can work within us to make our giving have the greatest impact.

Giving to the poor was something that mattered deeply, and not just to Paul, but to James, Peter, and John as well, who asked Paul to remember the poor as he ministered to the Gentiles (see Galatians 2:7-10.) Of course, Paul was eager to do so.

James 2:14-17 (ESV)
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?
If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food,
and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?
So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

In this famous passage, the example that James gives of someone who has dead faith (faith without works) is a Christian who does not really help a brother or sister in need. As we have seen throughout the Bible, God desires for those with more in the financial category to take care of the poor—He will repay us. That idea has not changed since Pentecost.

I John 3:16-18 (ESV)
By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.
But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?
Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.

John asked a similar question as James. If someone has the ability to help another in need in the financial category and does not do so, how does the love of God abide in that person?

Before we close this article, let’s look back at a concept from a few of the verses we quoted before: Acts 2:42ff and Acts 4:35. Many churches have endeavored to utilize these verses to suggest that all money should come through the church elders and support an organization. Such an idea is foreign to the times of the New Testament. There was not much need for organizational support in the first century church, primarily because the church did not own any church buildings. There were buildings, such as people’s homes and the school of Tyrannus, which were utilized through the freewill giving of the owners. People did sent money to Paul to support his ministry and sent relief to poor believers in other parts of the world, but no resources were spent on buildings, because it was unnecessary. Am I saying that it is wrong for a church to have a building? Not necessarily. If a building helps rally people around Christ and it does not detract too much from the main three goals of giving, then it could be appropriate to have a building. But the more home churches there are, the more money can be spent on supporting ministers, missions, and helping the poor.

How do we decide who to give to? Giving is a personal decision, but here are some thoughts. Support an organization that is working to spread the gospel with a minimum of administrative expenses. Many Christian charities spend less than 20% on administrative costs. Typically, churches spend more than that on administration, so it comes to a simple question: do you agree with the financial decisions being made by your church? Do you value what that church is doing to move the gospel? If you believe in the church and what it is doing for the community and for God, then that’s a great place to give.

What do the post-Pentecost parts of the Bible say about giving? Generally speaking, God wants His people to focus on supporting their ministers, mission work, and the poor, particularly poor Christians. Each of us has the responsibility to live according to the grace that God has bestowed upon us. God will do His part if we do ours.

[1] This is loosely based off of the list found in Herbert Lockyer, All the Doctrines of the Bible, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1964), 253-254.

[2] The point here about priests and Levites not owning property is simply a historical one. I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t support your minister with housing or even that you couldn’t help a minister you know buy property.

[3] See Thayer’s Lexicon.



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