The Glass House
Part 8: Money
An Invented Doctrine
Tithing, as many black churches practice it, has a wobbly doctrinal foundation. Most pastors will never tell you that. Jesus
never spoke about tithing. Paul never spoke about tithing, but
rather requested of the church in Corinth, “On the first day of
every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in
keeping with his income, saving it up, so that when I come no
collections will have to be made.” [I Cor 16:2]. Tithing ten
percent of our income is mandated in Mosaic Law, which we, as
Christians, no longer follow (well, except where it suits us).
Therefore, many biblical scholars look further back, before the
Law, to Abraham, who gave a tribute to Melchizedek [Genesis 14],
then connect Melchizedek to Jesus [Hebrews 5] and therefore
insist the ten percent rule pre-dates the Law and is, therefore,
still in effect. I’m not a biblical scholar, so I’ll leave the
debate up to greater minds that mine. But, it seems to me, the
Gospel of Jesus Christ is a fairly straightforward bit of
business that requires no convolutions of logic to connect the
dots. My suspicions are usually aroused by complexity, and the
logic required to make Abraham’s tribute to Melchizedek our
biblical model to require single moms to not feed their kids so
the pastor can drive a Lexus is a bit staggering.
Bottom line: supporting God’s work is our responsibility. When we don’t do our part, the work of the ministry suffers and the church doesn’t, cannot, grow. However, there’s been such a tradition of gross moral failure on the part of so many of our pastors and ministers—usually caught with some woman (or, increasingly, with some man), caught misusing church funds, or both—that many of us are frankly skeptical about giving money to the church. I’ve heard many church members say they’ll give their biblical minimums and what happens to the money after that is between the preacher and God. Well, it is and it isn’t. If you suspect gross corruption in your church, it is not only your right to ask about it, it is your duty. Many of these folk believe that, having satisfied their minimum biblical requirement, what happens to the money after that is no longer their responsibility. I’m not sure where they got that idea. A church is not an institution. It is a body of believers. The church is not the building, not the clerks and the bureaucracy. The church is the people—is you and me. It most certainly is our responsibility to know how that money is being used. And, if you suspect your church or pastor is misusing God’s money, you need to find the courage of your convictions to vote first with your checkbook and, if necessary, with your feet. There’s nothing sadder than church folk who remain at a church that they know, for sure, is being led by corrupt, ungodly people. I know church folk who know, for sure, their pastor is a fraud. Who’ve known, for sure, their pastor was sleeping around and even fathering children out of wedlock. Who know the shot-callers at their church are stiff-necked, unprincipled people. But they keep going. They keep putting money in the offering plate—empowering those people. Because, they say, “This is my church. It’s always been my family’s church. I’m not gonna let these so-and-so’s run me out of my own church.”
Beloved, if it’s your church, you need to act like it. Stop sitting there letting mess go on. The way to beat a cancerous tumor is to deprive it of its blood supply. The way to force corrupt people out of your church is to cut off the money. I don’t care if the lights get shut off, if the phone gets shut off—stop putting money in the hands of people you know, for a fact, are ungodly and corrupt. Sitting there, arms folded, talking about how this is “your church” is utter nonsense if you do nothing about the cancer destroying it. Organize with other believers, open an escrow account monitored by the membership, pay your tithes and offerings into it. Obey God, not man. Starve the cancer. Demand accountability for every nickel the church takes in. I don’t get these church “secret” meetings where the church’s finances are discussed. By biblical model, everything we do should be done, must be done, in the light. Why can’t I come to any of your churches, sit and examine any of your financial ledgers? Why is any of that a secret? Beloved, if you are a church, you should have nothing to hide, nothing to be embarrassed about. Not only should your books be open to anyone—anyone at all who wishes to examine them—they should be published on your website, available to anyone at all who wants to see how your church spends its money. But, for many of us, this is a deeply-held secret. Some churches don’t even pass this information out at church meetings, they read it from the podium and destroy the documents. Why? How could public disclosure possibly harm the church? And what is the biblical model for this behavior?
All the secrecy about money, all the hush-hush, keep-it-under-wraps behavior about money, heightens suspicions that the money is not being handled properly. Members suspicious of how the church spends its money tend to give less. For one thing, they feel like they are giving money to something instead of actually being the something the money is being used for. They are giving money to the five people who make the church’s financial decisions, giving money to the indifferent institution, when a church should not be an institution but an organism, a family. You’d empty your wallet (and frequently do) to support your family. But, far too many of our churches do not behave like a family. They behave like a movie theater or night club. You pay This Much you get This Ride, a stark disconnection between the people in power and the people writing the checks. Pastors: the more open your finances, the more responsible those finances will be. The more you empower your congregation and educate your congregation, the more willing they’ll be to support the work of the ministry.
The Flat Tax
The ten percent rule is tantamount to a flat tax. Everybody, rich or
poor, pays the same. This sounds both reasonable and fair, but it is
neither. The difference between the giving of someone making $25
thousand a year and someone making $125 thousand a year is the ten
percent impacts the $25 person much, much more than it does the $125.
But the $125 thousand person says to himself, “I’m obeying God, I’m
doing what the bible asks and even a bit more,” and is satisfied with
his giving as his giving lends majority support to the church. But his
giving doesn’t really impact him. It may inconvenience him
at times, but living on 90% of $125 thousand is still fairly
easy to do. Taking away a tenth of a $25 thousand earner’s
take-home money usually means they’ll be struggling to eat and
pay bills. The ten-percent model, therefore, has an inherent
inequity that causes division as the haves tend to look down
their noses at the have-nots and even criticize them for not
paying tithes. The pastor tends to lavish the tithe-payers with
attention and support while giving minimum attention to the poor
who pay tithes rarely if at all.
If the $125 thousand person was giving to the point where it harmed his family as much as the $25 thousand person, he’d be giving closer to sixty, seventy percent. The $125 thousand person would have to give at least half his salary to the church before there’d be any danger at all of his family going hungry or his lights being shut off. To put these two on equal footing, the $125 thousand person would need to sacrifice the same way the $25 thousand person sacrifices. If you asked the $125 thousand person to give seventy percent of is income, he’d leave the church. But that’s the biblical model. It is. I’m not making this stuff up—read Acts 2. If the church today actually functioned the way the early church did, the well-off guy would give until it hurt him the same way the poor guy gives. And the church would take that money and build a bunch of townhouses and make sure everybody, rich or poor, had a home, had food, had a dog and a cat and a Chevy. Or maybe a fleet of Chevys, parked with the keys in them, that everyone shared. Read it: that’s how the early church conducted themselves. They got rid of the god “Money” in favor of the God “Jesus” and made sure nobody got left behind. Today, we’d call that socialism or communism, the pastor branded a nutty cultist. It would never happen.
The poor, $25 thousand giver is usually stigmatized, receives fewer services, less attention, and has less respect and less voice, overall, in what goes on in the church. When he is in need, it is the $125 thousand person who makes the decision whether or not to help him, and that help often comes at the price of the $25 thousand man's dignity. But, this faithful member is giving to the point of pain and suffering for his family in order to support the church. Meanwhile, the $125 thousand giver, who hardly misses the ten percent of his riches and, frankly, needs the tax deduction, is respected, honored, and lavished with attention. He gets in to see the pastor at will, his phone calls are promptly put through no matter what the pastor is doing, and his voice carries real weight with the ministry. All because, proportionately speaking, he gives the lion’s share of money that keeps the church going.
There should be no small voices in the church. The well-off guy should not have more influence than the poor, struggling guy. However, if you must implement some kind of pecking order, then do it biblically. Stop respecting persons based on how much they give, but respect them for how much they are sacrificing for the good of the church. If we implemented some kind of misery index, many of our poorest would be held in the highest esteem, as it would become evident that the highest givers are often giving out of their excess and, therefore, suffering the least, while our poor are giving their one-tenth faithfully, giving out of their need, and therefore suffering the most. But, as usual, we’ve got it all backward, ignoring biblical warnings against showing favoritism in God's house [James 2] while ignoring those among us who give everything they have, who allow their families to go without, in order to support the Lord’s work.
The Misery Index
Among the biggest
struggles for most churches is how and when and how
much they can or should assist people in need. The biblical
model is unequivocal: Jesus said if someone asks you for your
coat, give him your hat, too [Luke 6:29]. The early church
existed much like a commune, with church members selling
everything they have and giving to each other according to their
needs—in other words, making sure everyone had food and shelter
and was reasonably taken care of.
Seeing to the needs of every church member is probably not a realistic policy today, or is it? These days, the only church members who sell everything and give it to the church tend to be Jim Jones-type cultists. We love our stuff. We spend most of our money, most of our time, maintaining our stuff. The work of the Lord is secondary to keeping our hedges trimmed and making sure the mortgage gets paid. I know fairly few Christians who are willing to pay their tithes if their children were hungry. So, that system is not in place today. Few of us put the Lord’s work first and even fewer trust the church enough to unconditionally dismantle our lives in favor of sharing our resources as in Acts 2. So, what we’ve developed, at least in our tradition, is a kind of welfare system, what many churches call a benevolent fund, where persons can humbly approach the church for a handout in an emergency.
Such persons are usually subjected to a lengthy and invasive process, the church investigating their circumstance and their tithing history and making a decision, often based on whether or not these persons are members and are in good standing (i.e. paying their tithes). Most churches I know tend to look for a reason to deny help to these people, the petitioner being put in a position of having to beg, having to change a “no” to a “yes,” in an invasive and often humiliating sorting of the seeker’s life; grossly humiliating themselves in an effort to overcome the committee’s skepticism. The committee, usually front loaded with people who have the means to address the seeker’s issue right there, in their wallets—I mean, these people could just pass a hat around and it’d be done—then hem and haw and delay and protract and keep the seeker twisting in the wind before coming to some consensus, which usually entails the church barely meeting the seeker’s needs or not meeting those needs at all. For instance, if the seeker needed $200 to keep the lights on, the church might give them $50. This patronizing nonsense is the church “teaching a lesson” to the seeker while actively discouraging the seeker from making a habit of approaching the church.
None of this—absolutely no part of it—is biblical. Our responsibility to those in need is to help them. Period. Unconditionally. Without reservation or condition. Most churches I know might help you once, but they get tired of seeing you come back again and again. Beloved, as the Book of Job teaches us, misery has its own timetable. It is wrong for us to not help someone or continue helping someone just because “we” are tired of hearing their woes. The church needs to make a responsible choice about discerning the motives of those seeking its help [Acts 5], and certainly helping educate and empower people to get out of trouble, but we shouldn’t let people go hungry or freeze or get their water or lights turned off just because they’ve come to us before. It takes as long as it takes. Often, an ongoing situation with a needy member can tax our patience. But, just as often, that situation is a trial both for the seeker and for the church: to teach both to trust God, Who is beyond time and Who never loses patience with us, no matter how long a trial takes.
The shot-callers at most of our churches are usually the folks who have the most money. Folks with money are usually approached to become trustees and board members, people trusted to make sound financial decisions for the ministry. Which sustains a sort of logic to us, to our human understanding, while not having much basis in biblical truth. Church leadership should not be determined by logic or by the rules of the world. It should not be a popularity contest. A young minister shouldn’t be assigned to youth ministry simply because he’s young. A sister shouldn’t be in place over the music ministry simply because she sings well or plays the piano. Church leadership is God’s business and the lesson of I Samuel 16 is that people should be placed in leadership as selected by God, not man. But, in practice, we select our ministry leaders much the same way we make hiring decisions at work. We look over resumes, we run background checks. We audition. But there is usually no allowance made for God’s vote in all of this, in the anointing these candidates have on their lives.
Well-off people should not be given control of church finances simply because they are well-off. In my experience, most church trustees tend to fall into two main categories: (1) people who’ve had money all their lives and therefore have difficulty identifying with average working folk, and (2) people who came into money, accrued money, received some inheritance or death benefit, spoiled wives of well-off husbands, who are now well-off and tend to look down their noses at the needy. In my experience, the church financial officers tend to be among the least spiritual persons at the church. These are people you rarely see at bible study. Rarely see at prayer meeting. Rarely see feeding the homeless, evangelizing, visiting the sick. Usually, these are people who sit in the high places, who are recognized and respected and in some cases feared, but they have trouble finding Acts in the bible, and they bring secular rules of engagement into the church.
Many church trustees tend to be older folk who remember the lean years and who horde resources as a defense against possible drops in income, which misses the point that a church whose income precipitously drops is likely in trouble for other reasons. The mentality of the hoarder is to keep the church doors open at all costs: even if there’s no “church”—no Body of Christ—there. They run the church like a hardware store, but the church is a living organism. If the church suffers a dramatic loss of income, it’s because people are not giving, which means something’s wrong. This is the nature of God’s provision for His church, that the Body of Christ would provide resources for His work. If there is no Body, there’s no need for a building and lights and church vans and all of that, so the hoarder’s mentality is a carnal one. Not that we should be reckless with God’s money, but we should not be so fearful of drought and famine that we actually turn our backs on people in need.
The people running your church’s finances should be people who are anointed by God for that purpose. Many of such people are poor if not dirt poor. Many of those people are struggling, are acquainted with struggle. This is a good thing for two reasons: (1) these people can identify with and comfort people who are struggling, and (2) these people can spot a fraud right away. They don’t need long, drawn-out closed-door meetings. They can tell the scammers from the legit in-need persons because they have been through it. People with full stomachs tend to view the needy as an intellectual exercise because they cannot identify with the circumstances of the seeker. The reason your finance committee needs all of that deliberation is because they either don’t know what it’s like to struggle or it’s been so long that they can no longer identify with the seeker. So they have to close the door and debate what to do.
I’ve never understood the concept of the rich church, the prosperous church. For a church to have two, three, twenty million in the bank is an obscenity. Having a reasonable back-up for your church’s operating budget is both useful and prudent, but some churches have, frankly, obscene amounts of cash in the bank. They also have faithful members scraping by, lights getting cut off, facing eviction. Hungry. There is absolutely no excuse—none—for there to be hungry people in your congregation.
The main problem is us, our thinking. We think the way the church has always thought, and we do what the church has always done—approach the well-off individuals to run the finance ministry. Makes sense, right? Well, a young minister is often a neophyte still struggling with issues that undermine his calling. Just because he’s young doesn’t mean he’s the best candidate for the youth ministry. Just because someone has cash and real estate and bling doesn’t mean they’re anointed by God for the work of the church. Having ungodly people in places of authority within your ministry undermines your claim to Christ and makes a liar of the cross. Turning over hurting people, desperate people, to these unfeeling, haughty, superior, smug folk—who are more concerned with maintaining the church’s bank balance than in doing the Lord’s work—is sin [Matt 10:42, 18:6-10]. You are harming God’s children. You are undermining the cause of Christ, the living word of God and the biblical example. You can’t possibly expect God to breathe on that.
Get A Job
In order for your church to grow, you have to make church growth
about (1) winning souls to Christ and (2) seeing to their needs.
It’s a simple formula. Instead of stealing Sister Betty—who
joins one church after another every three weeks—stop going
after Church Folk and start converting Christians. All the
church growth your church needs is, likely, on the very block upon which
your building is located. The
biblical model for church growth is conversion. Conversion
doesn’t always happen by inviting people to church: you’ve got
to take the church to them. You’ve got to plant the church, not
in a building, but in the hearts and minds of the people. You
have to get the emphasis off of what program and Annual Day is
coming up, and back where it belongs: on the saving power of
Jesus Christ and why it’s vital that we know Him. That message
is lost, so lost, in all of our noise, in all of our planning.
All of our shouting and dancing. In all of our singing. In all
of our chicken frying. We are not talking about Jesus. We are
not offering Christ to anyone. That’s why our church isn’t
You have to want it to grow for the right reasons. Not just because we can get more cash into the bank. You’ve got to let that go. Get a job. Write a grant proposal. Share your facility with another ministry. Solve the cash problem any way you can, but stop letting money run you. Stop letting money run your ministry. Until you do, you’re just kidding yourself about church growth. Trying to lure more people in so you can exploit them is not a goal God will honor.
Christopher J. Priest
3 August 2008