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Now about the collection for God's people: Do what I told the Galatian churches to do. 2 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. 3 Then, when I arrive, I will give letters of introduction to the men you approve and send them with your gift to Jerusalem. 4 If it seems advisable for me to go also, they will accompany me. — I Corinthians 16

The Flat Tax

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 behave like corporations, many of which seem to make a game out of how much cash they can hoard. As the country struggles through its current crisis, oil companies hoard billions. Apple Computer has three-quarters of a trillion dollars in cash in the  bank. Why? Nobody is hiring, all these huge corporations waiting on the sidelines for signs of economic recovery while remaining unwilling to actually help foster it. This is the model many of our churches follow, hoarding cash perhaps for the bragging rights of how much loot they've got in the bank, while faithful members suffer, scraping by, lights getting cut off, facing eviction. Hungry. And we guilt-trip and browbeat these struggling folk to pay their tithes. If they'd been paying their tithes, we ignorantly assert, they wouldn't be in this mess. I've been in churches where the pastor routinely asserts people struggling financially are cursed, citing Malachi 3:10. They brought this misery on themselves and the church cannot constantly come to their rescue. Pay your tithes, even if that means your kids go hungry. Pay your tithes, even if that means you get evicted or you have no heat. And don't come to us for help. The first thing many of these churches do, when a seeker comes to them for help,. is look to see if they've been paying their tithes. We'll help you if you've been helping us. We believe this is biblical. We believe this is Christlike. It is neither. Jesus never once checked the books before helping someone. And there is no record of His refusing to help someone in need. Who does the pastor take out to dinner after church? Routinely, his inner circle. The shot callers. The struggling family goes home and makes do. There is absolutely no excuse—none—for there to be hungry people in your congregation.

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, Who is described as, "a priest forever," [Hebrews 7] 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.

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 by that giving. But it doesn’t hurt him. It may inconvenience him at times, but living on 90% of $125 thousand is still fairly easy to do. But 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 divisions 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. You see, it's not about equal giving but equal sacrifice. 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 his income, he’d leave the church. But that is, in fact, 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, just the 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. But, until the well-off people in your church are, in fact giving 70, 80% of their income in tithes, these people should stop looking down their noses at the single moms turning in 20, $50. These moms are sacrificing far more than the snooty, self-serving folk your pastor routinely caters to and puts in charge of things.

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 (see following). 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 is respected, lavished with attention, gets in to see the pastor at will, 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. But, 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 suffering 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.

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 few of those who do trust the church, as an institution, 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 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 aggressively look for a reason to deny help to these people, the petitioner therefore being put in a position of having to beg, having to change a “no” to a “yes” in an invasive and often humiliating sorting through 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 to not 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 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. This 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 seniority, or even by academic scholarship. 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 placed in leadership must be selected by God, not man. But, in practice, we select our ministry leaders much the same way children choose team mates for games. Who owns the ball. Who do we like. Who can get us a cookie. 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 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’d 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 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 (see sidebar).

The people running your church’s finances should be people who are anointed by God for that purpose. Many such people are poor if not dirt poor. Many such 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. The reason your finance committee needs all of that deliberation over whether or not to help someone in need 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.

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.

Christopher J. Priest
18 September 2011

Essentials 2011   Tribalism   Eddie Long   Invisible Man   Just Us   bin Laden   Barack Obama   The GOP   Doug Lamborn   1,000 Days   The Youth   TITHING   Economic Crisis