This post was part of this series but was also in response to a question from my friend Mike Lang who writes:
Hey Kevin, Bonnie just showed me your blog. You are a good writer and you are honest. I will be reading this “series” you are starting on… and I got an idea for you to look into. I am just finishing up a little certificate program on Not-for-Profit (Charity) Management and it has me wondering lately, do we “fund raise” and run our churches like non-profit businesses? The two seem eerily similar to me after taking these courses and it has me a little concerned…
Anyway, I’d like to hear a little more in depth what the Bible has to say about how a church should be run (financially… but what ever you think is relevant) and I thought it might be interesting for you to write about. Plus you are smarter then me so I think I’ll let you do all hard work… 🙂 Looking forward to reading some of your stuff,
Mikey, thanks for the kind words and the encouragement.
I think you really hit the nail on the head. In my experience most Churches approach finances like a non-profit. The Church does something that requires money and then raises this money through a tithe. This sounds very similar to a non-profit that doe something, which costs money, and then makes that money through donations. While this does not inherently raise cause for alarm I think we should think a lot more about our relationship to money and how finances work in the Church.
In my experience the Church makes decisions about how to “do” Sunday services and be a Church. This involves choices about lighting, nurseries, staffing, electricity, etc. etc. These choices dictate the Churches costs. These costs are then put on the congregants with most churches expecting 10% of the income of their congregants. There are some Churches that incur little to no costs and there are some Churches whose annual electricity bill is more than most pastors make in a year.
To be clear on what I am saying all Churches make decisions that dictate how much money they must make which they usually cover from “taxing” their congregants 10%.
But what does the Bible have to say about this?
From a broad perspective, in my reading of the scriptures the Bible says actually very little on how a Church “should” be run. And maybe that’s the point. We are the Body of Christ who are to meet regularly to encourage one another in the faith, practice the sacraments (communion, baptism, etc.), bear witness to Christ in this world and devote ourselves to the teaching of Jesus and the apostles. These are incredibly broad brush strokes where there is great freedom. For example, is there anywhere in scripture that suggests Churches should meet together on Sundays or only on Sundays? Is there a size limit to what we can call a local congregation? What language should the mass/service be in? Wait, why do we even have an official mass/service anyway? Can we use electric instruments? Is baptism by full-immersion or sprinkling? Do we need a nursery? How often should we take communion? Weekly? Bi-weekly? Bi-annually?
These are all good questions to ask and historically the Church has provided different answers to these questions from their own traditions. I think God left the guidelines for the “how-to’s” of Church intentionally broad to allow for many Christians throughout time, from vastly different cultures, to be a Body of Christ for Him in their context that was both faithful and relevant. There is freedom in the nuances of many things the Church does so that the Church can represent Christ in a variety of contexts. To use a question about worship to illustrate my point… If a Church uses Christian hip-hop sung in English over a bumping sound system in their worship is this more or less valid than hymns sung in Chinese in the basement of a house in persecuted China?
If God had locked down the particulars of the Body of Christ more, it would have inevitably caused problems. Can you imagine the persecuted Church in China being told that the only worship God accepted was Gospel hip-hop, sung in English, through a sound system? Sadly, this is what many Churches have done. Many claim their model for dealing with one aspect of Church life is the one true “biblical” way and in doing so set up a new Law that the New Testament does not support and is incredibly problematic.
I fear that anything I have to say on this issue might be doing just that. However, I believe that the Bible is not silent on money or how the Church should approach finances. A powerful aspect of the early Church was that it practiced a radical approach to money and finances…
The Fellowship of the Believers
42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
I think there is a very serious argument from scriptures that there is one biblical way to approach finances in the Church and it is to have our possession in common and take care of each others needs equally. How many Churches today come in any way close to resembling this? The vast majority of Churches, especially Churches in the West, have rejected this Biblical precedent entirely.
We can, and do, produce a variety of excuses for why we do not approach finances like this in the Church today. We say such a precedent was for “back then” and not for today. We suggest that our money is just that…our money, that we earned through our work, and is ours to do as we wish. We say it would not work practically today.
This scripture was not for “back then” as there is no caveat in the Bible that suggest such a thing. Tertullian writes that “we have everything in common but our wives…” apparently he and his fellow Christians still took this seriously and he was not a member of the Acts Church. Far more importantly is the attitude towards money we should have as Christians. Our money is not our money. Luther writes centuries later scolding Swabian peasants for thinking that their money was their money, to do as they wish. The Bible teaches that the whole world (including our finances) belong to God. Our jobs, our ability to work said jobs, the educational opportunities needed to get to that job, were all given by God. It’s all His. God does not invite you to give 10% of you salary to Him – everything you have is God’s and it is yours to steward, not yours to do with it whatever you wish. While it might not be practical today, do we honestly think it was practical for the early Church? Do we think they hated money or did not need it like we do? Do we think that practicality should stop us?
The bottom line is that such a financial approach is offensive and inconcievable to many Christians because we are far more loyal to the values taught to us by Western Capitalism. We have been taught we deserve the money we make and it is our money. We are also taught that people earn their money from their hard work. If a doctor and a janitor both give their salaries to the Church and are taken care of equally this violates our notion that the doctor deserves more money, more comfort, and more material happiness than the janitor because of his status in society.
I admit fully that this is a difficult teaching for me to follow as well. I live in an intentional community where we try to do four meals a week together where we all pool our money and have meals in common. Even in this small thing I can find fault, ways to complain, and am concerned that my $3.50 per meal is really getting my money’s worth. I am way more conformed to the pattern of this world than I would like to admit.
Ultimately, such an approach is not practical because it is so counter-cultural but this does not mean it is impossible or we shouldn’t do it. When we attempt it, beautiful things happen. One Church provided for the sudden medical expenses of their pastor. After he was through his medical fiasco he suggested, “If we can do it for me, we can do it for everyone.” The church has subsequently banded together to provide for the medical costs of its own members. Some Churches have taken on the task of getting its members out of debt and teaching financial stewardship. The debt of some members are being taken care of by the money from other members.
The status quo is to provide a service experience to the congregants, and then charge the congregants 10% of their salaries for this service. The biblical precedent involves no Sunday service but does involve everyone’s needs being taken care of. It seems we are interested in financially supporting the wrong thing…