Beyond Voluntary Giving

by | Dec 1, 2016 | Reflections Blog | 0 comments

Last month’s column generated an animated conversation among the e-News editorial board. We agreed that our first fruits belong to God (see my October column). But in November I argued that, according to Scripture, those first fruits belonged to God through the structures of worship. In Israel’s time, that meant the Temple system; in our time, the church. Not everyone agreed.

Our discussion gradually turned toward, “Why should someone give to the Presbytery? Is it an obligation or an option?” Thus were born the twin columns: “Farfegnugen” and “Why First-Fruits Giving is Good for Your Soul and the Church.” They captured two sides of why we might give to the Presbytery.

I want to be clear, however, that my column last month was not fundamentally about giving to the Presbytery. It was fundamentally about Scripture’s expectation that our first fruits will go to ecclesiastical structures. In many cases, that will mean the local congregation.

Now, if a sound Scriptural warrant has been established, it should not require a separate explanation.[1] But I do think that we might better grasp the Bible’s understanding of the church if we contrast it with that of American society.

The Church in the Bible and in American Society

titheMuch of the church in the United States treats financial giving in the same way as the surrounding society. For most Americans, “charitable contributions” encompass all giving. Such contributions are autonomous and voluntary. Contributors give as they see fit.

By contrast, Scripture offers three categories of giving: tithes, offerings, and alms. For offerings and alms, givers could do as they saw fit. They could not choose to abandon such giving altogether, but they could choose where that giving went.

Not so with tithes. Those belonged exclusively to God through the Temple system. To withhold the tithe amounted to theft (see Malachi 3:8-12). And the expectation that God’s people would tithe did not change from the Old Testament to the New (see Matthew 23:23).

Why should the involuntary nature of the tithe matter? Because where the church is involuntary, it is sanctifying. When we join—and stay—in covenant relationship with people we have not chosen, those relationships gradually force us out of our self-centeredness.

Our relationship with money is one aspect of that purifying process. To give in response to a command rather than an impulse, and to give to a recipient we do not choose, is to allow God’s people to shape us for our own growth.

But voluntary, autonomous financial giving (and withholding) has paralleled American participation in the church. American Protestantism is the story of growing choice in the life of faith, with the lamentable loss of the church’s sanctifying influence. Parachurch organizations (originally called “voluntary societies”) arose in the nineteenth century over against denominational structures as wealthy laypeople sought to exercise greater control over the charitable use of their money.[2]

Carried to its logical end, a religion of choice gives way to the spiritual-but-not-religious individualism that answers to the self first. When we dislike something, we simply move on. When we disapprove of the church’s stewardship, we withhold our giving.

But What About Unfaithful Leaders?


The prophet, Malachi, in a mosaic, St Marks Basilica

“Hold on, Forrest,” you might be thinking. “We’ve all heard of pastors and churches that are financially unfaithful. Does bad stewardship deserve my gifts?”

This question should come as no surprise. Organizational mistrust is a key reason why Christians don’t give more of their money to the church.[3] But if we are trying to develop a Biblical ethic of giving, should organizational mistrust matter? The story of Eli’s sons suggests otherwise.

Eli and his sons Phineas and Hophni were priests at Shiloh where Samuel’s mother Hannah cried out to God.[4] Samuel’s call and development is a familiar story.[5] But that story is interwoven with the faithlessness of Eli’s sons and the eventual downfall of his whole family.[6]

If any priest has ever broken faith with the people of God, Eli’s sons had.[7] Yet nowhere did God suggest the people withhold or redirect their gifts until a better priest came along. God’s justice will come upon the unfaithful priests. Faithfulness calls the people to continue to give, trusting that God will remove those priests in due time.

Perhaps this is most clear in Malachi. Malachi condemns the priests for offering “polluted food” (blemished animals) “on my altar” (1:7). But soon after, he condemns the “children of Jacob” for withholding the “full tithe” (3:6, 10). The priests’ disrespect for God does not justify the peoples’ lack of giving.

Why should this be so? Perhaps it is connected to the value of giving up our individual choice for the sake of a church community. If our first-fruits-giving to ecclesiastical structures is for our personal sanctification, then the faithfulness of our leaders (or the denomination) does not matter. Continuing to give becomes an act of conscience, for it positions us to trust God to straighten things out.

I do not endorse all the ways that past General Assemblies have allocated the Church’s per capita spending. I expect that few of you would grant whole-cloth approval if you reviewed all their expenses. But that is beside the point. It does not belong to us to sit in judgment upon those allocations. To the extent that the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s dross must be consumed and its gold refined, God will do the consuming and refining in good time.

But to withhold or redirect your obligatory giving from your place of membership, whether it be a congregation or a presbytery or even a denomination, because you object to its actions—or worse, in hopes of exerting pressure upon it—to do that is to set your individual judgment over against the specific church community that God has given to you for your redemption. And that is a precarious position indeed.

Somewhere along the Way—


[1] What I mean is: if we look outside the Bible to justify or explain its claims on our lives, then we allow some other standard to sit in judgment over Scripture. But to unpack this statement would obviously require a much longer conversation. For now, I don’t have space. And you probably don’t have time.

[2] Williston Walker and Richard A. Norris, David W. Lotz, Robert T. Handy, A History of the Christian Church, 4th Edition (New York: Scribner, 1985), p. 654.

“Voluntary societies…Their membership and their directorates were overlapping, so that they formed what has been called a ‘benevolent empire.’ Control was largely in the hands of a group of wealthy laymen, predominantly Presbyterian or Congregational, among whom the brothers Arthur Tappan (1786-1865) and Lewis Tappan (1788-1873) were central. These men recognized [Charles] Finney’s power, enlisted him in their causes, and when ill health necessitated the curtailment of his travels, had him called to a New York pastorate.”

Primary documents that spell out the argument can also be found in: Maurice W. Armstrong, Lefferts A. Loetscher, and Charles A. Anderson, Eds., The Presbyterian Enterprise: Sources of American Presbyterian History (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1955). Documents include (a) arguments from the “pro-society” wing arguing that corruption and irresponsibility within the denominational structures required a new way of doing missions and (b) arguments from the “pro-denomination” wing arguing that the societal boards undercut the presbyteries’ ability to govern on behalf of the Church.

[3] Smith and Emerson with Snell, Passing the Plate: Why American Christians Don’t Give Away More Money (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 97.

[4] I Samuel 1:1-2:11.

[5] I Samuel 2:18-21, 26; 3:1-4:1a.

[6] I Samuel 2:12-17, 22-25, 27-36; 4:1b-22.

[7] Phineas and Hophni were “scoundrels” (1 Sam. 2:12) who “treated the offerings of the LORD with contempt” (2:17). They kept the “choicest parts of every offering” (2:29) for themselves. And “they lay with the women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting” (2:22). In other words, the kind of behavior that forces our presbyteries to write policies and form Permanent Judicial Commissions.