We may donate our second and third fruits where and how we please, but our first fruits belong to the church. More particularly, they belong to our congregations, our presbyteries, or our denomination.
How have I reached that conclusion?
Last month I observed that first-fruit giving defies our rational expectations. When we give away more, we do not have less. Instead, we flourish. I can attest to that in my own life and in the congregations I have served. But once we have acknowledged that our first fruits belong to God, to whom shall we direct payment?
If you’ve been in a Presbyterian church for very long, you have probably experienced typological thinking (though maybe not by that name). This practice reads certain parts of the Hebrew Bible as having analogues in the Church. Circumcision is a type for baptism. Same with Passover and the Lord’s Supper.
In the same way, the Temple system of Israel is a type of the visible structure of Christ’s body. God in Christ is present to us when we gather in Christ’s name (Matt. 18:20). So if the Israelites’ first fruits belonged to the Temple (Malachi 3:10), then ours belong to the Church.
But by “Church” I mean the physically gathered Church. Yes, the spiritual Body of Christ draws together believers across space and time. But we live out that spiritual reality alongside others in a decidedly local, flesh-and-bone way.
What’s more, the life of faith finds its most complete expression in face-to-face relationships with fellow disciples whom we do not choose for ourselves. In those relationships, we yield up our natural desire for control and autonomy in order to commit ourselves to others. In return, we grow in humility, wisdom and grace. For Christians, this is the new Temple.
Our first contributions belong to these communities. We give to the human gathering called church because God is present there. We give to God.
If you are a church member, what I have said leads to a fairly straightforward conclusion. Your church community is the local congregation. The first of your giving belongs to your church—not to World Vision or NPR or your alma mater. To them you may give freely, but the first share belongs to the physically gathered Church.
But just as church members are bound together, so pastors and churches within a presbytery are members of one another. So for Presbyterian pastors and churches, it seems right that the presbytery becomes the recipient.
A governing council is not just an administrative body, after all. It is part of the wider structure of the new Temple. Like a congregation, the presbytery is a geographically defined, flesh-and-bone gathering of believers. And like a congregation, we do not choose it ourselves. God calls us together into it.
I may be preaching to the choir, of course. After all, the fact that you have read this far shows a good share of devotion to Los Ranchos. Perhaps that devotion includes caring about how it continues to fund itself.
But I am often surprised at the limited number of Presbyterians who have given serious thought to how a presbytery’s work is paid for. And I have been party to even fewer conversations about why. Too often in my experience we never get past thinking of a presbytery as just another non-profit organization, to whom we may give and from whom we may withhold as we see fit.
Of course, if we do owe our first fruits to the structures of the Church, that fact raises still more questions. How much does Scripture expect us to give to the church or presbytery? What if my church or presbytery has mishandled my gifts? When I give, where does the money go?
Those questions matter and I will seek to address them in upcoming columns. But questions of application matter as well. So as I have done before, I leave you with some of your own:
For congregants: How do you decide who should benefit from your gifts? Who are the regular recipients of what the IRS calls your “charitable donations”? Do you make a distinction between “first fruits” and your voluntary contributions? If so, how?
For pastors: How have you helped your congregants grapple with Scripture’s teaching about giving? How have you yourselves grappled with the Scriptures? How have your “financial spiritual disciplines” changed and grown over the years? How does being a member of a presbytery affect your thinking about first-fruits giving?
For Sessions: What conversations does this column trigger for you? Does your congregation give its first fruits to the Presbytery? If not, what would it mean for you to begin doing so? How do you imagine it might affect the life of your church?
As usual, I welcome your thoughts.
Somewhere along the Way—
See related article: “Farfegnugen“