GERALD COWAN’S PERSONAL PERIODICALS
Number 582 • November 10, 2020
PROPER USE OF THE CHURCH’S MONEY AND RESOURCES
A question that has resurfaced frequently in the past several decades – is probably as old as the church itself – concerns what is the church’s money, God’s money, or the “church treasury” – and how it can be used “scripturally.” That last word scripturally is particularly difficult because the scripture says little to nothing about the use of general funds entrusted to the church. The funds collected by Paul and Barnabas for famine-stressed Christians in Judea were sent and delivered to the elders of the church in Jerusalem (Acts 11:27-30).
Contributions received from among churches Paul visited were also delivered to Jerusalem, ostensibly to the elders there. From this it may be surmised that the elders are the overseers of the church’s finances as well as its spiritual concerns. Hebrews 13:7 and 17 say the elders will give an account (to God) for the souls under their watch and care. Titus 1:9-11 says they must be able and effective in guarding the congregation from false teachers within as well as those who from outside it who may allowed to speak to it – they are in fact guardians of the pulpit and the curriculum presented by teachers. But though some elders seem to think they are appointed to be guardians and managers of the exchequer there is no such direct stipulation in scripture. It is not even necessarily implied that they must give an account, either explanation or justification to the congregation which appoints them to service such mundane matters as budgeted finances, use and care of buildings and grounds – or even the purchase and ownership or rental of such facilities. This is not to say that such an accounting is not a good thing, or that the congregation has no right or need to know how its contributions are used and spent. An account of planned use and actual use of the church’s finances would go far toward establishing confidence in the probity and stewardship of the elders, but it would not reveal the probity and stewardship of the members of the church – nor is such an accounting by the elders required. It is stipulated that elders will account to God for the souls under their care. It is not stipulated that they will give an account to God for the use of money placed under their care. Elders are not contribution-gatherers, coin-collectors or budget-watchers – equivalent to tax-collectors, the publicans whom Jews routinely despised? – but as under-shepherds to the Chief Shepherd Jesus Christ (1 Peter 5:1-4) were to see to the spiritual, moral, and social health of the local segment of the flock belonging to Him.
We will offer here an important note about the meaning and application of Paul’s directions about special contributions (1 Corinthians 16:1-5 and 2 Corinthians 8:1-7, 9:1-7). Proper exegesis requires determining not only to whom he is speaking but about what he is speaking. His subject here is not about giving to the church or even proper use by the church of contributions received. Though perhaps applicable in principle these instructions do not indicate the collection and use of general contributions or funds of any local congregation. These references may indicate that the standard giving of church members was and is to be on the first day of the week – kata mian sabbatou – on or literally according to the first of the week (as often and each time the first day of the week occurs). I can’t recall ever hearing a sermon about proper giving that did not use 1 Cor 16:1-2 and 2 Cor. 9:5-10 in this way – but it is extrapolated from what Paul is actually saying. The fact is, Paul’s instructions here to “lay by in store” or “set aside and place in reserve” are applied directly to the special contributions designated and marked for his particular fund which were to be separated and set aside from other contributions, to be ready whenever he arrived there and would not have to wait for special collections to be made at that time. This is not necessarily or even certainly a recommendation for setting aside your planned contribution during the week and then delivering it to the church on the first day of the week at an assembly appointed for receiving it. This “plan ahead and set it aside so you’ll be sure to have for Sunday’s collection,” or the “take it off the top before you spend it on other things” often emphasized by churches is actually reading into the passage something that is not actually stipulated there. Some are so sure that the Sunday assembly is the only designated time for receiving contributions that they will not “take up/receive contributions” at any other time. There may be some gnats and camels involved in this, just as there are in what to do with the gifts that do come in “at the appointed time.” Incidentally, churches that resist or disallow special contributions marked and designated by the givers – such as for missions, for specified needed equipment, or funding for a special program – must deliberately ignore the context and primary meaning of Paul’s instructions about giving in both of the references in Corinthians mentioned already. This is a good point at which to return to and address the question implied in the title and opening words of this essay, that is, about the appropriate use of church funds or “the Lord’s money” in the “church treasury.”
The temple of the Jews maintained a treasury (Mark 12:41, John 8:20). I suppose it may be fair to suggest that the congregation should have a treasury and treasurers to guard it and account for it. But speaking of the church treasury, including bank accounts, savings accounts, properties and commercial investments – thus differentiating rich churches from poor churches in the same way we separate rich persons and poor persons – can be disingenuous and hazardous. Actually, all corporate funds of the congregation may be designated as “God’s money,” not the church’s money, because it was given to God for His purposes and His glory, not to the church for its glory. This is another important point: we do not just “give to the church” or give to some church program or give to the poor and needy, etc. These may be the immediate recipients of our gifts but the ultimate receiver of our gifts and our works is the Lord himself. What we give to the church or to the needy and what we lay by in store for ourselves is ultimately given to God. We give to God through the church, through certain programs or works, etc. If we considered any and all our appropriate giving as giving to God it would probably enhance our sense of stewardship and our accountability as givers. Proper givers will not give to nor provide support for improper works or inappropriate receivers. I know that statement begs an answer as to who is a worthy recipient or what works and activities can be approved. At some other time we will address the question in the context of the Lord’s instructions to give to those who ask and do not refuse them or turn away from them (Matt. 5:42, Luke 6:30).
If money is earmarked by the giver that desire should be honored – and such designations should be allowed, assuming of course that they are appropriate works within the mission and purpose of the church – not the mission plan or purpose statement formulated by the church itself but rather that which can be gleaned from the scripture: the scriptural mission and purpose and works of the church. We must also, at some time talk about the true mission and purpose of the church. Contributions made to the church’s general fund are within the purview of designated or acknowledged overseers/leaders/elders, if any men are qualified to serve in that position (1 Timothy 3:1-7, Titus 1:5-9).
It is an insult to God and a disgrace to His people that His church is considered a “business,” owned and operated for the personal gain of some self-appointed Executive Officer (both Catholic and denominational “pastors” are a human invention, not God’s appointment). What should be considered as “God’s money,” or at least “the church’s money and resources,” is treated as personal property riches. It is a travesty when the success of a church or a minister is measured in terms of money, property, prestige, and number of contributing adherents. One who “plays with God’s money” is a disgrace to the ministry and a denigration of Christ and His gospel. Not only elders, ministers, evangelists, and missionaries but all workers, all Christians, all church members are stewards of what God, to Whom everything belongs, has entrusted to them to be used for Him – individually as well as corporately. It is not “our church,” it is the Lord’s church. He purchased it by the sacrifice of his own blood, his life (Acts 20:28). It is not our money, it is the Lord’s money; it is not our works but the Lord’s works – the “work of the church.” Even we ourselves, individually and personally, are not our own; we have been bought with that same blood that purchased the church and we belong to him who paid that price for us (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).
At another time we will consider what constitutes the works of the church, the works of God which the church and all Christians should be doing, how they are done, and what resources can be applied to the doing – something we often profess in singing, that we want to be doing:
“I want to be a worker for the Lord … I will work, I will pray, I will labor every day in the kingdom of the Lord.”