On the Abuse of ‘Giving Texts’ image

On the Abuse of ‘Giving Texts’

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Giving texts - that is, passages in the Bible that urge people to be generous financially - are very common in Scripture, and extremely important. Large sections of the Torah contain instructions about tithes, property and offerings. The prophets repeatedly call Israel and Judah to generosity and sacrifice. Jesus teaches about money more often than almost anything else, especially when calling people to discipleship. The book of Acts contains several stories of extravagant giving, often as a visible demonstration of changed lives. And then there's Paul 'remember the poor' of Tarsus, who writes Philippians to say thank you for a gift, half of 2 Corinthians to get money for Jerusalem, most of Romans to get money for Spain, and talks extensively about finance in 1 Thessalonians and 1 Timothy. Simply put, the scriptures are saturated with exhortations to be generous financially.

But preachers, teachers and elders don’t always handle them that well. In a nutshell, we often take texts that are about some very specific things - usually, giving to support either the leaders of the congregation or the poor - and talk about them as if they encourage financial contributions towards buildings, administration, travel, computers, expenses, and all sorts of staff positions that wouldn’t even have existed in the New Testament period, let alone been the focus of church giving. When we do that, it has two major drawbacks. The first is the more serious: we are mishandling Scripture, and undermining our legitimacy as those who rightly handle the word of truth. The second, which is also very serious, is that when people notice, which biblically literate Jesus-followers will (and should!), we look like secular fundraisers, spin doctors or charlatans to the people we serve. Both are bad.

Before we go any further: yes, I do help lead a church with staff, administration, buildings and other expenses; and yes, I do teach regularly on the importance of giving. I’m not addressing this subject as a monastic despiser of filthy lucre, nor as a disengaged observer. Rather, I’m addressing it as one who cares about the church, cares about the Bible, and has sat in lots of meetings, at a local and translocal level, in which exhortations to give financially have been made from texts which, in their original setting, aimed to raise money for very different causes. For instance:

- Paul urged the Corinthians to honour a commitment they had made to give generously towards the poor in Jerusalem. Therefore we should give generously to central fund X (even if a small fraction of X’s budget is given to the poor).
- Radical disciples like Barnabas sold property, and laid it at the apostles’ feet, to be distributed according to material need. Therefore we should give generously towards building project Y (even if none of Y’s budget is going to be given to needy people in the community).
- Jesus talked about being generous to the poor an awful lot. Therefore we should be generous to church Z, as it employs ten people who all do important things for the kingdom.

In none of these cases is the result (generous giving to a particular church or parachurch) wrong in itself; in many cases it is manifestly right. The problem comes when we conflate the need we have with the need they had, and don’t point out to people what we’ve done.

The process seems to work like this. (1) What we are doing in ministry is good, God-given, God-glorifying and important. (2) We need to raise money to fund it. (3) Here’s a wonderful passage about giving, even if the original context was all about the offering for the poor in Jerusalem. (4) Let’s preach from it to raise money, even if we already know we are not going to be giving most of it to the poor, or even to pay local church elders, but spending a large amount of it on support staff salaries, plane flights, websites, marketing, and who knows what else. Or am I being unfair?

The oddity about this is that the Bible gives examples of God’s people giving to fund all kinds of things, so there’s no need to twist the texts anyway. Obviously, there are the big two - giving to local church leaders (1 Cor 9:14; Gal 6:6; 1 Tim 5:17-18; compare the OT use of tithes to support the priests) and the poor (Acts 4:32-37; 11:27-30; Rom 15:25-27; 2 Cor 8-9; Gal 2:10; 1 Tim 5:3-16; and frequently in the OT and NT). But biblical giving also goes towards buildings (Ex 35; 1 Chr 29), travel expenses (Rom 15:24), travelling missionaries (3 John 5-8), apostolic ministry (1 Cor 9:3-11), and even support staff (1 Cor 16:10-11; Rom 16:1-2 and presumably also 16:22). So even if we were operating on a financial version of the regulative principle (which I’m clearly not), it’s not as if the texts to warrant giving to those things aren’t there. Why, then, the co-opting of texts about the poor? Why not simply explain tithing (OT), then explain generous giving as more-than-tithing (NT), and then address specific needs with specific texts?

My guess is that two factors may be at work here, one rather mundane and the other more challenging. The mundane one is that the key texts on giving to the poor are both more lengthy, and more rhetorically satisfying, than the brief (although important) texts about contributing to international mission or practical support for preachers of the gospel. I could quote some of the verses above on loop, until I was blue in the face, and they wouldn’t have anything like the same heart-level impact as Isaiah 58 or 2 Corinthians 9. (1 Chronicles 29 is an exception: an impassioned and soaring prayer about a building fund). That surely prompts teachers to gravitate towards the more emotive and stirring passages, even if they are not as directly relevant to the issue.

The more challenging factor, if I’m right, is that the New Testament church simply gave a far larger proportion of their income to the poor than most contemporary churches do. I can’t prove that, of course. We don’t have any church accounts from the first century, more’s the pity. But I get the impression from the amount of time Paul talked about it - text-counting can be a perilous metric, but it does sometimes highlight priorities - that giving to the poor and/or overseas mission would have been the single biggest item in the Pauline churches’ annual budgets. I read through the Torah recently and noticed that, besides the sacrificial and festival system (which is no longer in place), God’s people gave almost entirely to two things: the support of the priests and Levites, and the relief of the poor. The New Testament church presents a similar picture: giving to leaders (obviously elders/pastors/teachers now, rather than priests) and giving to the poor (perhaps including mission to those who have never heard the gospel?). Again, I can’t prove it, but it seems to me that a starting point for a New Testament church’s finances would be a straight split between local leadership (50%) and giving to the poor and overseas mission (50%), with extra offerings taken up for buildings. And I’d be willing to bet that the vast majority of Western churches don’t get anywhere near this. Mine certainly doesn’t. (Physician, heal thyself!)

Whatever the reasons, and whatever the ins and outs of the way we set our budgets, perhaps I could just say this. If we are teaching on giving from the scriptures, and we are aiming to raise money for something at the same time, we must be aware of the danger of conflating the biblical appeal with our own, and work hard in our exposition to show the bridge between their instructions (famine relief) and our response (employing a kids worker). Isaiah and Paul may have been talking about the same thing as we are - and if our offering is for the poor, then they almost certainly were - but they may not have been, and if not, then it may be tempting to skim over the differences in the interests of fundraising. In other words, beware that the pursuit of finances can lead unwary pastors into bungled hermeneutics, and it shouldn’t. Not on our watch.

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