For decades there have been countless church arguments and even splits over how “the Lord’s money” can and cannot be spent. But what if we’ve been working from some flawed assumptions? We typically assume that putting money in the collection plate is giving money “to God” and we assume the church’s bank account is a treasury of sacred funds belonging to the Lord. But are these biblical assumptions?
To Whom are We Giving?
I’ve always assumed that when the collection plate is passed on Sunday mornings that we are giving our money to God. In fact, I used to tell my children on Saturday evenings to set aside the money they would “give to God” the next morning. That’s actually a habit I am trying to break.
I’m trying to break that habit for a couple of reasons. The first is that it is inconsistent with the idea that God already owns all of our possessions. When we became followers of Jesus, we renounced all that we owned (Luke 14:33). Because of his mercies, we have given our whole selves to the Lord (Romans 12:1-2). We give money on Sundays not because we’re giving some of our money to the Lord, but because we’ve given our whole selves to him already (2 Corinthians 8:5)
But if we are not giving to God, when we put money in the collection plate, to whom are we giving? When we look at the examples of giving in the New Testament, it seems they were giving to “one another.” They were giving to support the poor, the elderly, and the spreading of the gospel.
To Whom Does the Church Treasury Belong?
The early church seems to have believed the collected funds were the shared property of the Christian community.
Acts 2:44-45 says:
And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.
And in Acts 4:32-35 it says:
Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.
The church is supposed to be a community where everyone believes, “mi casa es su casa” and when we give, we are simply proving the genuineness of our love for one another (2 Corinthians 8:8). The church leaders oversee the funds and distribute them to the people, ministries, and good works where they are needed. But the funds are simply the common property of the church community.
I know of no passage in the New Testament that justifies us treating the collected funds as some sort of sacred treasury. Should the church be good stewards of collected funds? Obviously so, but no more than you and I should be good stewards of the funds in our personal accounts. It all belongs to the Lord and we should be good stewards of whatever is entrusted to us.
What Are the Rules for Spending Church Money?
And there’s the rub, “How can church funds be spent?” This is where we have massive disagreements in the church. But it seems to me our disagreements are completely unnecessary when we read Scripture contextually.
Some will point to a passage like 1 Timothy 5:9-10, where Paul gives Timothy instructions about supporting widows, to prove there are strict rules for how church funds can and cannot be spent. However, a close look at 1 Timothy 5 will reveal that it is not really about rules for how church money is spent but about protecting people (specifically young widows) from “toxic charity.” In other words, it’s not about protecting church funds from unauthorized spending, but about protecting church people from becoming spiritually unhealthy (see also 2 Thessalonians 3:10-12).
The church is nothing more than a gathering, or a community, of individual Christians. The New Testament never lays out one set of rules for individual Christians and a different set for the community as a whole. The money that belongs to the community no more belongs to the Lord than the money that belongs to individual Christians. The same principles that govern how you spend the money in your wallet are the same rules that govern how church leaders oversee the spending of church funds.
It seems to me we need to stop being so critical about financial decisions church leaders make. We need to realize there is as much freedom for church leaders to spend shared money on good works they believe glorify God as there is for you and me to spend personal money on good works we believe glorify God.
We especially need to stop splitting churches over how funds are spent. The New Testament says little to nothing on this issue, but it says so much about love, unity, and peace within the church. The world will not recognize you as followers of Jesus because of your congregation’s frugality but because of your love for one another.
When we put money in the collection plate we are doing it to honor God and in response to God’s love for us. In this way, you can certainly say we are worshiping when we give. But we are doing it because we have already given everything to him, because we are part of something bigger than ourselves, and because we belong to our church family and our church family belongs to us.
I love you and God loves you,