Saturday, May 06, 2006

The Church is not a business

In the stern tones of a bill collector, the letters sent to nearly half the members of the Holy Tabernacle Church of God in Christ Apostolic offered its members a worldly choice: Pay up or get kicked out.

Alfreda Moore, the church's executive secretary, had written to more than 200 congregrants, including the widow and six grown children of the church's founder, telling them they were late in paying tithes to the church. She warned members that they had 30 days to straighten out their accounts and make payments by check or money order.

"Please be advised," her letter begins, "that you are in default in the payment of tithes to the Holy Tabernacle Church of God in Christ Inc., for a period in excess of 90 days." If the money isn't paid, the letter warns, "all privileges of membership in the Church will be immediately suspended..."

We've all heard it. Possibly in thundering tones over a pounded pulpit, less likely in our reading voice as our eyes scanned a letter printed on expensive church letterhead. We've all been told "the tithe belongs to the local church" and that if you're not giving 10% of your income to your local body, you're robbing God. And of course, it is a logical conclusion that if you're robbing God, then you're sinning, and if you're sinning you don't belong in the body of Christ. Therefore while the cost of your "privilege of membership" may never come with a 30-day past due notice, it somehow becomes the church's duty to make sure you pay up.

What rubbish. What absolute stinking demonic rubbish.

There are two problems with the letter above, the lesser of which is the idea of the tithe itself. The tithe was a law in ancient Israel established for the support of one of the twelve tribes (the Levites) who did not receive land of their own upon entry to the promised land, but who instead served the Israelite national religion as keeper of the temple and rituals.

When Malachi wrote (3:10) that the Israelites were to "Bring your tithes into the store-house so that there may be food in my house" he was not speaking some code words or using symbolism, he was speaking of a literal storehouse that the Jewish nations had established for the religious leadership, who literally relied on the national religious tax because they - on God's orders - had no property of their own. Does that storehouse exist today? No. Does the church have a replacement storehouse somewhere? No, it doesn't. Does the law even apply to Christians? No, it does not. The church is different. And it should always be different.

When Paul took up a collection from the church, he said the following:
Now concerning the collection for the saints, you should do the same as I instructed the churches of Galatia: on the first day of the week, let every one of you set something aside as God has prospered you, so that there should be no collections when I come. And when I come, I will send someone approved by you to bring your gift to Jerusalem.
-- 1Cor 16:1-3
Why Jerusalem? Isn't that where the Great Christian Storehouse is? Nope, that's where many poor Christians were suffering due to a Middle Eastern drought and needed the help of other Christians. In other words, the collection didn't go to the local church to buy a new bus, but to the poor.

There are similarities between Christian giving and the Israelite tithe, without a doubt. Both are proportional (as God has prospered you) meaning that the rich ought to give more than the poor. Both were meant to help the less fortunate (Deu 14:29). So what's the diff? Can't we just set the price at 10% and call it a day?

Not so fast. Paul returns to the offering in his next letter to the Corinthians:
But this I say: the man who plants sparingly will harvest sparingly; and he who plants bountifully will harvest bountifully. As each man proposes in his own heart let him give; not grudgingly or of necessity, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound toward you so you may be sufficient in all things... --2Cor 9:6-8
Let each man give 10%, pre-tax including his 401(k) employer match? No, let each man give as he proposes in his own heart, knowing that God will reward those who give a lot and that God wants us to give cheerfully. We are not to give because of law, but because of love. We are not to give out of necessity but because God has blessed us and wants us to learn to play well with others.

There is, in fact, a completely opposite approach between Israel's tithe and Christian giving. The tithe was compulsion, the tithe was law. Christian giving is voluntary, it is from the heart, and no one can tell you or compel you to give.

So, El B, how much is enough? Don't ask me, look in your heart, trusting that God will bless you in proportion to how you bless others. How much blessing do you want? And since most of us fear to give because we trust in our money, how much are you willing to believe God can replace it?

So that's the small problem with the letter above: it turns freedom into slavery and love into law. But the big problem is that it turns the church into some kind of a divine collection agency. But the church is not a business. Say it again, this time with heart: the church is not a business.

The church may have assets and liabilities like a business. It has costs and responsibilities, income and property. But the purpose of a business is to make money, the purpose of the church is to make disciples. The two should never, ever, ever be confused. And the words and spirit of the letter above conflate the two in a most hellish manner.

I ought to clarify that the *modern* church has costs and property like a business. The original church did not. No buildings, no buses, no camps, no bells, no parking lots or sewer pipes or choir robes. It met in people's homes. It sent freely-given offerings to the poor. It preached the Gospel. It did what the church is supposed to do.

Now, does that mean that we should not have a nice building? No, it doesn't. But it does mean that we ought to do everything with the end goal in mind: reaching people for Jesus Christ, helping the poor, serving one another. And we should do it voluntarily, because Christ asks us to do that. He does not ask us to build kingdoms, but to populate the one He has already built.

I personally think it's a collosal waste of money to build gymnasiums that are used - for the glory of God, I suppose - one night a week. But that's fine. Each of us must use the money given in the way we think best, just as we ought to give the way (and to whom) we think best.

But as soon as we turn the church into a business, as soon as we attach to Christ's body the hands of a bill collector, we have lost our way. We serve money rather than Jesus, because no man can serve two masters.

And like everyone else, when God sets the accounts square, we'll get the reward we've earned.

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