When we give offerings at church, who are we giving them to? Practically speaking we are giving them to a legal entity (a local church) which then pools what is “offered” to pay for rent, wages, and other expenses. But the fact we use the term “offering” and not just “donation” should remind us that there is a spiritual dimension going on, even if the secular world cannot see it.
In The Command to Freely Give, it was established that:
- Jesus commanded free giving in the context of ministry
- Paul endorsed financial support for ministry, not commerce
- Paul modelled free giving himself
We’ll now consider how supporting ministry works at a spiritual level to better understand the importance of the free giving ethic.
Offerings to God
The donating of money at church is rightly called an “offering” because it emphasises the person the money is being offered to, and it is not the pastor or the church. Let’s see how Paul described money he received from the church in Philippi:
Paul starts off describing how he himself has received support but then moves to describing it as “a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, very pleasing to God”. While Paul received it in practical terms, it was actually God who received it spiritually speaking. Supporting Paul in his ministry was one of the ways the Philippian Christians lived out their obligation to worship God.
We’ll represent this obligation via a diagram that will become more meaningful later:
Provision from God
There is another spiritual dimension to financial support of ministry and that is God’s provision. While Paul was provided for by other believers at a practical level, it wasn’t them that did the providing spiritually. We have already looked at Jesus’ command to “freely give” (Matt 10:8), but what we haven’t looked at is his instruction on provision which immediately follows it:
As we can see, freely giving and being financially supported goes hand-in-hand without conflict. But who is doing the providing here? And who is the employer of the worker? Do the towns people employ the worker? Obviously not. They will stay with them for some days and move on to the next town. The immediate context of the passage is key to understanding this:
God is the employer and it is he who provides for his workers, which he often does through other believers. Let’s add this insight to our diagram:
In accordance with the free giving ethic, the minister will never charge for service and the offering is voluntary. Those who financially support the minister may be recipients of the service or may not be. For example, members of a congregation would be recipients of the ministry they fund, where as those supporting missionaries would not be.
We have now completed the picture of the biblical model of financial support. While in human terms money may change hands between believers, at a spiritual level this exchange is mediated by God.
A consistent biblical model
This biblical model of funding is not just theory. Aside from the New Testament evidence, it was also fairly clearly articulated in Levitical law (Num 18:8-20). As Paul says:
Let’s apply the model to the example of the temple:
Paul isn’t saying that we follow Levitical law today; just that the biblical model for funding ministry is consistent and hasn’t changed. This is how churches have been funded for thousands of years and is still the case today:
Believers are not obligated to pay their pastor for their sermon but they are obligated to give offerings to God. And the minister is not to demand payment from those he serves but is to rely on God’s provision, which will often come from the hands of other believers. Those who do the ministry and those who fund the ministry are then partners in ministry (Phil 4:15), working together for the sake of the gospel. They give and serve out of obligation to God and not out of obligation to each other.
The same model can be used for missionaries, authors, musicians, and anyone else who ministers or creates ministry resources. As long as their ministry is freely given.
We’ve established a biblical model for funding, but how does a commercial model compare?
Firstly, believers give primarily out of obligation to the minister rather than God. They owe the minister for their service or resource, and this debt will often be a legally enforceable one. Some people may see themselves as partnering with the provider of ministry or see their payment as a gift to God, but many exchanges will lack such nuance and be simply commercial in nature.
Secondly, the ministry is restricted to only paying customers. The person giving money and the person receiving ministry is often the same person, and the receiver of ministry cannot usually share it with others. Some ministry providers will give for free to those who can’t afford to pay, but that is the exception rather than the norm.
The commercial model is also in the bible, but not in a positive way:
Selling ministry is a tell-tale sign of a false teacher. Please don’t take this as an accusation that all who currently sell ministry resources are false teachers; that would be a wrong and absurd accusation. But by commercializing ministry we have blurred the lines and allowed false teachers to flourish since they can’t be identified by trying to profit from ministry, as they use the same financial practices many respected Evangelicals do.
While many have good intentions and are just utilising commercial practices for practical reasons, nevertheless, the sincerity of ministry is still at stake. As who is to know where the minister’s heart is at? What they do know is that they had to pay for the ministry. Paul always ensured he preached for free so that his hearers would know of his sincerity:
The Dorean Principle by Conley Owens provides an even deeper analysis of this topic and is highly recommended for those wanting even more evidence from Scripture.
Ministry has become increasingly commercialized over many decades, and so decommercializing it will not be easy or pleasant. Providers of ministry are not alone to blame, as we have all been urging the sale of ministry on, churches and individuals alike. In many ways the first step is to start financially supporting ministries that have otherwise had to rely on sales to survive.
Wisdom and grace is needed. However, things must not continue the way they are. As Jesus said, “you cannot serve both God and money.”