The elders of Christ Fellowship spent several weeks studying the subject of church finances. Our desire was to honor God by following the leadership of the Head of the Church, Jesus Christ. We focused on numerous passages of Scripture in an attempt to properly understand more of what the Bible teaches on this subject. While we did not conclude that we had been disobedient to God in the way we had handled church finances previously, our study did provide us with a better understanding of what the Scriptures say about this important topic. As a result, we implemented a few strategic changes in our church regarding the overall handling of money. We want to share these with you.
First, the pastors recognized that there are four primary areas where all believers are responsible when it comes to giving:
While this category is not clearly spelled out in the NT, there are obvious costs associated with carrying out basic responsibilities as a church. Even Jesus and His disciples kept a supply of money to meet their day-to-day needs (John 12:6; 13:29). Whatever a church’s meeting pattern, there are expenses for meeting places and related supplies, costs for speakers and events, taxes and insurance, books for personal study and evangelism, and, as seems more and more necessary in our Internet-savvy society, the cost of maintaining a website. Every believer should willingly contribute to the supply necessary for these items, and every church should have a general budget in place to assist in controlling and tracking these expenses.
The Advance of the Kingdom
While not all believers are called to go to distant lands with the gospel, every believer and every church must follow the New Testament example of supporting those who labor for the propagation of the gospel and the establishment of local churches (e.g., Phil. 4:15-18). In keeping with this ongoing obligation and privilege, a church should have some sort of plan for identifying worthy objects of support, for encouraging giving for this purpose, and for making sure the monies contributed are sent where they are needed.
Assisting Those in Need, Blessing Those You Love
Both the Old and New Testaments place a high emphasis on helping those in need. Giving to those who are truly needy is one of the marks of genuine faith (James 2:14-17; 1 John 3:16-18). One New Testament pattern is to take up special collections for the poor and needy (e.g., 2 Cor. 8, 9), but other passages in the New Testament indicate that a common way of meeting needs was for one believer to give directly to another believer in need (e.g., Titus 3:14; James 2:14-17; 1 John 3:16-18). This person-to-person approach was probably the New Testament norm. If believers are prayerfully and lovingly involved in each other’s lives as they ought to be, they will know where the needs are. When a believer becomes aware of a need within the church and has the resources to meet it, the simplest practice is to give money or provisions directly to the needy person (or, if preferable, through another believer anonymously), even if that means having less money to put in the offering. A believer’s personal generosity should extend to all who are in need, but especially to other believers, with the highest priority given to the members of the church where he or she is a member. It is also biblical to use finances for the simple purpose of showing love even when there is no urgent need. Paul said, “While we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal. 6:10).
It is every believer’s responsibility to encourage the elders (i.e., pastors) in their labors for the church. This is done in part through love, respect, and submission (Heb. 13:17), but providing for the material needs of those who shepherd the church is also a clear New Testament teaching (e.g., 1Tim. 5:17-18; Gal. 6:6). Two primary truths stood out as this group of pastors studied what the Bible says about the financial support of church leaders, as seen in the life of the church at Ephesus.
First, Paul encouraged the elders in Ephesus to follow his example by working hard in order to provide for their own needs and give to others:
I have coveted no one’s silver or gold or clothes. You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my own needs and to the men who were with me. In everything I showed you that by working hard in this manner you must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He Himself said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” (Acts 20:33-35)
Second, Paul encouraged Timothy to instruct the same church (Ephesus) to honor their elders, particularly for their work in preaching and teaching:
The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing,” and “The laborer is worthy of his wages.” (1 Tim. 5:17-18).
As mentioned, most interpreters agree that this instruction includes not only showing “double honor” by way of respect and submission, but also through financial gifts. The context of 1 Timothy 5, Paul’s quote from the Old Testament about muzzling the ox (Deut. 25:4), and his quote from Jesus about the laborer being worthy of his wages (Luke 10:7; cf. Matt. 10:10) all conspire to produce this meaning. Paul quotes from Deuteronomy 25:4 (“You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing”) again in 1 Corinthians 9:9, going on to say, “So also the Lord directed those who proclaim the gospel to get their living from the gospel” (9:14).
It is important to note that Jesus’ statement to His disciples about the laborer being worthy of his wages was not related directly to the support of elders, but rather to traveling evangelists and church planters. It should also be noted that He was not speaking about receiving a set salary. The men whom He was sending out were to be satisfied with whatever money and/or provisions they received from those who housed them during their journey. The same is true of Paul’s quote of Deuteronomy 25:4 in 1 Corinthians 9:9, and of his declaration that those who preach the gospel should get their living from the gospel (1 Cor. 9:14). He was not referring to elders in this context, but to apostles. Even so, the fact that in 1 Timothy 5:17-18 Paul appeals to the same quote from Deuteronomy 25:4 and the same quote from Jesus (Luke 10:7) when directing the church to “honor” elders shows that the principle of financial and material support is also applicable to the men who shepherd the local church.
When the principles taught in Acts 20:33-35 and 1 Timothy 5:17-18 are placed side-by-side, a single system composed of two complementary mindsets emerges:
- The elders work hard to support themselves and to enable their own generosity toward others, while also working hard at preaching and teaching. That is their focus.
- The members who are cared for and taught by the elders honor their leaders by making sure their financial and physical needs are met. That is their focus.
In this system, the elders are not focused on receiving a salary, or even on their own financial and material needs. Instead they set the example by working hard to meet the needs of others. The rest of the members are not focused on merely paying the elders’ an agreed-upon salary while benefitting from the elders’ ministry. Instead, they concern themselves with honoring the elders for their labors in preaching and teaching, and with making sure they are not unnecessarily distracted away from their most important work. In this system, everyone is more concerned about the needs of others than their own needs (Phil. 2:3-4), and as a result everyone is cared for in a Christ-like way.
Once again, in evaluating the biblical instructions that lead to this complementary system (Acts 20:33-35 and 1 Timothy 5:17-18) it is important to remember that both passages were originally written as instructions to the same church (Ephesus). This tells us that the resulting system is not derived from an arbitrary piecing together of unrelated texts, but rather that it is God’s revealed design. None of the pastors who conducted this study had been serving their church “for the money,” but up to this point most of them had received a modest regular stipend to supplement what they make through outside employment. They now sought to begin receiving only those funds from the church that were specifically designated by the giver as “elder support” (meaning they no longer expected a set amount each month). The pastors are more excited about the opportunity to trust God when it comes to their personal finances than they are about the money they receive. Their desire was to set a better example and to be a source of encouragement for others. The elders actually sense the “honor” coming to them from the people since they have determined not to receive a set salary.
Putting a New Plan into Action
To carry out a new plan according to what they had learned, these pastors began by implementing an envelope system for their regular offerings. The envelopes have space for three of the four categories of giving with two additional blank lines for special needs. No line is provided for giving to other members in need because, as previously stated, the Bible seems to indicate that believers should typically meet these needs by giving directly to the person in need. Person-to-person giving is also not tax-deductible, so there is no need for the church to keep a record of it. Contributions for the support of pastors, on the other hand, are tax-deductible and are indicated on the envelopes. The outside of the envelope is completed by the giver, indicating where he or she wants each portion of his or her offering to go. Even though most members divide their offering between two or three of the categories on the envelope, only one check is needed because the division of the offering is noted on the outside of the envelope.
Envelope Example (enlarged):
Distribution of Offering:
General Expenses: $_______
Elder Support: $_______
Book Table (Not tax deductible):
The Requirement of Faithfulness
The pastors’ study of the Bible’s instructions regarding finances also reaffirmed the need for every believer to acknowledge his or her personal responsibility before God in the matter of receiving and using finances. Every member should give serious prayerful consideration to his or her overall use of money, giving priority to displaying faithfulness in the four areas listed earlier in this article. Jesus himself asked these two questions:
Therefore if you have not been faithful in the use of unrighteous wealth, who will entrust the true riches to you? And if you have not been faithful in the use of that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own? (Luke 16:11-12)
As believers seek the Lord concerning the wise and faithful use of His resources, three undeniable truths stand out in this passage:
- The material resources we possess are not our own. They belong to God and have been temporarily entrusted to us in this life.
- Believers will give an account to the Lord for the way they used the material resources He entrusted to them, and will either be found “faithful” or “not faithful” in the way those resources were handled.
- The person who is found “not faithful” with respect to the way he handled his material resources will suffer loss.
Every believer has room to grow in his or her faithful use of material resources. For example, the thought of every member of a local church being debt free, and therefore having more consistent opportunities to dedicate material resources to the cause of Christ, is thrilling to consider. The increased opportunities we would all have to minister to others would be incredible! For this reason and others, believers and churches ought to make handling their finances a matter of prayer and study as they press toward the goal of pleasing the Lord and being found faithful stewards.