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One of the saddest portions in all of Scripture, in my opinion, is 2 Kings 25:8–17, where we read that the beautiful house of the Lord was burned down, the wealth of the temple was looted, and God’s city, Jerusalem, was laid waste by Babylon.

“In the fifth month, on the seventh day of the month—that was the nineteenth year of King Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon—Nebuzaradan, the captain of the bodyguard, a servant of the king of Babylon, came to Jerusalem. And he burned the house of the LORD and the king’s house and all the houses of Jerusalem; every great house he burned down. And all the army of the Chaldeans, who were with the captain of the guard, broke down the walls around Jerusalem. And the rest of the people who were left in the city and the deserters who had deserted to the king of Babylon, together with the rest of the multitude, Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard carried into exile. But the captain of the guard left some of the poorest of the land to be vinedressers and plowmen. And the pillars of bronze that were in the house of the LORD, and the stands and the bronze sea that were in the house of the LORD, the Chaldeans broke in pieces and carried the bronze to Babylon. And they took away the pots and the shovels and the snuffers and the dishes for incense and all the vessels of bronze used in the temple service, the fire pans also and the bowls. What was of gold the captain of the guard took away as gold, and what was of silver, as silver. As for the two pillars, the one sea, and the stands that Solomon had made for the house of the LORD, the bronze of all these vessels was beyond weight. The height of the one pillar was eighteen cubits, and on it was a capital of bronze. The height of the capital was three cubits. A latticework and pomegranates, all of bronze, were all around the capital. And the second pillar had the same, with the latticework.”1

This is what the Lord warned Judah would happen. He had warned Israel, as well. He repeatedly told His people to turn away from idols and return to Him. Nevertheless, all that the Lord had planned for His chosen people, to whom belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, the promises, the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, the Christ (Romans 9:4–5) was lost to them. Thankfully, they can be grafted back into the olive tree (Romans 11:23).

However, something else saddens me even more. It is this warning concerning the Church and what must happen before the Day of the Lord comes:

“Let no one deceive you in any way. For that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God” (2 Thessalonians 2:3–4).

Let’s try to wrap our brains around the certainty of that event. That falling away, that apostasy will happen, just as surely as the sun rises.

When Jesus’ disciples asked Him, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (Matthew 24:3), the very first thing He said—and therefore I conclude the issue about which He was most concerned—was not earthquakes, wars, and signs in the heavens. The first thing He said was, “See that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray” (Matthew 24:4–5).

I don’t know what it will take for those who are called Christians to be led astray by people coming in Jesus’ name, claiming to be the Christ. I know this has happened in limited ways at various times in the last two thousand years, but it hasn’t been “many” as Jesus said it would be. In my opinion, a series of catastrophic events must take place, things so life-threatening that people will yearn for a savior to come and rescue them. Going to church had been great for them. They knew their church’s doctrine and considered it good. Fellowship was encouraging. But something or a series of somethings will occur that will cause them to turn away.

Perhaps that falling way is happening now. Perhaps it has been in motion for longer than I know. I am greatly disheartened by what I see happening in the Church.

The following passage troubles me, and I think it should trouble you, too, if you are a believer in Jesus Christ.

“And the Lord said, ‘Hear what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:6–8).

I want to be one who has faith when the Son of Man comes.

This one engenders a large measure of concern, as well:

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’” (Matthew 7:21–23).

Because of these truths and warnings, I am compelled to pray for the Church. It is my duty. I encourage you to do the same.

The days are short. Jesus said two thousand years ago that night is coming when no one can work (John 9:4).

1All scripture quotations from The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

Thanks to Ben Williams for the photo.

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Perhaps I was just inattentive. Yes, that’s what I was, because I have thought for a very long time that the account of Elijah and His encounter with the Lord at the cave on Mount Horeb in 1 Kings 19 was about hearing God’s “still, small voice.”

I no longer think that the Holy Spirit inspired the author of this story to teach God’s people that His voice is not in the earthquake, wind, or fire. It’s about understanding that God sometimes works very powerfully in quiet, not spectacular, ways.

Please allow me to explain.

This is the chronology of events 1 Kings 19, after Elijah had run away from Jezebel and ended up on Horeb, the mount of God.

The Lord asked, “What are you doing here?”

Elijah responded, “I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.” (vs. 10).1

The Lord told him, “Go out and stand on the mount before the LORD.”

The Lord passed by, and a strong wind tore the mountains and broke the rocks. But the Lord “was not in the wind.”

Then there was an earthquake, but the Lord “was not in the earthquake.”

Then there was a fire, but the Lord “was not in the fire.”

Please note that we are not told anything about the Lord speaking in those events. These verses tell us that He was not “in” them.

Then, “And after the fire the sound of a low whisper” (vs. 12b).

Notice that it doesn’t say the Lord spoke to Elijah in a whisper. It simply says, “And after the fire the sound of a low whisper.”

This makes sense because of what happened next.

Elijah then went and stood at the entrance of the cave.

The Lord asks him the same question. “What are you doing here?”

If God had spoken earlier with a whisper, Elijah hadn’t gotten the message, because he responded with exactly the same words he had before. “He said, ‘I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away’” (vs. 14).

The Lord then told him to:

Anoint Hazael to be king over Syria.

Anoint Jehu king over Israel

Anoint Elisha to be prophet in your place (vs. 16).

Elijah went and anointed Elisha (vss. 19-21); however, he didn’t do the other two things. Elisha did.

In 2 Kings 8, Ben-Hadad sent Hazael to Elisha to find out if he, Ben-Hadad, would recover from his sickness. Elisha told Hazael that Ben-Hadad would recover, but then, weeping, informed Hazael that he would be king of Syria. (Elisha wept because Hazael would set on fire Israel’s fortresses, kill their young men with the sword, dash in pieces their little ones, and rip open their pregnant women (2 Kings 8:12)).

The history of Israel changed with two sentences from a prophet. No fire. No wind. No earthquake.

In 2 Kings 9, Elisha sent one of the sons of the prophets to anoint Jehu king over Israel, which he did. He prophesied over him as well. Then he fled, as he was instructed.

The history of Judah changed with four sentences from a messenger from Elisha and a bottle of oil. No fire. No wind. No earthquake.

The account of Elijah in the cave has nothing to do with God’s people learning how to hear His “still, small voice” as He gives us truth or direction. It has to do with what the Lord is “in.” This passage doesn’t tell us that God doesn’t speak or act in the wind, the earthquake, or fire, because the Bible clearly indicates that He does; but that He was not going to accomplish His will in strong, noticeable, spectacular ways in the events to come. Elijah may have thought the Lord would or should act in this way, because He had just done so. He had consumed the sacrifice, the water, and the rocks with fire when Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal. In addition, He had just ended the three-year drought quite suddenly: “And in a little while the heavens grew black with clouds and wind, and there was a great rain” (1 Kings 18:45). The Lord was notifying Elijah that He was going to perform His will in a way that was quite different from what He had just done. He was going to act quietly.

And that’s just what He did.

Sometimes the Lord accomplishes His will with fire.

Sometimes it is with a sentence and a bottle of anointing oil.

1All scriptures are from The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

Photo courtesy Rogelio Bernal Andreo (DeepSkyColors.com)

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If tithing to the Church is not a binding principle for Christians, to whom, then, should we give?

We have seen in our look at the Lord’s instructions for the tithe in the Old Testament, that God’s people were to use their saved tithes to feed the poor, the widow, the orphan, the sojourner, and the landless, which included the Levites. There are many passages in the Old Testament about caring for the poor. Please feel free to drag out your hard-copy or online concordance and look them up. I think these verses sum up very well how the Lord wanted His people to regard the poor—actually, it’s a command:

“If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be. Take care lest there be an unworthy thought in your heart and you say, ‘The seventh year, the year of release is near,’ and your eye look grudgingly on your poor brother, and you give him nothing, and he cry to the LORD against you, and you be guilty of sin. You shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging when you give to him, because for this the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land’ (Deuteronomy 15:7–11).1

A strong case can be made that this concern for the poor carried over into the New Testament.

The only offering taken in the New Testament was for the poor: “At present, however, I am going to Jerusalem bringing aid to the saints. For Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make some contribution for the poor among the saints at Jerusalem” (Romans 15:25–26).

The apostle John wrote, “But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:17–18).

And we have this from Jesus: “Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you” (Matthew 5:42).

This seems straight forward, doesn’t it? We have no reason to refuse whoever begs from us. However, let’s slow down a bit. What should a believer give to the one who begs from us? Food? Clothing? Money? Money, unfortunately, is problematic. In both India and China, where we have served, evil people purposefully maim children and send them out to beg in order to profit from their wicked mistreatment of children. I cannot give money to support such a practice. Therefore, when we lived in India, our answer was to give the beggar a little food. At least he or she would have something to eat out there on the street, and no profit would be given to their depraved handlers. In addition, we were told in India not to give money to anyone because it would change the relationship with that person in the blink of an eye. The one who received the gift would thereafter see nothing but dollar signs in your eyes.

Giving to panhandlers in United States is not without its issues, either, including the giving of food. In our hometown, business owners have asked generous people to stop giving panhandlers food, because they just throw the uneaten, unopened food onto the owners’ property, creating a mess they have to clean up. These panhandlers don’t want food. Food can be obtained at food banks. These folks want cold currency. Tales abound of “homeless” people making more money than many hard-working individuals. Giving a ten spot to a panhandler may relieve the giver’s sense of guilt, but it’s an easy way out. Now, to be fair, some of the people we see may indeed have legitimate needs, but how would the giver know? Therefore, much more preferable would be stopping, taking the person out to lunch and having a conversation about life—true life. In addition, the generous one will discover where his or her money is going. However, most of us would rather not do that, especially since most beggars stand on busy street corners or on interstate highway entrance ramps, so we actually contribute in a way that often is not helpful but actually hurtful, to assuage our sense of guilt.

There are no specific guidelines in Jesus’ command to give to those who beg from us. Should we sell all our possessions or just some? Obviously, the people of Jesus’ time could not sell everything they possessed. A carpenter needs his tools in order to work his craft and produce income. A conveyance of some kind and agricultural implements are required for a farmer to cultivate and harvest his crops. Fishermen must have nets and boats. Ranchers need livestock. People everywhere require places to live with water, sanitation, warmth, and safety. What is the answer? There is no law in this passage from Matthew, just Jesus’ in-our-faces command about how we view money and possessions. Notice there is nothing about giving a tenth in Jesus’ words. He is addressing our hearts and our view wealth.

Jesus taught, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19–21).

I take comfort in Jesus’ qualification: “Do not lay up treasures for yourselves.” If my hands are open and willing to give to those in need, my savings account is not just for myself. My treasure, therefore—and hopefully, as I work out my salvation with fear and trembling—won’t be on earth for myself only but for others and therefore used for eternal matters.

Jesus taught in the parable about a rich man who, after an abundant crop, tore down his barns, built larger ones and said, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” However, “God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be? ‘So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God’” (Luke 12:19–21). Notice it wasn’t the man’s wealth that the Lord condemned. In his wealth, the fool was “not rich toward God.” One’s view of money is a matter of the heart before the Lord.

Too often, we Christians seek orderly guidelines about many topics, including giving, to systematize our beliefs. We tithe. Good—got that one covered. We go to church once a week and attend a small group. Done. We find a way to serve at church or at the homeless center. Soon, we begin to feel very good about ourselves. All the religious obligations have been fulfilled. We measure what we have done against the activities of others and determine that we’re doing well. Our guilt has disappeared. We think the Lord is happy with us because we have accomplished the biblical things that should be done. Then, slowly, we become a people who are legalistic, and, even with the best of intentions, have slipped into a guilt-eliminating cacophony of laws—or principles, as we prefer to call them. We should not be motivated by guilt or self-satisfaction. We should be motivated by our love for Jesus. We should be “rich toward God.”

Here is the last scriptural truth for us to consider, but it’s not in the New Testament. It has to do with the Sabbath year. If you’re not familiar with this, the Lord required Israel to do no work in their fields every seventh year. That which grew up on its own was to be left to the poor. Think about this with me. Can you imagine an agricultural family, which most families were at that time, receiving no benefit from their land for one year? This speaks volumes about how the Lord views money. Clearly, the Lord is asking His people to take a major financial hit. This would require an enormous trust in the provision of God. I am convinced that the Lord is astronomically more concerned about our relationship with Him than our material wealth.

So, to sum up, how much does the New Testament require a believer to give and to whom? It simply says to give to those in need. Who are those in need? To whatever needy person the Lord prayerfully directs.

In all of this, we must be careful. We must make knowing Jesus our primary aim. We should ask Him where, how much, and to whom to give. Use tithing as a starting place for giving, if that is helpful. Give to the poor wisely. Give to individuals, not to organizations, when possible. It opens up the possibility to develop or further a relationship.

1All scripture passages are from The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

Thanks to Ben Williams for the photo.

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In this blog’s series on Christian giving, I attempted to present the biblical truth that riches have a negative, not positive, effect on the Church. In the last post, I offered evidence that the teaching that many church leaders offer about tithing is misleading and confusing, because they teach that the tithe is associated with the blessings and cursings of the Mosaic covenant, which is no longer in force. In addition, surprisingly, if it were in force, the Old Testament tithe was to be used to supply food so one could eat with his family, widows, orphans, the sojourner, and the landless, which included the Levite, who was not allowed to own property. (See https://jlthomson.wordpress.com/2015/02/02/i-have-been-misled-about-christian-giving-and-it-is-my-fault-as-well-part-seven-or-the-church-should-teach-the-truth-about-tithing/) Perhaps, after reading these articles, you may have asked, “If the Bible says that riches are actually harmful to the Church, and tithing is not required, how should I give? Where should my offerings go?” Or perhaps you said, “Wait a minute, Jim. The Bible tells us to support our pastors. And tithing was done before Moses, when Abram tithed to Melchizedek.” Let’s begin with the last statement about the tithe to Melchizedek. Good point, but we must determine if this passage in Genesis 14 is descriptive or prescriptive. In other words, did the Holy Spirit inspire the author to write this account so believers would practice tithing? Tithing is not taught in the New Testament, and no Spirit-inspired author makes use of Abram’s obeisance to Melchizedek in order to instruct believers about giving. However, if Christians use Genesis 14 as a guideline for their generosity, there should be no objection, should there? Please note, though, that Abram didn’t tithe to a church, obviously, since it didn’t exist. He also didn’t tithe to an organization. He tithed to a man, who is a type of Jesus Christ. Therefore, it seems proper that if a Christian uses Genesis 14 as a biblical justification to tithe to the Lord, he or she should feel free to give in this way to Him. From my point of view, it’s a good place to start, albeit not a legalistic place to start. It should be pointed out, however, that it is only a starting place, and one should not feel satisfied or self-righteous because he or she has followed some minimum standard of giving because of the descriptive example in Genesis 14. Now, let’s look at the statement about supporting pastors. Yes, you are correct. Paul wrote in 1 Timothy 5:17–18, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,’ and, ‘The laborer deserves his wages.’”1 And in Galatians 6:6, he wrote, “Let the one who is taught the word share all good things with the one who teaches.” Therefore, we should experience no biblical heartburn if a believer, giving heed to these verses, helped support his elder/shepherd/teacher financially. However, this is not what the average church-goer does when he puts his offering in the plate. He is giving to an organization, which spends that money on any number of things, only one of which is to pay the salary of a teacher or elder. In addition, Paul makes it clear that he refused this privilege and worked with his own hands so he wouldn’t be a burden to the church. Following Paul’s example, I advocate that pastors enter into bi-vocational ministry, which I believe would be a huge benefit to the Church. However, that is a discussion for another time. So, this question remains. “Where, then, should my offerings go, according to the Bible?” We’ll look at biblical answers to that question next time.

1All scripture passages are from The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

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In the last post, we looked at the giving statement of a well-known mega-church. The opinion put forth in that article was that many Christians have an inaccurate, even unbiblical, idea about Christian giving because the Church has offered very confusing teaching about this topic. In this post, we’ll look at the giving statement of another very large mega-church and try to determine the biblical truths that support their giving statement. As before, the text has been copied and pasted, with no editing.

“A tithe—which just means ‘tenth’—is defined as the first 10% of a person’s income that is to be given back to the local church. Tithing is a principle that is taught throughout the entire Bible. When we tithe, we are expressing worship in a tangible way by putting God first in our lives.”

“Why Would I Tithe?”

“For many, the idea of bringing the first 10% of our income to the Church seems overwhelming. The thing is, it doesn’t matter how much or how little we make, God promises to pour out blessings on us when we tithe. Tithing is about training our heart to trust God at His Word. We know generosity is a huge step of obedience, but you’re not in this alone! We want to know you’re taking your next step in generosity by bringing your full tithe to the church with The 90–Day Tithing Challenge.”

Let’s start here: “A tithe—which just means ‘tenth’—is defined as the first 10% of a person’s income that is to be given back to the local church.”

Is this true? Is that how the tithe is “defined” in Scripture?

No, it isn’t. These folks just manufactured this definition from a passage in the book of Malachi. Actually, they twisted it for their own gain. If you’ve been a Christian for any length of time, you are probably familiar with it:

“For I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed. From the days of your fathers you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you, says the LORD of hosts. But you say, ‘How shall we return?’Will man rob God? Yet you are robbing me. But you say, ‘How have we robbed you?’ In your tithes and contributions. You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me, the whole nation of you. Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the LORD of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need. I will rebuke the devourer for you, so that it will not destroy the fruits of your soil, and your vine in the field shall not fail to bear, says the LORD of hosts. Then all nations will call you blessed, for you will be a land of delight, says the LORD of hosts. Your words have been hard against me, says the LORD. But you say, ‘How have we spoken against you?’ You have said, ‘It is vain to serve God. What is the profit of our keeping his charge or of walking as in mourning before the LORD of hosts? And now we call the arrogant blessed. Evildoers not only prosper but they put God to the test and they escape’” (Malachi 3:6–15).1

Let’s look more closely at this passage. Note the connection between curses and blessings. This should sound familiar to us, because this curses-and-blessings formula originated in the Mosaic covenant, detailed in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28. However, Christians are under a new covenant (Luke 22:20), not under the Mosaic covenant. In addition, we are no longer under any curse of any kind (Galatians 3:13). Our blessings are in Christ (Ephesians 1:3), not in our ability to keep the no-longer-existent Mosaic covenant.

Even if we were under the Mosaic covenant, let’s look at what that tithe was used for. Moses instructed Israel in Deuteronomy 12:17–19: “You may not eat within your towns the tithe of your grain or of your wine or of your oil, or the firstborn of your herd or of your flock, or any of your vow offerings that you vow, or your freewill offerings or the contribution that you present, but you shall eat them before the LORD your God in the place that the LORD your God will choose, you and your son and your daughter, your male servant and your female servant, and the Levite who is within your towns. And you shall rejoice before the LORD your God in all that you undertake. Take care that you do not neglect the Levite as long as you live in your land.”

Well, this is a bit stunning, isn’t it? The people were to eat the tithe with their households and the priest.

However, there is even more to the Church’s amazing lack of understanding about the tithe. Every third year, the tithe was to be given to the poor and landless.

“At the end of every three years you shall bring out all the tithe of your produce in the same year and lay it up within your towns. And the Levite, because he has no portion or inheritance with you, and the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, who are within your towns, shall come and eat and be filled, that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands that you do. (Deuteronomy 14:28–29).

If the Church were to adhere to the Mosaic covenant, which it shouldn’t, Christians would save their tithes and every third year feed poor people.

May we teach the truth of Scripture and not twist it for filthy gain. May the Lord forgive us for our ignorance.

1All scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

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pesosThe last post ended with this question: “Why do Christians give to churches?” I think most church-goers cannot provide a clearly thought-out biblical answer to this question. The minds of my brothers and sisters, sincere and faithful believers in Jesus, are infused with a mish-mash of misapplied beliefs and traditions, patch-worked together with vague biblical statements they have learned through the years—from churches using a mish-mash of misapplied beliefs and traditions, patch-worked together with vague biblical statements. After reading this post, I think you will begin to understand why Christians’ perceptions about giving to the church are so clouded. Let’s begin by looking at the giving statement of a well-known mega-church to discover how they encourage their attendees/members to give. What follows is a direct copy and paste, with no editing.

“Why We Give: We give because Jesus has given His life for us, we live lives of response to His goodness and grace. We give because we know the mission of Jesus is moved forward by the people of Jesus.”

Let’s start with the first statement: “We give because Jesus has given His life for us, we live lives of response to His goodness and grace.”

This sounds good, doesn’t it? This premise is a general Christian truth with which everyone would agree. However, it doesn’t help the reader come to a reasoned decision about why he or she should give specifically to this church. In other words, this assertion has meaning only when read this way: We give (to this church) because Jesus has given His life for us, we live lives of response to His goodness and grace.

Perhaps an analogy will help clarify the point I’m trying to make. Let’s say that you and your friend are having a conversation about his upcoming mission trip. He asks if you would help support him financially. As a justification for why you should do that, he says, “You should give to my mission trip because Jesus has given His life for us, we live lives of response to His goodness and grace.” How would you answer your friend? You very well may say, “What you say about our response to God’s grace toward us is true, but that doesn’t mean I should necessarily give to your mission trip.” Therefore, a reasonable response to this church’s giving statement would be just the same: “Yes, God’s Word tells us to be generous givers, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that I should give to your church in particular.”

The second statement offered on this church’s website is, “We give because we know the mission of Jesus is moved forward by the people of Jesus.” Our reply to this general truth would match the first one: This is does not give me a satisfactory reason to give to your church in particular.

However, let’s pause for a moment. Why did the leaders of this church think these two vague declarations would be sufficient justification for giving to their organization? I think the answer is that, within the church world, there exists a default understanding that the church is just simply the termination point for your giving. You attend here. You should give here. However, when we read the New Testament, we do not find evidence for this behavior. Instead, we find abundant proof that Christians are to give to the poor.

Paul wrote this in Galatians 2:8–10 after he had first met James, John, and Peter, pillars of the church: “…and when James and Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given to me, they gave the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. Only, they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.”1

A question immediately comes to mind. Why didn’t John and Peter, two of the twelve disciples of Jesus Himself, and James, Jesus’ own brother, tell Paul to remember the church? Why didn’t they expect Paul to give to a church establishment “in response to Jesus’ goodness and grace,” or because they knew “the mission of Jesus is moved forward by the people of Jesus”?

Acts 4:34–35 says, “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.”

In the very beginning of the Church, people sold their possessions and gave the proceeds to the poor. Isn’t that exactly what Jesus told His disciples to do in Luke 12:33? “Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys.” Therefore, it shouldn’t surprise us that the disciples and the early Church gave in this manner in obedience to their Savior. So, yes, the money of Christians, in response to Jesus’ goodness and grace was given to the Church—to people—to the poor in the church, not to a religious institution.

Paul wrote in Ephesians 4:28, “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.” Paul told the Ephesian church that the money Christians earn by the work of their hands is to be given to those in need, not to a church structure.

John wrote, “But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? (1 John 3:17).

Christians are to give to other Christians in need.

“Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality” (Romans 12:13).

Christians are to give to other Christians in need.

Is generous giving a biblical response to God’s goodness and grace? Yes. Is giving to a church establishment a biblical response to God’s goodness and grace? No, but giving to Christians and others in need clearly is. Does giving to the church move the mission of Jesus forward? Well, according to the verses above, giving to people in need certainly does, because the mission of Jesus was indisputably moved forward by the early Church. They turned the world upside down (Acts 17:6).

1All scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society

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The questions asked throughout this series on Christian giving have been along this line: “Since Jesus taught that riches are deceitful and actually make it extremely difficult for people to enter His kingdom, why do our churches present themselves as prosperous? Isn’t that a dangerous thing to do?” These are very good questions and should be asked. After all, James asked a good question himself about wealth: “Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? (James 2:5).1 This gathering of wealth is a peculiar response for God’s people to make in light of these biblical truths, and it becomes more peculiar the deeper we dig into Scripture. Last week, for instance, we saw that Jesus taught that if we accumulated wealth for ourselves so we could “…relax, eat, drink, be merry” (Luke 12:19), we were fools because we were not “rich toward God.” We also noticed that Jesus had very little regard for money and possessed very little of it Himself.

So, why do we need to raise money today to bring into our churches a commodity that is deceitful and dangerous, for which the Lord Jesus had so much disdain and very little need? Why do we require so much of it?

The reader may answer, “So we can get things done. Spread the gospel. Make disciples.”

However, we know that Jesus had amazing ministry in His brief time on earth, in spite of His poverty. Why didn’t Jesus attempt to raise money for His ministry so He could more effectively spread the gospel and make disciples? You may respond, “He didn’t need to. He was God.” Ok, but why didn’t His disciples raise money for their ministries so they could “get things done”? However, they indisputably “got things done.” They “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6). Yet, the only offering taken in the New Testament was to help the starving saints in Jerusalem during a time of famine.

Another response may be, “We need to collect money in order to pay for a building so people can have a place to go to church.”

This answer implies that church is a place, a geographical spot on a map. Where did we get that idea? As you probably know, the word translated “church,” in the New Testament is the Greek word ἐκκλησία, or ekklesia. The word basically means “a gathering of people.” When Jesus said He would build His church, did He mean He would build a lot of structures? No, He meant that He, as Lord of the Church, would build a gathering of people who were to strengthen, love, and encourage one another. The Church met in many places in its early history. It didn’t begin to build structures until the reign of Constantine, around 300 years after Jesus walked the earth. How were they able to spread so quickly and be so effective without funds, even under persecution much of the time?

Please note that Jesus left behind no organizational structure before He ascended to heaven. The only structure I can find in the New Testament is the appointing of elders in the churches. This is a relational, eldership leadership, not an organizational one.

By now, you may be asking, “Well, Jim, what’s your point?”

I’ll respond with two questions of my own. If wealth is deceitful and spiritually impoverishing, if the poor are rich in faith, if Jesus didn’t collect offerings and neither did His disciples in spite of their stunning success, why do Christians give to churches? Why do our churches need it?

1All scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society

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In this series about Christian giving, two New Testament passages have been offered to prove that riches deceive believers and are detrimental to our spiritual growth:

  1. “And Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God’” (Matthew 19:23–24).1
  2. “As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful” (Matthew 13:22).

Based on Jesus’ teaching in these two scriptures, this question was asked: “If riches are deceitful and harmful to spiritual growth, why do churches present themselves as prosperous to those who attend?” While the reader ruminates on this question—and believe me, I’ve been ruminating on it, too—I’d like to offer another spiritual grenade that Jesus tosses into our midst concerning wealth. Before we go there, however, a little setup.

Imagine that you are one of two remaining children in your family. Your elder brother is seven years older than you. In spite of the age difference, your brother has always been caring and kind to you. As he grew older, he proved to your parents, family, and friends that he was a responsible, maturing young man. Your parents drew up a will when your elder brother was in high school and you were only ten, thinking it best to place the responsibility for distribution of their wealth in his care, in the event that they both died simultaneously. After you and your brother grew into adulthood and the difference in your ages became unimportant, your parents simply neglected to change the will. Your father died suddenly, and soon thereafter, your mother. Although you loved and missed your parents very much, you were excited about the prospect of inheriting half of their estate. The house alone was valued at $300,000. They also left around $400,000 in stocks and bonds. With half of $700,000, you could pay off your stifling debts. You could purchase a new car to replace your fifteen-year-old beater. You could put a substantial amount of money down on a new house and put nicer furnishings in it. You could buy a new TV, computer, and sound system. You could put a nice chunk of money away for your kids’ college education. When the will was read, however, you discovered to your shock that your brother inherited the entirety of your parents’ estate. Your mother, who had left the bulk of the responsibility for their finances in your father’s hands, had forgotten to change the will before she died. Nevertheless, you naturally expected your brother to divide the estate equally. But he didn’t. He kept it all to himself. He was now almost a millionaire, and you had not one dollar more. Your brother’s selfish disregard presented you with enormous challenges. Your relationship with him became strained to the breaking point, although you knew, as a Christian, you could not hate your own brother. As you struggled before the Lord in prayer, you asked Him to change your brother’s heart so he would justly divide your parent’s wealth with you.

A similar request was brought to Jesus in Luke 12:13: “Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.’”

Jesus’ response to this request may not be what you would expect. To paraphrase, He said, “No, that’s not my job”: “But he said to him, ‘Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you?’” (vs. 14).

Surprisingly, Jesus didn’t take this man’s side.

However, what Jesus didn’t say next is as astounding as what He did say. Instead of comforting Him, Jesus warned him. “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (vs. 15). Jesus expected this man to be happy with what he possessed at that time, with no increase to it.

I don’t think Jesus made a friend that day.

According to the Lord, the man who wanted his brother to divide the inheritance with him, was being covetous. Now, that’s a new and staggering thought, especially in light of this from Paul: “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5). So, this supposedly wronged brother was not only covetous but also in danger of being an idolater, just because he wanted his fair share of their parents’ estate. How far these truths are from me! From my point of view, the man’s request was legitimate. What his brother had done seems uncaring and unfair. Regardless of my point of view, I am faced head on with the Lord’s truth about what has genuine value in life, and it’s not wealth: “…one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”

Well, what does one’s life consist of, then? To explain, Jesus then told this parable:

“The land of a rich man produced plentifully, and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:16-21).

One’s life consists, totally and unequivocally, of the greatest treasure available to us: God Himself. Although this rich man thought the same way almost every Western person does when they dream of retirement, Jesus tells us that if we lay up treasure for ourselves and are not rich toward God, we are fools. Regardless of the beautiful pictures the retirement articles present, if you are drawing up plans for someday living in paradise on a beach, sitting in a chair, holding a drink with a little umbrella, you have been led astray.

Riches are deceitful. Wealth is an intoxicating drug and can lead believers into spiritual poverty. Unfortunately, we rarely think and live this way. Contrary to our thinking, Jesus regarded wealth a great danger and had no respect for it whatsoever. In fact, He had such little regard for money that He gave the purse for His ministry to Judas, a thief (John 12:8). He was so poor that He told Peter to go fishing in order to obtain the money for the temple tax. Even then, in spite of His poverty, Jesus shared those two coins with Peter and didn’t keep one of them for Himself (Matthew 17:24-27). Jesus trusted His Father for His provision in a way that is astoundingly difficult for me to grasp. I must ask myself how deeply and thoroughly I have been deceived and impoverished.

1All scripture quotations from The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

Thanks to Ben Williams for the photo.

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In the last two posts, this author has attempted to posit that, according to Scripture, wealth has a negative, even dangerous, influence on the Church. The first article ended with this statement: “The pervasive influence of wealth in the Church has resulted in a systematized tendency toward spiritual poverty.” However, we should ask, “Why is there a systematized tendency toward spiritual poverty in the Church?” Here are a couple of things to consider.

First, the wealth of the Evangelical/Charismatic/Pentecostal church (the only church movement with which I am familiar) has made it possible to present at church services increasingly sophisticated and talented productions to believers and non-believers alike. While this seemed like a sensible strategy at first in order to attract spiritual seekers, it has transformed many church services into performances of naturally gifted individuals. This, understandably, has moved Christians to be conformed to the secular world’s need for entertainment as well as its adulation of personalities. Entertainment is not evil in and of itself. However, when church services become primarily demonstrations of talent, church-goers undergo the same experience they do in their living rooms: They become passive observers with an increasing need for the most gifted, exciting individuals and updated media available. Another effect of this strategy is that such presentations have unfortunately generated an enormous economic appetite. The requirement for the church to care for the poor is not ignored, but it is marginalized. If the church denied its requirement for sophisticated performances, care for the poor would move to the forefront, rather than take a back seat to an organization’s entertainment and comfort-driven needs. In addition, although people currently involved in such churches might disagree, this reduction of funding for state-of-the-art performances would be an advantage to the average person sitting in the pew. Their motivation to attend Christian gatherings would hopefully change from being entertained to interacting with the challenging truths of Scripture. However, this adjustment would also be an advantage to the church as a whole. It would no longer have to strive to compete with or conform to a worldly culture, which, on the contrary, it is called to challenge, call to repentance, evangelize, and disciple. I have little doubt that the day will come when churches in Western cultures find they are simply no longer be able to use contemporary cultural methods in their productions, as they do now in order to attract unbelievers, without participating in severe and sinful compromises. Rejection of such compromises would result, in my opinion, in an enormous exodus of individuals from what we call church services today. Church-goers have been conditioned to be comfortable and entertained and would therefore seek out other places that would require less of them and provide activities more satisfying. This is where the “felt needs” meme has led us.

Second, wealth in the church has created an expensive professional staff which works and exists in a religiously separate culture, with its own norms and perks. However, the separation between paid staff and pew-sitter is more than a professional one. In the evangelical church, personalities are looked up to, not necessarily because they are elders, but because they are stellar speakers and entertainers. Thus, lay people are attracted to leaders and “pastors” for the wrong reasons. Think with me for a moment. Do you recall the spiritual and ministry gifts catalogued in Scripture? Which of these are operative in our church services today? The absence of the wonderful, God-provided galaxy of spiritual gifts and ministries is a tragic, spiritual poverty. It is spiritual poverty because the Church needs all of the gifts operative for the strengthening of the Church, as Paul points out more than once—not just teaching, leading, administrating, and serving, as we see today. However, because of our need for staffing and the concomitant requirement for funding, the gifts that are highlighted in churches today are those that attract people who have become accustomed to entertainment. Thus, many believers are biblically inattentive and weak. The church is stuck in a system of its own making, albeit well-meant in the beginning.

The situation in which we find ourselves is not the result of church leaders who have intentionally created a system to produce weak, ineffective believers. Leaders and churchgoers alike have been raised and taught in this environment. This is simply the way the church functions. It’s just the systematized nature of the thing. An attempt to offer an alternative, where there are no “high production values,” entertainment, great speakers, and stunning talent, is simply not popular. The evangelical/Charismatic/Pentecostal church has taken the wrong road, and its wealth has made this wayward path possible. As tragic as this is, it is even more tragic when poor churches in developing nations feel compelled to imitate it. Many times, our Western teaching about and demonstrated examples of leadership, giftedness, and evangelism to foreign nationals is ineffective at best and toxic at worst. Indigenous pastors and leaders are unable to reproduce it. They are unable to care for the poor, as they are biblically instructed to do, while at the same time fund high-tech productions, which include relatively expensive instruments, and sound, lighting, and video systems. Faced with Western “success” and resources, pastors wonder why God has not similarly “blessed them” because they remain poor and are thus “failures.”

 

Thanks to Ben Williams for the photo.

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In the article posted here two weeks ago, entitled I Have Been Misled About Christian Giving–and It Is My Fault, As Well, I expressed my concern about the dangerous effect of money and power in the Church. This distress is based upon Jesus’ explanation of the Parable of the Sower in Matthew 13:18-23. These conclusions seem obvious regarding His teaching about the third seed:

  1. Riches are deceitful. Corollary one: Wealth can be a spiritual enemy. Corollary two: I am a fool if I don’t think I have been deceived by riches.
  2. The cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches cause the seeds that Jesus disperses, not to die, but to be unfruitful.

Therefore, I wrote, “And this, in my opinion, is one of the fundamental problems of the Church today and has been for a very long time.” The concluding statement of the piece was, “The pervasive influence of wealth in the Church has resulted in a systematized tendency toward spiritual poverty.”

Why does the pervasive influence of wealth in the Church result in a systematized tendency toward spiritual poverty? Consider this well-known passage:

“And Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God’” (Matthew 19:23–24).1

Do Christians believe this teaching from their Savior? Sure, they do—sorta. However, is it not true that the Church presents an impression of wealth to announce to everyone who walks through our doors that we are successful, that we are an up and coming church on the rise? Of course we do. Here’s the logic: Who would want to attend or financially support a church that wasn’t successful? In spite of the logic, however, if we return to Jesus’ teaching, we must ask this question: Why would the Church do things that actually make it more difficult for a Christian to enter the kingdom of God?

If you are stuttering right now and your head is spinning, you are in good company. Welcome to the fellowship of Heads-Spun-By-Jesus Christians.

In addition, let’s look at the disciples’ response to Jesus’ warning about rich people: “When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, ‘Who then can be saved?’” (Matthew 19:25). Why would the disciples ask this silly question? Because, in Jesus’ time, someone who was wealthy was considered to be blessed by God and possessed God’s favor. Now, born-again believers do not think that financial wealth and salvation are connected in any way except, well, we kinda do. Otherwise, we would not go to such great expense to avoid the perception to believers and unbelievers alike that we are in any way impoverished.

This is treacherous spiritual ground for us to tread, but we do not seem to be concerned at all.

However, we should be. Look at these words from Jesus to a church:

“I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (Revelation 3:15–17).

Please note that the people in this church were working: “I know your works.” However, whatever they were doing was not pleasing to Jesus in the least. And the primary reason for their predicament was the deleterious effect of wealth on their church. Riches had caused these believers to think that they didn’t need anything. Are riches deceitful? Do they choke out Christian growth? Is it difficult for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom? Jesus’ words to the church at Laodicea were caused by a tragic refusal to give heed to His warnings about wealth from the Parable of the Sower and the difficulty of rich people entering God’s kingdom in Matthew 19.

1All scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

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