On Why People Give Money to Their Church

Recently John Oliver brilliantly (re)exposed televangelist Robert Tilton's predatory approach to a "prosperity gospel" and mocked the IRS's wide-open qualifications for determining what counts as a religious organization. By shining a light on what's grossly absurd, Oliver reminds us that even respectable churches often have uncomfortable relationships with money and donations. This isn't only about the economics behind grandiose Medieval cathedrals or Creflo Dollar shopping for a new jet. Just ask any pastor who helps a church discuss how their financial shortfall should affect maintenance on the building and how much will need to be subtracted from the budget for charity. Church folk can get nervous and skeptical when the topic turns to money.

Sometimes the Bible stokes that nervousness instead of calming it.

Repeatedly the New Testament praises those who give generously to the needy and to support the people who provide leadership to Christian communities. Almost just as often, it tells those leaders not to be financial burdens to others or to create circumstances in which they appear to be unduly profiting from their preaching.

Most important: the New Testament doesn't promise wealth and success as rewards for genuine faith. (Can someone please knock on the door of Kenneth and Gloria Copeland's multimillion-dollar "parsonage" and explain to them that Jesus was using hyperbole and speaking metaphorically in places like Mark 10:28-31?) Many things are wrong with the so-called prosperity gospel. For one thing, its focus on giving as an investment to reap gains in health and wealth totally misses the point, according to the New Testament.

Why, then, would or should people give money to a church in the first place?

Of all the New Testament's perspectives on wealth and Christian living, maybe the most interesting is what we find in Acts 4:32-5:11. This passage offers two sketches of the earliest period in the life of the community of Jesus' followers, not long after Pentecost, when that community in Jerusalem starting living out its purpose to bear witness to Jesus and his salvation. A closer look at the passage helps us understand how a church that focuses on money in and of itself might easily find itself distracted from weightier concerns.

The first scene paints what could be the Bible's most attractive picture of community life; the second (which I will discuss in a separate post next week), the most repellent. In the first (Acts 4:32-37), believers share their wealth and selflessly care for one another's needs. The generosity and trust on display exceed our wildest dreams for what seems possible.

This passage isn't a command to give money or to fulfill an obligation. Its main point is to describe mutuality: truly cooperative living is fueled by intense generosity and marked by worship and service. It's a community of "one heart and soul," as Acts puts it. The description of community life zeroes in on a particular aspect of the group's behavior: members who own property and homes sell them and present their leaders with the proceeds. By laying piles of money at the apostles' feet, the donors acknowledge the apostles' authority to distribute the wealth as needed, according to what meets others' needs. As a result, "not a needy person" can be found in the group. It sounds like a promise God made to the ancient Hebrews after delivering them from slavery and guiding them to the promised land: "There will, however, be no one in need among you, because the Lord is sure to bless you" (Deuteronomy 15:4).

If this image of a generous community possessing "one heart and soul" sounds appealing to us, it also surely tickled the ears of an ancient audience. The ethos described here resembles the descriptions of authentic friendship in a handful of ancient Greek philosophical writings. Some of those texts described a state of affairs like this as what could be possible under ideal social and political systems. Other, more propagandistic traditions associated ideals about shared possessions with a golden age of civil harmony rooted in what Emperor Augustus set in motion in establishing the Roman Empire. As Acts describes the believers in Jerusalem, however (here and in 2:43-47), their mutuality springs into being not through the right political architecture but through the work of God, present in the Holy Spirit. The community God creates displays a capacity for realizing deep, nearly unrealistic hopes for justice, generosity, and coexistence. The passage does not celebrate this fellowship for its own sake; it celebrates the community as a place where God's salvation can be experienced.

The nature of salvation is the primary focus. Money and giving are secondary. It's a salvation that creates true unity and belonging, not a division between those who profit and those who lose. Giving to the needy does not earn salvation, but it demonstrates that a person has come to grasp what the economy of Christian salvation is all about: relinquishing one's real and perceived advantages and entering into true solidarity with others.

Barnabas and the others in the story who give money to sustain the culture of mutuality do not give because they are "sowing seeds" of faith that will allow them to reap material gain down the road. Nor do they give because their leaders demand a share. Rather, they give because they understand their united existence, sharing a single "heart and soul," as so tight that radical sharing of possessions seems a natural outgrowth.

After the author of Acts offers this brief and appealing sketch, we never see a church in the New Testament described the same way again. No other biblical community embodies Jesus' pattern in quite the same way. This scene in Acts 4 sits there like a dream. Like a vivid memory of a brief period when things were right. Like an unshakeable reminder of what's possible in a community nurtured by God's presence.

It reminds people of how desperately we long to experience community and true flourishing. It reminds us of how impossible is the prospect of getting their on our own.

The image that Acts 4 draws may be an illusion. Utopian communities have tried to imitate it and failed. Money inevitably controls our priorities and decisions; we know that. But still this idealistic picture stands as a motivation for churches to practice authentic acceptance and care for others. It stands as a lesson that churches can't talk about money and budgets as simple exchanges, like writing and mailing a check or making good on a pledge. The nature of Christian community, as Acts describes it, asks its members to be fully present to one another and to others in need. No surprise: that involves money.

If a church isn't talking about contributions, budgets, and charity within a larger discussion about what it means to be a community and to practice mutuality, then that church is doing it wrong.

More on that when we get to the second scene from Acts, in Acts 5:1-11.

Portions of this post are adapted from a chapter in my new book, published by Brazos Press, called Intrusive God, Disruptive Gospel: Encountering the Divine in the Book of Acts.