Financing the Kingdom and Church Debt

A great difference lies between alternative living and eccentric living. As citizens in the kingdom of God we want to live in a way that demonstrates a genuine “third way” without veering off into eccentric overreactions. Living under the financial blessing of God, without adequate fleshly explanations for the provision, is such an alternative.

“Let your conduct be without covetousness; be content with such things as you have. For He Himself has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you’” (Heb. 13:5-6).

In asking whether debt for a church is sin, let us begin with a couple of disclaimers. When this question is asked in this context, it reveals many assumptions about the nature of sin and financial responsibility. If someone were to splay his fingers on a concrete sidewalk so that he could whack each one with a hammer, we might try to stop him. But what if he asked, pointedly, “Would it be a sin to do it?” the answer would have to be, “Not necessarily.” To answer the question this way shows that debt is not neutral. In Scripture, debt is always something to be avoided if prudent.

That said, in the first place borrowing entrammels.

Fundraising and Financing the Kingdom

We have repeated examples in the Bible of how God’s people raised money for various needs. We learn many things from these examples, but one of the most striking is how unlike this fundraising is from the kind of fundraising we are accustomed to. Some of the principles appear in more than one passage, and this brief treatment below is by no means exhaustive.

“And you shall remember the Lord your God, for it is He who gives you power to get wealth, that He may establish His covenant which He swore to your fathers, as it is this day” (Dt. 8:18).

An early example is building the tabernacle. “Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: “Speak to the children of Israel, that they bring Me an offering. From everyone who gives it willingly with his heart you shall take My offering” (Ex. 25:1-9). God led them in what was to be done—the tabernacle was to be built according to the pattern, and with the materials specified. Fundraising in God’s name is not to be conducted to build out man’s ideas. Is the Lord leading? And we see here that gifts were only to be received from those eager to give. The offering was gathered from those who are willing to give in their own hearts.

The construction of the Temple was another obvious example.

“Furthermore King David said to all the assembly: ‘My son Solomon, whom alone God has chosen, is young and inexperienced; and the work is great, because the temple is not for man but for the Lord God’” (1 Chron. 29:1-20).

David set the leadership example by giving himself (vv. 2-5). The leaders of Israel followed (v. 6), representing the people, who in their turn rejoiced. There was joy in the giving, not guilt.

“Then the people rejoiced” (v. 9). We all know that God loves a cheerful giver, but we frequently stand this principle on its head. When people are being squeezed for money, they sometimes start to grumble. The principle is then applied to them—you really ought to be more cheerful. “God loves . . . etc.” But the attitude is affected by the process.

Basic Principles in Financing the Kingdom

We all know what the uh oh point is in various situations. The person you thought might be a new good friend invites you over for a business opportunity presentation. Uh oh. The church gets in a financial jam and “stewardship Sunday” seems to come round more and more frequently. Uh oh. But the point of writing about finances is not so that we would be able to accomplish what we have undertaken, but rather so that we would do it right. “But [the Israelites] lusted exceedingly in the wilderness, and tested God in the desert. And He gave them their request, but sent leanness into their soul” (Ps. 106:14-15).

“For the eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to show Himself strong on behalf of those whose heart is loyal to Him” (2 Chron. 16:9).

In the context, Asa the king had been rebuked for his “political realism.” He had relied on the king of Syria when the Lord had previously shown that He was able to save apart from such fleshly support. Because of this folly, the Lord promised Asa the trouble of wars. Asa then compounded his sin by refusing to accept the rebuke.

So God’s eyes run to and fro through the entire earth. God is omniscient. He knows everything, and as this figure of speech shows, He knows everything actively. He does not simply register the information—He seeks it out, He knows everything because He has sought out everything. He is our Father, not an impersonal computer with all knowledge passively resident in His memory. He knows. God’s omniscience does not simply mean that He could successfully answer any question put to Him— pass any test. Rather it means that He immediately knows all things regardless of whether we pose the question.

This is the God who intervenes in our lives. God delights to manifest His strength in the earth. His omnipotence is not a closely guarded heavenly secret. His interventions are on behalf of some people, and not others. Some churches are blessed, and others not, based upon God’s actions, which in turn are fully consistent with His infinite and inexhaustible knowledge.

He does what He does on the basis of heart loyalty. Why blessings in this place, and not in that place? His knowledge is perfect—there is no nook or cranny in the universe in which God and all His knowledge is not fully present. Because we have material bodies, extended in space, there are parts of us (i.e. our feet) which are quite ignorant. But God is not like this; He is omnipresent, and everywhere He is, all His knowledge resides. These doctrines do not mean you must always reckon with at least a part of God. No man ever reckoned with anything less than His full and triune majesty. This is the God who intervenes in our lives on the basis of heart loyalty.

So what does this have to do with financial basics?

Obstacles to Financing the Kingdom

The goal here is not to get into household finances, but rather the financing of the work of the kingdom of God. This relates to household finances at some point, obviously, but the purpose here is to address finances at the kingdom level. The amount of material on this subject in the Bible is simply immense, but many of the passages are neglected in our common preaching and teaching on the subject. This can be the result of fear, or ignorance, or self-pity, but the end result is the same. When God’s Word is squeezed out, for whatever reason, the methods and words of men will always come in to take its place. And when it comes to money, men do have their traditions.

“You then who teach others, do you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law. For, as it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”” (Romans 2:21–24, ESV)

When disobedience is common, there are usually excuses for that disobedience. What are some of them? It is important to note by the way that the excuses, while remaining excuses, are not necessarily false. Excuse makers frequently have a point.

First, the leaders of the church provoke the people:

“And we have sent with him the brother, whose praise is in the gospel throughout all the churches; And not that only, but who was also chosen of the churches to travel with us with this grace, which is administered by us to the glory of the same Lord, and declaration of your ready mind: Avoiding this, that no man should blame us in this abundance which is administered by us: Providing for honest things, not only in the sight of the Lord, but also in the sight of men” (2 Cor. 8:18–21).

Paul knew how easy an accusation of financial mismanagement is to make. He also knew the importance of being prepared in advance to rebut such slanders. When this does not happen, Christian leaders positively create reasons to avoid giving.

Second, the people in the church provoke their leaders:

Whirled Vision

My brief post on the reversal of the turnaround at World Vision generated some questions and comments, so let me chase them here.

Start with the central thing — and that would concern our duty of not being the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son. If the subject is sin and repentance, it should go without saying that we should never sneer at a broken and a contrite heart. How many times do we forgive someone? Jesus dealt with this famously when He said the right number was 70 times 7. And that does not mean that once the sinner gets past 490, then pow, right in the kisser. Our forgiveness for others should imitate God’s forgiveness of us, and it is obviously impossible to outshine Him.

Jesus taught that someone could sin against us seven times in a day, and that upon a profession of repentance we should forgive him each time. Now, along about the fourth or fifth incident, I might begin to suspect that my friend is not dealing with the root issues — but I am still to forgive (Luke 17:4).

So, how does this relate, if at all, to World Vision? Our problem is that we have confused two categories that must never be confused. In the church, we must learn to maintain an understanding of a fundamental difference between qualifications for fellowship (on profession of repentance) and qualifications for leadership (as found, for example, in 1 Tim. 3 and Titus 1). The former is not based on the record at all — the publican in the Temple professed himself wretched, and went home justified. But the latter is very much based on proven character over time.

Parable of the Ten Investment Portfolios

Given the emphasis that the president placed on “income inequality” in his 2014 SOTU speech, I thought it necessary for us to review a few things from the Bible. We have wandered so far off from the teaching of Jesus that some of this pandering seems compelling and/or compassionate to us. It is actually evil.

Allow me to say a few things in this second paragraph that will seem outrageous to some, while doing so in the hope that you will then allow me to explain myself. I have argued repeatedly that free grace creates free men, and that free men are the only ones who can create free markets. Free markets are God’s design for us. If you don’t love the idea of free markets, you don’t love Jesus rightly. Christian discipleship requires an understanding of, and deep love for, economic liberty.

So why invoke Jesus by name? Why bring Him into it? First, He is the Lord of all things, including what we do with our money. So there’s that. Second, in his fine book Friends of Unrighteous Mammon,  Stewart Davenport shows that in 19th century America,  two contrary camps developed among professing Christians (and they have been with us since). He called them the “clerical economists” and the “contrarians.” The clerical economists followed the insights of Adam Smith, but did so within a decidedly Christian framework. But as they did this, their language did not emphasize Jesus so much. They were more about “the spirit of Christianity” and a “that wise and good Providence.” Their work was “curiously lacking in overt references to Christ,” even though they were orthodox Christians. Their opponents, the contrarians, went the opposite direction. Their teaching was all about Jesus, and individual discipleship, and the hard sayings of Jesus . . . and that engine was hooked up to socialist assumptions. In short, those Christians with sound economic understanding allowed themselves to be rhetorically outmaneuvered, and allowed the left to have the rhetorical high ground. But coercive taxation is not the way of Jesus, and blessing your neighbor with an actual job is. And so, no, let’s not leave Jesus out of it.

And so, speaking of the difficult words of Jesus, let’s take a look at the parable of the ten investment portfolios.

You Ain’t Gonna Make It With Anyone Anyhow

In this short piece, Michael Bird comes to the defense of N.T. Wright, nationalized health care, and all that is civilized. A good response to that can be found here, but one more thing needs to be said.

What the soft Christian left does not appear to understand is that whenever the offering plate is passed, and the collection officer is wielding a firearm and has big, block letters on his jacket, and looks at you meaningfully, the results, however remunerative, are not what you seem to be claiming. The large offering would not be an instance of Christian love, compassion, tenderness, thoughtfulness for the poor, or any of that glow-in-your-heart talk.

Statist redistribution depends upon coercion and violence, pure and simple. It is not love, it is not compassion, and it cannot be supported by appeals to all the Christian happy words. Put the guns away, and then let’s talk about Christian concern for the poor.

A Prescription for Grief

In my reading this morning, I noticed a striking contrast between the beginning of the tenth chapter of Isaiah and the first few verses of the eleventh.

“Woe unto them that decree unrighteous decrees, and that write grievousness which they have prescribed; To turn aside the needy from judgment, and to take away the right from the poor of my people, that widows may be their prey, and that they may rob the fatherless!” (Is. 10:1-2).

“And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots . . . But with righteousness shall he judge the poor, and reprove with equity for the meek of the earth” (Is. 11:1,4).

The contrast is between those who prescribe grievousness, robbing the poor, and the one who will judge the poor in righteousness.

Of course, the first thing I thought of was the endless stream of regulations and laws pouring out of Washington, all done in the name of prescribing solutions for the disadvantaged among us. But each written regulation is nothing but a prescription of grief.