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A Tradition of Giving

by Tim O'Hearn

Contribution. Tithe. Collection. Treasury. Whatever you call it, this can be one of the most sensitive subjects in any church. It is also one of those that is bound by traditions, and when one starts messing with tradition that adds to the controversy. Nevertheless, it might be worth looking at the traditions to determine their value, or even their validity. Since it is the traditions of the groups known as Churches of Christ with which I am most familiar, those are the traditions I must necessarily address.

First of all, I have to emphasize that tradition is not necessarily a bad thing. There must be traditions. Tradition gives structure and consistency to what we do. Tradition can be comforting, because it becomes familiar. I knew a preacher who traveled a different route to his office every day, just to avoid it becoming routine. What he didn’t realize was that just by actively choosing a different route each day he had established the tradition that he was trying to avoid. The problem with tradition comes when we try to impose our traditions on others as if they were biblical doctrine. When a congregation objects to carpeting in their building (which is in itself a tradition)Individuals in the first century church were encouraged to give, when it was requested, as they felt they could give. because they have never had it, and the carpeting faction separates from the bare-floor faction as a result, then tradition has gone too far.

We constantly need to evaluate everything we do as a church, or as individuals in the church, to determine what is tradition and what is doctrine. Then we need to evaluate our traditions to see if we are binding them on others.

Tithing

The practice of giving specifically one tenth of one’s income is not normally a tradition in the churches of Christ. I knew of a church in the Philippines that went by the name Iglesia ni Cristo (Church of Christ), that practiced tithing. It was the tradition in that church not only that every member should give a tenth of what they made, but that they should also submit a financial statement. If they did not give ten percent during the year, the church billed them for the balance at the end of the year. That church had several other issues that were purely traditional and in conflict with the scriptures, most particularly that it was controlled by one man rather than the biblical practice of elders.

I have written about tithes before (“Ten Percent” in the December 2009 issue). In brief, the Jewish people were to set aside ten percent of their farm produce. They were to eat it in a specific place two years of every three. In the third year it was given to feed the poor. In practice, only about 3.3% ever left the hands of the individual. Other offerings were made, which essentially constituted a tax for the support of the priesthood.

The practice of tithing was not common in the early church. One reason was that there appeared to be no regular contribution, but more about that later. Another is that individuals were encouraged to give, when it was requested, as they felt they could give.

But this I say, He which soweth sparingly shall reap also sparingly; and he which soweth bountifully shall reap also bountifully. Every man according as he purposeth in his heart, so let him give; not grudgingly, or of necessity: for God loveth a cheerful giver. (2 Cor 9:6-7)

Paul’s standard, and that practiced in most Churches of Christ today, was that of a free will gift of what one chose to give. Paul’s standard, however, encouraged liberality, with no upper limit of ten percent. Unfortunately, many today set their sights much lower, sometimes in the “sow sparingly” category. Others give liberally, though non-monetarily. Some things just do not show up well on a balance sheet, but without them the church would not function.

Passing the Plate

Let me describe the collection in most Churches of Christ with which I have worshipped. At the time of the weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper (occasionally at a separate time during the same assembly) the men who pass the trays with the bread and the fruit of the vine also say a prayer and then pass collection trays down each row of congregants. In some cases they may make an announcement that the collection is primarily for the regular members of that congregation and visitors need not feel obligated to give (although they will not refuse such a gift). Thus each person publicly gives or refuses to give into the collection plates. When one gives by check it helps keep the amount more private, but those around can see whether a person chose to give or not.

I suspect this practice is a holdover from Puritan practice in America. It is said that the ushers in Puritan congregations carried long poles with which they could strike anyone they caught sleeping. In like manner, when it came time to take the collection, the ushers passed collection baskets on the ends of similar poles. If a person did not put something in the basket they would hold it in front of that person until they gave something. People learned to put money in quickly so they would not be shamed by the basket lingering under their noses. Although in many churches today the passing of collection plates is not accompanied by such shaming tactics, nevertheless we have continued the tradition of the public passing of a plate, basket, or bag.

This tradition is of relatively recent vintage. The Jewish practice was to have a collection box available at the entrance to the Temple or synagogue. As people came in they would put money in these chests. Examples of this can be found in 2 Kings 12:9 and in Mark 12:41-44. This method of accepting the contribution continued well past the Middle Ages. I often wonder why some churches today do not use this more traditional method of collection. It would actually reduce the length of the assembly by as much as ten minutes in a larger congregation. There are even some congregations that have Automated Teller Machines in their lobbies, so that members can transfer money from their bank account to the church’s account electronically. There is nothing wrong with any of these traditions, yet some would object loudly if a congregation did not pass the collection plates “during” the assembly.

Another tradition that has grown up around the passing of the collection plates is a prayer before they are passed. When I chose not to say a prayer, but just began passing the collection bags in the congregation where I currently worship, nobody said anything. That is to their credit, because in some congregations I have attended that would have been considered heresy. In this congregation the elders have even stated publicly that they would prefer that no prayer be said at least one third of the time, but nobody else seems inclined to take them up on the offer.

Weekly contribution

Even in congregations where the Lord’s Supper is only taken quarterly or annually the collection is taken weekly. In almost every congregation of almost every denomination the giving and the sermon are the bedrock practices, and some of them will even do without the sermon. I have only been in one congregation in my many years on this earth where a contribution was not regularly taken. That was onboard an aircraft carrier, and we had no expenses. The only time a collection was taken was a special collection to purchase song books.

In reading the New Testament, one quickly notices, though, that this was the norm for the early church. There appears to have been no regular contribution. Paul and Luke are the only ones who speak about money after the beginning of the church, and in every instance it is in relation to a special collection. Even the purpose of the collections differed from our traditions. Those collections were taken to help needy people in exceptional circumstances (drought or, perhaps, because a large number of initial converts to Christianity stayed in Jerusalem rather than going home after Pentecost) or to help those who were preaching the word of God elsewhere. Take a look at where the bulk of today’s contributions are distributed. In most churches the biggest expense is staff salaries, and the next is building maintenance. Third might be Bible school supplies. Benevolence and external missions usually come close to the bottom of the list. Our traditions of preaching to the congregation and buying our buildings has turned our priorities upside down.

Rather than asking for special contributions as the routine means of collecting money, we ask for weeklySome congregations have ATMs, so that members can transfer money from their bank account to the church’s account electronically. contributions (and as in the Philippine example above, sometimes we make it a matter of doctrine). Rather than the money going outward, most of it stays within the congregation itself. If one wonders why churches are dying or only growing from within, perhaps we should look at our budgets. When our priorities are internal, is it any wonder that we have little influence outside our own four walls?

I am not saying it is wrong to have a regular collection, or even to spend it the way we do. We need traditions. We crave stability. All the things that surround our contributions—the visible trappings of our traditions—serve a purpose. They have a certain value. They lose that value when they move out of the realm of tradition into the realm of doctrine. If someone were to get upset because we did not pray before taking the collection, or just put up a box in the lobby, or did not even take a collection one day (or month, or year), then tradition has become doctrine to someone. If that can happen with something as simple as collecting money, might it not happen in areas of more spiritual import?