There is one element in our worship yet that requires our attention and concerning which we have a few things to say before we proceed to discuss our liturgical forms. That element is the offering and the giving of alms in the church.
Although generally no distinction is made between almsgiving and the offertory, these two are not the same. In the former we are participating in a spiritual act of worship in which an important phase of our calling as Christians is realized, while in the latter we are only fulfilling the obligations which rest upon us by virtue of our belonging to the household of faith. What is meant is that in the terms of Schaff-Hertzog, “An alms is a gift to which the recipient has no claim and for which he renders no return, made purely from pity and a desire to relieve need.” It is a love-gift to assist the poor and needy while in the general offerings received in the church, the members meet their financial obligations toward the needs of the church as such. In the one case one is fulfilling a legal as well as moral obligation while the giving of alms is a voluntary act of love.
This distinction, however, is not above criticism. The implication is that members of the church are obligated to contribute a certain amount toward the support of the church, but are not under any obligation to assist the poor. This supposition certainly is not true, for Scripture is plain in this regard. “The poor have ye always with you,” Jesus tells us; and the background on which this was said makes it plain that these poor are to be helped and befriended. Consequently, whether an offering in the church is for the budget or some special cause or for charity, giving to these various needs is not wholly without obligation.
It is not at all difficult to misconstrue giving as an element of our worship. Already in the early church the erroneous conception crept in that giving was an act of merit and satisfaction. The influence of this thinking is reflected in many of the early fathers’ writings. Clement II, for example, wrote: “Alms giving, therefore, is a good thing, even as repentance for sin. Fasting is better than prayer, but almsgiving than both. And love covereth a multitude of sins; but prayer out of a good conscience delivereth from death. Blessed is every man that is found full of these. For almsgiving lifteth off the burden of sin.”
Another error is that which places undue emphasis on the “what” of giving instead of the “how.” Quotas, goals and percentages must be attained at all costs, and there is no regard for the manner in which the solicited funds are obtained. This is contrary to the Scriptural idea of the spiritual practice. The importance of how one gives is emphasized in many places in Scripture. Consider Luke 21:3, 4 where Jesus says to His disciples: “Of a truth I say unto you, that this poor widow hath cast in more than they all; for all these have of their abundance cast in unto the offerings of God; but she of her penury hath cast in all the living that she had.”
The apostle Paul instructs the church at Corinth: “Every man according as he purposeth in his heart, so let him give; not grudgingly, or of necessity: for God loveth a cheerful giver.” It is not the amount of the gift that determines its real value but it is the spirit of love and cheerfulness with which it is given. To contribute an assessed amount into the offering plate of the church each week merely to meet an obligation is to make giving burdensome and to be deprived of the spiritual joy and blessedness of contributing to the support of the Kingdom.
This is not to say that there is no obligation imposed upon the members of the church which must also be met when the offering plate is passed. Salaries, fuel bills, utilities, building maintenance and other expenses must be paid and to meet these expensesall the members of the church are jointly responsible. The point, however, is that in fulfilling these obligations, we do so cheerfully, with joy and gladness in our souls, and so emulate the Giver of every good and perfect gift, Who with all the love of His heart gave us His only begotten Son. Giving is worship, and therefore the spirit of giving must be the same as the spirit of worship.
In this connection many things can be said concerning the proper system of giving in the church. The subject of the so-called budgetary system in distinction from the voluntary or free will system of giving has been discussed at length in the past, and for the present we will refrain from entering into that aspect of the matter. Perhaps at a later time we can write separately on that matter.
With one of the most beautiful facets of Christian giving we are now primarily concerned. That is the giving of alms. It is more than a grave danger that we drift away from true alms-giving; for without doubt it is true that in many congregations the offerings for benevolences is no longer held in the high esteem which once characterized it. Many things have contributed to this, and it seems to me that these same things have greatly contributed toward the decline of the office of deacon in the church. Neither is it difficult to find the connection here. The office of deacon was originally instituted for the purpose of providing men who would make it their business to look after the needs of the poor. Consequently, when this work is taken away through other agencies, it is to be expected that the giving toward charity will also decline and there will be a departure from the original pattern. Such is the case today. Remarks are frequently heard that, indicate that the contributions toward the upkeep and work of the church are regarded as far more important than the giving of alms. In many churches an offering for the poor is received not more than once a month; and we are told that in one church at least it is customary to receive an alms-offering Only at the time of the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, which is four times a year. When these practices are questioned, the answer is generally given that these offerings are no longer needed because there are no real poor in the congregation, and that if there were, they would receive assistance from the welfare state.
Now even though it is true that the Church Order does not explicitly demand the receiving of a benevolent offering each Lord’s Day, and does not anywhere specify how many of these offerings have to be received over a given period of time, the ordination form for deacons does instruct us that the task of their office is “to collect and preserve with the greatest fidelity and diligence, the alms and goods which are given to the poor: yea, to do their utmost endeavors, that many good means be procured for the relief of the poor.” And the congregation is enjoined to “provide the deacons with good means to assist the indigent.” Furthermore, under the instruction of the fourth commandment in the Heidelberg Catechism, we are pointed to the proper observance of the Sabbath in this answer:
“First, that the ministry of the gospel and the schools be maintained; and that I, especially on the Sabbath, that is, the day of rest, diligently frequent the church of God, to hear His word, to use the sacraments, publicly to call upon the Lord, and contribute to the relief of the poor, as becomes a Christian.” (italics mine)
From the above it is evident that the support of the congregational and even denominational programs does not belong to the classification of alms-giving. They are kept distinct. Gifts for evangelization, missions, and the like are not true alms. The duty of preaching the gospel outside as well as within the church is resident in the church, and consequently it is part of the program of the church to support that work. Nor may we classify our gifts toward Christian education as alms-giving. As it has been expressed, “the maintenance of the Christian religion for ourselves and our children demands educational institutions founded upon God’s Word and by supporting these educational institutions we are first of all benefiting ourselves.” This is not charity. It is support given in the line of duty. Likewise there are many causes and many offerings received for these causes that cannot be classified as the giving of alms.
That seems to restrict the use of the term “alms” to gifts received for those who are in physical need. The dictionary defines the term as “charitable aid or relief, as for the poor; something given as charity.” The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia proceeds on the assumption of the correctness of that definition when it states, “Almsgiving was regarded not merely as a plain evidence of righteousness (on the part of those who give) but also as an act of justice, a just debt owing to the needy.” All the texts referring to the giving of alms make mention of a lack of some or all of the necessities of life. And from the history of the Christian Church it can be shown that the times of deepest spirituality among God’s people coincided with the times of greatest concern for the physical welfare of the poor. God’s plan of redemption never ignores the exigencies of daily life.
Surely, today, when poverty is rampant in many parts of the world and the physical needs of many of God’s children are so pressing, no church can say there is no need for alms. No church has the right to neglect almsgiving on the presupposition that it has no poor. Jesus said, “The poor ye have always with you.” Realizing that God’s children are all of one body, let us restore the offering for charity to its rightful place in our worship; and let us, out of the abundance which the Lord has given us, not begrudge assistance to those that need it, but give liberally and cheerfully in the awareness that the earth and the fulness with, which it is stored, the world and its dwellers belong to the Lord.
Giving will then take on new meaning. It will constitute a very vital part of our worship: for we will then no longer consider the church service as consisting solely of a preaching service. Neither will our giving become a meaningless formality but it will be an experience of spiritual blessedness that will afford no small joy. And through diligently practicing this spiritual art we will be more and more freed from such vices as covetousness, greed, envy, and the like, which induce us to put more value upon the material things of this world than on the care of our needy brethren. When the offering plate, therefore, is passed, let us make the “how” of our giving dominate the “what” we give, and let the former be in spirit and truth.