Rev. Kuiper is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Randolph, Wisconsin. Previous article in this series: March 15, 2009, p 274.
Digressing from our examination of the office of deacon, we are examining the congregation’s obligation to support the gospel ministry. That this is her obligation, and the obligation of every mature individual and of every head of household in the church, we have asserted in our last article. In conclusion we noted that our support of the gospel ministry, just like our support of the diaconate, must be carried out with sincerity and simplicity of heart, willingly and cheerfully, trusting God to supply our needs.
The question before us now is whether each church member is obligated to support the work of the ministry equally, viewing the “per family/individual” rate of the budget as an obligation laid on each member, which obligation must be met; or whether we may give to the support of the gospel ministry (commonly done in the PRC by giving to the General and Building Funds) as God has prospered us (I Cor. 16:2) and according as we purpose in our heart (II Cor. 9:7).
I will argue the former view. Admittedly, I cannot bring forth any particular Bible verse that says “thou shalt” on this point. To make my case, I will appeal to Bible history, and to the practice of God’s covenant people in the Old Testament.
The Old Testament church’s support of the gospel ministry.
Supporting the gospel ministry as it was carried out in the tabernacle and temple, the Israelites were to bring offerings for various causes. One cause was the support of the priests and Levites, who devoted a significant part of their life, if not all of their life, to the work of the temple (Num. 18; Deut. 14:27-29, 18:1-8, 26:1ff.; Neh. 10:32-39). Another cause was the supply of materials for the sacrifices themselves—animals, wood, grain, oil, wine, and such like (Neh. 10:32-39). A third cause was the erecting and maintaining of the facilities for worship—the tabernacle, and later the temple (Ex. 35, I Chron. 29).
By three kinds of giving, the Old Testament church supported this ministry of the gospel: by freewill offerings, by tithes, and by fees that were assessed equally to all.
The freewill, voluntary offerings were not the primary source of support of the gospel ministry. These offerings were brought for two purposes. First, by freewill offerings the materials for the building of the tabernacle and temple were obtained (Ex. 35:20-29; I Chron. 29:1-9). Israel had no banks to turn to for loans; she did not build her buildings on credit; she supplied all the resources for them up front.
Second, some of the offerings that the Jews were to bring to the temple were commanded; others consisted of freewill offerings. The individual Jew brought certain burnt offerings, peace offerings, or thank offerings voluntarily, to thank and praise God for some mercy shown to him personally, such as recovery from sickness.
At this point we note that while Israel did bring freewill offerings to the tabernacle and temple, the support of the ministry of the gospel did not depend on these offerings. Rather, it depended on the tithes and the assessed fees.
Israel was commanded to bring tithes of the seed of the land (reaped corn and grain and vegetables), of the fruit of the tree, and of the herd and flock (Lev. 27:30-32). Specifically, the tithes were intended for the support of the Levites and priests, but also for the work of the temple (Num. 18:26ff.).
This requirement of the ceremonial law remained in force until Jesus abolished it by His death. So God’s faithful people brought these tithes throughout the Old Testament, especially in times of reformation under Hezekiah (II Chron. 31) and Nehemiah (Neh. 10:37f.). When the people did not bring their tithes, the prophets rebuked them for this (Mal. 3:8-10).
The freewill offerings were voluntary, and the tithes were commanded of God. By contrast, the assessment of a specific fee was commanded in one instance, and after that was a custom that Israel imposed upon herself.
Of the one instance in which God commanded this we read in Exodus 30:11-16. When the Israelites were numbered, every male twenty years old and older was to pay a half shekel as an offering to the Lord. God specifically stated that “the rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less than half a shekel” (v. 15). This fee was to be used “for the service of the tabernacle of the congregation” (v. 16). Because God commanded this fee to be paid on a specific occasion and for a specific purpose (gratitude for redemption from Egypt), and did not indicate that this fee must be paid repeatedly, we do not consider this command to have been binding on the Israelites in later years.1
Later Jews did follow this precedent voluntarily. Needing to raise funds to rebuild the temple and support the temple ministry, the returned captives “made ordinances…to charge ourselves yearly with the third part of a shekel for the service of the house of our God” (Neh. 10:32). The words “ordinances…to charge ourselves” indicate that they considered this to be a debt that each owed equally. As the following verses indicate, this third part of a shekel was to be brought annually, in addition to the tithes. That they brought a third part of a shekel, rather than half, proves that they did not consider God’s command in Exodus 30:11ff. to be binding on them.
Once more we read of this assessed fee, in Matthew 17:24-27. While not clear at first glance, this passage is referring to the “temple tax.” The Greek word twice translated “tribute” in verse 24 does not actually mean tribute, or tax, but refers to a specific coin, the value of which was a half shekel. And Jesus’ words to Peter make sense only when we understand this to be the tax of which the passage speaks. The men entrusted with collecting the temple tax asked Peter if his master paid the tax, and Peter said that Jesus did. Later Jesus told Peter why, as the Son of God, He did not need to pay that tax—its purpose was to maintain His Father’s house! No earthly king taxes his own children for the upkeep of the king’s palace! However, Jesus paid the tax so as not to give the Jews occasion to think He was sinning.
This latter passage indicates that in Jesus’ day the temple tax was still paid annually. In fact, it seems that by this time it was something of an “unwritten rule” that everyone had to pay this tax. And it is certainly significant and instructive to us that Jesus Himself willingly paid it.
Applying this history to our own practice.
We may apply this history of how the Old Testament church supported the gospel ministry to our own support of the same.
Let none dismiss this history and the lessons it teaches by raising the argument that the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament are fulfilled. For first, even if this support were exclusively a matter of the ceremonial law, “we use the testimonies taken out of the law and the prophets to confirm us in the doctrine of the gospel, and to regulate our life in all honesty to the glory of God, according to His will” (Belgic Confession, Article 25). But second, we have seen that the manner of supporting the gospel ministry was notentirely regulated by law in the Old Testament. The law required the bringing of tithes and other offerings; but the one time that God commanded Israel to bring a half-shekel, He did not bind that law on Israel annually. Yet the Israelites voluntarily applied the principle of that law to their own situation, for centuries afterward. So may we. In fact, so do we.
Notice, then, what already has been made obvious: the causes for which Israel brought her commanded tithes and her self-imposed half-shekels are the same causes that we support in giving to the General and Building Funds—the support of those who devote their lives to the ministry of the gospel, the supply of all things necessary to worship and function as a congregation, and the erection and maintenance of the building in which to worship.
To learn from these passages nothing more than that the church must support the gospel ministry is to take good, but superficial, instruction from them.
These passages also teach by what means the church may support that ministry. She may raise her necessary funds, if she wishes, by relying entirely on freewill offerings. The church that does not have a budget system is not in violation of any command of God’s law. But the church may also assess her members a fee, which each must bring equally. The church that uses a per family or per individual budget system is also not in violation of any command of God’s law, but is following the precedent set by the church in the Old Testament.
In fact, do not Protestant Reformed Churches generally use a combination of these two means, just as the Israelites brought tithes, half-shekels, and freewill offerings? In most of our churches, the money for the General and Building Funds are raised by assessing each family or each member an equal amount. But we also take freewill offerings for the piano fund, or organ fund, or work of evangelism, or other causes that relate directly to our worship and work as congregation. And we take freewill offerings for denominational causes that could be supported in their entirety by synodical assessments, but are not—such as the work of domestic and foreign missions, the support of emeriti ministers, and the support of seminary students. Each member of the congregation must bring a certain amount equally, and then we all have the opportunity to give more, voluntarily, as we have been prospered, by giving to these special collections.
I come, then, to the heart of my argument. It does not regard the freewill offerings, but the offerings for the General and Building Funds, for which we have budgets.
As I said earlier, one finds in Scripture no “thou shalt” that tells every child of God to pay exactly his fair share of the portion of his church’s budget.
But the members of the church voluntarily impose such a law on themselves! Particularly when the council of a church proposes a budget that includes a certain amount that must be raised per family or per individual to cover anticipated expenses, and when the male confessing members of that congregation have adopted that budget by majority vote, they have imposed on each member of their congregation the obligation to pay their fair share. The council did not impose this; the law did not get laid down from above. Rather, by adopting the proposed budget, themembers of the congregation imposed it onthemselves. Having imposed such a law on himself, a man of integrity will keep it.
To my position, Christian brothers and fellow saints have raised objections.
One whole category of objections attempts to bring what I have said into conflict with other Scripture passages. One objection is that God permits us to give as He has prospered us (I Cor. 16:2). Another is that we are to give cheerfully, not “of necessity”—so that no rule should be made, even by the congregation itself, that binds any of us in our giving (II Cor. 9:7). A third is that we are not to do our alms before men, but are to give them in secret (Matt. 6:1-4)—implying, then, that none should know how much we are giving.
I have not imagined these objections on my own; rather, I have heard these objections in the past.
In response to this category of objections, I repeat that in our churches, our members often have the opportunity to contribute to these causes as they have been prospered, by giving to the freewill offerings.
The fundamental answer to this category of objections, however, is that each of the passages to which they appeal refers specifically to the care of the poor, not to the support of the gospel ministry. Alms—gifts for the poor—are to be given secretly (Matt. 6:1-4). They are not to be given of necessity (II Cor. 9:7); at no point should we set a budgeted amount for the members of the congregation to give for that purpose. And they are to be given as we are prospered, each deciding for himself how much to give.
But these passages are beside the point, when it comes to the General and Building Funds. For in giving to them, we support a cause from which we all benefit, and which we are showing is dear to our hearts—the ministry of the gospel of grace in Christ.
A second kind of objection regards the fact that some are either unable to pay the amount that the congregation imposes on them, or at least find it very difficult.
I understand that for some, the difficulty is real. Jesus gave instruction regarding our priorities and actions in such circumstances: “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matt. 6:33). Also to the point is the example of the widow, who cast in her whole living, trusting God to supply her needs (Mark 12:41ff., Luke 21:1ff.).
If paying one’s secular taxes and church budgets and tuition bills are high on one’s list of priorities, these debts will get paid. And then, perhaps by means of our asking the deacons to give us alms so that we can have food and raiment, God will see that our other needs are supplied.
Let us view our General Fund and Building Fund obligations as a debt that we owe to God! And let us pay it, considering the paying of this debt to be a privilege, and a light thing in comparison with the grace of salvation that God has given us!
1 This is the position also of Alfred Edersheim, as set forth in his book The Temple: Its Ministry and Services As They Were At the Time of Christ. The section in chapter 3 that deals with the temple revenues is interesting reading, recommended to any who desire to know more about this subject.