EMBEZZLEMENT: Is the Church Stealing from God?

Lets talk money…
Did you know that the American Church and para-church organizations take in about 300 Billion dollars in revenue each year in the form of tithes and giving? It sounds like a big number, but the reality is that the average evangelical Christian gives around 3% (on average) of their income to the church.

Also interesting to note is that this is approximately the equivalent percentage given by atheists and non Christians in the US each year (around 3% of income) to charitable organizations. My guess is that this is just enough to ensure that our comfortable lives aren’t unduly impacted but just enough to make us feel like we are “good people”. It would appear that Christians are just as “good” as atheists then.

Where does the 3% go? 
But  far more concerning is just how the typical local church in America appropriates the money in its possession from the tithes and offerings. Did you know that the typical church budget (as of 2005) allocated about 2% of its revenue towards external missions or provision for the poor? (Source: State of Church giving through 2005 – “Giving Research” Empty Tomb, Inc)

That’s right…Two Percent!
At best you will find research indicating that about 15% of church giving is appropriated towards budget items that do not directly benefit the members of the church themselves. So somewhere between 98% and 85% of our “giving” is really just being directed back towards us in the form of comfortable seating, elaborate buildings, church programs, child care programs, and state of the art audio visual presentations (and equipment)

Really, when you think about it…we are just tithing to ourselves!

Which is a nice thought, and makes for a great church going experience, but is not exactly what I suspect our Lord had in mind. According to every piece of evidence that I can find, both biblical and writings of our early church fathers, this is a massive misappropriation of these funds in Gods eyes.

EMBEZZLEMENT?

Well, it may sound harsh, but I am not sure what else you would call it?

Embezzlement: “The Fraudulent appropriation of property by a person to whom it has been entrusted.”

Yeah. that pretty much sums it up. Embezzlement is the misappropriation of someone else’s property by someone who was entrusted to act as an agent of the owner of the property. As in – Gods property, misappropriated by His Church, towards programs, buildings, salaries and elaborate church campus landscaping projects, etc.

It is important for me to explain that this is no way an indictment on the leaders of our local churches exclusively. The Church is not supposed to be an organization, led by CEO’s who make corporate decisions on behalf of their shareholders…but rather an organism, made up of a royal priesthood of believers…all of whom are jointly responsible, not only for their individual giving but also for how the local church that they are giving to is appropriating those funds. So this isn’t about how “the church” (read: they) are appropriating these funds, but rather about how “The Church” (read: us) is doing so. We are all jointly accountable to the master who will return and expect an account for what he has entrusted to us.

I have been challenged deeply on this issue over the last few years, and I will confess that it has been a big struggle for me to come to terms with. I also believe that there is no way to begin to address topics like this without ruffling someones feathers so I have resigned myself to the fact that someone somewhere will take issue with this discussion being had.

But as the Church we have a duty to ensure that we are appropriating Gods money towards Gods purposes, not our own. Scripture is replete with parables and teachings about the King/Landlord/Master who entrusts his money to his servants in his absence. And in all cases, he returns, and holds his servants to account for how they appropriated HIS property.

So how would God have us appropriate his money?

The Corporate Sin of Contemporary Christianity
I found an article written a few years ago by Ray Mayhew entitled Embezzlement” The Corporate Sin of Contemporary Christianity“.  Its only 20ish pages long, and I would strongly encourage you to read it in order to gain a better understanding of some of the historical context for how the New Testament Church has viewed the tithe or free will offerings, and how our church fathers believed that this money should be used by us…Here is a brief excerpt and a link to the free article online.

“It has been well said that the reason we study history is not simply to find out what happened, but to discover who we are. In the area of economic justice and the use of church revenue there is no better way to “discover who we are” than to read the early patristic writings. The record is unambiguous, church revenue, prior to Constantine, was used, both locally and in other parts of the Empire, primarily for the welfare of the sick, the poor, the imprisoned, the widow and the orphan. The local congregation did not expect a large percentage of what was given to be used for its own maintenance and ministry. In fact, to do so would have been viewed by most of them as a misappropriation of funds…”

This issue is also addressed in Richard Stearns recent book “The Hole in our Gospel” – see specifically chapter 19 entitled
Two Percent of Two Percent

My aim in bringing this up is the hope that we would begin to discuss more openly the fact that we not only give a minute portion of what we have been entrusted to our local churches, but that the little we do give is almost entirely appropriated to the programs and facilities that we get to use each week to “consume” our church experience.

If you read the article (and I hope you did) you will see that the early Church clearly appropriated nearly all of the money that the early believers were laying at the apostles feet to the ministry of the poor. None of it went to institutions, buildings, or even salaries. And the same was true of the OT tithe under the Levitical code.

There is no way to dodge the fact that for the first several hundred years, the NT Churches giving was almost entirely for the poor among them, so that there would be no need among them. No landscaping, no new buildings, no waterfalls or coffee bars or programs.

As always, I am interested to hear your thoughts on this. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I know that I am willing to have the discussion.

There are about 30,000 kids today who wont be around tomorrow to learn about where we end up on this topic. They will be dead – from hunger or from basic curable disease…that we have more than enough money in our church coffers to provide remedy for. And another 30,000 children will die the following day – again from hunger and preventable disease. And another….and another.

In the meantime, as our glamorous church buildings and ministry campuses sit empty from Monday through Saturday, we can take comfort that our coffee will be fresh, our seats will be soft, and the sermon will be “relevant” next week when we show up to worship the servant King.

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?         – 1 John 3:16-17

Do Something Now from Children’s HopeChest on Vimeo.

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