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On Why People Give Money to Their Church
By Matthew L. Skinner
 

Why do people give money to their church? The New Testament, which has much to say about wealth and possessions, offers many perspectives on this question. 

Of all those perspectives, maybe the most interesting is what we find in Acts 4:32-5:11. This passage offers two sketches of the earliest period in the life of the community of Jesus’ followers, not long after Pentecost, when that community in Jerusalem starting living out its purpose to bear witness to Jesus and his salvation. A closer look at the passage helps us understand how a church that focuses on money in and of itself might easily find itself distracted from weightier concerns. 

The first scene paints what could be the Bible’s most attractive picture of community life; the second (which I will discuss in a separate article next week), the most repellent. In the first (Acts 4:32-37), believers share their wealth and selflessly care for one another’s needs. The generosity and trust on display exceed our wildest dreams for what seems possible. 

This passage isn’t a command to give money or to fulfill an obligation. Its main point is to describe mutuality: truly cooperative living is fueled by intense generosity and marked by worship and service. It’s a community of “one heart and soul,” as Acts puts it. The description of community life zeroes in on a particular aspect of the group’s behavior: members who own property and homes sell them and present their leaders with the proceeds. By laying piles of money at the apostles’ feet, the donors acknowledge the apostles’ authority to distribute the wealth as needed, according to what meets others’ needs. As a result, “not a needy person” can be found in the group. It sounds like a promise God made to the ancient Hebrews after delivering them from slavery and guiding them to the promised land: “There will, however, be no one in need among you, because the Lord is sure to bless you” (Deuteronomy 15:4). 

If this image of a generous community possessing “one heart and soul” sounds appealing to us, it also surely tickled the ears of an ancient audience. The ethos described here resembles the descriptions of authentic friendship in a handful of ancient Greek philosophical writings. Some of those texts described a state of affairs like this as what could be possible under ideal social and political systems. Other, more propagandistic traditions associated ideals about shared possessions with a golden age of civil harmony rooted in what Emperor Augustus set in motion in establishing the Roman Empire. As Acts describes the believers in Jerusalem, however (here and in2:43-47), their mutuality springs into being not through the right political architecture but through the work of God, present in the Holy Spirit. The community God creates displays a capacity for realizing deep, nearly unrealistic hopes for justice, generosity, and coexistence. The passage does not celebrate this fellowship for its own sake; it celebrates the community as a place where God’s salvation can be experienced.

The nature of salvation is the primary focus. Money and giving are secondary. It’s a salvation that creates true unity and belonging, not a division between those who profit and those who lose. Giving to the needy does not earn salvation, but it demonstrates that a person has come to grasp what the economy of Christian salvation is all about: relinquishing one’s real and perceived advantages and entering into true solidarity with others. 

Barnabas and the others in the story who give money to sustain the culture of mutuality do not give because they are “sowing seeds” of faith that will allow them to reap material gain down the road. Nor do they give because their leaders demand a share. Rather, they give because they understand their united existence, sharing a single “heart and soul,” as so tight that radical sharing of possessions seems a natural outgrowth. 

After the author of Acts offers this brief and appealing sketch, we never see a church in the New Testament described the same way again. No other biblical community embodies Jesus’ pattern in quite the same way. This scene in Acts 4 sits there like a dream. Like a vivid memory of a brief period when things were right. Like an unshakeable reminder of what’s possible in a community nurtured by God’s presence. 

It reminds people of how desperately we long to experience community and true flourishing. It reminds us of how impossible is the prospect of getting their on our own. 

The image that Acts 4 draws may be an illusion. Utopian communities have tried to imitate it and failed. Money inevitably controls our priorities and decisions; we know that. But still this idealistic picture stands as a motivation for churches to practice authentic acceptance and care for others. It stands as a lesson that churches can’t talk about money and budgets as simple exchanges, like writing and mailing a check or making good on a pledge. The nature of Christian community, as Acts describes it, asks its members to be fully present to one another and to others in need. No surprise: that involves money. 

If a church isn’t talking about contributions, budgets, and charity within a larger discussion about what it means to be a community and to practice mutuality, then that church is doing it wrong.

More on that when we get to the second scene, in Acts 5:1-11

 

Matthew L. Skinner is Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary. His newest book, Intrusive God, Disruptive Gospel: Encountering the Divine in the Book of Acts, describes how we best read the Acts of the Apostles to explore the character of God, the challenges of faith, and the life of the church.

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 6 electronic newsletter of Luther Seminary's Center for Stewardship Leaders.   A longer version of this article previously appeared on Huffington Post Religion. Portions of the article are adapted from a chapter in Dr. Skinner's book, Intrusive God, Disruptive Gospel: Encountering the Divine in the Book of Acts.

 
On Why People do NOT Give Money to Their Church
By Matthew L. Skinner
 

In last week’s article, I explained that the New Testament’s shiniest depiction of the ancient church (Acts 4:32-37) commends people who gave money to support and embody an ideal community. It’s an idealized portrait of what churches are supposed to be about: mutuality, service, and worship. There’s no hint of financial charity as obligatory, and no suggestion that giving will guarantee increased riches or health. Any “prosperity gospel” that promises otherwise gets no support from this biblical text.

I also promised last week that an ugly contrast follows the ideal portrait.
This contrast arrives in Acts 5:1-11. A couple, Ananias and Sapphira, sells property and offers a financial gift to the church in Jerusalem. Except it’s revealed that they have misrepresented their generosity; they claimed to donate the full sale price when in reality they withheld a portion. After doubling down on their deceit, each one drops dead. This ought to cure financial duplicity among church folk, right?

Not exactly. The story aims for gallows humor, but we read Acts in a different place today. Our familiarity with religiously sanctioned violence makes it difficult to laugh, even if we understand that this scene may not be offered as serious, definitive theology.

Previously I described the story as “repellent.” Its offense lies in a detail so obvious that even children quickly detect it: the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. If the Bible contained only scenes like this, with a terrible swift sword precluding any chance for repentance, we would be wise to dispense with the whole book.
What can we learn from Ananias, Sapphira and this tragic tale?

We can learn more about the church, as Acts 4:32-37 started to depict it.
The conversations between Peter and Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5:1-11 indicate that selling property and donating the proceeds wasn’t necessarily a requirement for joining the church. The couple’s misstep instead lay in misrepresenting their donation as the property’s full sale price. Just a portion of the proceeds could have been a welcome gift to the community. Their sin is deceit; they ultimately defraud God, according to the passage.

Peter’s claim about lying to God should make us pause. How is deceiving the church tantamount to deceiving God or testing God? Because this community somehow expresses God’s own self and intentions through its unity and mutuality. Holding back money is not the core problem; the problem is creating a false impression of commitment to the community and to God’s purposes. Ananias and Sapphira go beyond simple hypocrisy, for they hold back their selves. They undercut the generosity they pretend to embrace. They demonstrate contempt for the community’s purpose as an expression of commitment to others.
But what kind of God is this community trying to exemplify?

We must ask, because the violence here can’t be ignored. It’s a key part of the tale. Is this passage longing for God to waste everyone who might infiltrate this community with halfhearted commitment? If so, that’s a lot of people. There must be more to it than this. Obviously God’s normal practice—in the pages of the Bible and across history—does not involve policing the church in such horrific ways.

But then why tell this story, wherever it came from? Who clings to such a story, with its image of a quick-tempered, no-second-chances-for-you God? Who thinks or hopes that God could act in such a way? Maybe angry people do. Or threatened people. Or fearful people. Not people suffering from merely any kind of fear—maybe these particular people fear losing what is truly life-giving to them. Maybe the passage comes from an ancient church community that feared losing its defining characteristics, its fragile capacity to embody the good described in Acts 4:32-37. Those people could have feared losing their ability to express God’s commitment to the world and the realities of what God can make possible.
The passage, which pulses with fear and maybe anger, reminds us how difficult it is to create such realities, given all our flaws and suspicions. When something comes along to make our difficult lives easier or more pleasant, we achingly want God to protect it, sometimes at any cost.

Throughout history churches have always been communities of both self-giving (Acts 4:32-37) and false commitment to others (Acts 5:1-11), as well as everything in between. As I look across my own life, I have found within the church incredible generosity—financial and otherwise. And yet I have also encountered in the church some of the most self-centered, destructive, manipulative behavior I’ve ever seen.

It would be shortsighted to read this passage and assume its message is “Look out! God is really vindictive! Better give every last cent to the church!” Instead, the severe consequences for Ananias and Sapphira announce, “Look out! This new, splendid community is quite vulnerable. Don’t hurt it! Don’t violate its core identity!”

Although the church has been brought into existence by God, it remains at risk of being derailed by the fear and deceit of its own members.

In the end, this story is less about the right use of wealth than it is about God’s commitment to preserve the church. Despite its irredeemable and quick violence, this passage suggests that God is so deeply woven into the fabric of the church, or the church is so deeply woven into the life of God, that the church’s existence and unity remain somehow essential. In this way, the community (any community) of believers can be considered holy ground. A congregation’s identity and common life matter more than its budget. The church doesn’t need your money; first and foremost it needs you.

And the rest of Acts and the wider New Testament insist that God’s commitment to the church remains resolute and gracious, even in spite of its members’ occasional bad behavior. Churches’—and individual Christians’—financial challenges aren’t evidence that God has forsaken them. 

 

Matthew L. Skinner is Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary. His newest book, Intrusive God, Disruptive Gospel: Encountering the Divine in the Book of Acts, describes how we best read the Acts of the Apostles to explore the character of God, the challenges of faith, and the life of the church.

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 6 electronic newsletter of Luther Seminary's Center for Stewardship Leaders.   A longer version of this article previously appeared on Huffington Post Religion. Portions of the article are adapted from a chapter in Dr. Skinner's book, Intrusive God, Disruptive Gospel: Encountering the Divine in the Book of Acts.