In the next couple of weeks our congregation will gather together for our annual meeting. One of the main features of the night – and the one that seems to draw out the most conversation – is the approval of the budget. Personally, I'm tremendously thankful that in my years of ministry the budget has never been a source of hostility and severe disagreement. Yet, I know that's not the case for every church. I remember hearing once that you can quickly discover where a Christian's allegiance lies when you make requests of their time or money.
Sadly, budget matters have hurt and ruined church's ministries, effective witness, and pastorates. Conflicts that arise over money and resource management aren't foreign to the New Testament. For instance, very early in the inspired history we read of the troubling episode of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11) and of the neglect of certain widows in the daily distributions (Acts 6:1-7). Likewise, Paul was concerned that the Corinthians might not, in their readiness to give, live up to his boasting (2 Corinthians 9:1-5) and it seems possible that his refusal to accept monetary support from that church had actually offended them (2 Corinthians 12:11-18). In another interesting situation Paul asked the church in Rome to pray for him that money given by Gentile churches would be accepted by the church in Jerusalem (Romans 15:22-33). All of these situations required careful sensitivity if the peace and prosperity of the church was to be promoted.
So, when we think about congregational budget matters let me suggest some things that I think matter –:
First, all of our resources belong to God. To be clear, the Bible puts a high priority on a good work ethic and earning one's money (see 2 Thessalonians 3:10 and 1 Timothy 5:18). But it's only ours in a secondary sense. We sing in the Psalms: “The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof” (Psalm 24:1) and he owns “the cattle on a thousand hills” (Psalm 40:1). All that we have is given to us by the charitable hand of God. As Paul asked: “What do you have that you did not receive?” (1 Corinthians 4:7). Ultimately, the money being budgeted by a congregation – hard as it's worked for by members in the church – is God's money to be used for his glory.
Second, God requires his people to be a giving people. The measure of our giving is according to that which we have received. We have received forgiveness and so we give forgiveness (Matthew 18:21-35); we have been shown mercy and so we give mercy (Luke 6:36); we have been given spiritual gifts and so we give our spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12:7); we have received much so that we may give much (Luke 12:48). Notice the pattern? This also applies to our money: “On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper” (1 Corinthians 16:2).
Third, God doesn't require a burdensome proportion. Under the Old Testament the tithe – which means tenth – was commanded as a means of sustaining the priesthood and providing for the poor (see e.g. Deuteronomy 14:28-29 and Numbers 18:21). It shouldn't be lost to our attention that while ten percent was to be given, God granted that ninety percent be kept – not the other way around! I know there's disagreement about whether or not the tithe continues in the New Testament, but it doesn't appear to me that there's a command binding us to a certain proportion. Though ten percent may be a good guideline Paul instructed: “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion” (2 Corinthians 9:7). While our giving requires sacrificial proportions the tithe reminds us that God doesn't require an excessively burdensome proportion.
Fourth, giving is an expression of what's in the heart. In our giving Paul draws a close connection between the material and the spiritual: “For the ministry of this service is not only supplying the needs of the saints but is also overflowing in many thanksgivings to God” (2 Corinthians 9:12). We shouldn't view giving through the lens of oppression or heavy-handedness, but happily. As Matthew Henry helpfully wrote, giving guards “against the covetousness, distrust, and selfishness of the human heart,” and promotes “friendliness, liberality, and cheerfulness.”
Fifth, the heart of a church's budget is to relieve needs. Churches spend money on a lot of things that are not obligatory for the work of the ministry. I think it's fair to say that there are two line-items ordinarily emphasized by the Bible. The first are relief funds for the poor (see Acts 2:45, 4:34, Romans 15:26, 2 Corinthians 9:9, and Ephesians 4:28). As God's own riches are measured in his mercies (see Ephesians 2:4) it's the peculiar glory of the church to use its wealth to show mercy to those who are in need – especially to those who belong to the household of faith (Galatians 6:10). The second line-item is compensation for those who labor in preaching and teaching. Uncomfortable as this often is for pastors (I've never met a pastor for whom it isn't), Paul felt no hesitation writing: “The Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:14, see also 1 Timothy 5:17-18). Obviously, this doesn't mean churches can't spend money elsewhere but perhaps it shows where our budgeted priorities ought to be.
Sixth, budgets express a congregation's willing commitment. In the early church the money was laid at the Apostles' feet (Acts 4:35). When the daily distribution grew too burdensome the Apostles delegated that distribution to those chosen to serve (Acts 6:1-6). I understand the principle often drawn from this with elders having oversight even of the money and the deacons being entrusted with its distribution. But I don't think we should overlook the pivotal role of the congregation who are the ones who freely give of their money. It seems wise to let congregations approve budgets and when they do to be aware that they are assuming to themselves the responsibility of fulfilling the obligations of the budget.
Finally, bountiful giving results in bountiful reaping. Again, Paul writes: “The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully” (2 Corinthians 9:6). That harvest, however, isn't measured in terms of material prosperity but in righteousness, generosity, and thanksgiving to God (2 Corinthians 9:10-13). As congregations look at their budget it's easy to be overwhelmed by the sum total. But every dollar that appears there, is a dollar that can glorify God. No wonder the Lord Jesus said: “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).
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