So, what about the assembly?
[“What about lifestyle?” is, of course, an equally–perhaps more–important question, but this has not been the historic location of hermeneutical debates among Churches of Christ though I hope we will spend more time on that question in the future–and sometimes in the past we have, as with David Lipscomb and James A. Harding (see Valentine and Hicks in Kingdom Come).]
If it is not a legal requirement to take up a collection for the poor and the kingdom of God in the assembly on every first day of the week, should we continue the practice? Do we have “authority” for such? And for what should we use it?
I would suggest that both life and assembly–or perhaps better stated, assembly as one aspect of life–is regulated by the gospel. The gospel is not understood here as a set of commands, prescriptions and positive laws. Rather, the gospel is the Christ Event (the incarnation, ministry, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus). The criterion is not a particular text in Scripture as a postive law but rather the mystery of Christ revealed who shapes our lives and assemblies. Our lives and assemblies should be “worthy of the gospel” (Philippians 1:27), that is, they should image the reality of God in Jesus.
So, the question, then, is not where are the laws regulating or governing how we conduct our assembly with regard to a “financial” plan for the church. Rather, the question is whether contributing money in the assembly embodies or images the reality of God in Jesus. Is a weekly contribution “worthy of the gospel”? I think so.
How do we know whether it is “worthy of the gospel?” Well, it means asking the question whether contributing to the poor embodies the gospel, is consistent with the gospel, and flows from the gospel? Does it bear witness to the gospel? Is it the gospel in action?
Since the gospel is the Christ Event (it is the good news of the kingdom of God for the poor that arrives in Jesus), we are asking whether contributing to the poor as a communal act in the assembly embodies the good news of the kingdom, is consistent with it, and flows from it.
It seems to me that the answer is rather obvious. Jesus ministered to the poor. He became poor for our sakes and asks us to sell our possessions and give to the poor. The gospel is good news for the poor. If this is the meaning of the gospel in relation to the poor, then for the community of Jesus gathered in the name of Jesus to contribute to a common fund for the poor is an act worthy of the gospel.
I often feel that our moment of giving in the assembly is underemphasized. It is tacted onto the Lord’s Supper or made part of the announcements. It almost appears as an afterthought (though I realize collecting money is never any church leadership’s afterthought! ).
I would rather see it receive a gospel emphasis. It ought to be a weekly reminder that our resources do not belong to us. That our resources are not simply for us. Rather, because of the gospel, we share our resources. Because of the gospel, we give for the sake of the poor. This moment in the assembly is a sacred one because giving is an act of grace that testifies to the grace of Jesus in our lives and brings grace (thanksgiving) to God. Our weekly act of giving in the assembly is a moment of participation in the gospel itself! Does it belong in the assembly? Of course, just as much as proclaiming the gospel in word (teaching) and eating/drinking (table). It is the gospel in deed just as baptism and the Supper are the gospel in water and wine.
Do we, however, need some “simple rules” or “laws” for giving? Maybe, as a matter of pragmatics. What might those look like? Well, here goes….
When should we give? Whenever we have opporutunity to embody the good news of the kingdom and are blessed with the resources to give. And the weekly assembly is a wonderful moment to give communally as a witness to the gospel as we have been prospered by God’s gifts to us but, of course, it should not be the only moment, especially as God brings other opportunities into our lives.
Indeed, it might be a turning of CEI on its head to say, for example, I give all my money to the church on Sunday because this is what is required by 1 Corinthians 16:1-4. I’ve actually heard some argue that we should give to no one or nothing other than the church on Sunday. This makes the assembly and the common fund the only resource of God’s kingdom on earth. This not only bad hermeneutics, but it is a delimiting understanding of the kingdom and the nature of kingdom work. Kingdom work is not limited to church treasury funds!
Where should we give? Wherever there is a need to which the good news of the kingdom is an answer, and not merely in the assembly. Giving is a lifestyle; it is gospel living. It is not merely an act of the assembly.
We have been so “assembly-oriented” or “assembly-focused” that it is easy to forget that our gracious, giving and self-denying lifestyle is the essence of discipleship rather than a single contribution on Sunday.
How should we give? Give freely out of our resources by whatever means our resources permit us to give for the sake of the good news of the kingdom. If we merchandise the gospel (that is, sell the services of the gospel), we deny the nature of the gospel as a gift. So, I don’t charge for baptisms. However, if I can run my business so that its profits, or its commodities, or its services might serve the kingdom of God, I see no problem. If the government is willing to fund a day-care at my congregation (unless the nature of the strings attached deny the gospel), I am will to help low income families provide care for their children. I think the principle is so broad that fundraising or the receipt of funds is open-ended as long as any such receipt does not deny the gospel to which we want to bear witness and embody in our world.
Remember, however, that “gospel” here does not refer to a constructed pattern out of the rules of CEI. Rather, it refers to the ministry and work of Jesus (the Christ Event).
For what should we give? To anything that serves the goals of the kingdom of God–anything that furthers the ministry of Jesus in the world. If it participates in the purpose of the gospel itself (to seek and to save the lost, to reverse the curse, to heal the sick, feed the hungry, give justice for the oppressed, etc.), then it is a worthy object of our giving and a worthy object of the common fund of the community. The kingdom is served in a myriad of ways: contributions to adoption agencies, inner city youth programs, hospitals, educational institutions, etc., etc. The kingdom is served by salaried ministers, buildings that are used rather than sit empty six days a week, etc, and when they are used for the goals of the kingdom, then they are worthy objects of our giving and worthy objects of the common fund of the community (the church treasury, in other words).
When we use some abstract notions of “institutionalism” or “denominationalism” to deny helping those who are furthering the ministry of Jesus, who are serving the poor, who are feeding the hungry, who are clothing the naked, who are protecting the oppressed, etc., then it seems to me we have exalted our own inferential opinions and patternistic constructions above the basic work of the gospel itself. To say, for example, that a church cannot contribute from their treasury to an institution caring for hungry children is to place the “pattern” (constructed out of our inferences!) above the the ministry of Jesus himself. Now, that is a crying shame. May God have mercy.
If the poor are Jesus in disguise, can we imagine a situation where we cannot contribute from the church treasury to “X” (any institution) that is caring for the poor because Jesus has given us a pattern that congregations cannot give to human institutions in principle? In that way Jesus denies ministry to the poor to his own church!
I understand that my institutional brothers and sisters have many other issues at work here such as counter-culturalism, radical sectarianism (in the sense of noninstitutional orientation), etc. But the ultimate effect, it seems to me, is to deny the church the opportunity to do the ministry of Jesus through institutions or organizations or ministries that are helping the poor.
And this is not just a problem for “institutional” brothers and sisters since I have heard many within “mainline” (institutional) Churches of Christ argue similarily–the church can’t give to X because it is not the church or the church won’t get the credit, etc. I would suggest that when the poor are helped, God is glorified. But enough of my “soapbox.”
My point is that there are no postive laws that govern the collection and use of the common fund of the community. Rather, there is the gospel, how that gospel is embodied in Jesus himself in his own ministry, how Israel and the early church practiced the good news of the kingdom, and what the good news of the kingdom is.
The Christ Event, the good news of the kingdom of God, shapes our giving. We are invited to participate in the story of God in Jesus. Whatever object or means of giving serves and embodies the ends of the kingdom of God is God-honoring. Instead of searching for laws to delimit our giving, the gospel demands we seek out opportunities to “do good” among all peoples and nations.
When the Pharisees objected to Jesus’ healing ministry on the Sabbath because it broke Sabbath traditions (laws), his response was: “It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:12).
When well-intentioned people haggle over the details of how, when, where and for what to give as a community (over what comes out of the church treasury or cannot come out that common fund) based on legal regulations or positive laws or church patterns, I tend to respond: “It is lawful to do good with the Lord’s money.”
Indeed, it is all the Lord’s money. As disciples of Jesus, we are called to embody the gospel and participate in the gospel by doing good with his money in every way we can and at every opportunity we have whether collectively through a common fund or individually.