“It Ain’t That Complicated” — Applied Theological Hermeneutics V

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?

What regulates the assembly?  Is it positive law?  I think not.  Rather, it is the gospel. [Valentine, Melton and Hicks discuss this question in the last chapter of their book A Gathered People.]

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.



12 Responses to ““It Ain’t That Complicated” — Applied Theological Hermeneutics V”

  1.   Bobby Valentine Says:

    John Mark I have really enjoyed this series of posts. Thanks for the calls over the weekend. Your friendship is greatly appreciated.

    Bobby V

  2.   richard constant Says:

    boy oh boy

    talk about fixed and tight.
    thanks for the breath at the end of that thought.

    you are one peice of work
    JOHN MARK
    MUCH BIG BLESSINGS
    RICH IN CA

  3.   preacherman Says:

    Mark you made great points on this series.
    I enjoyed it alot.

  4.   hoopster Says:

    As a former anti (for lack of a better term) it often seemed that the regulations imposed on the assembly trickled their way into our lifestyles as well. For example, though we were told we should help the poor individually outside of the assembly, many, most did not. It felt dirty and wrong. Probably because it was pounded into our heads that the Lord’s money could not be used to help denominational people or really anyone other than NI CoC’s in good standing with the Guardian of Truth. For what ever reason, it just seemed to translate to the rest of our daily lives. Ironically, most of the money collected was only spent on the building and paying the preacher (stingily I might add).

    The spirit of giving to the poor collectively has wondrous affects on our hearts and has “gospel” written all over it. IMO, a giving church is a happy and fulfilled church.

    In other words, I agree with your post. ;-)

  5.   Keith Brenton Says:

    I have to wonder if there aren’t churches that could have a “Christ event” happen right in the middle of their worship and folks would walk out because it wasn’t authorized in scripture.

    I work at a church. It’s where my paycheck comes from. After almost three years, I still feel weird about that. Like the money should be going to help someone who is really, desperately in need. Like it shouldn’t be going to someone who basically just tries to keep everyone in the church informed about all the wonderful things that are happening for them within it – and a few nice things that are happening for others because of it.

  6.   Joseph Kelly Says:

    My wife and I were frustrated when we watched our weekly checks (okay, we actually give once a month after the monthly paycheck arrives) go to a congregation with 80-90% overhead. Most of the money was used irresponsibly, at least as we saw it. We finally spread our giving equally over five different charities. Some were church based, some not. But we were able to be selective about our charities and give to organizations with little overhead and great success.

    We still contribute 1/5 of our charity money to our local congregation (which has recently changed). But more than money, we give of our talents. We have more to offer our local congregation by sharing ourselves than by giving them all of our charitable giving.

    Unlike our local congregations, we can’t always be overseas helping in places where war, natural disasters, and poverty affect the lives of many. But we are pleased that we can give to those organizations that are making a difference, and in that way, embody the gospel where our bodies are not.

  7.   K. Rex Butts Says:

    Keith,

    I was at a church on a mission trip with Harding where many people walked out angry after a woman was baptized because there were twenty or so people gathering around this new babe in Christ, holding hands and singing “We Love You with the Love of the Lord.” Their justification for leaving was that our actions were not done in “orderly worship” but instead was cultish like. So yes, the gospel (Christ event) was taking place among them and they missed because of their narrow, rigid, and suffocating view of Christianity.

    Rex

  8. Avatar of johnmarkhicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

    We are all stewards of what the Lord has given us. Thinking carefully about what we do with it is an important kingdom act.

    I appreciate the thoughts, Rex, Keith and Joseph.

    While I may not agree with some uses of money at my local congregation, I believe I am responsible to share with them in a significant way because I have committed myself to the kingdom work in that place (my local fellowship) and use the resources of that congregation myself (nice to have comfortable chairs, for example). Nevertheless, my giving is not limited to my local congregation.

    Hopefully, we are so moved to give by the grace of God that 10% is not our bottom line and there is much to share with many.

  9.   Cheryl Says:

    Bobby V. suggested this series on his blog. I’m glad he did. I have really enjoyed reading your posts. You have given me a lot to think about. God Bless!

  10.   Ron Downey Says:

    I seemed to miss out on what was meant by CEI. It is a great article and I have followed and read most of your work. Thanks for providing this valuable post. I know you desire only to honor God. Thank you.

  11. Avatar of johnmarkhicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

    CEI refers to the hermeneutical system that has historically characterized Churches of Christ (particularly from the 1860s, debated heavily in the 1950s-1970s). It refers to “command, example, inference” as a gird for seeking positive laws regulating the church. Follow other articles under the tag “CEI” at http://wordpress.com/tag/cei/

    Thanks for your encouragement.

    • Avatar of barryb  Barry Bullington Says:

      Thanks Mark for this series of lessons. May want to check the link in your post. It doesnt lead to CENI discussion.

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