The Role of Collections in the Worship Service
Giving is a Spiritual Exercise
The New Testament Church had a much higher view of this part of the worship service. The early Christians viewed giving as an integral part of their consecration to the Lord. To them the offertory represented a sacrifice of thanksgiving to the Lord. They brought their gifts, usually at the time of the Lord's Supper, which was celebrated weekly. They referred to this offertory as the Eucharist, which in its verb form means to be grateful, to give thanks. In its New Testament usage it denoted grateful acknowledgement of benefits received from God's bountiful provisions, especially the spiritual blessings of salvation through Christ's sacrificial death on the cross. Thanksgiving thus became an important element of worship. Sad to say, soon after the death of the apostles, the gifts that worshippers brought to the Lord began to take on a meritorious character and this resulted in erroneous views of the nature of Christ's sacrifice.
The Reformation returned to the original New Testament practice by insisting that our offerings have no meritorious value whatever, but must be seen strictly as tokens of gratitude for Christ's once and for all sacrifice for sin. While our gifts do no merit anything, Scripture does assign great importance to them, provided they are offered out of true gratitude to God for the unspeakable gift of His Son.
The New Testament Concern for the Poor
The Old Testament believers were commanded to bring many different thank-offerings to the tabernacle, and later, in the temple. In the New Testament, however, both the number and the kind of offerings were greatly reduced and simplified. For instance, the early Christians were only required to give of their substance to support the poor and needy in their assemblies.
In 1 Corinthians 16, the apostle Paul lays down some specific rules regarding the giving of gifts. He writes in verse 1, "Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I have given order to the churches of Galatia, even so do ye." Paul is talking about the collection that was being held in many churches for the troubled church in Jerusalem. A terrible drought had struck, which left many Jewish Christians without food. Also, after Stephen's death, a fierce persecution broke out against the church, forcing many believers to flee, with the result that they lost all their belongings. However, this calamity provided the Gentile churches with a great opportunity. While they had profited from the church at Jerusalem spiritually, they could now minister to that church in a material way.
This is a beautiful picture of the way the church is one all over the earth. What happens to our brothers and sisters in other corners of the earth is, or should be, of great concern to us as well. In the process of reminding us of our duty in this regard, Paul gives seven important principles to guide us in the matter of giving.
Giving as a Universal Practice
The first principle is that giving is a universal practice among Christians. Paul writes to the Corinthians, "...as I have given order to the churches of Galatia, even so do ye."
It was not something that the Corinthians alone had to do. Wherever Paul went and founded a church, he taught converts to give, because giving is an essential part of Christianity. It is not an option; nor does one need to be rich before giving something. The apostles taught people to give when they had hardly anything, because they considered a convert's willingness to give a sure mark of grace.
Giving on a Weekly Basis
The second principle is that giving to the Lord's cause is something we should do every week. "Upon the first day of the week," Paul says, lay something aside. This is one of the first indications we have in the epistles that the Christians, by this time, had begun to gather for worship on the first day of the week, Sunday. The Jewish day of worship, of course, is Saturday. But these Christians had discontinued worshipping on the Sabbath. They now met on the first day of the week because it was the day when Jesus rose from the dead. Therefore the apostle makes giving part of worshipping their risen Lord.
Giving is every Christian's Duty
Third, giving is a personal act – "every one of you," the apostle Paul states. He does not leave anybody out. Even children must be taught to give. It may be only a few coins or small change, but on every Lord's Day there ought to be a gift from every church member, confessing and baptized. It is not the amount that is important, it is the regularity of it, the fact that there is a continual reminder that since you have freely received, you ought to freely give as well. Everyone should do this.
Giving the "Piggy Bank" Way
Fourth, Paul says, "every one of you lay by him in store" (or lay something aside). People in those days got paid every day. So what Paul wants them to do is lay aside a little bit each day so that on the first day of the week they will have a larger amount to bring to the services and contribute to the needs of others.
Notice that they had a specific cause to support. They were not just giving to put money in the bank for a rainy day. No, the goal was to collect money to support the needy saints in Jerusalem.
Giving Proportionate to Income
A fifth principle is, "as God hath prospered him." That means you give according to the way God has given to you. Has He poured out abundantly? Then give abundantly. Are you having a hard time and barely making it in this time of recession? Well, then your gift can be reduced proportionately. It ought to be something, but it can be very little because God is not interested in how much you give. He is only interested in your motive in giving.
The sixth principle is also important. Paul says, do this so that you don't have to collect money when I come. Why would he say that? Well, because this apostle knew that he, when he was personally present, had a great impact on people. He did not want them to give because they were moved by his preaching or by his stories of what God had done in sinners' lives. That would be a kind of spiritual extortion.
There is a lot of that going on in churches today. Psychological tricks and gimmicks of all kinds are played upon people to get them to open their pocketbooks and give. Paul says, I don't want any of that going on when I come. I want your giving to come out of a heart that has been moved by the grace of God. The Lord does not want giving on any terms other than those that grow out of gratitude for His undeserved mercies.
The seventh principle is set forth in verses 3 and 4; let me paraphrase here: When I arrive I will write letters of recommendation for the messengers you may choose to deliver your gift to Jerusalem. He will write letters to assure the Jerusalem saints that the messengers who bring this money are trustworthy men. I'll be glad to do that, he says, so that these men can bring the gift and if you want me to go along that's fine with me too.
What Paul is stressing here is that giving should be carried out in a responsible manner and that the money is delivered to its destination in a proper and accountable way.
Motives for Giving
These seven principles mentioned by Paul go a long way towards guiding us in our giving. There are additional principles mentioned in Scripture as well, even by the same apostle Paul.
Giving to the Lord and His cause is a spiritual exercise and a thermometer of our love for God and our neighbour. Giving from that motive and spirit is pleasing in God's sight. As Paul writes in his second letter to the Corinthians, chapter 9:7, "Every man according as he purposeth in his heart, so let him give, not grudgingly, or of necessity: for God loveth a cheerful giver." What a wonderful promise that is! If we give cheerfully we become a little bit like God because He delights to give good gifts even to the wicked, but especially to His people who live in covenant relation with Him.
A Serious Challenge
Do covenant people always display this generous spirit? Sad to say, they do not.
Spurgeon writes: It takes a great deal of grace to make some men cheerful givers. With some the last part of their nature that ever gets sanctified is their pockets. I am sure it grieves the Spirit of God when He sees the blood-bought as money grasping as those who are of the world. It grieves the Spirit and He often withdraws His comforting influences when He sees His servants falling down to the dull, dead, brutish level of men of the world whose cry is, 'What shall we eat, and what shall we drink, and wherewithal shall we be clothed?'
Remember Paul's Focus
It should also be remembered that when Paul urges the Corinthians to give, he means giving to others and not to themselves. Whenever collections are mentioned in the New Testament the references are usually to funds raised to help those in need whether in the church or outside the fellowship. Seldom if ever do we read of collections for themselves.
Whereas in the Old Testament we read of temples that needed to be built and maintained or priests that had to be provided for, the New Testament church had comparatively few needs. There were no church buildings, schools or pastor's salaries and parsonages that needed to be budgeted for. Believers met in each other's homes and there were no full-time ministers, at least not in the early years. True, Paul speaks of labourers who are worthy of their reward (1 Tim. 5:18) and that those who preach the gospel should live off the gospel (1 Cor. 9:14). But these references are more to be taken as principles, which were to govern the churches in later years than at the present time when they were still being instituted and organized.
Today, of course, we have all these added expenses for which money has to be collected. Our Heidelberg Catechism says in Lord's Day 38 that in addition to contributing to the relief of the poor we are to see to it that the ministry of the gospel and the schools be maintained.
It cannot be denied that today the latter causes mentioned here receive more attention than the former. In many churches the deaconate fund is so well supplied that weekly collections for it are deemed unnecessary. Although this varies from congregation to congregation, it does mean that the emphasis in giving has shifted from that of the New Testament church. The result is that our giving is often too much geared to supporting causes and projects that benefit ourselves rather than others.
Many of these causes are legitimate and even necessary such as building suitable houses of worship, depending on the climate we live in. But we have to be careful that we do not lose sight of the needs of the poor. It is true that the number of poor in our churches is far less than was the case in the New Testament church. But are there not multitudes of poor living (and dying) in other countries many of whom are brothers and sisters in Christ? Yes, we are supporting organizations that seek to minister to the underprivileged and destitute in developing nations. Word and Deed, Come Over and Help, and the Christian Refugee Committee come to mind here. But what is the percentage of our income that goes to outside causes compared to what we spend on our own internal needs?
Are We a Stagnant or Vibrant Church?
A church that gives only or primarily to itself is in danger of becoming a stagnant church. But a church that is concerned with the needs of others will likely be a vibrant and healthy church. The Philippian church was such a church. Her members cared for others and for that reason were blessed by the Lord. The church at Corinth was not like that. They boasted of their great knowledge and spiritual gifts but they had little or no concern for others. That's why Paul had to remind them, "Therefore, as ye abound in everything, in faith, and utterance, and knowledge, and in all diligence and in your love to us, see that ye abound in this grace also," namely the grace of giving (2 Cor. 8:7).
Do we not need this reminder too? We also abound in many things – materially and spiritually. We have the Gospel preached to us every Lord's Day. Many of us profess to know some of its saving and transforming power in our lives. Well then, Paul would say, display also that other gift that cannot be separated from the rest of God's gifts: the gift of liberality and generosity. As another apostle puts it: "To do good and to communicate forget not: for with such sacrifices God is well pleased" (Heb. 13:16).