Worshiping God with Our Weekly Thank Offering
Every Sunday morning congregations gather for worship. In many, a collection plate is passed among the pews. Some people have resigned themselves to this occasion in the worship service as a necessary evil. Others pass the plate along with the knowing attitude of a carefully worked out doctrine of Christian stewardship.
Still others see the plate as an annoyance, an interruption in the middle of an otherwise spiritually uplifting service. They wonder what would be so wrong about placing a box in the foyer for contributions. What is so important about passing the old plate around?
The standard answer to such a question is that the giving of offerings is an act of worship. But is this true? And if so, are we free to spend the money collected as we wish?
One would expect that the act of offering should be included in any list of the usual parts of corporate worship. Yet in Chapter 21 of the Westminster Confession of Faith where biblical principles of worship are spelled out, there is no mention about the offering in a worship service as being either proper or improper. The Directory for Worship used by the Orthodox Presbyterian Church mentions the bringing of offerings but is intentionally vague concerning the use of those offerings. We must turn to Scripture directly to provide our model. What did the early Christian church do about offerings in worship?
The Practice of the Early Church
From a reading of Acts 2-4 three observations can be made:
- Believers met for worship in homes and in various other existing structures;
- The offerings involved in their worship were solemn (meaning organized and purposeful) but not formal (the act of collecting was not overtly demonstrated); and
- Their offerings were placed at the feet of the apostles so that none among them would have need (Acts 4:34; cf. Deuteronomy 15:4-5).
As the church grew older, more precise functions of worship developed – such as we read in Paul's letters. Among his instructions is that in 1 Corinthians 16 concerning “the collection.” But what was this collection and where did the idea come from?
The concept of tithe in the Old Testament served a specific purpose for believers in the regular worship of God (Deuteronomy 12:4-6). Among the other sacrifices, the tithe was brought to be presented before the Lord and was specifically a representative part of their inheritance from the Lord. Everything the Israelites possessed was tithed, because everything was from the land which the Lord God had given them (Leviticus 27:30). It was restricted to agricultural products and animals – no money.
A tenth of the tithe was to be extracted by the priests (Numbers 18:26) for their own use to take the place of their inheritance in the land. After this was removed from the tithe, the worshiping family was to eat the tithe as the eucharistic meal (Deuteronomy 12:17-19). It was part of the worship service. Further, every three years, God commanded the Israelites to give their tithe completely to the Levites, the aliens, the fatherless and the widow (i.e. those without access to the land); again this was worship to God (Deuteronomy 14:27-29).
Another concept of Old Testament worship was the thank offering. This was not made in fulfillment of a vow or in general obedience to God's command for worship. Rather, it was acknowledgement by the thankful of God's favor (Leviticus 22:29; Psalm 107:22). This was the highest form of peace offering; and as an element of Old Testament worship it was an act of thanksgiving for all of God's blessings.
The Practice Expanded
What is the difference between tithe and thank offering? The regular observance of the tithe was from the fruit of the land. It belonged in the structure of the Old Covenant. The light of the New Covenant expands this concept so that today everything that we have and are is to be a well-pleasing gift to God (Romans 12:1). The thank offering, not seen as necessarily tied to the law, now is also expanded. What once was exceptional or special became normal and continuous (Ephesians 5:19-20). The thank offering includes the fruit of praise from the lips (Hosea 14:2), the expression of the heart (Luke 6:45) and confession of the Lord's name (Romans 14:11; Colossians 3:17). Such an offering is not bound by a particular dispensation. The tithe – directly connected to the land Israel occupied and being part of the Mosaic law which was fulfilled – was not repeated for the New Testament worshiper. Which instruction, then, do we have for observing an offering in our worship service today?
Nowhere in the New Testament is the tithe specifically mentioned with reference to the New Testament worshiper except in Hebrews 7. There it is mentioned to prove the point that the former regulation was weak and useless (Hebrews 7:18) and that the covenant of Jesus is better (Hebrews 7:22), founded on better promises (Hebrews 8:6). Nowhere else in this New Covenant set of documents is the tithe instructed or commanded.
But what about the offering of thanksgiving? That is quite a different matter! It is directly taught in Hebrews 13:15-16: “Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise – the fruit of lips that confess his name. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.” What a drastic change! Previously, only 10% of one's possessions were set apart as holy (Deuteronomy 26:13-14), whereas now all that we possess and do is holy and dedicated to God. Now we can reread Acts 2 and 4 and understand what was going on. The sharing of possessions, the supplying of needs and the caring for the widow and the orphan were all acts of corporate worship.
Paul's letters to the Corinthians focus on this aspect of worship and add dimension to it. He made it quite clear that worship by way of offering (as well as any other form of worship) is from the heart. The whole man must worship God in spirit and in truth. This is his point in 1 Corinthians 13:3, “If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames (both being elements of sacrifice) … but have not love, I gain nothing.” Paul taught the churches that the attitude shown by offerings is to be the New Testament pattern.
An Emphasis Upon the Poor
Worship was to be from the heart, and yet the offerings were organized and ordered. Paul exhorted the churches to plan ahead for the worship of giving (1 Corinthians 16:1-4; 2 Corinthians 9:5). He was not interested in pomp and ceremony during the collecting but that the outcome of the collection might be equality (2 Corinthians 8:13-15).
Finally, lest there be any doubt concerning the appropriateness of the modern-day worshiper following the teaching given here, Paul is clear: “Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth … Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share.” (1 Timothy 6:17-18). It is a commandment of the New Testament age to worship God by thank offerings. It is a commandment to the rich that they should attend to the poor. Consider how the Heidelberg Catechism speaks about this so clearly and purposefully: “I regularly attend the assembly of God's people to learn what God's word teaches, to participate in the sacraments, to pray to God publicly, and to bring Christian offerings for the poor” (#103).
Priorities in Spending
As an act of worship, the offering – submitted by the congregation for the use of the church in the service of the Lord – is dedicated to the Lord and must be spent worshipfully. As with any other act of worship this spending cannot be done according to the imaginations and devices of men. It seems difficult to defend the spending of such funds to pay off a building or an expensive organ or any other item for which a congregation might become indebted in order to possess. Congregations who sign themselves into a mortgage or extended loan deny themselves the Christian privilege that the Macedonians knew of sharing with the living church of Christ. Instead they only sentence their own giving to pay for dead brick and board. (Acts 2:41 tells us three thousand were added to the early church in one day; yet there is not one word mentioned concerning accommodations for worship services. Did they elect a board of trustees? No, they called deacons.)
What might be done to implement New Testament concepts of offering? First, pray corporately that the job of giving would return to God's people. The offering is part of the worship every Sunday. To participate, everyone who can should give something at every service – not just on payday. Further, the intention of the offering should be made known to the people beforehand. The passing of the plate should be the time of thank offering; if the money is to be given to a particular effort, it should be called a collection.
Secondly, the offerings from God's people given for the purposes of feeding the poor and supporting the work of the gospel is a principle that encompasses the entire Bible. Yet most churches subtract from these offerings the expenses of building maintenance, materials and supplies. Exceptional, seasonal or occasional offerings attend to the feeding of the poor, supporting specific missionaries, financing the deacons' fund and the like. I would suggest that a reversal of these priorities is called for. The routine, weekly offerings should go to the missionary and pastor who look directly to the church for support, the poor (first in the church and also at large) and the deacons' fund. The exceptional collections should go towards building maintenance and supplies.
Peter wrote to a group of churches in Asia Minor in his first letter. In it is awareness of much suffering in those churches. But Peter instructed and exhorted his readers to trust and obey in spite of this suffering. Today, most Christians can only identify suffering with inconvenience. And rather than endure it, they strive to eliminate it and thereby have convenience in everything. But Peter exhorted his readers to endure, not to conform.
And he reassured them that they themselves were the temple of the Holy Spirit:
As you come to him, the living Stone – rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him – you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.1 Peter 2:4-5
I would take the liberty to warn those congregations who are going into grave debt to build houses made by hands not to trip over the rejected Cornerstone. Just how do strangers and aliens live in this world anyhow?