On more than one occasion I have heard a great church fundraiser, the late Dr. James Hamil, speak on church finances. Dr. Hamil was pastor of First Assembly of God in Memphis, Tennessee, for over three decades. I have listened as he declared from the pulpit what he later put in print: "One of every sixty verses in the four gospels deals with stewardship. Money is spoken of in the Bible six times more than of water baptism and forty-five times more than of the Lord's Supper." If Jesus so emphasized the subject, then we ought to learn what His message on money was.
A study of the gospels yields the gems of wisdom the Lord offered in His teaching on man and finances.
My purpose in this article is to share a summary of what the Son of God taught about money. He spoke about getting it, managing it, sharing it, and seeking to remain free from coveting it.
First, in His words about money as recorded in the gospels, Jesus discussed the issue of getting it. He covered the questions that arise on obtaining money by legitimate, questionable, and illegal means.
Of course, the Master sanctioned getting money by any legitimate means. Naturally, that included being paid for services rendered in honest labor. He placed the work of ministers in preaching the Gospel in that category. In His briefing before sending the Apostles on their first solo mission in ministry, He said simply, "The worker is worth his keep" (Matthew 10:10).
In sending the Twelve out, the Lord placed rather interesting restrictions on them. He told them not to take any supplies for their journey, declaring, "Do not take along any gold or silver or copper in your belts; take no bag for the journey, or extra tunic, or sandals or a staff" (Matthew 10:9-10). Jesus gave similar instructions to the seventy-two (seventy in some translations) Gospel workers whom He sent out later (Luke 10:4). Further, He told both groups that they must learn to accept the hospitality of those they met along the way whose hearts were stirred to offer them free room and board as a part of their pay (Matthew 10:11).
Thus He surely realized that accepting such gifts from fellow believers is sometimes difficult, especially when one is just beginning the ministry. The truth of the Lord's declaration, "It is more blessed to give than to receive" (Acts 20:35), comes alive in moments when young ministers sit in the sanctuary and realize that the offering is being received for them! All of a sudden, they wish they were among the people giving rather than being on the platform receiving.
Later the workers of Christ learned more fully why the Teacher had placed such restrictions in sending them to the whitened harvest fields the first time.
Near the end of His ministry, He asked them, "When I sent you without purse, bag or sandals, did you lack anything?"(Luke 22:35). When they replied that they had lacked nothing, "He said to them, ‘But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don't have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one'" (v. 36). Thus the Lord implied that they had learned by experience that God would supply their needs in ministry. Accordingly, it was now permissible for them to take ordinary supplies with them in their missionary journeys. They were as worthy of being compensated for their work as any were.
Of course the principle holds true today for all the ministers of a church staff, as well as all of its other employees. Too frequently congregations hold the view that, since such work is "a ministry," it should be offered "sacrificially," at a pay scale well below that of other workers in society. Why should the church compensate its employees with noticeably less pay than what secular employers do in business and industry?
In addition to earning money through perfectly legitimate means, Jesus also addressed the matter of gaining income in a questionable manner. In fact, He dramatically demonstrated His displeasure toward businessmen who took advantage of customers while selling in the Temple of God! (Mark 11:15-18). After overturning their coin tables, opening the coops that held the doves, and driving animals for sacrifice from the premises, He declared, "My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations. But you have made it a den of robbers" (v. 17).
His anger toward them was due to more than the simple fact that they were selling merchandise in the House of the Lord. Money changers charged exorbitant exchange rates. They traded the Hebrew shekel for Roman coin, using the same coins over and over again for profit. Since every Israelite had to pay a Temple tax of a half-shekel, perhaps the money changers began their business as a "service" to worshipers. The dove sellers charged extortionate prices. Doves usually constituted the sacrifices of the poor. Thus, the sellers were taking advantage of the poorest section of the population. Even the priests were in on the dishonest schemes. They took a percentage of the income from it all for the use of the building. Jesus certainly rebuked greed in the ministry in all He did there and elsewhere.
Churches today also justify some of their ministries on the grounds that through these they are performing a needed service to the community.
Commendably, they provide daycare for children of working mothers, retirement homes for the elderly, and academic training for children and youth in Christian schools. In it all, however, they should carefully guard their motives. Some congregations boast of how wise they are in using a daycare facility in order to gain money to make payments on the new church sanctuary! One may question the propriety of such means.
Besides the obtaining of money by perfectly legitimate and by questionable methods, Jesus also spoke on the practice of gaining money by definitely illegal means, strongly condemning the practice. He specifically charged religious leaders with having done this. In pronouncing a series of woes on the scribes, Pharisees, and hypocrites, He said, "You devour widow's houses" (Matthew 23:14). No doubt they arranged to have themselves named as executors of the estates of aged ladies. They would likely claim they agreed to serve in this way as a ministry. Yet, once they had control of the finances of a trusting woman, they took advantage of her by lining their pockets with her money, finding various ways to do so.
I once listened with keen interest as a noted pastor told of an experience when he resisted all temptation to do any such thing. The husband of a lady in his congregation had died. Soon afterwards, she came to him declaring her intention to give her house to the pastor and his family. She explained that, since her children were all gone from home by that time, and especially now that her dear companion had died, she knew that she no longer needed the big house in which they had lived. She had observed the pastor's wife tending to her family of a husband and four children in a small house, and the lady had decided that the pastor's family needed a large house much more than she did.
No doubt some ministers would have accepted the widow's offer with thanksgiving for the way the Lord had provided a real need in his family. That pastor replied to the offer, however, by saying, "My dear sister, I could not possibly receive such a gift from you. Besides, you should make no major decisions for at least a year following your husband's death. You see, later you may realize your need of your house. If after a year you still want to dispose of it, I will help you find a realtor who will assist you in doing that. Then you will have the money from the sale for needs in the future that you are unaware of now."
Many people in the world today who have accumulated some wealth along the way in life and who have no children to inherit their estate, do desire to make a sizeable gift to the work of the Lord upon their death. It is commendable of them to have that desire and praiseworthy of the church to offer some assistance where needed in drawing up legal documents to make that settlement possible when they depart this life. Still, church leaders cannot be too careful in keeping their motives honorable and in guarding their actions so as to demonstrate absolute integrity in the process of serving such people. The greed that moved the scribes, Pharisees, and hypocrites toward dishonest gain in Jesus' day still lives in the twenty-first century. It works just as subtly now as in the first.
Jesus not only spoke of getting money, but He also discussed the matter of managing it. This included both wasting it and investing it.
The parable of the prodigal son that came from the lips of Jesus is a sad saga of what it is like to squander one's possessions. Though the story does not center on the subject of finances, its details on the misuse of money provide valuable insight into that subject as well as a dark background for its real message on the great love of God for His children who have departed from His house in rebellion (Luke 15:11-15).
The younger of two sons in the story petitioned his father to divide his estate between the two at once. Usually, of course, that happened after the death of both parents in a family, though some today might do so earlier for certain tax advantages or other reasons. Similarly, Abraham divided his estate some years before his death to assure Isaac as his main heir (Genesis 25:5-6). The laws of some ancient nations provided for that. Still, the youth in the parable may have had no legal right to make his petition.
The father probably grieved that this son was not willing to wait until the father's death for the inheritance. He may have sorrowed most at the young man's desire for freedom from his father's supervision. In his rebellion the young man took advantage of his father's kindness and then turned his back on him. Yet, his father made no attempt to stop the son, though he knew his was an unwise move. In a similar way our Heavenly Father grants individuals the right to go their own way, even when He knows their choice is a poor one. Youth today with similar rebellious tendencies to get away from the influence of home as soon as possible should consider what happened in this story. It is better to learn from the sad experience of others than to know those heartaches personally.
At any rate, the father divided the inheritance between his two sons. According to Deuteronomy 21:17, younger sons customarily received only half as much as the oldest son got. With money in hand, the young man left home almost at once and went to a distant land. There he engaged in excesses of sensual pleasures, including the wasteful dispensing of his fortune. He wanted to experience life now rather than keep anything on which to build for the future. Quickly, though, his lifestyle robbed him of all he had, both economically and morally. Jesus said, "He spent all he had" (Luke 15:14). Worse, when his money was all gone, a famine came to the country where he was. Penniless, friendless, and hungry, he took the only job he could get, feeding swine.
Only when he was in desperation did he finally "come to himself" and return home to his father. In most cases, those who waste a fortune today have no loving father to welcome them back. Unlike the beautiful ending to the story of the prodigal son, for most people when it is gone, it is gone. Rarely will another pick up one who is down on his luck without two coins to rub together in his pocket and return him back to a place of plenty once again.
This parable contains a lesson for both individuals and congregations.
The careful management of funds can keep an individual from financial ruin and guard a congregation against bankruptcy. When a church goes broke and fails to meet its financial obligations in the community, it severely wounds many in the process. After one church had defaulted in the payment of both interest and principal on bonds it had sold, pastors and people who came along later in the congregation found their efforts at evangelism greatly hampered because of the situation. One approached an unbeliever with an invitation to come to the church. His reply was, "Never! I will never enter the doors of that church again until it pays my parents for the money they lost when they trusted the people there in buying some of their bonds."
In another parable Jesus offered lessons on investing money (Matthew 25:14-30). Generally, we rightly interpret the story on the use of one's talents as applying to making a good investment of all the gifts, graces, and abilities that are a part of one's God-given personality. We should not fail to recognize, however, that the Lord clearly used an illustration from the economic world to get His point across.
In the story, a certain king was planning an extended absence from his realm, and before he went away he assigned stewardship responsibilities to the servants on his estate. He needed someone to manage his affairs while he was gone. Thus they became stewards or managers of what belonged to another, as in the case of man's stewardship of all that is of value on planet earth.
To one servant he assigned the management of five talents, to another two, and to a third only one. The talent was the largest unit of money in the ancient world. It was seventy-five pounds of un-coined silver, worth the equivalent of twenty years' wages for the average worker. Thus this story involves huge sums of currency. Upon the king's return from his journey, each servant gave the king an account of the money entrusted to that servant's care. The first returned his five portions along with five more he had gained through wise investment of the money. The second gave a similar report for his two talents. The third, however, declared he was afraid to invest his, so all he had to return was the principal, his one original talent. While the master of these servants commended the first two with, "Well done," he said to the third, "You should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest" (Matthew 25:27).
In this way Jesus not only encouraged the best possible use of one's natural or spiritual "talents" or abilities, but at least indirectly He indicated that investing one's money in order to gain interest is wise. It is true, of course, that under the Mosaic economy an Israelite could not charge interest if he lent money to a fellow Israelite. If he made a loan to a foreigner, however, he could charge interest. Therefore, when churches are accumulating monies in such things as building funds, they do well to invest them, at least in short-term accounts, in order to gain whatever increase comes through that process.
In addition to discussing getting and investing money, Jesus also spoke much of sharing it. This includes giving alms and paying tithes on one's income.
Jesus' teachings abound with plain instruction on sharing what one has with the needy. For example, He declared that on Judgment Day the Lord will say to some, "Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me" (Matthew 25:41-43).
Perhaps, then, churches today should consider committing a greater portion of their annual budgets to giving to the needy, both inside and outside their congregations. Maybe it is time for churches to cease spending so much of what they receive on newer and ever-larger facilities and use more of it helping to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. More and more need help in paying their rent, keeping their utility bills paid, and carrying the growing load in the costs of medical care.
From his experience of helping churches design new buildings, Ray Bowman writes, "Time after time I was amazed by what a large percentage of their incomes these churches were spending on facilities. Could it be that facility expense, especially interest expense, was a major reason these churches had so little to spend on ministry? What if churches kept building the same buildings, I wondered, but paid for them in cash? What if all the money being spent on interest were redirected to ministry?"
Bowman suggests that if congregations devised ways to make more efficient use of the buildings they have, they might find they do not need new ones, or at least they might be able to delay building for a noticeable period of time. Specifically, he recommends remodeling for multiple uses and building an addition to increase the usefulness of present facilities.
In the same way that churches ought to think of giving more to help the needy, perhaps individual believers should make similar changes.
It seems that the lifestyle of the current culture leads to the fact that the more they make, the more they spend. Whenever they get raises on the job, they immediately think of moving to a larger house and buying a newer car. In short, too many today spend right up to the limit of their incomes. Consequently, when they hear of the need of a fellow believer or another, they have little if any left to give. To swim upstream against such currents in the culture that surrounds believers will not be easy, but the rewards both now and in eternity will be worth it.
As early in His ministry as the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus stressed the importance of attitude in sharing what one has with the needy. He spoke of it when he discussed the subject of giving alms or practicing charitable deeds (Matthew 6:1-4).
He taught that one should not give as the hypocrites do, with trumpet fanfare, drawing attention to their actions in the synagogue or on the street, with the primary motive of being seen by others. The Teacher explained that if that was their purpose, they would receive their reward in being praised by men. In heaven, however, an angel will mark their bill, "Paid in full."
On the other hand, if they want to give with an attitude that is acceptable to God, they will do so without letting the right hand know what the left hand does and in secret to be seen by God alone. Then they will receive their reward from the Lord.
I witnessed perfect obedience to that teaching of Jesus once in West Africa. I was teaching there during a summer, and a wealthy businessman who was a believer had moved into the country where the school was located. The school was experiencing difficulty in getting funds for payment of students' bills transferred from the businessman's home country to his adopted land. Learning that he was returning home to attend to some business affairs, the president of the school requested the man help by speaking with appropriate government officials about the matter. His efforts were successful. To show appreciation, the president invited the brother and his wife to join him and his companion for dinner at the finest hotel in the city. His response was, "Sorry that we cannot accept your gracious invitation. If we do, that is all the reward we will ever get. We had rather wait and receive it in heaven."
All of this brings into question some of the practices churches may have borrowed from the world's approach in raising funds.
Then again, maybe they do it for pragmatic reasons, simply because it works. For example, should they receive pledges in which persons publicly announce the amount they are giving to the building fund?
Tithing is a very significant and sometimes controversial financial practice in the Church. Two incidents in the life of Jesus suggest that tithing was still practiced by the Jewish people in His day. In one He speaks of a Pharisee who declared, "I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get" (Luke 18:12). The man's obvious pride in the practice of tithing stands condemned, by implication, by the Lord. Still, this account is evidence that devoted people of His day carefully paid tithes on all their income.
In the other incident, Jesus chides religious leaders especially for very carefully paying tithes, even on common garden herbs, while at the same ignoring the more important things like justice and love. He said, "Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God" (Luke 11:42). He goes on to sanction the practice of tithing in an additional comment: "You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former [tithing] undone" (v. 42).
It is not surprising, then, to learn that tithing continued as a practice in the post-New Testament church. George W. Harrison declares, "Theologians such as Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine and Chrysostom made tithing the themes of their sermons. Congregations were both threatened and cajoled. Eventually tithing was made official by the Council of Tours and the Second Council of Macon. By the ninth century, the tithe became civil law in the West."
Covetousness manifests itself in an inordinate desire to continually acquire more and more of this world's goods. That goal serves a person as his reason for living on earth. It becomes his religion. Thus Paul calls it idolatry (Colossians 3:5). The sin is so subtle and so far reaching in its consequences that today's Church would be wise to use the Bible's term of covetousness in referring to it rather than calling it materialism, which somehow seems less serious.
Covetousness is a sin that provides a temptation to the rich (Matthew 6:19-24). We sometimes call it avarice or greed. It tempts those with wealth, those who have a surplus in life. Jesus began His warnings against it by addressing such people. To those who had money to invest in life, He said, "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal" (Matthew 6:19-20). Then He explained that where one's treasure is, there will be one's heart also.
Does this suggest that it is displeasing to God for a child of His to be wealthy? Not at all.
Job, Abraham, and Joseph of Arimathea were all rich. A second question might be, is it wrong to lay something up for a rainy day? Again, no. God gave Joseph the wisdom to plan ahead for the benefit of the entire nation of Egypt (Gen. 41:33-36). The Creator also placed enough sense in the ant for it to know to store up provisions for the winter (Proverbs 6:6-11).
On the other hand, the prohibitive command of the Master against covetously motivated conduct is supported by logic. In the East, wealth often consisted of clothing, which moths could quickly destroy. Wealth was also measured by grain, which vermin could easily devour. ("Rust" in Matthew 6:20 here refers literally to "eating.") Further, thieves often broke through sun-dried brick walls into a house to take away the owner's goods. Modern counterparts of such things can still take away a person's wealth in a moment today. In addition to inflation or economic depression, other financial problems such as decay of autos and appliances, exorbitant medical expenses, wanes in the Stock Market, or bank failure can quickly rob one of all wealth.
Jesus continued this lesson by offering a more desirable alternative. He advised that one should lay up treasure in heaven. Then, neither moth, rust, nor thieves would give a person any concern. An even greater reason for depositing riches in heaven, however, is because of the strong bond between the heart and one's treasure. Matthew Henry reminds us that, "The heart follows the treasure, as the needle follows the loadstone, or the sunflower the sun." How does a person lay up treasure in heaven? By investing one's time, talent, and money in the work of the Lord.
On the same subject, the Teacher explained the need of seeing through two good eyes (Matthew 6:22-23). The engine of the soul needs one clear direction in life. Good, clear, healthy eyes obviously provide a good sense of direction when one walks. Bad, evil, or diseased eyes, however, impair a person's ability to maneuver the trails of life successfully. Both of these truths become important indeed when they are applied to one's moral vision. Covetousness clouds the mind as much as alcohol numbs the senses.
Since covetousness is idolatry, Jesus warned against the tendency in the person who yields to it to attempt to serve two masters (Matthew 6:24). He did not say a person should not serve two masters; He said a person cannot. Singleness of ownership and fullness of service constitute the essence of slavery.
The subtle sin of covetousness tempts not only the rich but the poor also.
Their problem is one of shortage rather than surplus, of anxiety rather than avarice. Thus, the Lord addressed the poor on the subject also (Matthew 6:25-34). To them He said, "Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes?" (v. 25). His command was essentially, "Stop being anxious."
The poor man who is sinfully stingy is as wrong as the miserly rich person. Alexander Maclaren quotes Abbott-Smith as saying, "The rich fool stretching himself out to rest on the pile of his possessions, and the poor fool tossing about on the billows of unquiet thought, are at bottom under the influence of the same folly."
Further, when Jesus instructed people to "take no thought" (as some versions render His words) about material goods, He does not condemn planning ahead in life. Matthew Henry explains, "It does not follow that we must therefore neglect, or do carelessly, the proper business of this life; it is the praise of the virtuous woman [from the Book of Proverbs, chapter 31], that she lays her hand to the spindle, makes fine linen and sells it. . . . Idleness tempts God, instead of trusting him."
The Lord's warning, rather, is toward being overly concerned about the trinity of care: food, drink, and clothing. Jesus supports His command with an appeal to logic. If God provided the all-important physical body, He certainly will care for the less important clothing to cover it. If the Father gave us life, which cannot be valued in terms of money, He will make certain we have food to sustain it. God will not freely supply the greater and then in turn deny the lesser to us.
Jesus proceeded with a threefold illustration from nature in support of His lesson. Perhaps pointing to birds flying overhead, He said, "Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?" (Matthew 6:26). From there, Jesus goes on to indicate that God is much more concerned with the man He created in His image than with the birds.
The Lord explained further that by worry no one can add a foot to his height. Nor will anxiety produce a longer life for anyone; indeed it might shorten it! Worry in efforts to change the unchangeable is energy spent for nothing.
Jesus' next illustration concerned looking at the lilies (Matthew 6:28-29). He may have reached down, picked a flower, and used it as an object lesson here. He reasoned that the flowers didn't worry about clothing, so why should people? The lilies' attire did not come by either toiling or spinning, yet they wore more gorgeous outfits than even Solomon had! Thus the poor should trust in the Lord (v. 30). God clothes the plants of the field although theirs was a short life. The lily that He held in His hand might be used, when dry, for something as insignificant as starting a fire in a bread oven. Would God not much more take care of human beings who are His? The covetous heart of the poor man displays his lack of trust in God's provision for him in life. Worry and trust are incompatible. They will no more mix than water and oil.
God's servants in the Kingdom should not follow the ways of the pagan (Matthew 6:31-32). They should stop worrying in asking the nail-biting question of what they would eat, drink, or wear. The pagans worried about such things, but God's people should trust Him for provision, since He knows all and possesses everything. Legitimate concern for life's necessities is acceptable to God. Writing several centuries ago, a noted preacher warned against being lazy, sitting idle, and expecting God to drop a roasted goose into one's mouth. Yet, if one strives too hard for an ever-increasing standard of living, problems will result. One should seek God and His kingdom first in life. Then He will provide all these other things for His own along the way.
Thus, believers should let today be the source of their basic concern (Matthew 6:34). Tomorrow will bring its own share of challenges. Anxiety devastates one's peace of mind. It also weakens one's Christian testimony. Those who say that gain is godliness are on the wrong track; such a doctrine could easily end up as a cloak for covetousness.
Covetousness is so subtle that it sucks the very life out of many believers.
It drives wives to work days and husbands to work nights in order to save babysitting fees. In addition, the husband may be tempted to get a second, weekend job. That leaves no time for family life and little time for God. All of this people sometimes do just to live in a bigger house, drive a newer automobile, and have a cabin on the lake along with a boat in the dock below it.
In summary, both individual believers and bodies of Christians making up the local church should order their lives according to the gems of wisdom that Jesus offered in His teaching on man and finances. In addressing the subject of money, He spoke about getting it, managing it, sharing it, and seeking to remain free from coveting it. Obviously, the way to please Him in the realm of finances while in this world is to abide by the principles that He set forth in His instructions, as indicated in the discussion above.
Bowman, Ray. When Not to Borrow. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996.
Hamil, James E. Pastor to Pastor. Springfield, Mo.: Gospel Publishing House, 1985.
Harrison, George W. Church Fund Raising. Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1964.
Henry, Matthew. Matthew Henry's Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1961.
Maclaren, Alexander. "Matthew." In Wesleyan Bible Commentary, vol. 4. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1964.
Dr. Charles Harris is a recently retired Professor of Bible and Pastoral Ministries as well as Chairman of the Division of Church Ministries at Central Bible College in Springfield, Missouri. He was associated with the college for thirty-eight years.
In addition to his career as an educator, Dr. Harris is also an author. His writings have appeared in the Sunday School Counselor, God's Word for Today, and the Adult Teacher. Among his works are three books--What's Ahead, Proofs of Christianity, and Under the Glass: An Analysis of Church Structure--as well as a commentary on the Book of Second Corinthians in the Complete Biblical Library. He was a contributing author of Power Encounter: A Pentecostal Perspective.
Dr. Harris holds a bachelor's degree in Bible, a master's degree in counseling, and a doctorate in education.