Church Finance Part 1: The Biblical Concept of Stewardship

The subject of church finance is an important aspect of the work of the pastor, though it is but one of many phases of that ministry. Naturally it fits under the category of his or her administrative duties as the leader of a congregation. The term administration comes into the English language from a Latin word referring to being a servant. It appears in the Bible in the New International Version (NIV) as one of several gifts that the Lord has set in the Church. The Greek word there is kubernasis, meaning "to steer a ship, to guide" (1 Corinthians 12:28). The word is not found elsewhere in the New Testament.

 Some idealistic young ministers declare they have no intentions of getting their hands dirty with the business affairs of the churches they pastor. They plan to hire business administrators to do all of that. None would dispute that such a person can offer invaluable assistance to the pastor. Many congregations, however, cannot afford the services of someone to fill that position. Besides, even with help like that, the pastor must thoroughly understand the field because he or she must supervise the business administrator. The pastor is the chief officer in the church and thus, in the final analysis, is responsible for everything that happens in it.

Samuel Blizzard reports that in his study in the 1950s, administrative and organizational activities took 50 % of the work time of clergymen.[1] A Louisiana study among Southern Baptist pastors in 1973 indicated that administrative duties consumed about 25 % of their time. A representative study of ministers in the various denominations in Minneapolis in 1980 revealed that administrative responsibilities required 36 % of their time.[2] Realizing what is happening in these matters, one layman exclaimed, "We are chaining divinity to a desk; we are asking prophets of God to serve as presidents of corporations." Even in the best of circumstances, however, pastors cannot possibly free themselves from administration in their churches.

At the center of all of this is the matter of church finances.

It includes budgeting, accounting, auditing, and reporting, with all that each of those activities entails. Yet, basic to it all is the collection and distribution of funds. This series of articles will survey selected books on the subject. The information in them that is worthy of sharing should only supplement what Scripture has to say about the church and money. The series will also present an overview of the Bible's foundational teachings on stewardship; discuss God's basic plan for financing His Work; offer a review of the teachings of Jesus about money; study the Corinthian example in giving; consider the appropriate response to worshipful giving in the church; project principles on compensating church employees; and make suggestions on the funding of capital expenditures in the life of a congregation.

This first article will present an overview of the Bible's foundational teachings on stewardship. What is true about money in the family is probably true also in the church. Among the items that always appear in a list of the ten major causes of divorce is money. Albert Johnson declares, "From my own experience, over 50 percent of marriage breakups occur because of unresolved money problems. Tension from financial burdens and conflicts raises havoc in countless other marriages still hanging together by a few threads."[3] John Johnson reports, "One research project concluded that 40% of desertion cases were caused by financial tensions between husband and wife, while 45% of the cruelty cases were caused by tension brought on by financial problems."[4] Research concerning the causes of church problems would probably yield similar figures. It is little wonder, however, because 1 Timothy 6:10 declares that "the love of money is the root of all evil."

Perhaps this is the reason behind one of the qualifications one must meet to occupy the office of a minister.

In the list Paul provided for Timothy, he wrote, "He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him with proper respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God's church?)" (1 Timothy 3: 4-5). Failure in the management of church money may adversely affect one's ministry as much as moral failure. By ordering his or her life according to the teachings of Scripture on the subject of stewardship, the minister can avoid bringing reproach on the Name of the Lord through mismanagement of congregational resources.

These stewardship teachings include the fact that, while Jehovah recognizes the right to private ownership, at least to a degree, He retains ownership of all the wealth of the world from His position as Creator of everything. Further, the Lord has assigned the care and management of the earth, with all of its resources, to man. Consequently, both collective man and individual man must exercise care in the management of the wealth committed to their trust.

In the first place, then, Jehovah recognizes the right to a degree of private ownership. Two of the Ten Commandments suggest that underlying assumption. The eighth forbids the taking of what belongs to another. In it the Lord declares, "You shall not steal" (Exodus 20:15). Then the tenth condemns even the desire for what belongs to another. In it God says, "You shall not covet your neighbor's house. You shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor" (Exodus 20:17). These implied truths are tempered, however, by the facts in the discussion below, specifically that God is the real owner of everything on earth.

Perhaps, then, attitude towards what one "owns" is the thing that really matters. David once declined to offer anything in sacrifice to God that he did not own or that did not cost him anything to purchase. To atone for his sin in rashly taking a census in Israel, David was instructed by the prophet Gad to offer a sacrifice to Jehovah. He went to a threshing floor at the spot the prophet had designated for the act of repentance and worship. When he asked the farmer if he could buy the plot, the man offered to give the land to David free of charge. The farmer even offered to supply two of his oxen for the sacrifice and the wood of his farming implements as fuel for the fire. In response to the generous offer, however, David declared, "'No, I insist on paying you for it. I will not sacrifice to the LORD my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing.' So David bought the threshing floor and the oxen and paid fifty shekels of silver for them" (2 Samuel 24:24). 

Yet, in another place David expressed to Jehovah his understanding that his offering of huge monetary value presented for the construction of the Temple was simply giving back to the Lord what was already His in the first place. His example provoked others in Judah to give generously also. In a prayer of blessing over the expensive gifts, David said, "But who am I, and who are my people, that we should be able to give as generously as this? Everything comes from you, and we have given you only what comes from your hand" (1 Chronicles 29:14).

In reality, then, believers must confess that God retains ownership of all the wealth of the world.

That conclusion comes from repeated statements in the Bible. The psalmist speaks often of it. He declares, "The earth is the LORD'S, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it" (Psalm 24:1). In response to what He viewed as meaningless sacrifices, Jehovah Himself declared, "I have no need of a bull from your stall or of goats from your pens, for every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills. I know every bird in the mountains, and the creatures of the field are mine" (Psalm 50:9-12).

In the Law of Moses, God said specifically that all of the real estate on earth belonged to Him. Because Jehovah owned the land, no one could sell it permanently. The stipulation of the Law is, "The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants" (Leviticus 25:23). Their "ownership" was limited to a maximum of fifty years. All lands reverted to their original owners at the Year of Jubilee. Jehovah instructed, "Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each one of you is to return to his family property and each to his own clan" (Leviticus 25:10). A little later in the chapter, He repeated, "In this Year of Jubilee everyone is to return to his own property (v. 13).

Then the economy in Israel was based on a leasing system. The cost of the lease was determined by the number of years remaining until the Year of Jubilee. The Lord's instructions continue in the passage: "If you sell land to one of your countrymen or buy any from him, do not take advantage of each other. You are to buy from your countryman on the basis of the number of years since the Jubilee. And he is to sell to you on the basis of the number of years left for harvesting crops. When the years are many, you are to increase the price, and when the years are few, you are to decrease the price, because what he is really selling you is the number of crops. Do not take advantage of each other, but fear your God. I am the LORD your God" (Leviticus 25:14-17).

As the owner of all, the Lord has assigned the care and management of the earth with all of its resources to man. Man was to have dominion over all of creation. Concerning Adam and Eve the Bible says, "God blessed them and said to them, Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground" (Genesis 1:28). The command applies equally to male and female, to "them." Both share this responsibility. Thus it is the family of man who has the responsibility. Man is to cultivate the creation and reap the harvest of its crops. Scripture declares, "The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it" (Genesis 2:15). 

The psalmist takes worshipful note of man's "lordship" over all the rest of God's creation. He exclaimed: "When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You made him ruler over the works of your hands; you put everything under his feet: all flocks and herds, and the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, all that swim the paths of the seas. O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!" (Psalm 8:3-9). 

Then both collective man and individual man must exercise care in the management of the wealth committed to their trust.

None should wastefully squander any part of the environment, even though as the Book of Hebrews says, "O Lord, you laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment. You will roll them up like a robe; like a garment they will be changed" (1:10-11). Yet, since everything in the environment belongs to God, all must take care of it for Him.

Both the Sabbatical Year and the Year of Jubilee were aimed at that care with regard to the soil of the earth. The soil must rest from agricultural use periodically in order to replenish its life-giving nutrients. Modern crop rotation programs in agriculture aim at the same results. Rather than being wasteful with God's bounty then, individuals should manage their portion of the world's wealth to the best of their ability. That includes presenting to God ten percent of the increase on all that has been entrusted to one. In addition, a person should participate in presenting "free-will" offerings to God. The next article in this series will continue with this emphasis. 

Regrettably, man has failed in that stewardship that the psalmist emphasized so strongly. In fact, the writer of the Book of Hebrews recognized that only when men have come completely under the control of Jesus during the Millennium, will they finally succeed in that stewardship (2:5-9). Indeed, that writer sees Jesus as the Man about whom the psalmist speaks.

Perhaps all pastors should examine their preaching schedules to assure themselves that they are including the concept of stewardship regularly in their pulpit ministry. Patrick Clements suggests the following: "If the pastor dusts off his ‘stewardship sermon' only when it's time to raise money for something, if it's not a regular part of body life and connected to the church's vibrant vision, then his members will inevitably feel that they are knuckling under to strong-arm tactics, and they will end up feeling negative about both the project and the pastor."[5]

In the view of Wayne Pohl, a couple of Sundays per year are sufficient for a stewardship emphasis in a church. He writes, "We limit preaching on finances to two weeks out of the year. I believe that if we do our job well during this emphasis, people will respond positively and will generously fulfill their financial responsibilities to God for the rest of the year."[6]

Douglas Johnson warns against discussing stewardship in a church only during periods of what he calls a "promotional blitz."[7] Further, he thinks it unwise to define stewardship only in terms of giving money to the church. He says, "This narrow definition of the word limits the perspective of church members and deprives them of opportunities to practice stewardship in other ways, such as giving time and conserving the environment."[8]

The concept of stewardship, then, contains important truths. They include the fact that, while Jehovah recognizes the right to private ownership, at least to a degree, He retains overriding ownership of all the wealth of the world since He is the Creator of everything. Further, the Lord has assigned the care and management of the earth with all of its resources to man. Consequently, both collective man and individual man must exercise care in the management of the wealth committed to their trust.

Selected Bibliography

Blizzard, Samuel. "The Minister's Dilemma." The Christian Century, April 25, 1956, 508-510.

Clements, Patrick L. Proven Concepts of Church Building and Finance. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2002.

Johnson, Albert J. A Christian's Guide to Family Finances. Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1983.

Johnson, Douglas W. Finance in Your Church. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1986.

Johnson, John Warren. How You Can Manage Your Money. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1981.

Pohl, Wayne. Mastering Church Finances. Portland, Ore.: Multnomah Press, 1992.

Robbins, Paul D. "The Ministers of Minneapolis: A Study in Paradox." Leadership. (Winter, 1980): 118-122.


About the Author

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.

[1]Samuel Blizzard, "The Minister's Dilemma," The Christian Century, April 25, 1956, 508-510.

[2]Paul D. Robbins, "The Ministers of Minneapolis: A Study in Paradox," Leadership (Winter 1980): 118-122.

[3]Albert J. Johnson, A Christian's Guide to Family Finances (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1983), 55.

[4]John Warren Johnson, How You Can Manage Your Money (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1981), 13.

[5]Patrick Clements, Proven Concepts of Church Building and Finance (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2002), 72-73.

[6]Wayne Pohl, Mastering Church Finances (Portland, Ore.: Multnomah Press, 1992), 43.

[7]Douglas W. Johnson, Finance in Your Church (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1986), 131.