Church Finance Part 5: The Corinthian Offering

A young minister whom I heard speak, once went to a region in his nation to plant a church. That particular part of the country had great spiritual needs. In the early stages of his effort, he had opportunity to be a guest on a radio talk show. The program was a regular feature on a Christian station in the area.

Listeners called to speak to the host and his guest during the broadcast. Throughout the one-hour program, most of the comments concerned money. Representative of most who phoned in was the one who asked, "Why do you preachers spend so much of your air time attempting to raise funds for your work?" The question is one among many that give cause for reflection.

Preachers and people in churches need to study carefully Paul's policies and practices on church finances.

The heart of the matter appears in his discussion of the grace of giving, found in his second letter to the church at Corinth.

His discussion focuses on raising funds for needy Judean Christians in a time of near famine in that part of the world. This project was central to Paul's ministry. He explained that fact in his letter to the Galatians. During a visit he made to the headquarters of the church in Jerusalem, its leaders encouraged him to include giving to the needy in his ministry. As he related, "They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the Jews. All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do" (Galatians 2:10).

He and Barnabas had taken such an offering for needy Christians to Jerusalem. As Luke records: "During this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. One of them, named Agabus, stood up and through the Spirit predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world. (This happened during the reign of Claudius.) The disciples, each according to his ability, decided to provide help for the brothers living in Judea. This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul" (Acts 11:27-30). The money came from the young Gentile church at Antioch of Syria.

The Jerusalem church itself had demonstrated generosity toward needy members from the start. Early church history reports, "There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need" (Acts 4:34-35).

Paul wrote his second letter to the church at Corinth, in part, to further the cause of promoting giving for needy believers in Judea in a time of drought. In the passage on the subject, Paul speaks of the grace of giving in the churches of Macedonia; the grace of giving in the church at Corinth; the Corinthian-Macedonian finance committee; the law of giving in a Christian context; and the results of the exercise of the grace of giving.

To challenge the Corinthians to contribute to the offering for needy believers in Judea, Paul first drew attention to what the Macedonians had given in the project (2 Corinthians 8:1-5). Churches included were those at Philippi, Thessalonica, and Berea. He started by recognizing the grace of God, rather than personal qualities, as being the source of their giving this offering (v. 1). In addition to the meaning of "unmerited favor," Paul uses grace here in four different ways: An aptitude given by God (v. 1); a gift presented to Paul (v. 4); an act of giving to men (vv. 6-7); and an expression of thanksgiving (v. 16). Returning thanks is returning grace; old timers used to "say grace" at the table. Grace here, then, refers to an aptitude given by God.

Paul states that they gave in spite of rock-bottom poverty (2 Corinthians 8:2).

Sometimes preachers wonder if they should accept money from a believer they know cannot afford to give. Jesus, however, gave special commendation, and thus approval, to the widow who gave all she had in an offering at the Temple (Mark 12:42-43). While the church should never take advantage of the poor, at the same time it should not deny them the blessing of giving. Certainly, it can never depend on the rich for its financial support. Further, an individual believer dare not wait until he or she gets rich to give to God.

Macedonia itself was a poor area. Being poor themselves, believers there knew how to feel empathy toward others in need. The region suffered as the site of civil wars between Caesar and Pompey as well as other Roman rulers. Under Tiberius it petitioned for a lightening of its financial burden and was transferred for a time from the jurisdiction of the Senate to that of the Emperor, an action that resulted in lighter taxation.[1] Macedonian Christians may have been even poorer than the average citizen of the area; their faith subjected them to social ostracism, which made it difficult to earn a living.

Paul acknowledged that the Macedonians gave beyond their ability (2 Corinthians 8:3). No high-pressure techniques, however, prompted their contributions. Giving "freely willing," they begged the apostle to let them have a part in the offering (vv. 3-4). It was they who did the begging, not the preacher! Paul further revealed that they gave themselves along with their offering (v. 5). Giving of self is what makes giving of money to God an acceptable act of worship.

The apostle used Macedonia to challenge Corinth (2 Corinthians 8:1-5) and vice versa (9:2). He drew attention to the Corinthians' need to attend to the current project (vv. 6-8). They abounded in many gifts and graces, as 1 Corinthians 1:7 shows, but needed to develop more fully this grace of giving. Thus Paul sent Titus to stir them up and give assistance in collecting the offering on which the latter had worked with them previously (2 Corinthians 8:6). Paul had no intention, however, of putting pressure on them to give. To avoid that charge, he explained, "I am not commanding you, but I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the earnestness of others" (v. 8).

The church at Corinth, however, needed reminding of Christ's example of giving (2 Corinthians 8:9), a far better example than that of the churches of Macedonia in verse 1. Christ certainly possessed the "grace" of giving. Though rich, He became poor (literally) that we might become rich (spiritually). Paul used basic Christian doctrine to support his appeal for this offering. Here was the incarnation, the fact that Jesus became poor. Here also was the atonement, His making it possible for believers to become rich.

This contrasts sharply with the approach of some who threaten that if people don't give, they will have to spend on unexpected hospital bills and the like! E. M. Clarke advises that ministers never use such a negative approach. He writes, "The confident fundraiser majors on what happens to people who obey God rather than what happens to people who disobey God."[2] He counsels against making people feel guilty for not giving. In fact, he says, "The happy fundraiser always praises God and compliments people for their giving, even if the giving hasn't come up to the amount he expected."[3] Further, he declares one should never state the amount of money needed and then declare that they were going to raise the entire sum there in that meeting.[4]

The church at Corinth needed to complete a good work begun a year earlier under Titus (2 Corinthians 8:10-12).

Paul exhorted them to do so, saying, "And here is my advice about what is best for you in this matter: Last year you were the first not only to give but also to have the desire to do so. Now finish the work, so that your eager willingness to do it may be matched by your completion of it, according to your means" (vv. 10-11). The cause for the delay could have been just plain apathy; or it could have been mistrust of Paul. The earlier effort may have been suspended because of insinuations by Paul's enemies at Corinth that he would share in the offering. Next the apostle declared the earlier effort caused God to accept and give credit as if the job were already completed (v. 12). Inner qualities counted more than outward actions in giving.

The church at Corinth should not feel, Paul explained, that it had to relieve the saints at Jerusalem at the cost of hardship for its own people (2 Corinthians 8:13-15). This was by no means a communistic approach to finances in the early Church. Paul was not encouraging the Corinthians to give beyond their ability just because the Macedonians did. He was, however, teaching the principle that giving to God makes possible the supply of one's own needs. If those who have, give, they will not be left with a useless abundance, and those who have not will no longer be in want. The apostle's plea was based on the thermostatic principle of manna-gathering instructions in the Book of Exodus. Each was to gather only what he or she needed for a single day (Exodus 16:16-18).  Those who disobeyed and gathered more, thinking they would store it for a future day, found it spoiled! Corruption always accompanies the hoarding of wealth.

To guard against any suspicion as to Paul's handling of the funds in the offering for needy believers in Judea, he wisely directed that the funds be placed in the trust of a committee.

The roster of those on the committee also appears in the apostle's letter (2 Corinthians 8:16-18). One is not surprised to find Titus listed there (vv. 16-17). His concern for the project made him a most qualified member of the group. The young man, however, was more interested in the spiritual welfare of the Corinthians than in the offering itself. Paul recognized that the source of Titus's interest was God and wrote, "I thank God, who put into the heart of Titus the same concern I have for you" (v. 16). Both Titus and Paul were concerned for them, not just for the Judean Christians who were in need. It was the Corinthians who would suffer if they did not give. Accordingly, Charles Erdman writes, "A church that does not give does not live."[5] When a minister appeals to a congregation to give and focuses on the spiritual blessings they will receive, he follows Titus and Paul in the practice. This is a tactful way to talk about an offering.

Still, Titus was anxious to make his contribution by leading the project itself. Paul wrote, "For Titus not only welcomed our appeal, but he is coming to you with much enthusiasm and on his own initiative" (2 Corinthians 8:17). What he said almost seems contradictory. On the one hand, the apostle exhorted Titus to go, yet on the other, Titus went of his own accord.

Another unnamed brother was also a member. The apostle wrote, "And we are sending along with him the brother who is praised by all the churches for his service to the gospel" (2 Corinthians 8:18). Paul implied that the members of the committee were democratically selected by the churches in their areas. Concerning the unnamed brother, he reported, "What is more, he was chosen by the churches to accompany us as we carry the offering, which we administer in order to honor the Lord himself and to show our eagerness to help" (v. 19). The committee had at least two other members in addition to Titus. Paul wrote about them when he said, "As for our [other] brothers, they are representatives of the churches and an honor to Christ" (v. 23). That he uses the plural brothers makes clear there were at least two besides Titus.

Wise churches follow the example of that committee and always assign the handling of funds to more than one person.

At least two people in every congregation, regardless of how small, should count all offerings.

Paul had a noble purpose in assigning the handling of those funds to a committee. He had made clear already that they did so as representatives of the churches in Macedonia and Corinth. Further, he arranged things that way to provide an orderly structure for handling church funds (2 Corinthians 8:20-21). He did not want his enemies or anyone questioning his handling of the monies collected there. Nor did he wish to receive credit for what the people in the churches had given (v. 19). He did not want to be mistakenly identified as the source of the offering. God's people gave it all. He simply administered it. The glory belonged to the Lord alone. The recipients had to worship Him for what they received.

To make his purpose clear in using a committee in the project, the apostle explained, "We want to avoid any criticism of the way we administer this liberal gift. For we are taking pains to do what is right, not only in the eyes of the Lord but also in the eyes of men" (2 Corinthians 8:20-21). He would do right in the sight of God, but he demanded of himself and the committee that they appear right in the sight of men as well. Any preacher who acts carelessly and then declares, "I don't care what people think just as long as I please God," is not wise.

Letters of recommendation served a useful purpose in the first century Church as they do yet today. That Paul included one as a part of his larger letter to the Corinthians indicates that. He had already spoken well of an unnamed brother that he had sent with Titus (2 Corinthians 8:18-19). Next he recommended still another brother to the church at Corinth. He wrote, "In addition, we are sending with them our brother who has often proved to us in many ways that he is zealous, and now even more so because of his great confidence in you" (v. 22). He even singled out Titus for recommendation to those at Corinth who might not know him. He wrote, "As for Titus, he is my partner and fellow worker among you" (v. 23).

The apostle, then, encouraged the believers in the church at Corinth to give the members of this committee a worthy reception (2 Corinthians 8:24). The congregation should demonstrate its love for them. No doubt that included providing them with room and board. Of course, the congregation should also respond to their appeal for the funds they were collecting in the project. Finally, Paul asked the Corinthians to justify his boasting about them to others by treating the brothers well.

The apostle explained that the committee's assignment did not include stirring the Corinthians to give, because they had been willing and ready to give for a year (2 Corinthians 9:1-2). He had boasted to the Macedonians and others about their preparedness, readiness, and zeal to give. Earlier he had boasted to the Corinthians of the Macedonians' giving in this offering (2 Corinthians 8:1). That he used each to challenge the other is an indication that friendly competition is acceptable between Christian groups when the aim is to further the cause of Christ.

One of the things Paul did task the committee with doing was leading the Corinthian church in completing its project before he arrived (2 Corinthians 9:3-5). He explained that they should do so, lest he (and the Corinthians) be embarrassed when the accompanying Macedonians saw that the Corinthians were not really ready with their offering yet (vv. 3-4). A further reason was that he did not want them to feel pressured to contribute, but rather that they would give freely and not grudgingly (v. 5).

For us to remain biblical, such principles must still prevail even when we hire a professional fund-raising firm to assist in financing a building project in the church.

Next Paul discussed the law of giving in a Christian context. He suggested that the principles of sowing and reaping in agriculture were also applicable to the subject of giving in the church (2 Corinthians 9:6). Scant sowing resulted in a small harvest. On the cotton farm years ago, we planted many more cotton seeds than we wanted cotton plants. Some seeds would rot while others would simply fail to germinate. We knew that we could always thin the rows of any excess plants once the seedlings had come up.

Besides all of the other aspects of giving, however, Paul emphasized a person's motives for it as being most important of all (2 Corinthians 9:7). One is blessed in direct proportion to the way that he or she gives. To give cheerfully, literally "hilariously," is to please God. To give grudgingly is to get no blessing at all out of it.

The law further declares that if one gives, he will receive; if one sows, he will also reap. This reaping includes material blessings (2 Corinthians 9:8-10). When one gives, he will continue to have substance to give; God will supply seed for further planting. Paul promised, "You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion" (v. 11). The reward for worshipful giving, however, also includes spiritual, eternal blessings (v. 9). About such a generous person, Paul quoted from Ps. 112:9, which promises, "His righteousness endures forever." Even honor from men is inherent in those words. They sound like the epitaph of a philanthropist.

Finally, the apostle drew attention to the results of the exercise of the grace of giving (2 Corinthians 9:11-15).  First, it met the needs of those who lacked, and along with that, it caused thanksgiving to God (vv. 11-12). Paul said, "This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of God's people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God" (v. 12).

In the case of this offering, the apostle said it would convince others of the genuineness of the givers' Christianity (2 Corinthians 9:13). Upon receiving it, the Jews would know for certain that salvation had also come to the Gentiles. Then the Jewish Christians would pray for the Gentile believers (v. 14), as the offering would serve to cement the bond of love between them and promote unity in the Church, an all-important matter to Paul.

Last, and most important of all, the offering would cause all who observed it to thank God for His unspeakable gift, Christ (2 Corinthians 9:15)! Giving in worship, then, is not only a temporal matter of supporting the ministry and paying the bills of the church. It is also spiritual and relates to eternity. Thus it belongs in the sanctuary and is vital to the life of the church. It is good to know that Acts 24:17 and Rom. 15:25-26 verify that this giving project was completed.

In summary, preachers and people in churches yet today need to follow Paul's policies and practices on church finances. The heart of the matter appears in his discussion of the grace of giving in his second letter to the church at Corinth. In that passage, Paul speaks of the grace of giving in the churches of Macedonia; the grace of giving in the church at Corinth; the Corinthian-Macedonian finance committee; the law of giving in a Christian context; and the results of the exercise of the grace of giving.

Selected Bibliography

Clark, E. M. How to Be Happy Giving Your Money Away. Springfield, Mo.: By the Author, 1996.

Erdman, Charles R. The Second Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1966.

Zahniser, Clarence H. "Second Corinthians." In Wesleyan Bible Commentary, Vol. 5. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1965.

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]Clarence H. Zahniser, "Second Corinthians," in Wesleyan Bible Commentary, vol. 5 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1965), 298.

[2]E. M. Clark, How to Be Happy Giving Your Money Away (Springfield, Mo.: by the author, 1996), 148.

[3]Ibid., 152-153.

[4] Ibid., 157.

[5]Charles R. Erdman, The Second Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1966), 95.