Care for the Poor
Gary Moore is founder of the Financial Seminary and author of six stewardship books, including Look Up America!
No, but a nuanced "no." Stewardship theologians have to be as balanced as the economists about whom President Truman famously complained, saying he wanted a one-handed economist because his economists' advice began "On the one hand … on the other."
On the one hand, Jesus did immortalize the widow who gave her last mites in the temple. But on the other hand, that was more about her amazing faith than her choice of beneficiary. Someone explained once to a gathering of stewardship officers that Jesus did not say to sell what we have and give it to the temple, or even for the gospel, but to the poor. Neither did Malachi say to bring the full tithes for the operation of the temple. The storehouse was for the needy.
Those ideas, though, are not often pointed out. The church is a mostly human institution, particularly when it comes to money, and human institutions, whether governmental, corporate, or ecclesiastical, can be quite self-centered. My friends John and Sylvia Ronsvalle (emptytomb.org) have long studied how churches use donations. The Ronsvalles have a passion for giving—particularly for getting America's affluent churches to open their hands to those around our world in the greatest need. Their most recent report is not encouraging for the Christlike faces of the poor, thirsty, and naked.
The report shows that congregational giving has not kept up with our rising incomes, and benevolent giving to the poor, including denominational support, has suffered even more. I've been the board president of two affluent mainline churches and discovered in both that we spent more of our general budget on lawn care than true benevolences. The Ronsvalles' studies likely affirm that anecdotal evidence. The eight evangelical denominations they studied gave more to the needy than did the mainline denominations, but even that was due to a growing number of members.
Of course, we should remember that many denominations have affiliated social service ministries. For example, my Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is affiliated with Lutheran Social Services of America. That could be the largest social ministry in the country if its various state agencies are combined, according to Forbes.
Many evangelicals give to charities like Habitat for Humanity. I expect that is closer to Jesus' idea of giving to the house of the Lord than the testimonies we often hear on pledge card Sundays.
It's important to consider the role of the church in social welfare in our country. As Robert Schwarzwalder, senior vice president at the Family Research Council, pointed out, the Jewish worship system provided civil and administrative services for its communities, including systematically providing for the poor. The modern Christian church simply does not fill that statelike function on any regular basis.
So it's largely a matter of rights and responsibilities. Should the church reassume more biblical responsibilities, it would be entitled to more of the biblical tithe. Until then, church leaders might reflect that giving to the poor can't be stealing from God when Jesus, owner of all, pointedly said that what we do for the poor, we do for him.
Not Theft, But …
Amie Streater is associate pastor for financial stewardship at New Life Church in Colorado Springs and author of Your Money God's Way.