Giving is a great blessing that we can be a part of. As our Master promised long ago, and still affirms in our hearts and experiences to this day, the measure we use in giving out is the same measure that will be used in our receiving in. Giving is just one aspect of living out of sacrificial love, the love we first witnessed in Jesus’ love for us and the love that now empowers us and is the very source of our life.
Despite these plain truths, the topic of giving, especially financial giving to a church, is one that has been much debated and discussed. In my own experience, I have been all over the map in what I think and how I act in this capacity. Even though I teach on the topic of stewardship and have pondered this area deeply for many years, my understanding of it continues to evolve as I do.
With this in mind, I was struck by the plain sense of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 9. In chapter 8, he is providing counsel on how to handle the issue of eating food sacrificed to idols. His teaching is consistent with the idea of living out of sacrificial love: In Christ we are free indeed, and the ultimate expression of that freedom is in loving without care or concern for ourselves. In this particular case, Paul states that we are free in Christ to eat any and every food, but we are never “free” to behave in an unloving manner toward fellow disciples who are still learning the full extent of that freedom. If we exercise our freedom in a display that we know is likely to cause another disciple to stumble, we are no longer living out of love and so are, in that moment, no longer free!
In this same vein, he goes on in chapter 9 to make an example of himself and how he lives out this teaching on sacrificial love. Although he is well within his rights to ask for and expect financial support from those who have received the message of the Good News from him, he does not do so lest any be caused to stumble over this exercise of freedom. I liken it to the many folks today who may miss Jesus because every time they walk into one of his churches, they are asked to donate money to it. Talk about throwing the baby out with the bathwater!
In contrast, the image from this passage that I receive concerning the Kingdom of our Father and of His Son is one where the greatest of all is the one who serves all. Thus, in this Kingdom, Jesus is King of kings and Lord of lords. We approach him, and become like him, by living the way he showed us to live — in humility, seeing each person as better than ourselves, and denying ourselves in sacrificial living. This not to be done in a showy or ostentatious way, but secretly, as unto the Lord directly and without regard to man’s accolades.
Another way I have tried to picture the reality being described is this: If you are #1 on your own list and everyone else is #2, then you are only #1 with one person. If instead you are #2 on your list and every other person is #1 by comparison, then you are #1 with almost everyone! What a difference this approach to life makes! Imagine what kind of a world we would live in if this latter condition obtained!
Here is how this applies to the topic of financial giving: Imagine a minister of God’s Good News who does not insist on their right to financial support but is instead wholly focused on making healthy disciples of Jesus. And imagine these disciples, so blessed by the ministry of this individual and well taught in the Way of Jesus, give, out of their deep wellspring of freedom and self-sacrificing love, to support that individual’s continued work of making disciples. These same disciples may go on to make disciples themselves (as should be expected as normative of any disciple of our Master), and these new disciples — blessed, well-taught, and full of Jesus’ love and freedom — give to their “spiritual father” or “spiritual mother” as his or her rightful due. And on down the line it goes.
What would emerge in short order is a human chain of Jesus followers, each supporting freely and without any human compulsion the one who brought them the Good News. Some disciple-making ministers would be supported “full-time”, as Jesus blesses their work in his harvest fields, and some would have less or no financial support, but all would have loving community as deep and wide as the Lord directs. And because there are no impersonal organizations involved, there would be no fund drives or capital campaigns anywhere in sight! Love would be the engine that drives it all, and that love would itself be a great witness to the world of how the community of Christ’s disciples operates.
My recent reading of this passage led me to reflect on who the people are in my own life who have brought me the Good News in a way that I was able to hear and respond to. Having identified those people, I am encouraged to take the next step and begin directing support toward them.
This simple model is what I understand to be the biblical model for how we should direct our financial offerings. Of course, there is so much more to our giving than just this, and a disciple who only gave in this small way would be far short of the mark. However, the model for financial giving presented in this passage has been a help to me in this specific area that is often confusing and a hindrance.