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Does Your Church Run
by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
a Spiritual Sweatshop?
As an employer for part of my life, I've felt the weight of this responsibility. Employees must be paid fairly, justly, and on-time. God is watching. When I read, "Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven,"1 I know that it speaks not just to slave owners, but also to Christian employers.
God himself says, "I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers, and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages."2 But I have the feeling that when we get to heaven, many of us will have to answer for God for doing that very thing. Let me explain.
Whom are church members responsible for employing? Ministers, pastors, priests, and the like. Firmly established in the New Testament is the principle of paying these people for their service in the work of the Lord. The Apostle Paul instructed, "The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, 'Do not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain,' and 'The worker deserves his wages.'"3 Jesus told his disciples not to be ashamed to earn their living from the gospel, "for the worker deserves his wages."4
Priests and Pastors
Ever since the time of Moses, God has appointed a special class of workers, workers who were to take responsibility on behalf of the entire people of Israel to make sure that worship of God is carried on continually, appropriately, effectively.
You probably remember pictures from Bible story books of the high priest, dressed in special clothing, standing in the Holy of Holies in the tabernacle, making atonement for the people of Israel on the Day of Atonement.5 Along with the high priest were many "regular" priests who tended holy things6 and helped the people who came to worship. They taught God's way to the people7 and helped them find forgiveness for their sins.8 They didn't choose this ministry for themselves, but God called them to it.
And God not only appointed these workers, he set up a way for these priests and Levites to make a living. Whenever someone brought a sacrifice to the Lord, the priest who assisted in the offering was to receive a designated portion so his family would have enough to eat.9 When people brought their first-fruits offerings to the tabernacle (and later, the temple), the priests received a portion so their families would have food in their homes. You can imagine how a priest's wife rejoiced when her husband brought something special for the family. And God, too, rejoiced that these men dedicated to Him would be able to feed their families.
But it wasn't always harvest time, or a festival when many people came to the sanctuary to bring a special sacrifice. There were some lean times for priests and their families. However, God provided for those times, too.
Tithing to Support the Ministry
From the very earliest days, God instituted a tithe (which means ten per cent of one's income) to support the priests and other specially-called temple and tabernacle workers. Each Israelite was asked — no, commanded — to give ten per cent of his income (usually in kind, as grain or animals, but in cash if that was more appropriate) to the priests to support their families. "I give to the Levites," God said, "all the tithes in Israel as their inheritance in return for the work they do while serving at the Tent of Meeting."10 What God didn't give the Levites — which he gave all the other Israelites — was their own land to work. The Levites' inheritance was the tithe rather than land.
This tithe was considered sacred, even before it was given. If an Israelite kept part of this tenth for himself and his own family instead of giving it to God and for God's service, it was considered robbery of God himself.11 Withholding the tithe was nothing less than theft from the Most High, a grievous crime of greed and sinful selfishness.
So the people brought a tenth of the wheat or barley crop they had grown that year, to be stored in special storerooms in the temple so the priests and their families would have enough food during the winter months.12 If the Israelite was a shepherd rather than a farmer, he would bring animals which would be given to the priests' families to provide wool and milk and meat. If he were a shopkeeper, he would probably give his tithe in cash, since that was the way he received it. God commanded the people, "Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house."13
Without food to feed their families, the priests, no matter how dedicated they were, couldn't serve the Lord with their time. Instead, their best time would be consumed with making a living, and the work of God would be neglected.
Spiritual Decline and Revival
This actually happened, more times that we would care to think. In the reign of King Hezekiah, for example, worship had fallen into neglect all over the land. People worshipped false gods. The temple building was in disrepair, roofs leaking, doors sagging on their hinges, plaster crumbling. Just a few priests in the whole nation were able to serve because the people had stopped tithing. Those who had been called to serve God full-time had been forced to do something else so their families wouldn't go hungry.
But Hezekiah had a heart for God, and he wouldn't accept things as they had been for generations. He started restoring things to the way God wanted them. The scripture says that "he ordered the people living in Jerusalem to give the portion due the priests and Levites so they could devote themselves to the Law of the Lord."14
And amazingly, the people who had been stingy towards God began to tithe. The scripture records, "As soon as the order went out, the Israelites generously gave the first fruits of their grain, new wine, oil and honey and all that the fields produced."15 All summer long as harvest continued, they kept bringing in a tenth of their crops to the storage rooms in the temple until the head priest reported to the king, "Since the people began to bring their contributions to the temple of the Lord, we have had enough to eat and plenty to spare, because the Lord has blessed his people."16 The result was a tremendous revival in the whole nation. People started turning back to the Lord, and this era in Israel's history has been remembered as one of the nation's high points.
But it happened again. In Nehemiah's day, the people neglected giving to God's work, and worship had once more fallen to low ebb in Israel.
"I learned that the portions assigned to the Levites had not been given to them, and that all the Levites and singers responsible for the service [of worship] had gone back to their own fields," Nehemiah wrote. "So I rebuked the officials and asked, 'Why is the house of God neglected?'"17
As a result of Nehemiah's blunt question, people began to give again. People who perhaps had never given God a full ten per cent of their income began to tithe. "All Judah brought the tithes of grain, new wine and oil into the storerooms," the scripture reports.18 And as a result, the whole spiritual climate of the nation was transformed. God says, "Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house."19
You can see the pattern. When people tithe, there are enough resources so that called ministers can give their time to serve as leaders in worship and faith, and the whole nation prospers as a result. When people, even people claiming to love God, make excuses for themselves and don't bring their tithes into the house of the Lord, they invite a curse on themselves and their land, and stand under God's judgment for theft. Too strong? Not a bit. Read Malachi 3:6-10 to see exactly those words.
Tithing in Our Churches Today
Things haven't changed a great deal to our day. In Christian congregations all over our land, people who pride themselves on their faith in Jesus Christ bring a $20 bill every Sunday and place it in the offering plate each week and feel good about it. But let's look at it closely. Let's say the family receives $25,000 per year in gross income, or $35,000, or $45,000. What would a weekly tithe — 10% of those salaries or wages — amount to? Get your calculator and figure it out. If you divide $25,000 by 52 weeks you get an income of $480 per week. A tithe on $480 is $48 per week. The weekly tithe for a family making $35,000 is $67.31; for $45,000 it is $86.54 per week.
Let me ask you plainly: Do you tithe?
I hope I haven't made you angry. People get angry when you talk about giving their money to the work of the Lord. Really angry!
How dare you! What do you mean I'm robbing God? I can't afford any more! Don't you know I have bills to pay? Don't you know that the interest on our mortgage and credit cards and car payment is eating up any money we have left? Don't you know that this tithing stuff is an Old Testament law! We're in an age of grace, not of law. Don't be legalistic! Show me one place in the New Testament which says I ought to tithe!
Law and Grace
Well, for starters, about the only thing Jesus commended the Pharisees for was that they tithed. In many areas they were petty, self-serving, self-righteous, and Jesus is scathing in his rebuke. But they did give ten per cent of their income — and ten per cent of each of the herbs in their gardens -- to God's work, and Jesus commended them for it. He said they should continue to do that, but without neglecting mercy and love.20
Although in a sense all Christians are a "priesthood of believers,"21 spiritual leaders such as pastors (spiritual shepherds) are clearly the spiritual descendents of the Old Testament priests. "Don't you know," says the Apostle Paul, "that those who work in the temple get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in what is offered on the altar? In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel."22
So just as the tithe was practiced in the Old Testament, the Apostle Paul instructed the Corinthian church to give offerings for the poor and to support their leaders: "On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income...."23 And what is an amount keeping with one's income? Do we need a new revelation? Throughout the Bible, the standard of giving "in keeping with one's income" is ten per cent.
But we believe in grace not law, people say. Yes, and to give less under grace than under law is a dis-grace! It hurts God, since it directly disobeys his instructions. It hurts the church, since it hinders her work. And it hurts pastors and their families, since it places squarely on their shoulders the financial burdens which should have been borne by the whole congregation.
Yes, I know. I'm a pastor, and have been for twenty-five years. At times I've been on the receiving end of wonderful generosity from some of God's choice servants. And I've also come to understand all too well the scriptures which sadly report: "The Levites and singers responsible for the service [of worship] had gone back to their own fields."24 Many, many pastors and their spouses have had to get outside jobs in order to stay in the ministry and still put food on the table, buy clothes for their sons and daughters, and make repairs on the family car. I know many pastors who have to work two jobs in order to make ends meet, but are serving God anyway, even though there isn't enough food in the "storehouse" to meet their needs.
And I know people in their congregations who attend church every Sunday but don't tithe. Oh, yes, they give something. But they don't tithe. Whereas their monthly contribution might be $100 or $200, their true tithe — ten per cent of their income — would be double or triple that. (However, many earnest Christians, when they begin to understand about tithing, are able to bring up their giving level to a full tithe in two or three years through sacrifice and determined obedience.)
Church Leaders and Their Giving
Some of the same people who give only a fraction of what God commands — "spiritual skinflints," to be plainspoken about it — serve as board and committee and trustee members, and say to your pastor, "We're sorry, but we just can't afford to pay what you need this year." Those people speak for you — after all, you in all likelihood voted them into office — and have a lot to do with deciding whether or not your church is paying your pastor enough to live on. So on your behalf, some of your church leaders (and I hope I'm not speaking of you yourself) may be oppressing the workers by withholding from them their rightful wages. And since you elected them — and perhaps even voted to approve the budget — you become a party to their sin.25
Does tithing affect the ministry of the modern-day priests and Levites? Yes, it does. Does lack of tithing cripple God's work today in the same way it did in Old Testament days? Be assured that it does. Do stinginess and cheapness and excuses still thrive among church people and church leaders. Sadly, yes.
But as it was in Hezekiah's day, it can be also in our day. Revival can begin when God's people take heed to His word and begin to tithe. Ministry can flourish in our communities when believers begin to pay their pastors enough so they can do the work of God fully.
What Can You Do?
What can you do? First, examine your own giving pattern, and determine prayerfully to bring your giving up to meet or exceed the ten per cent tithing standard clearly taught in the Bible. Second, hold your church leaders accountable to offer your pastor a generous living wage so the pastoral family can live in a way you will be proud to be part of. You might print out this article and give it to your leaders. Don't expect your pastor to beg for enough to live on. Become an advocate for your pastor. Third, ask your church leaders to formally consider whether they need to re-evaluate the way giving is taught and pastors are paid in your congregation.
I know you and your church want to be part of the revival God desires to bring. Meeting the conditions for revival often requires soul-searching and repentance, and determining to remove the curses which we have placed upon ourselves and our churches by robbing God and depriving His workers of their rightful wages.26
There's an old song, "Not the preacher, not the deacon, but it's me, O Lord, standin' in the need of prayer." Yes, revival must start with us. And when it begins in our hearts, then it has a chance of spreading to others in our churches. And from our churches to our communities, and finally to our nation and to our world.
Funny, how a little thing like oppressing workers and withholding their wages can have such disastrous spiritual effects on us as well as our churches. Maybe, by ending the practice of running a spiritual sweatshop, your church could be on its way to revival and renewal. It's happened before in the history of God's people, and it starts with a person just like you.
Feel free to reprint this article and distribute it to leaders and members in your church. You may find a Web version at http://www.wilsonweb.com/archive/church/sweatshop.htm and one in Microsoft Word for Windows 6.0 version for easy reprinting at http://www.wilsonweb.com/archive/church/swetshop.zip
Teaching on tithing and giving in Swahili and English is available on video.
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