To Forfeit and To Astound

In our previous blog, we took note of some predictions that went terribly wrong.  People studied a situation, made up their mind and could not see it in any other way.  Unfortunately, they were really wrong.  For instance,

  • “This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.” — Western Union internal memo, 1876.
  • “With over fifteen types of foreign cars already on sale here, the Japanese auto industry isn’t likely to carve out a big share of the market for itself.” Business Week, 1968
  • “The horse is here to stay but the automobile is only a novelty—a fad.” – -The president of the Michigan Savings Bank advising Henry Ford’s lawyer not to invest in the Ford Motor Co., 1903
  • “Television? The word is half Latin and half Greek. No good can come of it.” CP Scott

Last time, we looked at three conclusions from Paul’s writings about giving. Today, we turn to two more.  And just to remind you, we are dividing our thoughts into five categories.  Last time, we talked about the obvious (Paul believes Christ-followers ought to give), the surprising (there are really only two true root motives for giving: to be like Jesus and to express gratitude for what Jesus has done), and the not-so-surprising-at-all (Paul will gladly and boldly collect money from others when it is for other people).  That brings us today to the unexpected and the astonishing.

Fourth, the unexpected. Only in a very few circumstances would Paul ever accept money from others for himself.  Now let’s pause here and let’s just think about what that would mean for our friends, the televangelists.  It’s kind of a pause that refreshes, isn’t it?  If churches and televangelists could not collect money for themselves, but could only collect money to meet the needs of others (especially the poor, the needy, and the disadvantaged), I would bet many ministries would choose to shut down.  But I also think the impact on the world would be phenomenal.  Think about it with me.  What if instead of our churches asking people each Sunday to give to support their own church, one week we asked people to give to World Vision in their campaign to end malaria?  And what if one Sunday, we said our entire offering today is going to help the Beck’s in Germany in their ministry to new immigrants?  And what if one Sunday, we said 100% of today’s offering is going to one of the homeless shelters in our region?  From a human perspective, without a doubt, it would be corporate suicide, financial ruin, and an act of sheer stupidity (unless Bill Gates was funding your church on the side), but what an incredible testimony to the world that would be!  It would say that we were truly following Jesus and loving our neighbor as ourselves and that we could trust God to meet our needs while doing so.  Okay, maybe that is a scary dream, but here is the point: while Paul was quite enthusiastic about collecting financial gifts for others (for the Jerusalem church for instance, see our previous blog), he was extremely wary about taking money from others for himself. There were three main reasons.

First, he did not want to be a burden to anyone.  He says in 1 Thessalonians 2:9: Surely you remember, brothers and sisters, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you.”  Now there is no doubt that Paul was extraordinary.  He was always more concerned about the people in his congregations, than he was his own self and well-being.  Instead of taking money from the Thessalonians so that he could minister full-time, he chose to enter the market place and get a real job.  Instead of taking money from the church, Paul decides he would rather work as a leather worker (Acts calls him a “tentmaker,” but by this time that referred to all sorts of leather work).  And by having this side job, Paul provided for his own needs.  You could almost hear Paul say on Sunday mornings, “Keep your money.  Give it to the poor.  God will provide for my needs by sending many new customers into my shop for I am convinced that God will meet all my needs.  So use what you have to give to those in need.”  This is absolutely remarkable. Paul would rather work with his hands and minister less than take money from the people to whom he was ministering.  I think that qualifies as unexpected.

A second reason why Paul did this was because he wanted to provide a good model for the people in the church.  In 2 Thessalonians 3:7-9 Paul says: For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you to imitate.”  What was Paul modeling for them?  Personal sacrifice.  Diligence and hard work.  Giving.  Not being a burden to others.  Personal responsibility.  Putting the interests of others ahead of his own.  Paul worked as a tentmaker, and then Paul worked in the gospel ministry.  And he did so joyfully.  He even boasts that he got to do this.  I think that also qualifies as unexpected, both in that culture and in our culture today.

Third, Paul wanted to make sure that people never misunderstood his motives.  See Paul feared that people might think he was in the ministry for the money (unfortunately, there were many who were in it for the economic rewards, and Paul wanted to distance himself from these charlatans).  He also feared that people might think that the gospel could be bought.  And he feared that people might think that by being an apostle he was all about power and prestige and status. And so Paul went above and beyond what was called for to make sure his motives would not be misunderstood.  I want to say more about this, and I will in a minute, but now we must take special note that Paul goes out of his way to ensure that no one misunderstood his motives.  And as a result, we see that by refusing to receive a remuneration, Paul’s overriding concern was for his church and not for his own well-being.  Bottom line: Paul was very wary about asking for money for himself.  He would rather work part-time in the marketplace than to receive money for himself (there is one caveat, see below) because he never wanted anyone to perceive that what he was doing was in any way self-serving.  Now that is totally unexpected and, in my opinion, speaks loudly about some of the dangers and misunderstandings we need to avoid in our fundraising today.

Last, the astonishing.  Paul believed it was his right to receive money from those to whom he ministered.  He says as much in 1 Timothy 5:17-18: The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching. For Scripture says, ‘Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,’ and ‘The worker deserves his wages.’”  But in spite of believing this, Paul forfeits this right.  Why?  Because he wanted to preach the gospel free of charge; and he feared that if he received any remuneration, the gospel of grace would be blurred, misperceived or hindered in some way.  Just like above, Paul feared that by taking money, he would be distorting the gospel of grace.  Now, that is astonishing.

Now, let me correct something I said earlier.  It is true that when Paul was ministering in a particular city, he would not take money from the people of that city (see above; if Paul was in Thessalonica, he would never take money from the Thessalonians). Why?  Because he delighted in preaching the gospel to them free of charge (no matter what the cost was to him personally).  But there is a caveat. While Paul would never take money from the church to whom he was currently ministering, he would gladly receive a financial gift from another one of his churches (for example, he would accept a gift from the Philippians when he was in Thessalonica).  But even as he receives such a gift, he is overly concerned to make sure everyone understands his heart.  Two passages bear this out.

First, we see this in Philippians 4:15-16: Moreover, as you Philippians know, in the early days of your acquaintance with the gospel, when I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only; for even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me aid more than once when I was in need.”  When Paul was in need, he gladly accepted money from the Philippians.  But note (and this is so important): he would almost rather die than to do something that might potentially confuse the doctrine of grace in the hearts of his audience.  What might cause that confusion?  In Paul’s way of thinking, any form of remuneration might trip someone up; and that was too great a danger for Paul.

The second passage is also in Philippians 4.  Paul wants to thank the Philippians for their generous and sacrificial gift to him when he was in Thessalonica, but he wants to make sure they do not misunderstand what he is saying.  As a result, Paul almost does backflips to make sure the Philippians do not think for a second that in his expression of gratitude, there is a flash of a hint, a bit of fishing, a little tiny prod for them to send him another financial gift. Paul is scared to death that they may hear his words and, by misreading between the lines, conclude that his main motive for saying thank-you is for them to send him another gift (and we all have received thank-you notes that have done exactly that!).  And so Paul goes overboard to make sure that they could never read between the lines any such idea.  Listen to what he says (Phil. 4:17-19 — I’ve made the salient points in bold): “Not that I desire your gifts; what I desire is that more be credited to your account. I have received full payment and have more than enough. I am amply supplied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent. They are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God. And my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus.”  I love that.  The Philippians are concerned to meet Paul’s needs, and Paul blesses them by saying his God will meet all of their needs.  Even here, Paul has a distinctly other-centered perspective.  He gladly forfeited his rights for the good of others and so that the gospel could go forth without fear of being distorted.

Still not sure I am reading this correctly?  Look at 1 Corinthians 9.  Here, Paul reiterates in black and white that while it was absolutely appropriate and right for ministers of the gospel to receive compensation for their work, doing so came with a risk.  Paul writes (vss. 11-15, 18): “If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you? If others have this right of support from you, shouldn’t we have it all the more? But we did not use this right. On the contrary, we put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ. Don’t you know that those who serve in the temple get their food from the temple, and that 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. But I have not used any of these rights. And I am not writing this in the hope that you will do such things for me, for I would rather die than allow anyone to deprive me of this boast. What then is my reward? Just this: that in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge, and so not make full use of my rights as a preacher of the gospel.”

Wow. Paul felt that it was well within his right to receive compensation for his ministry, but he gladly forfeited that right because he felt the danger was too great and that the gospel of grace would suffer confusion.  He believed with all of his heart that if he took money from those to whom he was ministering, the gospel could be distorted and misperceived; and he wasn’t willing to take that risk.  In Paul’s opinion, the only way truly to preach grace was to refuse to take money.  And even when he did take money from another church, he made it doubly clear to them what was in his heart. And this was Paul’s standard operating procedure.  Something bad did not have to happen first for him to put this plan into action.  This was Plan One from the moment he entered into a town.  In his opinion, the gospel of grace demanded it. And that is astonishing.

More than anything else, this may be the greatest take-away in this series.  Do we have a right to ask for money and to solicit God’s people to give generously to us and our church?  Absolutely.  Should we avail ourselves of that right? In my opinion, not without numerous caveats and clarifications. Paul gladly forfeited his right so that he could preach grace without any potential misunderstanding creeping in, thereby deceiving God’s people. See, for Paul, nothing was more important than communicating the gospel free of charge so that nothing could hinder its reception.  And I believe he calls us to have the same mindset and concern.

Now, these are different times, and circumstances have changed; but Paul’s words still have incredible validity.  Are we potentially distorting the gospel through our discussions on giving?  Are we creating barriers that might hinder the gospel from being truly being grasped? Are we willing to sacrifice our own selves, our own sense of security, our own sense of comfort so that the people in our churches might come face-to-face with grace? These are huge questions, and the answers are not always cut and dried. However, one thing is certain.  We need to work very hard and be extra careful that we do not hinder the gospel of grace by asking for money.  Paul’s example here must guide our practice.

In 1830, the esteemed Dr. Dionysius Lardner made this interesting observation: “Rail travel at high speed is not possible because passengers, unable to breathe, would die of asphyxia.” He was wrong.  Perhaps what we have believed about giving and about our rights are equally flawed. Just something to think about as we zip into the future and become unable to breathe.