"Houston, we have a problem!" Do you remember those words? Thus began one of the great crises-to-success stories in recent history. A space shuttle in great peril was saved by a team of people determined to find a solution.
We have a stewardship problem. Perhaps you are familiar with it. It begins with spending. The average American couple spends $1.20 for every dollar they earn. This in turn has led to a debt problem. In June 2002, the Federal Reserve reported that the total amount of consumer debt was $1.685 trillion. Six hundred billion of that was credit card debt. The repayment of this debt consumes 14 percent of the average family's budget. These two factors have joined with others to create the "Perfect Storm" for the issue of stewardship through the local church.
Among adults who attend church regularly (an average of at least once a month), more than one out of every three (37 percent) did not give any money to church in the past year. Those who contribute give only about 2.5 percent of their income. The average donation by adults who attend Protestant churches is about $10 a week. Overall, only 3 to 5 percent of the people who donate money to a church "tithe" their income. (Data from George Barna, How to Increase Giving in Your Church.)
Now that we know "we have a problem" we must, for the sake of the Kingdom, find a solution. I have come to a fairly simple conclusion in my old age — nothing will change the hearts and minds of people but the Word of God applied by the Spirit of God. In the past months we have been looking at the characteristics of the Kingdom-centered church. Let's do so again with a focus on its practice of generous stewardship.
The Pattern of Acts
To fully appreciate the generosity of the early church, we need to think about the makeup of that church. Both Jews and Gentiles who had the courage to confess Jesus as Messiah were often ostracized by their family. Christianity was considered to be a dangerous and blasphemous cult. The ability of new believers was often impacted by their courageous stand for Christ. Thus the survival of early believers was often dependant on the generosity of their new family — the church.
On five different occasions we are told that they "were together" (1:15; 2:1, 44, 47; and 4:31). This statement gives us insight into the unity and intimacy characteristic of the early church. This emphasis is made more emphatic by the statement that they "had everything in common" (2:44). This statement does not mean that they practiced community ownership, as is made clear by the indication that they continued to meet from house to house (46). Nonetheless, it does underline the incredible generosity indicated by the willingness to sell property and possession, and distribute the proceeds to those who had needs. The verb tense here indicates that the practice of selling and sharing was a recurrent and continuing practice — it was the norm, not the exception.
Acts 4:32-35 adds significantly to our understanding of the generosity of the early church. The mention of a multitude of believers in verse 32 shows the rapid expansion of the church. Yet despite their rapid growth they were of "one heart and soul." "Not even one" of them dared claim that their possessions were their own. Whose possessions were they? Their willingness to share was based on a commonly held conviction that property and possessions belonged to God and were "theirs" only in terms of stewardship. Thus they were always at the disposal of the Lord, the rightful owner.
It is significant that the description of the generosity of the early church seems to be interrupted by verse 33: And with great power the apostles were giving testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was on all of them. Note that verse 34 once again picks up the emphasis of generosity: For there was not a needy person among them. The linking of the powerful witness of the church and the generous spirit is in no way an interruption. They were inextricably linked then and they are inextricably linked today.
Underline this truth: The uncommon generosity of the early church was visible proof of the power of the resurrected Christ in their midst. What would indicate the grace of God in our midst today more clearly than unity, mutual concern expressed through generous stewardship and powerful evangelism? A church family that embodies such radical characteristics, which cuts across the grain of societal norms — which values ownership and accumulation over stewardship and distribution — would confront the world with the power of the grace of God.
I fear that our lack of evangelistic harvest may well be connected to our disobedience in the area of stewardship!
A Contrasting Case Study
Luke provides a contrasting case study in 4:36 to underline the emphasis on generosity. Joseph, a Cypriot Jew, apparently had relatives and land in Jerusalem. He sold the land and gave the proceeds to the apostles for use in the community. It was this sort of generous behavior that earned him the name Barnabas which means "Son of Encouragement." Generosity has a way of stimulating and encouraging others who witness it.
The other story is about a wealthy couple name Ananias and Sapphira, who committed the total proceeds from the sale of a piece of land. It is possible that the land sold for more than they expected, which created a spirit of greed, leading them to hold back a portion of the sale price. The phrase translated "keep back" literally means to "pilfer" or "embezzle." You might wonder how someone could embezzle their own money. This is precisely the point! The land belonged to the King and was only held by Ananias and Sapphira in stewardship. Thus, once it was voluntarily committed to the church for community needs, the couple was guilty of embezzlement and lying to the Spirit (Acts 5:3).
The contrast is even more ironic when we understand that the name Ananias means "God is gracious." If God had been so gracious to Ananias, how could he be so stingy and dishonest? It is a probing question that we should take to heart.
A Famine in Jerusalem
I have long been fascinated by the church in Antioch. This church was responsible for sending out the first missionaries who planted most of the churches we read about in the book of Acts.
This community of believers responded to a crisis need in Jerusalem in such a generous fashion that it impacted the entire ministry of the Apostle Paul. Agabus, a prophet from Jerusalem, told them of a severe famine which would impact the Roman world. The church responds immediately — So each of the disciples, according to his ability, determined to send relief to the brothers who lived in Judea (11:29). Notice that all participated in proportion to their ability.
The plight of the believers in Jerusalem and the response of the church in Antioch provide the backdrop for much of the teaching of Paul on generous stewardship. 1 Corinthians 16 and 2 Corinthians 8-9 all relate to the offering for the saints in Jerusalem. Paul devotes nearly a decade of his ministry to the collection of this grand offering that would require all the churches in Macedonia and Achaia joining together in a cooperative offering.
People often want to give in such a manner that they can control how the resources are used and receive credit for their generosity. But Kingdom-centered giving requires a radically different attitude. When we understand that we hold everything in stewardship for the King, then we can freely release the resources in our care to meet the needs of the saints and advance the Kingdom without concern for control or credit. It may have already dawned on you that this great cooperative famine offering is the biblical prototype for the Cooperative Program.
Paul actually demonstrates a progression in his teaching on giving. You will undoubtedly understand that the giving of the "tithe" was the expected norm for all those who came to Christ as Messiah out of Judaism. Jesus demonstrates this when He says to the Pharisees: These things should have been done without neglecting the others (Matthew 23:23). He was talking about the necessity of the tithe along with embodying justice, mercy, and faith. They should have already mastered the fundamental aspect of faithful living such as tithing thus enabling them to move on to other issues of spiritual growth.
If you read 1 Corinthians 16:1-4, Paul teaches systematic and proportionate giving ("first day of the week," and "to the extent that he prospers"). Proportionate giving obviously would allow and encourage one to give beyond the tithe. In 2 Corinthians 8-9, he teaches "hilarious giving" and "grace giving." Hilarious giving pleases God because it reflects His own character manifest in His children.
Grace giving must be understood in light of the total context of the Corinthians letters. There were those in Corinth who were fascinated by the possession of certain spiritual gifts (charismata equals manifestation of grace). They believed that these charismatic endowments proved their spirituality. Paul deals that argument a death blow in 1 Corinthians 13. Nonetheless, in 2 Corinthians 8:7 he appeals to the Corinthians to be as zealous to give as they are to manifest certain gifts. Now as you excel in everything — in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in all diligence, and in your love for us — excel also in this grace.
Don't miss this obvious point. We should give in such a manner that it requires and exhibits the grace of God. We should practice a level of stewardship that it mandates the work of God's Spirit in our lives.
Can you imagine for a moment what impact such generosity could have on our work to advance God's Kingdom? Let's look at a simple math problem. According to recent studies on giving, only about 25 percent of those attending church give systematically. Those persons give at the rate of 2.5 percent of their income. What if 50 percent gave 5 percent? Why stop at half obedience. What if they gave 10 percent? What if 100 percent gave 10 percent? Do the math and imagine the impact we could have on reaching the nations.
Editor's note: Look for Kenneth Hemphill's Making Change study that applies biblical principles in the area of finances. Published by B&H Publishers.