When we talk about ecclesiology (our understanding of the church), there are two levels to consider. The first is the abstract, presumably universal level at which we think about what the church is. The second is the practical level at which which we think about how a local church must embody that essence. One problem that has affected many churches is the assumption that the second level, that of application, is just as universal as the first. This belief leads some to the conclusion that the forms, styles, practices, and traditions of the church universal should be pretty much uniform throughout the church local. The expectation that the New Testament will provide those forms bolsters the assumption.
In this series, I will work through some of the factors we take into account as the church in Arequipa seeks to embody Christ faithfully in our context. I hope to show how we go about translating the first level into the second level.
To access all of the posts in this series, visit the "Church in Arequipa" tag.
I grew up with five acts of worship: praying, singing, preaching, Lord's supper, and offering. These were taught to be the defining traits of the true local church. A little searching online will quickly indicate the extent to which many Churches of Christ still promote this ecclesiology, as well as how contested it is by others. The goal here is not to deal will all the dimensions of that dispute but to look at one of these "must-do" practices a little more closely from the Arequipa context.
We do not take up a weekly collection. Why? I'll answer briefly in four different ways, hoping to demonstrate how we get from the universal to the practical.
One, we do not define church in terms of particular acts. The previous articles in this series have already indicated how we think about what it is to be the church. So, from the start, we do not feel compelled to restrict our understanding of the church to the ritual fulfillment of certain acts. Of course, there are many things that we do. Neither doing nor even ritual are wrong. But they must cohere with a more profound sense of who we are and what we are about. Why don't we take up a weekly collection? Because we are free to grapple with the issue of giving without the need to give a pat answer in order to be the "true" church. Our identity in Christ is not at stake in the process of discerning what is best contextually.
Two, the universal issue (to be simplistic) is generosity—not a particular practice. The offering in the Corinthian letters (and throughout Paul's letters and Acts) was for a particular situation: the famine in Judea. Other than this specific relief effort, collective giving in the NT regards the support of teachers and missionaries. There are certainly principles to be taken from these two areas. Yet, the more fundamental question is not whether a local church in a different time and place will take up money on a weekly basis in order to alleviate famine in another country (that would be good) or whether it has ministers who need economic support (that would be good as well). Rather, the real question is whether—whatever the need, the frequency, and the means—the local church will respond with generosity. Why don't we take up a weekly collection? Because the generosity of Christians needn't be confined to one form of giving.
Three, there is no need to take up money regularly. Given the rest of our ecclesiology and the stage of the congregations' development, to take an offering for an offering's sake would be ethically dubious. We have no building to rent and no bills to pay. (And if we're honest, that's where a great deal of the money of churches that insist on a weekly offering goes, despite the lack of biblical precedent.) We are training grassroots leaders who are not professional paid ministers. And we are not yet to the point of commissioning a missionary—at which point we will joyfully begin taking up a regular contribution. Rather than taking money from church members and putting it in a bank or under the mattress, we encourage their giving in Jesus' name to be directed toward the people in their lives, on a personal basis. When there is a need, then we take up money—or some other kind of offering. When a very poor friend, Feli, broke her leg and couldn't work, the church members contributed different foodstuffs to a basket that we gave her. On another occasion, we donated clothes and coats to families in the highlands suffering through a particularly harsh winter. Why don't we take up a weekly collection? Because faithfulness is not about just going through the motions. When the practical need for regular giving arises, then we will meet that need.
Four, our challenge to typical treatments of church money is good news in our context. Arequipa is plagued with so-called evangelical churches (and televangelists) that preach—even to visitors—that those who do not give a "tithe" will be judged and that those who give will be rewarded (financially). Such health-and-wealth promises effectively con the poor, who place their hope in "biblical" preaching. Church leaders profit from the fearful giving of poor seekers. The church becomes just another facet of the oppressive system in which the poor exist. This is not Jesus' "good news to the poor." In fact, it reminds me more of the religious leaders who "devour widows' houses and out of false motives say long prayers" (Mark 12:40). Of course, the point is not that the poor shouldn't give sacrificially. Mark quite intentionally juxtaposes this condemnation with the story of the widow who gave everything. Rather, the point is that by not requiring an offering needlessly, we are able to communicate with integrity that the church is not just another institution that takes advantage of the poor—something that many of our neighbors have come to believe. The widow can choose how to express her faith through sacrificial giving without the institution of "church" being God's enforcer. Why don't we take up a weekly collection? Because we want to represent Jesus' true good news to the poor, who need to hear that the church doesn't exist to increase their hardship in exchange for "spiritual" goods and services.