How should a church use the offerings it receives?
Every church needs money to operate and has a system to collect donations, whether by passing a plate at each service, having an offering box located somewhere, or other methods. Generally speaking, some of the money goes to operating expenses such as paying church staff and paying for the church building or meeting place. Some money is allocated for specific ministries in the church that serve members or the community. Other is set aside for outreach programs. Most churches also have a benevolence fund to help church members in need, or even members of the community who are in need. Most churches also give to other ministries or missionaries. Every church has an obligation to God, its neighborhood, and its members to steward its finances appropriately. The Bible gives us some helpful guidelines as well as a few examples of how the early church used the offerings it received.
First, every church has a responsibility to God Himself. God knows the church (Revelation 2:2, 9, 13, 19; 3:1, 8, 15) and instructs His Word be proclaimed (Romans 10:14; 2 Timothy 4:2). "The mystery of Christ" needs to be proclaimed (Colossians 4:3). Advancing the gospel in its neighborhood, area, country, and around the world is the church's priority. The things that further that goal are given financial priority. This includes paying the pastor. "Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, 'You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,' and, 'The laborer deserves his wages'" (1 Timothy 5:17–18; see also 1 Corinthians 9:11).
Jesus told His followers to "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. …" (Matthew 28:19–20). Funding missionaries and outreach programs is appropriate. It is also appropriate to give money toward specific ministries in the church that help with spiritual growth.
Acts 4:34–35 speaks of the first church and its response to the needs of its members. "There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need." It was the people who gave and the leaders of the church who decided how to distribute the gifts. Later, we read that food was given to widows in the church (Acts 6:1). These needy people were ministered to by the church. The apostles in Jerusalem reminded Paul to care for the poor (Galatians 2:10). Paul instructed Timothy and the church how to distribute aid and who should receive it (1 Timothy 5:3–16).
In addition to caring for widows and the needy, New Testament churches cared for each other financially. When the church in Jerusalem was under attack and suffering hunger, the Antioch church sent help (Acts 11:29–30). The Galatian church, and the ones in Corinth, Macedonia, and Achaia also helped (1 Corinthians 16:1–3; Romans 15:25–26).
A church is a part of a neighborhood, a community, and has a responsibility to those who live and work near it. Its first responsibility is to proclaim the gospel (Acts 1:8). The second is to do good. "And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith" (Galatians 6:9–10). Yes, the verse says God's family first, but also expects others to benefit from the local church.
To decide how and where to spend offerings requires wisdom, and James 1:5 tells us to ask God for wisdom and He will grant it. An attractive building and grounds is fine, but are those expenditures advancing the gospel?
Everything a church does should glorify God (1 Corinthians 10:31). Acts 2:42 says the early church "devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers." Spreading the Word, gathering together, practicing communion, and praying—these are the foundational duties of the church. The offerings received by a church should be used toward these ends.
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