Throughout history the church has had a battle between being focused on prayer or money. Some people are suspicious or selfish and give little or nothing and others give generously to the world’s most important enterprise. What is the right use of money for the church?
I want us to understand that money will always be a cause for good and evil in the Church.
We will examine the money changers in the temple and prayer.
Częstochowa in Poland
We arrived at the church of the Black Madonna like most tourists, by bus. To enter we walked through droves of trinket and souvenir sellers. Inside people were praying. It reminded us of the money changers in the temple that Christ drove out (John 2:13-25). Surely we don't have such things in today’s world do we? It was years later that I entered a church to hear a famous evangelist speak. In the back were tables with copies of his books on it and a portable credit card machine. I have seen more money-making ministries since. One church even had a permanent store built in the entryway of the sanctuary where they sold audio and video copies of their sermons and books. By contrast, I have visited many churches where prayer is the genuine focus. There is a difference.
Money Changers at Church
Others also write books but refuse to sell them in church because it is too similar to the money changers in the temple (John 2:13-25). We are offended by moneymaking in the time and place where we should be praying. Perhaps the money changers had good motives. Churches need money to operate the most important enterprise on earth. People needed to buy sacrifices to offer. But, it took the focus away from the purpose of church. Why is it that too many see church as a money-making opportunity. There is always someone trying to make money off of us, usually for good causes in far away places. $400,000 to chair Samaritan’s Purse is excessive. Too many ministries are overly focused on money and not prayer. Would Jesus likewise upturn our efforts and have us focus more on prayer?
What do the money changers in the temple (John 2:13-25) teach us about the church and money? As a group once toured Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome someone in the crowd asked their priest tour guide how much it cost. His reply was that it cost much of northern Europe. He referred of course to the selling of indulgences under Tetzel as a fundraiser for reconstruction and a cause of the Protestant Reformation. Financial abuse has occurred throughout history and the church has not been immune. When denominational officials take more from local churches than the tithe of the tithe taken by Moses, then one wonders why the New Testament church is more burdensome than the Old. When bishops and televangelists live in palaces while others starve at their doorsteps, one wonders what happened to the religion of Jesus.
The story of money in the Church (John 2:13-25) has a good side, giving for the Gospel and the needy. The Church is a global enterprise, building hospitals, homeless shelters, orphanages, soup kitchens, educational institutions, working for justice and reconciliation, and teaching people how to improve their lives. The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) is rated A+ by CharityWatch. Salaries are not paid from charitable donations, but by our Conferences. Hence all of donations go to alleviating human suffering in more than 80 countries, including the United States. Donors choose where their contributions go. UMCOR provides humanitarian relief when calamity disrupts communities and the most vulnerable need help. We provide successful solutions to emergencies. UMCOR provides survivors temporary relief and long-term education, training, and support. We spend 100 percent of designated donations on disaster relief and international development.
Jesus not Literally
Ought not Christians take the Bible literally? Some teach so. Yet in John 2:13-25 Jesus taught the Pharisees a lesson that was not meant to be taken literally. They took him literally, when they should have understood that he was teaching figuratively. They asked for a sign of his authority. He replied, destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up. Of course they thought that he meant the literal temple that had taken forty six years to construct. However, he was speaking of his body, which was raised three days after his crucifixion. Even his disciples did not grasp the full significance of this saying until after his death. In fact a large part of what Jesus taught was not literal, but metaphor, parable and hyperbole. We understand Jesus by his intent not literal interpretations.
Ought Christians ever get angry? John 2:13-25 reveals that Jesus got angry. He turned over the tables of the money changers in the temple. The Old Testament mentions God’s anger a lot, mainly referring to his indignation at evils caused by humanity. Proverbs also recommends strongly against a quick temper and avoiding friendships with people who are impatiently angry by nature. Jesus also condemned unjust anger in the Sermon on the Mount and when it is justified Paul recommended not allowing it to last beyond sunset. Even modern psychology recognizes the wisdom of that advice. A quick temper can disqualify a person from church leadership. Jesus’ anger in the temple showed his passion for the one place where prayer ought not to be overshadowed. Church ought to be a place of refuge from the questionable practices of the market.
The 3 Pillars of Lent
Matthew 6 mentions the importance and right practice of almsgiving, prayer and fasting. These are the three pillars of Lent. Though we specially focus on them before Easter, they also apply as basic Christian principles all year long. This is why Jesus was so angry with the money changers in the Temple (John 2:13-25). The Temple was a marketplace, focusing more on money than prayer. Lent is a time when we can reexamine our lives to focus away from the marketplace of our businesses to prayer. It is a time to renew our private prayer, that time between us and God that nobody else sees. It is a time to give not as some celebrities do to be seen of others, but in secret. It is a time to fast, not to be seen of others, but in secret.
The church is a house of prayer but cannot operate without money. Pastors ought to live off the Gospel rather than be so busy making an income that they have no time for the church. Do we tithe 10% under the New Covenant? Ought Christians do less than old law required? The challenge to Christians is the widow’s mite, which was all her livelihood. Generosity does not stop at a legalistic 10%. For some of us those are hard words. For our family, my wife calculates a tithe to be divided between three churches and we believe in giving generously by donating in other ways like not always charging for expenses like meals, postage, printing and cell phone costs. Our churches give about a tithe to the Conference and some churches budget an extra tenth for the poor or missionaries.
Principles of Money Management
Giving is a great blessing. Living from hand to mouth, unable to pay our bills, it is difficult to be in a position to give. Working hard and using money management are the honest ways to wealth (Proverbs 6:6-8; 13:4; 12:24; 2 Thessalonians 3:10-12). Instead of lusting for what they do not need, diligent people live way below their means and do without so that they can save and have something left to give. The tithing principle teaches us to budget and a good place to start is saving a tenth each paycheck. Rather than be slaves to credit, we should get our financial lives in shape and save so we can pay cash for most things that we need and also be in a position where we can give to the Gospel and the needy.
Where our money is reveals where our hearts are. The Church uses money for the Gospel and the needy. We all ought to be good stewards of God’s money, but our focus ought to be on prayer.