Giving It Away

May 22, 2009 |Todd Temple

Don't leave charity to the government.

Giving away money is the absolute best thing you can do with it. I know this is a freakish, extreme view, so instead of jumping right into my reasons for this, we're going to take a sneaky, roundabout look at the topic of giving. Let's start in Paris.

That's where I was last week. It was part of my debt-freedom celebration. I ate great food, lost myself in the city's serpentine streets, ate more food, took fine naps and visited ancient churches. They've got a lot of them. The most famous in Paris, of course, is Notre Dame, the immense masterpiece created by Gothic architects and an army of medieval craftsmen. A block away is Sainte Chapelle, a kaleidoscope of stained-glass Bible stories framed in towering Gothic walls. Both are stunning palaces of worship.

And expensive. Pardon me for turning this travelogue into a financial discussion, but where on earth did they come up with the money to pay for these ancient buildings? Who covered the craftsmen's wages, the artists' commissions? And who sprung for the building supplies? Their Home Depot bill would have been enormous. They would have had to launch the biggest giving campaign ever — years and years of pulpit-pounding sermons on giving, lots of plate-passing, reams of pledge cards stuffed in the pews.

But they didn't. These giant building projects weren't funded by church members. The King picked up the tab. For most of this millennium, European Christianity has been subsidized by governments. Back when monarchies were all the rage, kings funded the construction of the big churches through their taxes and tariffs and war spoils. Which explains the size and extravagance of many Old World churches: They were built to shout the king's glory as loudly as God's.

I'm glad these monuments are still standing. They've inspired countless people through the centuries. They reveal our ancient roots, reminding us that our faith is not some fly-by-night fad. But I'm not sure they were quite what God had in mind when he gave us the Church.

Church and State: A Mixed Money Bag

When the Church is funded by the Government, it tends to reflect its benefactor. It's dangerous to bite the hand that feeds you. For proof, look to the Christian martyrs throughout our history. Most were executed because their faith stood in the way of a government that funded their Church. When faithful rabble-rousers like Joan of Arc, Thomas More and Dietrich Bonhoeffer are gone, who's left? Docile church members who don't dare let their faith get in the way of comfortable traditions or misguided public policies.

It's no wonder that the Church in much of Western Europe — subsidized by governments even to this day — is best known for its fine architectural relics instead of a world-shaking faith.

Are there exceptions? Of course. Is God alive and at work in European churches? Absolutely. But I believe there's a better way to fund the Church. So did Thomas Jefferson. He had some foggy ideas about God, but his ideas about the government's role in the Church were absolutely brilliant. In the colony of Virginia, the official Church of England was funded through the tithe, a mandatory tax on land. Other denominations were forced to get by on the gifts of their members — people who paid for the government-sanctioned church and their chosen alternative. When the colony became a state, Jefferson fought hard to change this system. In "A Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom," Jefferson wrote:

That to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical; that even the forcing him to support this or that teacher of his own religious persuasion, is depriving him of the comfortable liberty of giving his contributions to the particular pastor whose morals he would make his pattern, and whose powers he feels most persuasive to righteousness.

Jefferson's novel idea of keeping government out of the church became law in Virginia and was added to the U.S. Constitution. The result was spectacular: America's privately funded, government-free churches blossomed and flourished in ways the European churches hadn't seen since the Reformation. Church buildings in America are not nearly as stunning as those in Europe, but there's a lot more of them, and a greater share of their members' voluntary contributions go toward the ministries they house — not the housing itself.

Oh Yeah, That Giving Thing

Like I said, this is a roundabout journey. But maybe by taking it, we can discover how truly rich we are as the beneficiaries of this wild, free marketplace of faith. We can dare to preach and live and worship as the Holy Spirit calls us, not as the government compels us. Because our faith isn't funded by the government — it's funded by us. We pay our own way.

Sadly, many Christians don't grasp this concept. We've got plenty of folks complaining that they can't give because taxes are too high due to our government's attempts to fix every social problem in America. And we have other folks crying foul every time the government cuts back funding for these programs, knowing that someone in need is going to be hurt.

Maybe I'm just too simpleminded to grasp the full issue here, but it seems to me that the government usually steps in to help only when traditional agents — families, communities and churches — fail to do their part. Feeding the hungry, helping the poor, healing the sick, housing the homeless, comforting those who hurt — these are the privileges and duties of our faith. At least Jesus thinks so, and he ought to know.

Maybe if Christians did what Jesus told us, we could eliminate some of the taxes we pay to fund the "ministry" the government does in our shameful absence.

When I've made this argument in the past, I've gotten some strong objections. Here's one of them: "If the government got out of the social business first, then we'd save enough money in taxes to be able to give freely to these needs." Sorry, but I don't buy that. When Americans get tax breaks, we don't give our windfalls to charity. We buy bigger TVs and SUVs and BVDs (necessary because of all the excess food we can afford). With this kind of track record, it's no wonder that most of us are skeptical about the private sector's ability to jump into even the most obvious social problems and fill the void a shrinking government would leave behind.

Here's another objection I hear: "It's naive to think that entrenched government programs would simply go away if privately funded agencies made them unnecessary." I admit, once the government "steps in," it's tough to convince it to "step out." But it's not unheard of. Big government programs cost big money, so when they're no longer needed, we stand a chance of getting them eliminated. It takes lots of shouting — which is another hard-won freedom we have in this country.

As a Christian, I see just one option. Our free giving must come first: To prevent social problems from occurring in the first place; to preempt government solutions by getting there first when needs do arise; and to reclaim "ministries" in which government programs are already entrenched.

Our efforts may have an effect on government. There's no guarantee. Except one: As long as Christians fail to serve those in need, someone else — the government, usually — will eventually make an attempt in our place. The unmet need itself is damning evidence of our hypocrisy. The credibility to shout "Less government!" is earned by funding the alternative. Let's put first things first.

Higher Court Rulings

In the end, reducing government — however desirable — is not the purpose of our giving. We answer to a much older and higher Court. The Honorable God himself has ruled forcefully on this issue. Check out a portion of the court proceedings:

"Will a man rob God? Yet you rob me."

But you ask, "How do we rob you?"

"In tithes and offerings. You are under a curse — the whole nation of you — because you are robbing me. Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this," says the Lord Almighty, "and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it." (Malachi 3:8-10)

In his trademark style, the Judge is blunt in his accusations, generous in his terms of restitution. We are to give faithfully, deeply, regularly. And in return, he will open the floodgates, drowning us in his blessings. Here are just a few of the blessings we can enjoy swimming in:

Help the people you want. Congress decides where your tax dollars go. So the money often goes to the agencies with the right political connections, or the most media coverage. By giving on your own, you ensure the survival and growth of churches and ministries and other private agencies that don't receive government funds or publicity in the headlines.

Extend Christmas. If you like Christmas because you enjoy watching your family open gifts you've made or bought for them, then why wait all year to feel that thrill? Giving a portion of your income each month spills the Christmas spirit all over the calendar.

Feel significant. There are several billion people on this planet. But something inside is driving you to be more than a number in the world census. You want your life to count for something. If you give $24 each month to sponsor a child in another country, you're paying for her food, clothing and education. You may not know the square root of 225 or how to spell Albuquerque, and you may not be able to do five pull-ups or make it to an eight o'clock class on time, but you're sacrificing your money to keep someone else alive — and that's worth more than any other talent you can master.

Set people free. When you give to organizations that help the needy, you're giving others the opportunity to experience the freedom you enjoy. Most people in this world are trapped by something they can't get out of: hunger, disease, thirst, poverty, war, handicap, spiritual darkness. People want to taste freedom. Your giving makes that possible.

Pass the torch. The Church has been around for 2000 years. From that grand-opening celebration in downtown Jerusalem to this very day, each generation has passed the torch of faith to the next. Giving to your church ensures that this ancient, life-changing relay race does not stop with our generation. The thrill of running in this race is worth the price of sponsorship.

The Great Big Thrill

For these and a flood of other reasons, I find giving the greatest thrill money can buy. It's thrilling for the giver, for the recipient, and, I'm guessing, is pretty fun for God too.

If you already give a portion of your income, you know what I'm talking about. If you don't — well, what can I say? You're missing out. Whatever you buy with that money can never do as much for you and the rest of the world as the simple act of giving it away.

Copyright 2002 Todd Temple. All rights reserved.

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