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First Fruit Giving not Hand Me Down Left Overs

A couple of days ago I posted a fairly long essay on why Christians should donate money.   The essential point was that the people who provide the services that Christians value- pastors, DCE’s, teachers, missionaries, evangelists, apologists, etc- are workers who deserve their wage.   In other words, they aren’t charity cases.  We ‘donate’ to them because there is no structural coercion to make us.  There is no government standing by with a club to extract the taxes and no police man standing by to make sure that you actually paid for the item or service you are enjoying.   There is no structural coercion, but there is still a moral, ethical, and biblical obligation.

Another thought was lurking in my mind as I was writing that essay but put it off because of length.  Here it is:  this obligation should be satisfied as a ‘first fruit’ and not as a second hand, hand me down left over.

This principle is already generally well known.  It is a staple of all stewardship studies I’ve ever seen and the Biblical basis is relatively easy to demonstrate.

Certainly, there is a great deal of ‘first fruit’ giving that takes place out there.  Whenever someone sets up an automatic payment, for example, you’re seeing ‘first fruit’ giving.  Automatic payments are convenient, making such giving easy.  🙂  And yet there is still a tendency to send off  scraps to those rendering spiritual service.

To me, this illustrates the prevailing notion that giving to one’s church or favored ministry is a charitable giving, that is, we do not have an actual obligation to give.  So, in ‘scrap stewardship,’ you will still see giving, usually as what’s left after all the other discretionary spending has been made.  However, as things go, the amount of this spending will vary from month to month so the size of the scraps will, too.  It makes it hard to run an organization when what you have to work with varies widely from month to month, and that is not even taking into account the fact that these organizations are typically led by people who need to eat, and feed their children, and provide food, shelter, and clothing for those under their care.

So much for ‘the worker is worth his wages’!

The underlying theological problem is that we tend to view these ministries and organizations as objects of charity, rather than organizations to whom we owe an obligation to.   They may be charities in the eyes of the government, but that doesn’t mean they are ‘charities’ in the eyes of God.

If the pastor charged $5 for the sermon, we’d throw a fit.  But rock groups charge much more than that and not only do we gladly pay it, but we understand that the musician has to make a living somehow… and the pastor doesn’t?  So you say, well, the musicians had to take the time to master the instruments and maybe had to get more schooling… and the pastors don’t?

There is a service rendered, a benefit administered, therefore an obligation to compensate exists.  This is the biblical pattern.

It is not my point here to discuss how this duty ought to be discharged, only to argue that there is a duty to be discharged.  Within the Church, because of its nature, it is impractical and even unbiblical, in the main, to set fees and such.  Not everyone has the same financial situation.  And certainly, the Church is not supposed to be a place where people go to make a killing.   The Bible speaks clearly to both of those issues- but it also is clear that there is an obligation, and that this obligation is to be met through ‘first fruit’ giving.

This ‘first fruit’ giving is not only practical in its significance, but also symbolic, too, for it means that you value something enough to order the rest of your life around it.

A few years back I worked at a church.  People were constantly donating things.  Does this mean that on any given day someone would walk in with a new in the box piece of office equipment?  Heck no.   The new in the box piece of office equipment was still in the household of the one who just donated the barely usable piece of office equipment to the congregation!  We had a room set aside that was chock full with this type of stuff.  Why weren’t we using it?  Well, there is a reason why the person had just gone out and purchased a new computer, printer, etc, right?   The amount of work required to get such things (and many of the other items donated) to operate correctly was large, making it impractical to use them… which is why the person who originally donated it went out and bought themselves something new.  In the meantime, you couldn’t throw the items out, because this would offend the ‘donor’!  So it had to be stored… and what did it communicate about how the church was valued?

This is a good illustration of underlying sentiment out there that organizations that labor in ‘spiritual’ fields are just charities.  Charities should be happy with whatever they get… but those who labor in the field are due their fair wage.  See the difference?

I once read a truly offensive letter to the editor in a religious newspaper I receive.  At issue was the salary that church workers received, and the fact that so many people were driven out of the ministry because they couldn’t make ends meet on church worker salaries.  This letter writer wrote something very close to the effect of:

Those who go into church work know that they will never make a lot of money.  Poverty is just a way of life for them, just as it was for me when I went into church work.  We should make sure that we never tempt them into thinking that they can get rich through church work, so its best if we deliberately pay them low wages.  Anyway, I was able to do it- and I was the only one in the house with the income!  So every church worker should be able to do it, too.

This is not a direct quote because I don’t want anyone googling it.  🙂  But it is pretty close to what was actually written and actually communicated.

Leave aside this bit about being able to support a family on the single income of your average church worker (making, what, $25,000 a year?).  If you expect your church workers to bike to work and live in trailer homes, well, ok.  It doesn’t follow that they should share that expectation.  The really interesting thing to me was this letter writer’s justification of the low wages, even going so far as to say that the congregation should deliberately pay a low wage to ensure ‘spiritual health’ of the worker.

Man, that is none of your business!  The worker is worth his wages.  If you go into the local bakery and he charges $1 for a loaf of bread, but you are concerned that if you pay that $1, and everyone else, does, too, the baker might become materialistic or even… rich… and instead offer 25 cents, will that baker let that loaf walk out the door?  Heck no.  Nor would any normal person think they have that right.  Why?  The baker is worth his wages, that’s why.

Begrudging the baker his due wage is absurd, but the idea that spiritual people should make themselves content with poverty because, well, they’re spiritual, is also absurd.  (And thinking you can enforce that poverty is evil.  You aren’t their dad.  They’re grown adults, not your charge.)

It all boils down to the same kind of thinking:  those who labor in spiritual fields are merely charity cases who should be happy with whatever they get, even if they be scraps.   Your local United Way offers you no service or benefit.  That’s a charity.  Your ‘spiritual worker’ is by your side through thick or thin and has taken the time to educate himself so he can be there in a meaningful way.   That’s a benefit you receive, a service rendered to you.  You have an obligation to render to the worker his wage.

There is much more to be said on the issue and certainly there are a lot of generous people out there.  However, I wonder how the dynamic would change if many of those generous people, instead of thinking that the organization was obligated to them, because they were generous with them, understood that they were obligated to the organization.  I just wonder.

The next time you hear that your church or favorite ministry needs a new printer don’t eye your old piece of crap.  Go buy them a ‘first fruit’ printer.  😉  You know, one that works.  And tells them that you value what they’re doing for far less than they rightly deserve.


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