Roger W. Schmurr
The practice of passing the plate is changing rapidly in American churches. Sites dedicated to online giving indicate that at least fifty thousand US churches use their services. Their ads claim that churches can expect an increase up to 32 percent by switching to online giving (which, incidentally, could relieve pastors from preaching about giving). Other advantages are easily guessed. Church treasurers might prefer to handle digital records rather than count money after worship services. Giving during summer months (when members are on vacation) might be stabilized.
Orthodox Presbyterians aren’t Luddites who oppose the use of technology for ecclesiastical purposes. Certainly, there are difficulties that keep people from attending worship services and require them to use alternative ways to send financial support to their church. But the biblical pattern is to normally give such support within public worship. “Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; bring an offering, and come into his courts!” (Ps. 96:8).
Offerings in support of gospel ministry today are parallel in nature to the animal and harvest offerings of the Old Testament. Notice how the Apostle Paul uses worship language to describe the support that Philippian believers sent to him:
I have received full payment, and more. I am well supplied, having received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God. (Phil. 4:18)
Just as offerings presented in the Old Testament were given during public worship, offerings today for the support of gospel ministry are properly made within public worship. See how the Apostle Paul solicited support from believers in Corinth for poor believers in Jerusalem:
Now concerning the collection for the saints: as I directed the churches of Galatia, so you also are to do. On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come. (1 Cor. 16:1–2)
Today we might portray those collections as diaconal offerings. But more appears to be involved. When Paul refers to these offerings later, he says that he collected both alms for the poor and offerings (Acts 24:17). In short, Paul instructed diaconal—and evidently other ministry support—to be collected during public worship.
Theologian John Frame summarizes the biblical pattern and historic practice of the church: “I conclude that the collection, by whatever name, is properly worship—something the church should do when assembled in God’s name” (Worship in Spirit and Truth, 59).
The OPC’s directory for public worship reflects Paul’s instruction concerning offerings being an element of public worship:
The bringing of offerings in the public assembly of God’s people on the Lord’s Day is a solemn act of worship to almighty God. (II.B.4.a.)
Kiosks in the narthex may have replaced the occasional offering box at the exit. However, both attempts to avoid appearing like money-grubbers to visitors remove the offering from public worship.
Even if the offering plate is still passed down the row during your worship service, if online giving is simultaneously promoted, you could easily think, “No thanks; I gave at the office.” Supporting gospel ministry would be just like paying any other bill or donating to any worthy cause. You wouldn’t even have to give much thought to your offerings; they would be deducted automatically out of your bank account or charged to your credit card at set times.
But should a church ever associate the giving of tithes and offerings with bill paying? The gas company, city utilities, internet provider, my church—are they all in the same category? Payments to the first three entities are for services rendered. Should we also consider our tithes and offerings as payments to God for services rendered? That’s not a biblical view. To acknowledge that God commands that we give such offerings is not to say that we are paying a debt.
Paul did view the collection taken in Gentile churches as paying a debt to the Jerusalem church from which the gospel had emanated (Rom. 15:26–27). But note that those offerings were taken in public worship services. Similarly, when church plants become particularized, they often increase their giving to their presbyteries’ church-planting efforts as a type of payback or thanks for the financial support they had received. But it would be an unwarranted stretch to say that the offerings collected in public worship are paying a debt to God for past services—and therefore could be handled just as you paid Bob’s Stump Grinding for removing that nuisance in your backyard.
From animal and grain sacrifices, to a temple tax and alms paid with coins, to checks in offering plates: the church appears to be on a continuum of giving practices that is leading to churchgoers pulling out their tablets and smartphones to text offerings to a church bank account during the offertory. Offertories will be shortened in that case—and that would give pastors more time to preach! But would this be bowing to technology inappropriately? (Of course, people don’t complain about the technology needed to cash checks for giving tithes and offerings.)
Consider that most people who use online bill-paying services still maintain checking accounts for special payments. The giving of tithes and offerings might well be an example of such special outlays that call for checks.
If the Reformed community wants to maintain tithes and offerings as an element of public worship, it will have to give attention to giving.
The author is an OPC minister and theological editor for Great Commission Publications.