Christmas Joy Vs. the Kirchensteuer
Noël and I lived in West Germany for three years. We lived in Munich, the capital of Bavaria (one of the German states), from the summer of 1971 to the summer of 1974. There are two official churches in Germany, the Catholic and the Lutheran (or Evangelische). And most universities have a Catholic theological faculty and a Lutheran theological faculty. I did my research with a member of the Lutheran faculty at the University of Munich who was sympathetic toward American evangelicals. Among the controversies I had with my professor, two stand out to me as most fruitful. One was baptism: should we or should we not baptize infants? Professor Goppelt said yes because Romans 6:1–4 does not mention faith. Piper said no because Galatians 3:26–29, Colossians 2:12, and 1 Peter 3:21 do mention faith. The other controversy was over the Kirchensteuer—the church tax. The first controversy was fruitful because it clarified and strengthened my own convictions about believer's baptism. The second controversy was fruitful because it caused me for the first time to search the Scriptures on the issue of if and how the church should solicit money.
The Inadequacy of the Church Tax
In West Germany, the Lutheran and Catholic churches are supported by the church tax. Everyone who is baptized as an infant into one of these churches (and that is almost everyone—the free churches are very small) will have a portion of his income taken out automatically by the government and given to the appropriate church (except for children, disabled, and retired). In 1970 the amount was about 8% of the income tax. In addition to this, the churches still receive freewill gifts, but they are very small. In Bavaria in 1970 the freewill gifts averaged out to about 60 cents per member per year. In other words, most of the costs of the church in Germany are paid by a church tax which is collected automatically like an income tax by the government.
The church leaders in Germany are aware of the problems with such a system, but for many the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. In an official publication of the Bavarian Lutheran Church, the chief advantage of the church tax is described like this: "The main advantage of the church tax lies in the independence of the church, because the state may in no case interrupt the work of the church. But when the church is financed through freewill gifts the danger is much greater that the proverb will come true: 'The one who gives the pay has the say!' The church would be in danger, as for example in the U.S.A., of doing and saying what would please the wealthy. And that would limit the freedom of the church and weaken its ability to reprove and correct the state and society."
My response to this argument for the church tax, then and now, is this: It is true but it is woefully inadequate. Here is what I mean. It is true in every volunteer organization that the leadership is in danger of compromising principles to please the best givers. It is so easy to rationalize this behavior by saying: Surely it is better to bend our founding principles a little than it is for the organization to die. So this argument in favor of the church tax is true. There is a danger that I as pastor might kowtow to arbitrary wishes of wealthy church members.
But this argument is woefully inadequate for two reasons. One is that by the grace of God we need not give in to the danger. With God's help church leaders can maintain their integrity. As for myself, I pledge never to inquire of the financial secretary how much any person in this church gives, and I promise, as God enables me, to preach the Bible faithfully no matter who it pleases or displeases. I have a deep confidence that where the Spirit of God is at work in a church and the Word of God is faithfully proclaimed, the financial needs will be met without any compromise or arm twisting. I'll come back to this in a moment.
The other reason I think that argument for the church tax is inadequate is that the dangers of the church tax itself are greater than those of the free-gift system. One of the dangers is that the churches can go right on functioning when the people are spiritually dead and gone. There is no correlation between the presence of the Spirit and the presence of the Deutschmark; there is no correlation between spiritual vitality and material solvency.
Noël and I worshiped in a church for several months which had a membership of 10,000. That is, 10,000 people resided in this district who were baptized Lutherans. Except for the children and retired and disabled, all these paid the church tax. So the big, beautiful building was preserved, the staff was paid, the free organ recitals were given, the sermons were preached, marriages and funerals were performed. But do you know who came to church? There were about 60 older women, a half a dozen older men, and no young people at all, every Sunday—out of 10,000. They called a new staff member while I was there and I attended the ordination service. I remember how the bishop who came to give the church to the young man said, "The shepherd left the 99 sheep to go and find the one last sheep." And then with tears in his eyes he said, "Where are the 99? Where are the 99?" And he charged the young vicar to leave the one and go find the 99. Let's not throw stones at the German church. Let's pray for the German church.
Being Made Rich in Joy
But we must learn from her mistakes. I cannot reconcile the church tax with the New Testament view of giving. This is what I found as I went to the Bible with the question: How should a church leader get his people to give the money needed to fulfill the church's mission? The answer to this question was answered in a remarkably full way in Paul's second letter to the Corinthians, chapters 8 and 9. These two chapters are simply packed with an amazing variety of motivations which the apostle Paul uses to get the Corinthian church to give money to meet the needs of the ministry in Jerusalem.
Here's the background. Some time earlier while Paul was at Ephesus, he wrote 1 Corinthians and said in the last chapter (16:1–3):
Now concerning the contribution 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 contributions need not be made when I come. And when I arrive, I will send those whom you accredit by letter to carry your gift to Jerusalem.
Now Paul is on his way to Corinth to pick up the money and take it to Jerusalem for the church there. He heads north through Troas, across the northern part of the Aegean Sea, through Macedonia where the Philippian and Thessalonian churches are, and south toward Corinth. On the way he writes 2 Corinthians to send ahead of him, and he devotes two whole chapters to the collection he hopes is ready for him when he arrives. What does he say in 2 Corinthians 8 and 9? How does he motivate the believers to give?
We can't look at everything in these chapters this morning; so I would like us to do two things: First, we'll do a walk-through of 8:1–9 and 9:6–15, the two key sections. Then, we'll step back and try to organize Paul's teaching so we can see how it all fits together.
First, then, let's walk through the text together, making some comments as we go. Chapter 8, verse 1: "We want you to know, brethren, about the grace of God which has been shown in the churches of Macedonia." Paul begins with an example of generosity. He has just taken the collection in Macedonia on his way to Corinth, and they have been unbelievably generous. But the main point of verse 1 is that this generosity is a demonstration of God's grace. Paul never praises anyone's virtue without giving God the ultimate credit.
Verse 2: "For in a severe test of affliction their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of liberality on their part." The way God's grace had produced the generosity of the Macedonian Christians was not by making them rich in money, but by making them rich in joy. Here is the beginning for why I could not reconcile the church tax with the biblical way of raising money. The motive for giving to any ministry is joy—joy inspired by the grace of God. And when joy is there, even poverty can't stop the giving. Remember the widow's penny (Luke 21:2).
Verses 3 and 4: "And they gave according to their means, of their own free will, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints." When joy is overflowing by the grace of God and the needs of Christian ministry arise, two things are affected: the amount we give and the eagerness. The Macedonians gave beyond what they were able. They looked at their budgets and were carried away by joy to give more than they could afford. And they did it with an unbelievable eagerness. They begged for the privilege of giving to the collection. Joy makes beggars out of people—people who beg to give!
Verse 5: "And they did this not as we hoped, but first they gave themselves to the Lord and to us by the will of God." It is possible to give gifts to people and to God, and yet keep yourself at a distance. Money, which ought to be an expression of personal commitment, can actually be a substitute for personal commitment. Paul does not want that kind of money. Of first importance is to give ourselves to God and to God's people. Then our gifts will be pleasing to the Lord. And notice at the end of the verse it is "by the will of God" that they were enabled to make that personal commitment to God and to Paul. It does not come naturally. It's of grace (8:1).
Verse 6: "Accordingly we have urged Titus that as he had already made a beginning, he should also complete among you this gracious work." You need to read the rest of chapters 8 and 9 to see what Titus was going to do. The only thing we need to mention here on our walk-through is that Paul's belief in the sovereign grace of God does not rule out the use of human agents of grace. He does not merely pray that the Corinthians will be ready with a generous collection; but he also sends Titus on ahead to promote the cause.
Verses 7 and 8: "Now as you excel in everything—in faith, in word, in knowledge, in all earnestness, and in your love for us—see that you excel in this gracious work also. I say this not as a command but to prove by the earnestness of others that your love also is genuine." I think you can see from this last statement why the concept of a church tax was unacceptable to me. Paul very consciously avoids commanding the people to give. The reason is because he wants the giving to be a proof of love. Paul had said in 1 Corinthians 13:3: "And though I bestow all my goods to feed (the poor) . . . and have not love, it profits me nothing." It might be possible to tax or coerce a church into giving, but in the end, even if all the bills are paid, it would be of no value. If our generosity and faithfulness in giving cannot be won through the overflow of joy expressing itself in love, then whatever money is collected will profit nothing. And I can't help but think that the empty churches in Germany are a witness to that fact. The money is all there, but not out of love.
Verse 9: "For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich." This verse is why I called the sermon "Christmas Joy Versus the Kirchensteuer." Jesus Christ is God Almighty, through whom the universe was made and who upholds all things by his power. He has existed as the glorious, perfect, and happy second person of the Trinity from all eternity. And it was from this infinite height that he performed the unimaginable condescension to be born in a cattle stall and to die on a criminal's cross, in order that we might be made rich. Not rich in money, but as verse two says: rich in joy and rich in liberality, and as verse 8 implies: rich in love.
This is the grace of God that turns selfish people into joyful givers. The reason verse 9 should take away our selfishness and make us joyful and generous is that it takes away the only basis for selfishness. The basis for selfishness is the notion that giving less away and keeping more for ourselves will provide more happiness and fulfillment to our lives. But verse 9 shows that God's purpose in sending his Son was to create joyful, loving, generous givers. Now if God values joyful, loving generosity so much as to give his beloved Son to create it in his people, then we can be absolutely assured that when we are more generous, we will be more happy and more fulfilled because God is bound to work mightily for those whose behavior he values so highly.
That mighty work of God is what Paul talks about in 9:6ff. So let's take one giant step and continue our walk. Chapter 9, verse 6: "The point is this: he who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully." If God approves so heartily of joyful generosity, we may be sure he will bless it. There are thousands of stories of wealthy people who have given far and away above the tenth of their income and have found themselves unable to out-give God. But verse 6 does not mean that if you give to God you will get rich. The Macedonians are the model in these chapters, and it was their poverty that overflowed in a wealth of liberality. Just what it does mean to "reap bountifully" is shown in verses 8–11.
But first, Paul says in verse 7: "Each one must do as he has made up his mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion for God loves a cheerful giver." This reiterates the point of chapter 8: cheerfulness not compulsion, Christmas joy not the church tax is the right motive for giving to the church. The statement, "God loves a cheerful giver," is shocking if we think that God loves all men in the same way. But he doesn't. He loves all in that he gives life to all, and reveals himself in nature to all, and in Christ made atonement for sin that can be offered to all. But those who love him and are called according to his purpose and who cheerfully give because Christ has made them rich in love and joy—these God loves uniquely, in that he works everything together for their great good and turns all their generosity back upon their head with limitless blessing. Not so that they build bigger barns (houses, cars, etc.), but so that they do more generous good works.
Verses 8–11 explain:
God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that you may always have enough of everything and may provide in abundance for every good work. As it is written: 'He scatters abroad; he gives to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.' He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your resources and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way for great generosity which through us will produce thanksgiving to God.
In these four verses Paul explains in what sense those who sow bountifully will reap bountifully. They will reap bountifully in that God will never allow them to give so much that they can't give more. Or to put it positively: the more you give, the more God will enable you to give. This truth is stated three times. First, in verse 8: "so that you may always be able to provide for every good work." Second, in verse 10: "God will increase the harvest of your righteousness," that is, he will enable you to put out even more for righteousness' sake. Third, in verse 11: "You will be enriched for generosity."
The truth is plain—it is a promise. You may have much; you may have little; the promise remains: the more you give for the sake of others, the more you will be enabled by God to give. Let me stress that Paul is not promising to make generous Christians wealthy. He is promising to make generous Christians capable of even greater generosity. There is a mentality that says: with the increase of income there should also be an increase in the material signs of wealth. In the last 30 years these signs usually included a larger house further out in the suburbs; a larger car, usually one of the luxury lines; a yearly switch in wardrobe to keep current; an application for the Gold Card; an array of expensive entertainment and recreational items; and so on. This mentality says, "Buy it because you can afford it and should look like you can." But that is just the opposite of the mentality of this text.
I believe this text implies that God does not oppose our income climbing from $10,000 to $50,000 to $100,000. What he opposes is when his beneficence to us is bottled up in excessive worldly possessions and investments. If God increases our income, he is not putting his stamp of approval on a life of luxury; he is commissioning us to the exhilarating and joyful mission of tremendous and creative generosity. Make as much as you want, and give as much as you can.
The last phrase of verse 11, as well as verses 12–15, describes the great outcome when God's people overflow in generosity:
This will produce thanksgiving to God; for the rendering of this service not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows in many thanksgivings to God. Under the test of this service you will glorify God by your obedience in acknowledging the gospel of Christ and by the generosity of your contribution for them and for all others; while they long for you and pray for you, because of the surpassing grace of God in you. Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!
The great outcome of Christian generosity is that the needs of the saints are met, the gospel of Christ is acknowledged, many thanks rise to the heavenly Father, and he is glorified in the world.
And now let's go back and just briefly, in summary, see how it all fits together. It all begins with Christmas, God's inexpressible gift who became poor so that we might become rich (8:9; 9:15). Then this good news that the Son of God came and died for our sins and rose again is preached (9:13), and as people pin their hopes on the promises of the gospel, the grace of God (8:1, 16; 9:14) fills their hearts with joy, even amid poverty (8:2; 9:7). And out of this joy in the all-satisfying love of God is born love for other people (8:8) which then shows itself in a wealth of cheerful liberality (8:2; 9:7). To this, God responds with increased spiritual and material enablement to be even more generous (9:6, 8–11). And the ultimate outcome of this remarkable generosity is that many thanks rise to God for the surpassing grace he has put into the hearts of his people. And finally, as we learned two weeks ago, when Thanksgiving rises to God from the heart, he is magnified. The glory of God, the great goal of all history, is displayed in the world. Is it any wonder that the poverty stricken Macedonians begged Paul for the privilege of giving?
I thank God that the giving to Bethlehem Baptist Church is not constrained by a church tax. We are free to let joy and love run rampant. At the annual business meeting last Thursday the treasurer said we need $5,000 a week in December to pay our missions commitment and another $4,000 possibly to support the local ministry here. That's $36,000 for December. The Foundation has now paid off the last indebtedness on this building. The need now is for missions and for the support base here at home. If only 400 of our 760 members gave $90 in December that would be it. My dear friends, we can do it! There are many of us, and God is generous. Who can predict what great generosity an outpouring of Christian joy on this church would produce! I promise to do my utmost financially for this church in December because I love you people, and I love the ministry I have, and I love missions, and I love the future I see on the horizon for the work of Christ in this church. Would you join me in this? "I do not say this as a command—it is not a tax—but to prove that your joy is full and your love is genuine."
©2014 Desiring God Foundation. Used by Permission.
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in its entirety or in unaltered excerpts, as long as you do not charge a fee. For Internet posting, please use only unaltered excerpts (not the content in its entirety) and provide a hyperlink to this page. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Desiring God.
Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By John Piper. ©2014 Desiring God Foundation. Website: desiringGod.org