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Volume 8, Issue 4: Presbyterion

Facility and debt

Douglas Wilson

As the Word is ministered faithfully, churches grow in numbers. And as they grow, especially if they grow rapidly, one of the first and great needs is a facility--an adequate place for everyone to meet. How should a church respond when far more people attend than can be accommodated in one service? When the deacons start checking around, they soon discover that everything is quite expensive, and that the church will not be able to purchase or build a building without significant debt service. And so the building drive begins--the death knell of many once-thriving ministries. But when this matter is debated in the church, unfortunately, the wrong question is often the one debated.

The central issue to be presented to such a church is tithing, not borrowing. Now my purpose here is not to defend the ongoing legitimacy of the tithe. That has been done effectively elsewhere. Suffice it to say that the ministry of the gospel is to be funded in the same way as was the Levitical ministry (1 Cor. 9:13-14). And that means the tithe.
Assuming this to be the case, we should ask a question with regard to borrowing money in order to finance a new church building. The question is not, "Should a church borrow money to build or buy a structure?" The question rather breaks into two questions. The first is "Does a tithing church need to borrow money?" The second is "Should a non-tithing church even try to borrow money?"
With regard to the first, consider one fruit of the great reformation at the time of Hezekiah. (The emphasis in the following is mine.) "As soon as the commandment was circulated, the children of Israel brought in abundance the firstfruits of grain and wine, oil and honey, and of all the produce of the field; and they brought in abundantly the tithe of everything. And the children of Israel and Judah, who dwelt in the cities of Judah, brought the tithe of oxen and sheep; also the tithe of holy things which were consecrated to the Lord their God they laid in heaps. In the third month they began laying them in heaps, and they finished in the seventh month. And when Hezekiah and the leaders came and saw the heaps, they blessed the Lord and His people Israel. Then Hezekiah questioned the priests and the Levites concerning the heaps. And Azariah the chief priest, from the house of Zadok, answered him and said, "Since the people began to bring the offerings into the house of the Lord, we have had enough to eat and have plenty left, for the Lord has blessed His people; and what is left is this great abundance" (2 Chron. 31:5-10).
An average church which practices tithing, and which manages its money biblically, should have no problem meeting all its needs. Just to illustrate, imagine a congregation of one hundred households, with an average income of $25,000 annually. Such a church (if tithing) could support two fulltime staff members and one missionary family at a very reasonable wage, and still be able to save $750,000 in five years. Having done so, then such a church is qualified to debate the issue of debt. But if they do so, someone in the back row is sure to ask, "Why do we need to borrow? We have the money right here."
Those churches which need to borrow the money need to do some other things first. The church must never attempt to use debt as an instrument to escape the necessary consequences of disregarding God's assigned means of funding the work of His kingdom. The complaint in response to this is understandable to all of us--"But we need the building." This is quite true, but such a church most certainly should not have a building.
Consequently, the duty of the elders in such a church is to lead and teach the people on the subject of tithing. Of course this has to be done with great discretion--the saints are not to be coerced into giving, with the church leadership giving the example on "how to take." God loves a cheerful giver--and the saints love to give to those who love to give. The congregation should learn to tithe so that the church will be in a position to give with great liberality. We must learn to give, not as the divine money-maker for ourselves, but rather we must learn to give in order to receive, in order that we may give again. And the attitude exhibited by the households of the congregation should also be exhibited by the church at large.
If the situation is so delicate that the subject cannot even be mentioned, then the elders should simply pray until the church is willing to learn to tithe. But until the elders have good reason to believe that the congregation as a whole is under God's financial blessing in response to the obedience of tithing, they should not even consider borrowing money in order to finance a church building.
Giving money is not the cause of reformation. As in Hezekiah's case, the outpouring of the tithe is the fruit of reformation. Our response therefore should be to pray and preach and teach accordingly. But until we have received the fruit of that blessing from God, we ought not to spend money as though we have.
We must look forward to another problem. Our problem should be where to locate all the heaps, and how to express our gratitude to the God who has so richly blessed us--at that time we will turn to "bless the Lord and His people Israel."

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