Sunday, December 31, 2006

Ecclesiastic Sleight-of-Hand

My wife received an end-of-year letter yesterday over the signature of the senior pastor of her church. The gist of it was how everybody needs to contribute money to the church because every year the budget is barely being met.

Aside from the obvious (to me) conclusion--viz., perhaps the budget is overblown--the letter stands as a fine example of what I've come to regard as ecclesiastic sleight-of-hand. Specifically, it slides rather subtly from "giving to the church" to "giving to God" or "giving to Jesus." (This is hardly unique to my wife's church or denomination, by the way: I've had fifty years of hearing the same sort of slippery phraseology coming from Catholic pulpits, too, and I have absolutely no reason to believe it doesn't take place across the board.)

One is left with the question of what God needs money for.

And the answer, of course, is that he has no need of it whatsoever.

To which I would expect the rejoinder to be that, no, God has no need of filthy lucre himself, but money is what it takes to do God's work on earth, so contributing money to the church is in effect to contribute it to God's work.

Okay. But there is more sleight-of-hand at work there, too. Because every church that I've ever trafficked with, as member, visitor, or member-in-law, has insisted that its share of the take must come right off the top--what some churchy enterprises insist on referring to as "first fruits"--and that everyone and everything else must vie for whatever is left. Indeed, in some churches that I've been around, the powers that be even go so far as to describe certain undertakings as "second mile" giving, meaning that they sure as heck don't want you to deduct your contribution from what you put in the collection plate. The sleight-of-hand at work here is the presumption that God's work is done only through "the church"--which is to say "this church"--or most importantly through "the church," and so everything else is subordinate. And yet, is not a donation to charity "doing God's work"? What about a donation to "a good cause" (as defined by yourself)--I can think of several that are about the Lord's work just as much as any parish, congregation, or denomination is. But I suspect that most churchy folk will say that such contributions, though admirable and good, must come only after one's tribute to the local institutional church.

To which I say: Baloney.

God's work in the world boils down to helping other people. Thus the money donated to the local food bank, or homeless shelter, or Salvation Army is dedicated to God's work no less than the money placed in the collection plate. Maybe even more so, depending on circumstances. Ditto for dollars sent to a particular mission or relief endeavor.

This is not to say that giving to one's church is not important. It is of course. It's just to say that the church's insistence that it needs to be at the head of the line doesn't mean it really deserves to be at the head of the line.

"The first shall be last", where did I read that...?

I am left equally cold by various church's insistence on tithing. My conscience and I are perfectly capable of determining what we feel should be our contribution to the church, thank you very much. I heard tell of one pastor who insisted that no one who didn't tithe could be a member of the church council. This strikes me as a pretty hot idea, inasmuch as I'm not too fond of meetings and am usually looking for a way to avoid serving on board and committees. It also strikes me as just shy of charging a membership fee to belong to a church, which is not such a hot idea.

Once again the sleight-of-hand is fully evident: You must tithe, traditionally ten percent of the gross, to "God's work." But what is really meant is, again, "the church"--"this church"--and not any other manifestations of "doing God's work." So to say, "Ten percent of my gross income is X dollars, and I'll divvy those dollars up among the food bank, the women's shelter, the orphanage, the Maryknoll Missioners, the community chest, and my church" is not acceptable to the church. The church, indeed, insists that the full ten percent belongs to the church, and that anything else you may care to donate to any other worthy cause must come from the remaining 90 percent of your income.

And, again: Baloney. God's work is God's work, no matter who is doing it.

The sad fact is, the pie is only so big and can be cut into only so many pieces, and "the church" wants to make sure it gets its piece, and the biggest piece, first.

Shame on them.

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