When a congregation takes up a collection, whose money is it? Does it belong to the group or does it become God's? We learned in the articles "Pass the Plate" and "Weekly Collection - Commandment or Expedient?" that there is no Biblical command to take up a weekly collection. Collections are a convenient way for a group of Christians to pool their money to pay for expenses incurred by the group and to support causes which the group finds worthy of their support. Typically, Christians spend the money on evangelism, edification or benevolence efforts.
If it is decided that a collection is the best option, does the money some how become God's when it is dropped in the basket? I'm not going to make the argument that everything belongs to God; I think we all recognize that. Without a doubt, we are honoring God with our money when we use it for purposes that we know pleases Him, but can we rightly consider the money to be "holy" or "God's money"? True, it is no longer mine once I contribute it, but does ownership pass to God by default? I think not and I would affirm that it if it belongs to anyone, it belongs to the entire group that gave it. It is given with the understanding that it will be spent for such purposes as the group has approved.
Giving back to God
We often hear the phase "giving back to God a portion of what He has blessed us with" when we get to the part of our "worship service" when the collection is taken. Are we really giving that money to God? Not literally of course. However, It would seem that some are convinced that we are literally giving it to Him. We need to consider that if we say we are returning a portion of our assets to God, the implication is that He first had to give them to us. Did God cause all that money to appear in your bank account out of thin air? Of course not, we all have sources of income where the money originated. We have jobs, retirement incomes, and so on.
Does God have anything to do with our income? Absolutely! Consider Deuteronomy 8:18, "And you shall remember the LORD your God, for it is He who gives you power to get wealth...". He gives us the ability to work, and we produce the income. God gives each of us the ability to secure an income; this is how He gives us money! He enables us, He empowers us. Therefore, we may say correctly say that we are giving back to God if we mean it in the same context as "God gave it to me by enabling me to earn an income". In other words, "the Lord helps those who help themselves". It didn't literally come from God, and it doesn't literally go back to Him. So, while we all give back to God in sentiment (inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me, Matthew 25:40), our contribution literally goes to people or organizations.
Some believe the money literally becomes God's based on a hasty reading of Acts 5:1-4.
But a certain man named Ananias, with Sapphira his wife, sold a possession. And he kept back part of the proceeds, his wife also being aware of it, and brought a certain part and laid it at the apostles’ feet. But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back part of the price of the land for yourself? While it remained, was it not your own? And after it was sold, was it not in your own control? Why have you conceived this thing in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God.”
They reason that if this was just a collection of money that still remained the possession of the group, then Ananias and Sapphira would have been lying to the group instead of the Holy Spirit. Since the lie they told was to God, then it must have been His money.
We must notice that there are two different (but related) things to consider in this passage and they shouldn't be mixed up. They are, (1) the lie that they told and (2) the money that they gave. Peter said the lie was told to the Holy Spirit. The lie was told to men and by extension to the Holy Spirit (Matthew 25:40). Peter did not say the money was given to the Holy Spirit, but the lie which they told was told to Him. The money they gave was to be used to buy necessities for those new Christians in Jerusalem that had need. So wasn't it really given to fellow Christians and not to God?
If we conclude that the money belongs to the local congregation and not God, then what is to stop us from spending it on our whims? If we don't make spiritual matters our top priority, then nothing really. However, for those who place a priority on spiritual matters and want to be good stewards of God's blessings, some restraint is in order. Jesus has instructed us in Matthew 25:14-30 that it is our responsibility to be good stewards of that which He has entrusted to our care. We will be held accountable for how we "spend our blessings".
Based on what we have learned, there are three primary reasons why we can conclude that the money we give doesn't literally become God's money.
- No command to take up a collection. If He didn't tell us to take up a collection, why would we assume it is His?
- Collections are not required in order to carry out the work of the church. What work has God given the church that can not be accomplished without a collection?
- There are no instructions in the New Testament regulating what the collection money is to be spent on or when/if it is be collected. There are no direct commands nor necessary inferences in the matter. Most "rules" governing church finances are based on the binding of examples also known as pattern theology (for more information read the articles "Are Approved Examples Binding? (Part 1)" and "Are Approved Examples Binding? (Part 2)").
Surely if the money belongs to God He would have given us clear directions on how He wants His collection to be handled.