Losing the Church Property, or Why the Romanians Don’t Tithe

The fallout (and for the true Anglicans, the agony) of the California Supreme Court’s decision to uphold trusts based on the Dennis Canon–and thus facilitate the retention of parish property by the Diocese of Los Angeles and TEC–has generated a lot of comment, some of which has linked back to this site (thanks!)

One of the reasons why I follow the Anglican/Episcopal world is that I see it as a microcosm of the larger social conflict we have going in our country and our world.  This setback for Anglicanism, however, has gotten me to thinking about another problem that isn’t entirely related but is important to our understanding of what’s important for Christians and why.

My wife and I recently had dinner with a well known minister who oversees, among other things, a network of Romanian Pentecostal churches in the U.S..  One observation he made was that, because of so many years under communism, the Romanians don’t tithe and give to their church the way their Anglo counterparts do.

Regulars to this site know that communism is a subject I frequently deal with.  I’ve also had extensive contact with Ukrainian and Russian Pentecostals.  This is a hardy bunch.  They’ve survived the likes of Stalin and Khrushchev (Brezhnev wasn’t too bad, and the Romanians outlasted Ceauşescu.)  Many of them or their ancestors survived the brutalities of the Siberian gulag, or “orphanage” schools (their parents weren’t dead, just in prison for their faith.)  They can be rigidly legalistic, which doesn’t always go over well in this country.  But their disassociation with communism transcends the atheism; they had no problem participating in the “underground economy” or “black market” that flourished in those years.  They are, in other words, good, industrious capitalists, and many are very successful in the U.S.  But getting them in the swing of regular and substantial tithing and giving to a local church is a struggle.

The problem isn’t greed or lack of commitment to Christ.  What the problem is that, for many years, their churches back home–mostly house churches–were unable to hold or accumulate any funds that were given them.  Any bank account they might start would only alert the authorities, who would duly seize the proceeds.  The same problem existed on a larger scale if they decided to build a church.  Wads of cash in the hands of whatever church clerk or bursar they might appoint was also subject to seizure, and remember how the first person appointed to this job ended up?  So they operated their churches in a largely cashless manner, taking care of each other directly.  Now they live in a country where it’s possible for churches to accumulate wealth available for ministry, but old lessons–especially learned the hard way–are difficult to forget.

And they may have to be relearned.  It’s true that centrally owned and governed churches who abuse their powers regarding the property will find themselves with a laity more reticent to support the church.  Today, it’s the homosexuals, but tomorrow who knows what will get a parish in trouble?  Beyond that, however, the whole concept of private property in the U.S.–essential to our economic prosperity–is being eroded by a wide variety of factors, including environmental laws, zoning, and stuff like Kelo vs. New London.  Any major expansion of government–almost a given with the current administration–will erode these further.

People advertise giving as “God’s plan for financial success.”  But this plan is dependent in part upon living in a society where God’s church can accumulate (and dispense at will) wealth.  I don’t believe that God’s plan can be frustrated by socialism; the Romanians and Ukrainians proved that communism couldn’t either.  But if we find ourselves in a place where the accumulation and control of income is frustrated by governmental or ecclesiastical fiat, we, like the persecuted church has done and is doing, will have to shift the emphasis of our Christian life elsewhere.

And that, my friends, isn’t the worst thing that could ever happen.

4 thoughts on “Losing the Church Property, or Why the Romanians Don’t Tithe”

  1. What are your thoughts on tithing? I’m beginning to re-think through some of what Scripture says about it. God did institute tithing for the Jews, for the Temple. And Jesus didn’t tell them to discontinue the practice. But, for the Christian, should we tithe – or should we just be giving people, and take care of the needs of the church? Or, does it even matter which way we choose, as long as we give? Lol – sorry, this comment got really long.

    1. Kevin, I’ve spent a great deal of time on this blog re this issue:

      http://www.vulcanhammer.org/2008/03/04/they-just-wont-quit-about-tithing/

      Let me give you the short version of my thinking on this.

      Tithing is an excellent spiritual discipline and the church does well to teach it (as opposed to people like Russell Earl Kelly who don’t think the church should do so.) It gets believers to support God’s work in a systematic and consistent way. It is, like many things we read in the Old Testament, an example for us to follow. But it’s not the whole story.

      To say that tithing is integral to the New Testament, however, is wide of the mark. The New Testament’s standard of stewardship is selling all. Although there are some practical problems with implementing that (which is why it wasn’t pursued beyond the Jerusalem church,) Christianity is a total commitment of life and resources. Selling all speaks to that, even if we don’t live in a communal church that demands that explicitly. In that respect it’s like divorce: the OT had a standard but the NT teaches an higher one. Such is the case with finances, and a legalistic implementation of tithing is a step downward from that NT standard.

  2. This seems to be another area where a Via Media is desirable…don’t forget the differences in attitude toward church wealth between Joseph of Volokolamsk and Nil Sorskii. The Josephists won in the short term, but the Russian Church suffered in the long run. It’s always difficult to strike the balance…and how does anyone really keep politics out of it?

    1. “Two things have I required of thee; deny me them not before I die: Remove far from me vanity and lies: give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with food convenient for me: Lest I be full, and deny thee, and say, Who is the LORD? or lest I be poor, and steal, and take the name of my God in vain.” Proverbs 30:7-9, KJV.

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