THE BLOG
08/26/2015 05:41 pm ET Updated Aug 26, 2016

On Why (Some) People Don't Give Money to Their Church

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In a post last week, I explained that the New Testament's shiniest depiction of the ancient church (Acts 4:32-37) commends people who gave money to support and embody an ideal community. It's an idealized portrait of what churches are supposed to be about: mutuality, service, and worship. There's no hint of financial charity as obligatory, and no suggestion that giving will guarantee increased riches or health. Any "prosperity gospel" that promises otherwise gets no support from this biblical text.

I also promised last week that an ugly contrast follows the ideal portrait.

This contrast arrives in Acts 5:1-11, which describes a financial audit of sorts. A couple, Ananias and Sapphira, sells property and offers a financial gift to the church in Jerusalem. Except it's revealed that they have misrepresented their generosity; they claimed to donate the full sale price when in reality they withheld a portion. After doubling down on their deceit, each one drops dead. This ought to cure financial duplicity among church folk, right?

Not exactly. The story aims for gallows humor, but we read Acts in a different place today. Our familiarity with religiously-sanctioned violence makes it difficult to laugh, even if we understand that this scene may not be offered as serious, definitive theology.

Last week I described the story as "repellent." Its offense lies in a detail so obvious that even children quickly detect it: the punishment doesn't fit the crime. If the Bible contained only scenes like this, with a terrible swift sword precluding any chance for repentance, we would be wise to dispense with the whole book.

What can we learn from Ananias, Sapphira and this tragic tale?

We can learn more about the church, as Acts 4:32-37 started to depict it.

The conversations between Peter and Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5:1-11 indicate that selling property and donating the proceeds wasn't necessarily a requirement for joining the church. The couple's misstep instead lay in misrepresenting their donation as the property's full sale price. Just a portion of the proceeds could have been a welcome gift to the community. Their sin is deceit; they ultimately defraud God, according to the passage.

Peter's claim about lying to God should make us pause. How is deceiving the church tantamount to deceiving God or testing God? Because this community somehow expresses God's own self and intentions through its unity and mutuality. Holding back money is not the core problem; the problem is creating a false impression of commitment to the community and to God's purposes. Ananias and Sapphira go beyond simple hypocrisy, for they hold back their selves. They undercut the generosity they pretend to embrace. They demonstrate contempt for the community's purpose as an expression of commitment to others.

But what kind of God is this community trying to exemplify?

We must ask, because the violence here can't be ignored. It's a key part of the tale. Is this passage longing for God to waste everyone who might infiltrate this community with halfhearted commitment? If so, that's a lot of people. There must be more to it than this. Obviously God's normal practice -- in the pages of the Bible and across history -- does not involve policing the church in such horrific ways.

But then why tell this story, wherever it came from? Who clings to such a story, with its image of a quick-tempered, no-second-chances-for-you God? Who thinks or hopes that God could act in such a way? Maybe angry people do. Or threatened people. Or fearful people. Not people suffering from merely any kind of fear -- maybe these particular people fear losing what is truly life-giving to them. Maybe the passage comes from an ancient church community that feared losing its defining characteristics, its fragile capacity to embody the good described in Acts 4:32-37. Those people could have feared losing their ability to express God's commitment to the world and the realities of what God can make possible.

The passage, which pulses with fear and maybe anger, reminds us how difficult it is to create such realities, given all our flaws and suspicions. When something comes along to make our difficult lives easier or more pleasant, we achingly want God to protect it, sometimes at any cost.

Throughout history churches have always been communities of both self-giving (Acts 4:32-37) and false commitment to others (Acts 5:1-11), as well as everything in between. As I look across my own life, I have found within the church incredible generosity -- financial and otherwise. And yet I have also encountered in the church some of the most self-centered, destructive, manipulative behavior I've ever seen.

It would be shortsighted to read this passage and assume its message is "Look out! God is really vindictive! Better give every last cent to the church!" But its message doesn't support the veiled threats issued by prosperity preachers whom John Oliver recently mocked. Instead, the severe consequences for Ananias and Sapphira announce, "Look out! This new, splendid community is quite vulnerable. Don't hurt it! Don't violate its core identity!"

Although the church has been brought into existence by God, it remains at risk of being derailed by the fear and deceit of its own members.

In the end, this story is less about the right use of wealth than it is about God's commitment to preserve the church. Despite its irredeemable and quick violence, this passage suggests that God is so deeply woven into the fabric of the church, or the church is so deeply woven into the life of God, that the church's existence and unity remain somehow essential. In this way, the community (any community) of believers can be considered holy ground. A congregation's identity and common life matter more than its budget. The church doesn't need your money; first and foremost it needs you.

And the rest of Acts and the wider New Testament insist that God's commitment to the church remains resolute and gracious, even in spite of its members' occasional bad behavior. Churches' -- and individual Christians' -- financial challenges aren't evidence that God has forsaken them.

Unfortunately, it can be hard to see God present in churches. Our eyes too quickly skip over the generous and quietly effective congregations in our midst. It's much easier to sneer, justifiably, at predatory preachers traveling on private jets and counting the money they've fleeced from misled donors. How will God protect us all from their deceits?

Portions of this post are adapted from a chapter in my new book, published by Brazos Press, called Intrusive God, Disruptive Gospel: Encountering the Divine in the Book of Acts.