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Living in God's Abundance: A Bible Study for Church Leaders Who Hate to Ask for Money

This bible study is the first of three prepared by Dr. Sundberg for adult studies in a variety of congregational settings. Each lesson includes a presentation that may be reproduced and distributed among participants.  

Dr. Sundberg writes: "From the beginning of the church, the necessity, the reality of raising funds for mission has been a difficult, controversial, fellowship-threatening matter, as divisive as doctrinal controversies, but even more insidious. We need to know and take comfort in the fact if a stewardship campaign becomes a messy business in our congregations we are in the best of company."

Click on the following links for the other sessions:

Session two: In Search of the Cheerful Giver

Session three: Upbuilding the Saints: An Address on Stewardship to the Members of First Lutheran

Session one: A Bible Study for Church Leaders Who Hate to Ask For Money

We Hate to Ask for Money

The story goes like this: One Sunday after the last service, the ushers discovered to their horror that the entire morning's collection had been stolen from the sacristy where it had sat unguarded. The amount taken was a couple of thousand as reported in the local paper, a big crime for a small town. The police launched a full-scale investigation. The robbery dominated discussion in the cafe and barbershop. The paper featured the story every day and editorialized about moral decline. The next Sunday every pew was filled as the senior pastor entered the pulpit.

"This has been the worst week in my ministry," he declared in a booming voice as the congregation shuddered. "And you know why? Because the entire city knows how little you give!"

What makes this story a classic is that it relies for its humor on the stereotype of the wheeler-dealer clergyman who is half preacher, half used-car salesman, always on the make. We are appalled by this image while, at the same time, secretly admiring the brash certainty of any minister who can pull it off. Most of us who serve the church as pastors and lay leaders are not wheeler-dealers. This is a good thing. But it has its downside. When November rolls around and stewardship month is upon us, we feel hesitant and awkward as we give our temple talks on time, talent and treasury. We find ourselves on the defensive, afraid that one or more members in the congregation will charge the leadership of the church, and especially the pastor, with being more interested in picking pockets than saving souls. We hate to ask for money.

We need a new attitude. Stewardship is an essential part of the gospel. Scripture calls Christians to be responsible for the mission and ministry of the church: "Like good stewards for the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received" (I Peter 4:10). We dare not shirk the obligation of placing before the people of God the duty of stewardship and inviting them to the privilege and joy of participation. When a well-to-do Christian layman living in Arizona was asked why he gave a million dollars for Robert Schuler's Crystal Cathedral in California instead of his own church, the man replied, "Because he asked me." How many opportunities have passed us by because we hate to ask for money?

Helge Brattg?rd, the Swedish theologian, defined the Christian idea of the steward this way: "that God in his goodness thinks so highly of the human being that he will trust him to administer that which belongs to God. The steward's calling rests upon confidence."{1} If we are to be effective leaders in the church we must have this confidence that we are God's stewards. Hesitancy, awkwardness, defensiveness will not serve the mission of the church.

The purpose of this introductory Bible study is to explore the problem of stewardship caused by the fear of asking for money. We will examine the troubling experience that St. Paul had with the congregation at Corinth. When we think of Paul, we recall his great missionary journeys. We should not forget, however, that these journeys also served as stewardship drives. The apostles commissioned Paul not only to preach the gospel, but to raise money for the poor in Jerusalem. As Paul writes in Galatians 2:9-10 "and when James and Cephas and John, who were acknowledged pillars, recognized the grace that had been given to me, they gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship, agreeing that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. They asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which was actually what I was eager to do."

Just how "eager" Paul was to take up a collection for the poor in Jerusalem is open to debate. As we shall see, Paul got into trouble with the people of Corinth because he hated to ask for money. He had to learn to trust God and the people of God before he could find the courage to solicit funds from Christians to help others in need.

Psychologists tell us that one of the best ways to conquer a problem is to face it. Understanding how St. Paul faced his problem can help us face our problem. It also helps to know that we are not alone; that others who have come before us have had the same problems we have. To know that our problem was shared by none other than the great Apostle is a comfort. If it is true that misery loves company than we are in the best of company.

The dispute over money shows up in two passages in the Corinthian correspondence: 1 Corinthians 9:3-15 and 2 Corinthians 11:7-11.

The context leading up to this passage is as follows. Among the many disputes at Corinth that confused members of the congregation was the matter of eating meat sold in the marketplace that was taken from animals that had been used for sacrifice in pagan religious ceremonies. Many Christians had scruples about eating such meat. Other Christians felt superior; their faith made them free of superstitious worry about such an issue. Paul argues for self-restraint. The matter is to him indifferent: "Food will not bring us close to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do" (1 Corinthians 8:8). But how the fellow believer feels is the nub of the problem, the "weak believer" who is confused. The weak believer is also one "for whom Christ died" (v. 11). Therefore the strong believer must hold back even though he or she knows that the faith is not in danger because of eating such meat.

It is here in the letter that Paul reminds the Corinthians that although he is an apostle with rights and privileges, he nevertheless practices self-restraint:

"This is my defense to those who would examine me. 4 Do we not have the right to our food and drink? 5 Do we not have the right to be accompanied by a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas? 6 Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living? 7 Who at any time pays the expenses for doing military service? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat any of its fruit? Or who tends a flock and does not get any of its milk? 8 Do I say this on human authority? Does not the law also say the same? 9 For it is written in the law of Moses, "You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain." Is it for oxen that God is concerned? 10 Or does he not speak entirely for our sake? It was indeed written for our sake, for whoever plows should plow in hope and whoever threshes should thresh in hope of a share in the crop. 11 If we have sown spiritual good among you, is it too much if we reap your material benefits? 12 If others share this rightful claim on you, do not we still more? Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ. 13 Do you not know that those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in what is sacrificed on the altar? 14 In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel. 15 But I have made no use of any of these rights, nor am I writing this so that they may be applied in my case. Indeed, I would rather die than that -- no one will deprive me of my ground for boasting!" (1 Corinthians 9:3-15)

What we have here is a curiously ambiguous argument. Paul asserts on the one hand the right of the church leader to be taken care of for the work of preaching the gospel. He asks rhetorically, "If we have sown spiritual good among you, is it too much if we reap your material benefits?" (v.11). He calls upon a rule of animal husbandry -- that an ox has a right to a portion of the grain it treads out (v. 9; see Deuteronomy 25:4).{2} But although Paul asserts the right to receive payment, he boasts that he does not use it: "Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ" (v.12b).

One reason for Paul's reluctance to ask the Corinthians for money was that he was proud of his financial independence. He did not want to be known as a money-grubber. In his view, no suspicion of the human agent was to stand in the way of the gospel preached by that agent. That this is an important matter for Paul is clear. He employs this same principle of independence in 2 Thessalonians 3:7-8: "For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, and we did not eat anyone's bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you." In 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12, Paul commends this principle to the Thessalonian congregation. He exhorts them "to aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we directed you, so that you may behave properly toward outsiders and be dependent on no one."

A second reason why Paul did not ask for money has to do with the problem of money itself: that it can become "an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ" (v. 16). While this does not have to happen, it commonly does happen. Money is an ambivalent force in our lives. It can be a source of good or bad.

The Bible shares our ambivalence about money.{3} There are passages in which money is portrayed positively. For example, Abraham is described as "very wealthy in livestock and in silver and gold" (Genesis 13:2) and this is seen as part of his stature. King Solomon is famous for being rich; and his riches are explained in the Bible as the blessing of God: "I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honor all your life; no other king shall compare with you" (1 Kings 3.13). Proverbs relates riches to the duty of work: "A slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich" (10:4). Whatever our hard work accomplishes, however, we must not forget that God alone is the source of our wealth: "But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today" (Deuteronomy 8:18). Being blessed with wealth brings with it the obligation to care for those in need: "Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and will be repaid in full" (Proverbs. 19:17).

In the New Testament, there is, at least certain passages, a principled suspicion of money. Jesus tells us in that "No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth" (Luke 16.13). In 1 Timothy 6:10 we read: "For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains." What the Bible teaches regarding money thus goes both ways: it is praised as a gift of God and condemned as the root of evil.

"Money is a gift from God, a sign of his blessing. But it is not to be a god in itself. The Bible is not ascetic; poverty is not inherently virtuous, nor is wealth sinful. But true wealth, the Bible teaches us, is spiritual, not material."{4}

In his encounter with the Corinthians, St. Paul found himself struggling with the biblical ambiguity concerning money. He thought he could resolve this struggle best by taking a high-road approach and not asking the Corinthians to support him financially in his preaching. As we shall see in the second passage, this approach did not work.

The context of this passage is as follows. After Paul's first letter to the Corinthians was sent, relations between Paul and the congregation deteriorated. Paul made one visit. It was so "painful" (2 Corinthians 2:1), he would not go back. Instead he wrote a blistering letter "out of much distress and anguish of heart and with many tears" (2:4) and sent it with Titus. We do not have this letter. Paul worried about the reaction. Hearing from Titus that the attitude of the congregation was still favorable toward him, Paul was greatly relieved and wrote what we know as 2 Corinthians, a major subject of which is the collection for the church at Jerusalem (8:1-9:15).

In 2 Corinthians 11:7-11, Paul is defending himself against charges made by his critics.{5} It is ironic that Paul's love for the Corinthians and his desire not to confuse the proclamation of the gospel, which he tried to demonstrate by not taking money, has been used by his detractors as proof that he does not care about the people of the congregation. Moreover his refusal to follow the Lord's commandment that "those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel" (1 Corinthians 9:14) is used as evidence that Paul does not deserve to have authority. Paul replies: "Did I commit a sin by humbling myself so that you might be exalted, because I proclaimed God's good news to you free of charge? 8 I robbed other churches by accepting support from them in order to serve you. 9 And when I was with you and was in need, I did not burden anyone, for my needs were supplied by the friends who came from Macedonia. So I refrained and will continue to refrain from burdening you in any way. 10 As the truth of Christ is in me, this boast of mine will not be silenced in the regions of Achaia. 11 And why? Because I do not love you? God knows I do!" (2 Corinthians 11:7-11)

There is anger in this passage. Paul is obviously annoyed with his detractors. But what is also clear is something that he did not mention in 1 Corinthians 9: namely, that he has been financially dependent for his mission work on the churches of Macedonia. That Paul is especially sensitive here may be seen in his use of the Greek word sulaou -- "to rob" (v. 8) which is used of soldiers plundering a temple or a village. Paul is very uneasy about this matter of money. He hates to ask for it even though he claims the right to be supported and he appears embarrassed about disclosing how his ministry has been funded. Paul bragged about not taking money from the Corinthians. Here he is forced to acknowledge that his money came from elsewhere. It is almost as if he has been caught in a lie -- or at the very least a distorting exaggeration of the facts. This is a sore issue.

What Does this All Mean?

My point in looking at these passages is this: to emphasize that from the beginning of the church, the necessity and the reality of raising funds for mission has been a difficult, controversial, fellowship-threatening matter, as divisive as doctrinal controversies, but even more insidious. We need to know and take comfort in the fact that if a stewardship campaign becomes a messy business in our congregations we are in the best of company. St. Paul the Apostle himself had the same problem. The picture we have in our minds of the ideal early church, perfect in every way; an enthusiastic, giving, sharing community is not the whole truth.

How many times have we quoted that ideal picture of the church found in Acts?

"All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved." (Acts 2:44-47).

This is an important ideal. It witnesses to God's intention as to how the community of Christ ought to live together and we should never forget it. But sinners that we are, we know that few of us if any have ever been members in such a perfect congregation. Rather we know that struggle and hassle over money and program have been our lot. The responsibility of stewardship must be pursued in the context of a realistic assessment of the church as a gathering of sinners who, even as sinners, are called to the mission of the gospel. Sharing with the congregation, the predicament and awkwardness that initially beset Paul's stewardship campaign in Corinth can make our own discomfort more understandable.

It can also give us the courage to press on. We must never forget that Holy Scripture knows our struggle and is with us as we struggle and that Paul is the prime example of how God can work through sinners. As he writes in one of the most famous passages of his letters: "I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. 17 But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do" (Romans 7:15-19).

What Paul describes here as his experience of sin is our experience of sin. Paul can teach us because he is like us. What Paul shows us by his example is that even though he was a sinner, he did not give up the effort to do the will of God. He learned from his mistakes and, in the grace of the Holy Spirit, became obedient. Thus, Paul's difficulties regarding money did not stop him from seeking to fulfill his commission to take up the collection for the poor in Jerusalem. We can appreciate more fully Paul's theology of stewardship when we realize that his insights on stewardship did not trip from his pen (written with ease) but were hard won. They carry the sober wisdom of his mistakes. They reflect his boundless faith in the grace of Christ and the inspiration Paul found in the fellowship of believers.

We will examine Paul's theology of stewardship in Session two.


{1} Helge Brattgard, God's Stewards, Augsburg, 1963, p. 41.

{2} This same rule is referred to in 1 Timothy 5:18. The subject is the financial support of elders in the church. It appears that Deuteronomy 25:4, a law of the humane spirit, was one of the earliest principles of church management. It is a good agrarian image that might find special resonance in country congregations and farming states.

{3} On the following, see John M. Muether, "Money and the Bible," Christian History, V. 1-2 (1987): 6-9.

{4} Ibid., 7

{5} Some scholars hypothesize that 2 Corinthians 10:1-13:10, of which our passage is a portion, is actually the so-called "painful letter" tacked on to the end of the "thankful letter." We cannot be sure. What is clear is that beginning with the tenth chapter the tone of 2 Corinthians changes abruptly. Paul is on the defensive.

Discussion questions

1. How important is money to you? How does it motivate you?

2. What in your life is more important than money?

3. Have you thought about the relationship between money and Christianity? What is the relationship in your view?

4. What different attitudes toward money do you find in the Bible? Use this cartoon from the American Christian cartoonist, E.J. Pace (1880-1946) to focus your reflections:

5. Where does Paul appear to stand on the matter of money according to 1 Corinthians 9:3-15 and 2 Corinthians 11:7-11?

6. Do stewardship campaigns in the church make you uneasy?

7. If so, why? If not, why not?

8. What have been your experiences, positive and negative, with campaigns in the past?

-- Walter Sundberg, Professor of Church History, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minn.

Permission granted by Centered Life Learning and Stewardship in the 21st Century, Luther Seminary, for use in congregations.


Dr. Walter Sundberg, Professor of Church History, Luther Seminary. [Upbuilding the Saints: An Address on Stewardship to the Members of First Lutheran

Author information was updated as of the article's post date. Author profiles may not reflect author's current employment or location.

Image credit: © Ignacio García Losa ( via Flickr. Used by permission.

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