When was the last time you heard or read of a financial scandal in some local church or para-church ministry? Sadly, probably not too long ago. Whether due to the exorbitant and opulent lifestyle of some leader, or mismanagement and the lack of foresight, or perhaps even outright theft, the church stands in constant threat from this problem.
The churches in ancient Philippi, Thessalonica, and Corinth, just to mention a few, were no different. Human nature was the same then as now. Money exerted as powerful an influence over their lives as it does ours. This is why Paul is oh, so very, very careful in how he conducted himself personally when it came to financial affairs and also why he goes to such elaborate lengths to ensure that the collection for the saints in Jerusalem be conducted with the utmost care, caution, and wisdom.
There are several important principles in this passage and we would be remiss to overlook them.
First, Paul reminds the Corinthians that all giving is to be proportionate to wealth. He says, in v. 12, that "if the readiness is there, it is acceptable according to what a person has, not according to what he does not have" (cf. also v. 11b where giving is "out of what you have").
God does not ask us to give beyond our means, but it is certainly permissible if we do (as in the case of the Macedonians; see v. 3). The apostle wrote much the same thing in 1 Corinthians 16:2, telling them that each "is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper."
Paul's words in v. 12 indicate that he is not suggesting that the Corinthians (or anyone else, for that matter) borrow money in order to give. He assumes that they have "disposable income" from which they might draw to provide the needed help. At minimum, we should be extremely cautious about going into debt to make financial contributions.
I also concur with Murray Harris that "if Paul had advocated the practice of tithing, this would have been an appropriate place for him to mention or defend it. But so far from championing the practice of giving by percentage, he argues for proportional giving" (587).
Second, giving to those in need is to be characterized by a spirit of reciprocity. He writes:
"I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but that as a matter of fairness your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be fairness. As it is written, ‘Whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack'" (vv. 13-15).
Paul is not suggesting that the Corinthians should suffer financially or reduce themselves to poverty so that others might flourish. It is from their "abundance at the present time" that they should give to alleviate the burden of others. You Corinthians should give generously, says Paul, in view of the fact that one day the "abundance" of the church in Jerusalem "may supply your need." Evidently Paul envisions a time in the future when the circumstances may be reversed in which the Jerusalem church will have a surplus and the Corinthians will be in need.
Furthermore, it's clear from his language that Paul in no way believed it immoral or unethical that the Corinthians had more money than did their brethren in Jerusalem. That would only be the case if their financial advantage were the result of dishonest dealings or exploitation. Neither is he advocating a forced and artificial redistribution of wealth so that everyone has the same, but is simply calling for generosity when others are in need.
Third, it's crucial that we take note of the role wisdom played in Paul's administration of the collection. Or perhaps we should just call it good old common sense. Reckless disregard for how the public perceives our financial affairs has no place in the body of Christ.
We need to remember the history that shaped Paul's policies. His credibility had been dealt a severe blow because of his unwillingness to accept financial support while ministering in Corinth at the same time he appealed for a special collection (how ironic!). "This led to various suspicions and, when his opponents arrived on the scene, apparently outright accusations about his handling of money matters and what it revealed about his apostolic status. Money matters were a - if not the - most serious obstacle to reconciliation between Paul and his converts, and these matters had to be addressed before he could go on the attack against the opponents" (Witherington, 412).
Paul was convinced that nothing could more easily destroy his ministry and his reputation with the Corinthians and others than doubts about his integrity in financial affairs. "Hence everything must be 'above board,' not only in the eyes of the Lord but particularly also before men" (Barnett, 424; cf. Prov. 3:4). Thus he writes:
"We take this course [of action] so that no one should blame us about this generous gift that is being administered by us, for we aim at what is honorable not only in the Lord's sight but also in the sight of man" (vv. 20-21).
So let's consider what appear to be at least three fundamental guidelines of biblically informed wisdom that should govern how we handle money in the church.
(1) Paul evidently thought it wise that those who were to oversee monetary affairs should be tested and proven before being entrusted with such an important responsibility. Paul describes the man he is sending with Titus as one who has often been "tested and found earnest in many matters, but who is now more earnest than ever because of his great confidence in you" (v. 22; cf. 1 Tim. 3:10).
Simply stated, don't put a spiritual rookie in charge of the cash! Give such folk plenty of opportunities (note Paul's reference to "many matters") to grow spiritually and to demonstrate their integrity, faithfulness, and freedom from the love of money.
(2) It is also obvious that Paul believed there was safety in numbers. In other words, never entrust the financial concerns of a church to only one person (no matter how diligent, mature, or honest he/she has been in the past).
In addition to the individual mentioned in v. 22, Paul is also sending along with Titus "the brother who is famous among all the churches for his preaching of the gospel. And not only that, but he has been appointed by the churches to travel with us as we carry out this act of grace that is being ministered by us, for the glory of the Lord himself and to show our good will" (vv. 18-19). We have no information about this man's identity (was it Barnabas? Silas? Timothy? Luke? Apollos? Mark?), but he evidently needed no introduction to the Corinthians. In any case, his reputation was clearly beyond reproach!
The appointment of the two traveling companions for Titus was not only to protect him from thieves, but also to protect both him and Paul from accusation and suspicion. I can't emphasize strongly enough the importance of this principle. Paul has undying and unqualified confidence in Titus (Paul describes him as "my partner and fellow worker for your benefit," v. 23a). He was an honorable man whose integrity was unimpeachable. Yet Paul insisted that he be accompanied by two other individuals. I suspect that Paul was moved by his love for Titus and wanted to protect him from any potential charges that he had personally profited from the money that had been given.
(3) Finally, financial administrators should have a good reputation in the community (cf. v. 21b) and the unwavering confidence and trust of the church. Paul has no qualms about the one brother because his reputation "among all the churches" (v. 18) for gospel ministry is unquestioned. Their confidence in him is evident by the fact that "he has been appointed by the churches" (v. 19).
In fact, Paul refers to all three of them as "messengers [more literally, "apostles," (apostoloi)] of the churches" (v. 23). Here we see him using this familiar term in a broad, non-theological, non-technical sense to refer to church envoys or ambassadors, delegates appointed by churches for specific tasks and missions. Most important, however, is the fact that these men were trusted, proven, well-known, and well-loved by the people for whom they labored and ministered.
Before I close, it's imperative that we note Paul's chief concern, namely, that the men and this ministry in which they are involved be such that Christ is honored. It is all "for the glory of the Lord" (v. 19b), says Paul, and nothing should be tolerated that might in any way detract from or diminish the preeminence of Christ Jesus. Indeed, these "messengers" are themselves "the glory of Christ" (v. 23) insofar as their exemplary lives and financial integrity are an honor to the Lord and a reflection of his gracious operation in their hearts.
Paul could not have said it with greater clarity or force: God cares deeply and passionately about the propriety of how we conduct our financial affairs in the body of Christ. Quite simply, when it comes to money matters (noun), money matters (verb). Let no one bring reproach on the gospel, but in all things honor and glorify his name.