Why Bridgeway Church Chose Not to Apply for or Receive PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) Funds3
On Wednesday of last week numerous news outlets disclosed the many Christian churches and ministries that applied for and received substantial funds from the PPP program. Several of the larger and more prosperous mega-churches in the country received anywhere from $5 to $10 million. Others are listed as having received from $2 to $5 million. I won’t mention their names, as my aim in this article isn’t to criticize them or to accuse them of sin. My aim is to explain why Bridgeway Church in Oklahoma City, where I serve as Senior Pastor, chose not to avail ourselves of this financial boost.
Let me reiterate that nothing I say in this article is a criticism of any church or an indictment of the moral status of their decision. I am only speaking on behalf of and about Bridgeway Church. My reason for writing this now is that I have numerous individuals ask why we chose not to avail ourselves of these funds.
The Board of Elders at Bridgeway met and prayed on a number of occasions to discuss and pray about this matter. Our final decision was based on the following criteria.
First, in the short epistle known as 3 John the author gives instructions on how the church should respond to Christian evangelists/missionaries, even those who are “strangers” (v. 5). He exhorts the church “to send them on their journey in a manner worthy of God” (3 John 6). All commentators agree that this entails, at minimum, providing them with the financial support necessary to sustain their mission. The reason for this is because “they have gone out for the sake of the name, accepting nothing from the Gentiles. Therefore we ought to support people like these, that we may be fellow workers for the truth” (vv. 7-8).
Clearly, John states that these who labored for the gospel refused to take monetary support from unbelievers (the “Gentiles”). The work of ministry, says John, is to be sustained and financed by believers. Indeed, he says we “ought to support people like these” and thereby become “fellow workers for the truth” of the gospel. The apostle Paul speaks of the Philippians’ financial support of his ministry as their entering into “partnership” with him “in giving and receiving” (Phil. 4:15).
Does this apply to local churches taking money from the federal government to support its employees and ministries? I believe it does.
Some have pushed back against my interpretation and application of this passage. For example, one person said that perhaps they went out and solicited financial support from unbelievers, but the latter said No. Or maybe they simply didn’t ask for support, but it would have been permissible had they done so. Needless to say, this is reading into the text what isn’t there. Also, why then didn’t John say something like, “Hey guys, go back and ask unbelievers for money. That will take a burden off the church from having to support you with their funds.” In other words, why didn’t John rebuke them for not taking financial support from non-Christians? Instead, John’s response is, “They took nothing from non-Christians. They did this because it is our responsibility as fellow believers to support people like these. We are the ones who are ‘fellow-workers’ with them for the truth of the gospel. Not unbelievers.” In other words, if the possibility existed that John, writing under the inspiration of the Spirit, believed that taking monetary support from the Gentiles was ok, then why did he encourage the Christians in Ephesus to step up and assume this financial responsibility?
Again, I simply can’t envision people who would have heard of this saying to John, “Oh, I guess it’s ok then for us to ask non-Christians for money. You’re only saying that these specific individuals chose not to do so.” If there were in place in the early church a policy or principle that said it was ok to accept non-Christian financial support, I find it strange that nothing whatsoever is ever said to that effect anywhere in Scripture.
We should also consider Paul’s standard practice. We know that Paul spoke often of how he would accept financial support from local churches that he had planted, once he left their presence. While with them he wouldn’t take anything, choosing instead to work so as not to be a burden to those to whom he was presently ministering. Why didn’t he go to the non-Christian community with a request for support? He never did, and never encouraged others to do so. He always trusted in God’s provision through the churches that he planted.
Another has asked if the passage in 3 John is descriptive or prescriptive. Does it merely “describe” the practice of some Christians, or does it “prescribe” a practice for all Christians? There is a difference between John saying, on the one hand, “they didn’t accept money from non-Christians, so we need to support them ourselves,” and on the other hand, “don’t ever take money from non-Christians.” The former is description of a practice. The latter is prescriptive by way of command.
Some scholars say we shouldn’t build doctrines on historical narrative, like Acts, but only on the basis of straightforward teaching in the epistles. I disagree with that approach, but I acknowledge that we must use discernment in determining which early church practices, as found in Acts, are binding on us and which ones are not. That’s not an easy task! But given the fact that we do have this example in an epistle, and at a very late date in the first century (John’s epistles were among the latest written), and given the fact that we have no example anywhere else in the NT of a contrary practice in which accepting money from non-Christians is found, I’m inclined to think that 3 John is a reflection based on a principle that is binding on us today.
Another responded to me and said that the church taking money from the government is no different from individual Christians receiving unemployment checks or social security. I contend that this is comparing apples with oranges. When a Christian is fired or loses his/her job, they are no longer an employee of the local church. They are acting as individual tax-paying persons who have a legal claim on unemployment funds and social security. But we are talking about a spiritual body called the local church, not any particular individual who is not employed by a church. What the local church should claim, as a spiritual body upheld and sustained by the giving of its members is one thing. What an unemployed individual tax-paying person has a right to receive is something altogether different.
Second, everywhere in the NT sacrificial giving in support of gospel ministry is portrayed as an act of worship. One need only consider how Paul described the financial support he received from the Philippians believers. He called it “a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God” (Phil. 4:18). Paul portrays sacrificial, generous giving of Christians as an expression of “grace” (2 Cor. 8:4, 7). The motivation for the kind of financial generosity that pleases God is the reality of the “grace of our Lord Jesus Christ” who, though rich, yet for our sakes became poor (2 Cor. 8:9). Financial support of believers in their time of need and for the sake of their ministry is always portrayed as something undertaken by other believers who have been richly blessed by the generous giving by the Father of the Son for our salvation.
If we at Bridgeway were ever to find ourselves in financial need, it is the responsibility of our members to sacrifice so that the ministry of the local church can continue. It is not the responsibility of the “Gentiles” (unbelievers), be they individually considered or as an act of a governmental entity.
Can God be trusted to supply all our needs? Yes! If I may be allowed to expand on a famous statement, “God’s work done in God’s way for God’s glory will never lack for God’s supply” (see 2 Cor. 9:8-15).
The generous provision of financial sustenance is something “that comes from” our “confession of the gospel of Christ” (2 Cor. 9:13). In this way God is glorified when many thanks are given to him for his gracious enabling work in the hearts of those who give (2 Cor. 9:12). Does this sound like something that an unregenerate person or pagan governmental entity can do? I don’t think so.
Third, one of the primary reasons we chose not to apply for this money is that a clear condition for doing so is that we certify that our church needs the money to cover salaries, etc. The simple and inescapable (and in my opinion, glorious) fact is that Bridgeway did not need the money. Indeed, throughout the pandemic and economic crisis, giving has continued at a rate that keeps us in good shape. We are not a wealthy mega-church. But there was simply no way that I or any other Elder in our church could append our names to that loan application which would require that we say, in good conscience, “Yes, we at Bridgeway Church ‘need’ the money.” That isn’t true. By God’s grace and the marvelous generosity of his people, we don’t need it.
Someone pushed back and said, “But you might need it down the road, especially if conditions in our economy worsen.” But it isn’t a question of what we may need “down the road”. It is a question of what we “need” now. And we have no need now. If a church does have a current “need”, it is the responsibility of its members to supply it. And even if we are in a place 9 months or a year from now where our staff and employees need help, we are committed to trusting God to work through his people to provide for his people, rather than trusting the government to do so.
As a result of the consistent giving of our people, we have kept all of our staff, both full time and part time, on their regular pay. No one has been fired, furloughed, or suffered a cutback in salary. If circumstances develop where we are unable to continue this policy, it is the responsibility of the covenant members of Bridgeway, not the U.S. government or the Small Business Administration to step up and ensure that those who minister faithfully for the gospel are supported. If the people of Bridgeway, for whatever reason, do not supply the funds necessary for our church to function, we will make the necessary adjustments. If God chooses not to supply what we need to cover our payroll and pay our bills, perhaps this would be his indication that the church needs to close.
I would much prefer to dissolve the church and find another job than to look to a secular, godless government to pay my salary and that of our staff.
Fourth, could not the money that our churches have taken from the government been put to better and more productive use by those small, tax-paying businesses that have been shut down entirely by the Covid-19 crisis? Nothing that I’ve said in this article is an indictment of the PPP. Although the long-term economic impact of the government supplying the country with so much money is yet to be seen, I’m grateful that this program has enabled numerous small businesses to survive.
Fifth, I am fully aware of the assurance that the government has made that our freedom to worship and conduct ministry according to Scripture will not be infringed or restricted simply because a church has taken government funds. I am fully aware that the government has promised that it will never impose regulations on the church that would require that we violate our biblical and moral convictions concerning whom to hire, as well as our stance on issues of so-called same-sex marriage, abortion, and other related matters. But as I’m sure you are aware, it only takes a different man in the White House, a different ruling party in both Congress and the Senate, and a different composition on the Supreme Court to overturn and reverse any so-called assurances or promises that had been previously made.
The bottom line is that I’m thankful for our government. It has been instituted by God for our good, to provide a social order in which we may freely worship in accordance with Scripture. But I don’t trust our government (or any other government on earth). And I refuse to be beholden to any government for having accepted the offer of financial assistance in a time of crisis.
I would close by asking my believing friends: Is it really the case that your people have ceased giving to such a degree that you can’t support your pastoral staff? Is it really the case that you don’t have enough in a reserve bank account to cover the needs of the church until the pandemic has passed? Is it really the case that other adjustments to church life and expenses can’t be made in order to keep all employees at full pay during this crisis? Is it really the case that you can’t trust God to supply the needs of his church through the sacrificial giving of those whom Christ has redeemed? Is it really the case that you want to depend upon the “Gentiles” to sustain the ministry to which God has called you?
In the final analysis, each Christian leader and/or ministry must follow their individual conscience and conviction on what the NT teaches. My aim in this article was simply to explain my belief and the practice of Bridgeway Church.