A theology of generosity and cooperation
From 1900 to 2000, while the world’s population multiplied 4.3 times, the number of identifiable Christians in Europe increased by a factor of only 1.5 and in North America by a factor of 3.8.
But in the same period, the number of Christians in Asia increased by a factor of 17, and in Africa by an astounding 53 times.
There were 9 million identifiable Christians in Africa in 1900, there are now close to 500 million.
Notre Dame historian Mark Noll, in his excellent book, “Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity” writes that if he were to choose a single turning point for this movement of Christianity to the global south it would be the founding of Wycliffe Bible Translators in 1934…currently with workers from 50 countries.
In 1900 portions of the Bible were available in 537 different languages, by 2000 that number was over 6,600. (in case you are wondering there are about 7,000 languages in the world)
Noll calls this a “Twentieth century Pentecost”…where the nations can hear the wonders of the gospel in their own language.
And people have responded to that gospel in their own language in astounding numbers.
What single church…no matter how large could have accomplished this?
It took vast numbers of churches…working together, sending missionaries, translators…some members staying home and sending money, teaching super church, working jobs, raising children, or mentoring others…to accomplish this.
This is just one of many examples, there is also…global missions, disaster relief, orphan care…the list could go on.
Collections or groups of churches working together, cooperating for important things has always been the hallmark of the church
These cooperatives of churches are often called denominations.
“Denomination” is a word that means literally “to name”…we have denominations of bills…5, 10.
Denominations are “named” groups of churches working together to accomplish larger things than they could alone.
Sometimes…and very often, different denominations work together as collections of collections of churches…it happens locally and it happens globally.
We work together, for instance, with many different churches from different denominations in the work of Youth Horizons…to serve the fatherless in our community.
Our missionaries on the overseas field work together with other denominations for the cause of the glory of God and the great commission.
Wycliff translators employee people from a wide variety of Christian traditions…denominations…working together for the Great Commission.
Denominations have…generally shared beliefs, values, and behaviors.
When parts of the group begin to think differently, or have different values…or shift their activity focus…then some churches separate…and new groups with more alignment are formed.
This is often seen as a tragedy or a travesty of Christian unity…I call it a real world reality.
I can, and I have worked together at certain levels with people I don’t see eye to eye on in regards to what I believe is true and valuable…but we agree enough to get important things done…like serving the fatherless in our community.
But the closer the cooperation required and the more I am asked to join my life together with others…the more alignment there has to be in our beliefs, values, and behavior.
You don’t have to have that much heart/life alignment to go to coffee with someone…you better have a lot of alignment in beliefs, values, and behaviors if you plan to marry them.
In our new member training…I don’t try to “sell” what we believe…I want to simply “tell” what we believe, value and do.
So people can make good decisions as to whether we are the right church for them.
If not, it’s okay…we are committed to what we believe…and value…and we are decided not continually deciding on these things…so we want to clear while not combative about these things.
So we can be faithful and others can pursue faithfulness themselves.
Denominations are really just named “coops” of churches that work together based on, again, what they believe, value, and determine is important to do.
In some traditions there is a command and control structure that exists outside the local church…like Roman Catholicism, Russian Orthodoxy, and many others.
There is evidence of this kind of centralized command and control in the book of Acts with what is called the Jerusalem Council…we will look at that this morning.
In other traditions, like ours…Southern Baptist…also known more recently and more accurately as Great Commission Baptists…local churches are autonomous.
Meaning: self-supporting, self-propagating, and self-determining.
We don’t answer to an outside authority.
We cooperate voluntarily with other autonomous churches for training (Bible colleges, Seminaries), Benevolence (The Southern Baptist disaster relief is one of the largest and more respected in the nation), and missions (local and global).
There is also evidence of this kind of local autonomy in the New Testament.
In fact, there is evidence of several different kinds of church government, also called church polity, in the New Testament.
There is a downside and an upside to more local autonomy and to more outside control.
But what we do, at River, and in our denomination…is local autonomy coupled with wider cooperation…is what we have concluded is most biblical.
I have friends from a variety of church traditions…they see things differently.
But we often agree on what we deem to be essentials…sometimes we don’t…but they are my friends.
Locally, our church cooperates with about 50 other churches for church planting and church health and community good…in what is called “The Heart of Kansas Association.”
We have benefited from our association…and I think other churches have been blessed by us as well.
Then we cooperate with hundreds of churches in Kansas and Nebraska…in what is a “two-state convention” of Great Commission Baptists.
We cooperate with about 50,000 churches world-wide…many more in reality…but at least that many.
We currently give 2% of our offerings for use in local church health and church planting and 8% to the Two-state convention for missions, church planting, student work, disaster relief and ministry training.
We give more to other missional partners like Youth Horizons.
If you added up the cost of what our church has benefited from the past 31 years from being a part of this larger cooperation of churches…it would far exceed what we have given…what we will ever be able to give.
I suppose that the cost of keeping one of our families on the mission field has in some cases exceeded what we have given in the past 31 years.
But that is the power of pooled resources…some churches don’t have any families on the field…but they give to support the larger effort.
And we have sent many overseas, not to mention the benefits our local church planters have received and the many who have paid about 1/3 of the cost of their ministry education because it has been funded by churches working together.
A couple of weeks ago an older and somewhat crochety Army Colonel whom I had just met asked me what denomination I was (he saw my cross and knew I was a chaplain).
I said, “Southern Baptist”
He replied abruptly, “All of you are!”
That’s not true…but clearly it is his perception.
But what is true is there is a disproportionate number of military chaplains who are endorsed by the Southern Baptists.
I said back, “That’s because we are willing to raise our hands…there is no conspiracy.”
Chaplains in the military must have a DOD recognized denominational endorsement in order to serve in the armed forces.
Without an endorsement…no chance to serve.
If there is no chaplain there is no way to ensure that military members first amendment rights are protected.
Being a part of a larger cooperative of churches means we have the ability to send those who are called to the chaplaincy into service in the military…and to see that they are trained and equipped to be effective.
This is just one more example of the power of shared cooperation…there are tons more.
38 years ago I asked my mentor about the legitimacy (or what I thought then, was the illegitimacy) of denominations.
I had fallen for the idea that somehow, they are inherently unbiblical or even evil.
He asked me about a friend who was the pastor of a “non-denominational church.
“If your friend recommends ministry training for a young person in their church would it be to a specific school?”
I said, “yes, they all tend to go to a specific college or two.”
“Do they work with other churches for overseas or local missions?”
I said, “yes, they do…he has those connections with like-minded churches.”
“If you were going to move to a certain place in the country would he be able to recommend certain churches based on similar doctrine, values, and practices?”
I said, “Uh, yes…”
He could have gone on but he didn’t need to…I was getting the picture.
Anyone getting anything of significance done is not doing it alone.
My non-denominational friend…was in fact operating exactly like a denomination…he just refused to call it what it was.
This past week I was in Topeka as a part of a small team answering a media request for information about whether the Kansas Guard does enough in regards to Sexual Assault protection, suicide prevention, and other important issues.
What I said is “No one is doing more than the National Guard for its members…no organization, no company in these regards…I’ve seen it proven true from being in higher HQ and from the view of gravesides…hearing the cries of the grieving.”
That being said, I’ve never heard a commander at any level say “We are doing enough!”
All I’ve heard from the top down is… “we can do better, we can do more.”
I thought this particular reporter…who has been reporting on KS news for 35 years…seemed to be genuinely interested in helping people.
But he came, like we all do…with his own bias…and he was honest enough to admit as much.
Now to the Southern Baptists and the news…
The news, the past few weeks…has largely been negative regarding the largest protestant denomination…as delegates from thousands of churches gathered to have important discussions.
I wasn’t there…but my good friend, Glenn was.
He said (and he is astute)…that “It was at least 99% people wanting to love God and people…in line with the gospel”
That’s a pretty good percentage.
So…if you read or heard all kinds of stuff about the Southern Baptist Convention then yes, every group has some knuckleheads.
Or just people who see things differently…who aren’t knuckleheads.
But it is an organization of tens thousands of churches pooling their money and other resources for the cause of the Great Commission.
I’ve seen this impact personally…overseas, in inner cities, in disasters, and in our community.
I was at a dinner two years ago, with dozens of local pastors from our cooperation…and most sitting around me, looked differently in age and ethnicity than I do.
And what is amazing is not that we disagree at times (that’s no surprise)…what is amazing is how much we get along…and how much we get done…how little we disagree.
So, from my perspective….great commission Baptists, the larger cooperation we participate in…is doing a lot of good and God-honoring, people blessing stuff…globally.
That being said…the leaders I know, in ministry are not content to rest there…they are asking… “How can we more, how can we do better.”
Cooperation is practically speaking…necessary.
-You want to go fast go alone, want to far go together.
Cooperation is biblical.
That is what we saw in action last week in 2 Cor. 8…as Paul gave direction to churches in Greece…to collect money for the church in Jerusalem.
Both to meet a real need and to demonstrate unity in the gospel.
If you missed last week you might want to go online and listen, it is foundational for this week.
But you can stay and listen, this week can stand on its own.
But whether you were here last week or not…a recap is in order:
- Paul went to Corinth, a city on the Greek Isthmus, to plant a church.
- He Left the City, wrote a couple of letters and then returned to check on them and to collect an offering for the church in Jerusalem.
- While he was there it turns out that some folks with bad theology and even bad motives had infiltrated the church. Paul left Corinth and was very discouraged.
- He later wrote a very direct letter of correction and the Spirit used his letter to turn the church around.
- He returned for 6 months…had a great time, collected the offering and added it to the funds that other churches across the empire had given.
- He took that offering to Jerusalem, encouraged the church there with news of what God was doing in the churches across the Roman empire…especially Gentile churches.
-This was all evidence of the unity that existed in the diversity of the wider church
*Anyone who thinks that this unity doesn’t exist today is mistaken…in fact it does.
It is, however, no more perfect now than it was then.
*WE tend to have either a “romanticized view of the past”…it was so much better.
*Or an arrogant view of the present “We are so much smarter”
Or simply…now is better and we are smarter.
The fact is all times are summed up beautifully by Dickens in his “Tale of Two Cities”
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.
This quote fits all times.
In 2 Corinthians 8…we saw how Paul had encouraged the church at Corinth, that as they had recovered biblical thinking and Christ centered worship…they should return to their commitment to give to the needs of the church in Jerusalem…for their good and for the witness of this kind of unity.
Let’s go back in time from that shared offering delivered to the Jerusalem church and look briefly at what is called the “Jerusalem Council”…a very important meeting that had lasting implications for the global church.
The church was at first almost entirely Jewish background believers…but we saw last week how God’s plan all along was for the gospel to jump out of its early geographic and demographic boundaries.
Peter, the leader of the early church had a vision that preceded a visit from a roman military officer.
In the vision God spoke to Peter about how the gospel is for all people.
The next day this Gentile Army officer receives the gospel as do many others who are with him…this is surprising to Peter and others.
Peter then went back to Jerusalem and reported to the leaders of the Christian movement that Gentiles had become Christ followers.
At first, they criticized Peter for breaking Jewish law (they were missing the larger point)…but when they heard his report, they (at least some of them) rejoiced that “God has granted even Gentiles repentance unto life” (Acts 11:18)
For us, this has no news value now…but for them, then…this was earth shaking…virtually inconceivable.
The church in Jerusalem was in effect at the time…a sort of a global church HQ.
The authority was, in my opinion, largely personal not positional.
Meaning they had only as much authority as local churches were willing to give them…it was voluntary in their cooperation and in the lines of authority.
But for the most part the scattered local Churches gave the church at Jerusalem(HQ) quite a bit of authority…because the early leaders there had earned trust…
People like James, the brother of Jesus, and of course Peter.
Paul was growing on them.
Now jump forward in time…Paul and Barnabas are moving around the empire sharing the gospel with Jew and non-Jew alike.
There were some men in Jerusalem, whom Luke says are believers…
But they didn’t like this whole idea of non-Jews becoming part of God’s people, the church, without going through the Jewish ritual of circumcism first.
They were former Pharisees and they genuinely believed that this was wrong.
They traveled to Antioch, that had become the center of this convergence of Jewish and Gentile church growth, to try and turn the gospel movement in a different direction than it was going.
Acts 15 outlines the story behind this critical turning point in Christian history.
Paul and Barnabas were in a fierce dispute with these folks who were trying to compel non-Jews to be circumcised…before or as a part of becoming Christians.
For Paul and Barnabas the very truth of the gospel was at stake…no one could be saved by keeping the law and there is no boundary to becoming part of the people of God apart from faith.
The church at Antioch sent Paul and Barnabas and others who disagreed with them, to Jerusalem to meet with the early global church leaders…to get this figured out…it was way to complex and controversial for them.
So clearly, they needed the help of the larger church to sort out this doctrinal, practical question of great importance
Paul and Barnabas made their case Jerusalem.
And some believers on the other side made their case as well.
If there was an internet in AD 50 this would have been big news.
“Christian movement not even 20 years old, already in disarray.”
“Will the moderates or the Conservatives win over the denomination?”
“The Fight in Jerusalem…Unity of the Jesus movement in big trouble.”
But what actually happened is that they were trying to discern together, what is the truth and how is it to be implemented.
They really wanted to know what God intended, what he was doing…what he wanted done.
They were not playing games…this was important stuff.
What happened was…discussion, and theology, and cooperation worked.
As it has throughout the ages through multiple early church councils and later church gatherings.
It has always been messy…but it has always worked…because of the grace of God on his church.
The Jerusalem Council concluded that Gentiles should not be forced to be circumcised but that they should also not be an unnecessary offense for Jewish Christians either…and some guidelines were given to outline what some of those things were.
They sent some leaders, with Paul and Barnabas, and a letter outlining all this…out to the churches to instruct them.
Later, Paul would return to Jerusalem…as we discussed last week…with an offering from these Gentile churches.
Unity was in fact working…Jews and Gentiles alike, were working together in the wider church.
But in the next few weeks we will see how this “understanding” did not solve the problem completely.
There were those who continued to push for their own agenda…convinced that God wanted all people to be circumcised in order to be a part of God’s family.
Some were knuckleheads…but some were just good and passionate people who were wrong…it happens.
You can, you know…in spite of what you might have learned from social media…be a good person and be very wrong about some things.
I often tell my grandkids stories…usually adventures of great threat and opportunity in which they are the protagonists…the heroes
They get to choose their own super powers for the story…and sometimes I will put them in situations with no seeming way out…and they get to come up with the solution.
It is amazing what problems you can solve when you don’t have to deal with actual reality and can make up your own super power.
My granddaughter Norah, whenever I ask her what needs to happen next…what is the solution to the dilemma?
…no matter how dire the scenario and no matter how fierce the foe will she say “They need to work together.”
That is her classic “go to” solution.
It happened two times in one story last week…her strategy for solving a dire problem was “They need to work together.
In my stories…her solution always works by the way.
It’s a bit simplistic as an overall strategy for every situation…but in principle…it is really good advice.
Unity is incredibly important…but…truth, is absolutely essential.
Ultimately there can be no unity if truth itself is abandoned or denied.
Paul campaigned hard at Jerusalem for the truth of a gospel free of anything except grace through faith.
Unity followed…but that unity was imperfect…as it always will be.
But there was then and there is now substantial unity in the church…imperfect, but substantial.
Key lessons learned about this brief theology of cooperation:
- There was local autonomy, but wide cooperation.
- The church had unity in diversity but not perfect unity.
- The church was self-correcting as it worked together on the larger purposes of the Great Commission.
Let’s go to 2 Cor. 9, and look briefly at a theology of generosity to go alongside this theology of cooperation.
In 9:1-5 Paul says that writing about the collection is almost superfluous…because the Corinthians had already shown their readiness to give.
In fact, he had been boasting about them to the Macedonians (even as he had in chapter 8 used the Macedonians to challenge them.)
This is not about competition…but about challenge and encouragement to follow through…to finish.
He says, “Look you guys started well, you intended to be generous…now follow through. Finish your commitment by giving as you had committed to give.”
He is walking this fine line between encouragement and challenge…and wanting them to see that in the end, they should give as they actually want to give.
Then it will be ready as a generous gift, (he writes) not as one grudgingly given.
Whether we are working with our children, an employee, a friend, ourselves…we know that real change is not outside in but inside out.
At the same time…”inside out” change…involves outside in encouragement and challenge
That’s what we are seeing here:
Paul says “Follow through, I’ve been bragging about you…don’t let me down.”
Paul also says “But make sure this is a willing gift, not a grudging one.”
So, the balance is between…challenge that flows outside in and helps shape our hearts and choices that flow out of a heart that is being shaped
This leads to the passage we will finish with this morning.
6 Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously.
He uses an agricultural analogy
All things being equal the size of the harvest is directly in line with the amount of seed sown.
7 Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.
While Paul wants them to sow generously, but he stresses that it must be a voluntary gift.
God loves a cheerful giver… “Hilarion” hilarious giver.
But there is a balance here as well…look at verse 8.
8 And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.
This verse is full of “all”
All you need
All good works
So, the challenge here is to pay attention to God and his magnificent “all” encompassing provision….so that our hearts can be shaped into joyful giving things.
The balance looks like this:
“God loves a cheerful giver…give willingly not under compulsion.”
“God is able to give you all that you need…become a cheerful giver by focusing on God.”
For us (Christy and I)…we have given regardless of whether we felt cheerfully about it or not.
Over the years…God has used this focus on his provision, and just the habit of giving, to help us become “cheerful” not reluctant or compulsory givers.
So is our giving has become both “heart” or “Habit”.
The point is…I would not wait until you feel happy about giving to begin to give.
I would focus on God’s promise and provision…and give…and you will become a joyful giver in time.
Paul quotes directly from Ps 112 about the man who fears and honors the Lord and who delights in his commands.
The Psalmist gives all kinds of cool benefits for this person as well as some traits that describe how this person’s love for the Lord is revealed in their life.
-His children prosper and thrive
-He prospers monetarily
-He prospers spiritually
-He conducts his affairs with integrity
-He is generous
-His heart is secure, he doesn’t live in fear
-Then…the direct quote:
9 “He has scattered abroad his gifts to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.”
This “he” is not God, but the person (he or she) who lives in fear of and in obedience to God…they will be generous and prosper forever.
10 Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness. 11 You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God. 12 This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of God’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God. 13 Because of the service by which you have proved yourselves, men will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone else. 14 And in their prayers for you their hearts will go out to you, because of the surpassing grace God has given you. 15 Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!
Paul was confident that as they gave generously from their hearts that God would:
-Bless them in every way
-Use their generosity to bring glory to himself.
-Meet the needs of others
He concludes with an exclamation of praise that harkens back to 8:9
15 Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!
The sacrifice of Jesus, through which we are made eternally rich…this is God’s indescribable gift.
So, let’s construct a simple theology of generosity from this chapter:
- Generous giving brings generous reaping
-There is no promise that if you give a dollar God will give you ten in return.
-There is clear promise here and elsewhere that God does bless generosity with prosperity…prosperity is a relative term and is not exclusively money.
-But there will be blessings, both physical and spiritual…that flow from generosity.
- Generous giving is from the heart
-God loves a cheerful, happy giver…who doesn’t?
- Generous giving is a settled habit
-Cheerful, hilarious giving is not merely an emotion but a component of having developed a habit…shaping your heart into a joyful thing.
-This is true for any number of good things in our lives.
-The cheerful “exerciser” probably didn’t start this way…but became this way through the development of habits.
-The same with the cheerful “prayer” or cheerful “mom, dad” whatever.
- Generous giving is evidence of spiritual maturity
Paul quoted from the Psalms that demonstrated clear evidence that actual spiritual maturity includes generosity.
- Generous giving brings good to others
This is probably the most obvious of the points…but sometimes we don’t see all the ways that it brings good.
For instance, the gift to the Jerusalem church met real tangible needs, but it also encouraged their hearts and brought the powerful benefits of unity.
- Generous giving brings glory to God.
-God is honored and glorified through all of it.
-In hearts turning to him and giving hilariously
-In hearts turning to him and giving out of plan old obedience
-In hearts turning to him as the recipient of the gifts
-In the world seeing diverse bodies of believers working together as the single body of Christ
That is where a theology of generosity and theology of cooperation intersect in the real world of tangible evidence for the reality of the gospel.