Introduction: The Hypothesis Tested
Way back in 2008 I asked the question whether the offering is an element or a circumstance of worship or neither? I argued that the offering is neither an element nor a circumstance and thus raised the question of the legitimacy of the offering as an element of worship.
One of the stronger practical arguments for retaining the offering as a part of worship.
One of the strongest practical arguments for taking an offering during the worship service has been that, of we do not, then the financial support of the congregation will decrease. Across the USA, because of Covid regulations, many congregations have had an opportunity to test that theory. Many congregations have not been receiving offerings during the service. In our congregation, makeshift boxes have been used to collect offerings in the back of the church. Other congregations have received offerings electronically. So, what happened? I have not conducted a scientific survey so what follows is merely anecdotal and not conclusive. Nevertheless, Churches seem to be finding that passing an offering plate during the service is not necessary to the financial well being of the congregation. It seems as though congregations adapted to the new system and have continued to support the church. For the sake of discussion, let us assume this to be generally true.
We know that alms were received on the way into the (Matt 6:2–4; Acts 3:2, 3). There are references to benevolent offerings being taken by the church (e.g., Rom 15:26). Paul exhorted the Corinthians to support the benevolent (diaconal) ministry of the churches (2 Cor 9:6–15) and he wrote an entire epistle to the Philippians to thank them for their generous financial support of his ministry but there is no clear evidence of a general or benevolent fund offering being received during worship services in the New Testament. The pattern of making an offering at the door of the temple suggests that perhaps the New Testament church followed that pattern.
It is easy to assume that the way we do things is the way they have always been done. Is it the case that the church has always received general fund offerings during the worship service? No, it is not the case. Consider the Strasbourg Liturgy (1545). The Lord’s Supper was observed but there is no place for “the offering.” In this account of the Heidelberg Liturgy (1563) there is a place for an offering but it was not for the general fund but for alms (diaconal or benevolent offering).1 In Calvin’s Genevan liturgy, there was no place for an offering. The benevolent/diaconal offering (alms) were received in a box, in the back of the church.
The American practice of receiving an offering for the general fund is most likely the result of the disestablishment of the church. As a free churches, American congregations adapted by implementing “the offering” as a part of the service.
The principle by which Reformed churches conduct their services is this: we do in worship that which is commanded by God. Calvin called it the “rule of worship.” It is the principle confessed by the Reformed churches in the Heidelberg Catechism (96-98), the Belgic Confession (art. 7), and the Westminster Standards (WCF 21.1). The broad evangelical principle is that of the Anglicans and the Lutherans: we may do in worship whatever is not forbidden. These are two distinct principles.
The principle is grounded in God’s self-disclosure in the 2nd commandment. It is also informed by the formal principle of the Reformation: sola scriptura. Scripture alone is the final authority for the faith and practice of the church.
Elements And Circumstances
Though people regularly make lists of the elements of worship, there are essentially two elements: the Word and prayer. The Word is read, preached, confessed, and made visible in the sacraments. In prayer, God’s people respond to his Word.
When we think of the elements of worship thus it becomes easier to see the dialogical nature of a Reformed worship service. In it God speaks to his people in his Word read, preached, confessed, and made visible and his people respond. Historically we have responded mostly with his Word, since it is sufficient for the Christian faith, life, and worship. We know that prayer is commanded in public worship as our response to God but are offerings?
A circumstance is something dictated by nature. A worship service must meet at a given time, in a given place, and use a given language (or provide translation). These are required by nature. The list of circumstances is really quite short. It does not include, e.g., electricity since services were conducted without electricity for centuries. A convenience is not a circumstance. As I argued originally, an offering is not a logical necessity for worship. We know that from our Covid-era experience.
Responses To Two Objections
Without repeating all the arguments in the original essay, suffice it to say here that, in light of the problems and the anecdotal evidence accumulated during Covid, it is difficult to see a place for the offering in the service. Defenses of the offerings are of two classes: 1. Appeals to the Old Testament; 2. Psychological (subjective).
It is true that offerings of various types were elements of Old Testament worship. They were types and shadows of the reality to come: Christ. They were part of the typological administration of the covenant of grace. With the other types and shadows, they have been fulfilled. This is why we do not make animal sacrifices during our worship services. It would be restoring the types and shadows. One of the old Reformed objections to the use of musical instruments during worship was that it constituted the restoration of types and shadows and was therefore inappropriate to New Testament worship. Such an appeal to the Old Testament to support receiving an offering in the New Testament church would seem to prove too much. How do we bring back a literal offering selectively?
The psychological argument (e.g., it engages the people, it allows them to participate) would seem to be in considerable tension with the rule of worship. If this is the basis on which we are going to decide to do things in worship are we really operating on the basis of our confessed principle? What else might we justify on such a basis?
In the mysterious providence of God, the Reformed churches have been forced, during Covid, to adapt and in so doing, we have stumbled into an older way of receiving offerings. It has given us an opportunity to re-think our practice.
We should continue the Covid-era practice. Receiving the offering outside the liturgy fits our stated principles better. We have no clear evidence or command in Scripture to receive an offering as part of New Testament worship.
As a matter of practice, we seem to have found that our apprehensions were unfounded. The Lord has continued to provide through his people. If we need to be instructed by deacons about the benevolent needs of the congregation, we can find a way to do that before or after the service.
The Lord has ordained ways for his people to be more involved in worship: prayer and sacraments. The Lord’s people are commanded to praise him with his Word and to receive his sacraments.
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
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- Is the Offering an Element, a Circumstance, or Neither?
- Resources On The Rule Of Worship
- Calvin On Instruments In The New Covenant: Restoring Shadows
- Resources On Instruments In Worship
1. Heidelberg Catechism 103 says:
103. What does God require in the fourth Commandment?
In the first place, God wills that the ministry of the Gospel and schools be maintained, and that I, especially on the day of rest, diligently attend church, to learn the Word of God, to use the Holy Sacraments, to call publicly upon the Lord, and to give Christian alms. In the second place, that all the days of my life I rest fromm my evil works, allow the Lord to work in me by His Spirit, and thus begin in this life the everlasting Sabbath.
The catechism does list the receiving of alms as a duty of the Lord’s Day but it is not clear that it is thereby an element of worship. I am still researching the Heidelberg liturgy and practice.
Ursinus’ explanation of alms focuses on the necessity of mercy ministry to the congregation not upon receiving offerings during the service.
VI. Charity and liberality to the poor, which consists in giving alms, and performing works of love to the needy, to sanctify the Sabbath in this way by shewing our obedience to the doctrine of Christ. We may here appropriately cite the discourse of Christ concerning the Sabbath, in which he asked the Jews, “Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath day, or to do evil.” (Mark 3:4.) And although God will have us to observe this Sabbath during our whole life, yet he desires that we give an example and evidence of it especially at such times as are allotted for teaching and studying his word. For if any one shows no disposition to obey God when the doctrine of God’s word sounds in his ears, and when, free from other cares, God commands us to give ourselves to the contemplation of godliness and repentance, he declares by such indifference that he will much less do it at other times. Hence it has always been the practice of the church to bestow alms upon the Sabbath day, and to perform acts of charity towards those who need our help and sympathy. “Send portions unto them for whom nothing is prepared: for this day is holy unto the Lord.” (Neh. 8:10.)
The opposite of this virtue shows itself in a neglect and contempt of the poor, and in giving our alms for the sake of being seen of men, which Christ condemns (Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, 569).
I think in the Westminsterian tradition the offering for the general fund is a circumstance, as is the collection of alms.
For instance, in the Directory of Public Worship under the guidance for Communion, there is included, “The collection for the poor is so to be ordered, that no part of the publick worship be thereby hindered.” Leeway in manner in which alms are collected is allowed in accordance with “Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word” (WCF 1.6). Similarly, the Larger Catechism Q&A 108 on the 2nd Commandment says, “The duties required in the second commandment are, the receiving, observing, and keeping pure and entire, all such religious worship and ordinances as God hath instituted in his word; particularly…the ministry and maintenance [of church government]”
I take “maintenance” here to encompass the physical and financial support a church needs to operate. As the 2nd Commandment is dealing with public worship, the implication is that the receiving of the provisions for that maintenance [the element] are acceptable within worship as long as the principles of WCF 1.6 are followed. Passing the offering plate is a means of exercising Christian prudence according to the light of nature [circumstance] to achieve that.
I think there are better ways of accomplishing that goal than passing the offering plate. But at least in my EPC context, the offering has taken on the role of an element, or been tied to one. The “offerings of the people of God” is considered a part of worship, which includes the giving of self in love to God for his graciousness and being, the offering of tithes, and then being reminded to offer ourselves in service to other people. “Each worship service should include a time when the community of believers may present their tithes and gifts to God. It is a visible expression of the commitment of believers to the extension of the Gospel, the work of ministry, and the support of the Church of Jesus Christ.” My guess is that historically, the practice of passing the offering plate was assumed to be Reformed and then there was an attempt to reverse-engineer the regulative principle (which the EPC expressly, if not always practically, affirms) for the offering. In conversations with EPC elders about eliminating passing the plate, there has been resistance because it has been ingrained as an act [element] of worship, and so to get rid of it would be to deprive the church of an aspect of God’s worship. Which, I think and to your point, is the problem.
1. I’m skeptical about a sharp distinction between the Divines and the European churches. They weren’t aware of any such thing.
2. We disagree re the definition of “circumstance.” Your definition is not “Westminsterian” if that means “what the Divines understood by circumstance.” I gave the 16th & 17th-century understanding of circumstance: that which is logically necessary. One of the bigger problems of the modern revision of the rule of worship is the revision of the definition of circumstance as, essentially, whatever the church wants to do.
Here are some resources on circumstances & elements:
3. The DPW only says that the collection of alms shouldn’t hinder the service. I don’t know that we can infer that it was regarded as a necessity of worship, i.e., an element.
4. We can’t leverage the rule of worship with the “general rules of the Word.”
5. The maintenance of the churches was, depending on the circumstances, through the state. Even when churches were disestablished, it doesn’t follow that such offerings were taken during worship.
6. Yes, we agree that there has been a good deal of assuming.
I wholeheartedly agree. I’m in the OPC and it seems that most of the congregations pass a plate during worship, in keeping with the BCO’s inclusion of the offering as an “element,” in implicit contradiction of the Confession of Faith, which lists all the elements (chapter 21). Yet, during Covid, the offering for many (most?) of the congregations was moved to online giving. I found myself wondering how, if the rationale for including the offering is that it’s an element of worship, and therefore the RPW requires it to be done, it made sense to remove it from public worship. For example, “social distancing” could have been maintained by the use of an offering box rather than passing a plate. This certainly seems inconsistent.
A tangential side note: the reason why the offering was for alms rather than for general expenditures in historic Reformed liturgies is surely because the general expenses of the church were funded by the state and not the parishioners. I’m a bit hazy about the specifics, which may have varied from place to place, but I believe in England the patron who had the right to grant the “living” to whoever he chose also had to cough up the agreed amount of funding each year. Up to the present day, there have been cases of people buying property in quaint English villages, only to discover later that with the property they also acquired the obligation to pay a portion of the repair of the church building. “Tithe barns” presumably also served to collect a form of taxation in the shape of produce. And in my grandfather’s time in Scotland (1927) the parish of Dufftown still had a glebe – a piece of property the minister was expected to work to help to support himself. Much to the disappointment of his parishioners, my grandfather – who had started out as a farm worker and then received a degree in Agriculture – rented out the property to a local farmer, declaring he had come to the church for soul culture not soil culture. I would expect therefore that passing a plate for the general upkeep of the church and its ministries wouldn’t have been a thing until the 18th century or later, and would have been more prevalent initially among Methodists and other non-conformists than in the established churches.
Thank you for this reminder. Darryl was just teaching me about the “regium donum” too.
In light of at least West. Confession 21, ‘the Word is read, preached, sung, confessed, and made visible in the sacraments’. Further, if you will, God’s people respond to his Word in the praise of God, which includes both song (psalmody) and prayer.
While the idea of “offering” per se is biblical, (Rom. 12:1) and doing something always appeals to well intentioned men, one might suspect if the practice was not brought in originally by revivalism, it was brought back in, since the “offertory” of the Roman mass precedes the WCF 21 leaving it out of the worship of God.
Growing up in aDutch Reformed universe, I was always taught the collection was an important part of our worship. The basis was hc 103 which lists giving alms as one of the purpose s of the admonition to diligently attend church…. To give alms. it is part of our worshipful response in the dialogue. 103. What does God require in the fourth Commandment?
In the first place, God wills that the ministry of the Gospel and schools be maintained,1 and that I, especially on the day of rest, diligently attend church,2 to learn the Word of God,3 to use the Holy Sacraments,4 to call publicly upon the Lord,5 and to give Christian alms.6 In the second place, that all the days of my life I rest fromm my evil works, allow the Lord to work in me by His Spirit, and thus begin in this life the everlasting Sabbath.7
Certainly the Lord’s Day is a day for alms giving, i.e., diaconal ministry within the congregation. Amen. The question is whether it is to be included in the service. As I mentioned above, Ursinus’ explanation of alms focuses on the necessity of mercy ministry to the congregation not upon receiving offerings during the service. See the quotation in the essay. We know that not everything listed is in worship since the “schools” mentioned = preparation of pastors (so Ursinus). There is one account of the Heidelberg liturgy that includes alms but the source is not rock solid.
In the Catholic Christian community of Reformed tradition in Venezuela-Zulia. From our beginnings the offerings were not part of the public worship. In the first instance, it was due to our particular circumstance, but later it was due to a proper study of the topic.
Here is an excellent quote about it:
Thank you Andrés!
Reviewing I found this:
Hughes Old, Worship, Guides to the Reformed Tradition (JKP, 1984) p. 153
“Early in the Reformation the liturgy of Strasbourg [Germany] eliminated the offertory. No collection was taken in the service of worship itself. Nevertheless a chest was put in each of the churches so that on leaving the church worshippers could deposit their alms. The collection of alms as people left worship became characteristic of Reformed churches. We hear of this being the practice of the Reformed Church of Augsburg [Germany]. In Basel [Switzerland], after the minister had given the Benediction, he was to remind the congregation to contribute to the care of the poor, and as the people left the service they put their alms in one of the alms chests which stood near the door.”
Scott (et al.),
About a decade ago I proposed an amendmendment to WCF 21:5 to add: “; collections for the work of the church,” since, in the PCA our Directory for Worship has no constitutional authority (save the two chapters on sacraments). Nearly all (if not all) PCA churches take collections, but have no constitutional authority to do so. The 1933 Directory (from which ours was derived), had said: “that this acknowledgement should take the form, in part, of giving a worthy portion of our income and other offerings to the work of the Lord through the Church of Jesus Christ, thus worshipping the Lord with our possessions; and that the remainder should be used as becometh Christians.” Our (non-authoritative) Directory altered the language to: “that this acknowledgement should take the form, in part, of giving at least a tithe of our income,” and probably no one noticed the change, a change profoundly out of accord with the majority of the Reformed tradition, which regarded the tithe as levitical, and therefore part of the ceremonial law. Owen said: ““I shall take leave to say, that it is no safe plea for many to insist on, that tithes are due and divine, as they speak,–that is, by a binding law of God,–now under the gospel.…The precise law of tithing is not confirmed in the gospel.…it is impossible any one certain rule should be prescribed unto all persons” (Works, vol. 21, pp. 324, 325). The GA of the Southern Presbyterian Church, in 1854, adopted as its own the paper prepared for the Baltimore Presbytery by Thomas E. Peck (Dabney’s successor) and Stuart Robinson, and its language against tithing was even stronger: “So, under the gospel, the point upon which our “free will” is to be exercised is, not as to the giving, but as to the amount. God has not said, “Give me a tenth, or a twentieth, or a hundredth, or a millionth”; and it is presumption for any man to say to another, or for a church court to say to the members under its care, “You must give such and such a proportion.” It is a matter between God and the man’s own conscience. He must “give as God hath prospered him,” and of the measure of his prosperity another man has no right to judge, as he cannot know the condition of his affairs, nor how much has already been given, or is habitually given, under the solemn injunction that “the left hand shall not know what the right hand doeth.” (Reprinted as “Address on Systematic Beneficence,” in Peck’s Miscellanies, vol. 1, pp. 130-145).”
My overture gained no traction at all, and all PCA congregations continue to take collections without constitutional authority to do so!