Editor’s note: As many Americans are preparing end-of-year giving, some Chinese believers are facing the reality that financial generosity to the church could lead to prison, not tax credits. This is not ultimately about charity, but allegiance: Christians give because we ultimately belong to Christ’s kingdom. Today, a Chinese-American pastor reflects on how the Chinese house church has encouraged and challenged him in his attitude toward giving.
A few days ago, the two-part reflection by Li Yingqiang, an elder at a church in Chengdu, on tithing and charges of fraud caught my attention. I have been giving to churches for almost as long as I have been a believer, but the question of “fraud” has never crossed my mind.
Tithing in a Chinese House Church
To understand theses accusations of fraud, we must understand the context of the Chinese house churches. Because Chinese house churches are not registered with the government, in the eyes of the state, house churches have the same legal status as cults. Therefore, any solicitation for donations is fraudulent. Pastors and preachers employed by house churches are often accused as crooks and swindlers, and Christians who pay tithes to house churches are often framed as victims. The government even encourages normal Christians to turn on their pastors and serve as witnesses and victims in court, and threatens them if they are unwilling to do so.
A close comparison in the United States would be organizations who solicit tax- deductible donations as a charity, even though they have not obtained 501(c)(3) status. Such an organization would be considered fraudulent in the eyes of the IRS. However, while it is fairly easy to become a charitable organization in the United States, it is much more complicated for Chinese house churches.
House churches refuse to register with the Chinese government because they refuse to submit to the government’s regulations on how they conduct public worship, ordain ministers, and preach the gospel. The state – whether it is a Communist dictatorship or a democratically-elected president – is not the head of the church. Christ is the head of the church, and only Christ has the authority to regulate the religious practices of his church. But that is a reality the Chinese government refuses to accept. They cannot accept the fact that millions of its citizens give their highest allegiance to another authority figure. Therefore, house churches are considered threats to their governing authority, and charges of fraud become one of the most common schemes the Chinese government employs to persecute house churches.
Would You Pray With Us Today?
How should house churches continue to operate when they are seen as fraudulent and illegal? Li Yingqiang reminded his church that it is their duty to support those who serve in full-time ministry. Giving is not just an expression of a believer’s love of God. It is also an expression of his love of his neighbors, because his tithe goes to support the families of the church’s pastors and workers. Most importantly, giving is not just a duty, but a privilege for citizens of the Kingdom of God.
Li wrote, “The church is the earthly expression of God’s kingdom. As such, the church is entrusted with managing the ‘national property’ of the kingdom of God.” Tithing is a way believers actively live out their faith by storing up their treasures in heaven, because it demonstrates where their allegiance lies and where their hearts long to be. A Christian’s tithe to the church is much like a passport; it is proof of heavenly citizenship.
Citizens of a Kingdom
All of this brings me back to my own financial relationship with our church, where I serve as a pastor and benefit from the tithes and offerings of others. For many churches in the United States, the offering portion of the worship service can seem formulaic and predictable. Our church just finished a capital campaign, and it was easily one of the most uncomfortable and awkward projects for us as a church staff, because we do not like to talk about money up front so much.
My family tithes by having our bank send a check to our church each week. Our church’s administrator receives the check, and deposits it. The entire process is seamless and effortless. Most importantly, I don’t have to think about it unless something goes wrong. Our church sends the offering baskets around each week, but most of the time it comes back to our ushers empty because most families either give by sending a check, like we do, or have set up a recurring donation online. For most people in our congregation, tithing is out of sight, out of mind.
We are approaching the end of a tax year, where people tend to give more to charities to maximize their tax deductions. Particularly during the holiday season, charitable organizations encourage people to give more out of generosity and gratitude. In this season, Li’s article came as a sobering reminder for me.
We tithe not just so we can keep our money from Uncle Sam; we give not just so we can be known as generous people; we give not just out of our gratitude for God, although these are all good reasons. It is necessary to be reminded periodically, and to remind our members, that giving to our church is more than just giving to a charitable organization. Our tithe is an exercise of our duty and privilege as citizens of God’s Kingdom, much like voting in an election in America.
Whether the government approves of our giving or not, whether we get a tax deduction or not, it is an honor that our King above has made us citizens of his kingdom, and he deigns to use our two copper coins to advance his kingdom on earth. We should still expect our church leaders to use our money wisely and honestly – fraud does exist, even in churches – but ultimately our giving is not just an earthly or a legal matter, but a Kingdom affair.
Ryan moved from Guangzhou, China, to Ohio at the age of 12. He is the pastor for neighborhood ministries at New City Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio, and also serves as the translation manager for China Partnership.
FOR PRAYER AND REFLECTION
Pray that Christians around the world will be thankful for the ability to contribute financially to God’s kingdom, and will do so cheerfully and courageously.