Ministers sometimes can be forgetful in a worship service. I remember once going blank while saying the salutation. “Grace, mercy and....” I remember thinking that everyone in the church knew what I was supposed to say next except me.
Ministers I know have occasionally forgotten elements in the service. I have seen soloists overlooked once or twice and the Apostles’ Creed omitted. No one interrupted these services to remind the minister that he had forgotten something. But once I saw a minister forget the offering. A deacon rose during the last hymn to remind the minister that he had neglected the offering. I wondered if a minister had forgotten the pastoral prayer or the sermon, would someone have reminded him?
What is the function of the offering in the service? What does it mean? The offering clearly has a vital function in the financial life of the congregation, but how does it function spiritually in the worship of the church?
In the Westminster Directory of Public Worship there is no mention of the offering. Yet part of our Christian living is clearly to set aside gifts for the support of the church and Christian causes. Paul instructed the Corinthians (I Cor. 16:1, 2), “Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I directed the churches of Galatia, so do you also. On the first day of the week let each one of you put aside and save, as he may prosper, that no collections be made when I come.” This text and others remind us of our duty to give as the Lord has prospered us to advance the Lord’s kingdom.
Paul’s instructions do not specify whether this collection is part of the worship service or a private preparation that each family in the congregation made for Paul’s visit. The duty is clear, but the way of fulfilling it is left open. In the history of the church the collection has been handled in a variety of ways. In some places the collection has been taken by means of a box in the back of the church. After the service worshipers on leaving the church, place their offerings in the box. That practice is still followed in various parts of Europe.
In other places the collection is taken as a part of the service. The point in the service at which the collection is taken has varied. In many Protestant churches today the collection is received before the sermon, either before or after the congregational prayer. In the medieval mass, the collection was taken after the sermon and before the consecration of the elements for the eucharist. (In the mass the “offertory” is not the collection but the presentation or offering of the bread and wine for sacramental use.) Calvin kept the offering after the sermon whether there was communion or not. In his ideal service the offering and prayers of intercession occurred after the sermon and before communion.
Does it really matter precisely where we take the offering in the service or even if we take it during the service? No, it does not really matter. The Christian duty of giving is a serious and important matter. Precisely how and when Christians give is not crucial. The Westminster Directory was correct to leave this matter out because there are no absolute biblical guidelines to follow here. Paul’s word to the Corinthians does not require, but certainly permits the offering during the service.
By this point, if you are still reading, you may be wondering why I brought this subject up at all. The subject is important because it encourages us to think through one dimension of our worship service. And it also warns us not to give theological reasons for things that will not hold up to careful scrutiny. Let me give some examples of specious theological points sometimes made in relation to the offering. Sometimes we hear that the offering is an essential element of worship. Is that true? Are those churches then that have a box in the back of the church worshiping inadequately? If the offering is essential, must I put something in the plate every time it goes by lest I miss an act of worship? The offering is an opportunity to fulfill a Christian responsibility, not an essential act of worship.
Even worse theologically, it seems to me, is the argument that the offering should come after the sermon as our worshiping response and act of dedication. Christian giving certainly is a response to the Word of God and part of our consecration to God and His purposes. But liturgically the offering is not adequate to express that full devotion to God and His Word that should come after the sermon. Calvin believed that only the Lord’s Supper could do that. Especially in our day when so many already believe that religion is largely a matter of raising money, we must be very careful how we communicate the function of the offering.
Giving generously to the local church and broader Christian concerns is a Christian responsibility that can appropriately be fulfilled, at least in part, during the worship service. But we should remember that we are free in the precise way in which that duty is to be fulfilled.
Previously published in The Outlook, November 1991, by Reformed Fellowship, Inc. www.reformedfellowship.net. Used with permission.
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