Christian giving is a three-way street

Patronage and Philippians 4:10-20

This video (and transcript below) illustrates the importance of cultural background in understanding the New Testament. For more, enrol in the Bible Overview subjects at Morling College, as part of an undergraduate or graduate certificate.

We’re looking at a short passage near the end of Philippians (4:10-20). It’s a passage that’s all about gift-giving and receiving – and the cultural expectations and obligations associated with it. All about who owes what.

‘Cause even today, we hate owing people, don’t we. (Most of us, anyway.) We don’t like being the one who’s in the red in the relationship. The one who feels like they owe. Why is that?

Is it a bit of a power struggle: we don’t want to feel like the inferior in the relationship.

Once every few weeks, one of the pastors at my church and I go out for coffee. And when the time comes to settle up – to pay for the dozen or so espresso shots lined up across the bar, along with any damage that might have been caused to the premises by our caffeine-fuelled violence, ‘cause we’re pretty hard core. When it comes time to pay, we’re both convinced it’s our turn to shout. Determined not to be the one living on the debit side of the ledger. We hate being the one who owes.

And it’s often because we think we lose status if we’re the one who owes. If we don’t counter with our own gift, we’re acknowledging we’re the social inferior.

Notice how it’s different when there is a clear difference in status. Like with our parents. We’re happy to owe them big time, ‘cause – well, they’re our parents. And what do they get? Predictable gifts from Mother’s and Father’s day stalls bought with their money! I mean, pretty much the entire first two decades of our lives – it’s a giant one-way favour isn’t it? Or three decades, these days, given Sydney house prices.

And even after that time: whenever I’d go out for coffee with my Dad, although we’d play the little game at the cash register, more often than not he’d end up paying. But it’s OK to owe in the parent-child relationship. He’d just say: “you can start paying when I’m retired.” Even now he’s retired, it’s only marginally less difficult to pay.

But when we owe someone, socially it sends a signal about who’s the superior in that relationship.

And these sorts of games aren’t new. They’re as old as civilisation. In fact, they were even more intense back in the Greek and Roman world of the first century.  Where the entire social economy was based on the exchange of favours. To reciprocate a gift was a social obligation. People would often compete for power in a relationship through gift giving. Constantly trying to give back an even bigger gift.

The person who won – who could afford to give the most valuable gifts – they ended up being the superior in the relationship. The patron. And the other person was forever indebted to them. It was a two-way street, but it was always clear who was standing at the top of the hill.

Gift-giving in the ancient world was all about who owed whom. And the status that came with being the one who was owed.

And this caused the apostle Paul no end of problems, because he was frequently on the receiving end of gifts. Financial support and hospitality from wealthy believers. Not so he could have his own TV show and private jet. He didn’t have enough hair for that. But so he could keep travelling throughout the empire, preaching the gospel. What did the fact that Paul accepted support say about his status?

In Corinth, he refused to accept any support whatsoever. They were so immature – they were already divided, trying to prove their status by who managed to host the best Christian speakers in their homes. Imagine how they would have gone if Paul had accepted money from some of them! For that reason, Paul got himself a part-time job as a tentmaker rather than have the Corinthians think he in some way owed them. So in Corinth he refuses to accept any support, because it would come with strings attached.

But even elsewhere – in more mature churches, like in Philippi – he’s still very wary about how he accepts any gifts. Just in case they get the wrong idea. Just in case they think that by supporting him, somehow he owes them. Or somehow they own him.

Is that a problem in our churches today? Does the flow of money or giving have an influence on social status within the church? Do we treat those who give more as though they are more important? Do we feel like we owe those who give to us; or that we own those to whom we give?

Keep that question in mind as we look at how Paul tackles this issue, right at the end of his letter to the Philippians. He recognises that every time money or gifts change hands, there are strings attached. But here, he very carefully defines what strings, and who’s ultimately pulling them. It’s about the very different way giving should work in a Christian context.

But Paul starts off rather strangely. He begins with what appears to be the world’s most inept attempt at saying “thankyou.” And there’s some stiff competition for that title. Back in 1989, why wife and I had been dating for less than a year, and for Christmas I suggested that I might want a particular album by the band Queen. This was on vinyl back when it was cool the first time, but among people who wore mullets rather than hipster beards.

Now there were two different Queen albums in the shops at the time, and Sam bought a different one from what I’d wanted. I’d like to think that the present-day Tim, if faced with that situation, wouldn’t mention that fact; not even to a woman he’d been with for over three decades. But apparently – I have no recollection of this, but Sam sure does – 1989 Tim, decided that an appropriate response, to his relatively new girlfriend’s Christmas gift, was: “Oh, it wasn’t the one I wanted, but this is good too.”

Yet still, I think Paul tops that. In response to a significant financial gift from the entire church at Philippi, he says in verse 10:

4:10a I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me.

Philippians 4:10a

I was so happy to get your gift… finally… after all this time. OK, we’re not off to a good start, are we? Now he does catch himself in the next bit, which almost makes up for it:

4:10b Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it.

Probably because the old apostle’s pretty hard to track down in all his travels. But finally he’s gotten himself arrested, and so he’s stayed in one place long enough for them to send a care package from Philippi. How nice.

4:11a I am not saying this because I am in need…

Whoa, what? He didn’t really need the gift? Is that how you start a thankyou note?

4:11-14 I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength. Yet it was good of you to share in my troubles.

I didn’t really need the gift, but hey, thanks anyway? I’ve learned to get by without stuff. Pretty content in Jesus, but good on you for the thought – that’s what counts, right?

If you’ll permit me to indulge in a little gender stereotyping – I can’t imagine a woman ever phrasing it like this, can you? “Oh you can’t say that; they’ll think we’re ungrateful!” I mean, if I ever wrote a thankyou note like that, my wife would never let me write one again. (Now there’s a thought…!) 

Maybe I’m being a bit hard on Paul, reading this with twenty-first century Western eyes. Would the Philippians have thought Paul ungrateful when reading this? Perhaps.

I’ve actually done a fair bit of research over the years in the field of first-century gift giving – as you do – and I still can’t say for certain. I mean, Stoic philosophers valued being content no matter what the circumstances, although Paul’s giving it a Christian twist in that the “secret” to doing this is found in Christ who gives him strength. So it may or may not have sounded offensive. But it was certainly unconventional. In a world where it was customary to show gratitude by exaggerating the benefit of a gift, Paul was being deliberately surprising, at the very least. Why? Why would he do that? []

It’s because Paul wants to make it clear that Christians shouldn’t see ourselves as reliant on this kind of support. As much as it’s helpful to receive financial support; as much as it’s God’s way of providing for his gospel workers – we’re never to lose sight of the fact that we’re reliant on God. Not the money he provides to us through his people. Not the material comforts we might enjoy. Not the used teabags we get sent (for younger readers – people used to do that for missionaries, along with carefully preserved used postage stamps). But his gospel workers are to rely on God, and God alone. That’s why Paul is clear that he doesn’t need their gift.

And maybe, in doing this, he might actually be giving them a compliment about their friendship. Because in the ancient world there was more than one kind of friendship. Aristotle described three kinds: the lowest was the “useful” kind, where both parties are in it for what they can get out of the relationship. The second was the “pleasant,” where you enjoy one another’s company. But the highest he described as a pure, selfless friendship, untarnished by notions of mere usefulness.

So maybe, Paul’s saying that the Philippians’ gift is really just a token of the deep relationship they have. Like Mum doesn’t need yet another crocheted clothes hanger from the Mother’s day stall; Dad doesn’t need still another mug that boldly declares him to be the world’s greatest, despite carrying the tell-tale signs of being mass produced. But what makes them so pleased to receive it is what the gift represents. An expression of love for them as a parent.

It reminds us that when we give to God’s work – whether it be here in the church, or to gospel workers elsewhere – whenever we give, it’s not primarily material. What’s more important than the cash is what it represents: the bond of friendship found in being partners in the gospel.

That’s what Paul’s saying in verse 14:

4:14 Yet it was good of you to share in my troubles.

This verse sounds like a bit of an afterthought, doesn’t it? You know, having made my point that I’m totally reliant on God and God alone – nevertheless, it was nice you made an effort. The thought counts, and all that. Pat on the head for the Philippians. The bit your wife would make you put in at the end, so you didn’t sound completely ungrateful.

But I think this verse has been translated rather unfortunately. Perhaps by someone who’d read too many Jane Austin novels. “How good of you to share my troubles! Do help yourself to another cucumber sandwich.” We can more literally translate it: “you have done well, having fellowshipped together in my distress.” And when we do, two interesting features suddenly come to light.

Firstly, the phrase “you have done well” is a very common one in ancient letters. It’s the language of obligation. Many times a letter from a superior finishes with what to us might look like a helpful suggestion: “you do well if you do such-and-such.” In first century relationships, it was a politely phrased command. Pointing out that this was part of the recipient’s obligation to their superior. (Like when I say to my kids: “it’d  be great if you could unstack the dishwasher.” Suggestion or command?) Paul’s suggesting the Phlippians’ financial support was, in some way, fulfilling a duty. Bookmark this in your mind; we’ll come back to it a little later.

The second thing is even more significant. The word translated “share” is much stronger than that. Literally it means fellowship together. It’s one of many “together” words Paul uses throughout his letters to describe his comrades in the gospel. In Colossians he calls them workers together and servants together. In Ephesians, citizens together, and joined-in-Christ together. In Philippians we’ve already had soldiers together and contending together. And here, in chapter 4, he describes the Philippians’ financial support as fellowshipping together in his trials; in his hardship; in his suffering. They are truly partners in his work.

This is more than just a pat on the back as an afterthought. He’s expressing another important principle of Christian giving. When we give, we’re fellowshipping together in the ministry of those we support. It’s not just about the money, although it helps. It’s about sharing their struggles; their joys; their failures; their successes. It’s about having the privilege of meeting their needs in Jesus’ name. Both materially, through giving. And spiritually, through prayer.

If you’re financially supporting someone, but you don’t know how they’re going; you’re too busy to read their prayer letter; you don’t regularly pray for them – you’re missing out on what it’s all about. It’s not about the money; it’s about being their partner. Show them you’re in this together, even if you’re physically on the other side of the world. We might mock the missionary fridge magnets as a Christian cliché. But every time I use my fridge, it reminds me that I have gospel partners.  

And those of you who might be  receiving support from others – encourage them to see the giving as secondary; the partnership as primary. Give them opportunities to hear about what God’s doing through you. Be honest, without being whiny. Be open about what it’s like. If they’re supporting you financially, you owe them ‘partner’ status.

A few years ago, I was reminded about the difference it makes. Because for many years, my church has supported a family of missionaries in Malawi. But for first few years, the church had never actually met them in person. I knew them, because I’d spent 4 years going through bible college with them at Morling. But at church, they were just a name, a dot on a map, and a photograph with way too many kids in it.

Then in 2010, they came back on home assignment for a few months. We finally got the opportunity to introduce them to the church in person. And they’re the kind of people who even after even 5 minutes you get the feeling that you’ve been let inside the deepest recesses of their brain. We heard about how tough it is. We heard about the exciting things God’s been doing through them. Their hopes for the future. And at the end of just one Sunday, our church had gone from merely a funding source, to being their partners in the gospel. The difference was tangible. 

Don’t just give. God can do without your money. Partner. Christian giving is nothing less than partnership in gospel ministry.

But more than that. Christian giving is a three-way street. Now before the literal thinkers among us have a brain explosion actually trying to visualise that, let me explain.

Remember at the start, we talked about giving being a two-way street. Gifts and money would flow both ways. But it was always clear who was standing at the top of the street. Who owed whom. And this was huge in first century culture, which is why Paul makes such a big deal of it. Because Paul wants us to see it in a very different way.

First, let’s look at how we shouldn’t see it. Paul doesn’t want the Philippians to see him as their patron – for bringing them the gospel. First, he recounts their past generosity to him:

4:15-16 Moreover, as you Philippians know, in the early days of your acquaintance with the gospel, when I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only; for even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me aid more than once when I was in need.

And then he says it quite plainly:

4:18a I have received full payment and have more than enough. I am amply supplied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent.

In the first century world, this was code for “you don’t owe me anything for preaching you the gospel. Any debt you may think you owe me –by now it’s more than repaid. You are not in my debt. I am not your superior.”

If we bring people the gospel, they don’t owe us anything. Those in paid ministry positions aren’t more important than those who pay them. As lay leaders, we’re not superior to those we lead. We don’t use our ministry position to gain the upper hand in our relationships. We’re servants of Christ, not patrons.

But the opposite isn’t the case, either.

Just because they support him financially, the Philippians aren’t Paul’s patron, either. They don’t own him. That’s why he describes their gift in this way:

4:18b They are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God.

It was never a gift to Paul. Their financial support is a gift to God. A “sacrificial offering” in old covenant terms. Christian giving is primarily giving to God, not to people. The recipient, therefore, doesn’t owe the giver anything. Financial supporters are not patrons (the way it was understood in the first century). God is.

And that’s why Paul – despite not needing the gift – was keen for them to give it. He didn’t want them to miss the opportunity of doing something for God.

4:17 Not that I desire your gifts; what I desire is that more be credited to your account.

So let’s be clear. If you give to support full-time Christian workers, you’re simply giving to God. You don’t own them because of your financial support. And you’re certainly not their boss.

I’ve heard of plenty of horror stories where this is the case. Pastors that get treated like the hired help by the deacons; by the church members. Wealthy individuals trying to control the agenda – threatening to withhold their giving if things don’t go their way; which, in smaller churches, can mean that the pastor doesn’t get paid.

Now that hopefully doesn’t happen in your church. But still, if we’re not careful we can allow a consumerist attitude toward church life. Expecting something in return for our support. You know: “I pay my taxes… I mean, my tithes… So when I turn up I expect the toilets to be clean, the childminding to be fully staffed, and someone on hand to operate the sound system if I’m using the hall for my child’s twenty-first.” And normally it’s the paid staff that bear the brunt of this expectation.

Or to broaden it, for a minute, beyond simply ministry support: Do we allow an attitude of superiority toward those who are on the receiving end of our church’s charity? We’re happy to support welfare programmes, but we expect the recipients to be appropriately grateful and clean up their act a bit in response.

We’re cool with having a bunch of children we sponsor in the developing world, as long as they send us smiling pictures to display on our fridge and handwritten letters thanking us for our generosity, because of which they and their family now have hope in life.

What I’m asking is, do we give because we love God and the people made in his image – or because we love the feeling we get when we’re appreciated for our generosity? Or, let’s be honest, a little bit of both?

When Christians give, we give not because we owe something back to our leaders. And not so that those we support owe us. We give, because we’re ultimately giving to God. He’s the only one owed anything. And “you do well” to give to him.

And that’s the dynamic Paul insists on. Where gospel givers and gospel workers are equal, because we’re all in debt to God. Anything we give, we give to God. And anything we get back, it comes from God. When I pay for the coffee, I’m shouting God. When my pastor friend pays, God’s shouting me. As Paul continues:

4:18b-19 [Your gifts] are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God. And my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus.

In other words, if there’s anything you think you should get in return from your giving – God’s the one who’ll pick up the tab.

In Christian giving and receiving, don’t keep accounts. There’s no point: If you’re the recipient of Christian giving, praise God! Don’t go around thinking you owe anything to anyone – except God. (Other than maybe the odd prayer letter, so your supporters get to fellowship together in what you’re doing.) And if you get the privilege of giving to others – fellowshipping together with them – praise God! And don’t go around thinking they owe you. It might work that way out in the world. But in God’s kingdom, there’s no place for those kind of status games.

Remember what it is that we owe God: our very lives. There’s no way we can repay him, so be content with being the one who owes. With appropriate humility, let God pay for the coffee, every time. And just be grateful.

Don’t let what you give back to God become a source of pride; a badge of status; or a way of having things your way. Because anything we could possibly give in return pales in comparison with what he’s done for us. And that, I think, is what leads Paul to conclude:

4:20 To our God and Father be glory forever and ever. Amen.

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