Should Christian EAs give money to their local church?

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by Joe Tulloch


In this blog post I argue that Christians ought not to donate to their local church, or at least that such donations are not substitutes for usual donations to effective charities.

The reason for this conclusion is pretty simple: given the sheer amount of churches and evangelistic enterprises in the world, the chance that giving to your own particular church will have the greatest positive impact is virtually zero. The goal of giving to your local church, whatever it might be – spreading the Gospel, fostering a Christian community, etc – will almost always be more effectively achieved by another means.

Certain models of how churches receive and distribute donations might appear to offer a solution to this problem. For example, in the Catholic Church, donations to individual churches are pooled at a diocesan or national level and then distributed amongst the parishes according to their needs. However the same kind of issue arises in this model – the chances of your own diocese being the most effective recipient of donations are vanishing small, and the chances at a national level are not much better. (Of course, your own country or diocese might, in very rare circumstances, be the one which it is most effective to give to, in which case you should. It’s important to note, however, that you’re doing so because it is the most effective choice, not because it’s local to you, which is purely coincidental).

So should Christians not donate to local churches at all? I propose that the proper response for Christians is to do research into which churches and evangelistic organisations are likely to maximise positive impact, and donate accordingly. Perhaps we need a Christian equivalent of GiveWell, the organisation which researches and publishes lists of the most effective charities. Though such rankings can never be perfect, careful statistical analysis ought to produce a good rough guide to which organisations are the most effective at evangelisation, supporting church communities, and so on.  

This is, of course, very counterintuitive – the tradition of giving to one’s own church is a very long and noble one. However, I think that the argument above gives good reason to believe that my conclusion is correct. I nevertheless want to consider two of the main objections which might be raised against it, and see how they can be met.

The first objection is that not giving to local churches would lead to many churches running out of money, since all their parishioners would be giving their money to a different organisation, probably overseas. This is similar to the argument against effective (secular) charitable giving, which holds that giving money only to the most effective charities would lead to all other cause areas being neglected, and no funds going towards, say, the homeless. The response to both these arguments is that the recommendations for effective giving are for our current society, in which few people are effective altruists, and thus money will continue to be given to less effective ends whatever recommendations are made. If substantially more people were effective altruists, then recommendations might well be more nuanced, reflecting the different situation.

A second objection comes from the idea of reciprocity: is it not wrong to demand that Christians not give to their local church, which, ideally, and, I hope, normally, gives so much to them? There seems to be something wrong with being actively engaged with, and benefitting from, your local church, but not supporting it financially. This consideration seems to have some force, and perhaps gives reason to encourage Christian effective altruists to give some part of the money they normally keep for themselves to their local church, but, if the arguments above are correct, then doing so cannot be considered effective giving. Of course, the fact that giving to your local church is not effective spending does not relegate it to the same level as, say, buying a new TV. It’s still charitable giving, just not effective giving – giving whose priority is maximal impact.

The conclusion that we probably ought not to be giving to our local church, or at least ought not to count doing so as effective giving, then, is pretty counter-intuitive, but seems all things considered to be correct. Morality often requires us to do strange and unpleasant things – think how shocking many of Jesus’ teachings are! – and this seems to be one of them.

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4 thoughts on “Should Christian EAs give money to their local church?

  1. Hi,
    Thanks for your post. This is my first time encountering Christian effective altruism and it’s interesting to read your reasoning.

    I see your point regarding the first argument – that the recommendation is given mostly because most Christians today are not EAs. However, this does not seem to take into account individual circumstances of different churches. Some large megachurches have plenty of funds, while other new, unknown local churches might have little and are struggling to survive. If one is a member of the latter, then it seems prudent to give some money to the local church. The assumption here, of course, is that it is important to keep your local church surviving. If one doesn’t believe this to be true, then perhaps one should question why one doesn’t move to a church that is worth keeping around.

    I am more confused regarding the second point. You admit that the reciprocity argument has merit, but ought not to count as “effective giving.” I agree. Yet how does this lead to the conclusion that one probably ought not to give money to the local church? This conclusion only makes sense if one assumes that “effective giving” (in the EA sense) ought to be the only defining principle of our giving. But reciprocity in this context is a fundamental part of Christian morality. For example, let us take the following passage by Paul:

    “Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat its grapes? Who tends a flock and does not drink the milk? Do I say this merely on human authority? Doesn’t the Law say the same thing? For it is written in the Law of Moses: “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.”Is it about oxen that God is concerned? Surely he says this for us, doesn’t he? Yes, this was written for us, because whoever plows and threshes should be able to do so in the hope of sharing in the harvest. If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you? If others have this right of support from you, shouldn’t we have it all the more?”

    (1 Corinthians 9:7-12, ESV)

    Here, Paul seems to endorse the principle of reciprocity: that he (and fellow ministry workers) have sown spiritual “seed” that has resulted in spiritual benefits for local believers, and deserves some compensation for that. Of course, Paul also endorses the idea of giving where it is needed most, for example in Rom. 15:26, which refers to a collection for the poor saints in Jerusalem.

    Next, your arguments fail to take into account the importance of being a part of the local church in Christian theology. Christians are called to commit to a local church (e.g. Heb. 10:23-25), meeting regularly and encouraging and building up each other. The early church lived in such a local, self-sufficient community, where believers donated their personal possessions for the good of the group (Acts 5:32-35). Even in a modern context, how can one be a member of a local community without contributing financially to it?

    The same goes regarding your critique of the model of the Catholic church pooling resources together at a national level. Even if it’s probably true that donating to the local parish is not the most effective way, it could be the case for a Catholic that surrendering their money to the Catholic hierarchy reflects their personal submission to church authority and trust that the church will distribute money in the best way (as opposed to making a personal judgment), which is an integral part of that Christian tradition.

    In conclusion, I think that the most one can say is that Christians should give some money to the local church as needed, and perhaps giving the rest in an “effective” manner. I’m new to the intersection between Christianity and EA, but what’s important is to remember that there are more Christian principles that should be considered in giving rather than just pure effectiveness.

    Daniel

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  2. hi Joe, as a Treasurer of a small local Church, which relies solely on the generosity of its members and supporters, then clearly i am not going to agree with your post, although i understand what you are trying to convey. I like what Daniel writes above, but of course, i would. I admit i am biased. However i also like to think that we try and use the money we are given in an effective manner. God asks us to be cheerful givers, and i hope that there is space for all Christians to give to God in this way, to further his work, as well as to help others. Our Church also gives 10% of all we receive on to Charity, and we are looking to be more effective in how we do that as well.

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  3. Thanks Joe. I agree with your arguments. thanks for writing this down so carefully.

    On the reciprocity point, I’m not particularly persuaded that a duty of reciprocity to your church is going to outweigh other claims on you for that money. For example, if a person was on their way to pay their gym instructor a reciprocity payment and they saw someone dying who could be saved by paying for some expensive medical treatment then I think they would be required to do so even if this meant they could no longer fulfil their duty of reciprocity to the gym instructor. This is even more the case if you know that the gym instructor has other sources of adequate funding as most churches do. Given that there are all sorts of duties of rescue (both suffering-wise but also salvation-wise) on our money I think we will be required to meet these claims before we meet the reciprocity claims.

    Note that I think that there may still be indirect consequentialist reasons to support your local church financially, at least to some small amount, because it’s often helpful for your engagement with a given community to feel bought in and one way we can do that is by supporting financially. If community engagement is helpful for stopping you from burning out etc. then it may be worth a small donation each month.

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    1. Hi Alex,
      In your example, instead of the gym instructor, we could consider the case of a parent and a child. Suppose the parent comes across the sick stranger and has the choice of paying for the stranger’s medical bills or buying a meal for the child. Would the parent really have an obligation to do the former? If he doesn’t provide for the child because of this, perhaps some other means could be found to still feed the child afterwards, for example, working more hours, borrowing money, or asking for donations. But I don’t think there’s a clear obligation by the parent to help to the point of not being able to provide for their own family, even from a Christian point of view.

      Secondly, I am very skeptical that a primarily consequentialist-driven ethics can be reconciled with orthodox Christianity. As I brought up already, Scripture tells us to donate to our local churches. We cannot directly violate that commandment by invoking consequentialist ethics.

      Daniel

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