The Silver Thermometer
by Homer Hailey
via The Preceptor, Vol. 1, No. 2, Dec. 1951.
It is easier to describe and to evaluate the tangible than to describe of evaluate the intangible. Because this is so, the Lord's churches are often led to place undue emphasis on numbers added to their membership and to the size of their weekly contributions than truth merits. These tend to become the criteria by which growth and development are measured. These are tangible; they can be seen and counted. Consequently, the size of a contribution, or its increase or decrease over a given period of time, too often becomes the thermometer -- a "silver thermometer" -- by which is estimated the spiritual temperature of the spiritual body.
This charge is confirmed by the amount of space given in church bulletins to the monetary side of the congregation's life: income and expenditures. It is likewise established by the amount of time devoted to church finance in the meetings of elders and deacons. Then, too, how often through the past few years has one been treated in periodicals to the financial side of a church's life as he reads the report made by a preacher of his "tenure of office" with the congregation? This is not to be critical; it is to point out the evidence for the contention that there is a tendency today to measure the spiritual life of a congregation by the amount of money contributed each Lord's day.
The aim of this discussion is to show that the size of a church's contribution may or may not indicate the true spiritual temperature of its members. The attitude of a Christian towards the money he possesses may become the acid test of his love for Christ; but the size of his contribution may in no wise be a true measurement of his spiritual character.
Lessons From Israel's History
The first half of the eighth century before Christ was an era of prosperity and wealth in both Israel and Judah. Jeroboam II began to reign in Israel in 790 B.C.. He restored the border of Israel from the entrance of Hamath unto the sea of the Arabah. The luxury and wealth of the period are described by the prophets Amos and Hosea. Amos especially. Mad extravagancies followed the accumulation of wealth, corrupting the morals and worship of the people. The worship followed the pattern of social and moral corruptions. Doctrinal apostasy was responsible for both the moral and spiritual conditions.
Three years after Jeroboam began to reign in Israel, Uzziah began to reign in Judah. Uzziah put down the enemies of Judah, the Philistines and the Arabians, exacting tribute from many. He undertook a building program which fortified Jerusalem and its environs. He hewed out numerous cisterns for the large herds and flocks accumulated. He loved and encouraged husbandry among the people. He prepared and armed a large and efficient army. All of these things led to wealth and luxury in the land of Judah; and also they led to pride in Uzziah's heart, which caused him to enter into the temple and burn incense, contrary to the law of God. Luxury and extravagance were followed among those of Judah by a disposition of independence toward God.
The wealth and extravagance in Israel is vividly described by Amos, as he speaks of the "winter-house with the summer-house, and the houses of ivory;" which he declared should have an end. He describes the children as sitting in Samaria "in the corner of a couch, and on silken cushions of a bed" (Amos 3:12). The luxury-loving people are pictured as lying upon beds of ivory, stretching themselves upon their couches, and eating the lambs out of the flock and calves out of the stall; as those that spent their time in singing idle songs to the sound of the viol, drinking wine in bowls, and anointing themselves with the chief oils, but who had no concern for the condition of the poor (Amos 6:1-6).
This spirit of extravagance and luxury invaded the sacred
precincts of worship. In irony the prophet cries, "Come to
Bethel, and transgress; to Gilgal, and multiply transgression;
and bring your sacrifices every morning, and your tithes every three days;
and offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving of that
which is leavened, and proclaim freewill-offerings and publish them: for this pleaseth you, O ye children of Israel, saith the Lord Jehovah" (Amos 4:4,5).
Here was quantity but not quality. Quantity alone was no index to their spiritual righteousness! Wherefore God declared, "I hate, I despise your feasts, and I will take no delight in your solemn assemblies." Take them away! In their stead,"Let justice roll down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream" (Amos 5:21-24). Extravagancies in worship, but void of holiness and devotion to God, moved Him to declare,"The wind hath wrapped her up in its wings; and they shall be put to shame because of their sacrifices" (Hosea 4:19).
Israel was not content with the simple worship prescribed by divine wisdom. As a "luxuriant vine, that putteth forth his fruit," i.e. that multiplied his altars: "according to the goodness of their land they have made goodly pillars" (Hosea 10:1). As he multiplied altars for sinning, altars were made unto him for sinning (Hosea 8:11). The point is this: becoming wealthy, Israel was extravagant in the erection of altars and in her material display of religious ritual; but in it all there was no devotion to Jehovah: "For your goodness is as a morning cloud, and as the dew that goeth early away" (Hosea 6:4). The thing God desired above all else He found not: "For I desire goodness, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt-offering" (Hosea 6:6). The "silver thermometer" was no accurate indication of the people's love for the true God.
Rich But Poor
Though Israel was rich in her material possessions and profuse in her offerings and altars, she was a pauper indeed in her spiritual endowments. So may be a church of Christ today, for there was such a congregation in the days of John. Situated in the Lycos Valley in Asia Minor, the city of Laodicea was a city of considerable wealth and commercial importance. Nearby hot springs brought within her borders many persons of wealth who sought therapeutic aid in her healing waters. Besides the springs, it is said that two of the city's chief articles of trade were woolen cloth and eye salve. In the midst of its wealth and plenty the city felt no need for anything from the outside; it was self-sufficient of itself.
This spirit found its way into the church. Like the waters of the famous springs, which, soon after leaving the spring itself, became lukewarm and insipid, so the church was neither hot nor cold, only lukewarm. Imbibing the spirit of the world about, it came to say, "I am rich, and have gotten riches, and have need of nothing." But the Lord's reply was, "and knowest not that thou art the wretched one and miserable and poor and blind and naked" (Revelation 3:14-17). Rich in material goods, with no sense of need for anything, no doubt this congregation could boast the size of its contributions and the"liberality" of its members. But the Lord said it was wretched, miserable, poor, blind and naked. It was in a state of spiritual poverty.
About one hundred miles to the north-west of Laodicea was a church which was the very antithesis of the one described above -- the church in Smyrna. To it Jesus said, "I know thy tribulation, and thy poverty (but thou art rich)" (Revelation 2:9). Poor, but rich! As one reads he cannot but conclude that the contribution each Lord's day must have been small. No glowing reports could have been made and no elaborate buildings constructed. Yet, it was rich! Rich in its faith and devotion and loyalty, and rich in its favor with Christ. Again, the "silver thermometer" could not have measured the true character of this church of the Lord.
The past two decades have witnessed the most phenomenal growth in material prosperity ever before experienced in the history of the United States. With the rise of wealth and prosperity, luxury and extravagance have likewise mounted. Americans think in terms of dollars and what dollars will buy. This has led to an increase in worldliness and to a decline in true moral and spiritual power. The spirit of thinking and evaluating in terms of monetary value has invaded the church. Buildings become our glory and financial goals our aims. Memberships in terms of numbers and Bible school record attendances take precedence over doctrinally strong members and well taught classes.
It is in no wise claimed that the conditions charged against Israel prevails in the church today: "The priests thereof teach for hire, and the prophets thereof divine for money: ye they lean upon Jehovah, and say, Is not Jehovah in the midst of us?" (Micah 3:11). But it is contended that the warning against such a state is better now than an effort to cure the condition if and when it should come. The plight is by no means unthinkable, for what a generation can bring forth never ceases to be a cause to marvel. The change in our own political and economic world about us in such a short time, as witnessed by those of us in middle life today, should warn us of what can likewise invade and dominate the church in one generation.
Extravagant buildings and impressive contributions, elaborate programs and glorified reports could denote ability to promote, and not necessarily true devotion. The contribution nor these other things are a true gauge of the spiritual life of the church. Money is too cheap today, and false pride too great a motive to inspire some people to give, for such to be true. We shall have to look deeper than quantity of dollars to find the true relation to God.
On the other hand, the size of the contribution, under certain circumstances, and in consideration of what is left, may tell much. When out of the abundance of joy, deep poverty abounds unto the riches of liberality, a story of love is told. When beyond their power men give of their own accord, beseeching others to allow them to share with them their goods because first they have given their own selves, true spiritual temperature is revealed. True sacrificial giving, even when inspired by the liberality of others, may be a test or proof of the sincerity of a Christian's love (II Corinthians. 8:1-8). But for the amount of a contribution to tell anything, other factors than its mere size must be taken into consideration.
There is no doubt that the church of today is far better taught on the subject of giving than was the church of yesterday. There is no question but that in many ways progress is being made and that the church is pressing ahead. In all these things Christians rejoice and give thanks to God. But let it be said once again, and that in such a way as to shake to the very foundation any false notions that might be develop in the minds of congregations today: The mere size of a church's contribution is no true criterion of its spiritual strength or loyalty and devotion to Christ. The "silver thermometer" may only give us a false impression and consolation, when in reality, the patient is at the very door of death. There was once a church which had a name that it lived, but it was dead. That can happen again!