Let’s be honest, most ministry activities and the things we do as churches require resources – they require money. Sometimes the amount of money necessary appears on boards positioned at the front of the sanctuary. Sometimes it is only visible in the quarterly finance reports. No matter what, it is an unavoidable truth that churches and ministries need money to operate, and the Bible gives some very clear instruction on giving. I’ve heard it stated more than once that Jesus spoke more about money than he did about any other single subject. I honestly haven’t looked too deeply into that supposed “fact” but he certainly didn’t avoid talking about it so it may just be true.
Unfortunately, I believe there are some serious misunderstandings about giving as it relates to the Christian. Some of these misunderstandings are based on overemphasis on the Old Testament without viewing it through the lens of the New Testament. Some are based on testimonies of giving that may or may not be entirely true. The most dangerous are based on nothing less than the false teaching of greedy charlatans. What I would like to offer is a VERY brief look at giving as I understand it based on the New Testament.
First of all, offering our resources back to God is a universal principle in the Bible. There is simply no escaping that fact. We see it as early as Cain and Abel in Genesis 4. Sure, they were making sacrifices, but those were taken from the resources that they had worked for, either in the field or the pasture. At the heart of the matter, every offering should be some kind of sacrifice and every sacrifice under the Old Covenant was an offering of some kind. Another early example, and one that is often used in support of the “tithe,” is Abram’s offering to Melchizedek, “a tenth of everything (Gen. 14:20).”
If we fast-forward to Malachi 3:10 we arrive at one of the more popular verses when it comes to teaching on tithing or giving, “Bring the full tenth into the storehouse so that there may be food in my house.” The following verse is very tantalizing as it states, “‘ Test me in this way,’ says the Lord of Armies. ‘See if I will not open the floodgates of heaven and pour our a blessing for you without measure.'” I confess, I have used that verse in the past to assure people that if they give but a tenth of their income God will surely divulge the storehouses of heaven on their behalf. I think that misses the point of that verse, but it also turns our giving into a selfish endeavor because we are giving a little in order to get a lot from God (i.e “plant a $110 seed…”). This cannot be a godly understanding of giving.
Taking another leap forward, about 400 years in fact, we find Jesus connecting the “tenth” with the heartless legalism of the scribes and Pharisees. The thrust of Jesus’ teachings in Luke 18:12 and Matthew 23:23 is that the religious elite were blindly following the letter of the law (10%) while ignoring the spirit of the law which was that their giving was designed to help take care of those in need whether they be the priests and Levites or the impoverished among them. In other words, their giving was to support the ministry activities of the synagogue/temple.
What, then, should we give?
For many Christians, myself included, 10% or a “tithe” is ingrained in our minds to the point that it is almost immovable. Trying to adjust our attitude on this subject is a monumental task, but I believe it is worth it. So, let me lay out my point of view.
- 10% is an irrelevant number for the New Testament Christian where giving is concerned. We are no longer bound to the letter of law. Instead we have the Spirit who wrote the Law within us and empowering us to live it out as he intended. Is the 10% figure biblical? It certainly is. We find evidence of it throughout the Old Testament, as I have pointed out. However, when we consider the witness of the New Testament a different picture emerges.
- The New Testament standard is sacrificial giving. Consider the story of the widow’s gift/mite. Jesus says, “For all these people have put gifts out of their surplus, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on (Luke 21:4).” The widow was commended because she gave sacrificially. Meanwhile, those who got hung up on 10% were consistently used as negative examples by Jesus. Looking into the early chapters of Acts the picture is painted of Christians giving all they had (Acts 2:44-45).”
- The shift from specifically 10% to all is consistent with Jesus’ method of raising the bar of the Law as in his “you’ve heard it said…but I say to you” statements. Remember what he teaches about adultery? Even looking at someone lustfully counts. The standard of the Law has been magnified and the emphasis becomes the state of our hearts over and above the state of our behavior. Why is this? Because our heart condition guides our behavior. To be sure, behavior is evidence of heart transformation, but the heart comes first. If we believe that all of our resources, monetary and otherwise, belong to God anyway it changes the way we give.
- 2 Corinthians 9:6-7 offers us a great framework for giving as New Testament Christians. “The point is this: The person who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the person who sows generously will also reap generously. Each person should do as he has decided in his heart – not reluctantly or out of compulsion, since God loves a cheerful giver.” First, we see that there is a blessing associated with giving. Some people would have you believe that the blessing is going to financial, and it may be. However, it is certainly going to be spiritual. Second, and most important for our discussion, we see that each person should give what, “he has decided in his heart.” Paul, the former Pharisee, never makes mention of 10% being compulsory, or even being “a good starting point.” The instruction is simple, you get together with God and give as he leads you to – no more, no less. That could mean 10%, 20%, 30%, 9%, 5%, or some other percentage. It could be a specific dollar amount, but it is between you and God (and your spouse if you’re married).
The issue of giving is important. Every church and ministry needs resources to carry out its mission. That is a reality that God is well aware of and has made provisions for in his instruction to his people. This issue has also become something of a sore subject for many people. When a legalistic view of giving is used as a litmus test for ones devotion to the Lord there is a significant problem. Furthermore, when unbiblical teachings about giving are used to manipulate money from the “least of these” rest assured there will be consequences.
Far from relieving Christians of the responsibility to give, the New Testament teaches us that we should give sacrificially, obediently, and cheerfully. That is the standard set for us. Can you say before the Lord that those words describe your giving habits?