I Believe Christians have a rich mandate to give, and in the context of this blog, I am referring to that practical currency we call money. But before we get to ‘money’ we need to first take a short detour by taking a closer look at a giving God.
I delivered a sermon not long ago tracing the biblical motif of what it means to be divine image bearers – that we humans were created to reflect the imagine and likeness of God (i.e. his glory which is his character [cf. Gen 1:26; Rom 1:23; 2 Cor 3:18; Ex 33:19]). So how can we, if we truly are image bearers of God, not give when giving is the very thing that God does?: In creation [Gen 1:1] and at creation [Gen 1:26ff]; in covenant with blessings [Gen 1:28] and in cursing Deut 27:15 ff.; and of course the greatest divine gift of all, in his Son – the sacrifice of Christ.
But it must be remembered that our God is not an arbitrary God as so many make him out to be. God does not give non-sensicially as though God gives just for the sake of giving; but when he gives he gives with a purpose, when he gives he always does so in the context of the ‘so-that’ clause! “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” [Jn 3:16, emphasis added].
Giving God’s Way in the Old Testament
We also need to be reminded that God is in the business of taking care of people and (this is very important for those ‘hyper-faith’ ‘hyper spiritualists’ out there) God’s primary chosen conduit to accomplish this aim is through his people! The very national law of tithing (Israel’s social tax if you will) was put in place so that through the people of God those with needs would be met; but notice also that God’s people took care of each other so that – in theory anyways – every need among God’s people was met also! Take note: Levites (with no inheritance); orphans; aliens and widows (i.e. the helpless) [Deut 14:28-29; 26:12-13]; and observe how this played out in God’s overall plan. Israel was to be a light to the dark world, a beacon of hope to the hopeless, that there is a God who is seeking to redeem creation and this was a call for the nations to enter into God’s covenant [Rom 2:19; Gen 12:3; Ex 9:14-16 etc]. When the Israelites were faithful in their tithe (let us not forget the national and geographical context) it was clearly a sign that they were in the covenant of God and so God would bless them [Mal 3:1, 8-10] because they were taking care of the helpless which is where God’s heart lies [cf. vs. 5]. And when the Israelites did things right in being the extension of God’s arm to a world in need, “Then all the nations will call you blessed” [Mal 3:12], that is, it was a testimony to the world that God is Almighty God, Israel was his people and (evangelistically speaking) it was an invitation to join the people of God. This is the biblical purpose of God in tithing.
But there is another all too relevant point to be made here: there is no evidence in the Old Testament (as far as I can tell) that those who were the beneficiary of the tithes also had to give. That is, there is no command in the Old Testament that the orphans, widows or aliens had to tithe – this only makes sense in that they were the recipients of the tithe because they could not afford to take care of themselves, let alone tithe to help others. God’s purpose was to help those in need, not to further burden them. Many today insist that if someone does not pay tithe, if they cannot pay tithe, that God will punish them or that it is proof of their lack of faith. This should pain us.
Giving God’s Way in the New Testament
It seems that the early church followed in the steps which Jesus himself instructed his disciples quite closely; “give to everyone one who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back” [Luke 6:30], and John the Baptist instructed that “the man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same” [Luke 3:11]. John the beloved says, in keeping with this tradition, “if anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? (This is in keeping with what I said above, how can we be image bearers of God if we are not givers?) And James, the brother of Jesus and leader of the Jerusalem church follows the same tradition: “Suppose your brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” [James 2:16-17]. In reading all of this one begins to acquire a sense of what is the real issue here. It is not “prove your faith by tithing even if you can’t…” but, “people who give to those in need are showing that they are a people who belong to the faith because they are fulfilling the heart of God by caring for those in need”. This is the very purpose of giving, as John said, if one sees someone in need but has no pity, “how can Gods love” be in him?
It’s not surprising then that the early church, following closely the teachings of the Apostles, were “selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need” [Acts 2:45] and as a result, “there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need” [Acts 4:34-35]. Again, there is not a hint of the Old Testament law of tithing being practiced among God’s New Covenant people, neither is there any suggestion that those who gave had to give or for that matter that those who could not afford to give gave! For that would defeat the purpose of giving. As in the Old Testament, God’s purpose is to help those in need, not to burden them further.
Aside from all of this there arose from time to time special needs and occasions for the church to rise up and shine God’s light to a hurting world by practical means. A contemporary example would be the Tsunami of 2004 or Hurricane Katrina when individuals and organizations from all over the world rose up to address those great needs. And in first century Palestine, it was not a Tsunami or Hurricane; rather it was a severe Famine. To the famine mentioned in Acts 11 the scriptures read, “The disciples, each according to his ability, decided to provide help for the brothers living in Judea. This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul” [vs. 29-30]. Paul writes to the Corinthians regarding collecting an offering to help relieve the Jews of the famine: “Now about the collection for God’s people: Do what I told the Galatians churches to do. On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made… After I go through Macedonia, I will come to you—for I will be going through Macedonia” [1 Cor 16:1-2, 5]. Paul, writing to the Romans, says “I am on my way to Jerusalem in the service of the saints there. For Macedonia and Achaia were pleased to make a contribution for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem” [Romans 15:25-26].
What can we say about all of this? For starters we must remember that Paul is not teaching here a doctrine of giving or tithing. His letters to the Corinthian and Roman churches were real historical letters addressing a real historical need of a real historical natural disaster, and both comments about collections were made in his farewell addresses. Furthermore, the famine in Palestine was severe and Paul was charged with a mission to collect an offering from the churches throughout the empire to help those in need. This is significant because when Paul mentions to the Corinthians “you should set aside a sum of money” each week, we need to take this as good advice, not doctrine. Paul is not commanding every Christian in the world to eternally give a set amount every week – least of all a tithe! – rather he is encouraging the Corinthians and the Galatians to set aside money every week until he comes so that we he arrives in their cities to collect their offering they will not have to take up a large last minute offering. In short, Paul is encouraging these Christians to get on a budget so that they can afford to help the Jews in need in Palestine without putting themselves in a place of need.
Another point to be made is that each gave according to their ability! This is not “give ten percent each week because the bible says so” (which is does not), rather this is, “each should give according to his ability (i.e. only if he can) and only if he wants to”; of course, if a Christian can, he should want to!
There is so much more to say (i.e. joyful giver, pay those who teach etc. etc.), but I believe my point has been made. Gods’ purpose in creating a people who give is to help those in need, not to burden those in need by imposing a law of tithe on them. But more than that, as will be illustrated in the next and final article in this series, a giving community is also an evangelistic community: when the world looks in and sees that the needs of all Gods’ children are met they may say something like, “I want some of that” and so they may get saved and join the community of faith. Furthermore, the church is the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:12 ff.), if he will take care of us because we are his children and if we will not have need for God will fulfill that need, it is usually through his Church – his body, his arms extended – that this is accomplished. God’s promise to meet all of our needs is a very practical promise and indeed a commission to the Church to fulfill the heart of God by helping one another and those who need assistance.
So when we see a in our community a single mom of two small children struggling to make ends meet (read the next article), the body of Christ should help relieve her of some of the financial burden she faces as opposed to burdening her further by imposing an unbiblical law demanding that she give ten percent of her income every week.
TITHE: tithing damages the body of Christ, hinders the Spirit, fails to understand and live out the responsibility of the Church as Christ’ body, places misleading expectations on God, destroys the faith, hinders evangelism, closes the door on the world, has no defense in the scriptures and no place in the Church.
However: Giving as it is lived out in the New Testament facilitates a thriving and healthy body of Christ, allows the Spirit to work through the acts of generous believers, exemplifies the Church as Christ’ body and brings reality to the blessings which God promises to those of the faith, it proves the faith and facilitates more faith lived out in actions, promotes evangelism, extends a warm invitation to the world, is seen everywhere in the scriptures which highlight God’s heart for people in need and has every place in the Church!