Christian Giving in the 21st Century
Tithing (‘giving’ the first tenth of one’s income to God) is a principle, not a law, based in the Old Testament and mentioned by Jesus (Matthew 23:23). It is not a salvation issue, nor should it be a rule and requirement for participation in church activities. But as followers of Jesus committed to the local church we are called by Jesus to a life of radical generosity. Giving is a joy, not a compulsion (2 Cor 9:7), and is an exercise in trusting the God who provides for us.
“Everything we have is given to us from God and we are expected to give out of what he has given us”
Malachi 3 is the Old Testament passage which is most often used to promote tithing. It speaks of a situation where God said the people were robbing him when they refused to bring the full tithe into the storehouse (Malachi 3:8-9). To say that our requirement for giving is therefore 10% of our income, and that God will respond by ‘blessing us’ financially is poor interpretation of the Bible and the basis of the ‘prosperity gospel’ in some church circles. However we still find a principle here which should not be discarded - that everything we have is given to us from God and we are expected to give out of what he has given us. Jesus himself cautioned us against storing up earthly wealth (Luke 12:13-21) and challenged us to be wise stewards (managers) of what we’ve been given (Matthew 25:14-28).
Tithing occurred at other times earlier in the Old Testament (eg. Abraham, Jacob) and the principle of the first portion (not only of our money) belonging to God runs throughout the scriptures (Ex 13:1-2, Ex 23:19, Deut 18:4, Prov 3:9-10). For centuries God seems to have been teaching his people to trust him as their provider in this way - give or sacrifice the first portion to him, and trust him to provide the rest. In this way, Christian giving can be not just a joy, but an act of worship (sacrifice) and trust, because we place God first in our financial lives, and trust him with the rest.
Trusting God with the first 10% and living off the 90%, or even less, is not a ‘play-it-safe’ exercise, it’s more like a trust fall. It helps us combat false images of God, idols and lies such as “God is not really trustworthy”, “God helps those who help themselves”, “it’s so expensive to live and to retire”, “I’ll never be able to retire”, “I want to leave an inheritance for my kids”, “I find it more life giving to build a nicer home” etc. Furthermore, God knows that when we begin giving, it will start a process by which our hearts begin to change. This is why God asked the Israelites to tithe in Malachi; their hearts needed to be turned from trust in the produce of the soil to trust in the God who provides.
“Tithing is not a ‘play-it-safe’ exercise, it’s more like a trust fall”
In Jesus time, some Pharisees had turned tithing into a rigid and ridiculous rule, even setting aside a tenth of their herbs and spices for God. Jesus does not dismiss tithing as a principle altogether, rather he affirms it while pointing out that justice, mercy and faithfulness should not be neglected (Matthew 23:23). Jesus never threw out laws and principles which were taught in the Old Testament. Instead he set even higher standards than the Old Testament did because righteousness was now attained through him alone, and we could live in obedience to God out of gratitude, rather than meeting requirements of law. For example, not just ‘don’t kill’ but ‘don’t even hate’, not just ‘don’t commit adultery’ but ‘don’t even lust’. Don’t just tithe but give everything, (c.f. rich young ruler - Matt 19, Mark 10, and ‘follow me’).
In relation to finances, this is one reason why living off the 90% is good place to start. Christians should be encouraged to give extravagantly as an expression of their new life in Christ. God has not only given us every material thing, but eternal life - the greatest gift of all. Our response is to gladly give in response to this greatest of all gifts.
Should what Christians give, especially the tithe, be given to the local church? Unfortunately the argument of some is based on the desire for a new building, more staff or a bigger sound system. Whilst many have argued on a biblical basis that the ‘storehouse’ in Malachi is a picture of the New Testament church (and therefore the tithe is to the local church), this isn’t black and white. What we know is that the local church - God’s people (Christ’s body under Christ’s headship) - is God’s primary plan for his mission to be accomplished and has been since Jesus rose and established it. It is also constantly supporting and giving birth to para-church organisations and individual missionaries who carry out God’s mission. This is why Christians should be encouraged to give to their local church, as well as other organisations and individuals as they are prompted. With a spirit of New Testament radical generosity - giving above the tithe (15, 20, 30 even 50%) - Christians will likely at least tithe to the local church and give beyond the tithe elsewhere. It is up to the individual and the family to seek the Holy Spirit’s guidance on where to give. However, this doesn’t include ‘giving’ to the local Christian bookstore in exchange for Christians books and CD’s…
“God has not only given us every material thing, but eternal life - the greatest gift of all.”
We as disciples of Jesus must realise that tithing and giving is a blessing and not a burden. We need to hear and share stories of joy and peace from those who have chosen to trust God with the first portion of their income. If we do this, we will find that the principles of passages like Malachi 3 are true in the lives of people today - God blesses those who, with the right motive, choose to live off the 90% or less and gladly give to God because he has given everything to us.
Prepared for The Billabong Uniting Church by Rev. Luke Williams, July 2014