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Giving To and Through the Church (Part 5)

[See Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4 in this series.]

Part 5: Another Controversial Topic About Giving to the Church

Unless I follow up on your comments and questions, this is my second-last post in this series on giving to and through the church. Some of you might be surprised that I’ve barely mentioned tithing yet. So, here we go!

But first, a brief review: In my first post I clarified my goals for this series and quoted two early Christian writings about giving (you may wish to review what they said about tithing). In my second and third posts I discussed three primary NT reasons for church giving: (1) to support needy local Christians, (2) to send relief to distant Christians, and (3) to support gospel proclaimers. And in my fourth post I discussed a controversial topic: church buildings and their expenses. On this last topic, we discovered that the normal NT pattern was for wealthier Christians to open up their homes to host church gatherings. When Christians needed more room, they met in public spaces, such as the Jerusalem temple or rented lecture halls.

Onwards to tithing. I will not attempt to summarize the range of current Christian beliefs and practices about this topic. I’m neither qualified nor particularly interested to do so. Rather, I want to present my own understanding of what the NT says on the matter, then invite your feedback.

The first thing to say about tithing in the NT is that the NT doesn’t say much about it. This is why I haven’t said much about it so far. To have featured it in my first post about church giving would not reflect the preoccupations of the NT writers as they wrote about giving.

We only have record of Jesus mentioning tithing twice:

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.” (Matt. 23:23; see parallel passage at Luke 11:42)

“The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’” (Luke 18:11-12)

These are the only times tithing is explicitly mentioned in the Gospels. The first instance is a command; the second is a description from a story. What should we make of these verses? Based on these verses, must Christians today tithe? I don’t think so.

Here’s why. Consider the first passage. First, Jesus is speaking to Jews. He is not speaking to Gentiles, nor even to Christian Jews. Second, Jesus bases his command on “the law,” that is, the Law of Moses. Under this Law, the Jewish tithe was designed in part to support the Jewish system of tabernacle and temple worship. Third, Jesus is speaking before his own death and resurrection which brought an end to temple worship, inaugurated the new covenant, and birthed the Christian church. So the audience, the rationale, and the timing all suggest the same thing: this command alone is not a good reason for commanding Christians to tithe.

The second passage contains a remarkable description (albeit a self-description) of a man who is truly outwardly righteous. He not only faithfully tithes according to his duty as a Jew, but he also keeps the “weightier matters of the law.” So here we have a description of a good Jew (though a self-righteous one). But we do not necessarily have a model for Christian imitation (that is found in the repentant tax collector). Or do you think we should also command all Christians to fast twice a week?

The only other place that tithing is explicitly mentioned in the NT is in the book of Hebrews, in the middle of a fascinating passage about Melchizedek:

For this Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God, met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings and blessed him, and to him Abraham apportioned a tenth part of everything… See how great this man was to whom Abraham the patriarch gave a tenth of the spoils! And those descendants of Levi who receive the priestly office have a commandment in the law to take tithes from the people, that is, from their brothers, though these also are descended from Abraham. But this man who does not have his descent from them received tithes from Abraham and blessed him who had the promises. It is beyond dispute that the inferior is blessed by the superior. In the one case tithes are received by mortal men, but in the other case, by one of whom it is testified that he lives. One might even say that Levi himself, who receives tithes, paid tithes through Abraham, for he was still in the loins of his ancestor when Melchizedek met him. (Heb. 7:1-2, 4-10)

What can we learn about tithing from this passage? First, it was an ancient practice that preceded the nation of Israel and the Law of Moses. Second, in the event described here, tithing was voluntary. Third, tithing under the Law of Moses was designed to support the Levitical priests. (It was also designed to support “the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow”; see Deut. 14:28-29.) Fourth, the Law of Moses with its ceremonies and commands is inferior to the New Melchizedek, Christ. This last point is the central point for the author of Hebrews. Immediately after the above passage we find this:

Now if perfection had been attainable through the Levitical priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further need would there have been for another priest to arise after the order of Melchizedek, rather than one named after the order of Aaron? For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well… For on the one hand, a former commandment is set aside because of its weakness and uselessness (for the law made nothing perfect); but on the other hand, a better hope is introduced, through which we draw near to God. (Heb. 7:11-12, 18-19)

Can you picture the author of Hebrews writing this and then turning around and insisting on tithing? “I know there’s been a change in the law, but be sure you keep the commands about tithing! I know the law is weak and useless, but you need to tithe or else you’re robbing God!” (“Robbing God,” of course, comes from what is probably the most famous passage on tithing: Malachi 3:8-10. I’m not discussing such OT verses here because I’ve already argued that Christians are not directly bound by such commands from the Law of Moses. If I had space, however, valid and valuable lessons could be drawn from such passages.)

There are plenty of places in the NT where tithing could have been mentioned if it is required of Christians. Why don’t we read of it in Acts 4 and 5, where the apostles distributed the gifts of the first Christians to needy believers? Why don’t we read of it in 1 Corinthians 9, where Paul emphasizes Christ’s command to support gospel proclaimers? Why don’t we read of it in 1 Timothy 5, which describes how the church maintained a list of needy widows to support? Why don’t we read of it in 1 Corinthians 16, where Paul urges believers to “put something aside” on a weekly basis toward giving?

In the longest passage about giving in the NT (2 Cor. 8-9), Paul pulls out all the stops as he tries to motivate the Corinthian church to give. Well, almost all the stops. He piles up stirring examples of generosity upon theological expositions about God’s “inexpressible gift,” upon borderline flattery of his readers, upon assurances of his own plans to handle donations with utmost transparency, upon psychological moves that will motivate his readers to avoid public shame, upon reminders of eternal rewards, upon assurances of God’s abundant provision, upon grand descriptions of how their giving will bring glory to God, upon… you get the picture. But there is one thing Paul does not do: “I say this not as a command” (1 Cor. 8:8).

Read 2 Corinthians 8 and 9 for yourself sometime. If you’re not motivated to give generously after you’re done, then commanding you to tithe certainly won’t help. If pondering “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ” (“though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor”) doesn’t move you to “excel in this act of grace” for yourself, then no amount of “compulsion” (2 Cor. 9:7) will produce any gospel fruit.

I’ve argued strongly that tithing is no longer commanded for NT saints. However, the NT does draw an implication from OT tithing for believers today. Remember that tithing was commanded under the Mosaic Law in order to support temple workers. Then remember that we, the Body of Christ, are now a new temple. Then return to 1 Corinthians 9 and consider Paul’s logic:

Do you not know that those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in the sacrificial offerings? In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel. (1 Cor. 9:13-14)

First, Paul mentions offerings and alludes to tithes, reminding us how these supported OT temple workers. Then Paul makes a comparison (“in the same way”), saying that gospel proclaimers today should receive similar support. Is this an implicit command for Christians to tithe in order to support their pastors? I don’t think so, given everything else we’ve considered. But I think Paul is saying this: NT gospel proclaimers are the temple workers of the new covenant, and they have just as much right to material support as what OT temple workers had.

So, if you want to fulfill the OT commands to tithe, give a generous gift to someone who has proclaimed the gospel to you! Or give something to an immigrant, an orphan, or a widow. And if you make a personal choice (as I normally have) to devote a certain percentage to give away systematically, go for it. Just don’t command others to give a certain percentage. And don’t assume that your personal choice to tithe fulfills your Christian duty—no, opportunity—to imitate the generosity of Christ.

What do you think? Have I caught the heartbeat of the NT regarding tithing? Share your thoughts and questions below!


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Giving To and Through the Church (Part 2)

[See Part 1 for the series introduction.]

Part 2: Two Primary New Testament Reasons for Giving to the Church

If someone asked you to list two primary reasons to give to your local church, what would you say? In this post I want to consider two reasons that appear early and often in the New Testament.

Let’s begin in Acts, where giving to the church begins almost as soon as the church itself begins:

Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. (Acts 4:32-35)

Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty.” (Acts 6:1-3)

Imagine you are Luke, who wrote these passages. Why did you write them? Why did you record the giving practices of the early Christians? What do you want us to learn about giving to and through the church from these passages?

(Bible scholars have valid debates about the extent to which the narrative passages of Acts provide a model for the church today. My thoughts: While NT commands usually carry more normative weight than NT stories, both need to be interpreted in their historical contexts and both should help guide us today. I think one of the reasons why Acts was written was to equip us to learn from the strengths and weaknesses of the Spirit-guided church in its dynamic infancy.)

At minimum, we can likely agree on the following observations from these Acts passages:

  • The early Christians did give to the church.
  • Their giving was a result of the unity and grace found in the gospel.
  • Church leaders received and distributed the money.
  • The church soon learned that some leaders should be appointed to oversee church giving programs so that other leaders were free to focus on preaching the word of God.
  • There was one initial purpose for the giving—to support needy local Christians.

This gives us our first reason for giving to the church: to support needy local Christians. If we, like the first believers, know unity and grace through the gospel, then we, too, will share with needy Christians in our local fellowships.

Here are some more passages that support this reason for giving to the church (hover over the references to read the verses): 1 Timothy 5:3, 9-10, 16 (about supporting widows), James 1:27; 2:15-16 (about caring for widows, orphans, and anyone lacking clothes or daily food), and 1 John 3:16-18 (about showing love by sharing goods with brothers in need). Some of these verses can be obeyed by direct, personal giving as well as by giving through the church, but all focus on giving to needy fellow Christians. And all match what was happening through the church giving described in Acts.

Can you think of another reason why early believers gave to the church? Here are more Scriptures, beginning again with Acts:

And one of them named Agabus stood up and foretold by the Spirit that there would be a great famine over all the world (this took place in the days of Claudius). So the disciples determined, every one according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea. And they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul. (Acts 11:28-30)

Now concerning the collection for the saints: as I directed the churches of Galatia, so you also are to do. On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come. And when I arrive, I will send those whom you accredit by letter to carry your gift to Jerusalem. (1 Cor. 16:1-3)

We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints. (2 Cor. 8:1-4)

These passages show a second primary reason for giving to the church: to send relief to distant Christians. This is an important theme in NT theology. Two different collections are described above, and local churches in four different cities or regions are mentioned as participating in the giving. The second collection (the one in the last two passages) actually involved additional churches, and it was a central purpose for Paul’s third missionary journey. Paul described the purpose of this gift in a letter to the church at Rome:

At present, however, I am going to Jerusalem bringing aid to the saints. For Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make some contribution for the poor among the saints at Jerusalem. For they were pleased to do it, and indeed they owe it to them. For if the Gentiles have come to share in their spiritual blessings, they ought also to be of service to them in material blessings. (Rom. 15:25-27)

This collection was important enough to Paul that he devoted two complete chapters to the topic in 2 Corinthians. (Of course, the chapter divisions weren’t created by Paul.) This is the longest single passage in the NT on the topic of giving. It includes these famous lines:

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich. ( 2 Cor. 8:9)

Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. (2 Cor. 9:6)

God loves a cheerful giver. (2 Cor. 9:7)

Paul ends this passage with an amazing crescendo of theology, practice, and doxology (truth, deeds, and praise):

You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God. For the ministry of this service is not only supplying the needs of the saints but is also overflowing in many thanksgivings to God. By their approval of this service, they will glorify God because of your submission that comes from your confession of the gospel of Christ, and the generosity of your contribution for them and for all others, while they long for you and pray for you, because of the surpassing grace of God upon you. Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift! (2 Cor. 9:11-15)

So there you have it—two primary NT reasons for giving to and through your local church: (1) to support needy local Christians and (2) to send relief to distant Christians. These are the reasons found in the first NT passage describing church giving and in the longest NT passage about giving.

How are these reasons reflected in your church? Is a large portion of your church’s offerings devoted to caring for the physical needs of Christians near and far? Does this focus on physical needs surprise you? Does your church see such giving as a basic expression of the gospel? What are some ways our churches could grow in these kinds of giving? And what do you think will be the third primary NT reason I’ll observe for giving to and through the church?

Share your responses and questions below!


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