“For if the readiness is there, it is acceptable according to what a person has, not according to what he does not have. For I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but that as a matter of fairness your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be fairness. As it is written, ‘Whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack.'” (ESV – Read the chapter)
Tithing is a big issue in most churches. While our power and sustaining comes from God, His provision most often comes via the money our members give. Sometimes that giving is generous. Sometimes it isn’t. (And the amount of the giving has little to do with the level of generosity it reflects.)
What all this means, is that churches need money to make ministry happen. That doesn’t sound terribly holy, but it’s no less true for that. That’s the nature of the world we live in, and while God isn’t limited to that, He tends to work within it more often than not. What this means further is that talking about giving is something all churches have to do on occasion.
Getting that talking right is tough. Some churches do it way too much and leave people feeling like all they really want them there for is to keep the bankroll going. Others talk about it hardly at all and uncomfortably so when they do. They can leave people feeling like their giving really doesn’t matter. Neither of these approaches is very good.
The other tough question in all of this is how we should tell people to be giving. The traditional approach has been to talking about tithing. A tithe literally means “a tenth,” and so by asking people to tithe, we are asking them to give ten percent of their income to the church.
And yet, as I’ve spent some time in the Scriptures on this idea, the concept of the tithe has become troubling to me. The first reason for this is that tithing can become an invitation into legalism. It can allow a person to develop the mindset that as long as he has given his ten percent to the church, what he does with the rest does not matter. This is obviously not true, but it happens all the time.
In this, tithing can become a religious ritual wherein we put in our effort and expect to get out a blessing. And unfortunately, some preachers make things worse by suggesting that if we tithe faithfully, God will automatically bless us materially. We give to Him, He gives back to us. In this way, though, God becomes like a sort of vending machine. We put in the right stimulus, we get out the desired reward. Now, this is not necessarily the case and many, many people have experienced a huge blessing from becoming faithful tithers. But, the potential for abuse and misunderstanding remains potent. I would suggest that it is not the tithing itself that gained these folks the blessings they enjoy, but rather their developing a heart of faithfulness and trust in the Lord that happened to work itself out through faithful tithing that did it.
The second tension I feel from tithing comes from the fact that the concept is mentioned almost exclusively in the Old Testament. Its mentions in the New are limited to Jesus blasting the Pharisees for falling into the very trap of legalism I just mentioned, and the writer of Hebrews using it as an example of how the new covenant is greater than the old. Now, I’m not one to draw a line of distinction between the two parts of the Scriptures. I believe there is a clear continuity from one part to the next in both the character of God and also the things He expects from His people. But, for this idea to not be commended directly even once in the New Testament strikes me as odd.
Furthermore, to use the Old Testament as our guide here is to put ourselves on somewhat shaky ground. For starters, the church’s relationship with God is not the same as Israel’s was. Thus, while we might share some practices in the abstract with them, in the details things are going to often be quite different. Added to this is the fact that Israel was expected to give more than one tithe. If you add these all together, they were expected to give about a third of their income to the Lord. Try that one out on your congregations sometime and see how quickly people make for the exits. But, since Israel was a theocracy, these tithes functioned a little like taxes do now. That’s not how giving to the church should work.
What I instead see throughout the New Testament and in particular in what Paul has to say to the Corinthian church, is a different principle. While giving ten percent of our income to the church is a fine thing to do, what the New Testament writers seem to suggest is the principle of sacrificial giving undergirded by a heart of trust in the Lord for our ongoing provision and sustenance.
The fact is, some folks can give ten percent without having to exercise any trust in the Lord. They could give a full third without missing a meal or skipping a bill. Demanding a tithe from these folks is silly and does nothing for them spiritually. For other folks, their income and their debt are such that ten percent is a pipe dream. A sacrificial gift from them might be only 5%, or even 1 %.
When we are stuck on the idea of the tithe, the first person can skate by without ever trusting in the Lord all the while feeling smugly confident at having done his religious duty, meanwhile, the second person is left feeling perpetually guilty for not measuring up and will usually finally just give up on the whole thing and walk away.
When we can train our people to think in terms of sacrificial generosity, though, things begin to change. Now, things become more open-ended to be sure, and the lack of firm boundaries can scare some folks. But, if we get this right, we unleash people to trust in the Lord and experience the blessings of sacrificial generosity in ways they have never known before. It takes a lot of training and practice for a church to get over the tithing hurdle to reach this place, but the results will be well worth it. When people are unleashed to be generous and given a compelling mission to propel them onward toward this end, the results can be pretty stunning as our national responses to various disasters like Harvey and Irma reveal.
This approach is harder and takes a lot more balance to get right. It requires us to step out in trust further than we’ve gone before. It demands we be honest with God and pursue a relationship with Him more intentionally than we perhaps have–especially when it comes to our finances–rather than relying on a formula to do things for us. But the end will be people who are freed from the control of their stuff and churches that are the recipients of the kind of generous giving that allows them to maximize their ministry output. Seems worth it to me.