There are few topics a minister can choose to speak on which will cause sour feelings quite like giving. No doubt, this is due to the overwhelming number of examples of abuses in churches through the decades. Still, giving is a biblical message and a necessary one for us. Therefore, there is tension. I heard a message this weekend at our church which, I think, really began to touch on quite a bit of the tension about giving in our churches. What was most impressive about the message was the minister’s challenge to our Western understanding about our own wealth and the need out in the world. That part of the message definitely got me thinking about some of the real issues behind preaching “tithing” in our churches.
I grew up in a tradition that was allergic to using the word “tithe.” We preached (I think correctly) that the problem with “tithing” in the church (“tithe” means to give 10% of your income) was two-fold:
- First, “tithing” is an Old Testament command and not carried over to the church (especially the Gentile church) in the New Testament.
- Second, “tithing” has a tendency to limit what people give to only 10%, when the New Testament asks people to be ready to give so much more.
Now, I’ll be honest. On the surface, I hold to these. They are correct. But folks who continue to preach tithing have tended to fall back on a couple of responses. They tend, either, to state that tithing is at least a “good place to start,” or they simply ignore such criticisms. And folks who, like me, still hold to my position have tended to respond back. But, I think, what has not really been done on the issue is to truly engage with the tension behind preaching tithing and/or giving in our context. I think the tension boils down to three contextual problems: the Old Testament Temple Cult, the use of giving in the New Testament, and the purpose of our giving in the American Church. In other words, the primary issue of teaching giving to us “New Testament Christians” in our contemporary Western world is that it is very difficult to match up the Old and New Testament contexts of giving and our own.
In other words, the question is, “What is the difference between the purpose of the Old Testament ‘tithe,’ the purpose of giving in the New Testament, and the purpose of our giving in the contemporary American church?” Once this question is answered, we can see our way through to determine how to apply the biblical teaching on giving.
1. First of all, and I don’t think this can be denied, tithing is an Old Testament issue. The Hebrews were commanded to give one tenth of their income in order to support the temple cult (arguably there were actually two other tithes which were sometimes used as well, but primarily this is what we’re dealing with). This means that what they gave was intended to be used to support the temple worship and sacrificial system for the entire nation of Israel.
When the prophet says in Malachi 3, “Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse,” (a passage rife with misuse in our churches to preach what I have sometimes referred to as “robbing God” theology completely out of context), God is challenging Israel to be faithful to the covenant he has with them. His covenant is that he will take care of Israel as long as she is faithful. Hence, the promise that, if Israel would only be faithful to the tithe, God would make sure that they were blessed beyond capacity.
To apply this, somehow to the Christian covenant (which does not include an injunction to give a certain amount so that we might be blessed financially) completely misses the point. Israel was not keeping up the temple, as was part of her mandate. God was, through the prophet, calling her out to maintain the temple and reminding them of his promise to take care of her.
Now, is there a point to be made here which can apply to the church today? Certainly. Perhaps it has to do with being faithful to the mandates that the church has in Christ in order that we might receive the promises of Christ. However, there cannot be a 1 to 1 correlation here. The New Testament Church is not to have a temple, much less a cumbersome temple cult. More on this later. But the bottom line is that proper exegesis requires asking “how is the context of the passage different from and / or the same as the context of the reader” prior to making application. In our case, the Old Testament tithe (not just giving ten percent, but the Old Testament injunction to give) simply is not applicable to the New Testament church.
2. Though the gospels do contain words about charitable giving or “giving to the poor” (which is, in praxis, very different from the offerings taken in church), commands about giving from the apostles to the New Testament church (in the sense that our churches collect offerings) are few and are very occasional (the word “occasional” here does not mean “every-so-often” but “having to do with a specific occasion”). In nearly every circumstance (I want to say “every” but I fear someone will remind me of one I do not remember, so I am saying “nearly every”), when the church is asked to give an offering, it has to do with collecting money to help Christians in some other area who are suffering. Paul’s request that the Corinthian Christians take an offering in 1 Corinthians 16 was for the Christians suffering in Jerusalem and 2 Corinthians 8-9 is about supporting the Macedonian Christians.
At the risk of belaboring the point, what might also be worth noting is that no “percentage” is provided for what ought to be given by each member of the church in these instances. What is said is only that they should decide what they are going to give and give it cheerfully. In fact, Paul’s pleading with them is to give sacrificially, with greater regard for the people receiving the money than with themselves—though the basic expectation is given by Paul stated: “Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”
There is, also, the example in Acts 2 and throughout, in which “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.” This attitude about money and possessions is, by far, a harder sell than “tithing” in our materialistic culture, and one which our minister this week addressed powerfully. This may explain the continued emphasis on tithing. That said, for the believers in Acts, these “offerings” were still about taking care of one another and those who suffer within the body.
One could probably make an argument that Paul’s approach toward whether ministers should be paid or not sets some precedent for taking offerings in the church. But, all of this said, there are some serious contextual tensions with applying the “offerings of the church” in the New Testament to the offerings we do in our churches today.
3. Our own ecclesiological context is far different from both the Old and New Testament contexts. First, as I mentioned earlier, the Gentile church does not have (or at least is not supposed to have) a temple cult. This means that there is also no biblical mandate for the Gentile churches to give a portion of their income (a tithe) to the maintaining of that temple cult.That said, the weekly offerings which we take in our churches are primarily used to build and maintain the physical property, pay ministry staff, and keep the “doors open” as it were. In this way, it may be that we have reestablished a “temple cult” of sorts, which is why it is so tempting and, perhaps, downright practical to fall back on preaching the “tithe.” I am, here, not being critical. Most churches also give generously to support other Christians, to do charitable work, and to support missions around the world. But, for the most part, the great bulk of these offerings is spent on the former and not the latter.
As I said, this is not a criticism. This may, very well, be exactly necessary in our context, though to what degree is very much in question. Though an argument may be made that many churches, in their endless pursuit of building greater “barns” and larger structures have, in fact, reinstituted their own sort of temple cult, I like to think that many churches are more like mine. We have only been with my current church a short time, but I have been impressed by their frugality and their wise usage of their current facilities. That said, personally, I am highly motivated that the church might continue giving, as my own livelihood depends on it.
However, neither of these contemporary contextual issues (lack of temple-cult and the building and maintaining of property and ministry staff) is really addressed in the Old or New Testament teachings on giving.
Hence, the tension. The church needs its members to give if it is going to maintain its ministry in the world in the manner it has chosen. However, since we have not got any teaching in the New Testament concerning how much to give and/or require to be given to support the church in this fashion and since the Old Testament tithe is about the temple cult which is simply not applicable to the New Testament church or our context, our ministers have had a very hard time seeing their way through.
The temptation, of course, is to either find scripture which may imply a “mandate” to give (such as the tithe) or to rely on promises that God will “reward” those who give sacrificially by providing them even more than they gave. The Pauline injunctions to give to support the suffering Christians are nearly always used and, very often, so is the aforementioned Malachi passage. Often churches interpret Paul’s words, “And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.” to imply that, if we will only give a certain amount of our money, we will be promised that God will give us more than we have been given (rather than that God will use what has been given to cause their work to abound). This, of course, begs the questions that “if God can do that, why would he need us to give it in the first place?” as well as “what about all those Christians who faithfully gave only to see themselves eaten by lions in the coliseum?” Are there contextual reasons to understand the “blessings” of giving in ways other than those peddled by the prosperity preachers?
Perhaps, the solution to the tension is to find a way to apply the spirit of the passages and abandon straightforward application. What do I mean?
Well, the point of the exegetical process is to read the biblical text in its own context in order to discern exactly what the writer wanted his readers to hear/think/do in their situation. The next step is to determine how our situation is similar and/or different to theirs. The third is to attempt to apply the message to our own context in a way that is true to both contexts. In other words, when the situations are different, we owe it to the text to take that into account.
It is the second piece of this which is most often skipped when applying biblical teaching on giving to our churches. We must ask, “what is different” and “what is the same” if we are going to move forward. What is different has already been addressed, briefly above. What is the same?
The similarity between our church giving and the church giving in the New Testament is that the church needs money to continue running! Therefore, it is up to the members of the church to give in order to maintain the church’s ministry.
However, this means we have an extra responsibility. Since our contextual situation is not the same as theirs, we must be very cautious in how we apply these passages. In other words, if our money is not being used in exactly the same context as the Old Testament tithe in support of the temple cult (which we are forbidden, I think, by Paul’s passionate refusal to apply Jewish laws to Gentile Christians) or the New Testament love offerings which were destined to be used to help starving Christians survive, I think, we walk a very dangerous line in attempting to use these passages to support giving in our context. We cannot so clumsily say, “see, we’re supposed to give a tenth” or “see, God wants us to share everything” when these are taken so very far out of context. When we are taking an offering to help Christians facing ISIS, perhaps we can ask people to sell their possessions. When it comes to the weekly offering for the light bill, we may need to be more cautious, lest we do violence to the text and to the body.
What if, instead of attempting to make easy application, churches attempted a more nuanced view? Note the tone of Paul’s words below:
Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. As it is written:
“They have freely scattered their gifts to the poor;
their righteousness endures forever.” 
When I read Paul asking the church for money (which, I think, we may say he does so carefully—always taking care to keep his own personal needs separate and with a view to what it costs the people who are giving), he asks them to give from their hearts what they have decided to give, and nothing more. There is no expectation of what that should be, except that it is decided by the individual giver. What Paul relies on is his ability to state the need and the importance of their gift so that, as with his pleading in his letter to Philemon, their gift might be “on the basis of love.”
Perhaps, then, it should be the church’s responsibility to ask people to give only what they have decided to give after citing what is needed and how the money will be used as passionately, truthfully, and earnestly as possible.
This, I think, is the proper way for the church to think about giving. It is true to our context and to that of the text. And it resolves, I think, the “tension of tithing” in our churches.
 The New International Version (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 2 Co 9:7.
 The New International Version (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), Ac 4:32.
 The New International Version (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 2 Co 9:8.
 The New International Version (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 2 Co 9:7–9.
 The New International Version (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), Phm 9.