New Testament principles of giving

Our last Taking Root study explored the issue of tithing. We saw that tithing as a mandatory requirement is tied specifically to the Old Covenant Law. Since we aren’t under the Law of Moses, tithing as an obligatory standard doesn’t apply to us any more than dietary laws or laws on the Sabbath. (For more on tithing, see Are Christians supposed to tithe?) So we discussed the obligations that don’t apply to New Covenant believers in Christ, but we didn’t spend any time looking at how we should be giving. This is our focus this week.

Being a steward
To talk about how we give as Christians, we need to begin with the idea of a “steward.” Even if this isn’t a word you commonly use, we’re all familiar with the concept. Let’s say you own a business, and you hire me to run it for you. This doesn’t mean the business is mine to do with whatever I please. You are entrusting it to me so that I’ll run it the same way you would if you were there. It’s not my business, I’m just overseeing it in your place. I’m a steward of what belongs to you.

This is a key concept in the New Testament. Everything we have has been entrusted to us by God. Our gifts and skills come to us from God, and we’re responsible to use them in a way that’s pleasing to him. Our children don’t really belong to us, God entrusts them to us for a period of time. Even our very lives have been entrusted to us by God for a purpose:

You do not belong to yourself, for God bought you with a high price.

1 Corinthians 6:19-20

To see a good example of financial stewardship we can look at the parable of the three servants in Matthew 25:14-30.

[A man] called together his servants and entrusted his money to them while he was gone.

Later, we’re told:

After a long time their master returned from his trip and called them to give an account of how they had used his money.

Notice the money was still the man’s, and they were responsible for stewarding the money that he had entrusted to them in a way that would be pleasing to their master. To those who did this well, the master said:

Well done, my good and faithful servant. You have been faithful in handling this small amount, so now I will give you many more responsibilities. Let’s celebrate together!

Sometimes, we get the idea that we give 10% of our income to God—and then the rest is ours to do with as we please. But this isn’t a biblical attitude. Everything we have is entrusted to us by God, and we’re responsible to him for how we use all of it. This doesn’t mean we have to donate every cent to some Christian cause. Taking care of our regular needs, investing for the future, and even recreation and entertainment can all be legitimate uses of money according to Scripture. But we should make sure we’re not using the resources God has entrusted to us to do anything that would be displeasing to him. And we need to always remember that everything we have—and we ourselves—belong to him.

Giving voluntarily
In contrast to the Old Covenant law of tithing, the New Testament never gives us a required amount we must contribute. Instead, we’re told:

You must each decide in your heart how much to give. And don’t give reluctantly or in response to pressure. “For God loves a person who gives cheerfully.”

2 Corinthians 9:7 

How much should you give? This is between you and God. You shouldn’t let anyone else pressure you to give a certain amount or percentage. And we also shouldn’t be applying pressure to anyone so they’ll give—no matter how subtle we try to be. Those of you who were in the adult study this Sunday, heard Clif Armstrong teach on some of these principles. You’ll also recall the story he told about the church leader who called out during a service: “All of you who are going to give $1,000.00, come up front. Now all of you who are going to give $500.00,” etc. We don’t want anyone to give because we pressure them. This is why we make our offering time as low-key as we can, and why we never have things like giant thermometers at the front to show how much the church has given toward a certain project. Just as with other forms of Christian service, financial giving needs to be prompted by the Holy Spirit—not us.

This also means we need to be careful not to establish an extra-biblical standard of giving for others. Just because giving 10% has worked really well for me, and I happen to think it would be beneficial for all Christians, this doesn’t give me the authority to establish another law or standard for other believers. I may feel that getting up at 3:30 am and praying for 3 hours every day is a wonderful thing to do (this is a hypothetical example; I don’t actually do this), and maybe it is a perfect model for me personally. But this doesn’t mean I should be urging everyone else to do the exact same thing. Some practices God leaves up to our individual consciences—between us and God; how much New Testament believers should give is one of these practices. Don’t try to take the place of the Holy Spirit toward your brothers and sisters.

Notice that God especially loves it when we give cheerfully. This makes sense doesn’t it? Would you enjoy receiving a gift if you had to pressure someone to give to you? What if they did give, but they gave grudgingly, wishing they didn’t have to? That ruins the gift for both of you, doesn’t it? You’d just as soon give that kind of “gift” right back! We need to give to God out of a deep sense of gratitude for what he’s given us, and out of love toward those who need our help. But we can’t try to regulate this process; gifts must come voluntarily from a willing heart.

Giving proportionately
While we don’t presume to set a percentage or amount for each other, the New Testament does teach us a general principle that we should give in proportion to what God has given us.

Give in proportion to what you have. Whatever you give is acceptable, if you give it eagerly. And give according to what you have, not what you don’t have.

2 Corinthians 8:11-12 

Did you see that we’re supposed to give according to what we have, not what we don’t have? This should challenge those who pressure other Christians to give even when they don’t have food on the table or gas in the car. It also shows this isn’t a matter of giving to God in order to get even more back from him. God isn’t some kind of Ponzi scheme. He doesn’t promise to give us a certain return on our investment. He blesses us, and we give in response and gratitude to his blessing. This doesn’t mean God may not at times direct us to give even though we don’t have enough money for our obligations—but this kind of extraordinary calling must come directly from God, not us.

At this point, some of you may be thinking, ‘Well, is 10% a good proportion of my income?’ And the answer is, ‘maybe.’ You need to prayerfully consider your own situation and see what God puts on your heart. 10% can be a great place to start for many of us. Some will be able to go on and give a higher percentage if God leads them to do that. RG LeTourneau is well-known for reaching the point that he could give 90% of his income and live off the other 10%. Some can’t give 10% right away, so they begin with $20 a week, or $10, or $5. I can’t tell you what dollar amount or percentage is right for you. You need to pray and see how God directs you.

Don’t forget that, whatever proportion we decide on, we need to give willingly and cheerfully. I heard of a man who was making $200 a week. He figured 10% was $20 and, though it hurt, he could commit to that. As time went by, he moved up the ranks in his company and received pay raises, and he continued to faithfully contribute 10% of his income. The man became very successful, now making closer to $2,500.00 each week. 10% of $2,500.00 was a lot of money, and he began to feel uneasy about giving so much each week. He went to one of his pastors to talk to him about the problem. He explained his whole history of giving, and the pastor said the solution was simple. Since giving his committed 10% was difficult for him now, but was something he was able to do when he was only making $200 a week, they could just pray together that God would reduce his income down to the point where he could give again!

Sometimes the more God blesses us, the more challenging proportional giving can be. This is because the more money we have, the more opportunities we have for acquiring possessions and experiences. And the more we get, usually the more we want. What seemed like an incredible luxury to me yesterday, is now an essential that I think I can’t live without. As the passage reads that Clif taught from Sunday:

Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be.

Luke 12:34 

Proportional giving provides us with a regular check on the desires of our hearts, to make sure we’re not slipping into greed and hypocrisy (as the Pharisees were in Luke 12).

Giving sacrificially
There is a consistent theme of self-sacrifice running throughout the New Testament. Obviously the perfect example of sacrificing oneself is Jesus. John 3:16 is the classic verse that many of us learned as children:

For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.

And while this is speaking more of the Father giving the Son, in John 10:18, Jesus said:

No one can take my life from me. I sacrifice it voluntarily. For I have the authority to lay it down when I want to and also to take it up again.

But while many know John 3:16 by heart, not as many are immediately familiar with
1 John 3:16:

We know what real love is because Jesus laid down his life for us. So we also ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.

Scripture calls us to show our love for God and each other by giving our time and energy, and by giving financially. The healthy, biblical Christian life includes both kinds of giving. This doesn’t mean we should make ourselves guilty if we’re not giving away everything we have (either time or money). Notice again the instructions in 2 Corinthians 8:12-14:

And give according to what you have, not what you don’t have. Of course, I don’t mean your giving should make life easy for others and hard for yourselves. I only mean that there should be some equality. Right now you have plenty and can help those who are in need. Later, they will have plenty and can share with you when you need it. In this way, things will be equal.

These are a few biblical principles teaching us how believers should give. But the underlying principle we see everywhere in the New Testament is that we are to be like Christ. Sometimes our giving will cost us something. It will be a sacrifice. It was for Jesus, wasn’t it? Love, generosity and self-sacrifice should characterize our lives. As we freely receive all good things from God, so we should freely give in heartfelt, grateful response.

Are Christians supposed to tithe?

I can still remember the hair standing up on the back of my neck. I was sitting next to my father, listening to the pastor during a Sunday evening service. He had just finished reading Malachi 3:8-10 from the King James Version:

Will a man rob God? Yet ye have robbed me. But ye say, Wherein have we robbed thee? In tithes and offerings. Ye are cursed with a curse: for ye have robbed me, even this whole nation. Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in mine house, and prove me now herewith, saith the LORD of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it.

The look in the pastor’s eye told us that he was deadly serious. Do you want to be guilty of robbing God? Absolutely not! I don’t know what kind of effect he was having on the rest of the congregation, but I was one ten-year-old kid who was going to make sure he faithfully brought his 10% into the storehouse—whatever that was.

Next to the topic of prayer, most of the questions I’ve received since beginning our Taking Root emails have been regarding tithing. Are New Testament believers supposed to—according to Scripture—give 10% of their incomes to their churches? This is a question that requires us to explore some of the historical background and biblical context to really understand what we’re talking about.

What does “tithe” mean?
It’s not uncommon to hear people say that they tithe 5% of their income, or 20%.  While having a planned approach to how you give can be a good thing, this isn’t really a “tithe” the way the Bible uses the word. The word translated tithe in Scripture means “tenth.” So if we want to speak of the biblical idea of tithing, we’re talking about giving 10%.

Early examples of tithing
The first time we see tithing in the Bible is in the 14th chapter of Genesis. Abram’s nephew Lot had been living in the city of Sodom. Enemies had wiped out Sodom’s army, plundered their city and taken captives as slaves, including Lot and his family. God enabled Abram to overtake and defeat the enemies of Sodom, and to recover the captives and plunder. The king of Sodom offers all of the loot to Abram, but he refuses. He takes only food for his men to eat, a share for his allies, and he gives a tenth of all the goods to Melchizedek, who is described as the king of Salem and priest of God Most High.

We should first notice that Abram wasn’t giving a tithe of his own goods, but of the recovered plunder belonging to the city of Sodom. Was this tithe a one-time event, or a regular practice for Abram? We have no way of knowing from the text. And it also seems that Abram’s gift is voluntary, not in response to a command from God. So this story only tells us what happened in this one occasion, doesn’t show a command from God concerning tithing, and doesn’t even have to do with Abram’s personal possessions. This shows us an early example of someone voluntarily giving 10% but not much else.

The next example of tithing is found in Genesis 28. Jacob was on his way back to his own people to find a suitable wife. One night, in a dream, he sees a stairway going up to heaven, angels going up and down the stairway, and he sees God. Overwhelmed, the next morning Jacob vows that if God will be with him and protect him on his journey, provide him with food and clothing, and return him safely to his father’s home, then he would give back to God a tenth of everything that God gives him. The way this vow is emphasized in the story, it seems that tithing was not a normal practice at this time. (Notice that Jacob had not been tithing prior to having this dream of God.) And again, the tithing is voluntary, not in response to divine instruction regarding tithing.

Some have stressed that these examples come before the Mosaic Law, and this is true. But there is nothing in these passages instructing God’s people to tithe, or even showing that the people of God regularly tithed at that time. We don’t want to base a command to believers on unclear examples from narrative accounts. That’s not a proper use of Scripture. (Actually, there’s a clearer pattern in Genesis of returning to one’s own people to acquire a wife—but I don’t know of anyone suggesting this as a model we should follow today!) We can choose to emulate Abram and Jacob in their voluntary tithing, but this would be a personal choice, not a biblical command. For clear instructions on tithing we need to look to the Old Covenant Law.

Tithing under the Old Covenant
Many Christians have an idea the people of Israel regularly gave 10% of their income to God. This isn’t entirely accurate. There are actually three different tithes the Israelites were to observe:

Levitical tithe
Because the tribe of Levi was to be dedicated to serving the Lord and his temple, they were not allotted any land among the other tribes. Instead of actual land, the other Israelites were to bring a tithe of everything the land produced for the Levites (see Numbers 18:20-21). This would have included meat, crops and wine.

Celebration tithe
The people were to set aside another tithe of all their crops—grains, olive oil, wine, and the firstborn males of all their flocks and herds, bring this tithe to a designated place of worship, and “Then feast there in the presence of the Lord your God and celebrate with your household” (Deuteronomy 14:22-27). This tithe was set aside for a big feast! Eating, drinking and celebrating as a form of worship to God. What an idea! But don’t laugh this off as just an excuse for a big party. This was a sacred obligation, and the people still had to set aside this additional tithe for this annual celebration.

Charity tithe
Every third year, the people were to collect another tithe for the care of Levites, orphans, widows and foreigners living among them. (See Deuteronomy 14:28-29.)

So, rather than 10%, the combination of different tithes actually equals an annual 23.3%. This was essentially the early tax system for the nation of Israel to support their national priestly tribe and their poor. A couple of other things worth noting: The people didn’t give money; they gave a tithe of their crops and herds. These tithes weren’t voluntary as was the case with Abram and Jacob; they were mandated by Law. So the Old Testament idea of tithing looks very different from the traditional concept most of us have been taught.

Are we supposed to follow the Old Covenant practice of tithing today?
After seeing what the Old Covenant practice of tithing entails, most of us would respond: “How can we?” Are we supposed to all acquire fields and herds so we can set aside a tithe of our produce and bring it once a year to the, um, temple so that the . . . Levites can have food and wine? And should Christians today set aside another 10% of their crops and herds to gather with the people of Israel in a designated place and celebrate together? (If we’re worried the Malachi passage above is warning us not to rob God, then this is what we need to start doing because this is what the passage is talking about.)

Some who are reading this right now are thinking of ways to apply these ideas to the church, but be careful. We can’t change the Law that God gave to the people of Israel. It is very specific about the nature of these tithes, what was to be set aside and how it was to be distributed. We don’t have the right to alter these commands. But are these commands given to us?

To whom was this law given? To the nation of Israel. Are we part of the nation of Israel? No, we’re not. We still study the Old Covenant because it teaches us about God, how he interacted with his people, and how his grand plan developed in the Old Testament period. But the Old Covenant isn’t our covenant. We are part of the New Covenant people of God. Christ accomplished the purpose of the Old Covenant law (Matthew 5:17) and superseded it (Galatians 3:19-25; Hebrews 7-10). We are no longer under the Old Covenant Law of Moses, but the New Covenant Law of Christ (1 Corinthians 9:19-21; Matthew 22:34-40).

In the New Testament, Jesus and the apostles affirm the unchanging moral requirements of God (not worshiping other gods, not murdering, not committing adultery, etc.). But the legal requirements that were peculiar to the nation of Israel are now obsolete (keeping the Sabbath, dietary laws, etc.).

The life of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels is a time of transition, when the Old Covenant is coming to an end and the people are being prepared for the New Covenant. The New Covenant isn’t actually established until Jesus’ death on the cross (Luke 22:20). This is why, though Jesus seems to go out of his way to flaunt the traditions of the Jewish leaders, he never violates the Old Covenant law itself during his earthly ministry. We have to understand that his teaching to the Jewish people is still in an Old Covenant context. If we don’t realize this, we’ll misinterpret many passages.

This explains why Jesus would give instruction on offering one’s sacrifice at the Temple altar (Matthew 5:23-24), why he would tell those whom he had healed of leprosy to go show themselves to the priests (Luke 17:14), and why he would tell the people to listen to the Pharisees because they ‘sit in the seat of Moses’ (Matthew 23:1-4). This also sheds light on Jesus’ comment to the Pharisees that it was good for them to carefully tithe, but that they should be more focused on the weightier matters of justice and loving God. We have to remember he was speaking to people still under the Law of Moses.

But beginning with Acts and throughout the letters to the churches, we don’t find even a hint of tithing as a practice of the New Testament churches. It seems clear that mandatory tithing was an Old Testament requirement for the nation of Israel that is not affirmed as a requirement for the New Testament church. Instead, the principle seems to be, as expressed by Paul in 2 Corinthians 9:7:

You must each decide in your heart how much to give. And don’t give reluctantly or in response to pressure. “For God loves a person who gives cheerfully.”

So is tithing wrong?
There’s nothing at all wrong with setting aside 10% of your income to give back to God. But it’s simply not biblical for us to teach that Christians must meet this requirement. Our monetary-based system is very different from the agrarian society of the Old Testament. Some believers today are not able to contribute 10%, and many others could be giving much more. Giving is a scriptural mandate, but it’s between the individual believer and God how much they should give. If we try to suggest a standard that all Christians must meet, we’re reestablishing the law for our brothers and sisters, and this is something we are not to do.

What of the common instruction to give to God first, before anything else, whether you’re in debt or not? I know many of you have amazing stories of how you committed to give a certain amount or percentage of your income to God and how he blessed you by meeting your needs. I’ve also heard stories from some of you how you honored your commitment to God, took money that was needed to pay bills and gave it to the church, and suffered serious consequences when the funds you needed didn’t miraculously appear. We need to be careful not to base our practices—or our urging of others to follow these practices—on anecdotes or even our own experiences, but on the clear teaching of the Word.

As a general principle, I would suggest that if you’re past due on money owed to someone else, then this is no longer your money to freely offer to God. It already legitimately belongs to someone else. Is God honored if we steal money from our landlord to give to him? Of course, if God has somehow, clearly directed you to contribute the money anyway, then he will provide the funds needed to pay your debts.

I realize this has been somewhat technical this week. I’ve tried to make it as painless as possible! We’ve discussed the intricacies of the Old Covenant practice of tithing, but we haven’t really looked at how we should give as Christians. There’s a lot more to discuss so, next week, we’ll look at New Testament principles of giving.

Related posts:

New Testament principles of giving

Should Christians obey the Ten Commandments?: Christians and the Old Testament law