With the ferocity for which it is argued, it is not difficult to surmise that the matter of Christian Giving is not a light one. And more often than not, when the subject is brought up in Christian circles, Christian Giving is synonymous with the tithe, i.e. ten percent of one’s pre-taxed income given to one’s local church. It is a principle that has been with many churches for a long time, and as such it has been one that has become foundational and nearly irrefutable. Many churches have been so enamored with the tithe that it has become to them as unquestionable as the deity of Christ, his virgin birth, the Trinity, etc. Therefore, when questions are raised which offer the slightest hint of opposition to the antiquated ordinance, the church arms itself as it would against heresy and casts the labels of rebellious and liberal upon those who would seek to understand Christian Giving in a different manner.
And as such, it matters very little that opposition against the principle of the tithe is brought with the desire for biblical fidelity, for it is to them foundational and irrefutable. Therefore, for those who seek to establish a biblical pattern of Christian Giving with their own lives that is not necessarily opposed to tithing (that is, not opposed to tithing for the sake of being opposed to tithing without Scriptural warrant) but is desirous to live lives that accord with God’s Word in all matters of life including giving, the battle is for them an uphill one. For it is not (in many cases) a matter of “Let us search the Scriptures for understanding,” but it is rather a matter of “Why do you break the traditions of the elders?” And as such, one might quote and discern Scripture till he blue is in the face, and yet he will gain little ground in the battle for common understanding.
Therefore, one may wonder whether it is profitable to question the present understanding of Christian Giving at all granting that it will be undoubtedly met with such fierce opposition. For what ground can be gained against a doctrine that is so entrenched in the minds and hearts of the church that it is defended with such fervor? And, if there is ground and progress to be had, what edification, if any, is there that would be profitable enough to justify rifting the status quo and the relative peace on the matter?
For the answers to these questions and others, it would be helpful first to understand the purpose behind Christian Giving and secondly to understand the manner prescribed in Scripture for its fulfillment. For I am convinced that latter bears a great weight upon the former, and by understanding the reason for our giving as Christians we will better understand why certain means and methods should be accepted and why others should be rejected.
The Purpose behind Christian Giving
On the purpose behind Christian Giving, perhaps the best discourse in Holy Scripture is given by the apostle Paul to the Corinthian church. In his second letter to the church, he admonishes them to give, not for the sake of paying the wages of the apostles or for paying the electric bill of the local synagogue, but it was for the sake of supplying the basic needs of their brothers and sisters in Christ. We know this is the heart of the apostle, for in an earlier discourse he declares that it is the right of the apostle and the laborer of God to be compensated for his spiritual work, and yet for their sakes and for their understanding, the apostle relinquished his rights and his due compensation so that he might not lay any obstacle in the way of the Gospel (cf. 1Cor. 9:8-18).
However, though the apostle relinquishes what is due to him for his faithful service, he by no means exempts the church from giving. Quite the contrary, at the beginning of his discourse in his second letter to them, he gives to them an unsurpassable model of giving in the Macedonians. There he writes:
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 (2Cor. 8:1-4).
Now to understand the model of giving given by the apostle to the Corinthian church, we must understand the context in which it was done. First, we must understand who the beneficiary of the Macedonian giving was. The apostle Paul, as is recounted in the book of Acts, was busy collecting aide for the saints in Jerusalem who had suffered great hardship by virtue of being in Jerusalem. Therefore, the saints in Macedonia gave, not for the express benefit of their local congregations, but for the benefit of their brothers and sisters who lived in another province. To put it another way, they did not see their material duty as bound to their brothers who lived among them, but they saw that it was their duty to aid the church universal. All who were in Christ were their brothers (despite their nationality), and they earnestly sought to aid their brothers in any way that they could.
Secondly, we must understand the extent of the Macedonian giving. The apostle Paul recounts to the Corinthian church that the Macedonians not only gave according to their means (meaning that they were giving whatever they could without jeopardizing their own livelihood), but they gave beyond their means. Now, we are not given the manner by which the Macedonians altered their lives so that they could give beyond their means for the sake of their foreign brethren, but we do know this–that they willingly subjected themselves to “a severe test of affliction” and to “extreme poverty.” The Macedonians, bound only by their love for their fellow saints, gave and gave to the point that they had to beg the apostle Paul to take more from them.
Thirdly, we must understand the result of their giving. Apart from the obvious benefit to the impoverished saints in Jerusalem, the Macedonians themselves received a more blessed gift, namely grace. This grace given to them by God (cf. v. 8:1) did indeed result in the exhausting of their material wealth and comfort, but much more than that it resulted in their “extreme joy” (cf. v. 8:2). From their extreme poverty burgeoned a “wealth of generosity” so that they who lacked wealth “abounded in joy.” No, they did not retain their Xboxes or their Cable TV or their meals at Outback Steakhouse, but, in return for their great sacrifice, God was pleased to give them a joy that surpasses all material and fleshly pleasure. The result of their sacrifice is nothing short of ironic to the fleshly minded, but its result in reality is nothing short of Kingdom of God (cf. Mark 12:29-34).
Enter the Tithe
When placed against the instructional example of the Macedonians, the tithe seems nonsensical. For the Macedonians did not sit back with their W-2s and calculators and calculate the ten percent which they thought they owed, but they not only gave one hundred percent of what they were able to give, but (to use bad mathematics) they gave one hundred and ten percent. The Macedonians did not see themselves as bound to an statute of giving given to the Israelites under the Old Covenant (which after multiple tithes given at different intervals came closer to twenty-three percent of their income), but they saw themselves as bound to the law of Christ. And what was this law but that they should love their Lord with all their soul and that they love their neighbor as themselves? And since they did indeed love the saints in Jerusalem as themselves (and, arguably, more than themselves), they did what the rich young ruler could not do, namely sell all of his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor (cf. Mt. 19:16-30). By living thus, the Macedonians were assured that God had pulled them through the gates of Heaven–a feat which is much more difficult than pulling a camel through the eye of a needle.
The Yoke and the Ease of the Tithe
Despite this clear example given by the apostle Paul in the Macedonians and despite the absolute lack of command given to the church to practice tithing, we in the church today are still bound to this statute given to national Israel under the Old Covenant. And though we forego the restrictions of the Old Covenant on the foods that we eat and the commandments given concerning animal sacrifices, we yet cling to this command given to those who did not eat pork and who slaughtered animals day after day and night after night. Why is this? Whether it be tradition, tangibility, lack of understanding, or the perpetuity of poor teaching, the fact remains that we who are in Christ are clearly called to a different standard than that which was given to national Israel. And though it can be certainly argued that the Israelites were instructed as we are to aid the poor and the unfortunate, the fact remains that the tithe is not the only relic that remains to the church from the Old Covenant with the House of Israel.
Some in the church have recognized this from Scripture, and yet they continue to teach tithing propagating it as a “good starting place.” But is it indeed a good starting place? For what has the law to do with the recipients of the Gospel? Is the slaughter of lambs a good starting place for the slaughter of the Son of God? Are the chains of clean animals a good starting place for the freedom afforded in Christ? Is the rebuilding of the temple of a good starting place for coming to Christ? By no means! For what business have we running to shadows when we have already been granted the Reality? By trading the Law of Christ in loving our brothers for the law of the tithe, are we any better off?
Furthermore, the institution of the tithe has been to some in the church an unnecessary burden and to others an escape from duty. For the apostle writes concerning the end for which we are to give, saying:
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” (2Cor. 8:13-15).
In other words, our giving is to be so that there is an equilibrium among the saints. For God has ordained that while some have lack, others will have an abundance so that they might be as their Father in Heaven by giving generously to the aide of those who have lack. Likewise, when the tables turn, those who were in need who then receive wealth can give it in turn to others who have need. By living thus, we demonstrate to the world that we love one another and thus declare the Gospel of our Lord to them by our good deeds.
The institution of the tithe, however, works against this purpose of our Lord, for instead of each giving according to his ability and receiving according to his need, each member is demanded to give a fixed percentage of his income to a local congregation. To some, this requirement is a terrible burden for they need much, and they, instead of receiving from those who have an abundance, are forced to give when they should receive. Contrarily to those who have much, the tithe is a light burden, and they give it while they bask in the ninety-percent that remains “theirs” believing that they have somehow given their due. While the poor among them remain poor, they continue in their “American Dream” lifestyles, looking much more like the world than like their Father in Heaven who gives out of his abundance.
Anti-Tithing: The Call to American Christians
The reality remains that to us who live in America who call ourselves “Christians,” we are all, comparatively speaking, wealthy. When we look at the rest of the world and the extreme poverty that is there, even us who are “impoverished” in this country are rich. When we consider that there are thousands, nay millions of our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world who are starving and persecuted, why are we so content to hide behind a law of giving misapplied from the Old Covenant? Are we so unlike the Macedonians who saw not the local church but the church universal and loved that church after the manner which their Savior loved them? Are we so concerned about our own comfort and well-being that we are willing to neglect the tears of our brothers and sisters with empty stomachs and unclothed bodies?
The tithe, my dear brothers and sisters, will not fulfill the Law of Christ. Until God has written that Law upon our hearts and has given us his heart concerning the afflicted, the oppressed, and the impoverished among us and abroad, we shall never understand Christian Giving and the Extreme Joy of the Macedonians. May God give to us the same grace which he bestowed upon them so that we might love our brothers and sisters and might receive that Joy which surpasses all fleshly comfort. Amen.