A Brief Theology of Giving
Unfortunately, in many churches there is little or no teaching about giving. Pastors are often reluctant to preach on the topic. Congregations often perceive such topics as thinly-veiled requests for a raise on the part of the pastor. Of course, there are churches — and other preaching places — in which the only topic seems to be sacrificial giving.
What is the proper balance? What should we be teaching about the tithe? Why should the Smith family consider giving a considerable portion of their hard-earned cash to the church and other ministries? Perhaps just a brief look at a theology of giving will provide some insight.
God’s Word contains abundant teaching on the subject of money. Among other things, God says that Christian giving should be regular, universal, and proportional.
Christian Giving Should Be Regular
In these early days of the 21 st century, the movement of money from place to place and account to account occurs with amazing speed and efficiency. We can make bank deposits and withdrawals, pay bills and buy and sell stock with the touch of a few keystrokes. One thing that hasn’t changed, however, is the fact that creditors still want their bills paid on time. This is the attitude that the Christian should take with his giving to the church and Christian ministries. In 1 Corinthians 16:1-2, Paul wrote:
Now about the collection for God’s people: Do what I told the Galatian churches to do. On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made. (NIV)
Our giving is a regular “bill.” It’s due regularly. Paul says, “When you come to church on Sunday, have your money ready. Don’t fumble for cash. Don’t start writing your check as the ushers head down the aisle in your direction. Have it ready.” Paul teaches us that not only is it good to be consistent in our giving, but that we should have thought about it ahead of time. Giving is not to be merely a knee-jerk reaction to a particularly poignant request (though this does not rule out giving a little extra in some instances). Nor should it be a guilty response to the basket’s appearance at one’s pew. It is intended to be a prayerful response to God’s great love and mercy. Paul reinforces this concept when he writes, “Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor. 9:7).
Does this “every Sunday” rule preclude giving at different intervals? What if I only get paid once a month? The point of Paul’s statement to the Corinthians churches was that we are supposed to regularly put aside the amount that will be given. We are not paying for our ticket to the worship service — or to heaven — when we put money in the offering.
Christian Giving Should Be Universal
Not everyone is expected to give when the offering plate, or bag, or other collection device is passed around the sanctuary. In answer to the expected question: “Who should be giving to the church?” Paul answered, “Each of you.” Of course, that leaves the question: “Who, me?”
Paul, when he wrote this letter to the Corinthian churches, was addressing Christians. He had no expectation that anyone else would even be interested in giving to the church. His remarks were intended for “those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ — their Lord and ours” (1 Cor. 1:2). The apostle was calling upon Christians to be liberal in their giving. He was not asking for handouts from the world. Though it is a topic for another day, we might incorporate this thought into our thinking about church fundraisers and government funding for our Christian programs.
The group that Paul addressed in this letter, though united in its collective allegiance to Christ, was not homogeneous. “Each one of you,” means men and women, rich and poor, young and old. In the church at Corinth — as well as in the Galatian churches which had received the same instruction — there would have been a microcosm of the society at large. Sailors, merchants, trades people, and all other elements of the culture would have been represented. All were instructed to be generous in their offerings for the work of the church. This, of course, brings up the question, “How generous?”
Christian Giving Should Be Proportional
Paul’s directive that each one should “set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income,” is a call to proportional giving. It might be paraphrased, “If you have more give more; if you have less give less.” The key thing for us to understand here is that Paul is writing in terms of percentages, not fixed currency amounts. This of course, brings up the old question about tithing. “Must I give a literal 10 percent?” Isn’t that an Old Testament requirement?”
The response can be given in several steps.
1. Tithing is an Old Testament principal of proportional giving. (Lev. 27:30-33,34; Dt. 14:22-29, 26:12-15; Neh. 13:5, 12)
2. Tithing is not explicitly commanded in the New Testament.
3. Tithing is not countermanded in the New Testament, either.
4. Jesus suggested that tithing is a basic Christian practice. (Lk. 11:42)1
So what do we conclude? We are told in the New Testament that we are to give proportionally — that is, on a percentage basis — and the Old Testament scheme of proportional giving which has never been countermanded requires the giving of a tenth of our income. This would seem to indicate that the percentage in question is 10 percent. When we add to this understanding the fact that Jesus lists the tithe as a basic duty, shouldn’t we conclude that Christians ought to be giving at least 10 percent of our wherewithal to the Lord’s work?
We are instructed to be cheerful givers. We are also told that we should give only what we have decided to give in our own hearts. Paul and Jesus both make it clear, however, that this decision-making process should begin at 10 percent.
Reasons to Go Beyond the Tithe
The spirit of the Sermon on the Mount is that while the moral law is not in any way rescinded, Christians are not to be legalistic and stick to precise rules without thought to the consequences of our adherence. Jesus taught that we are to go beyond legalism to the heart and the spirit of the law. We are to understand the import of the law and exceed its expectations.
To that end it would prosper us to read some of the admonitions of the New Testament regarding giving. We are taught that:
- We should give of our all. (Lk. 21:1-11)
- It is right for us to respond to needs. (Ac. 11:28-30)
- It is more blessed to give than to receive. (Ac. 20:35)
- Our giving should be generous. (2 Cor. 8:1-4)
- We shouldn’t give grudgingly. (2 Cor. 9:5-10)
- We should give in order to develop character. (Phil. 4:17)
A Word About Need
When we talk about need and giving, we can look at the topic from two perspectives. First, there are people who have needs which can be met by Christian giving. Probably more important, however, is the recognition that Christians need to give.
There are a lot of needs in the church. General expenses such as utility bills, maintenance expenses, and pastors’ salaries are very real. They need to be dealt with in God-honoring fashion. The physical needs of the people can also present a great need. A first century example allows us to look at both the need to receive and the need to give.
The churches at Jerusalem were in great need. There was widespread famine. The situation was described in Acts 11:27-30:
During this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. One of them, named Agabus, stood up and through the Spirit predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world. (This happened during the reign of Claudius.) The disciples, each according to his ability, decided to provide help for the brothers living in Judea. This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul.
Paul and Barnabas took up a collection for the needy. They asked members of the church to give money to help people they didn’t know. It is appropriate for us, in the church, to have the occasional poignant request for emergency funds.
Very instructive are Paul’s remarks regarding the generosity of the Macedonian churches. Recorded in 2 Corinthians 8:1-15, Paul writes:
And now, brothers, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the saints. And they did not do as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then to us in keeping with God’s will. So we urged Titus, since he had earlier made a beginning, to bring also to completion this act of grace on your part. But just as you excel in everything — in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in your love for us — see that you also excel in this grace of giving.
I am not commanding you, but I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the earnestness of others. For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.
And here is my advice about what is best for you in this matter: Last year you were the first not only to give but also to have the desire to do so. Now finish the work, so that your eager willingness to do it may be matched by your completion of it, according to your means. For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what he does not have.
Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. Then there will be equality, as it is written: “He who gathered much did not have too much, and he who gathered little did not have too little.”
Christians want to give. They have a need to give. These Christians, to whom Paul was writing, were average folks. They weren’t giving out of great personal wealth. These people gave willingly. They gave more than was comfortable.2 They gave in accordance with God’s will.
Today’s Christian also wants to give — when he or she has been instructed regarding giving in all its richness. As the registrar of a conference on Reformed theology a few years back, I was admonished by an attendee that though he had paid (an admittedly small) fee to attend the conference, he wanted an opportunity to give more to the work of the sponsoring organization. I had deprived him of an opportunity to worship God and share of his abundance by not scheduling an offering during the conference, he informed me. It never happened again.
Results: the Bottom Line
For the most part, the results of our giving are obvious. The hungry get food, the church building gets painted, the pastor gets paid. But there is more to it than that. It is, indeed, a blessing to give. Paul wrote:
Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. As it is written: “He has scattered abroad his gifts to the poor; his righteousness endures forever” (2 Cor. 9:6-8).
Givers are blessed when they give. But they are not the only recipients of God’s grace. For Paul teaches later in this same chapter:
This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of God’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God. Because of the service by which you have proved yourselves, men will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone else. And in their prayers for you their hearts will go out to you, because of the surpassing grace God has given you. Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!
They will know that we are Christians by our love. Hurting, needy people can be introduced to the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, by our obedience, whether it be by the sharing of our time, our treasure, or our talent.
1. In this passage Jesus is recorded as saying, “Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone.” The “former,” which Jesus says should not be left undone, is the tithe.
2. It is worth noting here that God calls us to give a proportion. He wants us to give sacrificially (see v. 3), but He does not want us to sacrifice our families. We should give until it hurts, not until it cripples (see v. 13).
Topics: Biblical Law, Charity, Church, The, Economics, Family & Marriage, Government, Justice, Reformed Thought, Theology