One very confusing and controversial issue in the church is giving. It is always a very touchy thing to start nosing around in someone’s wallet. Pastors are uncomfortable talking about giving and church members are uncomfortable hearing about giving. Most would be content with 2% of the church contributing 98% to the offering. Giving is an area that many Christians, including myself at times, struggle with.
We have been culturally conditioned to strive for more. More money. More luxuries. More status. More, more, more. So, the idea of sacrificing a portion of your paycheck to the ministry of the gospel in the local church and abroad is foreign to the postmodern mind.
Sadly, it is even foreign to many Christian minds. Almost all of us know of the command to tithe (give 10% of your income) in the Old Testament. However, many pastors and church members take this command and view it in one of two wrong ways. (1) They say that tithing was an Old Testament command that has no bearing on Christians today. (2) They say that it may be difficult for you to tithe, or give 10%, so why not start at giving 2% or 5% and work your way up. Both of these erroneous, yet understandable perspectives can be quickly diffused by looking at the witness of both the Old and New Testaments on giving.
First, these perspectives overlook the fact that Old Testament believers were actually expected to give more than 10%. Giving 10% was not a cap on generosity. In fact, tithing was more likely a starting place for giving. Based on the following passages, like Leviticus 27:30, Numbers 18:21-24 and Deuteronomy 14:22-23 and 28-29, the number of tithes given to support the people of God actually totalled closer to 23%. Follow with me.
In Leviticus 27:30, God commanded that a tithe of all the produce of one’s land and flocks be given to the Lord. Later, we see that this would go to support the priests and the Levites who worked at the temple (Num. 18:21-24). However, the giving does not stop here. There was another tithe taken to support festivals and celebrations among God’s people (Deut. 14:22-23). So, now we have two tithes totalling 20%. But then, every third year a tithe was taken to support the poor, the stranger, the fatherless, and widows (Deut. 14:28-29).
The generosity did not stop at 23%, though. It began there. The people of God also gave firstfruit offerings (Ex. 23:16, 34:22; Lev. 19:23-25; Num. 15:20-21). They also gave freewill offerings to God (Ex. 35:29; 36:3-7; Deut. 12:5-7). These were offerings that went above and beyond the tithes and firstfruits offerings. David Platt describes tithing in the Old Testament as the “floor for giving, not the ceiling.”
The same was true for New Testament believers. Paul gives us an example of a community of Christians who gave sacrificially. He said that the churches of Macedonia had suffered “a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part” (2 Cor. 8:2). Although these churches were afflicted, they gave with abundant joy “beyond their means” (v. 3). This is the core of Christian giving: being overwhelmed by the grace of God’s sacrificial generosity so that it overflows in sacrificial giving. This kind of attitude places no ceiling on how much to give. In the words of pastor Jason Meyer, “Those who are drenched with gospel grace drip gospel generosity.”
So, when believers today, including myself, approach tithing (10%, mind you) as the ceiling for our giving, our generosity pales in comparison to that of both old covenant and new covenant believers. This should convict us to the core. If our generosity does not in some way capture the essence of the gospel, then we are missing the boat on Christian giving. Christian giving is not about a certain number, it is about a conviction to show God’s ownership of all things and his gospel generosity in Christ through whatever means we have. The problem with Christian giving in the church is that we have been given so much, yet give so little. Platt poses this challenge,
What would happen if we let the sacrificial love of Christ for us in the gospel create in our lives, families, and churches a sacrificial generosity toward Christian brothers and sisters who are in dire need around the world? (Counter Culture, p. 46)
The question this begs in my mind is, “Where do I begin?” Should I begin by giving just a little? Like 2% or 5%? As I said earlier, Christian giving is not about a number. But I do feel that giving far less than Old and New Testament believers gave misses the picture. What I would suggest is what I am suggesting to myself and my little family. Don’t begin with a number. Begin with your heart. Begin with an attitude that says, because God has been so generous to me in Christ, I will glorify his generosity through what he has given me in my bank account.
Tithing is not an end goal. It is more of a starting point. Give according to and even beyond your means (2 Cor. 8:1-4). How much should that be? That is really up to you. But I will leave you with the best advice I’ve ever seen on principles for Christian giving from C.S. Lewis:
I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. In other words, if our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, amusements, etc., is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little. If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charities expenditure excludes them (Mere Christianity, p. 82).
Is the sacrificial generosity of the cross reflected in your giving? If not, it may be time to look at your budget. I know that time has come for me.
Mathew Gilbert is the Children’s Pastor at First Baptist Church East Bernstadt. He is the author of the forthcoming book Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God (CrossBooks). Mathew lives in London, KY with his wife, Erica, and their dog, Simba. You can follow him on Twitter @Mat_Gilbert.