Beyond the Tithe

I am a layperson sitting in a pew. Yes, I groan whenever there’s a sermon on giving, but not for the reason my pastors suspect. My problem is that they ask too little of me.

Last month they showed a videotaped teaching by Robert Morris, a minister who has written a popular book on finances. In this talk, he said that the “spirit of Mammon” (or riches) rests on money; but if we tithe, God’s blessing rests on the 90 percent that remains to us, and we have great liberty in choosing how to spend it.

My first thought was, This can’t be right. Jesus testifies of the Pharisees that they tithed even their spices (Matthew 23:23), yet Luke 16:14 calls them “lovers of money.” The practice of tithing had not served to purify their hearts. This should not surprise us. When Paul states that the Law of God merely stirs up sin, he uses the example of covetousness or desire (Romans 7:7-8), the insatiable craving that becomes a driving force (Ecclesiastes 5:10; Proverbs 27:20). No formula, no rule followed in our own strength, can deliver from this.

Stewards with Christ

“Do preachers always have to talk about money?” Yes, indeed. We are called to become like God, and one of His chief characteristics is lavish generosity. He is “the giving God Who gives to everyone liberally and ungrudgingly, without reproaching or faultfinding” (James 1:5, Amplified). “You open Your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing” (Psalm 145:16, NIV).

This has nothing to do with percentages. Most of us don’t observe a literal Sabbath, setting aside one day in seven, because we believe that all our time belongs to God and can be spent in fellowship with Him. With goods, similarly, all that we have is His, and we disperse and use and enjoy it as He guides. It is significant that at least 12 of Jesus’ parables involve stewardship, or the wise use of resources (Matthew 13:44, 45-46, 52; 18:23-34; 20:1-16; 24:45-51; 25:1-13, 14-30; Luke 7:41-43; 12:16-21; 16:1-8, 19-31). Yet we are not acting as stewards, but as clerks or debtors, when we simply write a check for 10 percent and place it in the offering basket. Tithing is prescribed, compelled, dutiful; Biblical giving is prompted but free, and joyful (2 Corinthians 9:5, 7).

Where should we give? Sermons often quote Malachi 3:10, “Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse” (NIV), but what precisely does this mean? Many pastors say that the storehouse is one’s local congregation. Benny Hinn argues that it’s the source from which one is fed, so that it can refer to his parachurch ministry. Isn’t the storehouse of God bigger than both? Even the Old Testament tithe seems to have been split between the central sanctuary and local needs (Deuteronomy 12:11; 14:22-29). And when Paul gives directions about regular, proportionate giving, the context is the special collection for Jerusalem, not the local church (1 Corinthians 16:2).

What does Godlike giving look like? We see tremendous variety in the early church. The Jerusalem Christians share everything (Acts 4:32); the Macedonians don’t, but they give “beyond their ability” (2 Corinthians 8:3). Some in Ephesus are rich (1 Timothy 6:17-19), whereas in Thessalonica some must be exhorted to earn a living (1 Thessalonians 4:11-12).

After the apostles died, around 156, Justin Martyr wrote that, each Sunday, “they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit,” funds which were then distributed to those in need (First Apology 67). Around 180, Irenaeus taught that, instead of tithing, Jesus said “to share all our possessions with the poor” (Against Heresies IV.13, 18).

So it has continued throughout history; Francis of Assisi and George Müller managed money very differently, yet neither got past the point of praying to the Father each day for daily bread (Matthew 6:11), and each aimed at “bearing fruit in every good work” (Colossians 1:10).

Does this seem unrealistic in the modern world? In Rich Mullins: An Arrow Pointing to Heaven, James Bryan Smith describes how the Christian songwriter and singer embraced simplicity, gave things away, and asked others to manage his money. When he died in 1997, everything he owned fit into an eight-by-ten storage space.

The Challenge

The tithe is useful when we need a benchmark for our giving (to ensure at least a minimal compliance), but the New Testament calls us higher. Most of us try to dodge Jesus’ statement, “Give to the one who asks you” (Matthew 5:42), as a Sermon-on-the-Mount command for a perfect world — though some, like Oswald and Gertrude “Biddy” Chambers (authors of My Utmost for His Highest), have made valiant efforts to obey it literally.

It is more difficult to evade the force of Paul’s words, when he urges believers to give with the clear expectation that someday they in turn will be the needy ones; he even calls this cycle of giving and receiving “equality” (2 Corinthians 8:13-15). Christians can live this way because we are grounded in a dependent, childlike faith, knowing that “God Himself has said, ‘I will not in any way fail you nor give you up nor leave you without support. I will not, I will not, I will not in any degree leave you helpless nor forsake nor let you down (relax My hold on you)! Assuredly not!’” (Hebrews 13:5, Amplified). Such extravagant promises free us to go beyond dutiful calculations to abundant liberality.

Paul is an intellectual, and might be expected to qualify and hedge every claim; yet on this subject he overflows with superlatives: “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. . . . You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, . . .” (2 Corinthians 9:8, 11, NIV).

Here there is no stopping to ask, How much do I have to give? We don’t even ask, How much can I give? because we aren’t keeping track (Matthew 6:3-4). It’s not numbers but needs, not counting but a way of life. Money is a “store of seed” (2 Corinthians 9:10). Giving is a way to stand with those who are suffering (Philippians 4:14; Hebrews 13:3) and to confess the gospel of Christ (2 Corinthians 9:13).

“I know what it is to be in need,” said Paul. His generosity in preaching without pay meant that he often went hungry (2 Corinthians 11:27). Yet he rested content, confident that provision was on the way: “And my God will meet all your needs according to His glorious riches in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:12, 19). For in the world of the New Testament, we “lack nothing” not when we have money in the bank, but when we have endured trials and developed perseverance (James 1:2-4).

How do we walk in this divine generosity, this “grace of giving” (2 Corinthians 8:7)? When, if ever, does discernment close the pursestrings, and when do we allow ourselves to risk being cheated (1 Corinthians 6:7)? When do we feed the hungry, no questions asked, and when do we insist on Paul’s rule: “If a man will not work, he shall not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10)? When do we expect to be “made rich in every way” (2 Corinthians 9:11), and when do we go hungry (2 Corinthians 11:27), and glory in seeing our savings melt away (James 1:9-11)? I don’t know, and the answer probably looks different for each of us. The point is, it’s no formula, but an opportunity and a responsibility that should drive us to walk closely with the God of giving and to depend on His Holy Spirit. His extravagant promises free us to go beyond bookkeeping to abundant liberality.