Giving to the Lord: The Givers Principles
"What, giving again?" I asked in dismay,
"And must I keep giving and giving always?"
"Oh no," said the angel, whose eyes pierced me through,
"Just stop when the Saviour stops giving to you."
It is often said — and said correctly — that in our worship services the first act of worship, or devotion, is not in fact the opening praise, but the collection at the door. And yet, as one dips into the standard works on worship or Church principles, little, if anything, is said about the principles of giving to the Lord. One scans in vain through the standards of our church. Nothing is to be fund about "collection", "giving", "offering", or "tithing" as an aspect of Christian devotion or responsibility. The situation hasn't really changed much since Professor William Binnie wrote a century ago;
"This (that is, giving to the Lord) also is a divine ordinance. This ordinance, moreover, has received a larger and more honourable place in the Bible than has yet been conceded to it in our books of divinity."
The Church, Edinburgh, c. 1882, p. 94
For some reason it has been a subject to shy clear of, and yet a subject, one way or another, which can become for a Church a preoccupation, causing much tortuous heart-searching. This may of course be because that Church, and its people, are losing touch with a really living faith in the risen and ascended Lord. Essentially this is after all a matter of devotion, and the uncomfortable truth is that where a financial "problem" exists for a Church the fundamental answer is not to be found in the pocket, but in the heart.
The early disciples seemed to have a freedom from the anxieties of financial provision. To the lame man at the Beautiful Gate at the Temple Peter was to say: "Silver and gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you" (Acts 3:6). It seems impossible to us to go through life, including Church life, without financial anxieties. The uncomfortable truth is, that it is not a "problem" when the priorities and spiritual state of a Church are right. We must never lose sight of this spiritual dimension. Our heart-searching's must always relate to the reality of our faith and strength of devotion to the living God.
However, this said, finance is nonetheless of real importance for a Church, not least of course for the maintenance of ministry. As William Binnie pointed out, giving to the Lord does loom large in the Bible. Clearly, giving to the Lord's cause is a vital spiritual matter within the Church. The focus is on the responsibility of the Christian as a steward. This should therefore always be in the forefront of the professing Christian's life before the Lord. We may have a lot, we may have little, either way, this is an important aspect of Christian discipleship as an indicator of a person's real estimation of the Lord and His cause on earth (cf. Luke 21:1-4).
In looking at the question of giving to the Lord, we will in this study consider some general principles governing giving to the Lord. In this we will be speaking primarily of giving of our financial substance. That of course will be a token — a token based, hopefully, on Biblical guidelines — which simply reflects a total commitment of time, talents, and resources to the Lord. The trouble is, we so readily "hold back" (cf. Acts 5:1-11). Practically speaking, our reference point will be the giving of our financial substance to the local congregation. It is recognised of course that a Christian's giving to the Lord's cause may extend beyond the local Church. It is assumed, however, that the fundamental concern of the Christian as steward will be towards the local congregation, or the wider Church of which it is a part, for the maintenance of its gospel ministry. Let's consider the principles.
Take my silver and my gold
Not a mite would I withhold;
Take my intellect and use
Every power as Thou shalt choose.
F. R. Havergal
Why should we give to the Lord?
- First of all we give because all we have is from God. Human beings are made in the image and likeness of God. They have the imprint of their Maker upon them, whether they acknowledge it or not. The Biblical doctrine of creation must alert us to the basic reality that our lives are from Him, and all we have or receive are from Him. Says Paul to the Corinthian Church: "who makes you differ from another? And what do you have that you did not receive? Now if you did indeed receive it, why do you glory as if you had not received it?" (1 Corinthians 4:7). Clearly this applies to material as well as spiritual blessings. This may seem commonplace, this implication of creation. But it is after all a powerful fundamental perspective in our attitude to our possessions. David in his outburst of praise in connection with the collections for the (future) building of the Temple, cries out: "But who am I, and, who are my people, that we should be able to offer as willingly as this? For all things come from you, and of your own we have given you." He goes on: "O LORD our God, all this abundance that we have prepared to build you a house for your holy name is from your hand, and is all your own" (1 Chronicles, 29:14-16). So, principle number 1: we give because all we have we have received from our gracious God!
- Further, the Christian gives because he or she has submitted to Jesus as Lord. If Jesus is a person's Lord, then he is Lord of all, or nothing. If He is your Lord, He is Lord of your talents, your time, and your money too.
Paul encourages the Corinthian Church to excel in giving (2 Corinthians 8:1-7). Our pattern in this? Well, surely Jesus Himself: "For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich yet for your sakes he became poor, that you through his poverty might become rich" (v. 9).
He then goes on to encourage their giving and concludes by quoting Exodus 16:18: "As it is written, He who gathered much had nothing left over, and he who gathered little had no lack." We give as Jesus our Lord gave (of Himself).
- Another motive for giving is found in this: we give because our spiritual welfare is advanced by our giving. Perhaps we should say that this is a consequence of our giving to the Lord. In Acts 20, as Paul gives his parting counsel to the Ephesian elders, he affirms that he hasn't coveted anyone's money or clothes. And he says: "I have shown you in every way, by labouring like this, that you must support the weak. And remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that he said, 'It is more blessed to give than to receive'" (v. 35). More blessed to give. Yes, there is spiritual blessing in giving, not least of course in giving to the Lord, for His cause.
- One other motive for giving to the Lord is simply this: we give because He desires it. This is written so large over both Old and New Testaments that it surely needs no "proofs" here. Tithes and offerings (for example, Leviticus 27; Numbers 18; Deuteronomy 14; Nehemiah 10; Malachi 3), talents (for example, Exodus 38; Matthew 25) and collections (1 Corinthians 16; 2 Corinthians 8) are all clearly desired by the Lord. Yes, the Lord desires us to give. It is our privilege and our duty to respond accordingly.
What should we give for?
Basically Christian giving is for the Church's ministry. In this connection there are at least three financial priorities.
- The first of these is this: Giving is for the support of the ministry of the word. It is for the support of those who will be engaged in the fulltime ministry of preaching and praying. This was the reason behind the appointment of the first deacons (if they were deacons) in Acts 6: to allow the apostles to give themselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word.
A fulltime paid ministry is perfectly consonant with that principle. "The labourer is worthy of his wages," says Jesus (Luke 10:7). Writing to the Corinthians, Paul puts it this way: "the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should live from the gospel" (1 Corinthians 9:14), by which we take it that just as the priests in the Old Testament lived out of the Temple revenues (cf. Numbers 18:25-26), the New Testament preachers are to derive their personal and family subsistence from their ministry. This is implicit also in what Paul writes to the Galatian church(es): "Let him who is taught the word share in all good things with him who teaches" (Galatians 6:6). The Christian is basically giving for the maintenance of a ministry which is as "fulltime" as possible.
- Christian giving is also directed towards the ministry of mercy. That is to say, it will be partly also directed towards the relief of the poor (cf. Acts 3; Deuteronomy 14:28-29).
Again, what Professor Binnie wrote a century ago is still valid, even in our era of the Welfare State: "Where there is a legal provision for the relief of the poor, the need for Church action in this matter is considerably mitigated. Still, the hand of this kind of charity is a cold hand at best ... (and) there is much room left for the kindly attentions to the godly poor on the part of their brethren in Christ" (The Church, p. 95).
No doubt the Church and its courts — and members and adherents of local Churches — might be far more aware of needs within the professing Christian community than is the case currently. There is an assumption of a State safety-net. But for sure this does not absolve the Churches from responsibility for a ministry of mercy.
- The third area of the Church's financial priorities, is that of the support for missionary endeavour. In a sense this is hardly distinguishable from the first priority mentioned, but it is worth focussing on separately.
Christian giving should be directed most specifically towards the extension of the cause of Christ at home and overseas. This is to say that giving is to be towards the support of ministry not only in this or that given congregation — "our" congregation — but also generally towards the support of the gospel as it is spread abroad by those whom the Lord raises for that task.
In the Free Church of Scotland we have a beautiful example of this in the work of Asian Outreach and amongst Overseas Students in Glasgow. Clearly New Testament collections were also for just this sort of purpose (cf. Philippians 4:10-20).
Perhaps what concerns people more than anything, practically speaking, is the question: what am I to give? What does the Lord require of me? Here I have a certain income (from all sources), what amount(s) should I be giving for the Lord's work? What should I be "putting in the plate"?
What should we give?
As we look at the Biblical material we need to look first of all at the prominence given in the Old Testament to the tithe and the practice of tithing.
The Old Testament tithe
The first thing to be said is that the Lord didn't simply leave it to the whim of the people what they should give for the support of the ministry. He established the tithe as the norm.
This is clear from the law of Moses (see Leviticus 27:30-32). The tithe was a tenth part of one's resources — produce or "income". That tithe was to be holy, that is, "separated to the Lord". It was precisely from this "tithe" that the priestly, levitical, families were to be supported (see Numbers 18:25-26). The children of Israel frequently failed to observe this law once they settled in the land. That was a mark of declension. Interestingly, at periods of spiritual revival, this ordinance came back into the picture. For instance, at the time of Hezekiah there was a revival. This involved, as all genuine revivals will, a return to the teaching of the Scriptures. So, the Temple is cleansed (2 Chronicles 29:3ff.); the Temple worshipped is restored (2 Chronicles 29:20ff.); the passover is kept (2 Chronicles 30:1ff.); and then this: "Moreover he commanded the people who dwelt in Jerusalem to contribute support for the priests and the Levites, that they might devote themselves to the Law of the LORD" (2 Chronicles 31:4).
What contribution? Well, "as soon as the commandment was circulated, the children of Israel brought in abundance the first-fruits of grain and wine, oil and honey, and of all the produce of the field; and they brought in abundantly the tithe of everything" (v. 5; cf. also v. 6).
A similar situation occurred in the days of Nehemiah in a restored Jerusalem (see Nehemiah 10:34-37). Yes, a time of spiritual awakening brought a restoration of responsibility also for the "tithe" and thereby the support of the ministry of the "Law of the LORD".
Even the very last book of the Old Testament revelation brings out the significance of the tithe in connection with spiritual responsibility and blessings: the people had "robbed God" (Malachi 3:8). How? Withholding "tithes and offerings". And what does the Lord say? "Bring all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house, and prove me now in this," says the LORD of hosts, "if I will not open for you the windows of heaven and pour out for you such blessing that there will not be room enough to receive it" (v. 10).
In all these cases the relationship between tithes and blessings is clear. Surely no lesser standard is to be expected of the New Testament Church.
One further point may be made about the Old Testament tithe.
It is often used as an argument for the perpetuity of the Sabbath, not only that it (the Sabbath) is contained in the Mosaic moral law, but that it is found in practice before the law was given formally. This is also true of the tithe. We read of the tithe before the law given by Moses. It is first found in Genesis 14 in the meeting of Abraham with Melchizedek as Abraham returns from the rescuing of Lot from captivity.
Significantly, this "giving" is discussed in Hebrews 7 in the context of Melchizedek being considered as a "type" of Christ. "What does this passage tell us about tithing?" asks Fred Catherwood. "It tells us that since Christ's order of priesthood preceded and succeeded the Mosaic priest hood, the tithe, which illustrates the argument, must also precede and succeed the law" (Sir Fred Catherwood, God's Time, God's Money, London, 1987, p. 143). And the conclusion? "If Abraham gave a tithe to Melchizedek, can we give any less to Christ?"
Again it comes into Jacob's vow at Bethel after his vision of the Lord in a dream there (Genesis 28:22). The tithe, then, was clearly the norm for giving in the Old Testament Church, though it clearly wasn't just a matter of Jewish law.
But what about the New Testament practice?
- The New Testament giving
First of all it could be argued that Jesus in an indirect way gave His imprimatur to the Old Testament tithing system when He castigates the Pharisees for neglecting the weightier matters of the law whilst being so careful about their tithing (Matthew 23:23). The implication is that their tithing was quite proper, but it was an anomaly to be proper about that whilst negligent of bigger spiritual issues. Otherwise really there is no formal advocacy of tithing in Christian giving in the New Testament.
Does this mean that we can leave aside tithing as a principle for the New Testament Church? Does this mean that people may just give as they are "led" or can "afford"? The answer to these questions must be, No!
Whilst it has to be said that tithing is not specifically stated as mandatory "law" for the New Testament believer, it is scarcely arguable that a lower standard of commitment in giving would be expected of a New Testament Christian than was required or expected of the Old Testament believer. The New Testament data surely confirms this.
Now, it has to be said that the Christian believer's commitment is seen to be total. The claims of Christ are total. Take the case of the rich young ruler. He asked what he should do to have eternal life (Luke 18:18). He reckoned he'd kept all the commandments, but Jesus identifies an "Achilles heel": "Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor" (v. 22). Now obviously the issue was the attachment of the young man to his material possessions. In some way, like so many today, he was putting his trust in his affluence.
Also, there is the sad case of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5. Ananias "kept back part of the proceeds" of the sale of a possession, a fact his wife knew well about. They were both judged for lying to the Holy Spirit. It wasn't that the keeping back a part was the serious thing — it was their possession, they were entitled to do with it as they liked. The serious thing was giving the impression that it was the whole of the proceeds.
The point is, that this passage indicated just how great the commitment of some was, an implication of the behaviour of the first converts, something clearly linked in with the blessing being enjoyed (see Acts 3:40-47). Surely the Christian believer's attitude is correctly expressed by Isaac Watts:
"Love so amazing, so divine
Demands my soul, my life, my all."
Yes, my soul, my life, my all. That indeed is Jesus' standard of discipleship. Of course, "all for Jesus" does not mean applying all one's resources to the work of the Church. But it does mean maintaining the Old Testament standard at least, developed in terms of liberality. The question is not: "How much, or how little, should I give?"; but, "How much can I give?"! Christian giving will transcend tithing!
- Christian giving will be proportionate. This is clear from 1 Corinthians 16. Collections are to be laid aside "as he may prosper" (v. 2), that is, it is to be a proportion of your total income. Question: do you give proportionately, as the Lord prospers you?
- Christian giving will be sacrificial. Is this not clear from what Paul says of the giving of the Macedonian Church? "In great trial of affliction the abundance of their joy and their deep poverty abounded in the riches of their liberality. For I bear witness that according to their ability, yes, and beyond their ability, they were freely willing" (2 Corinthians 8:2-3). Question: Do you give sacrificially, beyond your ability?
- Christian giving will be substantial. Returning to Acts, this is clearly the implication of the practice of the first converts at Pentecost: "Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need" (Acts 2: 44-45). Whatever else this demonstrates, it certainly indicates that giving was substantial. Question: Do you give substantially?
How should we give?
The practical question then arises as to how Christian giving is to be done. Again, the NT gives clear guidelines:
- Christian giving will be systematic. "On the first day of the week let each one of you lay something aside" (1 Corinthians 16:2). There should be a systematic weekly collection each Lord's Day. The weekly envelope scheme is a great help to systematic giving and should be encouraged amongst all givers. The collection in the plate is indeed the first act of worship in our services on the Lord's day. Question: Do you give systematically?
- Christian giving will be free-will giving. It will be "cheerful" (2 Corinthians 9:7). The Lord loves such a giver. It will be out of love for the Lord, for his Church, for the ministry of the Word. It will be out of free-will (2 Corinthians 8:3). Question: Do you give freely, out of a spirit of utter devotion and love for the Saviour? That's Christian giving. Remember the widow's mite (Luke 21:1-4)!
Christian giving, then, basically flows from these two things: a love to the Lord Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 8:9) and the obligations of Christian stewardship (Luke 16:1-13).
Some practical matters
There are however, one or two practical matters that are of concern to people.
- First of all, if I am going to give in the region of a tenth of my income, will that be from my gross income, or net, disposable income? Essentially it ought to be based upon total gross income. The argument has been made that the taxes imposed by the state are applied in part at least in a way that would legitimately be part of a "tithe", namely, taxes raised in connection with the care of the sick, the poor, and the underprivileged. On this basis it is maintained that only a tenth of net income might be considered a norm for giving by Christians.
Against this it has to be said that:
- in NT times the believers were required to pay both their tithe of all their income and the Roman taxes (cf. Matthew 17: 24-27);
- the "relief" achieved through regular taxes by no means exhausts the need or the Christian's responsibility in terms of a ministry of mercy; and
- in any case, if a person is a tax-payer this matter is happily resolved by Deed of Covenant so that the tax relative to the actual contribution made may be recovered from the Inland Revenue. The recovery of income tax from covenanted giving is perfectly consistent with the Establishment principle maintained in the Free Church of Scotland, namely, that the State has a responsibility to maintain the true Christian religion (without persecuting policies, of course).
- Secondly, what about the responsibility of students (or for that matter widowers or widows)? Isn't their income — grant or whatever — too low to expect them to tithe, or to give proportionately?
Well, again it is a matter of priorities and of the confidence the Christian student has that the Lord will provide. No one will ever lose out who so trusts in the Lord, and so loves the Lord that he or she is prepared, whatever their circumstances, to give proportionately, sacrificially and substantially of their incomes. (This would not of course apply to student loans, which, presumably, are totally repayable.)
- Thirdly, it has to be acknowledged that there may be circumstances causing particular hardships, such as periods of unemployment, or an unexpected sudden rise in interest rates greatly increasing the burden of mortgages. There is no easy answer to these. But the believer takes all his or her problems and burdens to the Lord. The believer asks the Lord for grace, wisdom and sufficient temporal welfare. Nonetheless, the example of the widow's mite appears to leave no room for the complete exclusion of giving, however straitened the circumstances may be, as long as there is income. Of course, there is an absolute necessity for the believer to provide for his own family (cf. 1 Timothy 5:8 and also Matthew 6:5-6). It can never be used as an excuse that one has not been able to do that because of one's giving's to the Church. At the same time care needs to be taken to examine very carefully financial needs and priorities within the family sphere.
- Finally, the believer ought to ensure that a due proportion of what he or she leaves at death is also devoted to the work of the Lord. The tithe principle should be applied also when consideration is given to making out a will. At every stage the believer will review his or her giving's to the Lord in the light of his or her present changing circumstances, and, more especially in the light of the needs within Christ's visible Church.
Giving to the Lord is a test of faith — for the individual and the Church. It will involve the tithing person to some degree having "less", materially, than his or her non-tithing contemporary. But it will itself give rise to wonderful blessings, as it is found again and again that the Biblical proverb is true in reality: "There is one who scatters, yet increases more; and there is one who withholds more than is right, but it leads to poverty" (Proverbs 11:24). The "cheerful giver" loses nothing. Giving to the Lord is at once a challenge to real faith and wonderful privilege. But in all of the Scriptures there is surely no greater challenge than these words of Jesus:
"He who is faithful in what is least is faithful also in much. Therefore if you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches? And if you have not been faithful in what is another man's, who will give you what is your own?
"No servant can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon."Luke 16:10-13
Christ taught his disciples that their righteousness had to exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees (Matthew 5:20). His standards are higher than the law. This poses serious questions for our giving. Is a tenth so hard? Fred Catherwood put it this way:
"There is surely no Christian who cannot spend a tenth less than their friends and neighbours outside the church. Are there not some things which our neighbours buy that we can do without? We are not asked to cut our spending drastically, just to have a bit less heat, to spend a fraction less on food, have slightly less expensive holidays and fewer drinks, make our clothes and cars last just a bit longer and have homes which are perhaps 10% smaller."God's Time, God's Money, p. 145
The Church has a task in the world — a ministry of the word, and a ministry of mercy. For carrying out this task the church has many and pressing needs. Prayer, of course. Witnessing, of course. A clear and passionate belief in the Scriptures as God's word. Yes, and a commitment, of time, talents, yes, and money. Giving. A privilege. A way to show commitment. A way to demonstrate love for the cause of Jesus Christ. A way to support the ministry of the word and the ministry of mercy. A tenth too much? Ah, no, surely not. The Possessor of all is surely entitled to a tithe of all! Legalistic? Ah, no, surely not. Because our liberality will surely stretch further than any legalistic requirement!