What does the Bible say about giving?

The Prosperity Gospel deal is that if you give the right amount of money to the right pastor and he gives it the right blessing then you will be blessed in your personal finances.  In other words you should tithe.

I think that well-meaning Evangelicals come unstuck on the question of tithing. Or to go back to our original point, they want to avoid the prosperity trap but end up falling into it because they in are in effect looking at what the Bible teaches through the same lens.[1]

Old Testament

Here are some of the key Old Testament references to tithes and offering

  • In Genesis 14 Abraham gives a tenth of the plunder to Melchizedek
  • Leviticus 27 mentions tithe but also a variety of offerings/
  • In Deuteronomy 14 there is the idea of a harvest tithe  and the idea was that it was to be brought to the festival at the Temple. It would then be shared together.  There’s a strong sense of enjoying God’s provision together. It also meant that the Levites who served in the Temple were provided for but again the idea was of sharing together. This is probably the idea behind Malachi 3 that the tithes were to be brought in to the Lords house.
  • Numbers 18 and Deuteronomy 26 The tithe and first-fruits there were to provide for the Levites and for the poor and needy.

Note that in these passages there are three separate tithes – the one for the Levites (Lev 27, Num 18), one for the poor -tri-annual (Deut 14:28-29) and one annually to share at the festival (Deut 14:22-27).

So, tithing is linked in to the Leviticus system. It was  a recognition of all that it meant to be in the Promised Land and it was a way of providing for the needy and for those who serve. Tithing enabled God’s people to give thanks to God, recognise his provision for them, show that they knew that everything really belonged to God in the first place and to share together in God’s provision.

 As well as tithes, there are offerings that people bring including Free Will offerings for special requirements such as the building of the Tabernacle (See Exodus 35).

Finally, we should also mention the Gleaning laws (Leviticus 23:22) which meant that land owners were not to harvest right into the edges and corners of their fields but to leave some of their crop for the poor and needy to collect for themselves.

These things combined mean that an Israelite could well be giving significantly more than 10% of their income away.  We also should note that this was doing much more than church offerings do today. Part of it fulfilled the role of modern day charities and welfare states. Part of it was an expression of celebration together as God’s people.

So we need to factor these things in when coming to a passage like Malachi  3:8-12 and the promise that God will bless the people if they bring in the full tithe.  This is one of those passages often used in Prosperity teaching to show that if you give your tithe to the pastor then you will be blessed.  It’s important to note two big things when we look at Malachi 3.

There’s the sense that everyone loses out when the people are stingy and lack generosity. If they bring in the full tithe then the storehouses will be full and everyone will be provided for adequately. 

We must also read Malachi 3 in context and consider timing. Remember that when we think about biblical Theology we have three big themes that tie together

  • God’s Reign
  • God’s People
  • God’s Land

So, the tithing rules are connected into the Covenant with Moses and what it means for God’s people to live under God’s rule in God’s Land. If you kept God’s Law you experienced covenant blessings in God’s Land and if you broke it, you experienced covenant curses or sanctions with the ultimate curse/sanction being exile.

This is important because the people in Malachi’s day were clearly not keeping the terms of the Covenant and the tithing element was just one aspect of this.  The result was that they were experiencing divine sanction. I think there’s a vicious cycle in Malachi where instead of coming to their senses, the experience of sanction caused them to be even more stingy in their generosity.

Notice as well that the theme throughout the OT is corporate. Prosperity teaching is really about stealing these verses out of context to make instant promises of individual gain where the focus in the OT is on God’s people sharing together at God’s appointed time in God’s blessing.

Tithing in the New Testament

The key -and really only passage is Matthew 23:23 (paralleled by Luke 11:42). There, Jesus rebukes the Pharisees because they obsess about tithing in a legalistic manner. Jesus says “You should have tithed but also -there’s a whole lot of the Law that you have neglected that you should do.”

This is clearly a proverbial way of making the point  “Don’t be obsessively legalistic about one thing to the neglect of everything else.”

Some Christians see the reference here as an endorsement of the tithing system. I’d be careful about this because

  • It’s not the point Jesus is making
  • It’s still the in the context of the Old Covenant -the point is that for all their legalism, they were still Covenant breakers.

The NT emphasis is much more on planned, generous giving and the sharing of everything -not considering your possessions as your own but seeing yourself as a steward of what God has given.

Luke 6 warns against a judgemental attitude and also against simply having a mechanistic approach of giving where you know that you will can be repaid. Instead generosity is encouraged. 

“Give, and you will receive. Your gift will return to you in full—pressed down, shaken together to make room for more, running over, and poured into your lap. The amount you give will determine the amount you get back.[2]

How does this work?

  • If God’s people are open handed and generous, looking after each other as part of God’s family then no-one should be without.
  • Link this with the promise in Ephesian 6:8 that God ensures that his servants are rewarded. Whatever happens in this life, we have an eschatological perspective that one day we will share in an overwhelming inheritance.

In other words, once again the problem with Prosperity Teaching is that it offers a poor imitation, now, for you to enjoy selfishly on your own of the great inheritance promised in eternity for us all to share in together.  The Prosperity Gospel is a conman’s rip off.

Paul in his letters gives instructions for collections -notice this is about planned collections for specific issues – the need of the poor in Jerusalem.

See 1 Corinthians 16:1-4. Giving was to be planned and ordered. Don’t respond to the need at the last minute or out of embarrassment or the need to impress the visiting dignitary

2 Corinthians 9 picks up the specific application of the gift to Jerusalem again. Paul’s point is that:

  1. They are to give generously and cheerfully – heart attitude is important
  2. They give in the context of trusting God to provide for them
  3. There is most importantly a sharing in spiritual blessing -a growth of prayer, joy and praise giving God glory.

Conclusion – implications for today

First of all, we should be careful to give “money” its appropriate Biblical attention.

  • We shouldn’t be embarrassed to talk about the subject where and when appropriate
  • We should teach it in line with the careful and systematic exposition of Scripture and the rhythm of church life. In other words, don’t be doing the money sermon every week and don’t start preaching lots of sermons about giving whenever there’s an urgent need such as a building project or when the church gets itself into debt.

Secondly have a proper awareness of Scriptural context. So

  • Don’t think or talk in terms of individualist or instant gain when application is meant to be about a corporate sharing in future grace.
  • Remember that we are in Christ in the New Covenant

Thirdly think about context today. So for example, we’ve seen that the OT tithes and offerings fulfilled several functions including supporting Temple ministry, looking after the poor and a sort of “bring and share” approach to national celebration. 

This means that first of all, we will be aware that there are Welfare Systems in place in our countries. Some will offer greater cover than others, some will work better and different people will have different political views on the right extent and cover of welfare.  Christians however should not neglect familial responsibilities to love one another as needed.

Secondly, do all necessary exegesis before you start preaching

  • Exegete the Bible passage so you are not just coming with your own thoughts and proof texts.
  • Exegete the congregation. Know who you are preaching to.  Some, indeed many will already be giving sacrificially and willingly.  I know in our own context that many are generous even when they don’t have much themselves. Neil Powell has helped me by talking about preaching the negatives as well as the positives. What he means by this is that if your application is an encouragement to give sacrificially don’t forget to say “I know some of you already are giving sacrificially. Do not feel under guilt or pressure to give even more.”
  • Exegete your own heart. What is your motive for preaching. Remember that “The Love of Money is the root of all kinds of evil.” Preachers should not love money or think they are preaching for financial gain. Watch out for fear. That’s another way of saying “Don’t preach on money because your scared that you are about to run out of it!”

Thirdly it means that the application of those OT tithing and offering principles through Christ will make us think less narrowly. In the OT it wasn’t really about money but sharing in all God’s good gifts. So, for us today those messages will be about how we do three thing

  • Remember that all good things come from God and that we are stewards not owners of his grace to us. 
  • That this should lead to praise and thanksgiving -we are first and foremost worshippers
  • That God gives gifts to the church through us (see 1 Corinthians 12) and so we should all come together ready to share gifts -music, speaking, encouraging, helping, advising, knowing etc.  As we do, there’s mutual benefit as we all out built up and encouraged. As we do, we are all able to glorify God together.

[1] What we sometimes call “hermeneutics.”

[2] Luke 6:38

%d bloggers like this: