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The aim of this essay is to suggest a brief theological perspective on the topic of money, tithe, offerings, and giving, with the hope that it will start a conversation that may be useful for any church organization.
Money in Christian Work
Jesus said, “No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one, and love the other, or be attentive to the one, and despise the other. You cannot give yourself to God and money” (New American Bible, Luke 16:13). The NIV reads, "You cannot serve both God and money." Is there a danger that the Church may sometimes be guilty of trying to do both?
These words of Jesus are much quoted. Surely one can serve two masters by dividing time between them. The Greek word here is stronger than "serve” — it actually means be a ‘slave to’ (Greek NT: Doulein). It refers to total allegiance. A person can share his/her time, but never his/her allegiance. You cannot split your soul.
Christ is really saying all manner of wealth — money, property, and possessions — can easily pose as a deity that demands a life and death devotion in the same way as God does. Mammon is thus "personified as a rival Lord.”
Christian churches and mission agencies around the world are attempting to serve as Jesus did. Their declared objective is the expansion of the Kingdom of God to all people. Such a vast operation involves crossing oceans, and cultural barriers. A considerable cost, financial and otherwise, is at stake. The amount needed to finance a global enterprise consisting of church and office buildings, hospitals, educational institutions, publishing houses, radio and TV stations, salaries and pensions etc., runs into billions of dollars. Money can be both a blessing and a curse, even in Christian work.
Christ did not leave an economic blueprint on how to pursue this monumental task. The Great Commission says nothing about money (Matthew 28:18-20). To the 12 apostles Jesus instructed, "do not lay in a stock of gold or silver, or copper coins in your money belts. Do not take a beggar’s knapsack for the road, no two shirts, no shoes, no staff. The workman deserves his keep” (Matthew 10:9, 10, William Barclay). How does that tie in with huge sums of Church money that are kept in banks, investment portfolios and the stock market?
An exploration of the management and misuse of money in Christian work, and how they impact mission, positively and negatively, is beyond the scope of our study and could be addressed in future essays. The subject is vast and complex and varies from church to church.
Money in Bible Times
The concept and development of money in Bible times has comprehensively been documented by the editors of the Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible.1 Scripture says much about the influence of money in human life. One can argue more is said in the New Testament about money, wealth, and possessions than about anything else.
Money can be a liability to one’s spiritual life if not kept under the control of the Holy Spirit. Selfish use of money hardens a person's heart, invites spiritual decay, and brings disaster (Luke 16:19-31). Money’s insidious grip caused the rich young ruler's spiritual bankruptcy (Matthew 19:16-22).
Judas betrayed innocent blood for thirty silver coins and, in deadly remorse, hanged himself. Thus the life of the first treasurer of the Christian church ended abruptly and prematurely (Matthew 27:1-6; 26:14). Ananias’ and Sapphira’s untimely death came as a direct result of hidden love of money and they sinned against the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:1-11).
Money is a potential danger to a person’s salvation when allowed to compete for the love of Christ (Matthew 13:22). The real cure for the love of money, the root of all evil, is to give it away for the purpose of the kingdom. Money is best “invested in heaven” (Luke 12:32 – 34).
Let’s now turn our attention to “tithing.”
Origin of Tithing
Tithing is an ancient institution widely practiced in religions and cultures other than those of Israel and the Semitic people. For example, mention of tithing is made in the Ugarit (14th Century BCE). At times purely political, or a tax paid by people to their monarchs, and often the secular and the sacred would blend, as in the case of Babylon, during Nebuchadnezzar II’s reign (Hawthorne, p.850).2
Old Testament Tithing
A gradual development of the understanding of tithing evolved in Old Testament times. The first record is on a war booty by Abraham to Melchizedek (Genesis 14:20). On another occasion, Jacob pledged to give tithes to God (Genesis 28:22).
As the material needs of Levites increased, tithes were reserved only for them: "God has given to the sons of Levi every tithe in Israel for an inheritance." (Numbers 18:21). Israel relapsed on several occasions in their tithing habits. They had to leave the sanctuary for the fields to support themselves. The sanctuary fell into disrepair. Reforms took place under Hezekiah (2 Chronicles 31:5ff), Nehemiah (Nehemiah 13:12), and Malachi (Malachi 3:8-10). The priests and Levites could once again go back to their work in the sanctuary (Hawthorne, p.853).
New Testament Tithing
The Greek word Dekate from which we have our word "tithe" simply means a "tenth.” Nowhere do we find in the New Testament a command on tithing as we do in the Old Testament. Paul admonishes giving, yet not once did he unequivocally urge tithing (1 Corinthians 16: 11-13; 2 Corinthians 8 and 9; Ephesians 4:28). Tithing does not appear in early Christian literature either.
Does this mean that Christ abolished tithing along with those ancient practices which were an integral part of Old Testament life and worship? More than likely not. To construct a whole theology for the abolition of tithing in the New Testament, simply on the argument of silence, is problematic. Tithing may have been taken for granted and not spoken against, not even once. On the other hand, Jesus clearly endorsed tithing (Matthew 23:23; Luke 11:42).
The early church community did not need an oral or written reminder of something which they apparently practiced on a regular and systematic basis. On the other hand, at some point in time, as was the case for the gradual choice of Sunday as a day of worship, Gentile Christians quite likely began to discard a custom which was peculiarly Jewish so as to not be confused, or be identified, with the Jews and Jewish legalism. The Jews had become rather legalistic in their tithing habits, whilst neglecting justice and mercy. The New Testament does in no way negate the validity of tithing. Likewise, Origen promoted tithing in the third century, according to his 11th homily on Numbers 18 (Powell, p.22).3
Four Theocentric Aspects of Tithing
Not all Christians believe in or practice tithing. Tithing is one of the most controversial issues in the Christian church and within denominations:
On the one hand, there are those who uphold tithing as an integral part of the life, believing it is required of everything. At the other extreme, there are those who reject tithing as a practice along with circumcision, foot washing and the observance of the dietary laws. Between these two extremes are many variations of interpretations and opinions” (Ibid, p.213).
Tithing is not to be relegated to the legalistic past of a Semitic nation. Biblical tithing is Theocentric. The underlying principle cuts across cultural and denominational barriers. Tithing informs us of several aspects of God's attributes, of which we will mention four.
1. God’s Care and Generosity
Jacob promised to return the tenth of all that God would give him in return for his care:
If God will be with me, and will keep me in the way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I will come to my father's house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up as a pillow, shall be God's house; and of all that thou givest me I will give the tenth to thee” (Genesis 28:20 – 22).
Those that tithe experience God’s abundant blessings. The Old Testament opens up with God's assurance that He will provide for the needs of the tither and closes on a note of God's promised generosity:
Bring the full tithes into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house; and thereby put me to the test says the Lord of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing” (Malachi 3:10).
2. God's Provision
The tribe of Levi had no land in Israel. They served full-time in the temple. Hence God made provision for all their needs. First from the tithe which was also known as the "first” tithe (Numbers 18:21ff). There was also a "second” tithe, and perhaps even a "third" tithe. Advocates of the two tithes system claim that God provided for the poor from the “second” tithe.4 Those that opt for a three-tithe system add a festival tithe to the list. The texts used are the same (Numbers 18:21, 24; Deuteronomy 14:22 -27; 26:6-12; Deuteronomy 14:28-29).
The book of Tobit indicates a particular tithing custom in the second century BCE. As a youth, Tobit would bring first fruits to Jerusalem:
He also gave three tithes: he presented the first tithe to the Levites, as required by Numbers 18, offered the second tithe in Jerusalem, as required by Deuteronomy 14, and gave the third tithe to the needy as specified in Deuteronomy 14 as well.”5
Tuland summarizes the argument of the three tithes:
We find a much broader concept of giving than we generally assume, giving that included first God; second men's own physical and spiritual welfare and third, their neighbour’s needs. God, you, and your neighbour is a good trinity in planning one’s giving” (Tuland, p.13).6
3. God’s Holiness and Sovereignty
Scripture emphasizes God's holiness and Sovereignty through the tithe and for the Sabbath. “And all the tithe of the land whether of the seed of the land, or of the fruit of the tree, is the Lord's: it is holy unto the Lord” (Leviticus 27:30). “And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy” (Genesis 2: 3). “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8-11).
The tithe belongs to a Holy God who declares it holy. People, priests, or churches have no claim on tithes, they simply act as God's agents or stewards. When a church organization receives tithes, it is under divine obligation to disburse it in accordance with God's plan.
4. God’s Primary and Priority Claim
The biblical teaching of the "first" or "first fruit” has been considered a basis for tithing. The "first” represents totality. What the "first" is and does has implication for all and the whole. The totality is invariably affected by the first thing. Hence Paul would say "over the part of the dough offered all first fruits is holy, then the whole batch is holy; and if the root is holy, then the branches also are holy (Romans 11:16; Galatians 5:9; 1 Corinthians 5:6). The Old Testament abounds with examples of the “first” or “first fruit” principle.
The firstborn animals were to be used for God's glory and the firstborn male was to serve the Lord (Genesis 22; Exodus 14:20; Numbers 3:13; Leviticus 27:26). The first fruits from farm produce belonged to God (Exodus 23:19; 34:26; Numbers 15:17-21; Deuteronomy 18:4; 26:1-19). Tithing, as a first fruit, not as a leftover, symbolizes the dedication of everything that we have, and we are, to the Lord.
Prophet Malachi reprimanded God’s people of their unfaithfulness in “tithe” and “Offerings.” When we study the significance of offerings we will perhaps view it in a different light than we may have done in the past.
Offering comes from the Latin word offere (to offer or present) and contains the meaning of a sacred action. It therefore blends with the idea of “sacrifice” from the Latin word, sacrificium, consisting of the two words sacer (holy) andfacere (to make). A “sacrifice” or an “offering” or a “sacrificial offering” is the highest religious act conceivable.7 At least 14 different types of offerings can be identified in the Old Testament, the most important of which appears to have been that of animals when blood was shed symbolizing Christ’s blood shed on Calvary.
A faithful Jew who practiced all of those offerings would have probably given about one third of his total income to God (Vincent, p.10-11).8 One could argue that if tithe was of undeniable significance, offerings were even more so when considered in the context of the cross.: the Lamb of God offering Himself so our sins could be forgiven and we could be offered salvation.
The golden link between money, tithes, and offerings points and binds us to our Holy and Sovereign God who cares so extravagantly in His Provision of our daily needs, those of His church, and above all, our eternal salvation. When we begin to see this link, our response is to give just as joyfully and “sacrificially” a portion of everything He has blessed us with: time, talents (spiritual gifts), and material means. An integral part of Christian living is Christian giving, which is a partial and tangible evidence of a Spirit-filled life, saved by Grace. A life that truly appreciates the ultimate, sacrificial Offering of the Son of God.
The apostle Paul is perhaps the most quoted New Testament writer when it comes to offerings and giving. Addressing the Corinthian church, he admonished:
About the collection for God's people, you must follow the same instructions as I gave to the congregations in Galatia. On the first day of the week, each of you must personally lay aside and save up some in proportion to his earnings. And then, when I come, you will not have to start organizing collections. When I arrive I will give letters of introduction to those whom you approve for the task and I will send them to Jerusalem to be the bearers of your gift." (1 Corinthians 16:1-4, William Barclay).
Paul established a number of principles back then. Giving needed to be systematic, regular, and proportionate. Money is to be kept and stored, until approved collectors would take it to Jerusalem. He turned into a champion fundraiser for the benefit of the poor in Jerusalem. Jerusalem was the focus of redemptive acts of the Prince of the poor: Jesus Christ. The passion, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus took place in Jerusalem, as did the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Jerusalem occupied a position of spiritual leadership and the gentile Christians had benefited from it. In return, they were encouraged to share some of their material blessings (Romans 15:25ff).
To the Corinthians, Paul affirms, that giving is one of the charismata born of the Agape that cements Koinonia between Jewish and Gentile Christians. It is a good practice for Christians to pool and share their material resources rather than keep it to themselves.
In conclusion, commenting on 2 Corinthians 8-9, Bishop Azariah once wrote some inspiring and wise counsel about Christian giving which is still relevant today, and which I’ve outlined below (Bishop Azariah 76:85):9
- Affliction poverty are not obstacles to generous giving.
- Giving is spontaneous.
- Giving means fellowship in service.
- Giving means consecration to God.
- Giving strengthens character. Repentance, faith, conversion, earnestness, and love are imperfect until they reach deep down into the purse.
- Giving cannot be commanded by authority. It can only be commanded on spiritual grounds.
- Our model and measure for giving is Christ's giving.
- It is a function of the church's ministry to enable Christians to fulfil their obligation to give.
- Christian giving thrives in an atmosphere of honest handling of gifts.
- Generous giving demands purpose in planning.
- Generous giving brings rich rewards.
- No giving of ours can be an adequate return for the wonderful gift of God.
Notes & References:
1. Interpreter’s Bible, Vol VII 1959, p.319
2. Hawthorne, G.F., “Tithe.” The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology. Vol. 3. Exeter: Paternoster Press, 1971
3. Powell, E.A., and Rushdoony, R.J, Tithing and Dominion, CA: Ross House Books, 1979
4. Encyclopedia Judaica Vol 15, p.1161
5. Encyclopedia of Religion Vol 14, p.538; Cf Tobit 1:6-8)
6. Tuland, R.W., “The Three Tithes of the Old Testament,” Ministry, September 1958
7. Encyclopedia of Religion Vol 12, p.544 ff)
8. Vincent, John, Christ and our Stewardship, London: Epsworth Press, 1963
9. Azariah, V.S., Christian Giving, New York: Association Press, 1955
Claude Lombart writes from the village of Binfield, UK, where he is in active retirement. He holds emeritus credential from the BUC. Lombart has served in several countries in francophone West Africa, the Middle East, New Zealand, Scotland and England in leadership, departmental, teaching, pastoral, and counsellor roles. He is a regular contributor to several church papers and has recently published a book on successful relationships. An earlier version of this article appeared in the author’s D.Min dissertation project entitled, "Towards the Financial Self-support of the 7th day Adventist Church in Egypt" (1994).
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