In my first and second posts, I outlined the biblical instructions on tithing and giving. Now that we have a solid scriptural foundation upon which to build, let’s think about what this means for Christians and the church today. There are no easy answers. Even if we understand the biblical concepts, the application of these principles requires guidance by the Holy Spirit and discernment in each unique situation.
Let’s Give Generously in Freedom
The Bible is clear on the what Christian giving in general should look like. We are to give as we have purposed in our heart, not according to some external command. There are no specific mandates on percentages or amounts. Even though the tithe is often used as a basis for saying congregants should give ten percent to the church, that is misapplying a Mosaic Law system in a completely unrelated context. Both the believer that feels compelled to donate ten percent and the believer that gives a different amount are free to do so. We have freedom to give as we feel led by the Spirit. That freedom, however, should not be an excuse to be uncharitable with our finances. Rather, true Spirit-led giving is both generous and wise.
Let’s Drop the Term “Tithing”
There is certainly continuity between the Old Testament and the New Testament. The sacrificial system, appointed times of the Lord, and so forth all are shadows the lead us to the bright reality in Jesus Christ. So we need to have a biblical understanding that brings from both the old and new.
That said, using the term “tithing” when talking about donations to the church just causes confusion. Pastors begin to misuse verses (see Malachi 3:8) in an effort to increase giving. Different scriptures are thrown together willy-nilly without any consideration to a holistic, accurate understanding of the scripture. Tithing was clearly a mandated system with specific application to the nation of Israel. Only those under the Mosaic Law were bound by its requirements. For Christians, we are not under the Mosaic Law, and consequently can only apply the general concepts as we walk by the Spirit. Any more than that, and we are missing the big picture. As Jesus said to the Pharisees and scribes, “you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness.” (Matthew 23:23)
Let’s Redistribute Church Offerings Back to Members in Need
The early church in Acts left a undeniable example for us. Collections were taken up by the apostles, only to be redistributed back to those in the church who needed help. This would have included widows who did not have family members to support them. If a need was found, the money collected was there to provide for it.
When we look at any given church budget, does a significant portion go towards helping its members who are struggling financially? As long a church owns a building and has some level of staff, there will be overhead costs that cannot be avoided. But does a significant portion of the additional surplus go into a fund that is then used to support the needy? Or are funds being used primarily for new buildings, more (unnecessary) staff, better equipment, and so forth. We need to take a good look at where money is being spent and discern if it honors God and is in accordance with scripture.
Of course, if money is being redistributed to church members in need, there is a practical discernment that needs to be applied by elders and deacons to ensure people aren’t taking advantage of the system. Those who can work should work (1 Timothy 5:8) to ensure that those who are the most vulnerable are cared for.
Implications for Salaried Church Staff
This is a complicated subject, so I’ll just share some high-level thoughts.
When we look at Paul’s example, he made an effort to not financially burden those he was ministering to. However, when we look across the large majority of churches in America, how many pastors have a part-time job, let alone a full-time position outside the ministry? They are out there, but it’s not the norm.
Instead, what we see are churches with significant staffing costs. Not only is there a lead teaching pastor, there may be a worship pastor, operations pastor, youth pastor, children’s pastor, men’s pastor, women’s pastor, and the list goes on. This doesn’t count everyone who works behind the scenes. These large churches have become corporate behemoths, burning through cash quickly. The entire modern church model needs a revamp, but that’s for a different discussion.
This is the exact opposite of the early church we see in scripture. Church leaders were normal guys with normal jobs. Seminaries did not exist at this point, so their qualification rested on their spiritual maturity. Traveling evangelists were typically supported by churches or patrons, but this was a practical accommodation because of their constant travel.
It’s safe to say we as the American church have a lot to learn from Paul. In too many instances, ministries have become a financial burden on the people, greatly hindering the gospel. A church model where the leaders have normal jobs in addition to their ministry positions would create a financially-resilient church with the cash-flow to provide for those who need it the most.
The Fulfillment of Tithing is Love
In everything we do, we are to walk in love and by the Holy Spirit. That is the key.
The tithing commandments and all the New Testament instructions on giving find their fulfillment in godly love. It’s not about rules and regulations, but about meeting needs wherever we see them. If we live this way, we’ll truly be disciples of Jesus Christ.