Thursday, January 01, 2015

Church Giving

Most modern Christians are under the impression that church members should give at least ten percent (a "tithe") of their income to the local church treasury.

But is this the Biblical model? (No, but there's nothing wrong with it, as long as it's not coercive.)

We tend to think that the Jews were required to give a tithe of their income to the Lord, and that we should do at least that well. Even among those of us who believe the "legal" requirement of a tithe is no longer binding, it's commonly believed that a tenth should be the starting point for giving.

The Jewish Background
The Jews were required to leave the corners of their crop fields unharvested. These unharvested corners could then be reaped by the poor of the community. (Note that the poor still had to work to feed themselves.) This corner-harvesting is what we see the widow Ruth doing, to feed herself and her mother-in-law, in the book of Ruth. This corner "tax" probably amounted to 1-3% of the farmer's income. Note that this "tax" was not levied against the poor, who benefited from this "tax", nor was it levied against non-farm industries.

The Jews were required to take a tenth (the "tithe") of their income to the national "church", the Temple, at feast-time. This was often in the form of a sacrificial animal and/or first-fruits of their crops. The priests working at the Temple would then cook/prepare this food, and take a portion of that food for themselves, and the remaining portion would then be eaten by the donor and his family as part of the feast.

Every third year, an additional tithe (averaged over three years would be about 3%/year) would be given to the priests. Here's the relevant passage from Deuteronomy 14:
22 “Each year you are to set aside a tenth of all the produce grown in your fields. 23 You are to eat a tenth of your grain, new wine, and oil, and the firstborn of your herd and flock, in the presence of Yahweh your God at the place where He chooses to have His name dwell, so that you will always learn to fear the Lord your God. 24 But if the distance is too great for you to carry it, since the place where Yahweh your God chooses to put His name is too far away from you and since the Lord your God has blessed you, 25 then exchange it for money, take the money in your hand, and go to the place the Lord your God chooses. 26 You may spend the money on anything you want: cattle, sheep, wine, beer, or anything you desire. You are to feast there in the presence of the Lord your God and rejoice with your family. 27 Do not neglect the Levite within your gates, since he has no portion or inheritance among you.
28 “At the end of every three years, bring a tenth of all your produce for that year and store it within your gates. 29 Then the Levite, who has no portion or inheritance among you, the foreigner, the fatherless, and the widow within your gates may come, eat, and be satisfied. And the Lord your God will bless you in all the work of your hands that you do.
So the total Jewish "tax" on a Jewish family was about 16% (tithe, plus third-year tithe (3%), plus field corners (3%)).

The typical federal tax on an American family is closer to about 30%, not including sales taxes and state taxes and gasoline taxes and utility taxes and administrative fees, etc. Add another 10% for a church "tithe" to that, and it's no wonder many American Christians feel less than cheerful about giving to support a system that seemingly does little more than buy bigger church buildings and fancier ties for the preacher. Even in the little struggling churches, a member must often choose between paying his own electric bill or that of the church building.

The First Century Church
When the church first began, it was exclusively Jewish. As such, these Jewish Christians were still giving their tithes to the Jewish system. But in addition, they were living communally:

Acts 4:32 Now the large group of those who believed were of one heart and mind, and no one said that any of his possessions was his own, but instead they held everything in common.
In addition, they also had garage sales and brought the proceeds to the church leaders to distribute to the other members of the church as they needed:
Acts 4:34 For there was not a needy person among them, because all those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the proceeds of the things that were sold, 35 and laid them at the apostles’ feet. This was then distributed for each person’s basic needs.
Later, after Gentiles were grafted into this Jewish Christianity, it was foretold by the prophet Agabus that a famine was about to hit the entire Roman world, which led the Christians in Antioch to take up a collection to send to the saints back in Jerusalem:
Acts 11:27 In those days some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28 Then one of them, named Agabus, stood up and predicted by the Spirit that there would be a severe famine throughout the Roman world. This took place during the time of Claudius. 29 So each of the disciples, according to his ability, determined to send relief to the brothers who lived in Judea. 30 They did this, sending it to the elders by means of Barnabas and Saul.
Later, as Paul recounts these events, he says:
Gal 2:9 When James, Cephas, and John, recognized as pillars, acknowledged the grace that had been given to me, they gave the right hand of fellowship to me and Barnabas, agreeing that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. 10 They asked only that we would remember the poor, which I made every effort to do.
As part of this fund-raising effort, Paul particularly appealed to the Gentile churches in the far-away regions of Macedonia, Achaia (Corinth), and Galatia (to whom Paul wrote the above quote). At the beginning of the fund-raiser, Paul writes:
1 Cor 16:2 Now about the collection for the saints: You should do the same as I instructed the Galatian churches. On the first day of the week, each of you is to set something aside and save in keeping with how he prospers, so that no collections will need to be made when I come. When I arrive, I will send with letters those you recommend to carry your gracious gift to Jerusalem.
And then a year later he writes to them again, saying that the Macedonian churches did good with their part of collecting, in part because Paul had bragged to the Macedonians about how the Achaian churches, which included the Corinthian church, were so eager to help:

2 Cor 9:1 Now concerning the ministry to the saints, it is unnecessary for me to write to you. For I know your eagerness, and I brag about you to the Macedonians: “Achaia has been prepared since last year,” and your zeal has stirred up most of them.
But now he's afraid that the Corinthians will be an embarrassment if they don't carry out on their promise:
2 Cor 9:4 For if any Macedonians come with me and find you unprepared, we, not to mention you, would be embarrassed in that situation. Therefore I considered it necessary to urge the brothers to go on ahead to you and arrange in advance the generous gift you promised, so that it will be ready as a gift and not as an extortion.
That's a large part of the reason Paul is writing 2 Corinthians, in order to get them to get busy collecting funds to send to Judea. But notice that what looks to be a command to give in 1 Cor 16:2 is not actually a command. Paul writes:
2 Cor 8:8 I am not saying this as a command. Rather, by means of the diligence of others, I am testing the genuineness of your love.
Also, note that it's a one-time fund-raiser, not an on-going forever instruction:
2 Cor 8:11 But now finish the task as well, that just as there was eagerness to desire it, so there may also be a completion from what you have.
Also note that it's not an instruction for all Christians; rather, it's an instruction for the wealthier Christians to give to the poor Christians, and that if the situation reverses, he then expects the flow of money to go the other way:
2 Cor 8:12 For if the eagerness is there, it is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what he does not have. 13 It is not that there may be relief for others and hardship for you, but it is a question of equality— 14 at the present time your surplus is available for their need, so their abundance may also become available for our need, so there may be equality. 15 As it has been written: The person who gathered much did not have too much, and the person who gathered little did not have too little.
Paul includes in this section of his letter an assurance to the Corinthians that arrangements have been made to avoid possible charges of embezzlement by him:
2 Cor 8:18 And not only that, but he was also appointed by the churches to accompany us with this gift that is being administered by us for the glory of the Lord Himself and to show our eagerness to help. 20 We are taking this precaution so no one can criticize us about this large sum administered by us. 21 For we are making provision for what is right, not only before the Lord but also before men.

When Paul arrived in Jerusalem and delivered the gift, he then was arrested by his enemies there, saying at his hearing before Governor Felix:
Acts 24:16 I always do my best to have a clear conscience toward God and men. 17 After many years, I came to bring charitable gifts and offerings to my nation, 18 and while I was doing this, some Jews from Asia found me ritually purified in the temple, without a crowd and without any uproar. 19 It is they who ought to be here before you to bring charges, if they have anything against me.
As far as regular church budget expenditures, the New Testament church had a fund for helping widows:
1 Tim 5:9 No widow should be placed on the official support list unless she is at least 60 years old, has been the wife of one husband, 10 and is well known for good works....
So far, from what we've seen in the New Testament, "giving to the church" is on an as-needed basis, from the Haves to the Have-Nots among the Saints. It's not for paying a pulpit preacher, or paying the church's electric bill, or funding Gospel missions and TV programs.

However, there is Scriptural authorization for these things also:
Gal 6:10 Therefore, as we have opportunity, we must work for the good of all, especially for those who belong to the household of faith.
1 Cor 9:7 Who ever goes to war at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat its fruit? Or who shepherds a flock and does not drink the milk from the flock? Am I saying this from a human perspective? Doesn’t the law also say the same thing? For it is written in the law of Moses, Do not muzzle an ox while it treads out grain. Is God really concerned with oxen? 10 Or isn’t He really saying it for us? Yes, this is written for us, because he who plows ought to plow in hope, and he who threshes should do so in hope of sharing the crop. 11 If we have sown spiritual things for you, is it too much if we reap material benefits from you? 12 If others have this right to receive benefits from you, don’t we even more?
Titus 3:13 Diligently help Zenas the lawyer and Apollos on their journey, so that they will lack nothing.
Rom 16:2 So you should welcome her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints and assist her in whatever matter she may require your help.
In the New Testament church, giving is not commanded, especially from the Have-Nots, but is encouraged, especially from the Haves, primarily to help financially-strapped Christians, with the goal of equality. Giving is also encouraged to help non-Christians, and to further the gospel presentation to the world and to pay the church bills.

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