Talk of tithing misses the point

Being English, I don’t like talking about money very much. I find it deeply embarrassing. Being an English pastor, I like talking about money even less than the average Brit, because many people already believe all the church want is your money (and, I can assure you, we don’t!) but I don’t want to add to any impression that might be true. As an English pastor in the pay of my church, I like talking about money even less again, because it always feels a bit like people may think I’m feathering my own nest. For these reasons – and perhaps a few others – I very rarely talk about money in my sermons.

But this past week, I did talk about it. Not because I’m suddenly short of a bob or two. But because the passage clearly pushed toward that being a fairly direct application of what it was talking about. And, though I hate talking about money, I hate being presented with a passage of scripture and ignoring what God’s Word clearly says even more than that. So, I mentioned it a bit with a lot of those caveats thrown in just in case.

Though I didn’t talk about this directly, it did lead to a discussion afterwards about the Bible’s teaching on tithing. Specifically, somebody asked what the church position was on tithing. And the reason the person wondered was because I didn’t really seem to say a right lot about tithing when I was going on about money.

The particular context of the passage was speaking about bringing gifts before the Lord in accordance with how he had prospered each person in Israel. The passage insisted there were no get outs, specifying that the richest to the poorest had to bring something. But they weren’t all to bring the same, but were to give in accord with their means. Though tithing follows a similar principle in the Old Testament, the passage itself wasn’t really talking about tithing at all. So, speaking about tithing would have been a little out of place. The people of Israel were being called to celebrate a festival giving thanks for how God had blessed them (sukkot if you’re bothered; Festival of Shelters, Booths, Tabernacles, what have you) and were called to give back to God out of whatever he had prospered them with. It was an act of generous giving back to the generous God who had already generously given them what they were to be generous with.

But even if it had been about tithing, I still probably wouldn’t have applied it to the church in terms of tithing. Mainly, that is because I do not think the Old Testament principle of tithing holds in the New Covenant. The New Testament doesn’t anywhere command tithes. There is no principle of ten percent. That, these days, is reserved for agents alone. The New Testament seems to centre less on tithes and more on generosity. It seems Jesus is less concerned about the specific percentage or amount and more bothered about the state of one’s heart.

Now, we can have a discussion about what generosity looks like in practice. We can talk about whether it can possibly be generous to give less than ten percent or whatever. Those are questions for another day. What we can say is that if we are essentially asking the question, ‘what is the minimum I am required to give?’ then we have already given the game away that we aren’t being all that generous. If our main concern is the acceptable figure, the generosity that is supposed to characterise our giving is painfully absent. Focusing hard on tithing – and a hard ten percent principle – takes us concerning close to a New Covenant equivalent of the temple tax. These are my dues that I am required to pay. An emphasis on tithing, then, seems to somewhat miss the point. We are no longer required to give anything; but we are required to be generous.

Fortunately, somebody else who was preaching a few weeks earlier hit on a passage that was to do with tithing, but took the same line (I wasn’t here when they preached but they told me after mine they said the same thing). The principle of tithing doesn’t neatly map onto what Jesus teaches in the New Covenant.

What is telling is our constant desire to know the rules. Just tell me how much I need to give and I can check it off the list. Give me a figure, a percentage, some sort of useful guideline so I can say I’m in the ballpark. I want to know that I’ve given enough to satisfy doing the right thing. None of which are terrible impulses – of course we should want to do what the Lord Jesus would have us do – but underlying it is a works-based sense of doing what is required which stands against the heart-based instruction of Jesus on the matter. Jesus is not so concerned with how much, or what percentage, as he is with your attitude of heart. It’s not how much did you give that concerns him, but why did you give and how did you give. Obviously, not whether you paid cash, cheque or used a card machine, but the state of your heart as you gave. Did you give willingly, cheerfully and generously or were you grumbling about rules and mainly concerned about the cost?

Inevitably, when we encourage people to give cheerfully and generously, people always want to know ‘to what degree?’ I don’t think they’re always looking to be unspiritual when they ask. People just want some idea, which isn’t altogether unfair. The ultimate measure is to think about Christ, what he has done for us, and then ask ourselves what do we think he is worth. Which sounds great, but in practice, would necessitate giving our whole paycheque to the church in its entirety. Which might even sound like a right and noble thing to do – and a sure sign of our trust in God to provide for our every need – but fails to account for the Lord working through means, which includes being wise with the paycheque he has given you to cover those things.

I’m not always his biggest fan, but I’ve still not come across any better advice than that given by CS Lewis on this topic:

I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. In other words, if our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, amusements, etc, is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little. If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charitable expenditure excludes them.

Mere Christianity

That, I suppose, is a good measure of our generosity. Is our standard of living identical to other people on a similar income to us? Do we always have the same things they have? If we do, our giving isn’t really generous and sacrificial – it isn’t really a sacrifice at all because we’re only giving away the bit we don’t need anyway! But our giving ought to be radically generous, to the point that there are things we would have or do, that we don’t have or do, because our giving stops us from having the means to have or do them. We give more than we can spare without necessarily being foolish to spurn God’s providence so that we don’t have enough to live.

Our principle, in the end, is generosity. We ought to be generous with what we have. The generous, giving God has blessed us with money, time, assets and resources with which we can bless others. We are to give first to him and use what else he has given us to bless others. If we keep talking about specific figures and ten percent tithes, we may well have missed the point.