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wait…how much?

I recently had a conversation with a friend about giving. He asked very directly, “How much am I supposed to give?” The TL/DR response is this: all of it. You should give all of your income, all of your resources to the Lord. Period. Let me explain.

But first, let me explain something else. I hate talking about money and giving. I hate preaching about it. (I know; it’s my issue.) I never want to give the impression that I and the church are after your money. I have to address the issue because Scripture does and because leading God’s people and loving God’s people requires it. Hence this article.

We often use the word “tithe” but this isn’t quite accurate. The word “tithe” means “tenth”. One cannot tithe anything other than one-tenth. We tend to use it to mean any giving whatsoever. Imagine being in sales and your contract says you earn a ten-percent commission, but your paycheck reflects just three percent of sales. “But it’s a tithe!” No, that’s not what “tithe” means! The question came from an individual who is retired and therefore on a limited income. He asked the question in earnest, not from a desire to give as little as possible.

Some time ago I spoke with another man who leads a congregation that is known for its strict rules. This congregation has very strict requirements for the behavior of its people, whether in their assembly or elsewhere. (They claim God’s authority for their own made-up rules!) These requirements includes the very strict rule “you must give ten percent of your income”. He was complaining to me that he cannot get his people to give a single dollar more than the required ten percent. My first thought was, “Why should they pay more taxes than you’re already charging them?!”

My friend’s question is important. What is really expected of us? There are, of course, many who will insist on a full ten-percent, claiming this is the minimum one should give. The math is said to be simple: your income times ten percent. This is based on the Mosaic law’s requirement for a tithe. The tithe comes from the reality that the tribe of Levi was not given land in Israel. They received some cities throughout the land, so the priesthood would be spread out. This included some land outside the city limits, but not having their own territory meant their ability to earn a living by farming was quite limited. Israel paid a tithe—a tenth of their income—and this was distributed among the Levites.

For the tithe of the people of Israel, which they present as a contribution to the LORD, I have given to the Levites for an inheritance. Therefore I have said of them that they shall have no inheritance among the people of Israel.

Numbers 18:24 ESV

They did not inherit land, so the people supported them via their tithes. One-tenth of all the produce from the other eleven tribes, whether grain or sheep or cattle, was given to the tribe as an inheritance instead of land. From this many claim Christians should do the same. One problem is this was clearly for Israel, for they needed to support the priesthood. Another is all believers in the new covenant are a holy priesthood. The tithe was specific to Israel.

There is an expectation for giving in the new covenant, however. There is only a tangential connection to the Old Testament tithe. There, those who were set apart were to be supported by the people of God. In the case of Israel, it was an entire tribe of people who were to be supported—roughly one-twelfth of the people! In the church the number is much smaller, often only a handful of folk who are set apart vocationally.

When we were in 1-2 Timothy we saw Paul tell Timothy, and by extension the church in Ephesus—and therefore us—let “elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching” (1 Timothy 5:17). The expression “double honor” is a financial term, indicating elders who serve the church well are worthy of financial compensation for their service. Some are set apart for this service, so he clarifies “especially those who labor in preaching and teaching”. This was Timothy himself, for the council of elders ordained him to vocational ministry (1 Timothy 4:14). He was freed from the need to have a job that he might devote himself to the work of overseeing the church, and especially preaching and teaching.

The need, then, for an entire people to give a tithe as Israel needed to do simply doesn’t exist—at least not to the same degree. Yes, a local church has expenses, and often staffing is the biggest part of a church’s budget. The staff, however, doesn’t come anywhere near one-twelfth of the congregation’s size!

What this means is a true tithe—the requirement to give ten-percent of one’s income—no longer exists for two reasons. First, the law has been fulfilled in Christ. The law was God’s covenant with Israel and Jesus fulfilled the law and ushered in the new covenant. Second, the logistics of supporting a “staff” one-twelfth the size of the “congregation”, for that is essentially what the Levites were, does not exist. Back to the question, then: what are we to give?

When Paul wrote 1 Corinthians, he was busy collecting an offering for the church in Jerusalem, to help them in the midst of a famine affecting them greatly. Paul gives them instructions for giving:

On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come.

1 Corinthians 16:2 ESV

One might think collecting on Sundays was merely a convenience, for that is when they assembled together. We must remember, however, they—though much smaller than the church in Jerusalem!—continued to meet house-to-house, as we do with our City Groups. We know this because of Paul’s language. In 1 Corinthians 14:23 he mentions the times when “the whole church comes together”. If they only met on Sundays, coming together as the whole church would be redundant. He would simply have said, “when you come together as the church”. Adding the qualifier “whole” only makes sense if he’s distinguishing between the times they came together as part of the church from the times they came together as the whole church.

What Paul seems to be indicating here is giving is part of our corporate worship. There’s a reason we collect an offering on Sundays. I know with online giving this is somewhat different, but it’s in keeping with Paul instructions to “put something aside and store it up” (1 Corinthians 16:2). Whether your electronic offering comes out of your account on a Tuesday or a Sunday, it should be an act of worship.

Back to the question: how much should we give? I’ll get to it, but first another point Paul makes, and it’s the one that affects giving the most. In his second letter to the Corinthians Paul explains the right motivation for giving: the gospel of Jesus.

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.

2 Corinthians 8:9 ESV

The context is that of giving! Paul encourages the Corinthians to be generous and makes it clear he is not commanding them, though as an apostle of the Lord Jesus he had such authority to do so (1 Corinthians 8:8). Notice carefully the motivation to give: the Lord Jesus. He was rich in every way, yet gave up his wealth for the good of others. The result of his poverty is that we might become rich. Rather than command them to give or even specify an amount to give or a percentage to give, Paul tells them instead to be like Jesus. Though he was truly the wealthiest human to ever live, for he literally owns everything he created, he gave it all up for us, that we by his poverty might become rich.

How much, then, should we give? We should give what Jesus gave: everything. When determining how much to give, ask yourself this simple question: how much did Jesus give? Then go and give that amount. We take a benevolence offering in every month with a fifth Sunday, and one is coming up on June 30. When deciding how much to give, ask yourself: how much would Jesus give? Then go and give that amount!

Let’s be careful here. Jesus understands budgeting and financial responsibility. Jesus understands the need for housing and clothing and food. He understands planning for unexpected car repairs and vacations. What we fail to understand is that we are not simply responsible for the amount we put in the offering, but also for the amount we keep for ourselves! How much should you and I give? All of it!

All of our income should be set aside for the Lord and his glory. Some of his glory will be revealed through providing a home for yourself and your family. Some of his glory will be revealed through the food you purchase and consume. Some of his glory will be revealed through the amount you designate to support your local church. Some of his glory will be revealed through new tires on your car and that vacation. Too often we focus on the amount we give and we fail to recognize even the amount we keep has been entrusted to us by the Lord and is to be used for his glory.

As I mentioned, there are those who insist on a literal ten-percent tithe, thinking this is the only amount that is appropriate. I think Craig Blomberg nailed it, however. Years ago he was speaking at a conference I attended. He is the author of books such as “Neither Poverty nor Riches: A Biblical Theology of Possessions” and “Christians in an Age of Wealth: A Biblical Theology of Stewardship“. He was asked directly if there is still a requirement for God’s people to give ten percent. His answer was, “Maybe.”

He said if a man earns $25,000 a year and supports his wife and two children and gives ten percent of his income away, he’s probably sinning for he’s neglecting his family. On the other hand, he said, if a man earns $250,0000 and is single and is only giving ten percent of his income, he’s probably sinning, too. The point is we cannot look to a specific percentage or a specific dollar amount. Paul actually does give instructions regarding the amount we should give, shortly after encouraging them to be like Jesus who gave up everything for his people.

The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.

2 Corinthians 9:6-7 ESV

Notice the freedom in giving! We give as we have decided in our own hearts! All must give, and all must be generous, but generosity is determined not by the amount given, but by the heart that gives it. This is why the widow in Luke 21 was so very generous. She gave two small copper coins, each worth about 1/128 of a denarius. A denarius was an average day’s wage. The average weekly wage in America is just over a thousand dollars. Assuming a five-day work week, that’s a little over $200 per day. The coins the widow put in the offering were each worth 1/128 of a day’s wage. That works out to about three dollars in today’s money. Jesus says she gave far more than those who were tossing coins into the offering box. We see from this generosity is neither a percentage nor an amount. It is, rather, a love for God that motivates one to give. This was Paul’s point in 2 Corinthians 8 when he told them to look to Jesus. Jesus is truly the most generous ever, for he gave everything.

God has given everything to us in Christ. Even the resources we each have been given, whether you think it little or a lot, have been given richly in Christ. God enables us to support organizations such as UTM, NECM, Bridge Street Ministries. We can support our missionaries in the Congo and in Italy. We can support organizations such as Alpha Womens’ Center and Safe Haven and Mel Trotter Ministries and Salvation Army. We can support Palmer School and its teachers. We can care for our community through outreach projects like we did during the community event “Lights on Creston”. Think of this: we can support the work of God in Christ at New City by giving to support salaries and maintenance of our building and corporate worship. We can support the work of God in each other’s lives as we give to those in need and help them by sharing the resources God first shared with us.

How much should we give? Look to Christ for the answer. He gave everything for us. This requires we give everything for him—even some of our money.