And then God struck …. Not.

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Minutes after the US Supreme Court handed down their ruling overturning bans on same-sex marriage, posts were already going up on Facebook and across the blogosphere about “Spitting in the face of God” and “God’s impending wrath on America.

*Sigh* Really? Of course, this kind of reaction is not surprising. There are a surprising number of people who are invested in preserving tradition and a strict moral code that does not allow for love between two people of the same gender. It’s a religious thing, not a rational one. Not a civil one. Not a constitutional one. And frankly, not a godly one either.

But there it is.  Wrath. Christians who on most days of the week boast about living in God’s grace, now suddenly focused on the doom about to be unleashed on this now pagan America.

But let’s forget about the bantering back and forth about “WWJD?” or what the Bible says (or doesn’t say) about homosexuality. We’ll never agree on that anyway. We will always read and interpret the Bible in ways that agree with what we already want to believe. Let’s just look at our own history in Europe and America, and judge whether God is still in the wrath-inflicting business.

When Europe was filled with terror over religious wars in the previous centuries, with people being brutally tortured (Spanish Inquisitions, Holy Wars, Crusades, etc), did God hurl lightning bolts at Rome or London or Castile? Did comets plummet to the earth, wiping out vile Europeans? Or during the Holocaust in the 1930s and -40s, with millions of Jews (“God’s chosen people”), Gypsies, gay people, and others were exterminated, and their ashes literally rose to heaven as their bodies were incinerated — did God inflict his wrath?

In our own illustrious American history, with the genocide of Native Americans, with centuries of slavery, with witch hunts and burning people at the stake, oppression of women and racial minorities, of anti-Semitism, of Islamophobia and homophobia, of lynchings, of gay-bashing and public violence… What about our neglected poor, and those who fought so hard to make sure the poor among us would NOT have food or shelter or medical treatment? Yeah, Social Security is part of our national existence now, but it was strongly resisted when FDR tried to bring it about. Same with Medicare and Medicaid. Just look at the fight over Obamacare, or the hostility directed at “illegal aliens”.

The Bible is full of examples (and commands!) concerning treatment of the weak, the helpless, the widows, orphans, the poor, the aliens in the land. The prophet Ezekiel even declared that that was the reason for God’s punishment on Sodom and Gomorrah — for the citizens of those cities’ lack of concern for the vulnerable among them, while they fattened their own purses and stomachs. Greed, gluttony, selfishness, and turning a blind eye to the needs of others is what irks God. (Ezek 16:49)

Jesus came along and turned a spotlight on these concerns close to God’s heart. Love for our neighbor became a motto. “What you do unto the least of these …” was a standard against which we would ultimately be judged in the next life.

And about “imminent judgment” for sins committed, Jesus pointed at examples in his own day, and said “NO! Those people hurt by disasters were no more sinners than you” (Lk 13:4). And when his own disciples wanted to call down fire from heaven upon those who rejected God’s Good News (listen up, Mike Huckabee!), Jesus smacked them in the face: “You don’t know what Spirit you belong to”  (Lk 9:54).

If America were to invoke the wrath of God — whether by drought or famine or hurricane, flood, earthquake or other natural disaster — it would not be over passing laws that allow people to love and celebrate each other. If anything, we’d fall under his curse for our neglect of the needy among us, the minorities, those illegal aliens who come here looking for a better life. He’d judge us for being the wealthiest nation in this history of this planet, yet 1 out of every 5 children in this country go to bed hungry. We drive our Lexuses, we buy bigger houses, we pad our 401K plans, and our neighbors can’t feed their children. Our grandparents can’t afford their medicines. Our youth are living on the streets, kicked out of their homes by angry parents.  Surely we deserve God’s wrath — but not for marriage equality.

Thankfully, God doesn’t seem to be in the wrath-hurling business. Grace is his trademark characteristic. Love extended to the unworthy, the undeserving. And judgment — by HIS standards, not ours — reserved for the Great White Throne in the next life.  And anyone who is predicting the coming wrath because their traditional moral values no longer hold force in this country, only proves that their traditions were built on sand. They don’t know the heart of God. The same words of Jesus apply today as well as then: “You know not what Spirit you are of.”

 

[box type=”bio”] STEVE SCHMIDT is the Teaching Pastor at Expressions in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York. He is editor of IMPACT Magazine, and blogs here on the Cafe Inspirado column. Plus you can find him making random comments about life on Facebook. [/box]

Faith, Anticipation and Expectation – When you don’t know how to pray or what to believe

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We are a “Faith” generation. Many of us who surfed the wave of “Word-Faith” teaching that swept explosively through the Church in the 1980s and ’90s have since found our balance point in life. As with any fresh movement of the Spirit, there were excesses, misunderstandings, and actions out of spiritual immaturity unchecked by the wisdom and experience of older saints. But millions of believers around the world found a new vitality with God that had been absent so long in their traditional church upbringing. I was one of them.

Life teaches you — if you let it. If you have “eyes to see and ears to hear”. We grow; we learn. Part of my journey was learning a comfortable “fit” for faith in my life. I discovered over time that I couldn’t simply express a desire to God, flip the switch of faith on in my heart, speak the word, claim the promise, and watch the results roll in. It didn’t always work for me. And for someone who takes the Bible very seriously, that was a problem.

What do you do when you stand on a verse that reads “if you ask anything in my name, I will do it”, or “whatever you desire when you pray, believe that you have received it and you will have it” — and then it doesn’t occur? Any wise saint will tell you that you can’t pull verses out of context at will and make them work for you. Every verse has its place in the entirety of Scripture, and unless you’re reading it in that whole spectrum of light, you’re bound to go astray. Jesus said “if you abide in me and my words abide in you, ask what you will …” (John 15:7). And that about sums it up. Your prayers, your wishes, have to come from a position of being one with Jesus. They have to line up with his will. Isn’t that what “in Jesus’ name” really means? You can’t ask for something in his name if it’s not something he wants or approves of. Like when Peter healed the paralytic who had been bedridden for 8 years: “Jesus Christ heals you. Now, get up and make your bed” (Act 9:34). As a believer, you are entitled to use his name, but it’s Jesus’ power, his authority, so you gotta have his permission first.

With that nugget of truth in hand, it is difficult for me to ask for a specific thing in faith unless I know specifically that it is God’s will for me at that moment. Even with things that I know in general are his will. I know, for example, that it is God’s will that we be well, healed, strong and healthy. I can cite you a handful of Scripture passages to back up that assertion. But how many times on his way into the temple had Jesus passed by and not healed the same crippled man later healed by Peter and John in his name (Acts 3)? How many times have I prayed for healing (for myself and for others) and the healing did not manifest? There is a right time and place, a right state of heart and position in life — even for those things that line up with God’s general will. So, in my experience, I learned that simply “claiming a promise” was not always sufficient. I needed a direct word from God on the matter before that “claim” carried any weight.

Otherwise, expectation can get you in trouble sometimes.

That was the problem with my faith. I could define what I wanted — you know, go to God with a specific request for a specific outcome. Like going through that period of my life when I switched career paths and had to reinvent myself. I’d apply for jobs I wanted, and because I was confident of God’s blessing, I expected to get them. But many of them fell through, and I was left to deal with the bitter disappointment and the shaking of my faith.

Too specific an expectation without a direct leading can really mess you up.

But when I stopped trying to force specific outcomes, when I did the leg work but left the results in God’s hands, that allowed God to move me in directions he wanted me to go, and I would be excited and surprised by the unexpected places he took me. That slight difference in perspective made all the difference. When I did not have a definite word from Heaven, I switched from expectation to anticipation.

We used to sing this little ditty in church years ago, and I love it to this day. “I anticipate the inevitable, supernatural intervention of God, I expect a miracle. I expect a miracle. I expect a mir-a-cle.” (Yeah, it comes across better with music. 🙂 ) It always summons up images for me of the Israelites as they’re leaving Egypt, chased by the Egyptian army, and blocked by the Red Sea. They didn’t know what God was going to do; they didn’t know how he was going to save them. In fact, most of them were sure they were going to die. But a handful of brave souls had faith in the promises of God. They did not have faith for a specific result, but they waited eagerly (sweating profusely, I’m sure), anticipating SOMETHING supernatural.

And that’s the key. Without a definite leading from God, we shouldn’t “expect” definite things — but we should “anticipate” his inevitable intervention. We may not know what it is, but we know he’ll do something. “Holy Anticipation” is putting your faith in GOD, trusting in his love and faithfulness — not trying to dictate a desired outcome.

A “Facebook friend” of mine who pastors a large church in Washington, DC wrote today that the theaters they’ve been holding services in for 13 years are now being closed down. He wrote of his mixed emotions as one chapter of the church’s life closes and another is about to begin, not knowing yet what God is up to. He says, “Despite the sadness and craziness, I have a holy anticipation about what’s next. I’m [only] sure of two things. I’ll grow as a leader through this — and I embrace that challenge. And we’ll grow as a congregation. It’s not the way I would have written the script, but it’s good for us. We’re gonna follow the cloud and the cloud is moving!” As much as my limited spiritual experience tells me, he’s on the right track. He isn’t projecting the next step. He isn’t claiming a specific new site for his church — at least not yet. All he knows right now is that God is doing something — the cloud is moving — and he is anticipating a miracle.

Our faith can be expressed in both these ways. Expectation is appropriate when God has instructed us what his intentions are for us in a situation. But when we don’t know, when we are in a bind and just looking to God for a solution — like the Israelites, trapped between the Egyptian army and the Red Sea — that’s the time for faithful anticipation.

For most of us, those are the moments we most often live in: uncertainty about the specifics yet. But those are perhaps the moments of our greatest faith, and we need to just hang in there, waiting with excitement and open eyes, so we can see the amazing thing God is about to do!

… And now, just because I’m feeling a bit musical this morning, here’s a bit that kinda sums it up …


photo credit: Joris Louwes via Flickr, cc

This piece originally appeared in Cafe Inspirado.
[box type=”bio”]
STEVE SCHMIDT is the Teaching Pastor at Expressions in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.

He is editor of IMPACT Magazine, and blogs here on the Cafe Inspirado column. Plus you can find him making random comments about life on Facebook.

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When your faith is bigger than the Bible…

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Living with uncertainty just may be the mark of a genuinely in-touch spiritual life. When your thoughts, your perspective of the God and the universe, go beyond the limits of what you’ve been taught, when you begin to think outside the lines, it can be a very scary thing. But it can also be a sign of profound growth. And you might be in touch with God in a way that you weren’t before. Something could be happening to you – and it could be a really, really good thing.

I’ve noticed this a lot in the past decade or so. And mostly, it’s made me uncomfortable. REALLY uncomfortable. There were these preachers that I’d respected years ago, who suddenly got a “bigger” view of God — well, in my mind, it was just a different, even heretical, view of God. They talked about how hell didn’t really exist, how the love of God extended to ALL humans, not just the chosen 3% of all humanity whoever lived who happen to call themselves Christians. And that God would never condemn those people to eternal torment because of their ignorance of the incarnation. Some of these preachers even began to adopt lingo from other religions to describe this God who created all humanity, words and images from people who experienced God differently.

But that was weird. That’s not what my bible teaches.

At least not how I was taught to read it.

Over the past few years, my own views of God and faith have shifted a bit, became “looser.” Grace was bigger. Love was bigger. The Cross was bigger than we could ever imagine. If God himself could come down and take on human flesh, then allow himself to be killed — the death of the Creator of the Universe! — that had to be bigger than our traditional religion was describing it. It had to have universal ramifications.

But I couldn’t talk about it much. At least not outside a circle of a few close friends whom I could trust not to start gathering stones for my execution. Thanks to social media, I’ve become aware of more and more pastors and teachers whose views are evolving. And now, instead of being scary, I find it exhilarating. Something is happening. Something is up in the spirit-realm, and we might very well be in the middle of another kind of revival, a move of God’s Spirit, a new expansion in God’s revelation.

Okay, I know I just spooked a bunch of you reading this. You probably always half-suspected that I had one foot out the door of evangelical orthodoxy and already on that slippery slope that leads to eternal damnation (that hot place more and more people are coming to doubt exists).  But hold on for a few minutes. I’m not asking you to agree, but maybe you’ll consider the possibilities.

Progressive Revelation. That’s kinda the technical term for it.  That our understanding of God expands over time, as the Spirit reveals a little bit more of the character of God as time passes, as culture progresses, as we as faithful people open our hearts a bit more.  This is not something new. It happened all through the Bible.  Let’s take a quick look at a few examples.

A quick history lesson

Adam and Eve had a very intimate friendship with God. They knew him (her?) in a way the rest of humanity never would. They experienced him one on one, in the flesh so to speak. But that changed suddenly. And it was like the unrestricted access, the unfiltered view of God, got shut down. Suddenly, God was distant, not readily accessible. Cain and Abel offered up sacrifices (well, “offerings” as we understand the term. There is no indication they were blood sacrifices for sin). We don’t know that Adam or Eve ever did this when inside the Garden. This was something new.

Abraham, the father of our faith, came along millennia later. God speaks to him, and he is constantly making altars to God and worshipping. And there is even this gruesome scene where he cuts up animals in a covenant-making ceremony, and God symbolically passes through the body parts in the form of a smoking pot. No sin offerings are even mentioned. Sacrifices — financial as well as bloody — are part of Abraham’s faith walk, but they seem to flow from custom, from tradition he was familiar with, not from any specific instruction from God.  But when Moses 400 years later leads Abraham’s descendants out of Egyptian slavery, God gives him a set of specific instructions about sacrifice. “This is how you will approach me. This is how you will atone for your sins. This is how you can appear before me without being struck down by my awesome holiness.”  And we end up with a clear statement that defined our faith and theology from that time to this day. “Without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sin.”

Pretty clear. Written on stone, written on leather scrolls. Read for centuries after. Yet when King David comes along and commits some horrendous crimes (adultery, murder), he could pour out his soul to God with a new understanding that defied the written Scripture that he knew so well. “Sacrifices do not please you or I would offer them. My sacrifice is a broken spirit. A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psalm 51).  He knew something intuitively that contradicted Scripture. He could approach God and receive God’s forgiveness without blood sacrifice. His broken, repentant heart was sufficient.

Stop for a second, and let that sink in. That is HUGE. David had an intimate relationship with God, one that marked him in history as “a man after God’s own heart,” and he KNEW inside his gut that killing some sheep would not set things right between him and God. Only his honest communication, his genuinely sorrowful heart could move the heart of God.

So much for the authority of written Scripture. He had a revelation that was bigger than Scripture — and it eventually became part of Scripture.

Then a few hundred years later, the Israelites do stupid stuff, they abandon their relationship with God and hook up with other gods. They end up being conquered and exiled from their home country. Guess what? No more temple to offer sacrifices. How were they going to maintain their faith, their connection with God? Thankfully, their prophets got a new revelation — or maybe it wasn’t new. Maybe it was just a new awareness of the “other” side that David and the mystics knew all along. There were other ways of having relationship. “Obedience to God’s instruction was better than sacrifice,” and a life of compassion and fidelity to God was better still: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.” Besides, God had already revealed periodically along the way that their mechanical, insincere sacrifices had become repugnant to him. He hated them. He hated their long, babbling prayers, their fasts, their religious holidays. He hated it all. All the outward religious behavior. He wanted their hearts.

Okay, centuries later, the Jews have returned from their exile in Babylon and have resettled in their promised land. The temple is rebuilt, sacrifices re-commence. Jesus comes on the scene, and he is constantly debating with the religious leaders: “You’ve got it all wrong. This stuff is not important. Your tithes, your sacrifices, your rules, your ‘holy’ lifestyles mean nothing.” And he tries to change their way of thinking, their way of viewing God — from a somewhat distant, Almighty God, the King of the Universe, the Father of all Israel, to a more personal relationship with God the Father of us as individuals, to Abba, Daddy. And this was revolutionary. It shocked and disgusted the conservatives. It was a shift in their religious view, and most couldn’t handle it.

And it wasn’t just about relating to God on an intimate level. Jesus tried to renew their perspective about how they lived,  what they did. You know those rules in Scripture that said not to work on the Sabbath — possibly the most significant law in the Hebrew faith next to devotion to God alone. And Jesus overturned it all the time. He healed people on the Sabbath. He allowed his disciples to grind wheat to satisfy their hunger on the Sabbath. “If your ox falls into a pit on the Sabbath, won’t you break the rules out of compassion for the animal and pull him out?”  And, “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath — it was intended for your benefit, not to burden you.”  And he did this in other areas as well, from the way they washed their hands, to whom they could hang out with. Jesus taught them something beyond what was written. He broke Scripture, contradicted what was written. He reinterpreted it BIGGER than they had imagined. He gave them a new revelation.

Oh, sure. That was Jesus. He was the Son of God, so he had the right to do that. He could add stuff to the bible.

But then his disciples did the same thing. After Jesus’ ascension into heaven, non-Jews started flocking into the new Jewish church. They liked what they heard about Jesus’ teachings, Jesus’ view of God, and they wanted in.  But the bible clearly stated that to join the faith, you had to be circumcised. And these uncircumcised non-Jews were considered “unclean”. You couldn’t eat with them, or even enter their houses. The early apostles wrestle with this. And then one day Peter has a vision. God shows him all the animals that the bible clearly stated he was not supposed to eat, and then God tells him to eat them anyway. God tells him to break Scripture. The vision really wasn’t about food — although it is used as one of the justifications why Christians can now eat bacon and shrimp in direct contradiction to the bible. It was about those gentiles, those non-Jews who wanted to join the church. They didn’t need circumcision, they were not unclean. “Call nothing unclean that I have made clean,” God told him.  And, of course, the apostle Paul follows suit a bit later, declaring that the whole Law of Moses — the bible as they knew it — was no longer binding on Jesus’ followers.

BAM! They got a bigger revelation of truth. A new look at the character of God that was in direct contradiction to what was written in the bible.  So much for “The bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it.”  Nope. The vast depth and richness of the character of the God who created the universe could not be limited to a handful of scrolls. He is bigger than that. He’s got bigger plans than just that. And his love for all humanity is his #1 personality trait. Everything else is subject to revision, change, in order to fulfill his great love.

Yeah, so?

Okay, that was kinda a long history lesson. The key point to walk away with is that even in the bible, the great heroes of faith were continually getting a bigger view of God that surpassed what was previously written. Their perspectives, their revelations, were consistent with the character of God, but definitely contradicted the plain, black and white reading of the bible.  So why should that suddenly stop?

Why are we — who hold so tightly onto the sanctity and authority of Scripture, who pride ourselves in our knowledge and adherence to the bible — why are we shocked, scared, when we suddenly get a new, bigger view of God that goes beyond what is written in that book?

If that “newer, bigger” view of God seems inconsistent with the character of God — specifically, his #1 characteristic: Love — then yes, we should be skeptical. But that “new perspective” in reality may be just a fresh take on a view of God already described in the Holy Book. And if it lines up with the description of God that Jesus showed us, then perhaps we should give it some attention.  Maybe, little by little, we’re recovering some glimpses that Adam and Eve had before the great cut off.

That doesn’t mean we have to swallow every new doctrine or teaching or insight someone has. But Jesus promised that God’s Spirit would lead us into all truth. Doesn’t that mean that there still must be truth to be lead into beyond what is written on the pages of the book?

Fresh insights means a new move of the Spirit

I’m getting this subtle feeling more and more recently that we are experiencing a new wave of fresh insight into the character of God. One that challenges traditional views of the afterlife, of heaven versus hell, of eternal judgment and punishment, of who is “in” and who is “out”. Of whom God loves and wants to show himself to, and whom (if any) he wants to leave behind. I’m still walking delicately with this stuff. I’m not likely in the near future to burn a bible from the pulpit. But I think, like all those heroes of faith described in the bible, and like Jesus’ own followers, we are still getting fresh glimpses into the vastness of who God is and what he is like — and what great extent he will go to include people in his redemptive plan, his love. God’s plan is bigger than us. It’s bigger than what can be defined and limited on a few hundred pages in a leather-bound book. And he’s still showing it to us. To those whose hearts are listening, receptive, willing.

So if your view of God is expanding in new and scary ways, it doesn’t mean that you’ve lost your faith or that you suddenly have to leave the church. It doesn’t mean you’re now some other religion. It may just mean you’re in touch with the next move of the Spirit. Something is happening, and you are a part of it.

photo credit: “Unio Mystica,” Hartwig HKD via Flickr, cc

 

[box type=”bio”]
STEVE SCHMIDT is the Teaching Pastor at Expressions in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.

He is editor of IMPACT Magazine, and blogs here on the Cafe Inspirado column. Plus you can find him making random comments about life on Facebook.

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Your Tithe Doesn’t Belong to Your Church

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Wow, do we have it wrong!

I bet when you hear the word “tithe” or even “offerings,” your thoughts go immediately to pictures of a plate being passed in church. I’ve heard it from pulpits myself, “the tithe belongs to the church … your offerings can go to other places (like the traveling evangelist passing through), but your tithe stays here.” The common understanding among many Christians is that a 10th of their income belongs to God — and that means to the church. (Whether that’s 10% on your gross income or your net is a matter of conscience — and obviously, if you choose the cheaper way out, well, what does that say about you?)*

But here’s the thing: that was not where “giving” in the New Testament went. It didn’t go to build new churches; it didn’t go solely to pay the bills of some institution. It went to people. Poor people, in fact.

But let’s back-track a bit. Where did this idea of your obligation to the church come from? If you’ve been in any independent Charismatic church in the last half-century, you know very well the over-quoted verse in Malachi 3:10.

“Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in My house, and test Me now in this,” says the LORD of hosts, “if I will not open for you the windows of heaven and pour out for you a blessing that there shall not be room enough to receive it.”

It’s a favorite of preachers trying to motivate their congregations to reach into their wallets and purses, and give … give … give! until it hurts. Because God will reward you beyond your capactity to contain it all.

In other words, “give so you can get back.”

It’s a teaching made popular by Oral Roberts back in the 1940s when he realized that most people gave their tithes out of guilt and obligation. Preachers taught their flocks that they had to support God’s work, but Oral saw it in a different light. He saw it as an opportunity for blessing. “Seed-faith,” he called it. You sow like a farmer, and you expect a harvest, a return on your investment. “Give as a seed you sow, not as a debt you owe.”  It turned obligation into optimism; people began giving because they wanted to. They wanted their harvest.

And that’s great. If you have the faith that God wants to reward your generosity, then who can fault that? But on any other topic, most Christians are united in the belief that God cares about what motivates us as much as he does what we do. Why we do something is as important as the thing itself. Because God judges the heart. Outward actions can be deceiving, can be put on for show, can be the action of hypocrites eager for public approval but whose hearts are made of stone. God knows the difference.

And that’s exactly what Jesus taught. Right before his teaching on the Lord’s Prayer, he advises his disciples to watch how they give, how they pray, and how they fast (Matthew 6). Do it in secret, he says, so that no one can pat you on the back, and your Father in Heaven who sees what is done in secret will reward you. It’s not that you nullify those actions if you do them publically (didn’t Daniel in the Bible pray 3 times a day with his windows open?), but Jesus declares that doing things “to be seen by others” reflects a corrupt attitude. And by doing so, you’ve forfeited God’s blessing. You have your reward — other people’s attention — paid in full.

Alms-giving was a religious fundamental in Judaism. Along with prayer and fasting, it was one of the main hallmarks of godliness. (Hence, Jesus addressing these three specific issues in Mt 6.) So much so, that “acts of righteousness” (or just plain ole “righteousness” for short) became synonymous with alms-giving. And it still is today. And, in fact, it’s a hallmark of the faithful in Islam too — it’s #3 in the “Five Pillars of Islam” (Profession of Faith, Prayer, Giving, Fasting, and Pilgramage to Mecca). But “giving” was well understood to mean “giving to the poor and needy” — charity, alms-gving — not dropping cash into the synagogue or mosque coffers.

tithes_2876749931_25fd3ac42d_zHow did we Christians get it confused? How did what was so clearly understood by the Middle Eastern faithful as taking care of the needs of people around us get turned into mostly supporting a church organziation?

Well, there’s that nice phrase in that Malachi passage, “bring the whole tithe into the storehouse.” And what’s the storehouse? The Temple — err, the church, I mean. Right? But wait: “so that there may be meat in my house.” That’s talking about food. Okay, yes. Part of the Israelite’s tithe (in grain, meats, produce, oil and wine) went to support the priests and Levites — the religious workers. So the analogy would be that your tithe goes to support people in ministry. But the storehouse was also the local food-pantry for widows, orphans, illegal aliens, and other assorted needy people. They, along with the Levites who had no other trade except priestly work, could come to their local storehouse to get food.

“Bring all the tithes of that year’s produce and store it in your towns, so that the Levites (who have no allotment or inheritance of their own) and the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns may come and eat and be satisfied, and so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.” (Dt 14:28,29)

In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul did a little guilt-tripping on some of the congregations he founded. He was trekking across great distances, preaching, teaching, raising small congregations in the places he visited, and sometimes he had to foot the bill by himself. So he would use popular images to defend his right to financial support: A soldier does not serve at his own expense; you don’t muzzle an ox when it’s working at the mill; a teacher should share in the profit of his students, etc. He felt a bit abandoned. Except for his friends in Philippi, the other churches weren’t consistently supporting him (Phil 4:15). So yeah, there is that. People who surrender their lives to the work of God should be supported by the people of God.

But Paul wasn’t out to line his own pockets with gold — he had little good to say about those who preached the Gospel for personal gain. Look at Paul’s other teachings on giving, especially our favorite ones promising God’s blessing when we give. “God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor 9:7) is ALL about Paul encouraging the Corinthians to support the poor believers in other jurisdictions. He devotes two full chapters on this, using God as an example who scattered his gifts abroad and gave to the poor. Christ who was rich became poor for our sakes, so that we might become rich. Just as God cares about and gives to the poor, so should we. It’s all about sharing our wealth with those in need. This wasn’t so that some could live a life of ease at the expense of hard-working folk, but so that there would be enough for all.

“Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality, as it is written: ‘The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little'” (2 Cor 8:13-15).

And then he adds a little sugar to his appeal: “He who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. … God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. … You will be enriched in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion.”

Taking care of the poor and widows was so important, that the early church under the first apostles created the office of “Deacon” in order to oversee the daily distribution of their food-pantry (Acts 6), and the people shared their possessions with anyone who had need (Acts 4:35). That was the mark of truly godly people — their generosity and support of the needy.

The church was never meant to be just a place where you sing a few songs and hear a good sermon. It was also meant to be a local storehouse. Literally.

But over time the church lost its concern for the physical and material welfare of the people, and focused almost exclusively on their spiritual condition. And giving to God, as a result, followed suit. Alms-giving which was once so closely associated with righteousness, became “giving to the church,” and shifted from caring for people to providing for the needs of the organization and its ministers.

The nature of tithes and offerings changed because the church’s priorities changed. (When was the last time you heard a sermon about God blessing you with prosperity for feeding the hungry or the homeless?)

I’m not suggesting that should you stop supporting your local place of worship. The work of God won’t get done if you’re not putting your money where your mouth is. And as Paul argues, ministers are in fact worthy of our support. But God’s promise of blessing is to those who care for the vulnerable among us. And unless your church offering envelope has a checkbox for programs specifically geared toward these social concerns, you might want to consider holding back a bit of your offering and giving elsewhere. Or maybe meeting those needs yourself. Neglecting the financial support of people who need help, and reserving your tithes and offerings exclusively for “giving to the church” would mark you as un-righteous not only in the eyes of other religions, but in the eyes of early Christians too.


* Side note: Whether “tithing” is even a Christian obligation is a matter of hot debate. Some claim it is a remnant of Old Testament law that the Christian has been set free from, and our only obligation is to “give” as our heart leads. Others will say that because Jesus mentioned tithing (once) in a discussion with some Pharisees, he obviously condones its continued use in the church today. But this is a topic for another time …

photo credit: “Who needs hope?” Keoni Cabral on Flickr, cc,
“Tithes & Offerings,” RayBanBro66 on Flickr, cc.

 

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STEVE SCHMIDT is the Teaching Pastor at Expressions Today in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.

He is editor of IMPACT Magazine, and blogs here on the Cafe Inspirado column. Plus you can find him making random comments about life on Facebook.

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