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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Money, Personal Priorities, and Changing the World

change-the-worldWe live for money. Let’s be honest. Especially if we’re American. It’s in our blood. And despite all our insistence about living a life full of meaning and purpose, about being fulfilled, and not surrendering to the rancid materialism everywhere around us … we hold on to our debit cards like they were oxygen tanks under water.

Well, unless there’s a good sale going on at Macy’s.

It’s about priorities, after all, isn’t it?

But don’t worry. This isn’t gonna be some tirade about how we all need to make deep personal sacrifices to save the world. This isn’t going to be a sermon on “sell everything and give to the poor,” or even encouragement to tithe. (“Tithing?” Isn’t that Old Testament?)  But if we’d just do a little, it would be enough.  Stuff might actually happen. The world might become a better place.

Two things happened recently that bring this to a head for me.  My friend Josh recently told me about his “adventures” helping out another mutual friend during a time of financial crisis.  This mutual friend (I’ll call him Mike), had an unexpected emergency come up which put him in deep financial stress. His rent was due, and now he couldn’t pay it. His bank account was empty.  Josh had a little extra in his account, so the burning question of the day was, Should he loan the money to Mike?

Loaning money, to friends or anybody else for that matter, is a risky business. That old Shakespearian saying proves true all too often: “neither a borrower nor a lender be, for loan oft loses both itself and friend.”  But we call ourselves Christian, and Jesus’ teaching on the matter is painfully clear. “If someone asks to borrow your coat, give him your shirt also…”  Jesus constantly challenges us to look to God as our ultimate financial backer, and not worry about pay back.  So, many people I know routinely consider every “loan” a gift. Can they afford to “give” the money away? If so, they let it go. If they get it back, that’s great. If not, well, God saw their hearts, he saw the sacrifice, and they leave it to him to sort it all out in the end.

Josh did have that little extra in his account that month, so he was able to help. But it would sting. It would deplete the “emergency reserve” he was trying to build up for himself.  Should he do it?  Could he afford to lose it if Mike never paid him back?  Time passed, and Mike, the needy friend, started getting eviction notices for overdue rent.  Josh wrestled with the decision for a few days, but during one sleepless night, he arrived at a decision. All night long, as he wrestled with the options, a phrase from the bible kept going through his head.  “Jesus of Nazareth went about doing good …” (Acts 10:38). If he called himself a Christian, if he really wanted to follow Jesus’ example, he should choose to “do the good thing.” And in this case, he decided, that meant helping out the friend in crisis – regardless of the risk and potential loss.  Maybe that isn’t the right answer every time someone wants to borrow money, but Josh felt like it was the Holy Spirit speaking to him about this specific case.

And he did it. He tapped his account and paid his friend’s rent.

Unfortunately, the rest of the story goes just the way you’re probably anticipating. Mike never did repay him, and it’ll take Josh months to save up enough to rebuild his emergency fund.  But he saw the look of relief on his friend’s face when the eviction notice got torn up, and knew he’d done the right thing.

Was he a sucker or a saint?

sanctuaryThis week, our church had its quarterly public meeting to open the books to the congregation. “Here is how much came in, here are our expenses, and here’s where the money went.”  And sadly, all too frequently, the weekly expenses outweigh the giving of the congregation.  And things have to be cut and staff doesn’t get paid.  The harsh truth came out in a single statement. “Our average weekly attendance is __, and if every one of our regular attenders gave just $20 a week, our budget would be completely met.”  Twenty bucks a week?  Not $20 more, mind you, just $20 total.  Never mind even mentioning “tithing.” Never mind special pleading from the pulpit, or sermons on promised prosperity to motivate believers to open their wallets.  (Do we really need sermons on Sunday solely for the purpose of raising enough funds to keep the doors open on Sunday?)

Bottom line:  Church functions and community services were being pinched because our own people weren’t taking ownership of them.

Here’s the simple truth:
The work of the Kingdom of God is done by the people of God. And that includes financial support. If the money doesn’t come in, the work doesn’t get done.

Even Jesus, with his miraculous powers to heal the sick, raise the dead, and speak the liberating truth of God’s love to unexpected people, even he was able to do ministry because people supported him financially (Luke 8:3).

That 20 bucks sticks in my mind.  It’s not so much, not such a big deal for most of us most of the time.  We all go through periods when every penny counts, but for most of us, those periods are short-lived, and we generally have the luxury of affording our daily Starbucks fix.  Or maybe it’s an iTunes fix or getting that latest smart phone.  I honestly do not believe God begrudges us those little pleasures.  He’s not stingy. He’s not an old curmudgeon, demanding we forego our caffeine for the sake of “the poor.”  But what does it say about our heart, about the condition of our “spiritual but not religious” priorities, when “good” isn’t being done because we won’t take financial responsibility for the work of the Kingdom?

What about the family next door whose kids live on peanut butter and grape jelly because mom isn’t bringing in enough money to put decent meals on the table – even if she had the time?   Could we add a couple of extra items to our grocery basket and quietly leave a bag on her doorstep?

starbucksThere’s that homeless guy who hangs out on the corner near work. Bet he’d appreciate a cold drink from the drive-thru on these sweat-soaking summer days.  Or a cup of soup when winter rolls around.  Will that break me once in a while?

Or when we see those commercials on TV about starving kids, and how “for just pennies a day …”?  Yeah, we can’t bankroll every charity with a good cause, but maybe just one …

Jesus spent a good deal of time talking about money. And if we call ourselves his followers, maybe we should work on this area a bit more.  Luke 16 records two parables he told, “The Shrewd Manager” and “The Rich Man and Lazarus,” both lessons in spiritual principles of money handling: “Use your worldly resources to benefit others and make friends. Then, when your earthly possessions are gone, you will be welcomed into an eternal home.”

The alternative is a world of suffering people untouched by us, and a less than rewarding future for us who ignored them.

I admit it. I live for money. I hate even saying it. But most of my waking hours are spent earning it and then consuming it.  What would happen if I altered my spending priorities just a little?  What if I made “giving” my priority — using more of my earthly resources to benefit others — and my daily latte became the optional “if I can afford it” item?  What if we all did?  Would the world hold Christians in such low esteem if we put our money where our mouth is?

What would the world look like if we all did just a little?  No huge sacrifice. No guilt-inducing sermons from the pulpit. No quitting our jobs and joining the Peace Corp, Vista or World Vision.  And no need to respond to every request for help that comes our way.  Just a little, here and there.  Just a little bit more.

We all don’t need to be missionaries, visionaries, millionaires or martyrs to change the world.  We only need to do just a little.

 

 

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STEVE SCHMIDT serves on the pastoral staff of Expressions Church 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 blogs at CafeInspirado.com, and you can always find him skulking on Facebook.
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If You Enjoy the Fruit, Support the Tree

fruit_treeWeird thing happened the other day. I was scrolling through a bunch of statuses on Facebook, glancing at comments by friends I know pretty well, some I know hardly at all, and organizations and churches that I “like” or am somehow associated with. And I ran across two or three statuses that kinda reminded me of car dealership commercials on TV. “Need to make some last minute tax deductible donations before the end of the year? Consider our church …” And me, still battling issues with impulse control, rapidly snapped off a comment about how sad that was; “if you have to ask, then maybe you’re doing something wrong …” Okay, not the most gracious thing I could have done. It just struck me as so commercial, so off track, churches asking for money. Looking back on that now, I’m almost surprised that I was even surprised by that. We’d all been burned by the constant money-begging on Christian television, and I guessed we’d all moved past that. My thinking: “If you were really doing the work of God, the provision would automatically be there already, right?” But some of my friends didn’t mind those offending statuses at all. Operational expenses weren’t automatically met by generous donors acting as the hand of God. How else are these organizations going to keep doing the good work unless they ask for support? “You have not because you ask not …”, as one friend reminded me. Hmm. My friends were probably correct. But I was still left with that sour taste in my mouth. Something about this just isn’t right. Then I happened across the profile of a pastor friend of mine, and noticed that he’d gone back to school to pick up some technical training and certification. He already had a college degree (in the non-money making field of Biblical Studies), but was now needing more (other) training to make a living. That really hit me — with a sadness that overshadowed my earlier offense at those solicitation requests. And I was suddenly struck by how many pastors I know who have to be bi-vocational. They’ve accepted the call of God to tend his people, and they’re carrying the joys and responsibilities of that task nearly full-time. They teach. They spend time daily preparing their sermons and lessons. They pray, spending time keeping their spiritual ears tuned to God, lifting the needs of their flock before the Eternal Throne. They counsel hurting people on the phone. They visit the sick in the hospital, they answer phone calls in the middle of the night, they meet people who just “need to talk” for lunch, for dinner, for breakfast, for coffee. They go to endless meetings: meetings in the community, meetings at the church, networking with other organizations that effect the community they shepherd. They’re touching lives and making an impact. And they do all this joyfully. They love it. They find purpose and fulfillment in it. Well, most of it, anyway. But then they have to go to their “other job” to pay their bills, to put food on their table, to have medical insurance. And family life? Those blessed with spouse or children hardly get to spend any time with them at all. Sacrifice, I think, we all expect of our holy men and women. Sacrifice is part of the call. But what about us? What about those of us on the receiving end of all this sacrifice? We gladly spend time with our pastors; we’re quick to call them when we need them, when we’ve lost our job, or when our child is sick or a relative was taken suddenly to the Emergency Room. And we’re thrilled that we finally found a church where we belong, where we fit, where we can reap the rich benefits of good teaching and spiritual community. And, thank God, our pastor never annoys us with sermons on giving. Thank God he’s not out for our money. I’m all about grace. I’m all about liberty and freedom from religious obligation. We’ve received such a treasure in the Kingdom of God. We’re free. We owe no man any obligation, we’re under no pressure to conform, to live up to other people’s religious expectations of us. This is our heritage. This is our right as children of the King. But in celebrating our liberty, have we forgotten the responsibility that comes with it? Being the beneficiaries of such extravagant grace and liberty, aren’t we also under the obligation to help others come into their inheritance? Aren’t we also to share in the burden of ministry? The Apostle Paul said that anyone who receives instruction in the Word must also share all good things with his instructor (Gal 6:6). That is, if we are blessed, if we enjoy the freedom we’ve been taught to walk in, then we must financially support those who led us to this place of grace. We must take care of our shepherds. As Jesus himself told us, “the workman is worthy of his keep” (Mt 10:10). And more than that. What about the work itself? That “Great Commission” thing was given to all of us. Most of us don’t have the gifts, the abilities, or the time to make this our primary function in life. But we can participate by supporting those who do. As Paul again tells us, everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved — this relationship with God, this freedom, belongs to everyone. But how can people call on someone they’ve never heard of? And how can they hear unless someone teaches them? And how can someone teach unless they are sent? (Rom 10:13-15) Those of us not called to bear the sacrifice of full time ministry must pick up the slack and support those who are. “How can they preach unless they are sent?” That is our job: to “send” them. Those few Facebook statuses requesting year-end donations are an embarrassment. But not for the organizations requesting them, as I at first thought. They are an indictment against us, against those of us who reap the benefit of all the great teaching, of all the comfort and encouragement our pastors lavish on us, against all of us who enjoy the warm fellowship of community our shepherds have created for us. Those people and organizations on the frontlines, plowing the road for us, making our lives easier, those taking the Good News of restored relationship with God to people and places who still need to hear it — why are they carrying this burden all alone? Paul continues: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Rom 10:15). We can be beautiful too. We can share in the blessing by sharing in the responsibility. Our preachers may be reluctant to lay the burden on us. You may not hear pleas from the pulpit for financial support for all the ministries and services we take for granted, for all the words that have changed our lives. But as people who enjoy royal citizenship, we need to step up and take more seriously the duties of that citizenship. Wherever we have benefited, whoever has enriched us — we owe them our lives. I wish I’d never have to see one of those solicitations again. Not because these ministries need our support to continue the work, but because we degrade them by making them beg. They shame me. They shame the Church. They remind us that we are lazy, ungrateful, and selfish. They’re a finger gently pointing in our faces that we are not shouldering our share of the job. We need to do better. And I promise, from now on, I will. “A tree is known by its fruit,” Jesus tells us.  If we’ve enjoyed the fruit, we should support the tree.