I’ve written this post because money is an important topic for Christians to talk about, but many of us pastors are afraid to talk about it because of the sins of those who have gone before us. We are afraid. But, alas, some things must be said, even at the risk of being lumped in with the Jimmy Swaggarts of the world.
In the interest of full disclosure, part of my motivation to write this post is the financial state of Ember Church. However, I have no intention of trying to motivate people in my own congregation to give so that the church can be rescued. If you were at church last week when we publicly discussed our financial circumstances you know this. (If you attend Ember and missed this information, but would like to know more, please let me know.) What Ember needs is for me to find a full-time job somewhere else in the city, something I am trying to do in earnest. However, what I’ve written below still needs to be said. As usual, I’ve tried to state things as clearly and frankly as possible.
I’m convinced that the reason we don’t like to talk about or hear about money at church is because we love money, put our faith in it, and wrap our identities around it. Let me be plain. Money is an idol. The more viscerally you respond to a sermon on money, the more likely it is that you are harboring money as a powerful idol on the throne of your heart. I know those are strong words, but I believe them, and I believe they need to be said. God hates all of our idols because they steal his rightful place in our lives, and they ultimately make us less than human.
Last week at Ember I mentioned, while talking about the church’s finances, that part of why we tithe–give to the local church–is to wage war against the idol of money that captivates our hearts. If greed is the idolatry of money, then generosity to God’s work is the antidote to our greed.
What does the New Testament say about tithing?
Oddly enough, the NT does not mention tithing, though for the earliest Jewish Christians it seems likely that they would have continued to tithe to the Temple, and then given an additional amount for the work of the Church. The Gentile Christians did not have to pay a tithe (which was really closer to a national tax for Israel) for the upkeep and operation of the Temple. So what drove them? Here is a sampling of some Scripture from the NT. (Thanks to a commenter at the Jesus Creed named Amos Paul for compiling these.)
1 Corinthians 16:1-2 • Now about the collection for God’s people: Do what I told the Galatian churches to do. On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made.
Romans 15:27 • They were pleased to do it, and indeed they owe it to them. For if the Gentiles have shared in the Jews’ spiritual blessings, they owe it to the Jews to share with them their material blessings.
1 Corinthians 9:11 • If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you?
1 Corinthians 9:14 • In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel.
2 Corinthians 8:12 • For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what he does not have.
2 Corinthians 9:7 • Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.
Notice that there is no set sum, like a tithe (10%), for the NT churches. Rather, giving is governed by the principles of grace, willingness, and generosity. C.S. Lewis noticed this absence of specific direction, and concluded thusly:
“I do not believe that one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid that 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 because our charitable expenditure excludes them.”
In other words, give until it hurts. Make sacrifices for the work of God, and especially for the local family of God to which you belong. The church’s responsibility is not to make its pastors rich, but to make their work possible, and a joy. God takes very seriously the work to which he has called ministers, and his will is for them to “receive their living from the gospel.”
Should I tithe when I am in debt?
I hear this question from time to time. “Isn’t it God’s will for me to be out of debt? Shouldn’t I put that ahead of giving to the church?” In fact, it is God’s will for you to be out of debt. However, if you’re not going to give to the church because of your debt, then neither should you buy any new clothes, eat out, go to the movies, buy Christmas or birthday presents, or do anything else than the absolute, bare minimum required to survive until you have successfully paid off your debt. If you’re so concerned over your debt (and you should be concerned over it) that you would withhold from the work of God in your midst, then you should also withhold from yourself every blessing of life in modern America. No cable. No Netflix. No internet. No cell phone. And you should probably sell as much as you possibly can in order to speed up the repayment of your debt.
Have I overstated things? Maybe I have. But is it right to withhold from God’s work and indulge yourself? A cell phone might not feel like an indulgence, but when you’re giving $100 to Verizon every month and $0 to your local church, and you claim that you’re too in debt to tithe, perhaps something has gone awry in your heart. Perhaps there is an idol on the throne of your heart, the throne that rightfully belongs to Jesus.
My family is in debt. We have a mortgage. We have a car payment. We bought a new HVAC system in 2010 that we’re paying off. We had our basement waterproofed. We have a significant chunk of debt to pay off. But, despite our debt, and even though I’m the pastor of the church to which we tithe (Yes, pastors tithe too!), we give sacrificially to Ember Church. We do it because we love the local church, and believe in the power of the community of Jesus and the necessity to fund it. (Incidentally, our giving has not increased since planting Ember. We give the same percentage to Ember that we gave to Heritage.)
To answer the question, Yes, you should tithe even when you are in debt. For many of us, we are in debt because money has been an idol. Paying off your debt will not solve the idolatry problem. But I believe that generosity will.
How much should I give to the local church to which I belong?
There is no definitive number for this. Let the principles of grace, willingness, and generosity guide you. You need to work out with God just how much to give. But don’t ask, “How much can I afford?”; ask, “How much, God? How much must I give to kill the idol of money in my heart? How much will it take to starve the beast within me?” I know a family that gives 10% of their pretax income to the local church. They do pretax income because they want to make sure that God and the Church gets financial resources before the Government.
Here are some more tithing tips:
- Don’t chop up your giving. If you’ve decided on a certain amount to give to the local church, don’t reduce that amount to support missionaries or do other charitable giving. Let the local church be your first commitment, then support missionaries from your abundance, if you are able. Also, trust the church to be able to responsibly direct the funds.
- Never tell your pastor, “My tithe pays your salary.” If you still consider it “your tithe”, then you haven’t been gracious, willing, or generous. When you put it in the basket, it doesn’t belong to you anymore. Just as “your taxes” don’t pay for every single thing the government does, so “your tithe” doesn’t pay for everything the church does.
- Don’t withhold tithe to make a political point or express your dissatisfaction with the pastor. This is childish. Don’t let your money do the talking when you’re perfectly capable of doing the talking yourself.
- Trust that God will provide. My family has consistently given more than we can afford, and we have consistently seen God come through for us. Because of God’s faithfulness in the past, we have faith for his continued provision in the future.
Tithing is, in the end, a discipleship issue. Tithing calls us to fully root ourselves in a particular faith community, and to follow Jesus in the most sensitive of areas–our bottom lines. It is an act of war with the idol of money. It is an exercise in faith, and God will prove himself faithful.