In Part 1, we surveyed some of the Old Testament teachings on giving and tithing. In this last post, we will look at teachings from the New Testament.
Giving in the New Testament
Just as the Old Testament taught required offerings in the form of tithing (i.e., taxation), the New Testament endorses government taxation as a kind of required giving. The difference, however, is that the economies had seriously changed over the years and the New Testament Church was no longer under a theocratic form of government. Instead, it was under a local, human form of government. Granted, at the time the Gospels were written and many of the early New Testament books, the Jews were still obligated with temple taxation, as well as other Roman taxes. The Mosaic law and Roman law were heavy tax burdens for the Jewish nation. Jesus seemingly endorses the payment of taxes exacted by God’s law (Matthew 17:24-27 corresponding with Exodus 30:13; 38:25-26) and those required by human law (Matthew 22:15-22).
What Jesus condemns is not the principle of obligatory tithing (i.e., temple taxation and governmental obligation), but the ignoring of the weightier matters of the law having to do with the heart (Matthew 23:23; see also Luke 18:12). From Matthew 17:24-27 it appears Jesus endorses paying obligatory temple taxes, insofar as the temple remained operative and functional. Significantly, nowhere in the remainder of the New Testament is this kind of tithing mentioned. History shows that by 70 C.E. the temple was destroyed and, therefore, taxation under the old system is no longer exacted. I suggest that Romans 13:1-7 parallels the notion that taxation by local governments are still under the sovereign ordination of God, thus making them required. If this is correct, then failing to pay taxes to local governments is tantamount to robbing God (see Malachi 3:10)!
Hebrews 7:1-4 highlights Abraham’s “tithing” to Melchizedek. As previously mentioned, nowhere does Scripture claim that God told him to do so. Abraham voluntarily chose to make this offering. This is merely a recollection of Abraham’s activity and the context of Hebrews 7 is simply not teaching principles of tithing for New Testament believers. Instead it is showing the supremacy of Christ’s priestly office over that of any other. Using Hebrews 7:1-4 to promote tithing for the believer ignores the weight of the context and thus becomes a pretext with no authority.
It is striking to note that in the letters of Paul (13 of the 27 books in the New Testament) there is no mentioned of “tithing” per se as required giving. This does not mean, of course, that the believer is not obligated to honor God with their wealth. I suggest, as others have, that this silence on explicit amounts for giving is more liberating on the one hand and more stringent on the other. For those living at or below the poverty level, giving ten percent could be an unnecessary burden, whereas those who are excessively affluent (as defined by the local economy) could use the ten percent principle as an excuse for not giving more when they could easily do so.
The New Testament offers several guidelines for giving. We should view our giving as investing with God (Matthew 6:19-21) and remember that our wealth does not belong to us; we merely administrate what God has entrusted to us. The Apostle Paul asks rhetorically, “What do you have that you did not receive?” (1 Cor. 4:7), the implication being were it not for God’s gracious provision we would have nothing! In some sense, earthly treasure is the currency for heavenly treasure. When we give as an investment in heaven rather than merely an earthly investment, we’re far more likely to give abundantly. We are naturally preoccupied with seeing the return on our investment. Observing how God will use our money is far more exciting than how Wall Street will use it!
Interestingly, the largest passage on giving (2 Cor 8-9) has little if anything to do with supporting a local church ministry in terms of its operating expenses, but has everything to do with the relief of poverty in the Church at large. This alone should give churches pause before committing abundant resources to buildings, unnecessarily high staff salaries, and the like. While there is nothing explicitly unbiblical about having sufficient staff and facilities that meet the needs of a local congregation, the burden of New Testament teaching is in meeting the needs of the poor. To diminish or even ignore this emphasis in Scripture while building larger parking lots and acquiring sufficient acreage to build the church “campus” seems a bit beyond Scripture when there are so many legitimate needs of the poor that confront us.
Upon a cursory reading of 2 Cor. 8-9 various principles or guidelines emerge such as reciprocity (God often gives back to us when we give to him, 2 Cor. 9:6; see also Philip. 4:18-19), equality (as far as is known, poverty should be reduced or eliminated in the Church, 2 Cor. 8:13), generosity (2 Cor. 8:2; 9:11, 13), sacrifice (2 Cor. 8:3; Heb. 13:16, also see 2 Sam. 24:24), and willingness (2 Cor. 9:7). These are the overarching standards by which giving is to be measured. Amounts simply are not specified. This comports with the freewill offering of the Old Testament, which, as we have seen, is interested in the character and heart of the giver rather than the quantity. Nowhere is this clearer than in Mark 12:41-44. The poor widow who contributed the smallest amount actually gave “more than all those who are contributing to the offering box,” because she gave all she had. Moreover, this passage manifestly demonstrates that sacrificial giving is always valued by God.
A few more principles of giving are noted in the New Testament. Jesus insists that our giving should be in secret (Matt. 6:1-4). The intent is not that literally no one else knows what or how much we give, but that our motive for giving should not be for praise from others. Therefore, Christian organizations that list their benefactors to motivate giving, intentionally or unintentionally, reflect the hypocrisy Jesus here condemns.
Luke 19:1-9 tells us giving may be a spontaneous reaction to something wonderful God has done. After seeing the truth about Jesus (v. 6), Zacchaeus gave away 50 percent of his wealth and even agreed to pay back fourfold those he may have cheated! This kind of giving is an act of gratitude and love in response to what God has done.
Paul instructed the Corinthian and Galatian churches to set aside an unspecified amount with regularity to provide relief for impoverished Judean saints (1 Cor. 16:1-4, see also Acts 11:28 and Rom. 15:25-27). The only reference to an amount is in proportion to one’s prosperity (1 Cor. 16:2). This could very well be applied as the “graduated tithe” that Blomberg suggests (Neither Poverty Nor Riches) where one increases their giving as earnings increase. Although a specified amount is nowhere mentioned, Paul plainly tells us to give regularly in accordance with our prosperity so the needs of fellow believers can be met.
D. A. Carson, distinguished churchman and scholar, offers two more principles for consideration.
Beware of pride. There is always a great spiritual danger in thinking that if in some area we have satisfied a specific, concrete demand we have done everything that God requires. Ten percent is a lot of money to some folks; to others it’s not very much. Isn’t that one of the lessons to be learned from Jesus’ comments about the widow’s mite? To suppose that God demands 10 percent — and nothing more — can itself foster a remarkably independent and idolatrous attitude: “This bit is for God, and the rest is mine by right.” Likewise, if you choose to give more than 10 percent, you may become inebriated from the contemplation of your own generosity.
Remember why you’re giving. A strictly legal perspective on giving soon runs into a plethora of complicated debates. Is this 10 percent of gross income or of net? How does this play out in a country where a progressive income-tax system rises to 90 percent of income? If we choose to tithe from our net income, are we talking “take-home pay” only, or does it include what is withheld for medical insurance and retirement benefits? (published in 1999 by “Christianity Online.” All rights reserved by D. A. Carson.)
Finally, and most importantly, giving is to be an expression of our love for others (2 Cor. 8:8). Any other motivation falls short of God’s expectations for us (Rom. 13:8; 1 Cor. 13:3). After all, out of love God gave his best and most for us (Jn. 3:16; 2 Cor. 8:9) and we’re required to do nothing less (Lk. 9:23)!
We have seen that the New Testament offers several guidelines for giving but never requires believers to give a certain amount. Some may give far more than ten percent without impinging upon their basic needs while others could not reasonably give ten percent save extreme hardship on themselves or their families. The call to generosity is surely more demanding and more liberating. The Bible consistently says that God is more interested in us than in the amount, although both the amount and our character are intricately related. What is clear for all Christians is that when our hearts are fully behind whatever we give and we are faithfully following the principles specified in the New Testament, we’ll find that Jesus’ words are true, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).
I’m indebted to the following works for most of these insights.
Craig L. Blomberg, Neither Poverty Nor Riches: A Biblical Theology of Possessions
Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Toward Old Testament Ethics
John F. MacArthur, Jr. Giving: God’s Way