It is often said that the New Testament says more about money and, consequently, about church offerings, than it says about almost any other subject. Indeed, it is true that the New Testament says a great deal about right and wrong attitudes toward wealth. It teaches that all we have comes from God and belongs to Him, and that we hold it as His stewards. However, the New Testament only rarely speaks of church offerings, per se, and it never equates the fulfillment of our "stewardship" of God's assets with the amount of money we place in the offering plate of any church on any given occasion. Moreover, the New Testament never sets any minimum offering, percentage or "suggested donation" which we may enforce legalistically upon each other. Instead, as will be shown below, the focus of the New Testament passages about money is on our attitude toward God, our brothers in Christ and our needy world, as shown by our use of all of our money. That is to say, our use of all of our money -- not just our church offerings -- is to be an act of worship. Just like our lives, our money must be submitted to His use in its entirety.
The organized church has often muddied this clear teaching of Scripture by promoting teachings which imply that, if we give amounts in excess of a certain minimum percentage of our income, commonly described as "tithes and offerings," to the church to prove our loyalty to God, we may do as we please with the rest of our possessions. The church has, thus, done us a disservice by firmly attaching the Scriptural concept of stewardship to the offering plate. This parallels a more general line of teaching that implies (though it seldom directly states) that, as long as we scrupulously observe our church's list of behavioral prohibitions and required observances, we are free to do as we wish with the rest of our lives. But this is not what the New Testament teaches. God is striving to develop a friendship with us, as His children. He does not intend us to go our own separate ways. He wants us to submit to Him. He wants everything. This is worship, as much in the use of our money as in any other area of our lives. For where our treasure is, there is our heart also.
Worship, as reflected in our attitude toward money, starts with the recognition that God made everything, gave us everything we have, and still owns it all. Plainly, God, the Creator, both created us and made everything we have or can have. Genesis 1; Ephesians 2:10; Colossians 1:16-17. Moreover, God gave us the power to acquire whatever wealth we may have. Deuteronomy 8:18; I Timothy 6:17. Human pride, in opposition to God, holds that we obtain wealth ourselves, without God, and should hoard it to attain personal security. See, e.g., Psalm 73:3-12. This attitude is epitomized by the rich fool in the parable in Luke 12:16-19 and by the church in Laodicea in Revelation 3:17-18. The rich fool received an abundant harvest, and decided to build bigger barns and hoard it for his own enjoyment. He hoarded it for himself, and was "not rich toward God." But he was a fool, because God required his soul of him the very night he decided to hoard his harvest. Similarly, the Laodicean church was foolish: because they were rich in goods they believed they had need of nothing from God. In fact, however, they were wretched, poor, blind and naked. Their worldly goods counted for nothing; in the reality of the spirit, they needed everything God could give, but they were too complacent to recognize their need.
In fact, what God says is that the way to obtain the things we need -- both physically and spiritually -- is to ask Him for them. "Ask," Jesus said, "and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and the door shall be opened to you." Matthew 7:7. Jesus stated this not as a statement of one possible outcome -- "ask, and it may be given you (but probably not)." He stated it as an absolute, everyone who asks, receives. He further explained this by comparing our heavenly Father to an earthly father -- what father would give his children a stone or a viper when they asked for bread or a fish? Matthew 7:9-10. It all comes down to the goodness of God. Is God good, or is he worse than an evil earthly father? Jesus' answer to his own rhetorical question reaffirmed God's goodness: "If ye, then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father who is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?" Matthew 7:11.
Therefore, the Scriptures consistently urge us to ask God for our needs and to trust his goodness and ability to provide. For instance, Jesus taught his disciples to pray, "give us this day our daily bread." Matthew 6:11. He then sent them out to proclaim his coming, and told them to take nothing with them except a staff and the clothes they were wearing -- no bread, no money, no bag to put money in. Instead, they were to stay in whatever house offered them lodging and eat whatever was set before them, "for the laborer is worthy of his wages." Matthew 10:5-10; Mark 6:7-11; Luke 9:3-4 (the twelve); Luke 10:3-8 (the 70). For the disciples, this instruction to go out with nothing but the clothes they were wearing was part of a much longer lesson in doing what Jesus told them to do and trusting God to take care of them while they did so. They had been raised as Jews, and would already have been aware that the Old Testament declares God to be the possessor of heaven and earth, who sets up kings, puts down kings and has the king's heart in His hand. Genesis 14:9 & 22; Proverbs 21:1; Daniel 5:18-31. They would have been well aware that it was God who gave their people, Israel, the land in which they lived. Exodus 20:12; Leviticus 20:24. They would also have heard many times the stories of God's miraculous provision for their people. They would certainly have known the story of God providing manna for forty years in the wilderness. Exodus 16:11-35. They would also have known that God sent ravens to feed Elijah. I Kings 17:6. Likewise, they would have heard about God preserving the widow's flour and oil for Elijah and multiplying the widow's oil for Elisha. I Kings 17:8-16; 2 Kings 4:1-7. They would also have known that there were occasions on which God provided for the needs of His people out of the spoil of enemies that had attacked them. See, e.g., 2 Kings 7.
Through his earthly ministry, Jesus furnished the disciples additional examples of God's ability and willingness to provide for them. He fed the five thousand with five small loaves and two fish and had much more left over than he started with. Matthew 14:15-21. Again, he satisfied the four thousand with seven loaves and a few fish, and had more left over than he started with. Matthew 15:32-38. He reminded them of these miracles when their concern that they had not made provision themselves clouded their understanding of what he was saying. Matthew 16:5-12. When Peter told the collectors of the temple tax that Jesus paid the tax, Jesus sent him to the lake to take the coin to pay the tax out of the mouth of a fish. Matthew 17:24-27. Jesus also sent his disciples to unexpected and, to all appearances, random people to simply ask for things he needed on several occasions -- for instance, the upper room where they held his last Passover and the donkey colt on which he made his triumphal entry to Jerusalem. Luke 19:28-34; Luke 22:7-13.
The lesson in trusting God to provide continued into the early Church, as seen in Acts and in the Epistles. In Acts 4:32-33, it is noted that all of the believers were one in heart and mind, to the extent that none of them claimed title to his own possessions. Instead, each of the early Jerusalem believers was willing to share, selling possessions and bringing the price to the apostles to distribute to those who had need. The result of this oneness, manifested by sharing, was that no one in the Church was in need. Acts 4:33a. God provided every need through the practical unity of the Body of Christ. Similarly, in Acts 6:1-6, when inequity in the distribution to the needs of the widows threatened the unity of the Body, the apostles kept their focus on prayer and the preaching of the Word by entrusting the business of distributing to the physical needs of the Body to seven other men "full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom." The result of this was that unity was restored, needs were met once again, the Word of God spread, the number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly and a large number of the Jewish priests became obedient to the faith. Acts 6:7. There is no mention of any poor saints in Jerusalem until much later -- and even then churches in other places sent offerings to relieve their distress. Romans 15:26; I Corinthians 16:1, 4. God's provision through his people is seen again in the letters of Paul, who worked with his own hands to support himself, but who also received gifts from at least one church in a time of need. 2 Corinthians 11:7-9; Philippians 4:14-19. Indeed, the well-known promise that "my God will supply all of your need according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus" was given to a church that had given generously to Paul when he was in need. Philippians 4:19. God continued to provide for his people through each other.
Still, the emphasis is on God as the provider, even when he delivers through other believers. The underlying truth is still that God, having given up his son for us, will certainly now, along with him, "graciously give us all things." Romans 8:32. Furthermore, we are to receive from him the things he has graciously given us by asking for them. For instance, Jesus said that if we remain in him, and his words remain in us, we will ask whatever we wish, and it will be given to us. John 15:7. The purpose for which he will give us what we ask is in order that we may bear lasting fruit, which brings the Father glory. John 15:8, 16. We are also told to "ask, and ye shall receive, that your joy may be made full," and promised "whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it you." John 16:23-24. "For everyone that asketh, receiveth." Matthew 7:8.
The key to these passages promising that God hears and gives when we ask is the purpose for which the promise is given. Asking and receiving is centered on our relationship with God, not on our own desires. It is only if we remain in him and his words remain in us that we receive whatever we ask. We are to ask in his name -- that is, under his authority -- for the purpose that we might bear fruit. This is not an invitation to "believe God for" things that would impair our fruitfulness, things he does not want us to have, simply because we believe we would enjoy having them. As James wrote:
Whence come wars, and whence come fightings among you? come they not hence, even of your pleasures that war in your members? Ye lust, and have not: ye kill, and covet, and cannot obtain: ye fight and war; ye have not, because ye ask not. Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may spend it in your pleasures. Ye adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? Whosoever therefore would be a friend of the world maketh himself an enemy of God.
James 4:1-4 (ASV).
Worship, therefore, absolutely excludes all greed (which is idolatry). Colossians 3:5; Ephesians 5:5. Worship of God and greed for things are totally incompatible. When a man came to Jesus and asked him to command his brother to share the inheritance with him, Jesus responded that his hearers should "take heed" and keep themselves from all covetousness, because a man's life does not consist of the things he possesses. Luke 12:15. Rather, our life is in God, who never fails, as the writer to the Hebrews stated:
Be ye free from the love of money; content with such things as ye have: for himself hath said, I will in no wise fail thee, neither will I in any wise forsake thee.
Hebrews 13:5 (ASV).
We are commanded to put greed away from our lives, to put it to death. It is idolatry. Colossians 3:5. It is something that has no place either in the Christian life or in the Church. I Corinthians 5:10-11 & 6:10; Ephesians 5:3. Therefore, in the several descriptions of the character traits that should be demanded of church leaders, one element found in every list is that a church leader should be free of the love of money, not greedy. I Timothy 3:3, 8; Titus 1:17; I Peter 5:2. Instead, greed is identified in several places as a characteristic of a false teacher or a false prophet. I Timothy 6:5; 2 Peter 2:3, 14-15; Jude 1:11-12, 16. False teachers think godliness -- the phony outward show of "godliness" they teach -- is a means to financial gain. Therefore, they lead anyone who will listen to them into false doctrines, division, envy, gossip and strife, thereby trying to build a following so that they can make merchandise of their followers. I Timothy 6:3-10; 2 Peter 2:3. Those who want to get rich, following the moral lead of these false leaders, fall into a trap and are overtaken by many destructive desires. I Timothy 6:9, 10. This largely describes the trap into which much of the Western church has fallen today. Exactly as Paul said, the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. I Timothy 6:10.
However, as Paul also said in this passage, godliness with contentment is great gain. I Timothy 6:8. That is why Jesus gave us these instructions:
Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon the earth, where moth and rust consume, and where thieves break through and steal: but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth consume, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: for where thy treasure is, there will thy heart be also.
The lamp of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light. But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is the darkness! No man can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.
Matthew 6:19-24 (ASV).
Jesus then goes on to explain that, because we cannot serve both God and money, we should not worry about food, drink and clothing -- the things money can buy. Matthew 6:25. Worship excludes worry about things. Instead, we are to recognize that life is more important than the things we greedily seek, that God takes care to feed birds and clothe plants, and that we are of much greater value to him than birds and plants. Matthew 6:25-30. We can, and should, trust God to feed and clothe us, as he does the birds and plants, and should not worry about where our supply will come from. Our worrying will not add a single hour to our lives. Matthew 6:26. Indeed, when we depart from serving God, the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of riches and concerns for our pleasures and other things, will choke God's word in our lives, making it unfruitful, just as the weeds choked the seed in the sower parable. Matthew 13:22; Mark 4:19; Luke 8:14.
"The deceitfulness of riches" consists in two lies wealth suggests to us, one being that we need to pursue it in order to survive, the other being that we will be satisfied if only we accumulate "enough" of it. But for those who serve money, there is never "enough." Proverbs 27:20; Ecclesiastes 2:1-11. The pagans run greedily after food, drink and clothes, worrying about them, serving money, but we should recognize that our heavenly Father knows what we need. Matthew 6:31. Christians may be given wealth, but are not to place their trust in wealth, which is "uncertain," but in God, who gives us richly all things to enjoy. I Timothy 6:17. "But seek ye first his kingdom and his righteousness," Jesus promises, "and all these things shall be added unto you." Matthew 6:33.
Because worship of God requires some recognition that the things we have came from Him and still belong to Him, repentance toward God often includes a change in the use of our money. Thus, when various groups in the crowd asked John the Baptist what they ought to do differently in order to demonstrate their repentance, all of his answers were focused on their use of their possessions. He told the whole crowd to share their food and clothing with the needy. He told the tax collectors to collect no more than they were required to collect. And he told the soldiers to stop making money by extortion and to be content with their wages. Luke 3:10-14. After the rich young man told Jesus that he had kept God's commandments from his youth, Jesus told him there was one thing he still lacked: if he wanted to be perfect, he should sell his possessions and give to the poor, so that he might have his "treasure in heaven," and then come and follow Jesus. However, the man went away sad, because he had "great possessions." Matthew 19:17-22. When called to repent of trusting in his riches, he could not do it. Mark 10:24-25.
By contrast, when Zacchaeus the tax collector repented, he announced he was giving half of his goods to the poor and would restore fourfold to anyone he had wronged. Jesus' response to this was "today is salvation come to this house." Luke 19:3-9. Later, Luke notes that, after Pentecost, the saints in Jerusalem "had all things common," sold their possessions and gave them to anyone among them who was in need. Acts 2:44-45. James advised the rich brother to glory, not in his wealth, but in his low position, because he will pass away like the flower of the grass. James 1:10-11. At a yet later time in the growth of the Church, Paul instructs Timothy to "charge" the rich that they should not put their hope in their wealth, but that they should be rich in good works and willing to share generously. I Timothy 6:17-18.
The recognition that God gave us everything we have and still owns it all leads naturally to the concept which the Church has usually referred to as "stewardship." We hold the wealth God has given us -- all of it -- as His stewards, and He expects us to use it properly, at His direction, and make it profitable for Him. The traditional English church term for this concept is derived from Luke 12:42-48 and 16:1-8 in the King James Version. The first of these passages starts with the rhetorical question "who then is that faithful and wise steward, whom his lord shall make ruler over his household, to give them their portion of meat in due season?" Luke 12:42. This question implies, but does not directly state, that we are stewards of what we possess and can be wise stewards of it by using it as it was intended -- that is, using it to give the others in the Lord's household their portions at the proper times. Blessed is the man whom the Lord finds so doing when he comes. Luke 12:43. But if we conclude that the Lord is not coming soon, and so begin to misuse his wealth and abuse our fellow servants, the Lord will come suddenly in judgment against us. Luke 12:45-46. God will hold us responsible for what we knew was right, giving greater punishment to those who ignored greater knowledge. Luke 12:47-48.
Luke 16:1-9 is a parable about an "unjust steward." This steward wasted his master's wealth until his master commanded him to render an accounting of his "stewardship." Luke 16:2. This verse, and the following two verses, in which the unjust steward discusses his predicament with himself, are the only three instances of the word "stewardship" in the entire Bible. But the lesson of the parable is not that the steward was called upon to give an accounting of his stewardship, but what he did after he was called to account: he acted "shrewdly." He went to those who owed debts to his master, and had them change their bills to reduce the size of the debts reflected on those bills. He did this expecting these debtors to be grateful for the favor he had done them and to therefore receive him into their houses after he lost his job. Jesus said that the master commended the unjust steward, because he had acted shrewdly. Luke 16:8. He then explained his commendation of the steward's dishonesty as follows:
And I say unto you, Make to yourselves friends by means of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when it shall fail, they may receive you into the eternal tabernacles.
Thus, it would appear that, like the unjust steward, we are to use the things God has given us "to make friends for ourselves." Again, like the unjust steward, we "make friends for ourselves" by using what the Master has given us to help our friends obtain remission of their debts to him. Luke 16:5-7; John 20:22-23; 2 Corinthians 5:18-21. Unlike the unjust steward, however, the friendships we are to build are not for the purpose of providing our needs in this world (God does that), but that those friends may receive us into our eternal dwellings. We are to use what God gives us to bring friends we have made with us into his presence.
The concept of stewardship is also found in Jesus' parables of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30) and the pounds (Luke 19:12-27), although the words "steward" and "stewardship" are not used in these parables. In both of these parables, a nobleman leaves on a journey and entrusts a sum of money to several of his servants, to use in his absence. In the parable recorded in Matthew, the sums of money are quite large and differ from servant to servant, the nobleman entrusting more money to the servants he correctly believes are best able to make good use of it. In the parable in Luke, the sums of money are smaller and equal. Thus, it could well be argued that the focus of the two parables is different, Matthew's parable focusing on things like wealth and natural abilities that God gives to men unequally, and Luke's parable focusing on things like time, the Holy Spirit and life itself which God gives to all His servants equally. This apparent distinction is reinforced somewhat by the observation that the nobleman in Matthew "gave" (Gk. didomai) and "delivered" (Gk. paradidomai) his wealth to his servants without instructions, though they plainly understood that they were later to return it with a profit, whereas in Luke the nobleman explicitly told his servants to put the money to use until he returned.
In both of these parables, however, some of the servants put their master's money to use in his absence, yielding profits in varying degrees, while other servants were lazy, hid their master's money, and returned it to him without a profit. None of the servants lost or spent their master's money -- all of them returned at least as much as they were initially given. The question asked was whether they put it to a profitable use. In both of these parables, the servants who returned a profit on their master's investment were rewarded according to the magnitude of their profits, while the lazy servants who returned no profit were judged. It is very noteworthy that, in both parables, the lazy servants gave the excuse that they knew their master was a harsh and demanding man and they therefore feared to put his money at risk. In both parables the master rejected this excuse, and correctly called these servants lazy. In Luke, the judgment on the lazy servant is that the money he was given is taken from him and given to the most profitable servant. In Matthew, the judgment on the lazy servant is harsher -- he is cast into the outer darkness. The obvious application of both of these parables to the concept of "stewardship" is that God expects us to make a profitable use of what he gives us.
Taken together, these passages show that we are "stewards" of the things God has given us, that He has entrusted things to us so that we may give them to others in due season, that He expects us to use these things to make friends that we may bring with us into his presence, and that he will reward or judge us based on how profitably we have used what we have been given. It is noteworthy that, although modern churches use the term "stewardship" primarily with reference to the obligation to put money in their offering plates, none of these passages makes any direct reference to church offerings. Instead, the focus is on using what God gives us to provide for the needs of others around us, as further discussed in the next section.
The Old Testament is full of injunctions to provide for the needs of the poor. See, e.g, Proverbs 29:7, 31:8-9; Jeremiah 22:16. Blessings are pronounced on those who give to the poor. See, Isaiah 58:6-12, Psalms 41:1-3, Psalms 112:4-9 and Proverbs 14:21 for only a few of many examples. He who gives to the poor lends to the Lord. Proverbs 19:7. On the other hand, neglecting the needs of the poor is presented as a cause of judgment. Proverbs 14:31, 21:13, 28:8; Jeremiah 22:15-17. Part of the provision for the poor was to be made through the Levitical tithe every third year, Deuteronomy 15:28-29, but the people of Israel were also commanded to make provision for the poor in other ways. For instance, they were to leave the corners of their fields unharvested, and were not to glean the harvest of their fields, vineyards or olive groves, so that the poor would be able to glean the harvest and eat. Leviticus 19:9-10. They were told to include the poor in their gates in their various feasts to the Lord. See, e.g., Deuteronomy 16:11, 14. They were to open their hands toward their poor brothers, giving and lending freely to them, and not to harden their hearts to the needs of the poor around them. Deuteronomy 15:7-11.
The teaching of Jesus and the Apostles followed and amplified the Old Testament teaching on this subject. "Give to him that asketh thee," Jesus said, "and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away." Matthew 5:42. A few verses later in the same discourse, Jesus simply assumes that his listeners will give to the poor, but instructs them not to announce their gift with trumpets, as the hypocrites do, to be honored by men for their generosity. Instead, he instructs his listeners to give so privately that their left hand does not know what their right hand is doing, that the Father may reward them. Matthew 6:1-4. As has previously been noted, when the rich young man asked Jesus what he needed to do to get eternal life, in addition to obeying the commandments, Jesus responded that he should sell his possessions and give to the poor, then come follow Jesus. Matthew 19:21; Mark 10:21. It is interesting that Jesus told him to give the proceeds to the poor, not to the temple or to the treasurer of Jesus' own ministry. Similarly, when Jesus reproved the Pharisees for their focus on external religious observances -- cleaning the outside of the cup and dish while the insides are full of uncleanness -- he advised them instead to give what is inside to the poor. If they would give what is inside to the poor, he said, "behold, all things are clean unto you." Luke 11:39-41.
However, Jesus makes this point most forcefully in his description of the judgment in Matthew 25:31-46. In the day of judgment, the Son of Man will sit on his throne, and separate men as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. The righteous, who followed Jesus like sheep, he will say,
Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry, and ye gave me to eat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink; I was a stranger, and ye took me in; naked, and ye clothed me; I was sick, and ye visited me; I was in prison, and ye came unto me.
Matthew 25:34-36. The righteous will ask when they did these things to him, and he will answer that whenever they cared for one of the least of his brethren, they did it also to him. But to the goats, he will say "depart from me, ye cursed, into the eternal fire which is prepared for the devil and his angels." Matthew 25:41. Why? Because they failed to care for the needs of Jesus' brethren. "Inasmuch as ye did it not unto one of these least, ye did it not unto me." Matthew 25:45. We will be judged based on our response to the needs of the poor, which shows the true state of our hearts toward God. If we shut up our hearts to the needs of the poor, God's love does not live there. I John 3:17. "Pure religion and undefiled before our God and father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world." James 1:27.
While the New Testament does not teach that every Christian ought to be poor, it does teach indifference toward wealth. Godliness with contentment is great gain; we are to be content if we have food and clothing. I Timothy 6:6-8. As Christians, we are not to pursue wealth, to be self-indulgent or flaunt our wealth, or to grant special favors or position to wealthy members of the church because of their wealth; neither are we to reproach the poor or to hold the poorer members of our church organizations as unworthy of honor or leadership because of their poverty.
The New Testament discusses both the hypocritical religious attitude toward wealth and the wealthy and the correct attitude. Wealthy hypocrites, and those pursuing wealth, tend to believe that what makes sacred things sacred is the wealth people like themselves have put into them. Thus, they teach sayings like "if anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing; but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound." But it is God who makes these things sacred, not the wealth men put into them. Matthew 23:16-19. Hypocrites look on the outward appearance of those coming into the church and its meetings, and give special prominence and attention to those who appear wealthy while relegating those who look poor to lesser positions, thus insulting the poor. James 2:1-3, 6. But Jesus himself taught that, when we have feasts, we should not invite our wealthy neighbors who can repay us, but should instead invite the poor who cannot repay us. Luke 14:12-13. Jesus also taught that those who are placed in authority in the church should be our servants, not our "benefactors." Luke 22:25-26. By discriminating among ourselves on the basis of wealth, showing favoritism to the wealthy, James says, we become judges with "evil thoughts." James 2:4. It is the rich who exploit and persecute us, and who openly slander the name of Christ. James 2:6-7. We should not want to pursue them preferentially, as particularly desirable members of our church organizations, and we should not want to emulate them.
Unfortunately, we often do emulate the wicked rich. Even in the early Church, there were those who took pride in making their own business plans, and who boasted of the money they anticipated they would make tomorrow by following those plans. James 4:13, 16. However, as James then reminds us, none of us knows that we will even have a tomorrow. James 4:14. Instead, we should declare our dependence on God and our trust in his will rather than our own plans. James 4:15. If we put our own boastful plans to make a profit ahead of God's will, and therefore fail to do the good we ought to do, we sin. James 4:17.
Indeed, the New Testament contains some very harsh words concerning the self-indulgence of the rich. In the Sermon on the Plain in Luke, Jesus pronounces the poor blessed, because theirs "is the Kingdom of God." But he also pronounces woe on the rich because they have already received their consolation in this life. Luke 6:20, 24. Later, Jesus gives an example of this by telling the story of the rich man and the beggar Lazarus. The rich man dressed like a king, in purple and fine linen, and lived in luxury every day. Luke 16:19. He was also completely indifferent to the needs of a sick beggar, Lazarus, who lived at the gate of his house and shared with the rich man's dogs the crumbs that fell from his table. Luke 16:20-21. But then both men died, and found themselves alive and conscious in eternity. Lazarus, no longer a beggar, was carried by angels to "Abraham's bosom," apparently the place of the righteous dead under the Old Testament (a debate not really germane to this essay), to be comforted. The nameless rich man, by contrast, lifted up his eyes in Hades, being in torment from the flames there. He could see Lazarus being comforted in Abraham's bosom, but could obtain no comfort. Luke 16:22-24. Indeed, when he asked Abraham to send Lazarus to comfort him with a little water, Abraham reminded him that he received his good things in his lifetime, while Lazarus received evil things, but in eternity Lazarus was to be comforted while the rich man -- who had been indifferent to Lazarus' agony -- was now to suffer agony. Luke 16:25.
James also has harsh words for the self-indulgent, wicked rich. He tells the "rich," all of them, to "weep and howl" because of the "miseries" that will come upon them. James 5:1. He accuses the rich of hoarding wealth, "heaping" it together "for the last days." James 5:3. He also accuses them of obtaining their hoarded wealth by defrauding their laborers of their wages, and of condemning and murdering the innocent in their pursuit of it. James 5:4, 6. He further accuses them of living in pleasure, luxury and self-indulgence, and of fattening themselves like animals being prepared for slaughter. James 5:5. (Unfortunately, this sounds like a description of a large portion of the American church today). Instead of caring for the poor, they have defrauded and oppressed the poor to fatten themselves, and God has heard the cries of the poor. James 5:4. Even now, the wealth of the rich is corroding away and being eaten by moths, and, in the day of judgment, its corruption will burn their flesh like fire. James 5:3.
Thus, we are sternly warned against hoarding wealth and against using wealth to live in luxury and self-indulgence. There are also specific warnings against using wealth in a way that causes offense or division in the Body of Christ -- for instance, by wearing fancy clothes or expensive jewelry in church meetings to flaunt it. I Timothy 2:9-10. But we are not told that it is a sin to have wealth, nor are we commanded to live in poverty. Instead, as previously noted, those who have wealth are only commanded to avoid being arrogant or placing their hope in their riches, to be rich in good works and to be willing to share. I Timothy 6:17-18.
On the other hand, Christians are commanded to care for the needs of their families. Husbands are to feed and care for their wives as they care for their own bodies -- a command which goes far beyond material things but certainly includes them. Ephesians 5:28-29. God is consistently portrayed in the New Testament as our Father, because it is only natural (and also God's command) that parents should provide good things for their children. See, e.g., Matthew 7:9-11; 2 Corinthians 12:14. Furthermore, in giving instruction for the care of widows in the local church, Paul instructed Timothy that, if any widow has children or grandchildren (the Greek word actually being broad enough to include any close relative), these should learn to demonstrate their religion first at home, by caring for their widowed relative, because this is pleasing to God. I Timothy 5:3-4. Indeed, Paul warned that any man who does not provide for his own relatives, and particularly those of his own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. I Timothy 5:8. Moreover, as Jesus clearly explained, it is not a valid excuse to say that one is obligated to the church to place money one's family needs in the offering plate instead:
Full well do ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your tradition. For Moses said, Honor thy father and thy mother; and, He that speaketh evil of father or mother, let him die the death: but ye say, If a man shall say to his father or his mother, That wherewith thou mightest have been profited by me is Corban, that is to say, Given to God; ye no longer suffer him to do aught for his father or his mother; making void the word of God by your tradition, which ye have delivered: and many such like things ye do.
Mark 7:9-13 (ASV). Caring for our families is not secondary to God's work; it is a part of God's work. Any asserted financial obligation to a church organization must be subordinated to it.
Furthermore, as part of our care for the poor, we are most particularly to see that the needs of our poorer brothers and sisters in Christ -- our spiritual family -- are cared for. The example of the early Church in Jerusalem, already noted, was that the brothers did not consider anything they owned to be their own, but were willing to sell their possessions as needs arose and to distribute to those in need. The result of this was that there were no needy persons among them; God supplied their needs. Acts 2:44-45; Acts 4:34-35. Later, after persecution had scattered the saints of Jerusalem, leaving those who remained in Judea in financial distress, other churches sent offerings for the support of their poor brethren in Jerusalem. Romans 15:26; I Corinthians 16:1-3. These offerings for the poor saints in Jerusalem were not trivial, but were necessary expressions of the faith of those who gave them -- Paul declared that they showed to the world their obedience to their confession of Christ. 2 Corinthians 9:13. Indeed, as James wrote, faith is manifested not by wishing our poor brothers well, but by giving them the things they need. This is stated as an example of the broader principle that faith must always be accompanied by action. James 2:14-17. Love, likewise, is manifested in our giving to other Christians' needs:
Hereby know we love, because he laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoso hath the world's goods, and beholdeth his brother in need, and shutteth up his compassion from him, how doth the love of God abide in him? My little children, let us not love in word, neither with the tongue; but in deed and truth.
I John 3:16-18 (ASV). While there are some in the Church who have a particular gift for giving effectively to the needs of others, see Romans 12:8, we are all to give to the needs around us. If anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of Jesus' little ones because he is a disciple, that person will surely not lose his reward. Matthew 10:42; Mark 9:41.
The New Testament also teaches that we are to provide adequate support to those who teach and lead our churches. In the early Jerusalem church, the apostles were so well supported that they could devote themselves entirely to prayer and the teaching of the Word -- even the administrative tasks were delegated to others -- and the results were miraculous. See, 6:1-7. At a later stage in the growth of the Church, Paul explained to the Corinthians that, in the same way a farmer has a right to eat some of his produce, a dairyman has a right to drink some of the milk of his flock, and the priest who serves at the altar shares in the offerings made at the temple, "even so did the Lord ordain that they that proclaim the gospel should live of the gospel." I Corinthians 9:6-14. Although Paul did not exercise this right to receive his material needs from the Corinthians while he preached in Corinth, he plainly stated that he had possessed this right, and that other preachers had exercised it and had received support from the Corinthian church. See, I Corinthians 9:4, 6, 11-12. He reiterated this same instruction to his disciple Timothy:
Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and in teaching. For the scripture saith, Thou shalt not muzzle the ox when he treadeth out the corn. And, The laborer is worthy of his hire.
I Timothy 5:16-17 (ASV). Thus, we should provide adequate financial support to our leaders that they may devote themselves to their work. Compare, I Timothy 4:12-15. The support of the church organization is considered in the next section.
The principal New Testament passages on church offerings, in a formal sense, are found in I Corinthians 16:1-2 and 2 Corinthians 8 and 9. In I Corinthians 16:1, Paul told the Corinthians that they should take care of preparing a special gift -- in context, an alms gift for the poor saints in Judea -- before Paul arrived, so that no offerings would have to be collected while Paul was there. (Obviously, Paul did not always take up an offering during his meetings). Then verse 2 states the general principle involved, namely, that each person should lay up his offering in store every week as the Lord had prospered him. Here, the Greek indicates that the weekly amount is to reflect the manner in which the Lord has (passively) prospered the giver, but the term used (euodotai) carries the connotation of profits or fruits of success and is broad enough to cover both income and demands on income. There is no mention of a "tithe" or of any other measure of required giving out of gross income.
2 Corinthians 8 and 9 discuss giving extensively. This passage was also written in the context of instructions for a special offering rather than a regular, weekly offering. See, 2 Corinthians 8:2-3, 10, 20. The key to the passage is 2 Corinthians 8:5, stating that the Macedonian churches had not done merely as expected, giving money, "but first they gave their own selves to the Lord and unto us through the will of God." Because they first gave themselves to the Lord, the Macedonians were able to give with rich liberality even out of their "affliction" and "deep poverty." 2 Corinthians 8:2. In this, the Macedonians were much like the widow who very quietly gave only two mites in Luke 21:1-4. Jesus said that the widow had given more than all the rich people who gave large gifts with great fanfare, because she had given all the living she had.
After discussing the Macedonians' example, Paul tells the Corinthians that giving is a "grace" (charis), an outworking of God's influence on the human heart, which he wished to see completed in them, 2 Corinthians 8:6, and he urges them to prove the sincerity of their love by abounding in this grace of giving. (vv. 7-8). Paul then appeals to the example of Jesus himself:
For ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might become rich.
2 Corinthians 8:9 (ASV).
Paul then urges his Corinthian readers to complete the gift they had decided to give and had begun to collect a year earlier. 2 Corinthians 8:10-11. He then goes on to explain that it is not the size of the gift that is important, but the willingness to give it, because, where there is willingness to give in keeping with one's ability to give, the gift "is acceptable according as a man hath, not according as he hath not." 2 Cor. 8:11-12. Paul then goes on to explain that the grace of giving is not intended to create hardship, forcing believers to put themselves in distress so that others may be relieved, but that there is to be equality in giving and receiving. That is, the Corinthians were to contribute from their plenty to others' needs so that others would in turn contribute from their plenty when the Corinthians were in need. 2 Corinthians 8:13-14. Paul then appeals to the example of the manna as an example of the equality of which he writes -- though the people gathered different amounts of manna, the ones who gathered much had nothing left over, and the ones who gathered little had no lack. 2 Corinthians 8:15. These lessons are all fully generalizable to the modern Church -- giving is a grace, Christians are to give according to their means and as they have decided to give, giving is not intended to create hardship or inequity, and there is to be an equality in giving and receiving.
Paul's teaching on giving continues in chapter 9. Common teaching on the subject of giving often lifts 2 Corinthians 9:6 out of context. This verse is often presented as a proof text for the proposition that the way to get God to give us the things we want in abundance is to give great sums to the church, or to the person preaching the message. But this is not what the verse is saying at all, when read in its proper context. The context starts in chapter 8, as discussed above -- we are first to give ourselves, then give voluntarily according to our means. There is no mention of the size of the expected gift. The context of 2 Corinthians 9:6 continues in verses 1 through 4 of chapter 9, wherein Paul commends two churches for being zealous about giving to the needs of the saints. Then, in verse 5, he clearly states that any gift given is to be a "generous gift" (eudoxia), a blessing. A gift is not to be something grudgingly given (pleonexia), that is something given because of an advantage one person possesses over another, or because of overreaching or extortion. Thus, it is clearly wrong to extort gifts by preaching that God only blesses those whose gifts meet some fixed human standard or will curse those whose gifts do not meet this standard. It is also wrong to obtain gifts by fraudulently promising that God will grant wishes in exchange for gifts of a certain size.
After saying all that, Paul then says that we reap as we sow (9:6). Just as in agriculture, those who sow sparingly reap sparingly, and those who sow bountifully reap bountifully, when the time of harvest comes. This is in complete agreement with Jesus' teaching that men, who are the harvest, will give to us in the same way we have given, "good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over." Luke 6:38. After that, Paul reiterates that each person is to give as he has decided in his own heart to give, not grudgingly (ek lupes, out of grief, affliction or sorrow) or of necessity (ex anagkes, out of necessity, compulsion or obligation), for God loves a cheerful giver. The focus of the whole passage is to encourage joyful, voluntary giving, not to set forth any minimum standard or "suggested donation," and 2 Corinthians 9:5 and 7, particularly, seem to negate the whole idea that believers should give out of any kind of legal obligation. Nevertheless, many churches teach that the Scriptures prescribe a minimum level of giving, the tithe, for all believers. Whether these teachings regarding the tithe really are supported by the Biblical text is the subject of the next two sections.
The only New Testament passages which mention the "tithe" per se, are Matthew 23:23 and its parallel passage, Luke 11:42, Luke 18:11-12 and Hebrews 7:1-10. In Matthew 23:23 and its parallel passage, Jesus pronounces woe on the Scribes and Pharisees because they are careful to tithe their garden herbs but "have omitted the weightier matters of the law: judgment, mercy and faith." Jesus tells them they should have done these things "and not leave the other undone." The point of the passage is that judgment (justice), mercy and faith are "weightier matters of the law" than the strict tithe, and the Pharisees (hypocrites!) weren't doing these. Moreover, to the extent this is an instruction to tithe at all, it points to the tithe specified in the Law, which is not ten percent of gross income, payable weekly, but one tenth of the "increase" of livestock and various specified agricultural commodities, paid only twice in every seven year sabbatical year cycle (as will be shown below). Luke 18:11-12 is part of the parable of the Pharisee and the publican, and has a meaning very similar to that of Matthew 23:23. One of the things the Pharisee states proudly in his prayer is that he tithes everything he gets. He also fasts twice a week. Both of these observances are more than the Law requires, but the proud Pharisee was not justified by his observance of them. The hated tax collector, by contrast, stated a humble plea for God's mercy and went home justified.
Finally, Hebrews 7:1-10 shows the greatness of Melchizedek, a type of Christ, by showing that Aaron paid a tithe to Melchizedek through his ancestor Abraham. The point is not that we should tithe to the church, but that the priesthood of Melchizedek is greater than that of the house of Aaron. It is noteworthy that Abraham paid a tithe only once in his lifetime, to Melchizedek, after Melchizedek had blessed him. (Genesis 14:18-20). That tithe was a tithe of everything Abraham had taken in battle against the four kings, not a tithe of everything Abraham possessed, and there is no record that Abraham ever again gave a tithe to anyone.
Moreover, Abraham kept none of the spoils of this battle for himself. He gave the tenth to God, through Melchizedek, and he gave the three allies who had gone with him their portions. Then he returned the rest of the spoils to the king of Sodom, lest, he said, that king should say "I have made Abram rich." Genesis 14:22-24. Thus, if Abraham's use of the spoils of battle on this one occasion is intended to set a binding precedent for all Christians' use of their regular incomes, that precedent is that we ought to give a tenth of our incomes to God and then give the other nine tenths back to our employers. But it is much more reasonable to read Abraham's disposition of the spoils of this battle as his declaration of his absolute dependence on God -- an attitude we are to emulate -- rather than as an attempt to set a binding legal precedent for our use of our incomes.
Finally, although Malachi 3:7-11 is not referenced in the New Testament, it is the passage most commonly presented as a primary Old Testament basis for teaching a New Testament obligation of tithing. The first thing that should be noted about this passage is that, in context, God is stating the grounds on which He will judge Israel on the day when the Lord, whom they seek, suddenly comes to His temple. See, Malachi 3:1-4. He will judge the sorcerers, adulterers, those who swear falsely and those who oppress the poor, the stranger, the orphan and the widow. (3:5-6). He will judge them because they "have gone away from MINE ORDINANCES and have not kept them." (3:7a). One of the ways in which they had not kept God's ordinances was in robbing God in the tithes and offerings (3:7b-10), but, in context, this clearly refers to the tithe and to the offerings prescribed in the Law ("mine ordinances"), not the modern church "tithe." So, to correctly understand what Malachi is saying, one must refer to the Pentateuch, not to modern church practice. Second, within the Mosaic Law of the tithe, Malachi is speaking of the "storehouse" tithe (3:9), which, as will be seen, is only one of the tithes spoken of in the Law. The tithes God prescribed for the people of Israel in the Law of Moses are the subject of the next section.
To identify the "tithes and offerings" of which Malachi wrote, it is first necessary to look to the Law given by Moses. It should first be observed that, during those rare periods when Israel actually observed the Law, God's people worked their land on a seven-year cycle. Every seventh year was a sabbath year, in which there was no sowing, no reaping, and no tithe. Leviticus 25:1-6. In each of the other six years, the people were to tithe once a year. A tithe of everything that came from the land, and every tenth animal that passed under the rod, whether good or bad, was to be considered holy and given to the Lord as a tithe. Leviticus 22:30-33; Deuteronomy 14:22. However, contrary to most modern teaching on the subject, this annual tithe was not to be given to the church (which did not yet exist), the tabernacle or the Levites. Rather, all Israel was commanded to take their annual tithes to the place God would choose and there to eat it with joy before the Lord. Deuteronomy 12:17-18 & 14:22-26. This annual tithe was to be used to hold a joyful party showing thanks to God for providing it. The people were commanded to include the Levites among them in their festivities. Deuteronomy 12:18 & 14:27. But the purpose of the annual tithe was celebration of God's goodness, not the support of the church. These tithes were eaten by the giver.
Every third year, "the year of tithing," a second, separate tithe was prescribed. This was the tithe for the support of the Levites and the poor. Deuteronomy 15:27-29. It was given the Levites as an inheritance, for the work they did at the sanctuary. Numbers 18:21-24. From it, the Levites were also to provide for the needs of the poor. Deuteronomy 15:29. This tithe was, of all of the tithes, the most similar in purpose to offerings in the church, as described in the New Testament. However, it should be noted that, in addition to their duties at the sanctuary, their responsibility for the poor, and their duties as teachers of the Law, the Levites were also the entire educational system of Israel and further served as civil judges and government administrators, functions not fulfilled by modern churches and pastors in a secular society. Moreover, this Levitical tithe was not given weekly, or even annually, but only in every third year in which there was a harvest from which it could be taken -- that is, in the third and sixth years of every sabbath year cycle. It was one tenth of the increase of the land, but only given two years out of every seven. Therefore, it would appear that, if this Levitical tithe was intended to set the legal precedent for a minimum level of giving to the church, that minimum level must be ten percent of every third year's income. This would be equivalent to 3.3 percent of a believer's annual, monthly or weekly income.
In the third year, the year of tithing, the Law also prescribed that a third tithe be given. This was the tithe given by the Levites to the priests out of the tithes given by the people. This tithe was "the Lord's portion," intended specifically for the support of the house of Aaron and the sanctuary. Numbers 18:25-32. Thus, every third year, the people, in effect, gave nine percent of their increase to the Levites for the support of the Levites and the poor, and gave one percent of their increase through the Levites for the support of the priests and the sanctuary. It was this tithe given by the Levites for the support of the priests and sanctuary which was to be brought into the "storehouse" referred to in Malachi 3.
This is demonstrated by the discussion of the ordinances concerning tithes and offerings made by the leaders of Israel in Nehemiah 10:32-39. The exiles who had returned to Israel after the captivity had gathered together, at the time of year when the feast of tabernacles should have been held, and asked Ezra the priest to read the book of the Law to them. Nehemiah 8:1-2. Ezra, with the assistance of a group of Levites, read the entire Law to the people, and the Levites explained its meaning to them. Nehemiah 8:7-8. As a result of this reading, the leaders of the people led them in celebrating the prescribed feast. Nehemiah 8:14-18. Later in the same month, the people assembled again, this time to confess and repent of their and their fathers' failure to observe the Law. Nehemiah 9:1-2. The Levites led them in a great prayer of repentance. Nehemiah 9:6-37. As evidence of this repentance, the people entered into a solemn covenant with God to keep the words of the Law, binding themselves with a curse. Nehemiah 9:38 & 10:29. One of the many vows the people made in this covenant was as follows:
Also we made ordinances for us, to charge ourselves yearly with the third part of a shekel for the service of the house of our God; for the showbread, and for the continual meal-offering, and for the continual burnt-offering, for the sabbaths, for the new moons, for the set feasts, and for the holy things, and for the sin-offerings to make atonement for Israel, and for all the work of the house of our God. And we cast lots, the priests, the Levites, and the people, for the wood-offering, to bring it into the house of our God, according to our fathers' houses, at times appointed, year by year, to burn upon the altar of Jehovah our God, as it is written in the law; and to bring the first-fruits of our ground, and the first-fruits of all fruit of all manner of trees, year by year, unto the house of Jehovah; also the first-born of our sons, and of our cattle, as it is written in the law, and the firstlings of our herds and of our flocks, to bring to the house of our God, unto the priests that minister in the house of our God; and that we should bring the first-fruits of our dough, and our heave-offerings, and the fruit of all manner of trees, the new wine and the oil, unto the priests, to the chambers of the house of our God; and the tithes of our ground unto the Levites; for they, the Levites, take the tithes in all the cities of our tillage. And the priest the son of Aaron shall be with the Levites, when the Levites take tithes: and the Levites shall bring up the tithe of the tithes unto the house of our God, to the chambers, into the treasure-house. For the children of Israel and the children of Levi shall bring the heave-offering of the grain, of the new wine, and of the oil, unto the chambers, where are the vessels of the sanctuary, and the priests that minister, and the porters, and the singers: and we will not forsake the house of our God.
Nehemiah 10:32-38 (ASV) (emphasis added).
Most scholars place the prophecy of Malachi shortly after the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. It appears that, by the time of Malachi, the people had fallen away from the promises they had made under the ministry of Ezra, including the promise to support the Levites and the sanctuary with the tithes and offerings prescribed by the Law. These included the tithe of the land to the Levites every third year, and the tithe of that tithe for the support of the sanctuary, as enumerated in Nehemiah 10:37-38, quoted above. They also included a series of fixed offerings also prescribed by the Law. Nehemiah 10:34-37; compare, Exodus 13:2 (firstborn), Exodus 23:19 (firstfruits). When Malachi spoke of robbing God "in tithes and offerings," and thereby departing from God's "ordinances," he would necessarily have been referring to these "ordinances" reaffirmed in Ezra's day and the "tithes and offerings" prescribed in them, and not to the modern church tithe.
This is made even clearer by Malachi's declaration that the reason the people should bring these offerings "into the storehouse" was in order that there "may be meat in Mine house." Malachi 3:10. That was precisely the purpose of the offerings the people had promised to give in Nehemiah. However, since Jesus has already died for us, once for all, there is no need to provide sacrificial meat for the altar in the Church. Malachi, thus, could not have been prescribing the giving of a weekly "storehouse tithe" as an ordinance of the Church. Both the purpose of church giving and the motivation for it are different than those that applied to Malachi's storehouse tithe. The tithes in the Old Testament were a matter of legal obligation, and were given under threat of a curse; New Testament giving is to be voluntary and joyful. The Bible does not command Christians to give weekly tithes.
We are to hold all we possess -- money, things, time and even life itself -- as God's stewards, to use it at his direction and make profitable use of it. We are to use all of it to make friends for ourselves, that the friends we make may receive us into eternity. Within this purpose, we are to make provision out of the things we have for the needs of our families, of the church and its leaders, of the poor and of our needy brothers and sisters in Christ. However, nothing in the New Testament prescribes the tithe, or any other minimum offering to the church, and nothing therein even remotely suggests that God honors only donations to any specific organization. The focus of the New Testament's teaching on wealth is on keeping the right attitude toward money and holding everything we have at God's disposal, not on giving to any organization.
Why, then, do our churches and ministry organizations usually focus so heavily on what God expects us to put in their offering plate? This unbalanced focus exists, obviously, because churches and ministry organizations confuse their own programs with God's program. It is general knowledge that church programs often fail for lack of funds. The only way to make a church program that was not God's idea "succeed" is to actively raise funds for it. However, God provides for everything that is really his work. He will, to be sure, generally provide for it through the giving of believers, but he will provide. Do we really suppose that God is so limited that he cannot accomplish his purpose in the world unless we raise the funds to make it happen? On careful consideration, this supposition is absurd, but it is exactly the assumption an organization is practicing when it attempts to raise funds by putting its members under a legal obligation to feed its offering plate. The New Testament pattern is voluntary, joyful offerings as a part of stewardship of everything we possess. Any attempt to coerce giving violates the New Testament pattern and evidences lack of faith in God.
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© 2004 Ian B. Johnson
Must Christians Tithe Ten Percent? an in-depth analysis by an author unaffiliated with this page.
The Tithe, a concurring analysis by another author unaffiliated with this page.
Tithing: Stop the Lie, still another concurring analysis.
When God's provision seems too slow, remember...
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God is Spirit, the real substance of everything.
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