If tithing to the Church is not a binding principle for Christians, to whom, then, should we give?
We have seen in our look at the Lord’s instructions for the tithe in the Old Testament, that God’s people were to use their saved tithes to feed the poor, the widow, the orphan, the sojourner, and the landless, which included the Levites. There are many passages in the Old Testament about caring for the poor. Please feel free to drag out your hard-copy or online concordance and look them up. I think these verses sum up very well how the Lord wanted His people to regard the poor—actually, it’s a command:
“If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be. Take care lest there be an unworthy thought in your heart and you say, ‘The seventh year, the year of release is near,’ and your eye look grudgingly on your poor brother, and you give him nothing, and he cry to the LORD against you, and you be guilty of sin. You shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging when you give to him, because for this the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land’ (Deuteronomy 15:7–11).1
A strong case can be made that this concern for the poor carried over into the New Testament.
The only offering taken in the New Testament was for the poor: “At present, however, I am going to Jerusalem bringing aid to the saints. For Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make some contribution for the poor among the saints at Jerusalem” (Romans 15:25–26).
The apostle John wrote, “But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:17–18).
And we have this from Jesus: “Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you” (Matthew 5:42).
This seems straight forward, doesn’t it? We have no reason to refuse whoever begs from us. However, let’s slow down a bit. What should a believer give to the one who begs from us? Food? Clothing? Money? Money, unfortunately, is problematic. In both India and China, where we have served, evil people purposefully maim children and send them out to beg in order to profit from their wicked mistreatment of children. I cannot give money to support such a practice. Therefore, when we lived in India, our answer was to give the beggar a little food. At least he or she would have something to eat out there on the street, and no profit would be given to their depraved handlers. In addition, we were told in India not to give money to anyone because it would change the relationship with that person in the blink of an eye. The one who received the gift would thereafter see nothing but dollar signs in your eyes.
Giving to panhandlers in United States is not without its issues, either, including the giving of food. In our hometown, business owners have asked generous people to stop giving panhandlers food, because they just throw the uneaten, unopened food onto the owners’ property, creating a mess they have to clean up. These panhandlers don’t want food. Food can be obtained at food banks. These folks want cold currency. Tales abound of “homeless” people making more money than many hard-working individuals. Giving a ten spot to a panhandler may relieve the giver’s sense of guilt, but it’s an easy way out. Now, to be fair, some of the people we see may indeed have legitimate needs, but how would the giver know? Therefore, much more preferable would be stopping, taking the person out to lunch and having a conversation about life—true life. In addition, the generous one will discover where his or her money is going. However, most of us would rather not do that, especially since most beggars stand on busy street corners or on interstate highway entrance ramps, so we actually contribute in a way that often is not helpful but actually hurtful, to assuage our sense of guilt.
There are no specific guidelines in Jesus’ command to give to those who beg from us. Should we sell all our possessions or just some? Obviously, the people of Jesus’ time could not sell everything they possessed. A carpenter needs his tools in order to work his craft and produce income. A conveyance of some kind and agricultural implements are required for a farmer to cultivate and harvest his crops. Fishermen must have nets and boats. Ranchers need livestock. People everywhere require places to live with water, sanitation, warmth, and safety. What is the answer? There is no law in this passage from Matthew, just Jesus’ in-our-faces command about how we view money and possessions. Notice there is nothing about giving a tenth in Jesus’ words. He is addressing our hearts and our view wealth.
Jesus taught, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19–21).
I take comfort in Jesus’ qualification: “Do not lay up treasures for yourselves.” If my hands are open and willing to give to those in need, my savings account is not just for myself. My treasure, therefore—and hopefully, as I work out my salvation with fear and trembling—won’t be on earth for myself only but for others and therefore used for eternal matters.
Jesus taught in the parable about a rich man who, after an abundant crop, tore down his barns, built larger ones and said, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” However, “God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be? ‘So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God’” (Luke 12:19–21). Notice it wasn’t the man’s wealth that the Lord condemned. In his wealth, the fool was “not rich toward God.” One’s view of money is a matter of the heart before the Lord.
Too often, we Christians seek orderly guidelines about many topics, including giving, to systematize our beliefs. We tithe. Good—got that one covered. We go to church once a week and attend a small group. Done. We find a way to serve at church or at the homeless center. Soon, we begin to feel very good about ourselves. All the religious obligations have been fulfilled. We measure what we have done against the activities of others and determine that we’re doing well. Our guilt has disappeared. We think the Lord is happy with us because we have accomplished the biblical things that should be done. Then, slowly, we become a people who are legalistic, and, even with the best of intentions, have slipped into a guilt-eliminating cacophony of laws—or principles, as we prefer to call them. We should not be motivated by guilt or self-satisfaction. We should be motivated by our love for Jesus. We should be “rich toward God.”
Here is the last scriptural truth for us to consider, but it’s not in the New Testament. It has to do with the Sabbath year. If you’re not familiar with this, the Lord required Israel to do no work in their fields every seventh year. That which grew up on its own was to be left to the poor. Think about this with me. Can you imagine an agricultural family, which most families were at that time, receiving no benefit from their land for one year? This speaks volumes about how the Lord views money. Clearly, the Lord is asking His people to take a major financial hit. This would require an enormous trust in the provision of God. I am convinced that the Lord is astronomically more concerned about our relationship with Him than our material wealth.
So, to sum up, how much does the New Testament require a believer to give and to whom? It simply says to give to those in need. Who are those in need? To whatever needy person the Lord prayerfully directs.
In all of this, we must be careful. We must make knowing Jesus our primary aim. We should ask Him where, how much, and to whom to give. Use tithing as a starting place for giving, if that is helpful. Give to the poor wisely. Give to individuals, not to organizations, when possible. It opens up the possibility to develop or further a relationship.
1All scripture passages are from The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.
Thanks to Ben Williams for the photo.