We had a very interesting bible study last night on the subject of tithing and offering. Next to the topic of death, it is a subject rarely talked about in church, lest studied on. I was apprehensive having to lead the group but did my preparatory work as best as I could and went for it, and I must say I learnt a lot.
My reference was Larry Richards' New International Encyclopedia of Bible Words (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), p.307-310.
We explored 3 questions:
1. Why should we give?
2. How much should we give?
3. What are the benefits of giving?
Answering the first and third question was rather straight forward. Why should we give? We give because we have the responsibility to share God's grace with others. It is our duty. We give because God's love compels us; because we love the Lord. We give because it benefits the body of Christ that we are a part of. We give so that the needs of the less fortunate are met and so there could be some level of equality in our midst. Paul in 2 Cor 8:13-15 says, "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. Then there will be equality. "
A more intense discussion ensued when we talk about how much should we give ... obviously. Are Christians required to give a tenth of all income to the local church? On top of that, a tenth of what - gross? net? How are believers to gauge how much to give?
To answer the questions, Richards has an excellent section on giving, where "both the OT and the NT help us resolve the confusion many feel about giving". I summarise him in the following:
Old Testament - Tithes
In the Old Testament, at first glance the concept of tithing seems simple. Ten percent of everything the land produced was to be set aside, to be used as God commanded to maintain the Levites, who were set apart to serve God, not being given a district when Israel possessed the Promised Land.
A tithe of everything from the land, whether grain from the soil or fruit from the trees, belongs to the LORD; it is holy to the LORD. If a man redeems any of his tithe, he must add a fifth of the value to it. The entire tithe of the herd and flock--every tenth animal that passes under the shepherd's rod--will be holy to the LORD. He must not pick out the good from the bad or make any substitution.
But most are not aware of another tithe, to be collected every third year for local distribution to the needy (Dt 14:27-29 and 26:12-15). It is likely therefore, that there were at least two tithes according to the Old Testament: the annual ten percent taken for the support of those who served the Lord, and the third-year tithe taken to sustain the widow and orphan.
Old Testament - Freewill offerings
Are we also aware that the OT reports giving that goes beyond the tithe, as expressed in the nedabah, or voluntary contribution. It is a giving that flows spontaneously, expressing devotion to the Lord, not a gift given out of a sense of duty, nor to win promised blessings. The voluntary contributions are most often associated with the construction of the tabernacle (Ex 36) or the temple (2 Ch 35; Ezr 1:4). Ps 119:108 speaks of prayer as a voluntary offering, and God is praised for his own generous voluntary offerings to man (Ps 68:9), even when his people have not been faithful to their covenant commitments (Hos 14:4).
The Context of Giving in the Old Testament
To understand giving as practiced in OT times, we need to be aware of the distinctives that the law established in that society. Giving had a unique purpose within that system. It supported those set aside to lead in worship. And it was one of several different social mechanisms designed to meet society's obligation to the poor and oppressed.
The Social Context in the New Testament
There are many obvious differences between OT and NT faith communities:
With such differences, the NT faith communities did not transfer the tithe in their era. There were no instruction in Acts or in the Epistles suggests that tithing is to be practiced by Christians. Instead, a new set of principles that reflect new theological and social realities is introduced
Richards gave an excellent piece on principles of cheerful giving:
"The NT presents the idea of systematic giving. Paul exhorts one church to give by setting aside weekly "a sum of money in keeping with . . . income" (1 Co 16:2). But how is that sum of money to be determined? Instead of suggesting the tithe as a measure, Paul (2 Cor 8 and 9) provides several principles for our guidance:
a. Giving is an expression of love. It is to be prompted by an inner concern for others that cannot be commanded but must be a free and spontaneous act (8:8).
b. Giving is to be a balanced response, measuring what a person has against the current needs of others (8:12-15).
c. Giving is an act of faith. It shows trust in God, who is "able to make all grace abound to you" (9:8). As we give generously, God will supply our needs and enable us to "be generous on every occasion" (9:11).
d. Giving has many benefits. It meets the needs of our brothers and sisters and stimulates praise to the Lord. It also stimulates prayer both for the giver and the receiver (9:11-14).
e. Giving follows the example of Jesus. "Though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich" (8:9). Giving is an appropriate way to express our appreciation to God for his own indescribable gift (9:15).
These NT principles for cheerful giving call for serious consideration. We must measure our attitude toward material things, measure our own needs, and measure the needs of our brothers and sisters. In the process, we must be sensitive to the Holy Spirit. Through this process that calls for the most responsible of behavior, we must each come to our own conclusion about how--and how much--God is leading us to give."
And he concludes:
"The OT pattern of giving was an integral part of the social system that was established in the Mosaic Law. It provided for the specific needs of persons within the nation Israel--needs for a central worship center, for a large company of persons set aside for religious service, and for the poor who were not fully cared for by other social mechanisms.
The early NT church existed in a different social context, and thus the principles regarding giving were suited to the new setting and new theological realities. Churches were responsible for the support of those set aside for full-time ministry and for those whose families could not meet basic needs. There were no buildings to maintain, as Christians simply met in house-churches. But collections were taken to aid fellow believers made destitute by natural disasters or economic conditions in other parts of the world. No set amount was required for giving, but individuals were taught to be aware of principles that should guide their giving and to be sensitive to others with needs.
Conditions are different today, as the church exists in institutionalized form and as all citizens are called on to contribute to the needs of the poor through government taxes. Yet the basic NT principles of giving must still be applied, for each person is responsible to use material possessions in ways that honor God. Today too we must remain sensitive to others and commit ourselves to giving generously for those needs we believe are closest to God's heart."
Source: Larry Richards, New International Encyclopedia of Bible Words, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991)