Receiving and Giving – Part 2

Peter Eng

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Let’s look at giving as taught in the New Testament and we can see the sensitivity displayed to their situation.

What is and what ought. The Apostle Paul makes occasional references to how he is or is not supported by the churches, suggesting that despite his full-time service, his income through the church is sporadic. The church in Corinth did not support him financially (1 Corinthians 9:12); but the church in Philippi did (Philippians 4:15-16), even though it appears that it is done from time to time.

We see Paul collecting money for the poor even though he is himself not rich. The early Gentile Christians in Corinth do not know how to give to those who serve them. And Paul gives them time to grow.  Yet at some point, he has to speak with them honestly about how the Corinthians treat him.

Or is it only I and Barnabas who lack the right to not work for a living?

Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat its grapes? Who tends a flock and does not drink the milk? Do I say this merely on human authority? Doesn’t the Law say the same thing? For it is written in the Law of Moses: “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.” Is it about oxen that God is concerned? 10 Surely he says this for us, doesn’t he? Yes, this was written for us, because whoever plows and threshes should be able to do so in the hope of sharing in the harvest. 11 If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you? 12 If others have this right of support from you, shouldn’t we have it all the more?

But we did not use this right. On the contrary, we put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ.

(1 Corinthians 9)

It is a shameful thing for a preacher to do the work of the Lord for money.  But it is also a shameful thing for Christians to ignore the needs of the Lord’s servant from whom they have received spiritual benefit. That preacher has to live.  If we do not pay the preacher who ministers to us, someone is paying.  They preacher is paying for it himself (like Paul or Barnabas) or others are bearing our share of the burden. In the vocabulary of our day, we will be called freeloaders. We enjoy the benefits at the expense of others when we can and ought to contribute.

Paul says that even animals are given a share of the food they produce. When we do not tithe and take care of God’s servants (like the Levites of the OT), we are cruel and do not even give God’s workers what we owe even to animals that work for us.

Paul did not ask for, and the Corinthians did not offer support. They pretended Paul and Barnabas did not need resources to live. They will forever go down in history as freeloading Christians. They were not people without means. They were simply people without love for those who loved them and sacrificed much to serve them.

On account of Paul being open to accusations of self-interest if he talks too much about giving and receiving, he chooses not to take from the Corinthians so the Gospel will not be hindered. This is an irregular situation where Paul has to manage the selfish “taker” Christians in Corinth, but it is not the norm.

We find a fuller picture of the norm when Paul is not talking about himself.

17 The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching. 18 For Scripture says, “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,” and “The worker deserves his wages.”

(1 Timothy 5)

Paul is quite clear that those who serve in the spiritual realm ought to be supported. While the tithe is not mentioned, the means of supporting the Levites through the tithe is very clear. In God’s Kingdom, many will serve like Paul and Barnabas, serving without support so the Gospel may not be hindered. But that is the exception, not the rule. The norm is for the believers who receive spiritual benefit to bless God’s servants with material benefits. And when we dare to ask, “How much?” The answer is clear. It is already given.  It is the tithe.

We do not have any direct command for the early church to tithe. But the early church is not without a trajectory. The worshippers of the God of Abraham Isaac and Jacob tithe in worship, and Israel tithe to Yahweh their king. We are both children of Abraham and citizens of God’s kingdom. Should we not tithe?

Some would insist that the absence of a direct command means we have no such obligation. We need to recall that the early church was a new spiritual nation in the making. To insist that no direct command means no obligation would be the same as saying, “There is no direct command to stop slavery so we can continue to have slaves.” And, “There is no direct statement to say that we should stop polygamy or concubinage, so we can continue to have several wives and concubines.” The absence of a direct command is not the start and end of every consideration. In our day, this means tithing should not be the first thing new converts are taught. Churches who do this betray their own greed and disregard for the welfare of the babes in Christ. On the other hand, Christians who reject this responsibility forget the reasons for the tithe.

The apostles teach the people to give by first collecting for the poor.  It is always easier to start giving by calling for donations to the desperately poor and needy. The Corinthians are so mean-spirited that Paul has to arm-twist them to give to the poor. There is no need to talk about giving to those who served them spiritually; to do so would be to invite suspicions that people serve with monetary motives. But Paul speaks openly to Timothy his mentee. The church in Ephesus is stable and there is occasion to regularize matters. The picture is simple. The teaching elders are to be paid, and if possible well paid when they do their work well. And the funding for that pay is already an established pattern: the tithe. If there is no tithe, how are the Levites to be paid? How are the teaching elders to be paid?

Paul’s letter to Timothy outlines for us what ought to be the case. The true servant of God must never serve because he is paid. Yet the true people of God must never neglect the welfare of those who feed us spiritually. Many immature Christians are not ready to give. They are like little children who take from their parents and have not learned to give.  But as they grow older, we can expect greater maturity and with that, a greater eagerness to give.

There is no joy is freeloading. Until we give to those who serve us, we are freeloaders, we are children still learning and growing.

Non-reasons for tithing

Some of us who are familiar with the Bible may be surprised to find I did not include some of the most common passages for tithing. The reason is that I consider them non-reasons.

The first is from the prophet Malachi.

“Will a mere mortal rob God? Yet you rob me.

“But you ask, ‘How are we robbing you?’

“In tithes and offerings. You are under a curse—your whole nation—because you are robbing me. 10 Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the Lord Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.11 I will prevent pests from devouring your crops, and the vines in your fields will not drop their fruit before it is ripe,” says the LordAlmighty.12 “Then all the nations will call you blessed, for yours will be a delightful land,” says the Lord Almighty.

(Malachi 3)

This text is often quoted as a reason to tithe. In a short-handed fashion, it is not wrong to use this text to teach tithing. It is true that in the OT, tithing is required and the people did not tithe, thus they are robbing God. The dynamics in the church are different.

This text is talking about a confrontation between God and the people. They are a mature nation, and not giving as they ought to. As a result, God is withholding blessings from them. God will resume blessings on them if they resume tithing. In that sense, it is applicable for some people. God can withdraw blessings for the Christian who refuses to grow up and refuses to tithe to God’s work. The challenge then is to ask people to tithe so God will resume his blessings.

Let’s look at this practically and see Israel as a farming community. There are some who tithe but most do not (Malachi’s time). How does the rain fall? Does it rain on the farms of those who tithe and not rain on the farms of those who don’t tithe? If the cause and effect of tithing is so straightforward, all the farmers would tithe without being told! The nation fails as a whole and the judgment falls on the entire nation. How do Christians want to apply that to our time? Many people cite Malachi 3 as though it is a simple cause and effect in the life of the individual. “If you tithe, God will bless. If you don’t, you are robbing God and God will not bless you.” So what of the tithing farmers who get no rain?

The first point to note is the blessings in Malachi 3 are about the resumption of blessings from God. What if God has not withdrawn his blessings? That is to say, a person is not at a point in his life when God has withdrawn his blessings of account of the non-tithe. He starts to tithe and expects God to bless him more, but that is all the Lord intends for him to have. Does he then get angry that God is not giving more when he tithes?

The suggestion when we use this passage for tithing is that God will give us MORE if we tithe, not that God will resume his blessings if we tithe. This wrong reading of the text is then used to fan our greed. We want God to give us more, so we tithe. That is not the original reason for the tithe even in OT times. The tithe is to acknowledge the sovereignty of God and to worship him. When Israel becomes a nation, she is called upon to support the Levites who served them in spiritual things, and to supply the needs of worship. If we use this text for tithing, we are prone to use it to fan greed rather than devotion. We tend to induce the person to give so he will get more.

Another favorite text is38 Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Luke 6)

The meaning here is that we will get back what we give without any discount. The figure of speech is the measure of grain. We measure out a portion, we will get back the same but this time, it will be shaken, pressed down, and filled to the running brim. But it will be the same measure. If we think of this text as God blessing us when we give, God’s blessings would be quite miserable. Let’s consider this. If we use the same measure and then shake, press down, and fill to overflowing, how much more will we get? 10% more?20% more? Is that the limit of God’s blessings for those who give?

The context is about judging people. The preceding verse reads: 37 “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. (Luke 6)

The passage is about judging others and condemning others, not about giving to God.  It is about dishing out condemnation. If we are harsh in our judgment of people, and we condemn people using a harsh measure, we will have the same measure returned to us. Not only will we be judged by the same harsh measure, we will receive a full measure of it, shaken, pressed down, and brimming over.

This passage has nothing to do with giving money and receiving something good in return. It is a caution not to dish out harshness so we will not receive harshness in return.

The net effect of using this text to motivate giving is once more to induce greed in us. We will have a hidden motive to give so we can have more. That is never the reason for the tithe. In the New Testament the reason for the tithe (or “giving” if you do not like the use of the word “tithe”), is to provide material blessings for those who give is spiritual blessings. We are not to muzzle the ox that treads the grain. It is like Israel tithing to the needs of the Levites.

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