Tithing, Giving, Generosity, and All That Jazz

Before I begin with this post, I want to quote a book. Now, don't get all hung up on the book or the author. Just listen to the quote… it's good!

"I never liked jazz music because jazz music doesn't resolve. But I was outside the Bagdad Theater in Portland one night when I saw a man playing the saxophone. I stood there for 15 minutes, and he never opened his eyes.

After that I liked jazz music.

Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself. It is as if they are showing you the way."

  • Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz

Now to the focus of this post… as a kid that grew up in church, there was this thing about tithing that never resolved for me. A splinter in my mind if you will that still won't let me go.

As I have processed and processed this idea, I wrestle with how to explain God's expectations for money to people who live in the richest country in the world. Let's be real for just a minute. I don't want to lay heavy burdens on people unjustly. And at the same time I don't want to remove clear obligations either. And because people are so weird about money it puts a lot of pressure on me to state the things that I believe are true, but say them in a way that can move both extremes (and there are lots of people in both extreme camps) to what I believe is a healthy and theocentric view of how we are to handle time, talents, and treasure.

I know there is a pressure to land one place or another. And I know that wherever we land, if we are going to be true to our conviction, there is a cost. So, as I have been doing over the past few posts, rather than writing to convince, I am going to give what I think are some healthy guiding principles for this discussion.

  1. Proof texting any point is never a good idea. And the debate over tithing is one of the most proof texted and least understood conversations in scripture. On one side are those who bring out a few texts about tithing (i.e. Malachi 3) and on the other side are those who want to say that tithing is Old Testament and we are not bound by that covenant anymore.

I want to state emphatically and for the record - both sides are dead wrong. It is wrong to proof text and manipulate people by doing that. It is also wrong to assume that: 1. there are 2 stories of God working among man; 2. That God undoes one covenant to start another; 3. that we can use the Old Testament when we like it and disregard it when we don't (which gets done all the time); and 4. that just because God states something that He wants His people to do in the Old Testament and doesn't repeat it in the New Testament (which I don't believe is true in the case of tithing, but that is not the point) doesn't mean that we have no obligation to it (i.e. don't murder).

  1. God's people understand that the earth is the Lord's and everything in it. So, exactly "none" of my money, time or abilities are mine to use as I see fit.

God's people are never asking the question, "How much should I give?" they are asking the question, "How much should I keep?" And that is a very different place to come from.

  1. This new generation loves to give to causes not organizations or institutions. This has lead to people trying to justify splitting their tithe out among several different causes that they deem admirable or needed.

For the record, I love giving to what are called "parachurch" organizations. These are organizations like WorldVision, Campus Crusade, Innervarsity, Navigators, etc. There is nothing wrong with these organizations and this is certainly not a post on the efficacy of the parachurch. My wife and I absolutely support some of these out of our "over and above" giving.

But there is not one example that you can find, Old or New Testament, where there was ever anyone who got to choose when and how to give their money. They always came and gave it at the temple in the Old Testament, and they laid it at the apostle's feet in the New in order to have it properly distributed to meet the needs of the body and the community.

Resolving this tension and where you land on it is not on the shoulders of those who believe in a full tithe going to the church. I am not going to be dogmatic about where your tithe goes, but I am going to say that if you want to "buck the model," the burden of proof is on you, not those who up hold traditional acquisition and distribution.

  1. 10% is SO NOT the point. Many people want to camp out here and say we don't have to give 10% anymore. And you should therefore allow everyone to decide how much and where they are going to give. The truth is that, for most, this is an excuse to not have to be generous at all.

That will never be okay with God. Therefore, that should never be okay with His people. God is a generous God and so His Kingdom of Priests should be as well. We are putting Him on display after all.

For the record, no one owes me an explanation of where and how they spend their money. And I am not calling for a reckoning of those who feel differently. What I would suggest is something far deeper.

For those of us who have matured in our faith, who have wrestled with the limitless goodness and blessing of our God, we should all be looking at 10% in the rear view mirror. That should be the starting point upon which we build a much more generous lifestyle.

10% isn't a goal, it is a starting line.

  1. The New Testament does in fact give us a standard for giving. And for what it is worth, for anyone who actually says that they don't like 10% because that is Old Testament and they want to give as a "New Testament" Christian (which is a terrible term from start to finish), I am happy for them to do so. But actually do it. Read the examples of what they did in their giving and do that.

If you decide to do that, and you actually do it, 10% won't be a problem at all. you will be way above that.

And before you throw "don't give grudgingly or under compulsion for God loves a cheerful giver" in my face. That is NOT God saying that if you don't want to, it is okay for you to not give. You are still commanded to give regardless. But to do so grudgingly says more about how you feel about your God than about the money you are giving.

  1. Our giving is not about us - at all!! In fact, the more we give, the more we can see that to be true.

First of all, giving reminds me that it is all His.

Second, no matter what western culture says to me, I am obligated to the community that I am a part of before I take care of myself. That is foundational to the Jesus way of engaging the world.

I will close with this rewriting of the opening thought.

I used to hate giving because I didn't see any benefit to it. Then one day I was part of a group with a tremendously generous person. And I watched as he told me the story of the blessing that it was to fulfill a need in someone else by laying down his pursuit of his own lifestyle and comfort. He had tears of joy in his eyes the whole time.

Then I saw what giving can do. So, I started giving more. And now, the more I give, the more I love giving.

Sometimes, you have to watch somebody who loves giving before you can love it yourself. It is as if they are showing you the way to bring heaven crashing into earth.