Good question. The tithing (or giving) issue is one that comes up often and that tends to bring up larger issues of law, Christian freedom, grace, generosity, faithfulness, and priorities. With this issue, as is true of so many areas of the Christian life and, more specifically, church life, there is broad freedom with respect to many particular decisions or courses of action we might take, provided we take them for biblical reasons and with biblical principles in mind.
First things first — you are correct that no passage in the New Testament sets 10 percent (or any other specific amount or percentage) as a “required” amount to give as part of the Christian life. Without getting into the extremely complex theological issues surrounding the interaction between the specific requirements of the Old Testament law and the new covenant in Christ, we can confidently say two things on the tithing issue as a biblical matter: (1) the 10 percent tithe was a specific requirement that served a specific purpose under the Old Testament law (see, among other passages, Leviticus 27:32 and Numbers 18:26-32) and (2) neither Jesus nor any New Testament writer assigns or even affirms 10 percent as a specific amount to be given by believers under the new covenant.
Having said that, the New Testament does have something to say to us about “giving” as part of the Christian life. The broader, fundamental theological concept to keep in mind — described most fully in the book of Hebrews — is that the new covenant in Christ is a better, fuller covenant because the work of Christ on the cross bestows on God’s people eternal, spiritual blessings rather than the temporary, physical ones that mere obedience to the Old Testament law promised. Because of these gifts — both what Christ has done for us on the cross and the future promise of perfect fellowship with God for all eternity — we are free from the old restrictions and requirements of the law, and we are called to present our entire lives as acts of worship to the Lord (see Romans 11:36-12:1). Jesus frees us from the law so that we are free to love Him more — not as condemned rebels or slaves, but as sons and daughters.
That includes the way we think about and use our financial resources, whether they are large or small. Jesus told the rich man to give all that he had (and went on to promise immense spiritual rewards to those who give everything to follow Him (Matthew 19:29-30). He also commended the widow who gave essentially nothing in actual material value, because she gave “all she had” (Luke 21:4).
I think a good analogy to the “tithing vs. giving” issue is the change from the Old Testament Sabbath to the new covenant concept of Sunday as the “Lord’s Day.” Are Christians required to keep the specific, technical, negative restrictions of the Old Testament Sabbath (such as the restrictions against work, travel, trade, etc.)? The vast majority of evangelicals think not. But those same evangelicals do believe in the concept of Sunday as the “Lord’s Day,” on which most or all of the day should be spent positively pursuing the means of grace, rest and the other things of God out of love for Him (gathering with the saints in fellowship and worship, reading, discussing and listening to the preaching of God’s Word, the Lord’s Supper, etc.) and for the sake of His glory and His people. As with giving, the idea is that in light of the new covenant of grace and our love for Christ, we are not under the restrictions or requirements of the Old Testament law, but neither should we be limited to them. We should cheerfully give more of ourselves to Gospel work and the things of God.
So what does that mean a little more practically in terms of exactly what to give? Based on the theological principles I talked about, in the solid theological churches I’ve been a part of, the elders encouraged members to consider 10 percent as a starting point and then to build (that is, increase giving) from there as their income and other circumstances allow. Does that mean people should go into debt to give this amount or that Christians are required to give more than they can afford? Of course not. But let me suggest some principles to consider as Christians evaluate a wise amount to give:
Christians are called to give financially to the work of the Gospel. In more than one of his letters, the apostle Paul instructs Christians to give financially — robustly and even sacrificially — to the work of the Gospel, especially toward the preaching of the Word (see, for example, 1 Corinthians 9:3-15, 2 Corinthians 5-9 and 1 Timothy 5:17-18). As I mentioned in my last column, most church covenants include some language about how the congregation will “strive together” or “give together” “for the support of a faithful evangelical ministry among us.” What does that mean in the context of your church?
The way you think about and spend your money speaks to what is most important in your life. The rich man was (by his own account at least) keeping all the (other) commandments that were required to please God. But when Jesus told him to give up his material wealth to follow him, he wilted (Mark 10:17-22). Jesus clearly said that where our treasure is, our heart will be also (Matthew 6:19-24). In thinking this issue through, we should think about what our spending decisions say about our priorities.
Closely related, think about what it means for you to “contribute out of [your] abundance.” Again, there’s not one right or clear answer here, but especially in the U.S. in 2013, we should give some thought to what it means to “contribute out of abundance” (Luke 21:4). God is not calling us to irresponsibility. In that sense, we should (to paraphrase your question) “give only what we can,” but as you evaluate that amount, think about how many times you go to Starbucks every week. Consider how much of your monthly income goes to clothes or various forms of entertainment. I am in no way advocating a descent into legalism here; I’m merely suggesting that as we consider this issue of how much to give, we start by giving some thought to the definitions of “poverty” and “abundance.”
This is a complex issue, and obviously what I’ve written here is not enough to cover it fully. My hope is that I’ve provided a basic theological answer to your question and given you and those you counsel some principles to think through. May the Lord give us all wisdom as we think about what it means to be good stewards of what He has loaned to us.
Copyright 2013 Scott Croft. All rights reserved.