As you are aware as we look to the future and the possibility of calling a minister full time we face the issue of finances. Put bluntly we need to find another $35,000 each year, and we are currently looking at how that might be achieved. We look over the fence at Hoon Hay congregation which is smaller than ours which has employed a full time minister and is looking at employing other ministry staff.
We are slowly building up the usage of the complex to gain an income from the building. We are looking at other ways to raise capital, but a key area we must look at is the income we receive from regular giving to our church. Money and church is a touchy subject, but if we are going to go ahead and search for a full time ministry we have to be able to show we can meet our commitments, and our special workgroup looking at this has estimated we need to increase giving by $15,000 per year which is not chicken feed.
As this has been talked about several people have asked me about the practice of tithing. The question has been asked about the practice In some churches that people will give one tenth of their income to their church. I don’t think it’s that simple.
Tithing is a practice that is found in our scriptures. We are told Abraham established the pattern of giving one tenth of what he received as an offering to God. Just what that was used for is a little unclear. The pattern is also followed by Jacob. (Gen 28:20-22) Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house. And of all that you give me I will give a full tenth to you.” The word tithe literally means “tenth,” and the giving of a tenth to God seems to be a pervading pattern. A key teaching was that all they had was gift from God, and this returning the tenth was a practice that built this teaching into their lives. Because God cares for those at the bottom of the heap it was also used to help others who may not have had an income.
This pattern was established in the laws of Moses. Originally the tithe was an obligatory offering requiring 10 percent of an Israelite’s first fruits. Because God provided the harvest, this first part was returned to God. It wasn’t something considered after all the bills were paid, but was a first call on the income which for most was in the form of harvest and food. It was a show of thankfulness for God’s provision. It also provided for the Levitical priesthood, festivals, and the needy.
As the Israelites became a more settled community the annual tithe was largely used to sustain the places of worship and the leaders involved in the worship and teaching of the faith. But this wasn’t the only obligatory tithe. They also tithed to support a special jubilee festival (Deut. 12) and took a third tithe every three years to take care of orphans, widows, and the poor (Deut. 14). Baked into God’s law was a special provision to take care of the most vulnerable citizens. Interestingly, this included caring for people from outside of their community. Someone has worked out that if you average these mandatory offerings you come up with a figure of about 23 percent of your income was given in this way each year. With introduction of kings and rulers there were also the introduction of other taxes and it all became quite complex.
On top of these compulsory tithes, there were regular opportunities for freewill offerings. These were generous gifts that expressed the Israelites’ gratefulness through voluntary giving to special projects. At a bare minimum, they gave 23 percent a year, but there was no ceiling on their generosity. They could—and frequently would—give exorbitantly out of their excess. In response to Moses’ call for contributions to the building of the Tabernacle, the Israelites literally gave so much that Moses had to command them to stop giving (Ex. 36:2–7).
Jesus doesn’t mention the tithe as a requirement that his followers should adhere to. Instead he promotes the idea that we need to get our priorities right in our lives. Jesus praises the widow who dug deep and sacrificially to give alongside those who gave a little from their abundance. For him there was aa focus on the new earth or reign of God in all things and that extended very clearly to money. Maybe I’m just speaking to myself here, but the need to set our priorities carefully, and in all our money dealings we need to consider is this benefiting the kingdom. Is this helping to bring God’s reign on earth? Promoting the kingdom of heaven should be our first priority in life and not an afterthought when all my wants and desires are taken care of. The widow raises some hard issues for us all.
He also addressed the issue of calculating exactly what the law required in terms of tithing but not caring about the true intent. Giving to the work of God should come from the heart and not the law. The law if you like sets some guidelines, and Jesus was more interested in growing a generous heart and giving generously to support the provision of worship the teaching of the faith, and caring for others. Super religious people it seemed were good at nailing down to the last cent how much was to be given, meeting the demands of the tithing law, but they failed to see others who were struggling in life. In several teachings he warns that true religion is not about reaching targets of giving, but is about genuine caring and having a concern about justice and why for instance some are poor. You may also remember that parading your giving also gets the thumbs down from Jesus. (Matt 23:23, Luke 11:42)
What does this mean for us?
Some churches teach the tithe as a law that applies today with the church as the recipient. Some may have seen the movie In My Fathers Kingdom which came out this year and focused on a Tongan family here in New Zealand. Dad in his retirement took up a paper round to provide money for the church and when it came to the annual tithing Sunday he would ring around his kids to ask for a thousand dollars from each of them to give to the church. Often how much you give becomes public knowledge so an impressive donation gives mana. His commitment to give almost destroyed his family. Other churches stress the benefits of giving saying God will bless those who give much. I live with the principle that we are constantly blessed and while I have no doubt God loves a cheerful and generous giver I don’t think we get special rewards. There is something wrong when giving to the church almost destroys families and is manipulated by the church to provide blessing. There’s nothing new here. Martin Luther was motivated to call out the church in his own time for providing tickets to heaven or indulgences for those who gave generously.
Thankfully we maintain a highly confidential system of giving in our church. Our giving is a matter between us and God.
It is a sobering exercise to work out what 10% of our gross income is. I don’t want to get into strict tithing rules, but the principle should sit there at the back of our minds and hearts as we consider our budgeting. We are called to commit sacrificially to support Gods work and not hoard it for ourselves.
We need to recognise our taxes are part of the command of God to ensure that those at the edges are taken care of in our society. Our giving to other charitable organisations or causes are also part of this obligation to serve the purpose of God’s reign or kingdom. What we give should however not be governed by law, but by a cheerful and generous heart that mirrors the heart of God.
In all things we should consider all we have as gift from God and ask how can we use it wisely and well:
to live with joy and appreciation for the good things and gift of life,
to support others in need,
and to invest in promoting God’s kingdom.
Our church is a key part but not the only part of God’s work in our community. Therefore we should carefully consider how much we will invest in our church as a means of promoting God’s kingdom. This should be a conscious and sacrificial decision and not a ‘I think I can spare a few bucks’ for the church commitment. The Israelites gave 10% of their first fruits, and that represented not what was left over, the crumbs from the leftovers, but was a first call on their income. Our church deserves a high priority.
My invitation is simple. Over the next month will you review your giving in the light of our scriptures and our situation? Next Sunday we will have a letter prepared to give you which will outline our situation in more detail and ask for a response so we can plan for the next ministry.
There is one other thing I want to say, and that is “thank you!” I know many of you have over the years maintained a regular giving practice in your lives. There have been wonderful results to that giving and the teaching and presence of Jesus in our community has been promoted with care and compassion. We now face a society that more than ever needs to hear the good news of Jesus Christ. I believe we are called to keep the flame burning, and indeed to turn up the gas so it burns brighter.