Giving to the Church

If you’re involved in a church, it wants you to give your money to it… Typically ‘in order to further its ministry’ - which is usually a form of Orwellian ‘Newspeak’ meaning, basically, to keep the building(s) in a state of good repair and to pay the clergy and other staff… Rather than much (or even sometimes any) of the money going to relieve poverty or to support ‘widows and orphans’ or any of the other worthy causes you might think of. The church I belong to has a long-standing policy of giving 10% of money received to missionary organisations.

The doctrine of ‘tithing’ (giving at least 10% of your income to the church) is contentious. It can be contentious within the group, but it’s contentious outside too… Few things are more off-putting for potential ‘members’ than the knowledge that, at some point, the vicar or some other representative of the organisation is going to put the squeeze on you and start ‘suggesting’ that you really should be giving the church a not insignificant proportion of your hard-earned money.

The way this proportion (usually, but not always, a tenth) is calculated is contentious too. In some churches, it’s reckoned to be 10% of ‘gross income’ (i.e. before any tax or other deductions) - in line with the principle of giving to God the first fruits of your labours. In others, it’s ‘net’ income - i.e that which actually arrives in your bank account after all the deductions have been made (which are, after all, compulsory, and so you never actually see any of that money).

There’s a good deal of ‘propaganda’ around the practice - not to mention, in some cases, manipulation or even actual bullying. At the very least, there’s usually some sort of ‘hard sell’ - someone telling people that they’ll be blessed if they give, that ‘God loves a cheerful giver’ and other such blandishments, whilst implying that not giving may result in God not blessing you as richly. It's all intended, subtly or not-so-subtly, to make you put your hand in your pocket. Such ‘sermons’ are inevitably, backed up by ‘scriptural principles’…

Let’s look, briefly, at two of thepassagesmost commonly used to ‘encourage’ people to give. First of all, Malachi 3:8-12

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. 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. 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 LORD Almighty. “Then all the nations will call you blessed, for yours will be a delightful land,” says the LORD Almighty.

And then 2 Corinthians 9:6-11

Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. As it is written:

“They have freely scattered their gifts to the poor;
their righteousness endures forever.”

Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God.

In my experience, the clause about ‘not reluctantly or under compulsion’ is de-emphasised, or even ignored altogether, whilst a strong emphasis is placed on the words ‘God loves a cheerful giver’, All in all it's pretty much a form of emotional blackmail.

It’s interesting to me that the NIV places a heading ‘Generosity Encouraged’ right before verse 6 - neatly dividing it from verse 5. The reason for doing that, and introducing one of those false section breaks which we’ve mentioned before, becomes obvious if you look at verse 5 and, preferably, add it to verse 6 and what follows on:

So I thought it necessary to urge the brothers to visit you in advance and finish the arrangements for the generous gift you had promised. Then it will be ready as a generous gift, not as one grudgingly given.

‘Grudgingly given’… Isn’t that what all those sermons are about, really? They’re about overcoming our reluctance. Maybe, just maybe, preachers should leave the subject well alone and simply be grateful for whatever gifts the church receives; those gifts which are given cheerfully, rather than reluctantly or grudgingly. And if that means that they can’t do all the things they want to then, just perhaps, they ought to think hard about how to spend what money they do have, and make the most of it, rather than pressuring vulnerable people into giving (frequently beyond their means) so as to facilitate the pastor's pet project..

Let me tell you that ‘persuading’ someone to give, and then telling them that they ought to do so ‘cheerfully’ isn’t them giving cheerfully - it’s manipulation, pure and simple. And I think it’s a despicable way to act.

This sort of preaching is also indiscriminate. It doesn’t differentiate between those who could easily give (if they wanted), and those who really can’t, given their circumstances, or who should be discouraged from doing so. I think here, particularly, not just of the ‘conventionally poor’, but also of students who, in this country (and some other countries in the west) fund their studies by taking out enormous loans (on which interest accrues); loans which, if they ever earn enough, they are expected to pay back throughout their careers. Yes, at some point in the future, they may well earn good, or even excellent, salaries - but to expect them to give while they are students - and thereby increase their debt?

No, in my opinion, absolutely not: at this point they are poor, and they shouldn’t be being loaded down with even more debt, nor with guilt if they don’t give to the church. It ought to be made abundantly clear to them that they shouldn’t feel obliged to give out of a loan which they’re liable to pay back with interest . Loans like that should absolutely not be thought of as ‘income’ to be tithed. If anything, the church ought to be giving to those people, and relieving their poverty! Though I would add the caveat that they may if they wish - of course - but absolutely no pressure.

In some churches, tithing has become a legalistic requirement - you cannot be ‘in good standing with god’ unless you give at least 1/10 of your income to the church. Of course, no-one actually asks God whether he wants that and whether it’ll make any difference to how much he loves them - it’s just assumed that, by being ‘in good standing’ with the church, and whatever rules it has put in place, you’re in good standing with God. That sounds suspiciously like taking the Lord’s name in vain to me.

In other churches, it isn’t a requirement but, nevertheless, you can be pretty sure that ‘high-pressure’ sales tactics, carrot and stick, will be used to part you from your cash.

It’s mostly pretty sickening, and a lot of it goes right against Jesus’ injunction that our giving should be done in secret - Matthew 6:1-4

“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.

“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honoured by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

Really, in light of this passage, church leaders have no right to take such a prurient interest in the giving habits of their congregants.

There is another passage in scripture - in the Old Testament in fact - so if you’re in one of those churches which operate (as most do) in such a way that the Old Testament Law is, effectively, binding, you really ought to be obeying it. But, oddly (or not!), almost nobody seems to know about it, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone preach on it - and absolutely not when they’re preaching about giving to the church.

So which passage is that then?

Deuteronomy 14, verses 22-29:

Be sure to set aside a tenth of all that your fields produce each year. Eat the tithe of your grain, new wine and olive oil, and the firstborn of your herds and flocks in the presence of the LORD your God at the place he will choose as a dwelling for his Name, so that you may learn to revere the LORD your God always. But if that place is too distant and you have been blessed by the LORD your God and cannot carry your tithe (because the place where the LORD will choose to put his Name is so far away), then exchange your tithe for silver, and take the silver with you and go to the place the LORD your God will choose. Use the silver to buy whatever you like: cattle, sheep, wine or other fermented drink, or anything you wish. Then you and your household shall eat there in the presence of the LORD your God and rejoice. And do not neglect the Levites living in your towns, for they have no allotment or inheritance of their own.

At the end of every three years, bring all the tithes of that year’s produce and store it in your towns, so that the Levites (who have no allotment or inheritance of their own) and the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns may come and eat and be satisfied, and so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.

Read it.

And then read it again.

Go on; I’ll wait.

What do you make of that, then?

It’s saying that if you’re ‘under the law’ (which Christians, as I’ve been at pains to point out recently, aren’t), then you’re supposed to save up your tithe (10%). Two-thirds of that 10% you’re supposed to ‘blow’ on a massive party, to rejoice and to demonstrate your gratitude for God’s provision - as an act of worship. You’re to give the remaining third to the Levites (roughly equivalent to priests) for them to live on, and for them to distribute to the foreigners in your midst (asylum-seekers and refugees perhaps, in today’s parlance), orphans, and widows - the poor and destitute in other words.

(Another thought occurred to me - an aside to be considered in more detail another time - there’s never any consideration that times have changed - how should we read and act on all this stuff in societies which have a ‘welfare state’ - something which didn’t exist at all back in ‘bible times’?)

Let’s also talk, while we’re on the subject of widows and orphans, about the story of the ‘Widow’s Mite’ as it is known - found in Luke 21:1-4 and Mark 12:41-44:

Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few pennies.

Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”

It is usually paired with 2 Corinthians 9:7, and is used to encourage even those who think they have very little, to give:

…for God loves a cheerful giver.

Actually, if you look closely, absolutely nothing is said about the widow’s state of mind. We ought, really, to look at the wider context of the Mark passage. And we find, just a few verses earlier:

As he taught, Jesus said, “Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honour at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.” Mark 12:38-40

So, actually, this passage has almost nothing to do with Jesus praising the widow for her cheerful generosity, and a whole lot to do with Jesus criticising the ‘teachers of the law’ for oppressing poor widows - they ‘devour widows’ houses’ - which probably means that, by insisting (amongst other things) that they pay their tithe, they render them so poor as to become homeless… Whilst they themselves live in the lap of luxury.

So, we really shouldn’t be insisting that, in order to receive God’s blessing, everyone must give to the church. All that manipulation, shaming, and the like really ought to be stopped dead in its tracks. And people should be allowed to act as they see fit - giving if they wish to, and not if they don’t… And not making any ‘promises’ about God’s blessing being lavished on people who give and withheld from those who don’t.

Don’t forget, we are under grace, not under law; and God blesses everyone regardless of how much they give. As Jesus says in Matthew 5:45 (quoting Job 25:3) -

He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

Rejoice; be blessed, because you have been…

brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. Romans 8:21

and:

If the son sets you free, you will be free indeed. John 8:36

Don’t let anyone, however (apparently) well-intentioned, take that freedom away from you.

Note that I’m not saying ‘don’t give’. What I’m saying is don’t let anyone manipulate you into giving money; particularly if money is tight… We see Jesus speaking out against that in these later passages. But if you have money and you see a cause which inspires you and which needs money, give to it, joyfully and with your blessing. Or, if you don’t have money to spare, but do have time, and you see an opportunity - give your time - that is at least as valuable!

If you’re looking for ways to give which don’t involve money, then I’d recommend volunteering. You could volunteer in a charity shop; at your local food-bank; at a homeless shelter; or at a soup kitchen… And enjoy blessing people by your cheerful, helpful, presence there. There are other opportunities too, though these may require more commitment and may involve the need to be ‘vetted’ and trained - prison visiting; working at your local Citizens’ Advice Bureau; joining the volunteer, lay, chaplains at your local hospital - just a few examples of things friends of mine have done.

May God bless you - however much (or little) money you give to the church.

Copyright Phil Hendry, 2022