Evangelical Christianity today benefits from a variety of historic traditions and interpretations of our holy scriptures. These perspectives provide a dizzying array of resources that, for American Christians at least, have become like products in a supermarket that Christian "shoppers" can browse and select based on what they think ideal Christian is supposed to look like.
Oftentimes, the resources we choose act more as self-fulfilling prophecies instead of hard-core medicine; we get the outcome we're looking for because we're searching for solutions through eyes that are already dilated to how we know we want to respond.
Most of us know we’re incredibly spoiled as Christians living in modern-day North America. The choice of philosophies, superstar authors, and theologies available to us could almost be considered appalling, when you consider that the evangelical church around the world barely has enough Bibles. All these resources might be worth it, though, if we Christians actually lived lives with better Biblical integrity. For example, what if we had a lower divorce rate than the “unchurched” around us, raised Christ-focused kids instead of shallow tween consumers, and were better-committed to meeting the physical and financial needs within our own congregations?
Oh, were you not expecting me to go there? Is it easier to nod in agreement that believers need to be better husbands, wives, and parents than it is to think that few of us are really treating our money the way we should?
But even if we think our 10% is good enough, and we believe we’re doing our best to be charitable and generous, I keep coming across Bible passages that increasingly suggest to me that we’re doing this wrong. We’ve become warped into embracing how the world views economics, and we’re ignoring the spirit of Biblical stewardship, the Biblical purpose for wealth, and a key aspect of Biblical community with our brothers and sisters in Christ. It's as though all of those church giving resources out there are making a concerted effort to ignore certain parts of the Bible that give basic, hard-to-misinterpret guidelines for charity among believers.
Believe me, I’m not looking for these passages – they’re finding me! I’ve been as satisfied as most everybody else with the standard 10% deduction – oops, I mean “tithe”. However, since hearing the Tim Keller sermon on charity from the book of Proverbs, I’ve been bothered with how very counter-intuitive it seems. You’ll recall that Keller believes evangelicals in a faith-based community need to give liberally and without discretion to other believers in need, based on passages in Proverbs 3 and 19. Has the North American church become so worldly and economically dogmatic that we have so utterly abandoned the notion of genuine, Biblical charity and welfare? Or is Keller the one with the warped perspective, off on a pro-socialism tangent?
This Isn't A Sermon, It's A Confession
Don’t worry: I’m not going to pontificate about tithing or about what you should do with the money that God has entrusted to you. I’m not going to look over your shoulder at your checkbook and render a judgment on how spiritual you are. I can’t pass myself off as a good example of how to tithe or give money away, because I’m as tight-fisted as most every other Christian.
I’m not even a good-enough Christian to have memorized the following scripture that serves as an excellent follow-up passage for the Keller sermon on poverty. The senior pastor at Park Cities Presbyterian in Dallas, Rev. Mark Davis, used this as his text yesterday morning:
“We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints – and this, not as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us. Accordingly, we urged Titus that as he had started, so he should complete among you this act of grace. But as you excel in everything – in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in all earnestness, and in our love for you – see that you excel in this act of grace also.
“I say this not as a command, but to prove by the earnestness of others that your love also is genuine. For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you by His poverty might become rich.”
- 2 Corinthians 8:1-9
Abundance of Joy?
Please allow me to repeat a couple of lines from this text: “… their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.”
”For they gave according to their means… and beyond their means, of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints.”
I don’t know about you, but I don’t really think I’ve ever tithed out of an “abundance of joy”. While I’ve never been what our society considers wealthy, I’ve never given out of extreme poverty, either. But the Macedonian churches gave out of their extreme poverty with much joy. So much so, that Paul describes it as an overflowing wealth of generosity. Apparently, it wasn’t so much the dollar amount the believers gave, but the sheer volume of their giving, and their attitude in doing so, that created the wealth of their offering. Kind of like the “widow’s mite”, perhaps?
Begging For More Offerings
Have you ever given to the Lord’s work beyond your means? Have you ever considered it an honor to take part in providing financial relief for brothers and sisters in Christ who are facing financial hardship? Have you ever begged your pastors to take up more offerings so even more money can be raised to help the indigent of the Kingdom of God?
It seems apparent, does it not, that my earlier questions about Keller’s sermon on generous giving has been answered in this passage. Paul is describing an outpouring of generosity on the part of Christians for fellow believers, indeed, an earnestness that seems so foreign to me. So, while I’m comfortable in assuming Keller’s stance on charity applies to believers supporting other believers and that we need to be stricter in our benevolence to the unchurched world, I’m left with even more questions about what this charity should look like.
Paul describes the Macedonian churches given despite a “severe test of affliction”. This doesn’t mean they were paying in the hopes of appeasing God’s wrath, does it? They gave joyfully – indeed, their joy is what was abundant, right?
The wealth was in the generosity, and it overflowed. I don’t know that my generosity could ever have been described as “overflowing”. How about you?
Do We Give or Hoard?
Have you ever given “beyond your means”, or have you given what you consider to be a respectable percentage balanced by your other financial obligations with a view towards savings and retirement accounts?
Do you consider a healthy investment portfolio to be prudent planning for the future or a well from which resources can liberally flow to others?
Have you ever begged for the opportunity to give joyfully and abundantly beyond your means, or do you consider Sunday offerings a necessary evil? Do you view church offerings as an act of worship, or an infringement upon your personal finances if they take an offering at every meeting?
It’s interesting, isn’t it, that Paul says he’s not making this type of generosity a command. Rather, he sees this type of giving as proof that our love as believers is genuine. If people give because they're ordered to, where's the love?
Do you love your fellow church members so much that you’d give joyfully beyond your means to help them? Or do you figure that if they worked harder or weren’t so foolish with their money, they’d have enough to cover their needs? Isn’t it odd that such judgments are absent in this Macedonian scenario?
"Hey, I'm Already Tithing, So Leave Me Alone!"
A former pastor of mine, Randy Frazee, refused to preach 10% tithing. He’d say that he didn’t want people to think that 10% was enough; in fact, I remember him advising us that “10 percent is a good starting point, but just a starting point. We don’t want to inhibit you from giving more than that”!
Yesterday in his sermon, Davis said he’s not focused on the 10% figure either. He wants 100% - not all of our money, but all of the congregation tithing. I won’t tell you the amount, but it’s scandalous the percentage of our church membership not giving anything in a tithe to the church.
I can’t preach to you the amount you should give, but I do think that if you’re a believer and a member of a church, your faith is weak – and maybe even bogus – if you’re not giving any tithe to your church. How can I say that? If you think about it, giving is an essential component of our faith. If you look further in the 2 Corinthians passage, Paul contextualizes the Macedonian’s generosity by showing how it pales in comparison to Christ’s abdication of his Heavenly riches and coming to earth to secure salvation for His people. Christ became poor for us. He gave of Himself. He is the model for how we should be generous to our fellow believers.
If you’re not giving any money to your church, how can you justify such a flagrant disregard for the teachings of scripture, the conviction of the Macedonians, and the pure example of Christ?
If you’re like me, and you toy with the 10% figure, wondering if that’s pre-tax or excluding cash Christmas gifts, aren’t we just being a bit too stingy and ungrateful?
If you take the more conventional approach and strictly cap all of your giving at 10%, isn’t there plenty of evidence that Frazee is right, and that 10% is only a good starting point?
If you’re one of the exceptions and already give joyously a staggering percentage of the money God has given you, just be careful not to take pride in that. Maybe God wants you to give even more?
What Does Our Giving Say About Our Faith?
You see, if we short-change God with the finances He gives us, isn’t that a way of denying His sovereignty? Aren’t we saying, “Hey, God, you see how little I have. I need to be saving this for an unforeseen emergency or for retirement”. With that attitude, are we refusing to believe that God knows our money situation, are we forgetting that He knows what we may have already wasted money on, or that secret luxury for which we may be saving?
I fully realize that many people have already developed an intransigence on this subject, and refuse to hear any more talk about money. There are many people in churches today for whom wealth is an object to be pursued as a fundamental right of capitalism. It’s virtually un-American to give away money liberally with no strings attached.
To these folks I would simply say that perhaps God has placed us in this country and provided us ways to earn wealth, not to reward us for our skills or education, but simply to create a repository from which funds can be distributed throughout His church. Maybe – instead of the unfortunates in dark societies where economic opportunity is repressed – we’re the unfortunate ones since we don’t appreciate the joy in giving away beyond our means.
For those of you who have soldiered on and read this far, I’d like to apologize and say that I can’t really come up with any bright ideas for cheering us all up. I’m as convicted on this subject as you probably are. I honestly can’t understand – yet, at least – how an abundance of joy and extreme poverty can produce overflowing wealth.
But you’ve read the text, and you see what it says. We believers seem to be on the wrong track, don’t we?
Tomorrow: if you still think Keller is off-track with his ideas about Proverbs, or if you think Paul’s concept of charity here is bizarre, you should see what he says in the rest of Chapter 8. It'll be shorter, too!