What the Bible Says About Tithing and Christian Giving

Before going on, I want to address a common misunderstanding of what the Bible means when it says that God will meet our needs. Jesus said, “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon. Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment? Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they? Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature? And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith? Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matthew 6:24-33).

Some people take the last part of this passage out of context and use it to support the false idea that Jesus has promised us wealth if we seek the kingdom of God first (usually defined by these people as generously supporting their ministry). But the context reveals that Jesus was saying something quite different. He tells us that we cannot serve two masters: God and mammon (material wealth or possessions). We will love the one and hate (disregard) or despise (think slightly of) the other. Obviously, we should love God. Therefore, we should disregard or think slightly of material possessions. And Jesus goes on to say just that. We should take no thought for the things of this life—food and clothing (and, obviously, the money that buys these things). God will provide these necessities for those who are seeking His kingdom first. But this is where most of us in our affluent society misunderstand. Jesus is not saying God will provide a large house, nice car, extensive wardrobe, and home theater. What Jesus is saying is that God will provide what we need to sustain our lives—necessities (some food in our bellies and clothes on our backs)—while we dedicate our lives to the priority of all Christians of seeking the kingdom. And what is seeking the kingdom of God? It is doing what Christ tells us as Christians to do: believe, love one another, and spread the Gospel. Jesus is not calling us to a life of health and wealth, but to a life of self-sacrifice.

The apostle Paul wrote, “For ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might be [spiritually] rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9). Jesus gave up the riches of heaven to be born in a stable as a human. He dedicated His life to teach the poor and ignorant masses, and eventually He gave His life to pay for their sins and your sins. And He left “us an example, that ye should follow his steps” (1 Peter 2:21). Are we following those steps?

Now please do not think that by saying these things, I am trying to create feelings of guilt in you. Quite the reverse, I want you to remember the depth of God’s grace and desire that others should know it too. I am just trying to stir some thought and, perhaps, remind some of you of your first love and get you back onto the “strait” and “narrow” (Matthew 7:14). Those who try to manipulate by laying guilt on people are doing something quite different.

3) Giving to get rid of sins or pay for grace: Have you ever been made to feel that you can pay for your sins or buy your way into God’s favor by giving to a certain ministry? In the early 16th century, Martin Luther fought against the Roman Catholic church’s practice of selling indulgences to spring people out of purgatory. Yet variations on this practice continue in ministries that call themselves Protestant, Baptist, Evangelical, or Fundamentalist. Apparently, it is easy for many ministries to succumb to the temptation to imply to their donors that a person’s giving reflects his standing before God. If we give, we gain favor with God. If we don’t, we may fall from grace. But anyone who knows the definition of grace—that it is something freely given—knows that this cannot be. We cannot earn what is freely given.

It can be amazing how carelessly people in responsible positions in Christian organizations can treat grace. I have heard ministers speak of coming late to church as if it were the next thing to the unpardonable sin. One minister cited in a book on spiritual abuse clearly stated from the pulpit that a drop in weekly church attendance meant the church had fallen from grace! (The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen [Minneapolis: Bethany, 1991] 65). In reality, the minister had fallen from grace in his mind; he had forgotten that grace does not depend on our performance. But it is perhaps in the area of asking for money that the temptation becomes greatest. For example: The organization needs money. The leadership needs to motivate people to give. Guilt is a powerful motivator. The leadership makes people feel their sins for not contributing enough. So they say things like, “I don’t know how anyone who is saved can give so little,” or “Surely, if the Holy Spirit were living in you, you would be giving more.” Or, and perhaps this is the king of all money manipulators among Christian groups, “God did so much for you. Won’t you pay Him back even a little by sending your contribution today?” Yikes! Run when you hear that one. You can never repay God. How can you repay what is freely given? While God may want you to do good works, He does not want you to do them thinking you are paying Him back. By trying to put a burden of repayment or trying to lay our sins back on us for not giving, manipulators are trying to pull your strings and make you dance to their tune. This is how cults operate, and, unfortunately, it is also a trait in too many Christian churches and parachurch organizations. But Jesus came to freely remove our guilt. God’s motivator is love, not guilt or repayment of debt.

This is not to say that our conscience cannot play a role in our deciding to give. Jesus uses the word “compassion” to describe the difference between the Samaritan and the others who passed by when they saw the man lying half dead in the road (Luke 10:30-35). But words such as guilt, conscience, and compassion are abstract, and we can have trouble getting a handle on them. The Greek word translated “compassion” that Jesus uses in Luke 10:33 literally means to be moved in one’s inwards. In other words, the Samaritan’s inner most being was moved with pity when he saw the man lying in the road.

Now suppose the Samaritan had an urgent appointment and had convinced himself that he should pass by without helping. I think we can safely say that his conscience would have bothered him. And this would have been right. His conscience should have bothered him. James says, “Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin” (James 4:17). If the Samaritan had passed by the man in need, he would have been guilty of violating what he knew to be right; he would have been guilty of violating his conscience. So our compassion is our desire to do what is right, and our conscience tells us that this action is right. But what about guilt? Guilt is outside of us. If we do something wrong—such as not doing what we know to be right—we are guilty. It is a verdict that God brings against us. If the Samaritan had passed the man by despite his knowing that he should have stopped, he would have been guilty of not doing what he knew was right. If he then turned back to help the man, he would have been doing the right thing. But this would not get rid of his guilt before God.

For example, if I rob a bank, I am guilty before the law of robbing the bank. If I then have such pangs of conscience that I bring the money back, I have done what is right, but that does not get rid of my guilt. I am still guilty of having robbed the bank. I can now confess my guilt before the judge and beg for mercy. And the judge may pardon me or give me a shorter sentence. But I don’t deserve it. I am still guilty of having robbed the bank.

So, if the Samaritan had first violated what he knew to be right and passed by the man in need, then turned back and helped him, what could he do about his guilt of first passing the man by? He could call upon the Judge of us all and plead the blood of Jesus Christ his Savior as the payment for his sin. No amount of good works will make up for his sin. He would need grace alone, by faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone.

What has all this to do with the way people try to get us to donate? There is nothing wrong with appealing to our compassion and conscience. The Bible is full of appeals of this sort. It is not wrong for a ministry to tell us of their need. It is not wrong for a ministry to tell us that if they had more money they could do more good. It is not wrong for a ministry to say that lack of funds is keeping the Gospel from reaching more people. It is not wrong for a ministry to remind us what our priorities are as Christians. What is wrong is when a ministry implies that we are guilty for not having given before, and we can alleviate our guilt by giving now. Or that we can gain remission for any sins by works such as giving. Or that continued giving will keep us in right standing before God. Or that we can pay God back for His grace. Only the blood that Jesus Christ freely shed for our sins can remove our guilt, and that free gift can never be repaid.

Copyright © 2004-2009 Peter Ditzel