by Rev. Sterling Durgy
The relationship of giving to worship becomes important very early in the Bible, as early as the fourth chapter of Genesis. Following the fall of Adam and Eve, the next important incident regarding man's relationship to God involves the sacrificial offerings of Cain and Abel.
Cain evidently thought that anything he brought to God should have been acceptable to God. He was concerned with pleasing Himself by his offering, not God. When God pointed out that Cain was falling short, Cain's response was to become angry at both God and his brother. Cain's violence towards Abel reflected Cain's poor attitude toward God.
Just as with Cain, what we give to God in worship is a part of our relationship with God. A good gift is one that blesses and pleases the receiver. Since God is the Creator and actually needs nothing from us, the reason to give has more to do with our relationship with God than with God's need for anything to be provided for His work (Psalm 50, Acts 17:24-28). The Law of Moses prescribed which sacrifices were to be given to God and the responsibilities each person was to assume for the support of the priesthood. When a sacrifice offered under the Law of Moses was given in the right manner, it was called "a soothing aroma to the Lord" because it represented the commitment of God's people to serve Him in a manner that pleased Him (Genesis 8:20-21, Exodus 29:18, 25, 41, Leviticus 1:9, 13, 17, 2:2, 9, 12, 3:5, Numbers 15:13, 28:13).
Although as Christians we no longer bring sacrifices to the Lord, it is nevertheless true that when we offer things to the Lord this represents sacrifice in the sense that we are depriving ourselves of something in order to give something to God. When offered an opportunity to give to the Lord something that had been given to him as a gift, David said, "No, but I will surely buy it for the full price; for I will not take what is yours for the Lord, or offer a burnt offering which costs me nothing." (I Chronicles 21:24). David's insight is one of the most significant in the Old Testament concerning offerings, and contrasts with the attitude of giving often criticized by the prophets of Israel. The book of Malachi, the last Scripture inspired of God before the New Testament, points out that the lack of commitment to serve God was evident in the giving patterns of the people. Rather than offering the best of their flocks, the worst representatives of the flocks were being offered in sacrifice. In other words, animals were being offered in sacrifice that the farmers didn't want anyway. They were reserving the best for themselves and giving the leftovers to God. This was equivalent to offering no true sacrifice, to seeing worship as a mechanical exercise rather than as part of a relationship with a living God, and to treating God with contempt. Further, what was given at the Temple provided the support of the priesthood. Without suitable sacrifices, the ministry was not properly supported.
My grandmother told the story of a minister who lived next door to her. Part of the support the congregation offered the minister was to provide gifts of clothing. However, what the congregation gave was castoff clothing that was unsuitable to wear. One Sunday the minister dressed up his family in the clothing that had been donated. Only after the congregation saw how shabby the minister's family appeared did they start donating clothing that was presentable! In this case the difference was obvious. In most cases, it is up to us to care enough about our relationship to God and our support for His ministers to give in the same spirit as David, who deprived himself in order to honor to the Lord.
The Old Testament presents us with the first reason to honor God with our gifts, which is that as our Creator He is the Sovereign Lord of all creation, a living Being worthy of the highest reverence. The New Testament introduces another, gratitude for the gift of Christ at Calvary. "In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins" (I John 4:10). "For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich . . . Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift!" (II Corinthians 8:9, 9:15). The love of God which stems from a deep appreciation of His nature and gratitude for His grace stimulates Christians to give joyfully and sacrificially (II Corinthians 8:1-5, 9:7, Mark 12:41-44).
In the Old Testament the tithe was established as a guide to giving (Deuteronomy 14:22ff., Malachi 4:8-12). This guide seems to have ancient roots that lead us to believe that it is an appropriate guide even for those no longer tied to the worship defined by the Law of Moses (Hebrews 7:1-10).
However, for Christians, there are considerations beyond the tithe that modify the nature of Christian giving. These are laid out by the apostle Paul in his letters to various churches. Much of the discussion of giving in the Pauline epistles is due to the offering Paul was collecting for the churches in Palestine. This offering also plays a prominent part in the book of Acts, where it is shown to be the reason for Paul's final visit to Jerusalem.
The division of the church into Jewish and Gentile portions was of great concern to Paul, not so much because there was a cultural division with the church, but because of the danger that the church would think of itself as two separate parts rather than as one Body of Christ in the world. Disagreements between Jewish and Gentile Christians had often been sharp, and had been the occasion for open conflict between Christian believers, as is seen in Galatians, Philippians, Colossians, and the Acts of the Apostles (although some of this conflict involved a group called "the Judaizers," a sub-Christian group that preached a false Gospel, claiming authority from but not really representative of the apostles in Palestine). Since there was a great famine in Palestine at the time, Paul saw this as an opportunity to unite the two great branches of Christendom by demonstrating in real terms the concern of the Gentile churches for the suffering brethren of Palestine; while at the same time reducing the suffering of Christians in Palestine. To accomplish this goal, Paul was ready to risk imprisonment and death, believing, as he did, that the outcome would affect the ability of the church to be fruitful in the spread of the Gospel throughout the world.
Paul used the metaphor of manna to explain Christian stewardship. He pointed out that when the Israelites were in the wilderness, those who collected more than they needed had nothing left over, while those who did not collect as much had as much as they needed (II Corinthians 8:13-15, Exodus 16:12-18). This, Paul taught, was how Christians were to understand their role as givers. God's provision for Christians would leave a surplus in some places and a need in others. If those who had a surplus shared that surplus with those in need, the needs of all would be taken care of (II Corinthians 8:14).
While not diminishing in the least the tithe as a goal in Christian giving, it is nevertheless true that the tithe has too often become a rod with which the uncaring have increased the suffering of those in poverty. Are those who have little to deprive their children, the sick, or the elderly of food and needed medical care by giving a tithe of what they have? Paul answers, "For if the readiness is present, it is acceptable according to what a man has, not according to what he does not have" (II Corinthians 8:12). What kind of God asks people to neglect their children? Certainly not the kind of God who inspired I Timothy 5:8, James 1:27, and I John 4:17-18. Certainly in Jesus' parable of the talents, each person who came before Him was made responsible for what each had been given, not for more than each had been given (Matthew 25:14-30).
This very parable also emphasizes, however, that we have a deep responsibility to Christ for what He has given to us. As the tithe has been abused as a form of discrimination against the poor, it has also often been used as an excuse for wealthy Christians to spend money upon themselves that they were given to meet the needs of the Body of Christ (Matthew 23:23-24). "Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to do it. Do not say to your neighbor, 'Go, and come back, and tomorrow I will give it,' when you have it with you" (Proverbs 3:27-28). "Whoever has the world's goods, and beholds his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him?" (I John 4:17).
There is certainly nothing wrong with asking God to give us more so that we can provide more for His work. The goal of all Christians must be both to provide for their own needs and to have something left over with which to help others (Ephesians 4:28, II Thessalonians 3:6-15). On the other hand, the primary role of the Christian is to be a steward of what God provides. If this is our goal, then whether we are given a little or a lot, we will live by the same rule, the service of Jesus Christ.
Christian stewardship, then, calls for a prayerful and realistic assessment of what we have to give, and giving it in such a manner that Christ is glorified. Although this means that Christian giving is a form of "investment" in God's work and God's people, it is foreign to the view that the Scriptures are somehow an "investment portfolio" with a better financial return than secular investment portfolios. Christian giving has the same goals as giving in the Old Testament: the support of God's ministers, the relief of the poor, and the spread of true knowledge of God.
All of these goals are in concert with the role of the church, which is why it is right and proper to make the giving of tithes and offerings a part of formal worship. In every way, Christian giving is representative of our total commitment to serve our Lord.
Copyright 1999 Sterling M. Durgy. All Rights Reserved
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