The Charismatic Gift of Giving or the Law of Tithing? Which?
FATEB – 27 January 2006 Dr. Peter W. Dunn
Introduction: Having taught the books of Acts several times at FATEB, I have read several exegesis papers on the Acts 2.41-47 and Acts 4.32-37. There was even at least one sermon here in chapel on one of these passages. What has struck me is that in every case Fatebian exegetes and preachers have placed the emphasis so squarely upon the imperative: this is what we must do if we wish truly to be the community of God. When I have taught Matthew 5.20, where Jesus says that unless our righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, we will surely not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven, I have told my students that the problem with our righteousness as evangelicals is that our righteousness too often IS the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. Because our righteousness is the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, we see the actions of the earliest disciples, adhering to the apostle’s teaching, joining for the breaking of bread, the holding of all things in common, as prescriptions—things that God requires of us as Christians in order for us to be a good community of faith. Since the absence of these qualities in our community continually besets us, we are forced to preach sermons and write exegesis papers making law out of passages which do not come to us in the form of a law, but as a description of true Christian community as it was experienced in the nascent church. At least the Pharisees had the excuse that their tradition was based upon the Torah, which really is in the form of a law.
Nothing illustrates the pharisaical righteousness of many evangelicals better than our teaching about tithing. Most of us have been exposed at one time or another to the teaching of the “law of tithing”. It goes something like this: the tithe is 1/10 of all our gross earnings before tax, not of the net income; the tithe belongs to the local church—if you want to give to another charitable organization or to the poor or needy, such gifts are to be given above and beyond the tithe; if you fail to pay the tithe of all sources of income, you are robbing God and so you can’t expect God to bless you in return; if you give more than 1/10, those are “offerings” which you freely give above and beyond the tithe, which is God’s right.
A lady from a charismatic church to which we used to belong told me that her pastor told her that if she didn’t pay her tithe on her welfare cheque, she could no longer participate in the ministries of the church, be it in the Sunday school or worship team. This pastor, for one, was going to put an end to the robbing of God that his leadership team had committed. Had it occurred to him that this woman, being on social assistance with a son, barely had $150 per month after paying her rent and utilities? Instead of having mercy on her situation, this “pastor” had become a hireling (John 10.12), who wanted to rob the widows and orphans instead of making sure that they received the attention of the church (James 1.27: “ Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”) The irony of this whole scene is that it took place in a Vineyard church, which emphasizes the grace of God over His justice, His mercy over judgment. It happened in a charismatic church, which emphasizes the charismatic gifts and the work of the Spirit. This is especially ironic since I believe that the New Testament, which attests to our new and better covenant that we have with God and makes many of the Old Testament laws passé, does not teach this law of tithing.* Proponents of the law of tithing, as I described it above, must invariably make reference to the Old Testament. But while never once teaching this law of tithing, it is not at all as though the NT has nothing to say about giving, au contraire. I would like to propose from our reading of the passages above that the NT views giving not as a obligation mandated by law as we too often teach in our churches, but as a charismatic gift. This point of view is most neglected in charismatic and Pentecostal churches, in my experience, which are the most earnest in the teaching and the enforcement of the law of tithing.
In Book of Acts, the community planted by the apostles had as its first stimulus the descent of the Spirit upon the community. Thus, Luke is not giving prescriptions for the healthy Christian community as every exegesis paper and sermon that I have heard on these passages would suggest. Rather, Luke is describing the Spirit-filled community. This same Spirit of prophecy who descended upon the followers of Jesus in the first century is a promised gift to all of us who come to know and trust the Lord Jesus Christ and to worship the Father in his name. Thus, the generous giving of the early Christians, so that no needy person was found amongst them, was a response to the amazing reality of the Holy Spirit poured out into the hearts of the believers. To confirm that this generosity was seen as a response to the Spirit of God, Paul writes in Romans 12, that each should exercise his “charisma”** in proportion to the faith that they have. Just to be sure that we don’t miss the point, prophecy is the first gift mentioned. In the list, giving is mentioned with at least two different words, “contributing” and “acts of mercy”. It is clear in any case to me, that if Christians give to local church or if they give to a Christian charity, or if they simply give money to the poor, they do so according to Paul not because some law was brought down to them, but as a result of the Holy Spirit who has poured out God’s grace and love into their hearts, and so they generously and cheerfully respond.
Here are some of the differences between viewing giving as a law or as a charismatic gift:
(1) People often obey law for fear of punishment. Thus, people may obey the law of tithing in fear that, if they don’t, God will allow Satan to rob them, and this is to a degree true (cf. Malachi 3.6-12). But charismatic giving is done with cheerfulness (Rom 12.8). Elsewhere Paul says that God loves a cheerful giver (2 Cor 9.7). Jesus says that it is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20.35). I can attest that this is true. I have been on the giving end and on the receiving end. I can tell you that I have more joy in giving than in receiving, knowing that with the blessings that God has given to us, we can help the poor and work toward the advancement of the Kingdom of God.
(2) The law sets strict limits. Charismatic giving has no limits. The law of tithing says you must give 10% and anything above that is a freewill offering. When the widow gave her mite, she was despised by the people, but Jesus said that she gave more than the others because that was all she had (Mark 12.42). If a rich person gives 10% and nothing more and spends his remaining wealth extravagantly and selfishly, he has satisfied the law of tithing. But is such a one filled with the Holy Spirit? If poor people give small offerings out of their poverty but cannot yet give 10%, they are guilty under the law of tithing. When giving is seen as a charismatic gift, even the poor are able to make contributions in faith that God will bless them.
(3) The law is satisfied with compliance no matter what is in the heart. People who give to the church under the rubric of the law of tithing can be bitter, unhappy, and controlling, and yet they can still satisfy the law of tithing. When charismatic giving is active, giving is done with cheerfulness and the church is wary of counterfeit gifts. When Ananias and Saphphira gave the proceeds of the sale of their property (Acts 5), Peter rebuked them for holding back a portion but pretending to give the whole amount. Thus, Satan had inspired them to try to counterfeit the charismatic gift of giving. Just as there is false prophesy in the church, there is also false giving. The Holy Spirit used Peter to show the church that God is displeased with counterfeit giving.
(4) A pastor working under the law of tithing may manipulate his congregation to enforce the law. A pastor working under the idea that giving is a charismatic gift earnestly teaches the people in his congregation how to attain spiritual growth and maturity, how to trust God in all circumstances for their well-being. A pastor who sees that the congregation is not generous will pray for his sheep that God would pour out his Spirit into their hearts and set them free from the chains of self-centeredness by which Satan keeps them prisoner.
(5) In the law of tithing, one often expects that God is also bound by the law. Thus, if I give, God is bound by law to give back to me, sometimes 10 fold sometimes 100 fold. In this scheme, giving is no longer an act of faith, but it becomes magic, a means of manipulating the hand of God. In charismatic giving, one gives out of a heart overflowing with the Spirit of love who guides our actions. Because God loves us, we love others and are willing to give sacrificially to see that others are cared for both physically and spiritually. Charismatic giving is also an act of faith, believing that God is able to keep us and to bless us.
In conclusion, I would recommend to us all a re-reading of the NT teaching regarding giving. I think that the evidence shows that the NT does not view giving as a law but as a charismatic gift. Paul says that as Christians we are free from the law to live according to the Spirit of God. In this way, our covenant is better than the old covenant of the law which mandated tithing. This sets us free to give not because we have to, but because God has poured out his love into our hearts and given to us so much that we can’t help but show our appreciation through our generosity in our gifts to help the advancement of his Kingdom and to help the poor and needy whom God also loves. It sets us free from manipulative false teaching in the church. It sets us free also from the bondage of materialism, of trusting in material possessions instead of in the God who created all things for our enjoyment. May the Lord help us to understand his word today.
*Matthew 23.23-24 could be seen as an exception: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith; these you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!” However, we must remember that this Gospel has been traditionally seen as stemming from a Jewish context where the Torah was still maintained by Jewish Christians—Matt. 23.2-3 says: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice.” Such a passage makes sense only in a Jewish context where the Torah was still kept and not in an essentially gentile environment—the gentiles were not expected to keep the Torah, as can be seen from the Jerusalem council onwards (Acts 15; cf. Gal).
**The word “charisma” is derived from the word grace and is a reference in Paul to the gifts of the Spirit. Cf. esp. 1 Cor 12-14.