The Church: An Organic Picture of Its Life

by Robert Brow

Brow Publications, 1996

Chapter 16

Tithing and Giving

One of the disasters of the Middle Ages was the rigidity introduced by the land tithe. In Britain by A.D. 900 one-tenth of the produce of most of the agricultural land was exacted by the church. Giving to God had become a tax rather than a willing expression of loyalty. Worse than this was the fact that the lord of each manor could appoint a rector, who received the tithe of the parish as his salary. If part was appropriated for other uses, the parson was called a vicar; but in any case on appointment he obtained "a living," or the right to his share of the tithe as long as he performed his ecclesiastical duties in that parish. This was called the parson's freehold. For rigidity, spiritual obtuseness, and moral injustice, it is hard to think of a system further removed from the genius of Christianity.

There is nothing wrong with tithing as a way of providing the salaries of Christian workers. God enjoined one-tenth as the basic principle of giving in the days of Moses, though it was already established in practice in the days of Abraham and probably long before (Gen. 14:17-20; Lev. 27:30-32; Num. 18:21-24). Jesus Christ rebuked the hypocritical church leaders of his day for tithing the little shoots of mint and dill and cummin in their gardens, but then neglecting "the weightier matters of the law, justice, mercy and faith." Obviously tithing is no substitute for righteousness, nor does it enable us to earn our own merit before God. It does provide a most simple and effective way of paying the salaries of religious workers without the tedious folly of entertaining and cajoling the faithful in the hope that they will be persuaded to meet the budget. In rebuking the failure to concentrate on the major items of righteousness, Jesus indicated that he expected the tithing in any case to continue. "These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others" (Matt. 23:23f.).

Books on stewardship and tithing are available, so it is not necessary to press the argument that Christians ought to tithe, or at least give a regular proportion of their income. It might be helpful to consider how this could be administered in a modem situation. In the United States and Canada the governments consider it reasonable for a man to give a portion of his income to charities. For example, the U.S. allows a man to reduce his gross income up to twenty percent for gifts to charities and an additional ten percent for gifts to churches. In Canada a similar system prevails. The taxpayer must be able to produce proper receipts for such deductions. In Britain the system is much more cumbersome, through deeds of covenant, which commit the giver to giving to a particular charity for seven years. Unless an individual is paying tax at the full rate the business of making the covenant hardly seems worth the bother. A good case might be made for arguing that if charitable organizations in Britain grouped together to persuade the government to change the income tax laws to the North American system, both the number of givers to charity and the total given would multiply enormously.

Now let us assume that the serious giver has decided how much he is going to give to charities per month or per year. Some sects and churches expect him to give virtually everything through the church budget, while at the other extreme there are givers who so distrust their church administration that they give a minimum in the offering and dispose of the rest themselves. On the average a reasonable sum might be half one's tithe through one's local church, and the remainder for other charities. This would mean that twenty to twenty-five families in a congregation could support a full-time family man at their average salary, and fifty families could pay a minister and build a simple church. This still leaves the other half of tithe for investing in other good works and the worldwide "bloodstream" of the church.

Before turning to the how of investing we should note that Paul also speaks of the "gift" of giving. He who contributes, in liberality (Rom. 12:8). This is not the ordinary giving according to one's income, or the tithe that we have discussed, but an additional gift of giving. This is the man who is no preacher, but earning more than he needs; he lives simply and gives himself to investing heavily in the work of God. Writing about the richer members of the community, Paul says to Timothy, "They are to do good, to be rich in good deeds, liberal and generous." One part of this gift of giving is the willingness to live simply as one's income increases. The other part is to invest in the growth of the body of Christ as wisely as one would invest in secular enterprises. It requires discerning what God is doing in the world, understanding how Christian work is done and then encouraging what is worthwhile. Obviously the work of Jesus Christ can never make much impact in our exploding populations without very heavy investment of this kind. Just as in the human body some cells have the task of channeling energy wherever it is most needed, so the Holy Spirit apportions the gift of giving for this purpose in the body of Christ.

It now becomes evident that control in the church lies with those who give. At the local level congregations can form and grow where there are families who give for the operational needs of their church. If the church ceases to perform its function or diverges into error, the ordinary member need not be helpless, since it is his giving that ultimately makes the work possible. Similarly it is his decision to invest or not to give the other half of his tithe that governs what is done by the Christian church in the community and throughout the world. It was the lack of individual responsibility that made the compulsory tithing system of the Middle Ages so iniquitous. Similarly today the "laymen" of the church should never permit the organization men of the denominational hierarchies to build up large investment endowments, since these have the same effect as a compulsory tithe in taking control away from the individual Christian and vesting it in the organization. The church should live on its income, and the income comes from the members who believe in it.

On the wider scale of the outreach of the church among the nations it is the heavy givers, those with the gift of giving, who will exert most control. To understand the most pressing opportunities for church growth, and act decisively in a highly mobile situation, is probably beyond the capacity of the average church member. This is where the wise businessman, who is also filled with the wisdom that comes from God, can and should have a decisive influence. To attain this quality of giving on a world scale will require a ruthless ignoring of the tear-jerking appeals, the pathetic pictures of need, and the immature heroism that has marked so much of our missionary effort. If investment in an industrial enterprise merits careful study, a summing up of the markets, an estimate of the capability of the directors, and a scrutiny of the accounts, how much more the work of God?

One objection to this type of control through the freewill giving of every Christian family is that the pressure of money may cause a minister to lose his prophetic voice. If his living depends on satisfying the people, will he not be tempted to compromise his message? If a missionary society grows or contracts according to the whim of those who give to it, will it not be forced to concentrate more on public relations than on preaching the gospel? One answer to this is to make sure that every minister or missionary is able to earn his own living by having his own profession. When tempted to compromise he can remind himself that he is not ultimately dependent on those who pay him. Jesus Christ accepted financial support so he could preach, but everyone knew he could also earn his living as a carpenter. When insufficient income came from his churches, Paul did not need to give his time to public relations. He knew how to support himself, and his whole missionary team if necessary (Acts 20:34), by his ability in the tent-making business.

The corollary of the need for every Christian worker to have his own profession is that the existing system of requiring many years of specialist theological training is unreasonable. If theologians are required, they can equally well be trained as philosophy professors, historians, or classical linguists; and a short additional reading course in theology, church history, or New Testament Greek should be sufficient. Some of the best theologians have in any case been competent in the secular university disciplines. If professional pastors are to be trained, there is no reason why they should not qualify themselves as psychiatrists, or sociologists, or educational counselors. Most denominational organizations would profit by recruiting their administrators from the ranks of business executives who are also dedicated Christians. Missionary societies would do well to take journalists, salesmen, publishers, teachers, philosophers, linguists, doctors, agriculturalists, anthropologists, and advertising men, who had proved themselves as Christians in the secular world. After a short course in the message that needs to be communicated, followed by intensive study of the language and culture in the country where they are to work, such men should be able to communicate Christian truth and establish outposts for Jesus Christ as well as, if not better than, most of our existing missionaries. If the church wishes to be secular to communicate to a secular world, is not the first requirement to train its workers in secular professions? If the objection is that such men might fall into theological error through lack of years of theological studies, the answer is that they can hardly fall further than our present crop of theologians.

A more serious objection is that if the church's most dedicated men and women are going to train in the secular world, will there not be an acute shortage of so-called full-time Christian workers? For a time there might be fewer in terms of numbers, but the influence of these dedicated persons both during and after such secular training might not necessarily be less. At present the main challenge for Christian service is to the young, whereas a challenge to the experienced might be even more productive. The most telling argument is that if Jesus Christ trained as a secular carpenter and Paul as a tentmaker, and none of the early Christian missionaries had long years of theological training, and yet they did so much, might not a similar experiment at least be worth trying?

So far we have spoken of control through finance, and financial independence through professional training. There is, however, another truth, an opposite truth, that also needs to be kept in focus. More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of. Ultimate control, or rather the power of creative initiative in the Christian church, comes through prayer. In the human body the organism can only grow and the muscles act if sufficient energy is provided. The opposite truth is that no creative activity is possible without decisive will power. Energy alone is ineffective, and there can also be a will to act without the calories to make it possible. Of the two, will is by far the more important, since, will can often find the calories, and where there's a will there is usually a way. So in the church. There are those with a gift of giving who provide the proteins and calories without which the body of Christ would be immobile. There are also those who pray; often they are the more penniless members of our congregations. The men and women who know how to discover the mind of Christ and then pray accordingly, they are the ones who move mountains, open closed doors, shut the mouths of lions, and bring captivity captive among the nations. For some marvelous reason the creator has chosen to let things be done when insignificant men and women pray. This is why it is also true that a missionary society that has praying supporters is more rich than one that depends on wealth alone.

Einstein taught us that energy can be changed into matter, and matter redissolved into energy. We are beginning to learn the power of will over matter, and it may be that ultimate energy is in fact only will in space-time form. The church certainly needs financial giving for a greatly increased energizing of the body of Christ in the world. We are his hands, his feet, his mouth, his heart, his eyes; and apart from us he chose to be silent and unseen. But more than anything we need nervous energy, creativity, decisive willing according to his will, and that is the gift of prayer. Paul calls it dunameis, the mountain-moving gift. Like all the gifts, every Christian experiences it to some extent on some occasions, but blessed are those who kneel to will according to the will of God.

Chapter 17...