guest post by John Zimmerman
For decades, the giving of a tithe has become the go-to standard to understand faithful stewardship in the church. The practice of tithing is a universally embraced belief in the Church that outlines the expectation of our giving. Most sermons on stewardship and most stewardship campaigns adopt the tithe as the foundational principle and benchmark for how much we should give. This has certainly been true in my local church leadership over the past three decades…until recently.
I found myself wrestling with the widely held and accepted beliefs about tithing, teachings that have been handed down to me from my spiritual mentors and instructors, and the growing sense of what it truly means to be a follower of Christ. The defining question became, “Does God expect me to be a tither, gratefully sharing 10% of all I have, or does God expect me to give everything?” The more I let that question search the scriptures and reveal the heart of God, the more I have come to see the tithe as not only a legalistic Old Testament guide but even as a spiritually harmful smoke and mirrors concept that we have been hiding behind.
The concept of the tithe holds its attraction in the Western Church because it seems to work as a business model. Professional consultants and published stewardship campaigns all use the tithe as its standard and encourage the church member to simply increase their percentage of giving. Success of these programs is evaluated by the congregation’s promised giving and actual dollars given. Most do show a slight increase in giving. With the national average of percentage giving at 2-3 percent, these small steps toward 10% giving can translate into significant dollars for the church. Is this, however, how Jesus would define the success of stewardship growth?
To do a biblical study on the tithe, one will rarely venture out of the Old Testament. The tithe, as with everything else in the law, served the purpose of guiding the follower of God into a legalistic relationship. The law serves the purpose of setting boundaries, and guides the follower with commands and parameters that define the relationship. The law serves a purpose but is not completely fulfilled due to our sinful nature. Only the law could keep us in line…but then Jesus arrives!
In Matthew 5:17 Jesus states that He has come to fulfill the law. He broke the chains of sin and death that bind us and opened the way for full reconciliation and relationship. Where the law can only set the boundaries of behavior, Jesus calls and empowers us to a relationship that is motivated by love…not law. As a disciple of Christ, we are freed to live out of a relationship of love. This relationship is very different from one lived out of the law. For example, a parent teaches a child to say “thank-you” when given a gift. We know that the “thank-you” is motivated by the law of the parent that requires the response. It is the hope of the parent, however, that the child will eventually respond with “thank-you” because of a truly grateful heart rather than the law. God, our parent, also has a heart that longs for our relationship to be one motivated by love rather than law.
In Luke 10:25-37 Jesus reoriented an expert in the law who asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The lawyer could only understand his response to God’s grace in terms of the law yet knew something was lacking. As conversation continued the lawyer correctly condensed the whole of the law into two commandments, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and, love your neighbor as yourself.” How interesting that all the law is defined by one relational word, love! No wonder an expert of the law needed clarification! A law expert seeks to cross every “t” and dot every “i.” Still seeking to justify himself, he needed to define “neighbor.” Jesus replies with the parable of the good Samaritan. While the lawyer was looking for legalistic boundaries to identify his neighbors, Jesus challenged him to be motivated by love rather than law.
Is our response to stewardship mandated by law or do we respond out of a love relationship? Are we still asking questions about percentages, quantities, and “before or after taxes” or do we respond to God’s love by sharing the fullness of our prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness? Consider the teaching of Jesus in Mark 12:41-44 to a large crowd and teachers of the law:
“Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents.
Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”
If you desire to get more money into the church, consider the business-model stewardship campaigns. If you, however, want to grow disciples of Jesus Christ, dare to challenge them to surrender all.
Learn more about approaching stewardship in a new and more exciting way in John’s new class, Afire With God: Becoming Spirited Stewards.
Rev. John Zimmerman offers a consultant model of ministry with local churches around the country to engage in long-term relationships within the context of the local church mission field. He and his wife help churches move into this new paradigm of ministry that reflects more fully the New Testament Church. His evangelistic work has been recognized and honored as a recipient of the Harry Denman Evangelism Award by the Foundation for Evangelism.