In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus does something interesting. He frees his followers from ever having to worry about the letter of the Mosaic law again. In many ways, he simplified everything. But at the same time, he made it orders of magnitude more difficult to actually fulfill everything God calls us to do.
As it turns out, it had always been the standard. We just missed it because we were too busy paying attention to the rules.
In a previous post, I explained why I don’t believe that tithing is a mandate that followers of Jesus are required to keep. But that doesn’t mean that we aren’t called to practice extravagant, self-sacrificial, and at times even foolhardy, generosity.
The Christian life is marked by a purpose to serve the needs of others: their need to know Jesus and the message of his gospel, their need for love and empathy, as well as their physical needs for food, shelter, and clothing.
Oftentimes, when we think about following the rule of tithing, the purpose of our generosity is often obscured by our fixation on the rule itself. We hit the benchmark and assume that we’ve fulfilled our generosity mandate, regardless of whether needs are actually being met.
We should change that.
Let’s take a closer look at what generosity looked like in the early Church and how we can use it as a model for our own generosity as followers of Jesus today.
The Generosity of the Early Church
The early Church didn’t give a tenth of their income to the cause of the Church. They actually gave 100 percent.
And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. (Acts 2:44-45)
If a local church in America implemented this practice today, they would likely be derided as radical leftists who are taking their cues from Marxism rather than the bible. The good news for them is that they were living the bible, and no one would know who Karl Marx is for about another 1,800 years.
Even setting aside our cultural hang ups, this kind of generosity feels audacious. It’s radical. And to be sure, this isn’t necessarily prescriptive for Christians today. We’re never commanded to do this.
But it does set the tone for the type of generosity we’re meant to cultivate.
These early Christians didn’t give on the basis of hitting a particular metric that would serve as an indication that they were doing everything they were “supposed” to do. They gave based on the extent of their ability and the size of the need.The early Church didn't give on the basis of hitting a particular metric that would serve as an indication that they were doing what they were supposed to. They gave on the extent of their ability and the size of the need. Click To Tweet
Needs-Based Giving in the New Testament
Whenever we see generosity in the New Testament, it seems to have a strategic element to it—both for the benefit of the person offering generosity and the one receiving it. This is true regardless of whether the need is physical or spiritual in nature.
On a number of occasions, Paul mentions a collection he was helping organize for the church in Jerusalem (Acts 24:17; 1 Corinthians 16:1-3; Romans 15:25). The collection began with the church in Antioch, when they got word that the church in Judea had some desperate physical needs as the result of a famine (Acts 11:27-30). Later, Paul would begin to include the other churches he planted through the Roman Empire as part of those who would donate to the collection.
But this collection was far more than administrative effort. Paul’s reasoning went deeper.
Throughout the first century, the Church was deeply divided along racial lines. Friction was a constant presence between the Jewish and non-Jewish portions of the Church. In fact, that’s the express reason for which Paul wrote his letter to the Galatians.
Notably, that was his most impassioned and rebuked-filled letter we have. And that’s because cultivating unity between Jewish and non-Jewish believers was something that was incredibly close to his heart.
So part of the reason for the collection was to knit the hearts of non-Jewish Christians to their Jewish counterparts. He knew that if he could get the Gentile churches financially invested in the well being of the Jewish believers in Jerusalem, it would go a long way toward creating greater unity across the Church.
As Jesus said, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:2). Meaning that wherever you invest your earthly treasure, that’s where your affection will begin to expand.
When we give specific monies to fulfill the specific needs of people who are different from us, foreign to us, or with whom we disagree, we begin to grow an affection for them.When we give specific monies to fulfill the specific needs of people who are different from us, we begin to grow an affection for them. Click To Tweet
Funding Missions and Church Planting
After Paul’s conversion, he committed his life to traveling the known world to plant churches. While Paul worked hard in the craft of tent making to supply for his needs along the way, he also needed strategic financial partners to help fund his missionary travels.
One church that was particularly helpful as a financial partner was the church in Philippi. In his letter to them, Paul expresses his gratitude.
I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. (Philippians 1:3-5)
When Paul speaks about partnership, he’s talking about finances. The Philippians had played an important role in providing the resources necessary for Paul to engage in his missionary work.
And while we don’t know the details, the Philippians were likely at one point the beneficiary of someone else’s financial investment, because it enabled Paul to travel and preach to them in Philippi.
Your generosity is meant for mission, both in your local community and to those abroad.Your generosity is meant for mission, both in your local community and to those abroad. Click To Tweet
The Blessing of Generosity
For these reasons, generosity is always presented in the New Testament as a blessing to the giver rather than an obligation. This is what Paul says to the church in Corinth, one of the churches he had asked to donate to the collection for the church in Jerusalem.
The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work. (2 Corinthians 9:6-8)
We’ll never experience the blessing of generosity if we’re only ever motivated by an existential sense of obligation. That’s why Paul doesn’t compel the Corinthians to give a particular amount. Rather, they should give the amount they determine in their hearts.
But lest we think that Paul is giving us a pass to be less than extravagantly generous, he offers this caveat. If you only plant a small number of seeds, you can expect a small harvest. But if you plant an abundant number of seeds, you can expect an abundant harvest.
This message has often been distorted by prosperity preachers who promise great wealth, whether spiritual or physical, if only you contribute sacrificially to their own wealth. But that’s nowhere near what Paul is saying.
What Paul is saying is that your money can do a lot more than you think it can. Even if you aren’t famous, wealthy, or influential, you can make a bigger dent in the universe than you realize. You can be more pivotal in the mission of Jesus than you know. That is, if you’re willing to invest.You can be more pivotal in the mission of Jesus than you know. That is, if you're willing to invest. Click To Tweet
Searching For Everyday Investors
Many church leaders have caught on to this idea. They’re very strategic and intentional about how they present their time of giving during their Sunday services. They share about how many homes the church helped build in Mexico or how many groceries they purchased for under-resourced families in the community, often saying, “When you give, this is the kind of thing you’re making possible.”
This is great. It can be inspiring to see the way God is moving through these special initiatives.
But as Brady Shearer has said, for most of us, these activities only constitute a small portion of our church budget. The majority of it goes to the mortgages on our buildings, utility bills, equipment costs, and staff salaries.
And there’s nothing wrong with that. If our churches want to make a long term impact on the community, we need meeting spaces and staff members to support the raising up of leaders to do the work of Jesus.
However, we wrongly assume that nobody wants to give to that. It’s boring. After all, you can’t make an inspiring recap video about how you paid the electricity bill this month.
But most of us already intuitively understand that that’s what we’re giving to. So it’s okay to talk about it—to talk to our people as the everyday, long term investors in the Kingdom work within our communities. If you really want to put a stake in the ground of a city, you need long term investors.
Investing in something consistently over time is the best way to get a return. That’s exactly what Paul was talking about when he talked about sowing abundantly.
If we can disciple our people with that mindset, and then be strategic and effective in the way we deploy those funds, there’s no limit to the number of resources we will have available to us to use for the mission of Jesus.Investing in something consistently over time is the best way to get a return...If we can disciple our people with this mindset, there's no limit to the number of resources we will have to use for the mission of Jesus. Click To Tweet
Inviting without Coercing
The view that tithing isn’t a New Testament mandate that followers of Jesus are required to keep isn’t a popular one, especially among church leaders.
Even the church leaders that agree with me in principle tend to stay quiet about it. It’s certainly not something that they’d want to say from the pulpit, unless swiftly accompanied by a sweeping statement that 10 percent should at least be then be the minimum donation.
But is generosity really generous if you’re only giving the amount that you’ve been commanded to give under threat of spiritual punishment? That sounds a little bit more like coercion than it does discipleship to me.
I don’t say that to impugn anybody’s character (except prosperity preachers). But when the status quo seems to serve us, it’s hard to challenge it.
What if we tell our people that they’re not morally obligated to tithe 10 percent of every paycheck and giving goes down? Most pastors I know aren’t trying to shrink their budget and their church’s influence in the community.
But what if the status quo isn’t serving us as much as we think it is?
What if people are tired of being told what they have to do, and want to know what the incredible things they can do? If they were to catch a big vision, odds are they’d willingly give above and beyond 10 percent of their income.
The good news is that some in our midst are already doing so. While a vast majority of Christians give less than 10 percent of their overall income, among those who do, 77 percent give between 11 and 20 percent of their overall earnings.
If we truly believe that the Holy Spirit is making us new, then we don’t need to be coerced into doing the right thing. We simply need an invitation. The Holy Spirit is powerful to transform. That power doesn’t stop short of our finances.If we truly believe that the Holy Spirit is making us new, then we don't need to be coerced into doing the right thing. We simply need an invitation. Click To Tweet