This lesson, titled Giving Generously, is taken from 2 Cor. 8:1-15. Next week will be a lesson on Reasons for Giving from 2 Cor. 9. The Adult Teacher makes a joking comment that "the most sensitive part of the body is the nerve that attaches to one's wallet". There is some truth to that statement. It is sometimes hard to receive teaching about giving financial resources to God via a church. It is just as hard to teach a lesson on giving. There are a lot of aspects to this subject, including tithes and offerings, giving our talents, giving our time, et cetera.
We won't cover all of them in detail. I have some more resource material from a previous lesson I taught specifically on tithing that I can make available if you need more information than the summary treatment I will give today.
God Financing His Church
There are a few basic concepts that I want to start off with about God maintaining His church. I don't think that any of them are very profound, but they serve as a basis for some of the rest of the subject matter today.
- God has historically supported His work through individuals. He may provide miracles and blessings to them to help them do what He expects, but it is still up to the individual to follow through.
- The Bible is big on equality and fairness when it comes to supporting God's work. The Old Testament law was a fine example of this. The basic support system of the Jewish religion as a whole required payment of a series of tithes which were strictly proportional to income. There were additional sacrifices required at various times and feasts throughout the year selected based on the person's ability to pay. Each person's church support was thus equal in the sight of God and no one could rightly feel unduly burdened.
- God expects His people to put support of the church ahead of other personal needs. There were methods whereby you could retain your tithes in times of extreme hardship, but the tithe was not forgiven - merely allowed to be delayed in payment, with a 20% surcharge added when actually paid (Lev. 27:30-34).
- No one person is critical to a particular church. It is therefore pointless (and wrong) for church leaders to cater to and court the rich in the hopes of funding their ministry. The tithe of the widow on a small pension is just as important to God as the tithe of a billionaire, and probably far more likely to be actually given.
- God can get along without your giving anything to His ministry. You, however, may find that refusing to support His work, or only supporting it in a grudging fashion, is not beneficial to your long term plans and goals. One of His most often quoted curses in this context comes from Mal. 3:7-14 where God accuses the whole nation of robbing him in tithes and offerings. It is a very bad thing to receive God's curse.
- Churches that are blessed and who try to keep everything to themselves without helping out their fellow churches that are in need are potentially in just as much trouble as people who don't have generous hearts.
- While God expects you to support His work, giving money will not buy your way into heaven if you die without accepting Christ as your Saviour. Works are expected of Christians (Jas. 2:14-26), but works aren't an admission ticket to heaven. (Eph. 2:8-9)
- God will meet the needs of His church. If God wants a particular church to survive, it will survive. He may cause a new family to come to the church who will help support it. He may perform some unseen miracles and keep the plumbing and heating going without as high a cost or provide sustenance for the pastor when there is not enough financial inflow to meet the needs as He did for the widow at Zarapheth (1 Ki. 17:9-24).
What About Fund Raising?
Let us start with some of John Wesley's words to early Methodists. "Earn all you can. Save all you can. Give all you can." He urged us to live frugally in order to have more to give.
There are three main methods how Christ's work is financed today. There are fund raising drives, offerings, tithes, and apportionments. The first three are mainly local, although fund raising drives or special offerings may be designated for some non-local event that has occurred. Apportionments or missionary offerings are used to more fairly spread the donations around to where they can do the most good and further the work of God in a fair way.
Fund raising drives are typically special offerings taken for a particular purpose. Perhaps the church needs to replace an expensive item in the church that wasn't budgeted for, perhaps a tragedy has happened to a church member or group of members locally or in a distant town. For whatever reason, giving of this sort is special, and above and beyond all normal commitments to the church.
Churches have many ways of doing this. Some use a faith pledge form (I will give this much as God provides the way.) Anyone who signs one of these and doesn't follow through is basically saying that God didn't do His part to enable them to carry out their pledge. I'm not an expert, but I suspect that God rarely fails to follow through on something like that unless He just doesn't want the project to be funded in the first place. If you make a pledge, you should follow through with it.
Fund raising drives shouldn't happen all the time. If you are having fund raising drives for everything, then you need to budget your finances better in the first place and start calling these items direct expenses rather than special one-time events. That is a problem in business today in many places. Too many things are special one-time events that we are taking exception to when reporting our earnings, but next month it will be something else. Don't fall into that trap. Fund raising should be limited to special truly one-time events.
Offerings are what we give over and above the tithe to support special needs that God lays our heart or the heart of the church leaders above us. There have been some spectacular charitable contributions made in recent years.
- Andrew Carnegie who died in 1919, gave away $350 million dollars to fund libraries and the like around the English speaking world and to endow universities. He believed that the rich had a moral obligation to give away their excess over and above what their family support obligations involved. The distribution should be done in ways that would build up the poor by providing them ladders to climb out of poverty on their own rather than direct charity that might be wasted or used to improper ends.
- [Wikipedia] Bill Gates was worth over $100 billion at the peak of MSFTs price in 1999. 2004 stats put his net worth at $46.6 billion due to declining MSFT prices and large charitable donations. He has given away about 52% of his total fortune to charitable causes (scholarships, medical research, vaccination programs, et cetera) totaling some $29 billion.
- Warren Buffet (worth about $44 billion) has pledged to give 85% of his fortune to charity ($30 billion to Bill and Melisa Gates Charity).
- and Oceola McCarty, mentioned in the student quarterly gave $150,000 (nearly all she had) to the University of Southern Mississippi, 4 years before her death to help poor students not have to work as hard as she did. She said she didn't need the money.
Luke 21:1-3 contrasts the rich men giving of their abundance, and the widow, giving two mites (or about .4 cents). Christ states, "Of a truth I say unto you, that this poor widow hath cast in more than they all: For all these have of their abundance cast in unto the offerings of God: but she of her penury hath cast in all the living that she had.
I don't mean to denigrate in any way the offerings that these wealthy men have made. Their gifts will go to bless many people in ways that would not have been possible without their generosity. In many respects, what they have done goes far beyond what many world governments are doing. They also outshine many denominations whose giving to meet the needs of the world is frequently directed first toward those who share a bond of faith and frequently denomination.
But I also hope that during their lives they have also attended churches regularly, and supported their local churches as God expects. With their riches, the thought of paying a 20% penalty for not paying their tithes would probably put them into shock if they haven't. All of the money in the world won't buy you a place in heaven if you haven't gotten right with God before you die.
Everything we have, and all that you can see out in the world is God's. We are but stewards of it. How each one of us responds to what God has entrusted us with will be examined in the courts of heaven at some point in the future. Will we stand with Oceola and John Wesley? Or will we stand with so many of the rich today who have laid up treasure on earth or have we laid our treasure in heaven (Mt. 19:21)?
These aren't easy questions to answer. God commands us to provide for our families and says that those who don't are worse than infidels (1 Tim. 5:8). On the other hand God warns us to not worry about laying up treasures on earth and gives the example of the rich man who tore down his barns to build bigger barns and said "Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided?" So there is a fine line when it comes to what earnings you retain and what you give. This is something that I cannot answer for you. Offerings are voluntary, but will increase your faith in God if practiced readily. I'm not sure where any of you fit with respect to the two extremes of the Macedonian church, giving more than was perhaps wise, and the rich gathering their harvests into bigger barns. That is between you and God. But in this regard, I would strongly suggest that you try to do the things God is asking you to do with a willing and sensitive heart and let Him prove it was the right decision to make.
The church today depends largely on the paying of tithes for most of its support.
Do we tithe?
Do people tithe today and what would be the effect if all were Christians and all tithed? Using U.S. Census figures, Casper had 20,343 households in 2000 and the average household income was $36,567. That works out to $743,882,481 in income. I'm not sure how all the churches in town are doing, but I suspect that we didn't have $74 million in tithe income last year. Well, not everyone is a Christian! I'm not sure what the local breakdown is, but about 75% of U.S. citizens identify themselves as Christian. If that carries over, there should still be $56 million in income for the churches in our city alone.
Why don't we see those kinds of numbers? Well, not everyone who calls themselves a Christian actually attends church regularly... A best guess figure I saw puts the percentage between 20 to 40% of Americans who actually do this. If you don't attend regularly, there is a very good chance that you won't be supporting the church because you don't have a sense of attachment and integration into the body that gives you a sense of responsibility for its workings and support. It is very likely that you won't be contributing anywhere near 10% of your gross income at the very least.
We're in the heartland, so maybe our percentage is a bit higher than that real low end value - let's say 30%. That should still work out to $22 million. There are roughly 100 churches of all flavors in town. That should be around $223,164 in tithe income for each (offerings would be on top of this). Clearly, the wealth is not spread evenly. Some churches like HPCC do much better than this. Mom thinks her church runs at about this level for total income now. In 2000 (the year of those census figures I mentioned), when we were at RFC, their income was about 40% of that. Some churches that run schools have more total income, but it is mostly pre-allocated to running the schools so isn't available for spreading the Word.
Where does the tithe come from?
Historically, this comes from the Jewish religious structure, which was also funded by a series of tithes. This was patterned after Abram giving a tithe to Melchizedek after his battle against Chedorlaomer to rescue Lot (Gen 14:20). Jacob followed suit (Gen. 28:20). The tithe was literally a tenth part. This was then carried on in the support of the Levites. The tithe supported the whole tribe of Levites. A tithe on the tithe supported the priests.
The first tithe
What many don't know is that there were actually three tithes the people were expected to use for the Lord's work. Two were annual. The third happened every three years.
The first question you get is what do you tithe on? I feel the best answer is that you tithe on all new gross income you receive (Wages, Interest, Dividends, Cash Gifts, et cetera). When God said that the herds were to pass under the rod and every tenth animal was God's, it wasn't a matter of raising the herd, selling it for slaughter, deducting feed expenses for grazing fees, transportation, butchering, storage, insurance, herder salaries, et cetera, and then paying 10% of what was left over to the priests. God got the whole animal.
If you are investing, I could make a case for subtracting out your initial investment and paying tithes on the net in those cases. For retired folks, I could make a case for paying on 1/2 your Social Security check (the employer's portion) until you had recovered all you had put into the system, and then paying full tithes from then on (since you would be recovering expenses for the first part).
This first tithe was the Lord's and had the above mentioned 20% surcharge if you withheld it. If you didn't grow up a Christian, or didn't always tithe, you need to seriously inquire of God what He would have you do to get right in this area.
The second tithe
The second tithe was also levied annually. Its was to be used by the family so they would have no excuse in attending the feasts of God at national gatherings. There were many of these and the took significant expense to go to and from, along with expenses for food and lodging while there. The second tithe guaranteed you had the means to carry out what God expected of you.
This doesn't have as practical an application today, but bus fare to church, a car that can get you to church. Perhaps an equivalent would be funds for maintaining the place of worship - making parking easier to mention a problem we have here. Few people, including myself give a second tithe. Most would laugh at a pastor's face if he asked it of them. But it was required in the Old Testament. Every year.
The third tithe
The third tithe was collected every three years so it was, in effect, a 3 1/3% rate each year. It was taken to help the Levites, strangers, fatherless, orphans, and widows in the country who were in need, so that they could eat and be satisfied. Today, there are government programs to help many of these people, and the church is largely out of the welfare business. Yet even when Israel had kings or was under the occupation of others, God still had this requirement. His commandment for the third tithe came with a promise (that the LORD thy God may bless thee in all the work of thine hand which thou doest.)
I'm not sure how much the basket offering for missions and outreach programs collects here each year, or how much comes in on normal checks allocated to missions, but I'm sure it is nowhere near the 3 1/3 % of people's income. Yet if all churches got back to this, we would probably be a more effective force in the world today.
Is it for today?
Well, Christ had many opportunities to say tithes should stop. Yet he continued to say that you should render to Caesar those things that were Caesar's, and to render to God the things that are God's. He talked about the Pharisee's tithing (among other boasts), and instructed His followers to do better or they wouldn't enter into heaven. He went on to say that the labourer in Christ's kingdom is worthy of his hire (Lk 10:7). So yes, under those circumstances, I think that He fully meant that support for the kingdom was to continue.
There was a point in the early church, where the churches were home groups, without building expenses, when the pastors were new converts who largely kept on working, where the financial needs of the church were not as large as the church sees today or the Jewish Levitical system required at that point in time. So you don't find many mentions of it in the New Testament. However, if you read Christ's Sermon on the Mount, you see over and over again, where he held up a standard for something in the Old Testament, and went on to call His followers to a higher standard in the New Testament. I don't think we can really say that we can get by with doing less and have much of a leg to stand on.
It isn't my place to say that you need to be giving 23 1/3% to God's work. That is strictly between you and God. I don't meet that standard. There was a time when I started having kids that I did routinely give above 10% plus offerings. But after we started having kids I did cut back to basic tithing. I do feel safe in saying that 10% is a level you should try your best to meet in addition to whatever offerings God lays on your heart. My advice in either case is to put God first, and let Him take care of the rest.
One of the nice things about a tithe system as a baseline for our donations to God is that it does make everyone equal. If you give more, great, but if we all give the same percentage, then each has done their fair share. You shouldn't expect anything more. Of course, where you have an older congregation, everyone doing their fair share still may not be enough to make ends meet. On the other hand, with real young congregations, where everyone doesn't feel they are able to tithe due to young families and debt, it can be just as hard to keep a church going.
It is sometimes hardest at both ends of the income spectrum. People making $100,000 / year look at $10,000 to the church and say - I don't want to give that much. People making $1,000,000 really have trouble with giving $100,000 to their local church. Big CEOs who have total compensation in salary and stock increases of, say, $230 million would probably have even more trouble writing $450,000 checks to the church each week. Yet I believe that is exactly what God expects. At the other end, People making $1,000 / year look at $100 to the church, have a desperate need for that $100 themselves, and feel that $100 won't make much difference to the church anyway. It is the same percentage for both, but clearly, it is easier for the rich person to give their 10% than for the poor person to give theirs. Whatever you make, it started out as God's. He gave you the abilities you have to work. He created you with your talents. Some things can be learned, but there are natural abilities that are just there. I could never be a major athletic superstar - I'm not that coordinated. But I have a good logical mind that is good for programming computers. I may have learned the tools I use, but God put me together in a way that makes me proficient at using them. When we stand before Him, everyone from the rich CEO to the retired widow will only be expected to give an account for what they did with what God gave them. When that day comes, I don't want to have to be back pedaling on what I did with my money.
The quarterly writer mentions that some churches post the tithes of their members. What do you think of that idea? I personally really found that surprising due to the private nature of our financial lives. I guess I wouldn't see a problem with it if a certified copy of the total income line of their last year's tax form was posted along with it. A tithe amount is meaningless without an income statement to go along with it.
The apportionment system used in the Methodist church, that funds a wide variety of outreach and basic necessities outside our local church has changed over the last few years. It was once based on the membership in the local church with fewer deductions for basic expenses. Now it more accurately reflects the cost of the local church's local operations and expenses, and the giving potential of its members based on the income demographics of its members. This has caused controversy in some of those churches whose apportionments went up.
In many ways, the new system is closer to the subject of today's lesson. The Macedonian churches were poor, yet very much wanted to help out Paul's collection for the Church in Jerusalem which was in dire need. They begged the privilege of sharing what they could (2 Cor. 8:4) in this ministry, and in many cases gave beyond what common prudence would deem wise. (2 Cor. 8:3-5)
Paul's challenge to the Corinthian church was to put their money where their mouths were. They were so proud of all the gifts they had received from God, and were wealthy (in comparison to the Macedonian churches), so he challenged them to give substantially more than the other churches had to the needs of the Jerusalem church.
The quarterly writer indicates that probably most of Paul's work went for naught, and the split between the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem widened rather than narrowed. This was not due solely to the issue of giving. There were many hardships involved at Jerusalem that others didn't find, and Christians doing business in a Jewish state were at a distinct disadvantage to Christians doing business among other Gentiles. Issues over Jewish heritage (laws and customs) versus the relative freedom of Gentile Christians also played a large part of any split that happened.
But it is clear that monetary issues can cause deep strife between churches as some struggle due to either their location or those who choose to attend them versus the wealthy churches in the system. Comparing even the poorest church in America to some of the biggest third world churches clearly shows the blessings we have versus the hardships they face. Let us give generously to the cause and be thankful that we can help support the work God is doing elsewhere.
God's Prodigal Response
God is generous and even extravagant to those who give with a good attitude and clean heart, regardless of whether they are giving what is expected, or whether they are giving more than expected. Too often in America, there is a tendency to expect His generous response to be financial in nature, and to stop giving when we don't see good financial outcomes when we have sacrificed by giving to His work. The Teacher quarterly gives the example of an annual stewardship drive where a couple added up what they felt they got out of their church experience, figured out what they thought that ought to cost, and pledged to give that amount. I'm not sure if they equated a church service to entertainment show ticket prices they had recently seen or what. But they definitely had the wrong outlook on giving.
Although God may occasionally bless in a material fashion, there are so many, many other ways that God can bless His children that don't have a direct monetary value.
If God, in His mercy, hasn't treated us the way we frequently treat those less fortunate than us, that is a true blessing from God, right there. How do you put a price tag on that?
Other examples include his help in getting from point A to point B. The traffic ahead may stop and you notice in time to not rear-end the car ahead of you. The guy behind talking on his cell phone sees you stop in time to not rear-end you. There's several thousand dollars right there, to say nothing of medical bills that have just been saved. When you go sliding on ice across an intersection instead of stopping for the light like you had tried to do and nobody hits you, that's a blessing from God. When Nancy rolled her car on the interstate, and both she and her passenger got out safely, that was a blessing. How can you put a price tag on that? A terrorist plot to blow up a plane you are scheduled to fly on is discovered before it can be put into action. Can you be sure God didn't have a hand in that?
Our kids have been basically pretty healthy. Most have glasses. Several have or are going to eventually have braces of some sort to straighten out their teeth. But overall, we've been pretty lucky. There are people Margaret works with who are routinely in the ER with one or more of their children. That's a blessing from God, especially considering the high cost of an ER trip. When I turned 40, I was having pains in my stomach. They came and went. The doctor was sure I had an ulcer and prescribed some ulcer medication. I didn't think he was right and the next day when the pains came back and were so severe, I decided I needed to make that ER trip myself. I ended up having emergency gall bladder surgery and the doctor said things would have been a real mess if it had burst (which was eminent). The surgery and recovery weren't fun, but it was definitely better than the alternative - God's blessing?
If you have had good employment opportunities over your lifetime - perhaps not with work all the time, but always enough resources to handle the times without work and a new job soon after you lose the previous one, that could well be a blessing from God.
Do you have investments that have appreciated in value? Were you a shrewd investor - or did God have a hand in it? I never expected to get the price that we did for our last house. Yet the listing agent ended up buying it for that price, less commission, to do some fix up on it and resell it on her own. I'm sure God had a hand in that. Never count God out when it comes to blessing His children and don't be too quick to dismiss good things that happen and attribute them to something other than God.
None of this is meant in any way to say that the absence of these things means you are doing something wrong. It is a reality in the Bible that God does pick some favorites that He seems to bless more than others. But when we focus on areas that we may feel that we are in desperate straights on (frequently measured in dollars and cents) to the exclusion of all else God may be doing for us, we can overlook or lose sight of just how good our God is to us.