Tuesday, 4 August 2015

The Grace of Giving

Last Sunday I had the privilege of sharing God's word in our church. It was a late request so I was nervous about my own preparation. I remember Rhodah asking matter-of-factly on Saturday whether I was ready and I answering rather incoherently that I was 'kind of' ready and immediately realising that you never quite 'get there' in sermon prep. There is always a bit of uncertainty and self doubt that lingers on even after hours in study and prayer.

I was going to teach from 2 Corinthians 8 & 9 on the grace of giving - radical text that changes our traditional views on Christian giving that I knew it could potentially disturb many including me. This is especially because NT giving is different from the OT system of assorted sacrifices, tithes and offerings. The most radical statement is what Paul tells us in verse 5 of chapter 8 that the Macedonians had first given themselves to the Lord and then their gifts  followed. And that was striking for me.

We live in a world where gifts are an easy form of manipulation. People give in order to receive (the whole panda mbegu philosophy rides on that) and what they want to receive varies from a phone, passing an exam, getting a spouse to  forgiveness for their guilt-laden souls. When a gift precedes a relationship one might want to ask a few questions - is this genuine love or manipulation?  Is it an advance payment for a 'good or service' or is it a ransom, 'hush money' or  a 'placation'? Often times it is one of those.

Sadly, we bring these worldly views into our worship of God with our treasures.  We use tithes and offerings as 'check boxes' of our godliness or as means to another end rather than an overflow of our relationship with the Lord. When relationship (Grace) precedes giving then quantities and 'labels' [Tithe, offering, First fruit etc] do not matter as much as the quality of the relationship.  It gets to a point where the gift can be everything (Acts 4:32ff) or almost nothing (2 Cor 8: 2). It doesn't matter anymore if it is a tithe or a third, a freewill offering or first fruit. The object of affection means much more than the gift.

The closest image I had to illustrate this is two lovers. When they are deeply in love with each other, even a straw of grass picked in their romantic walk and given to the gracious lady will be treasured dearly just as that huge bouquet of roses. It is no longer about the gift, it is now a matter of the heart. Things could however go bad very quickly if a young man thought they can buy their way to the heart of the lady through flashy gifts without truly loving her.  It is offensive, cheapening and rude to do that by/to any self-respecting person. It is comparable to trade and is a huge offense to relationships.  Sadly that is how we can be tempted to go about our relationship with God - sending our gifts before our hearts. It may look tactful like when Jacob sent gifts ahead of his meeting with his offended brother but it is clearly not the gospel of Grace.  The example of the Macedonion church teach us otherwise. For God so loved that He gave...

Perhaps we might want to evaluate our own service/desire to serve in light of this. Verse 9 is a helpful reason for all that Paul had said before...'For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ....' this really is the basis of all our stewardship. Dare I call it the 'acid test' of our giving/serving motives. If it is not done in light of the incarnation, then perhaps it is not worship but rather one of those worldly tools above. May we excel in this grace of giving. 


But what should we do with the obligatory requirement to tithe in our churches today? My answer is simple. If we are to teach tithing as a separate requirement for NT believers, then we must teach the entire mosaic law and implement it to the letter. But we can't do that as Christ alone fulfilled the law and all its requirements. There is freedom in Christ - freedom to commit ourselves to a regular discpline of tithing and freedom to give liberally as one is enabled and cheerful enough to do. To impose a requirement of tithes from Christians is manipulative and indeed repugnant to the gospel.So no, we are under no obligation in the new covenant to pay tithes. 

But tithing precedes the law. This is perhaps the worst argument I ever heard for tithing/against the OT. It goes like - tithing was first seen in the great father Abraham [who gave a tenth of his war spoils to a mythical king of Salem in Genesis 14] Hebrews tells us this was a Christophany and so Abraham gave a tithe to Christ. What this argument does is to teach an obligation from an example. But it is not consistent beacuse it does not teach animal sacrifices or circumcision which also pre-dated mosaic law. It is weak on its understanding of OT/the law and the prophets as foreshadowing of Christ and does a 'convinient-pick-and-mix-' of ideas from the OT and apply them to NT believers. 

So should we tithe? No and Yes. It is all a question of the heart [motives]. If we are tithing to fulfil a requiremet then No. Tithing is instituted and deeply rooted in the mosaic law and Christ has fulfillled it perfectly and hence no need to try and go back to fulfil it. You and I cant anyway - it is an affront to the Grace of God in Christ Jesus. And where would we take the tithes anyway? To the temple in Jerusalem where the 'house of the Lord' is?

And yet we can tithe. By adopting the principle and not the practice of tithing and running it through the prism of the cross[2 Cor 8 'in light of the incarnation']. The principle behind tithing is worshipping the Lord with the fruits of our hands/land and supporting those those who give all their time to the Lord's service as their daily work. Paul clearly points to that. But the NT uses the langauge of gifts rather than tithes hence my inclination towards a 'gift' rather than tithe. Tithes are defined and technically limited to a tenth or 10% exactly. Working out the right tithe has been a source of controversy and many a soul have been spiritually abused by their leaders on this. Gifts on the other hand are an overflow of generosity ranging from two copper coins to whole estates - all a matter of the heart. So even though a Christian chooses to exercise their liberty and commit to a regular discpline of tithing, that language is odd, a carryover from the law. Tithes were paid [notice the obligation, more like taxes] but gifts are given freely and without compulsion [1Cor 9]

I do not think I have the last word on this touchy subject that often rubs pastors and church treasurers like myself the wrong way. But I also know why we love the law in all spheres of life [obligations, policies and requirements]. We find it hard cope with grace, we would rather the law which we think is straightforward and easy but that is not the case otherwise Christ needed not to redeem us from the law and all its requirements - that is why grace is so amazing. 

Give graciously for the Lord's work -  'What you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver' - 2Cor 9:7ff