Priority in Giving | Why I Don’t Think the New Testament Teaches a 10% Minimum Gift Requirement

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I had several questions in response to my article on the Biblical priorities in giving.  I’m thankful for the questions as they helped force me to fully think through the implications of what I wrote.

Most of the questions I received revolved around the concern that the priorities indicated I was teaching we shouldn’t give to God first.  Some people disagreed with my conclusion, saying that we give God the first 10%, and then we can take care of the needs of our family and start down the list.

I do believe that we should seek to honor God above all things.  However, I think that providing for the needs of our family is a way to honor God and put him first.  Should we burden the poor with a legalistic requirement to give 10% when they are finding it difficult to feed their family?  I think one can honor God by putting food on the table to care for their children and parents.  That is a way to put God first.

Let’s say there is a man who has escaped a terrible political climate in his home country.  He works now as a foreigner in another country, and what he makes is enough for his food and enough to send money back to his family for them to eat.  The man does want to honor God and remember that God is the source of all he has so he gives $10 every week to the church.  That $10 represents 3% of his income.  How does God feel about this man?

Perhaps we could answer these questions by exploring the story of the widow’s offering.

The Widow’s Offering

There are two main ways people interpret the story of the widow’s offering.

Because I assume you know the story, I won’t retell it in detail.  Here’s the Craig’s notes version:  A poor woman puts two coins into the temple offering and Jesus says: “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.” Mark 12:43-44

The key interpretive challenge is to ask what Jesus meant by these words.

Is he saying:

  1. Hey guys, check this out.  This amazing woman just gave her last two coins away.  That’s fantastic.  You guys should consider going and finding other widows and tell them to give everything they have.
  2. Check mate.  Remember what I was just saying about how the teachers of the law devour the houses of widows?  Look at that poor woman who just gave all she had.  This poor misinformed woman has been taken advantage of by the religious elite.

So which interpretation is correct?

In Mark 12:40, I don’t think Jesus is praising the teachers of the law for “devouring widows’ houses”.  I conclude that he thinks that is a bad thing.  How, then, are they devouring widows’ houses?

In the Word Biblical Commentary, Craig Evans gives six interpretive options as to what the phrase could have meant:

  1. Scribes accepted payment for legal assistance, though such payment was forbidden.
  2. Acting in the capacity of lawyers, perhaps appointed to such office in the wills of the deceased husbands, the scribes cheated widows out of their estates. 
  3. Scribes freeloaded on the hospitality of widows. 
  4. Scribes mismanaged the estates entrusted to them.
  5. Scribes took money from credulous women in return for the supposed benefit of intercessory prayer (as perhaps implied by the next clause in v 40).
  6. Scribes took houses as pledges for debts that could not realistically be expected to be repaid. 
In the Gospels, human need takes priority over some ‘legal requirements’.  
Mark 2:23-28 – The Pharisees are upset because Jesus’s disciples were doing what was not lawful on the Sabbath – eating the grain.  Using the example of David, Jesus teaches that God considers human need in obedience to the law.  The Sabbath was made for man, not man of the Sabbath.
In the very next section (Mark 3:1-6), Jesus asks, “What is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?”  By their response, the Pharisees indicated it would have been better to ignore human need (not to heal the man) and keep the law (Sabbath).  However, Jesus’s actions indicate that human need takes priority over law keeping.
To clarify, we are not talking about God’s moral requirements.   We are always bound to his moral requirements.  God’s requirements were created to bless us.
God gives his teachings to bless and not burden his people.
God understands our predicament as humans.  He even allowed Moses to give a certificate of divorce.  Not because God likes divorce (he hates it), but because of the hardness of our hearts.  The Bible teaches that God considers human needs and even human weakness when he evaluates the righteousness of our actions.
In my mind, I could not in good conscience go to an area of deep poverty and tell a person – if you don’t give away 10% of what you just got, God will punish you, judge you, or condemn you.  I’m not sure I could even say that God will look down on you.  That seems contradictory to the passages we just looked at in Mark.  To be clear, I teach the poor about the blessings of giving.  But, I never demand a legal obedience that supersedes human need.  If Jesus would permit his disciples to eat on the Sabbath, would he permit his children to buy rice with the only money they have?
In Mark 7:5-15 Jesus challenges the practice of Corban over and above obeying the commandment “Honor your father and mother”.  Thus, would Jesus be pleased if I ignored my father and mother so I could write checks to the church?  I think not.  Ideally, we would do both, but I don’t think we can conclude that a person who honors father and mother is ignoring the commandments of God or disobeying the call to put God first.
Clearly, we are not often in such dire situations.  Clearly, most of us should be able to give and eat.  Clearly, most of us can provide for our families and the needs of the church.  Clearly, someone, somewhere could abuse this teaching.  But it is better than the alternative of saying that law keeping without wise reflection is more important to God than considerations of human need and suffering.
In the book, Not a Fan, Kyle Idleman tells the story of a man who went into a bank to do a business transaction.  Unfortunately, the proper bank representative was not in the office that day.  The customer asked for his parking ticket to be validated, but the banker would not validate the ticket because she could only do it if the man made at least one bank transaction.  The man ended up doing a transaction that day.  He closed his account with 1.5 million dollars.
Now let me ask you, do you think the bank officials were pleased with that employee?  Did she get employee of the month?
I wonder how God would feel if we sat with a  hungry person and used guilt or law keeping as a method to force them to give 10% of what they need to feed their family.  Is God honored by such actions?  From reading Mark, my answer is no.  I think Jesus would say to consider the human need.
Giving is a blessing, and it should be proportionate to our income.  The parable of the talents tells us that whoever is given little, little will be expected.  What we expect from the poor ought to be different from what we expect from the rich.  The destitute poor honor God by providing for their family and giving if and when available.  The rich honor God by giving far beyond 10% of their income.  Both are giving God their best, and God smiles at both.

What then should we teach people about giving?

  1. Teach people to be rich towards God. (Luke 12:21)
  2. Teach people to recognize the surpassing greatness of knowing Jesus and how that impacts what we value. (Phil. 3:8)
  3. Teach people to love God and love others. (Mat. 22:37-38)
  4. Teach people to understand the great sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. (2 Cor. 8:9)
  5. Teach people to give themselves first to the Lord. (2 Cor. 8:5)
  6. Teach people to set aside money in keeping with their income. (1 Cor. 16:2)
  7. Teach people that it is better to give than to receive. (Acts 20:25)
  8. Teach people that giving is a grace, a blessing that God allows us to enjoy. (2 Cor. 8:7)
Wow.  That’s a long article, and I’m sure it will stimulate a lot of discussion, so let the comments begin …

Comments

  1. Cedric says

    Hi Craig,

    I guess we are just going to disagree on this issue. While I have found your previous posts on christian personal finance helpful, I think you are really misinterpreting scripture on this one. There is no mention of Matt 23:23 where Jesus himself instructs us to tithe. There is no mention of Matt 6:19-33 which among other things instructs us not to worry about what we will eat or drink but seek first his kingdom and righteousness and He will ensure to meet our needs. Your description of Mark 7:5-15 seems out of line with a literal reading of the scripture.

    I’m not looking to debate anything with you. I just wanted you to know that I’m unsubscribing to your posts. I am not unsubscribing due to your perspective (which I think is valid) but I strongly believe that any biblical issue needs to be addressed by the most relevant scriptures. I also will not listen to commentary which does not follow this standard. This post doesn’t meet this standard which suggests to me that there is an agenda instead of an honest assessment of what scripture says.

    You may chose to not post this comment. I hope you will view my comments as constructive. Either way, good bye.

    Cedric

    • says

      Cedric,

      Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. I’m definitely saddened to learn that you are unsubscribing as I’ve always appreciated your opinion since your comments have always helped me grow and develop.
      You are correct that I did not mention all the relevant passages. The post was already over 1,500 words and I needed to cut something for brevity.
      All I can say is that I don’t have an agenda (that’s clear if you track how my post on this topic have ‘morphed’ over the last three years) and this blog as always been about seeking God will for our finances.
      May God bless you in all you do.

  2. James Benford says

    I AGREE WITH YOU CRAIG……BUT THIS IS A CHRISTIAN HOT POTATO ISSUE. I JUST HOPE PEOPLE APPROPRIATE THE GRACE OF GOD IN THEIR GIVING AND RESPONSES.

    GOD BLESS YOU BROTHER!

  3. Danny Reese says

    Hey Craig, thanks again for stimulating discussion. I don’t know what I think, i.e., I haven’t settled firmly on a conclusion to this matter. But I’m wrestling with it, because I’m teaching about giving in churches that are quite, quite poor.

    Respectfully, three things don’t seem right to me about your reasoning:

    1) The Sabbath examples certainly teach that God allows – even desires – some flexibility in His stated laws to give priority to human need. In this I agree with you. But it is quite another thing to say, therefore, that God didn’t command keeping the Sabbath. He did indeed command it. The parallel with giving: if God commands giving 10%, then He certainly expects some flexibility so as to give higher priority to human need. But that doesn’t answer the question of whether or not He commands tithing. Your jump from “human need is priority” to “the NT doesn’t command tithing” is a non sequitur.

    2) Your hypothesized statement, “if you don’t give away 10% of what you just got, God will punish you, judge you, or condemn you,” is a diversion from the real issue. Of course it’s not a good idea to go promising judgment on God’s behalf in specific instances like this that require wisdom and discernment. If God does demand tithing (which is still an open question in my mind), then HE is the one wise enough to know when the exceptions should be. I’m not going to jump the gun and say that God will certainly punish for such an infraction. But I can still teach the poor to give 10%.

    3) Human evaluation of things, even among the poor, seems to me to be almost always skewed in favor of “I need more.” It is never a simple either/or between “give to God” and “feed my family”. Even among the poor there is a sliding scale of options: “Feed my family once a day or twice a day?” “Eat starch and vegetables, or add meat?” “Throw a $100 party for my niece’s wedding, or skimp and be looked down upon by the whole family, but have some money to give at church?” God’s command to take care of the physical needs of our family is clear, but that doesn’t answer the question of whether the poor can do that with 90% of their income, or if they should devote 100% of their income to it. The poor, like the rich, will often be tempted to say “I can’t give because my family needs that money.” Therefore God’s command to put allegiance to Him ahead of family (Lk 14:26) presents a challenge to rich AND poor alike.

    Side note: I think one useful way to rethink this conversation is with the simple realization that “giving at church” is not the only way to give to God.

    Danny

    • says

      Danny,

      Thanks for your comment. I know that we’re approaching this situation from a similar perspective. My functional application of this passage is that when someone asks how much they should give the first thing I need to do is listen. Listen to their situation and it is possible that my response will be altered by what they have to say. The other option, in my opinion, is to say at least 10% end of story. I’m just not comfortable doing that.

      1. I see your point about the command to give 10%. I think an overview of all the passages of giving in Scripture teaches proportionate giving. We should give according to our means. I believe that is the NT standard of giving.
      2. The reason I mentioned God’s punishment and judgment is that this is a common technique people (who teach tithing) use to get people to give the tithe. I don’t think that fear of judgment is the way God wants to motivate us to give.
      3. I agree that the temptation here is that this many give legitimately eligible givers an excuse not to give.
      Lord willing, I think that what I do emphasize teaching at the end of the post will create more joyful and more generous givers. I think we fixate so much on the 10% question that we rob ourselves and God of the true joy of giving.
      Thanks so much for your feedback and helping me think through this topic.

  4. JD says

    Craig, I must say when I read this topic for today I knew you had opened a can of worms so to speak. This certainly is one that gets Christians bickering and I might add fiercely. I will be the lone voice and speak that I have set through sermons that explained the wrath of God was coming if you did not tithe and worse yet if you failed to sacrifice for “love offerings” etc. Extra burdens of church expansion, update projects, trips for the Pastor and his wife, all were presented in such a way that God was carefully taking note of who was faithful and who was not. As I was carefully reminded that “you cannot not out give God” our bills went unpaid while we tried to feed our family and maintain a roof over our head but we gave and we gave.

    Did it work out well? That is debatable since we never had vacations, ate out, had extras but we did have our water, electricity, phone shut off. We fell behind on our mortgage payments all while trying to be obedient to what we were being taught.

    • says

      JD,
      I know there have been many people deeply affected by what I think is a false teaching about what God ‘demands’ or ‘requires’ from our giving. A guy just left a comment on another post saying that his church membership is going to be revoked if he doesn’t give 10%. I simply do not think that is the spirit of giving that is taught in the New Testament.
      Thank you for your faithfulness as a giver in God’s Kingdom.

  5. Roger Pritchett says

    Craig,
    I’m a new subscriber to your blog, and I’m glad I have done it. I appreciate your thinking. It has opened my eyes. It is easy to be legalistic in our thinking. I’ve served on the mission field in Africa, and taught about tithing. I now think I may have been a little overzealous.

    I also appreciate the comments of my friend, Danny Reese, earlier. So while it would be good to have a “pat” answer that solves the dilemma for all time, I find that it is more likely that the discussion helps us to consider all sides of the issue. Most of all, in line with the thoughts of your article, I want to exhibit grace in my judgment of others and in my teaching.

  6. says

    This is one of those hot topics. I do give 10% even when it leaves me with struggle and when I don’t know where my money will come from. But, I have seen him provide over and over for us. There have been times when we haven’t given the exact 10% and I feel guilty. I do think there is something to be said about giving 10% of ur time..talents etc. I don’t know what the exact interpretation should be. But, for ME, I try step out in faith.

  7. Roger says

    Craig, I agree with your teaching on this. I appreciate your “global” perspective, which is how I believe God would want us to view life and is so lacking in western christianity. I believe people(western) often interpret scripture with a very limited rich Western bias as well as lack an understanding of the cultural context of the biblical passages. We need to try to recognize our biases and take off the cultural glasses. If a teaching doesn’t fit their lifestyle, if it may mean lowering their standard of living to help the less fortunate, or it’s contrary to the way they’ve always known it to be, christians will often resist.
    Does God want people to remain in poverty, to be homeless, to struggle to provide the “basics”? Without naming possible causes and who is responsible for these situations, I believe scripture calls us to love, compassion, and a willingness to participate in the solutions, which includes giving. Do you think God might be calling us to lower our standard of living so others, ” those truly in need, might increase theirs? “Heaven forbid!!!! God has blessed us,” you say. “God blessed me with this new luxury car, big house, cottage, cruises, etc.” Don’t forget, though, that “To whom much has been given, much is required.”
    I believe in the 10% as a STARTING point, not because Jesus commanded it, I don’t believe you can make a solid case that he did, but because Jesus being a Jew, more than likely practiced it as God called for in the OT, and He did REFER to it.
    How did Jesus live? It wasn’t a luxurious lifestyle. He could have lived a “rich” lifestyle. Why didn’t He? What does that mean for you and me?
    I suggest you read books like:

    Randy Alcorns “Money, Possessions, and Eternity”
    Mark Lutz’s “Unpoverty”
    Amber Van Schooneveld’s “Hope Lives”

    Roger

  8. RG says

    Craig, this is quite an interesting article as well as the comments. I will not debate the issue as I don’t believe it would be a prudent use of my time. However, I will say that I tithe 10% and give offerings to church ministries as well as other charitable organizations, this also includes family and friends. I say that to say, I have never lived in lack due to tithing because I closely manage the 90% with God’s blessing. One respondent said they let their bills go to give to the Pastors’, expansion projects, trips, etc. I hear this scenario often but I suggest always seek God first in your giving he will direct you – its called wisdom. Proverbs 4:7 – Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all your getting get understanding. While I disagree with your views on this article, you have provided useful information in the past and for this reason I will not unsubscribe at this time. Thank you!

    • says

      RG,
      Please don’t hear me saying that I think it is wrong to give 10%. I am currently teaching my children to give 10% starting point as they learn to give. If you are able to give I believe that honors God.

  9. says

    Very interesting issue and interpretation. I can honestly say that I haven’t given the issue of giving like this as much attention as I probably should’ve. I have to also preface this comment with the fact that I am really not as well versed as some of the previous comments as far as the responsibilities to the faith. Regardless of the percentage or value, isn’t the act of giving something better than not giving at all? Please don’t misconstrue the question as rude or undermining – I’m just curious. :)

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