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Tithing – How much should Christians give?

“Clare, how much should Christians give back to the Lord in offerings or tithes?”

I was leading a discussion group in another state on the topic of money when this question was asked. “I think I need to ask you another question before I answer yours. How much of what you have belongs to God?”, I asked the man, a young businessman and serious Christian. “All of it!” he answered correctly. “If that’s the case, then you’ve asked the wrong question”, I told him. “The question you should have asked is not how much should Christians give, but rather, how much should Christians keep for ourselves?” To illustrate, I told this story about a friend of mine.

I have a good friend, Bruce, who manages a great deal of money for a very wealthy individual and his family. This man has entrusted Bruce to invest his money and expects Bruce to give him a good return on his investment.

If Bruce ever asked his client, “How much of your money do you want back?” I’m sure this wealthy individual wouldn’t know whether to laugh or get angry over that question. “What do you mean how much do I want back? All of it, of course and anytime I want it! It all belongs to me. Why would you even ask that question?”

This client would probably turn to Bruce, look him straight in the eye and say something like this; “The only questions you should concern yourself with are these; how are you going to invest my money to give me the best return? And, secondly, how much will I allow you to keep for yourself for doing that?” Let’s address the last question first and the other question in my blogs over the next few weeks.

You see, my friend Bruce is paid a fee to manage his client’s money. That fee pays the overhead for his office and provides a good living for his family. It’s an amount that he and his client discussed and agreed upon ahead of time. Bruce is under no illusion that any of the wealth entrusted to him other than this fee belongs to him. If he ever “dipped” into his client’s account for personal needs, he’d be guilty of embezzlement.

This is the nature of all relationships between the owners of wealth and their trustees, stewards, managers or servants – They manage what they do not own on behalf of another.

“His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!” Matthew 25:21 “Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.” Mark 9:35

How much does God allow us to keep?

The short answer to that question is enough for us to carry out the mission God has given us to advance his kingdom. Earlier this year (January 16, 2012) I blogged about The Family Business, the kingdom of God and I wrote about the sub-kingdoms each of us have been given by God. A sub-kingdom is the people and resources over which we have authority or influence.

Our “overhead” is the lifestyle God allows us to have to enable us to manage our sub-kingdoms. No one can determine that for you, but it’s an amount each of us should discuss with God himself and reflect on deeply. God hasn’t given us income simply to increase our lifestyle. He allows us to keep what we need to steward the mission he’s given us. Taking too much for our own pleasure is a form of embezzlement because among other things, it deprives others of what God may have intended for them. If any of us ever had a money manager who kept 90% for themselves we’d fire them!

“Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” Deut. 8:12-17

Determining your “overhead”

1. Begin by writing out your personal mission statement. Do you know what God wants for your life? Do you know what your mission is and the sub-kingdom God has entrusted to you?

2. Pray long and hard for the answer to this question, “How much is enough?” I can’t help you arrive at that answer, but it needs to be an amount you feel comfortable justifying to God someday, because you and I will. For some of you, it will be an amount less than you’re living currently on.

Fifteen years ago, my wife and I found ourselves in that position and were convicted to cutback what we spent on ourselves – our overhead. Don’t get me wrong. We’re not the poster children for frugality. We still live very well – perhaps too well. Nevertheless we did spend months praying, talking and getting advice from people we respect spiritually. We determined for ourselves “how much was enough”, set a budget and made the adjustment (and it was not easy).

3. I recommend determining a specific amount to cover your annual living expenses, plus savings for retirement and college then give the rest away – back to God. There’s no magic formula for figuring this out, but it does require prayer and discipline. Discipline yourself to live on that amount, and then index it for inflation annually.

4. Tell someone about your decision, an accountability partner, your mentor or your accountant. If you don’t, you’ll be tempted to violate your decisions.

5. Learn to be content for what God has provided. Years ago, I got this wise advice. You can’t be content by getting what you want, but only by being thankful for what you have.

As you can tell, I don’t believe in the Old Testament concept of tithes. It’s true, the term is used in the New Testament; however, most theologians believe the New Testament writers used the word tithes interchangeably with offerings because it was a term familiar to Hebrew Christians. And if you truly believe in the tithe, then you really have to consider all the tithes and offerings Israel was required to give, to bring about economic justice including cancelling all debts every seven years, giving all property back to it’s original owner every 50 years, leaving surplus grain in the fields for the poor, charging no interest to fellow Israelites and I could go on and on. It’s been estimated that the “real” tithe rate was closer to 23%.

And the tithing principle always seems to evoke all kinds of questions that feel legalistic to me; ” Before or after taxes? Does Christian school tuition count? Is that to my church or does giving to other ministries count?” Please don’t take me wrong. I have great respect for faithful tither’s- generous and godly people and considering that statistically the average Christian gives less than 4%, tithing is actually very generous. But for a moment step back from the formulas. Based on everything you know about Jesus, don’t you think Jesus would prefer we spend less on ourselves and more on others? If you do, then how can you intentionally move closer to that goal?

In the meantime, I suggest two great books on this subject:  Generous Living, by Ron Blue and Money, Possessions and Eternity, by Randy Alcorn. Both are very helpful for answering the practical questions that naturally surround a very counter-intuitive decision like this.

Question: How have you answered for yourself the question, “How much is enough?”

Following Jesus in Real Life

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