Themes / Home economy

Living with and open hand

The role of giving in discipleship

Jonathan Cornford

Manna Matters August 2011

Since there will never cease to be some need on the earth,
I therefore command you,
“Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbour in your land.”
Deuteronomy 15:11


When I run workshops or give talks, a theme which I nearly always touch on is the urgent need for us to learn how to live with less. Nearly every time, someone will ask, ‘But wouldn’t it be better for me to earn more money so that I can give more?’. This question is so inevitable that I now lie in wait for it, ready to spring my profound and highly nuanced response: ‘No, not really.’

 So what role does financial giving have in our discipleship and what contribution can it make in the world? Before we can tackle this, we need to put some things in perspective.

 The assumptions behind that inevitable question – ‘Shouldn’t I earn more to give more?’ - reveal a lot about our culture. Essentially they say two things: (i) the most important and valuable contribution I can make is money; and (ii) money is the answer to all problems – we need more of it.

 I am fairly convinced that these are false assumptions. We do not need to make more money to solve anything (how we distribute what we have is another matter) and money is certainly not the solution to all problems. I have too often seen how large sums of money can distort and sometimes even ruin good work, here in Australia and in the developing world. What is first needed for good work in the world is people who are willing to give of themselves. I am firmly convinced that the most important and valuable thing you can give is your time – that is, yourself.

 Nevertheless, heeding this important qualification, I believe the discipline of giving away our money is an important part of following Jesus. First and foremost, this is because the economy of the gospel is fundamentally centred around giving things up, and no matter how much we might spiritualise ‘dying to ourselves’, the rubber starts to hit the road when it involves giving up our money.

 The other reason is obviously that the money we give can be useful. While I am keen to stress that the value and utility of money has been gravely overestimated, I do not want to fall into the opposite error by suggesting that money has no use. Right now I can think of a few exciting, courageous and innovating ventures by committed groups of people that only want for a bit of extra money – comparatively small amounts by the world’s standards. And for these groups it is hard to come by.

 The practice of voluntary giving is a central part of God’s economy. The Apostle Paul lays out the principles for this in 2 Corinthians 8, where he relates the practice of giving directly to the manna economy of Exodus 16 (see Manna Matters June 2009):

Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality, as it is written: “The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little.” (vv.13-15)

It is clear that for Paul, as for the Jerusalem Community in Acts chapter 2 and 4, giving was seen as a mechanism for redistribution amongst God’s people. For the early church, giving was not so much an act of charity as an act of justice.

 But how do we give, how much should we give and to whom? Over the years Kim and I have come to identify a few dimensions to the discipline of giving which have become important to us, and I intend to share some of these below. However, I have a number of hesitations in doing so.

 Firstly, while I believe that there is a real need to talk personally and practically about matters of home economics, I also take very seriously Jesus’ injunctions about giving in secret and not ‘sounding a trumpet before you’ (Matt 6:1-4). In discussing our own giving here I am painfully aware of the deep temptations of ‘practising your piety before others.’ Secondly, I need to acknowledge that as a recipient of giving, I have a clear conflict of interest in writing about this. I can see no way around this embarrassing situation other than to be honest about it. Thirdly, there is always a danger that personal examples will be taken as prescriptive principles – this is not intended and our examples are certainly not worthy to be taken as such. Finally, I am also aware that the complexity and lack of flexibility in the financial arrangements in many people’s lives will make any new thinking about giving seem almost impossible. On the one hand, I do not want to discount this real difficulty; on the other hand, I am convinced that whatever our situation, this is a subject which deserves some hard thinking. So, with these caveats, let me proceed.

 Structured giving

The first dimension of giving that Kim and I have come to see as important is simply that it should indeed be a discipline. That is, giving is something about which we should think carefully and make decisions intentionally, and which we should faithfully follow through. In this, we have been informed by the Hebrew ideas of tithing and first fruits. Unfortunately, these ideas have been caught up in a surprisingly bitter and turgid debate within some parts of the church (especially in the US) about whether the tithe is a Biblical ‘law’ which still applies to Christians or whether we are ‘liberated under the new covenant’. Both of these positions miss the point. The Hebrew ‘law’ represents a vision of life whose underlying principles remain consistent through the Old and New Testaments, even if the details are no longer relevant (see Manna Matters November 2009). I believe this is true of the tithe and first fruits offerings.

 The essential idea behind the tithe (which simply means ‘a tenth’) is the simple acknowledgement that all we have comes from God. Leviticus 30:1 states: ‘A tithe of everything from the land, whether grain from the soil or fruit from the trees, belongs to the Lord; it is holy to the Lord.’ By giving a tenth of their incomes ‘back to God’ the ancient Hebrews were simultaneously bearing witness to this fact, demonstrating their gratitude for what they had, and (as with the Sabbath laws) declaring their trust in a different system that was not defined by ‘every man for himself’. This statement of both trust in and commitment to God’s economy is taken further in the first fruits offering (Deuteronomy 26:1-11). The simple idea here is that what was given to God deserved to come from the first of what they got, and not from what was left over (if anything) once they had used what they wanted.

 Over a number of years of grappling with how we can try to apply some of these ancient ideas, Kim and I have settled on a couple of key practices . Firstly, we decided long ago that our financial giving should be structured at the centre of our household economy. When drawing up a household budget, this is the first fixed budget line. Rent and food comes next. In fact, for us, this means that our tithe comes out (in theory at least) even before tax. Caesar must take a back seat to God. Practically, this simply means that we follow the long established practice of calculating our giving on gross income as opposed to net income.

 Of course, the implication is that we must accept that our standard of living will be affected and even, to some extent, determined by these commitments. But that is exactly the point. What to our culture is a heretical and unthinkable proposition – a limit to our comfort – is precisely what is good for us, good for our neighbours and good for the planet. We have found that choosing to give away a portion of our income before any other costs are accounted for is the surest and best way for us to consume less. The uncomfortable reality is that, compared to people I know in Laos and Cambodia, we are still unimaginably wealthy.

 The second practice which has become important for us, is that if our giving is to be at the centre of our household economy, then it needs to be carefully planned and followed through. This means that each year, we write down a plan of exactly how much money we are going to give, and to whom. One of the advantages of modern technology (which I think are generally overstated) is that we can arrange to deliver most of our giving plan through automatic electronic transfers. This ensures that our giving is not dependent on us remembering, being around or having enough left over at the end of the week. In this way a theological truth can become a practical reality – the money was never ours in the first place!

 How much?

The six million dollar question is, of course, ‘How much should we give?’. Perhaps the answer should simply be: as much as we can. Experience tells me, however, that this is much too subjective an answer for many of us. When Kim and I were married we, in our simple way, took the idea of a tithe literally and decided that we should commit to giving away ten per cent of our gross income. I don’t believe that there is actually any need to be literal about ten percent, but that is what we did, and we have found over the last sixteen years that it is a pretty good benchmark. Although we have always lived on what by Australian standards is described as a ‘low income’, we have found ten per cent to be an amount which is both realistic and attainable, but enough to make us wince a little and have to tighten up our household budget.

 That said, as the inevitable bracket creep in consumption patterns and household expenditure sets in, we have lately come to feel that ten per cent is probably not sufficient and we need to be open to increasing it. In his famous book, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, Ron Sider proposed the idea of a graduated tithe. He argued that ten per cent should represent the lower, and not an upper, limit on how much of their income Christians should give away. He wanted Christians to sit down and honestly figure out how much they need to get by - to pay the bills and provide comfortably for their families. Settle on an actual dollar amount for what you need. When your income is below, or about equal to that much, then try to give ten percent. But if your income should grow, increase the rate of your giving. Give away twenty percent for the next $10,000 you earn. Give away thirty percent of the following $10,000. And so forth.

 Spontaneous generosity

While we have found renewing the act of tithing to be an important and life-giving discipline, we have also come to learn that it does not fully encapsulate God’s intention for the role of giving within the divine economy. Jesus actually shows very little interest in tithing in the gospels. This is probably because of some specific historical factors (such as the exploitative economics of the Temple System, and the legalistic righteousness of Pharisaic Judaism) but also reveals some of the operation of the spiritual economy which lies behind the monetary economy. When Jesus is critical of the Pharisees in Matthew 23, he endorses their tithing but rejects their failure to grasp the heart of the matter: ‘You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.’ (v.23).

 In a context where tithing had become an exploitative form of public piety, Jesus shows more interest in the idea of ‘almsgiving’ (see Matthew 6:1-4). The English word ‘alms’ stems from the Greek ‘eleos’, which means mercy. Almsgiving is simply the response of mercy when confronted with need.

 A number of years ago, Kim and I came to the painful realisation that we are not very good at generosity, least of all the spontaneous sort of generosity which gives without self-regard. In theological terminology, this is known as being tight arses. While we were good at being intentional in determining a giving plan, we realised that we sometimes used this as an excuse to not respond when confronted with need – our structured giving was in danger of becoming an insulator against compassion and mercy. We learnt, mostly by observing some friends, that sometimes we need to respond with no thought of calculation, to enter into divine risk and to live joyfully in the consequences. I would say that we are still not great at this, but we are learning.

 For us the idea of structured giving and spontaneous generosity have now come to represent two different, but valuable aspects of discipleship which roughly equate to following with both head and heart.

 Who to give to?

While the ancient Hebrews saw the tithe as giving ‘back to God’, the way this was practically fulfilled was to give to ‘the Levite, the alien, the orphan and the widow’ (Deut 26:12). Put simply, giving was to be put towards God’s healing work in the world. This short list in Deuteronomy has two sub-categories of healing to be supported: (i) ‘the Levite’, or those who are tasked with leading, supporting, enriching and guiding the community of faith; and (ii) ‘the alien, the orphan and the widow’, which is to say the disadvantaged, vulnerable, exploited and poor.

 The first of these categories is one which in our time, has some complications. In the Western countries such as Australia, the church has generally become an economically bloated institution. The are too many churches who have massive resources tied up in expensive building projects and top-of-the-shelf audio-visual systems, which in turn demand a monopolistic claim to their members’ giving. While these would all claim that the buildings and sound systems are to further God’s work, it is hard not to be dubious about the extent to which these end up being well-resourced, self-funded services for middle class Christians. Similarly, the major denominations have developed high-cost bureaucracies of professionalised staff which demand an increasing drain on congregational giving.

There is understandably an increasing reluctance amongst some Christians to continue to fund this sort of economy. I am personally convinced that the church in Australia (as elsewhere in the West) will need to learn, just as individual households will need to learn, to live on a much simpler and more frugal economic basis. But the church, as a community, cannot learn this until its members do.

 That said, I have also noticed amongst my generation (so-called ‘Gen X’) and the upcoming generation (‘Gen Y’) that there is a widespread failure to recognise that communities of faith generally require some mutual economic commitment from their members. As one Melbourne Baptist minister put it, ‘Church is not an event that you pay to attend. It is an association [I would say a ‘community’] whose costs you agree to take a share of, and those costs don’t stop when you’re not there.’

 For Kim and I, this has meant that our faith communities (our local church and the broader network which we are part of) have an important, but not exclusive claim on our tithe. We have not developed a view as to what is the ‘right proportion’ of our tithe that should be directed this way – we have rather weighed this contextually based on our discernment of needs.

 Outside of contributing to our faith communities, we have aimed to support God’s healing work in the world by giving to three sorts of activities: (i) work amongst the poor overseas; (ii) work amongst the marginalised in Australia; and (iii) work to protect and restore creation. In selecting people, groups or organisations to support we have rejected the idea that ‘bigger is better’ and tended to prioritise connection. Our preference is to give where we know or have made a connection to people doing valuable work, especially if it is work in need of encouragement. That said, we are also happy to support the work of some larger organisations. While we have tended to give to ‘Christian work’, our giving is by no means exclusively restricted to this.

 We would by no means claim that ours is a ‘model’ giving plan – it is still a work in progress. Some might feel it is better to channel all their giving to one or two things, and that is fair enough. There is also ample scope for faith communities to collectively pool and use their tithes in creative ways, undertaking healing work in the local community which no one else will. This is something we hope to explore in the coming years. So there are many ways to give, and how we do it is ultimately less important than the intentions behind it. As Paul says, ‘God loves a cheerful giver’ (2 Cor 9:7); after all, it’s only money.