by Steve Atkerson
Which group of believers is better able to fund church planters and assist the poor, a thousand believers organized in a single traditional church that meets in their own church sanctuary, complete with a Sunday School complex and family life center (containing a bowling alley, racket ball courts, and gymnasium), or a thousand believers divided up to 50 house churches with mostly bi-vocational leaders? A survey of U.S. Protestant congregations revealed that 82% of church revenues goes toward buildings, staff and internal programs; only 18% goes to outreach.1 In the biblical house church, those percentages can easily be more than reversed!
Since there is no building complex to support, no budget to meet, and no offering plate passed each week, one of the most frequently asked questions from folks new to the biblical house church is, “What do we do with our tithes and offerings?” The answer to this is both fun and liberating. First, God loves a cheerful giver (2Co 9:6-7), and giving the New Testament way can be great fun! Second, it is liberating in the sense that your giving resources are freed up to be given where need most: supporting full time church workers and assisting the needy.
The house church in which I participate rarely takes up a collection. Each family is encouraged to set aside a percentage of every paycheck into their own special giving fund. Week after week each family’s funds can accrue there, stored up until a need in the congregation arises. Giving in our church is usually directly from giver to getter, with no middleman involved (though collections are occasionally taken). In this way we give to missionaries, foreign orphanages, the persecuted church, local elders, and the needy. In our case, we have no church bank account nor church property.
CollectionsFew causes in the New Testament warranted an actual collection from the church corporately. One was to help other believers in need (Ac 11:27-30; 24:17; Ro 15:25-28; 1Co 16:1-4; 2Co 8:1-15; 9:12). Another was to support apostles (church planters) in their work (Ac 15:3; Ro 15:23-24; 1Co 9:1-14; 16:5-6, 10-11; 2Co 1:16; Php 4:14-18; Tit 3:13-14; 3Jn 5-8).
Whenever believers in other places were undergoing hardship (due to famine, persecution or whatever), the other churches were called upon to supply financial aid. Evidently such collections were not ongoing — they ceased after the need was met (Ac 11:27-30; 12:25; 1Co 16:1-4). To this end we in the Western church would do well to support our brothers in the Chinese church. Local giving to the poor was done in secret and directly (Mt 6:1-4, 19-21; Ep 4:28). Also, a list of local widows who qualified for assistance was kept by a church (1Ti 5:3, 9, 16).
The church was also obligated to support (send out) apostles (church planters). The Greek word for send (propempo) is, in the New Testament, associated with helping someone on his journey with food or money, by arranging for traveling companions, means of travel, etc. It means to send an apostle off with material sustenance (Ac 15:3; Ro 15:24; 1Co 16:6,11; 2Co 1:16; Tit 3:13; 3Jn 5-8). The same case can be made for the word welcome (Php 2:29; 3Jn 10). To welcome a church planter was to provide temporary lodging for him and to meet his physical needs. New Testament church planters were given lump sums to get them to their destinations. Once there, they would evangelize the area, establish churches, train them in the basics and move on. En route they might be welcomed at existing churches and then be sent along again.
1 Corinthians 9:1-14 states that apostles/church planters have the right to earn their living from the gospel. Paul was versatile enough to be able to supply his own needs when church funds were lacking. Others in the early church who received gifts were full time evangelists and qualified elders. A material debt is owed to those who sow spiritual blessings into our lives.
It is disturbing to contrast New Testament giving objectives with where ministry money often goes today. A Memphis newspaper reported in the mid-1980s that a local Baptist church’s downtown building complex had 330,000 square feet of inside space, 1,400 parking spaces, 221 classrooms, and an auditorium that held 2,700 people. Their average monthly utility bill, even back then, was $25,000.00! Their pipe organ was valued at $800,000.2 How did Paul and the other apostles ever get along without such ministerial tools? There is not much justification in the New Testament for such expenditures. Instead, New Testament pattern is to give to people, not property.
Tithing“The Bible teaches it; I believe it; tithing.” Such are the words chanted weekly by the congregation of a large church I used to attend. Some pastor-teachers have emphatically declared that unless God’s people tithe, they are robbing God (Mal 3:8-10)! One mega-church has its members cite the “Tither’s Creed.” They repeat, “The tithe is the Lord’s. In truth we learned it. In faith we believe it. In joy we give it. The tithe!”
Of course, the Bible does teach tithing. The same Mosaic Law that requires tithing also teaches God’s people not to eat shrimp or oysters. The real question is whether such Old Covenant laws are still binding under the New Covenant. Is the law of Moses identical to the law of Christ?
By way of contrast, the Old Testament tithe was compulsory, not voluntary. Its purpose was to financially support a theocratic government. It was like our federal income tax. It was part and parcel of the whole Levitical system with its priests and temple (2Ch 24:6, 9). Unlike Israel, the church is not under a theocracy, but rather human, secular governments. Unlike Israel, the church has no special class of priests, but rather all in the church are priests. Unlike the Mosaic Covenant, the New Covenant has no elaborate temple to build and upkeep. Instead, the church met in the homes of its members, and believers themselves (both individually and corporately), make up God’s temple (living stones in a spiritual temple). Just as there is no more temple, no more separate priestly class, no more theocracy, no more holy land, no more restrictive diet (oysters, shrimp), so also there is no more tithing. Tithing is never commanded in the New Covenant. There has been a change of law (Heb 7:12), the former regulation has been set aside (Heb 7:18), and the New Covenant made the first one obsolete (Heb 8:13).
Some brothers still feel compelled to tithe since the practice of tithing actually precedes the Old Covenant. For instance, Abraham tithed to Melchizedek, and since the Old Covenant was not initiated until several hundred years after that event, tithing is seen as an ongoing practice that transcends any one covenant. This argument seems plausible at first. However, once it is realized that this is an isolated (not an ongoing) event in the life of Abraham (the same can be said for Jacob’s tithe), and that Abraham also offered animal sacrifices and circumcised the males of his household (both of which are now considered obsolete religious practices by all Christians), the strength of that argument wanes. At best, one should conclude that we only have to tithe once in our entire lives!
Other people’s conscience are bound based on Jesus’ statement that “you give a tenth of your spices . . . but you have neglected the more important matters of the law . . . you should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former” (Mt 23:23). The key to correctly applying this lies with the word law (Mt 23:23). Jesus was speaking to the teachers of the law and to the Pharisees – men who lived prior to the initiation of the New Covenant. The law is that of the Mosaic Covenant, not the New Covenant. The Israelis of Jesus’ day were indeed required to tithe (and, by the way, to make animal sacrifices). We of the New Covenant are under no such requirement since that first covenant and its law has passed away. Viva the law of Christ!
Of course, there is nothing wrong with tithing if that is what God has led you to do. As was pointed out above, Abraham and Jacob both tithed voluntarily before the law was given. They serve as good examples to follow! Just don’t feel obligated to tithe. The key is that our giving is to be according to how we have purposed in our hearts to give. Did Jesus die on the cross so that we could give less than ten percent?!
Reaping & SowingWithout dispute the New Covenant extols the virtue of generosity. In Matthew 6:19-21, Jesus taught us to store up treasures in heaven. In Matthew 19:21, Jesus told the rich young ruler that by giving to the poor, he could have treasure in heaven. 1 Timothy 6:18-19 exhorts us to be “generous and willing to share . . . lay up treasure . . . as a firm foundation for the coming age.” We are to share with others, “for with such sacrifices God is pleased” (Heb 13:16). Based on your present giving habits, how much treasure do you have laid up in heaven?
But how much should we give? The answer depends on how much we want to reap later, how much we want to be blessed, and how much treasure we want in heaven. Scripture says to remember this: “whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2Co 9:6-7). According to the New Covenant, each man should give “what he has decided in his heart to give.” That’s all there is to it! Tithing, as required by Moses, is not a New Covenant practice. Notice that the text declares our giving is not to be done “reluctantly or under compulsion” (2Co 9:7). If some teacher says you must tithe, else you are robbing God, is that not placing you under compulsion? Yet do not use your freedom as a cover for stinginess. Give generously. Give cheerfully. Give frequently.
Give whatever you have purposed in your heart to give. Consider that perhaps it may not be the best use of your giving resources for them to be spent on special church sanctuaries, janitorial fees, landscaping, fancy throne-like furniture for pastors to sit in, or $800,000 pipe organs. Primarily, God intended for His people to give to help the needy and to support church workers (missionaries, church planters, apostles, evangelists, qualified elders, etc.). Pray about how much, and to whom, you should give.
Notes1 “Where Church Revenues Go,” The Atlanta Journal And Constitution (Atlanta, GA: April 19, 1992).
2 John Belfuss, “Mississippi Boulevard OK’s Bellevue Purchase,” The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, TN), A-1.
Discussion Questions1. Which group of believers is better able to fund ministers and assist the poor, a thousand believers organized in a single traditional church, or a thousand believers divided up to 50 house churches with mostly bi-vocational leaders? Explain your answer.
2. Since there is no building complex to support, no budget to meet, and no offering plate passed each week, what are house church believers supposed to do with do their tithes and offerings?
3. Only a few causes warranted a collection by the churches of the New Testament. What were they?
4. What euphemism is conveyed in the words that reference sending or receiving a church worker?
5. What giving principle should be derived from 1 Corinthians 9:1-14?
6. Evaluate this slogan, “The Bible teaches it, I believe it, tithing.”
7. According to Jesus, how can we store up treasure in heaven (Mt 6:19-21)? See also 1Ti 6:18-19.
8. What does 2 Corinthians 9:6-7 indicate about how much we should give?
9. Based on your present giving habits, how much treasure do you have laid up in heaven?
Married since 1983, Steve Atkerson and his wife Sandra have three children, two in college and one married, and two grandchilren. A graduate of Georgia Tech, Steve worked for several years in electronics before enrolling in seminary. While there he served on the part-time staff of a 14,000 member Baptist church. After receiving an M. Div. from Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary, he ministered on the pastoral staff of a Southern Baptist Church in Atlanta with a membership of around 1000. Then in 1990, after seven years in the traditional pastorate, he resigned to begin working with churches that desire to follow apostolic traditions in their church practice. He thus has transitioned all the way from mega churches to much smaller churches. He travels and teaches about the practice of the early church as the Lord opens doors of opportunity. Steve is an elder at a local house church, is president of NTRF, edited Toward A House Church Theology, authored both The Practice of the Early Church: A Theological Workbook and The Equipping Manual, and is editor of and a contributing author to both Ekklesia and House Church: Simple, Strategic, Scriptural.