Tithing and the Mission of the Church
A. Sin and the human vocation
We are in the Octave of All Saints. All Saints is a sort of “catch-all” feast for unknown holy people who don’t have their own day. However, since we are all called to be saints (1 Corinthians 1:2), it is, prophetically, our own feast day. The “multitude which no man could number of all nations, and kindreds, and peoples, and tongues” (Revelation 7:9) is a timeless vision of all who persevere in faith through tribulation and stand victorious before God’s throne.
This is, “The Communion of the Saints;” the fellowship of all who are bound together in Christ through the Spirit. It consists of all believers, whether they are currently living in the body or in the intermediate state, awaiting the resurrection. The restoration of our relationship with God in Christ necessarily restores us to union with all who belong to him.
Sin severed our union with God; but is also alienated us (and continues to alienate us) from each other. After the original sin, the next sin was that one human being killed another—a murder that was a result of offerings made to God. Cain made an offering that was rejected by God. Abel made an offering that was accepted. For that reason, Cain killed Abel (Genesis 4:1-8). In Christ, this pattern is reversed. When we turn from sin and put our faith in Jesus, our offering is accepted; and, rather than killing each other, we are reconciled and learn to work for one another’s good.
Redemption in Christ restores us to the vocation that we lost through sin. We were made to be priests and kings of the creation. We were made to take the creation that God gave us and offer it back to God in thanksgiving; and we were made to rule over the creation righteously. The paradox is that only when we give the creation back to God as an offering in thanksgiving—only when we let go of the creation—do we fully possess it and rule over it. When we hold on to the creation, it becomes an idol, and it rules over us.
B. The story of Cain and Abel and its implications.
Let us look at the story of Cain and Abel. Genesis tells us, “In the process of time it came to pass that Cain brought an offering of the fruit of the ground to the Lord. Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat. And the Lord respected Abel and his offering, but He did not respect Cain and his offering.” (Genesis 4:3-5).
The language of Genesis 4 suggests the problem. Abel offered the first and best of his flock. In the Bible, the first and best represents the whole. By this offering, Abel exercised his priestly duty. He took what God had given him and he offered it back to God in thanksgiving. God accepted Abel and his offering. Cain brought “an offering.” Cain knew he was supposed to give, but did not want to; so he brought something he thought he could spare. This attitude is a consequence of the fall. Fallen man says of the creation, “This is mine.” He clings tightly to the creation as though he were the owner and not a steward; as though it was a possession and not a gift. As Hebrews says, “By faith, Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he received approval as righteous, God bearing witness by accepting his gifts” (11:2).
Throughout the Bible, the righteous follow in Abel’s footsteps by giving back to God the first and best of what God gives to them. The first and best is represented by the tithe. Abraham tithed to Melchizedek (Genesis 14:18-20). Jacob made the following vow to God: “Of all that thou givest me I will surely give the tenth to thee” (Genesis 28:20-22). Various tithes were established in the Torah, the chief of which went to support the ministry of the Priests and Levites in the temple (Leviticus 27:30-32). At the end of the Old Testament, when the temple languished because Israel neglected to tithe, God accused his people of robbing him. God promised that if his people would repent and give the tithe he would pour down his blessing upon them (Malachi 3:8-12). In the New Testament Jesus criticized the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees, but he commended their meticulous practice of tithing (Matthew 23:23). It is the will of God that the ministry of the church, which is the temple of the Holy Spirit and the successor to the Old Testament temple, be supported by the tithes of the people of God.
C. Tithing and trusting God.
We tithe when we take the income God gives to us and give the first tenth as an offering to God. The tithe should be the first check we write. This is how we imitate Abel and offer God our first and or best. This is one way we fulfill our vocation as priests of the creation.
Some will say, “I can’t afford to tithe.” Of course, this is literally false; the first and best are always there to give. What this really means is, “I am afraid that if I tithe I won’t have enough left over for the rest of my needs.” This is precisely what makes the tithe an expression of faith. We give God the first and best trusting that God will make the rest sufficient to meet our needs. As Hebrews says, “Without faith it is impossible to please [God], for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him” (Heb 11:6).
God’s faithfulness is illustrated by the story of the prophet Elijah and widow of Zarephath. During a severe famine, God sent Elijah to the widow to ask for food. She told Elijah that she only had a little food. She was about to prepare for herself and her son as a sort of last meal before they died of hunger. Elijah told her, “Do not fear; go and do as you have said, but make me a small cake from it first, and bring it to me; and afterward make some for yourself and your son. For thus says the Lord God of Israel: `The bin of flour shall not be used up, nor shall the jar of oil run dry, until the day the Lord sends rain on the earth.’” 1 Kings tells us, “She went away and did according to the word of Elijah; and she and her household ate for many days. The bin of flour was not used up, nor did the jar of oil run dry, according to the word of the Lord which He spoke by Elijah” (1 Kings 17:8-16). The widow gave first to God, and the rest was made sufficient to meet her needs.
D. The corporate dimension of tithing.
The mission of our church is, “To follow Christ, to worship God every Sunday in his church, and to work and pray and give for the spread of his kingdom” (BCP p. 291) This means that it is the mission of each of us to use our gifts in service, take our part in church’s life of prayer and support the church with our tithes—and with other offerings as we are able.
Our participation in the mission of the church is not just for our own benefit; it is our part of the mission and work of the church. If any of us fails to do our part, the mission of the church is less powerful than it ought to be. The church is the army of God; if any soldier in God’s army does not man his post and fulfill his calling, we are less able to fight and conquer the enemy.
People sometimes ask how they can help the church; they are looking for some special thing they can do. However, what they church really needs is not so much the periodic act of heroism; what the church really needs is for all of its members to be committed to our mission; to be faithful in the regular habits of following Christ, worshiping God and working, praying and giving for the spread of his kingdom.
Ordinary faithfulness makes people heroes in the church. What God has done through the ministry of St. Matthew’s Church has been made possible by those who have been faithful, year in and year out, to take their part in our mission. This is particularly true with regard to money. We have always been able to do more than what our size would suggest because so many of our people have been faithful in their tithing. We have often had year-end deficits erased by people who experienced financial blessing from God and, as always, were faithful to give. Expansion of our ministry has been made possible by new people who join us and begin to support our ministry with their tithe.
We are committed as a church to mission. We believe that God is calling us to reach out beyond ourselves and share with others what God has given to us. A church that merely wants to survive—that merely wants to pay the bills for another year—might sustain itself with an offering of some of the left over grain. But a church with a mission, the army of God dressed for battle, requires our first and our best, our tithe.
Think of the church as a canoe and of each member as an oarsman. When all row in harmony, the mission of the church moves forward efficiently and effectively. When some choose not to row, others have to row harder to make up for those who do not row. When some are difficult, others have to row harder to make up for the oars that are dragging in the water. As we begin to plan for next year, we are asking all of our members to get on board and row with us. We believe is calling us to do great things. The more people who get on board and row with us, the more people who work and pray and give for the spread of the kingdom, the greater will be the works that God will do through us.
P.S. A note on pledge cards. Pledge cards provide an estimate of our tithes for the year to help the vestry in the process of budgeting. If circumstances change, one’s pledge/tithe will also change. For example, if you lose your job during the year, your pledge would obviously be reduced—a tithe of 0 is 0! Conversely, if your income is greater than anticipated, your pledge/tithe would increase. The pledge cards let us know that people are on board with us and are committed to our mission.