This week we continue in the articles of the Baptist Faith & Message which instruct us in practical matters, looking at Article XIII on stewardship:
God is the source of all blessings, temporal and spiritual; all that we have and are we owe to Him. Christians have a spiritual debtorship to the whole world, a holy trusteeship in the gospel, and a binding stewardship in their possessions. They are therefore under obligation to serve Him with their time, talents, and material possessions; and should recognize all these as entrusted to them to use for the glory of God and for helping others. According to the Scriptures, Christians should contribute of their means cheerfully, regularly, systematically, proportionately, and liberally for the advancement of the Redeemer’s cause on earth.
Genesis 14:20; Leviticus 27:30-32; Deuteronomy 8:18; Malachi 3:8-12; Matthew 6:1-4,19-21; 19:21; 23:23; 25:14-29; Luke 12:16-21,42; 16:1-13; Acts 2:44-47; 5:1-11; 17:24-25; 20:35; Romans 6:6-22; 12:1-2; 1 Corinthians 4:1-2; 6:19-20; 12; 16:1-4; 2 Corinthians 8-9; 12:15; Philippians 4:10-19; 1 Peter 1:18-19.
Of all the practical theology articles, the one on stewardship probably has the highest likelihood of going way off course from what the Bible says, but thankful (surprisingly?) the authors of the BFM 2000 did not take the bait. In fact, at no point has the BF&M ever been constructed too tightly on this matter. I appreciate that, though unfortunately I do not think this is a point that many of our churches have actually taken to heart.
What I mean is this: whenever there is a special need in the church, or even a time for offering, the appeal to the congregation often comes in two unbiblical ways. First, we always put tongue-in-cheek and add the disclaimer that giving is “Only for church members” and that guests should not give (maybe even that they should “offer” their visitors card instead). Clearly we don’t want to impose upon non-believers as their conscience should not be leading them to give seeing as how their conscience is not even leading them to believe, but carrying this out too far simply adds into the consumerist Christianity that is rampant among believers today. Great percentages of people hop from church to church, consuming ministries without ever putting down roots or contributing back in the first dime. People will populate pews and attend classes, and yet will always take this disclaimer as a good enough reason for them not to give. When presented in this way we make giving an offering sound like an idea our individual local church has had and not like a biblical concept promoted for believers throughout Scripture. And particularly in the SBC one will find that a sizable amount of the giving to a local church does not actually stay in the local church, with so many commitments to cooperative programs and new works standing each week. Thus, giving on a Sunday morning is not just lining the pastors’ pockets– it is lining the missions field in places that probably know very little about whatever local body it was that sent money there to support them in the first place.
Second, and more to the point, we speak frequently of the tithe, a tenth of the income that is to be given back to the Lord, and yet, in speaking this way we fail to find any biblical basis for asking for such an offering. Sure, we often point back to Abraham’s giving of a tithe to Melchizedek, but this neglects the context of what the tithe was used for, which is better garnered in Numbers 18.21-24:
To the Levites I have given every tithe in Israel for an inheritance, in return for their service that they do, their service in the tent of meeting, so that the people of Israel do not come near the tent of meeting, lest they bear sin and die. But the Levites shall do the service of the tent of meeting, and they shall bear their iniquity. It shall be a perpetual statute throughout your generations, and among the people of Israel they shall have no inheritance. For the tithe of the people of Israel, which they present as a contribution to the LORD, I have given to the Levites for an inheritance. Therefore I have said of them that they shall have no inheritance among the people of Israel
So the focus of the tithe, the Scriptural recipients, were those within the Levitical priesthood. The tithe served as income for the priests so that they could focus on making sacrifice and intercession for the people while not neglecting to provide for their families. These men were set apart by God from birth to an important position within the sacrificial system and it would not have done to have them splitting their time between the temple and the field or market. Thus the tithe was there to support them.
Unfortunately, for those promoting a tithe today, we no longer have a parallel for the Levitical priesthood in the church. In fact, all believers, through the sacrificial death of Christ and the gifting of the Holy Spirit, are now on par with the Levitical priests, able to interact directly with the one mediator between God and men, that being Jesus (1 Timothy 2.5), and so with the passing of the Levitical priests and the sacrificial system we also see a passing of the requirement for the tithe. Jesus speaks to this in places such as Matthew 23.23 where he displays that, like many other requirements under the law, this call to give a tithe is not really a matter of the letter of the law but of the condition of the heart.
Therefore, when later we interact with Paul, we find him making statements such as, “For if the readiness [to give] is there, it is acceptable according to what a person has, not according to what he does not have” (2 Corinthians 8.12). Too many times this is neglected in the church and instead the fixed concept of a tithe is pushed not as a matter of conviction or proportion, but as a payment into the great debt that we owe God for his blessings, a supremely unbiblical ideology which John Piper refers to as the “debtor’s ethic.” Hopefully this will be one place where we can find our churches coming in line better with the BF&M and avoid promoting their own extrabiblical understanding of the requirements on the New Testament saints.