Saturday, February 12, 2011

Law – Grace – Giving

I’ve been puzzling over the statistics I mentioned in my last post – that the average church contribution is 2.52% of income. A recent Christianity Today article suggests that church contributions are even lower – 2.43%, but evangelical Christians are giving a bit more – 4%.

I’m never sure what definition is used for “evangelical.” If it means someone with a high regard for Biblical authority and the teachings of Jesus, it’s a bit perplexing that the giving would be so low.

I know in some of the churches I’ve attended there’s a discomfort with talk of tithing: it sounds legalistic. And we’re done with the law, right?

Except, in Matthew 5, just after talking about being salt and light, Jesus says, as I noted last week:  “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven." “

So is it law, or grace? And does God want a consistent amount of our money, or an occasional generous impulse?

The best discussion of this I’ve seen is in Erwin Raphael McManus’ An Unstoppable Force: daring to become the church God had in mind. I first picked his book up ten years ago, and have reread it about five times since. It’s one of those books that has repeated underlines, stars in the margins, and the pages are starting to show some wear.

The last chapter is maybe the best: "A Radical Minimum Standard." Discussing the ten commandments, McManus says “They are not the standards by which the angels live. They are not God’s attempt to pull us up beyond the human into the spiritual. The Ten Commandments are the lowest standard of humane living. . .The Ten Commandments don’t call us to the extraordinary spiritual life; they call us to stop dehumanizing one another. The law is the minimum of what it means to be human.”

From there McManus goes on to discuss the relationship between grace and law: grace gives us the ability to live beyond the law: “Grace deals with the generosity of God, his gracious work in the hearts of those who would turn to him. Yet many times grace is misunderstood or even cheapened . . . Grace has been seen as the liberty to live beneath the law rather than the capacity to soar above the law.”

McManus describes a conversation with someone attending a new members’ seminar at his church:

I was sitting on the hearth of the fireplace with an individual who was considering becoming part of    Mosaic. He turned to me and asked if Mosaic was a law church or grace church. It was pretty obvious to me that he was setting a trap, so I thought I would go ahead and jump in. I said, “Well, of course we’re a grace church.” “I thought so,” he replied. “I was concerned that you were one of those law churches that told people they had to tithe.”

“Oh, no,” I said. We’re a grace church. The law says, ‘Do not murder.’ Grace says you don’t even have to have hatred in your heart; you can love your enemy. The law says, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ but grace says you don’t even have to have lust in your heart for another woman. The laws says, ‘Give 10 percent,’ but grace always takes us beyond the law. You can give 20, 30, or 40 percent. We would never stop you from living by grace.”He looked at me and said, “Oh” – a profoundly theological response. (McManus, An Unstoppable Forc)

When we were first married, we read Ron Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, where he described something he called the “graduated tithe,” an intentional strategy to start with giving 10%, then increase the percentage as income increased. He’s offered details on this in several subsequent books, and the idea has been discussed and shared in various contexts.   

More recently, Rick Warren, of Saddleback Church and The Purpose Driven Life, has been talking about “reverse tithing,” giving a higher and higher percentage away until he’s living on 10% and giving away 90%.

We’ve never been as mathematically precise as Ron Sider, and we’ve never made the kind of income Rick Warren is currently enjoying, but we’ve always had a goal of giving more than 10%. Gross or net? We started with net, then were convicted, fairly early in our marriage, that God’s percentage should come before the government’s, and shifted to gross.

We’ve had set-backs along the way, including down-sized salaries, job uncertainty, and lots of college bills. At our best, we were close to 14%. Now? Closer to 12%, and hoping to find a way to grow that.

Why give numbers? To say it can be done. It’s worth doing. Even with ministry salaries. In an uncertain economy.

In 2 Corinthians 8, Pauls sasy: “He who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. So let each one give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity; for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound toward you, that you, always having all sufficiency in all things, may have an abundance for every good work.”

I’d heard the phrase “cheerful giver” more times than I can count. It always set my teeth a little on edge. I don’t like instructions to be “cheerful.” It feels a little forced.

But the following verse? When someone showed it to me a few years ago, I was stunned: all grace? all sufficiency? in all things? That’s a lot of “all”. 

Here’s how I understand that verse: If we give, generously, bountifully, well beyond the letter of the law – not just in money, but in time, in creativity, in love, in hospitality – God will give us everything we need. For every good work. Every time.

Impressive promise, but I’d have to say, in thirty-three years of marriage, we’ve found it to be true.

Now may He who supplies seed to the sower, and bread for food, supply and multiply the seed you have sown and increase the fruits of your righteousness, while you are enriched in everything for all liberality, which causes thanksgiving through us to God.  2 Corinthians 9:10

Please join the conversation. Your thoughts and experiences in this are welcome. Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments.