You may have noticed that the Saint Francis pledge cards sent to you a few weeks ago are headed by II Corinthians 9:7, “Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” It’s perhaps the most famous passage in the New Testament about giving to God, and it’s a very fitting way to encapsulate one set of reasons why we commit part of what God has given us back to His Church, to use in doing His work.
Saint Paul is identifying giving as a free and loving response to God’s generosity to us. Giving brings us joy because it allows us a stake in the way the good news about Jesus is advancing and changing people’s lives. Giving is a delight, a way to express what is most meaningful in our lives. To fully account for these factors, giving should be without compulsion. We discern carefully the kind of commitment we have been called to make. We place our hearts in the brass collection plate.
The passage is a wonderful summary of one set of reasons why we give.But to assume these are the only reasons we give would be short-sighted, and probably doesn’t do justice to what Saint Paul was really trying to say in II Corinthians.
The famous passage about no compulsion and the cheerful giver comes from a block of teaching that is, by far, the longest discussion of financial giving anywhere in the Bible. But the passage is in the context of a specific kind of appeal, a purse to help the starving Christians of Jerusalem that Saint Paul was gathering from the Gentile churches he had founded throughout the Mediterranean world.
This collection was very important to Saint Paul, and it may well have been an ongoing project for him, as he mentions it in several of his Epistles. For him, it was a symbolic fulfillment of the ancient promise that when God’s rule was fully established, the Gentiles would bring their treasures to the Holy City (Hag. 2:7). It was also a practical way to cement the bonds between Jewish and Gentile Christians that were fraying after a controversy over his evangelization techniques. The Corinthian church had apparently already made a pledge to the campaign, but had fallen behind in keeping it. Saint Paul musters the full range of his rhetorical skills to urge them to complete what they had once resolved to do (2 Cor. 8:10).
When he talks about how the Corinthians’ gifts should be without compulsion and cheerfully offered, in part this is about using the carrot instead of the stick. But he’s also talking about a particular kind of giving, a charitable gift offered by a church for needs beyond its own, what used to be called “benevolence giving.” Saint Paul is not talking about the operational side of church ministry here, the need to support the ministers of the church and the offering of public worship. Saint Paul, who also makes the New Testament’s only arguments in support of a paid clergy (I Tim. 5:18), presumed that his readers would have understood that other forms of giving were also necessary.
Like the Jews of his time, and like nearly all Christians that have followed him since, Saint Paul almost certainly believed that religious giving should fall into two categories, what we might call tithing and almsgiving. Churches sometimes describe their collection time as a gathering of “tithes and offerings,” a reference to this traditional distinction.
Tithes, traditionally understood, are gifts we make out of duty. As we were discussing in our Bible study last Wednesday, the Old Testament law laid out a fairly complicated system of tithes, percentages of income to be paid annually at the temple to support its institutional needs and the economy of Jerusalem. Jesus paid these temple taxes (Matt. 17:24-27), and presumably as a Jew who continued to keep the faith of his ancestors, so did Saint Paul. This notion survives today in the dues that Jews pay to their synagogues, which are regularly assessed as a requirement of membership.
I’ve heard more than one modern Christian appalled by the idea of synagogue dues, but Christians also collected church taxes, usually called tithes, for most of their history. They still do in a few Northern European countries to support the state churches (including in Belgium, the only place I know where the even salaries of Anglican priests are still paid by the state).
Anglican churches in Britain, Wales and Ireland were supported by tithes into the twentieth century, and so were so were the colonial Anglican churches here in Maryland and in several other colonies. Church taxes in colonial Virginia accounted for about a third of the tax burden paid by citizens in the mid eighteenth century. Even after state-enforced church taxes were abolished, most Episcopal churches supported their own operational expenses by renting pews well into the twentieth century. The collection gathered at services was called an “offering,” because traditionally it was all given away by the congregation to help the poor and support the spread of the Gospel.
When St. Thomas Aquinas discusses religious giving in his Summa Theologica, he does it in two different sections: tithes in his treatment of justice, alms in his treatment of charity. We give out of duty, he says, because God is owed a return for the sake of His goodness to us. Our tithes also represent our commitment to the common life of the church, our stake in its necessary work of prayer and proclamation of the faith. Tithes are leveling, each family paying a fixed amount based on its income, its share of the common need.
Almsgiving must, of necessity, be more personal, as we respond to the needs God places before us, what he “puts on our hearts,” as evangelicals often say. Our alms will reflect our own individual experiences and relationships. The church does a good work when it gathers alms and distributes them on behalf of the whole. But we may also give alms in our own ways and to our own causes, as most every Christian I know does. These gifts of passion and delight have the potential to draw us closer to God, as loving acts always do. Perhaps when touch the hands of the beggar, we might also find a new friend.
In modern America, for a variety of reasons good and bad, most churches have conflated tithes and almsgiving. We’ve ended up with a rather muddled picture of what giving should really be about. We also tend to emphasize the personal, “without compulsion” side of the equation, because no one really likes the tax man and the advertisers tell us an appeal to doing your part won’t get a bit of motivation out of anyone born after 1945.
My work as a pastor and my life as a giver has taught me that the distinction is really pretty valuable. There are times when I love to write checks to support good causes, the church primary among them. I give to beggars because I want to look them in the eye, to pray for them and to ask them to pray for me. I’ve seen the lives of parishioners changed by a decision to give from the heart.
But sometimes, frankly, I give out of duty. Our tithe is a fixed percentage of our family’s income to keep us honest, to ensure that our gift for the sake of the church’s common work is a priority for us, not an afterthought. It’s our stake in the common work of proclaiming the Gospel, and that work is frankly more important than my own religious feelings, which rise and fall as feelings always do. For many of the church’s faithful, who are steadfast in making their gifts in good times and bad, when they like and resent what’s happening in the congregation, I know it is much the same.
Giving is a duty and a delight, a blessing to us, to the church, and to the needs of the world. It binds us together and moves our hearts, and, in all ways, draws us closer to Him “from whom all good things come.”