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2 Corinthians 8 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

Guidelines for Giving

Most of us, I daresay, associate the proverb "It is more blessed to give than to receive" with the offering on Sunday morning--even though for Paul (Acts 20:32-35) as well as for Jesus (Mt 10:8) it is a guiding principle for the Christian worker rather than the Christian giver. And while the principle is a helpful one when we consider the matter of financial contributions, questions of how much and to whom are still formidable ones for most Christians.

The Corinthians, to be sure, asked these same questions, and Paul responds with some practical guidelines for giving in 8:11-15. How helpful these guidelines are today will depend on how tied a church is to the legalistic practice of the "tithe." For it is curious that at no point here--or for that matter elsewhere in Paul's writings--is the tithe put forward as a guideline for giving. In fact, no New Testament writer either encourages "tithing" or presents it as the normative or even occasional practice of the church. Yet many of our churches assume that this is the accepted New Testament standard.

Webster's defines "tithe" as "a tenth of one's income given voluntarily for the support of church or religious work." Although we commonly associate the tithe with Israel and Old Testament law, it was widely practiced by other ancient peoples and predates Mosaic times. For example, in Egypt, Joseph's family was required to give too-tentes of their harvest to Pharaoh (Gen 47:24). Samuel warned the Israelites that if they instituted a monarchy like their neighbors, they would have to give a tenth of their flocks and produce to the king (1 Sam 8:10-18).

Under Mosaic law Israel was commanded to give a tenth of its crops, herds, flocks and the fruit of its trees to support the Levites, who had no inheritance of their own (Lev 27:30-32; Num 18:21-24). The tithe was to compensate the Levites for the work that they did while serving at the tabernacle. The Levites, in turn, were required to give a tenth of Israel's tithe to the priests (Num 18:25-29; Thompson 1982:1205). They were permitted to pasture herds in forty-eight designated cities, to which they were forced to return during times of apostasy when the tithes were neglected (Num 35:1-8; Neh 13:10). In postexilic times it was the responsibility of the Levites (rather than the head of each household) to collect the tithe in the towns where they lived and deliver it to Jerusalem (Neh 10:37-39). The Levites were not the only beneficiaries of the tithe. At the end of every three years, the tithe of that year's produce was placed in storage in each town for the alien, the fatherless and the widow (Deut 14:28-29).

Although Jesus refers to the Pharisees' custom of tithing even herbs of the land (such as mint, anise and cumin) while neglecting the weightier matters of justice and love of God (Mt 23:23; Luke 11:42), he nowhere instructs his disciples that this is to be the practice of the church. But then would an Old Testament command tied to a largely agrarian economy and based on a theocratic form of government be applicable to an institution like the local church? The total silence of the New Testament writers in this regard is telling.

This is not to say, however, that support of the Christian worker is abandoned. Paul argues strenuously in 1 Corinthians 9 that Christian workers deserve their wages. But the guidelines for giving that he puts forward are more in accord with a covenant of the Spirit than with a covenant of the letter (2 Cor 3:6).

The standard proffered is, in reality, a higher one than the traditional tithe. In counseling the Corinthians on the question of how much, Paul says that they are to give, in the first place, according to [their] means (8:11). The text is literally "out of that which you have." The implication is clear. We are not called to give or to pledge what we do not have. Contributions are to be based on actual income, not hoped-for windfalls or even anticipated earnings.

Giving is also to be in proportion to our earnings (katho ean echh, v. 12). It is not a fixed percentage but relative proportion that is key. In fact, beyond the tithe of livestock and produce to support the Levites, the standard for Israel's giving was a proportional one. The person with many possessions is to make her gift of alms "proportionately," and the one with few possessions is to give "according to" the little he has (Tobit 4:8). A similar guideline is given in 1 Corinthians 16:2, where Paul instructs the Corinthians that they are to set aside a sum of money each week "in keeping with" their income (literally, "however one has prospered").

Proportional giving actually turns out to be a fairer standard than the traditional tithe. Whereas a fixed 10 percent would most likely be negligible for someone with an income of $100,000, it could well cripple a person with an income of $10,000. This is why Jesus had such high praise for the widow who contributed too small copper coins to the temple treasury. She gave that which provided for her daily necessities ("all she had to live on," Lk 21:4), while the rich contributed out of their surplus. And while both may have given 10 percent, proportionately the widow put in more than all the others combined (Lk 21:3). This accords with Jesus' teaching elsewhere that we are responsible in direct proportion to how God has blessed us: "From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded" (Lk 12:48).

Second, needs are to be met out of a person's surplus, not necessary income (that which one needs for life's basic necessities; v. 14). The Macedonian churches, in giving out of their poverty, were the exception rather than the rule. The norm is the Corinthians' plenty supplying what the Judean churches need, so that in turn their plenty can supply what [the Corinthians] need (v. 14).

Not all agree on what the Judeans' plenty amounts to. The obvious reading is that Paul contemplates the possibility of a reversal of economic circumstances. If this were to happen, then it would be incumbent on the Judean Christians to relieve the want of the Corinthians. For some scholars, however, the possibility of the Judean churches' possessing a material surplus is too remote. Paul is thought to be pointing instead to an existing reciprocity: the Gentile churches supply the mother church with material blessings, while the Jerusalem church provides the Gentiles with spiritual blessings (Nickle 1966:121; Bruce 1971:223). The fact that Paul goes on to cite an Old Testament example of material equality makes the former reading the likely one (v. 15, as it is written: "He that gathered much did not have too much, and he that gathered little did not have too little"). But rather than forecasting a reversal of economic conditions, Paul may be merely pointing to the kind of interdependency that should exist at all times among churches.

Third, there must be a genuine need. But what constitutes a genuine need? Some today think of themselves as needy if they lack private means of transportation or the funds for a college education; or perhaps their earnings fall below the governmental criteria for the poverty level. Paul, on the other hand, defines need as a lack or shortage of life's necessities (1 Tim 6:8). In the first century this amounted to a want of food, clothing or shelter (2 Cor 11:27). Paul himself voluntarily went without such necessities. But in the church such needs are not to go unmet--and not just within the local church. There are relatively few Christians in the Western world who lack such essentials, but in the church worldwide the need is staggering.

In the final analysis, the key to giving lies in the attitude of the heart. In 8:12 and 9:7 Paul employs four adjectives that characterize the attitude that God finds acceptable. It must, in the first place, be a willing gift: if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable (8:12). It is not the amount that counts with God. If a readiness to give is present, then the gift is gladly received, whether it be large or small.

Some years ago a woman was preparing a box to be sent to some missionaries in India. A child gave her a penny. The woman used this penny to purchase a tract for the box. Eventually the tract reached a Burmese chief and was used to lead him to Christ. The chief told the story of his conversion to his friends, many of whom believed. Eventually a church was established and over fifteen hundred people were converted to Christianity. The lesson is plain: no gift willingly given is too small for God to use.

The gift must also not be offered "reluctantly" (literally, "with pain"; 9:7). Nor should it be done "under compulsion"--that is, as though there were no other alternative (9:7). Arm-toisting is a common practice today. Pledge drives too often work this way. Instead of soliciting willing contributions, fundraisers bring to bear external pressure of one kind or another (such as making pledges public and applauding large donations), and people feel forced to give so as not to lose face. This is what Paul was hoping to avoid by sending Titus far enough in advance to allow for the contribution to be willing, not forced.

Finally, the offering that God finds acceptable is one that has been cheerfully given (9:7; hilaros our English term "hilarious"). The cheerful giver is one who is happy to give and gives gladly. The sentiment is an Old Testament one. The last part of the verse is a free quotation of the Greek translation of Proverbs 22:8 (LXX): "God blesses a cheerful and generous person."

The aim of these guidelines is not an exchange of financial burdens. Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, Paul says (8:13). Thlipsis ("hard pressed") is used of pressure of one kind or another, while anesis ("relieved") denotes a relief or relaxation of such pressure. Paul does seek the Judeans' relief from the pressure of being in dire economic straits, but not to the extent that someone else is financially strapped in the process. The objective is, rather, that there might be equality (v. 13).

But what is meant by equality? Is Paul putting forward a kind of biblical socialism, a leveling of rich and poor? Some have mistakenly understood him to be advocating just this. Equality of provision so that there is neither surplus nor deficiency is often taken as the aim (for example, M. J. Harris 1976:370; Barrett 1973:227; Bratcher 1983:89). Yet what Paul suggests as appropriate is equity of basic needs being met, not equality of supply. Isotes ("equality"), found only here and in Colossians 4:1 in the New Testament, denotes what is "equitable" and "fair." So it is equity and not equality that is at issue here. The TEV's "It is only fair that you should help those who are in need" captures the idea.

Paul is not saying that possession of a surplus of material goods is wrong for a Christian. It is actually those who do possess a surplus who are in a position to meet existing economic needs. This is clear from verse 14, where Paul envisions the Jerusalem church's surplus providing for the Corinthians' lack at a future point. On the other hand, for some Christians to be living in luxury while other Christians go without food, shelter or clothing smacks of gross inequity.

To illustrate the need for equity Paul turns to the account of God's miraculous provision of manna in the wilderness (v. 15). As it is written: "He who gathered much did not have too much, and he who gathered little did not have too little." The quote is taken almost verbatim from Exodus 16:18. Moses had instructed the people that they were to go out each morning and gather enough manna for the day's need (v. 16). The Israelites did as they were told: some gathered much, and others gathered little (v. 17). But when it came time to measure by the omer (about too quarts or liters), the person who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little (v. 18).

At first glance the Exodus narrative could be read to say that each Israelite ended up with the same amount regardless of how much or little was gathered. But in fact what the text says is that God made certain that no one had more or less than their fair share ("each one gathered as much as he needed," v. 18). Although the Israelites gathered varying amounts of manna, what they ended up with was the amount that met their individual needs. The key phrase in Exodus 16:18 is "as much as he needed." It is an equity of needs met rather than an equality of supply that the narrative illustrates. Even though some gathered more and some less, the needs of all were fairly met. In the wilderness it was God who ensured such equity. Today it is the responsibility of each believer.

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