In the Old Testament, teaching people about giving financially to the Lord’s work was simple—there were express commands dictating when to give and how much to offer, and all the funds went to maintaining temple worship and supporting the Levites. But that system went away with the temple veil, and in its place stands a church that is supported by the generous and sacrificial giving of those that attend.
Which means that it is a basic part of worship to give financially to the church you attend. This is evident in Acts, where corporate worship had giving as a central feature, and it is confirmed throughout the Epistles as well. Thus, giving is a basic discipline of Godliness and the New Testament teaches fundamental principles that should guide how we give. Here are ten of them:
1) Everything you have belongs to God (Psalm 24:1). Your view of your finances is grounded in your view of your own position in Christ: namely, Christians are slaves (Matthew 18:21-35, Mark 10:43-45, Luke 12:43, 19:17, John 13:16, etc. ). Our lives were formerly in bondage to sin, but we were purchased by Jesus, and then acquired by the Holy Spirit. We, along with everything we have, belong to God. We are his slaves, and all we have is his. Thus, when you give to a church or an organization, you are not “giving back to God.” All you have is his already!
2) God is using our possessions to advance the gospel in the world (Luke 16:1-12). While we are slaves of Jesus, our master is not idle. Instead, he is using his servants to do two primary things: build his church, and evangelize the lost. We should view all of our resources through that perspective.
3) In that sense, we are stewards of our master’s resources. We are not anonymous slaves on the fringe of the master’s plan; rather we are all stewards to whom much has been given (Luke 12:48; 1 Cor 4:1-2, 9:17, 1 Pet 4:10). We have a limited freedom (limited by the prohibitions of scripture—in other words, we are not to sin with our money), and we can use our freedom to invest our master’s resources however we see fit. But we know that the money we spend is not really ours, and the day is coming when we will be called to give an account for how we spent it. Remember, what we have is God’s, and he is working through us by how we use it.
4) Thus, our giving should be viewed as investing (Luke 16:1-12; Rom 14:10, 2 Cor 5:10). Knowing that we will be called to give an account for how we spend our money, we should give to ministries that show a return on their investment. We should not fund ministries with vague missions and nebulous results. Rather, we should use our money to make friends in heaven by advancing the gospel on the earth.
5) Our primary giving should be to our local church. In this age of world history, God is advancing his gospel through the work of local congregations. Christians are called to be part of congregations, to use their gifts in those congregations, and to minister to one another in their local church (here are 40 verses that explain that). With that in mind, a believer’s primary ministry is in and through the local church.
6) Giving to the church funds the work of the church. Pastors, especially those who preach and teach, should be paid by the congregation for their ministry (1 Tim 5:17-18). Moreover, the needs of the poor in the community (the church community!—1 Tim 5:3-16) are met by giving to the church. In this way, the congregation partners with the church in the preaching of the word and the ministry to the poor.
7) Giving to the church is the biblical model for mercy ministry and for missions. Paul’s missionary journeys were funded by individuals through their church (1 Cor 9:6-11; Phil 4:16) . In fact Paul makes a point that he never took funds from any individual (2 Cor 11:9). The same is true with mercy ministry. Paul commanded churches to take offerings on the first day of the week (Sunday) for the purpose of ministering to the poor in other churches (1 Cor 16:2-3, 2 Cor 9:5; As a side note, too many American churches abdicate their responsibility to missions, which of course drives Christians to start funding all kinds of missionaries directly—thus the proliferation of mercy ministry networks and missionaries who are doing all kinds of things except being under the authority of a local church).
8) Giving is part of the weekly corporate worship of the church. From the first week of its existence, the church in Acts met for worship by singing, praying, studying the scriptures, keeping the ordinances, and giving (Acts 2:45, 4:32, 5:2). This helps us understand how Paul viewed the principles from 1 Corinthians 9 and 1 Timothy 5 being applied. In both of those passages Paul argues at length for how the church should support the poor who are faithful members of the congregation, and how the church should financially support the pastors. But how? He doesn’t dictate who the offerings should be taken or where the funds come form. But the book of Acts describes the weekly giving of the church, and this explains his command in 1 Corinthians 16:2-3 that an offering should be gathered every week when the church meets.
9) Giving needs to be sacrificial and generous. If a person is in love with money, they are at risk of harming their soul (1 Tim 3:3, 6:10). A person cannot serve both God and money (Mat 6:24, Luke 16:13). If a person thinks that money can procure happiness, then that person doesn’t understand either money or happiness, and they certainly don’t understand the gospel. Thus, being selfish with your money shows that you don’t see yourself as a slave or a steward, and you invite the wrath of God upon you (Mat 18:22-35). Thus, a simple mark of Christian faith is generosity with your money towards your church. This is why God loves a cheerful, sacrificial, and generous giver (2 Cor 9:7).
10) Giving to the church should be your best investment. If you understand 1-9, then hopefully you are at a place where you view yourself as a steward of God’s possessions, and you want to use those possessions to advance the gospel by the means of evangelism, missions, caring for the poor, and the preaching of the word. You understand that how you use your money in this life will be judged by God, and you want to store up for yourself treasure in heaven rather than on earth. You know that the best way to do that is through funding the preaching of the gospel and missions. So now what?
Well, your church should be your best investment. Not only is the church the place God has called you to give as a matter of principle, but beyond that, your church should be doing all of those things better and more efficiently than anywhere else. Your church should be viewing ever dollar spent as an investment from the people who gave it, and they should be using the funds to advance the gospel around the globe, as well as to fill the pulpit with strong teaching. In this sense, giving to your church is the most simple and most efficient way to be a steward of your money. You can’t spend time researching every missionary or every missions agency that asks for money—but your elders can. You can’t go around the world preaching the gospel—but your elders can take your money, and link it with those who do go. You can’t spend all week preparing to preach on Sunday because you have an actual job—but your elders can take your money, and use it to support someone who can. And if your church is not using its money wisely (and by wisely I mean that they are not investing your money in things that bring eternal reward), then it is probably time to find a church that understands their calling. If you can’t trust them with your finances, you certainly shouldn’t trust them with your soul.
Giving in the New Testament was obviously expected to be both systemic (through the church), and sacrificial. And when it is both, it prepares you well for the judgment seat of Christ, where you will be rewarded for how you used your money in this life (2 Cor 5:10; cf. Luke 19:12-26).