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Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 04/06/1997
We saw last time that the Bible upholds private property on the grounds of creation and stewardship; that for the Christian property is a synonym for responsibility, the sphere in which he exercises his stewardship, the godly dominion of Gen. 1:26-28; that therefore stealing is wrong because I should not usurp responsibility God has given to another; that the human drive to accumulate wealth therefore flows from our identity as created in the image of God for responsibility, and is therefore not wrong in itself, except when it is pursued selfishly rather than for the glory of God and the advancement of his kingdom. Because the Christian's relationship to wealth is tied so intimately to our identity as human beings, this is a large field of study, and deserves at least one more week. Therefore, today I would like to examine two special kinds of theft which are somewhat controversial and often badly misunderstood.
Should a Christian accept or pay interest on investments or loans? American Evangelicals hardly ever ask this question, but in many countries it is a live issue. For on the surface, it would seem that charging interest is condemned by Scripture. "You shall not charge interest to your countrymen: interest on money, food, or anything that may be loaned at interest. You may charge interest to a foreigner, but to your countryman you shall not charge interest, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all that you undertake in the land which you are about to enter to possess" (Deut. 23:19020). Trying to apply that command literally in a modern economy based on investment banking would be an interesting exercise indeed!
In the Middle Ages, this teaching was combined with Aristotle's analysis to create a rationale for avoiding interest that still resonates with many European believers. (Not that it stops most of them from participating in their economy, but it does make them uneasy about it.) Aristotle taught that money was barren, and that for it to multiply without labor was unnatural. Therefore, the consensus of the Medieval Church was that all interest--known as "usury"--was evil.
But a closer study of Scripture reveals that this conclusion was superficial. Other OT passages show that the basic purpose of loans in the OT economy was for poverty relief (Ex. 22:25, Lev. 25:35-38). If you lend money to the poor, you shall not act as a creditor, i.e., charge them interest. In the agrarian economy of ancient Israel, a loan was not so much a business investment as a form of poverty relief, often in the form of advanced wages. In such a circumstance, one is to give the poor a break by providing an interest-free loan. But it was OK to charge interest to Gentiles. (This is why so many Jews went into banking in the Middle Ages--they were the only ones who could! Then, because they were the only game in town, they could get away with exorbitant rates. So ironically, people like Shylock came to be bitterly resented by the very society that had created them.) Then in the NT, the parable of the Talents says that the last servant should at least have put his master's money in the bank to collect the interest rather than burying it (Lk. 19:23-24).
Why is at least some interest legitimate? Because to loan money is to lose money otherwise. Even if the whole debt is repaid, it is in dollars that are worth slightly less than the ones originally given, due to inflation. So to keep the lender from taking a loss, compensating him with interest that matches the inflation rate is simply equitable. And if he is to make a living by loaning--if we want capital to be available for purchases like a home or a car, for example--then he needs to charge a bit more than the inflation rate for the use of his money. Interest only becomes "usury"--a form of stealing--when it is exorbitant or is used manipulatively (as in fact it often is--by loan sharks and credit card companies, for example.) Yet Scripture does not seem to have a problem with interest as such.
What are the practical implications of this discussion? First, that perhaps our most basic form of poverty relief should not be an outright gift but an interest-free loan. Alms dehumanize the recipient and promote dependence on the dole. (You couldn't afford to give the poor outright what they really need anyway.) But a loan to help someone get back on his feet, maybe start a business, which he will later repay, preserves his dignity. Waiving the interest gives help you can afford, and the whole relationship then promotes responsibility rather than merely enabling more dependence.
I knew a couple who did this in a very practical way. They once received a windfall and, as they did not need it, decided to give it to the Lord. But they realized that if they gave it away, it would be used once and disappear. So they set up a bank account, and made interest-free loans out of it to people in need--a poor family that needed a repair to house or car and didn't have the money, college students needing to pay their tuition, etc. As these loans were repaid, the money funneled back into the account to be used to help others. And since they were making interest on the money while it was in the account, that offset the loans that did not get repaid, and even enabled the fund to grow slowly so that they could do even more good with it. For twenty years, until they died, that money kept helping people. Maybe Moses knew what he was talking about when he gave us the OT Law! I would suggest that we should consider Stan and Virginia's approach and that more Christians who have means should take them as role models.
Second, since interest in a business transaction or investment is not inherently wrong, Christians should take advantage of it and their financial strategy should be investment oriented. Let's build the supply of capital controlled by godly men and women for godly purposes! That is simply good stewardship. How do we do it? Start somewhere. Avoid foolish debt, especially credit-card debt. Be patient. Where it is feasible, save up for purchases rather than borrowing for them. (This should be achievable for almost everything except a house, or maybe at first a car--and eventually for those items too.) That way, we will be receiving the interest rather than paying it out. That way, the Lord's money entrusted to us will increase, and with it our potential to do good. John Wesley's financial advice remains good, sound, and biblical: "Make all you can; save all you can; give all you can."
What about all the Scriptural warnings to the rich about the deceitfulness of riches? Take them to heart! Scripture presents both sides of the "coin," as it were. We are stewards of God's wealth. To spend His money foolishly on selfish indulgence or on unnecessary or exorbitant interest is in effect to steal from Him.
Tithing is not mentioned in the Ten Commandments except by implication, as the Eighth Commandment invites us to consider how we relate to the material things God has entrusted to our stewardship. Does that make it part of the Ceremonial Law, no longer binding on NT believers? Two facts suggest that the answer is "No." First, the NT never overturns the principle of tithing, and what references there are seem to uphold it. The Pharisees ought to have done it while not neglecting the weightier matters (Lk. 11:42), and Paul uses the OT practice to justify NT ministers making their living by the Gospel (1 Cor. 9:13-14). Just as importantly, in the OT tithing actually occurs before the Law of Moses was ever given. Abraham paid a tithe of the spoils of battle to Melchizedek in Gen. 14:18-20. So it would seem that the basic principle of setting aside a tenth of our income for the support of the Lord's work is still in effect. Those who do not tithe, sin. By ignoring God's instructions for how he wants us to manage the money with which He has entrusted us, in effect we steal from Him (Mal. 3:8).
How is the tithe to be computed? Here is where Legalism rears its ugly head. Many who speak very dogmatically do not even understand how the OT tithe worked. There were in fact three separate tithes in the OT. First is the basic Tithe (Num. 18:21). Ten per cent was set aside for the basic maintenance of the Temple services and the priesthood. That would correspond to our support of the local church today. But then there is the Rejoicing Tithe (Deut. 14:22-26). Because all Israelite males had to show up at the Temple in Jerusalem three times a year for the major feasts, they were instructed to budget ten per cent of their income, set it aside, so that when the time for those trips came they would be able to make them without financial hardship. When they got to Jerusalem, they were to spend it for whatever they wanted so they could enjoy the feast and have a good time! Perhaps setting aside money so that we can make short-term mission trips or attend our denomination's national and regional meetings as delegates from our local churches would be a good contemporary application of this tithe. Finally, there was the Poor Tithe (Deut. 14:28), which funded the nation's poverty relief program. As this was collected every third year, you would need to set aside about three per cent a year to be ready to pay it. The total OT tithe then amounted to a whopping 23 per cent, ten percent of which you got to spend on yourself, and 13 per cent of which you gave away.
OK, then, how much should we give? The first thing I want to say is, "What is the spirit in which you ask this question?" To see what you can get out of, or to discern God's will? I care a whole lot more about how you answer this question than I do about your actual figures and percentages. Paul's statement that God loves a cheerful giver (2 Cor. 9:7) tells me that our Father does too.
Having said that, I'm not going to give you a formula. But I will mention some considerations that I think are relevant as you make this decision before God. First, it seems to me that a rigid application of the OT figures misses the point. For the Israelites, the three tithes were basically their tax structure. We have a huge chunk of our earnings removed before we even see them, and God understands that our situations are not parallel. But I do think we should pay close attention to the basic principles and purposes of giving that were so wisely codified by Moses for those living in OT Israel.
One phrase I often hear is well meaning but definitely wrong: "The first tenth belongs to God." Now, that is simply heretical. The whole 100 per cent belongs to God, and He has given us some very specific guidelines about how He wants us to manage it for Him, which includes what we are to do with that particular tenth.
Someone says, "Let's not be legalistic about it." I agree. If you give more than ten per cent, God will forgive you! Seriously, I find it incomprehensible that NT believers, with all the privileges we enjoy under the Gospel, would WANT to give less than the OT saints to whom these blessings were only promised. Our question should not be, "How much can I get away with keeping," but "How much can I afford to give?" For me personally, ten percent is a conveniently good starting point. I take that amount off the top of my net income and give it to my local church, and then try to always do a little bit more, for missions, other worthy projects, or needy brothers and sisters.
If you say, "I can't afford to give," I simply don't believe you. We have always taken our tithe off the top of whatever God gave us, and then made our lifestyle decisions based on the rest. And we did it during some times of pretty severe poverty, too. God never let us starve. And, by the way, if you can't give it joyfully, forget it (2 Cor. 9:7). To give grudgingly is spiritually the same as not giving--it is the same sin. Church Treasurer looketh upon the outward balance, but God sees the heart. A spiritually healthy Christian WANTS to support the Lord's work out of the double motive of gratitude for all that Christ has done for him and love that wants to see ministry able to happen. He gives joyfully as a privilege, and wishes he could do more.
Finally, what about "Storehouse Tithing?" This is a big issue among some of our Baptist brethren. They base it on Mal. 3:10, "Bring ye all the tithes into the Storehouse." What they derive from this is that we ought to give our whole tithe and all our offerings to the local church, which can then distribute it as it sees fit. Frankly, this is just a cynical way of trying to use guilt to keep conservative money in liberal churches and seminaries or colleges that don't deserve it, or of amassing power to the local pastor and board of deacons. It has nothing to do with Malachi at all. For his emphasis is not on the storehouse but on the whole tithe (on which people at that time were skimping), and the OT storehouse is not equivalent to the NT local church anyway. The principle of stewardship means that you are responsible for managing the wealth God gives you. Apostate churches--which would include churches that support apostate colleges and seminaries--are not eligible to receive that tithe in the first place. If God wants us to tithe in the context of stewardship, that means we have a responsibility to belong to a church to which we can tithe in good conscience in the first place. We should not therefore be diverting money elsewhere because we do not trust how the church will spend it. If we are, that is a good sign that it is time to find another church. For we do have a responsibility to support the local church. But if we direct some of our giving directly to other ministries too, for proper motives, that is between us and the Lord. Nothing in Scripture says that we should let the local pastor and deacons take over our stewardship for us.
We have viewed property in terms of the Christian's identity as created in the image of God for dominion over the works of His hands, so that property is that chunk of creation over which the believer is individually so responsible. To usurp another's responsibility or to shirk one's own is theft. To exercise responsibility for God's glory is fulfillment. In that context, tithing should not be seen as a burden but as a guideline to help us manage God's money with which we are entrusted, to manage it in such a way as to bring His blessing to us and to others. If we fail to do it in the right spirit, we steal then not only from God but from ourselves. Let gratitude to Him, love of the brethren, and compassion for lost sinners be the motive of all.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams