With regular tithing included in so many church membership covenants, should pastors/elders hold members accountable to giving?
Here are a few thoughts . . .
Biblical observation 1: We should instruct the congregation as a whole to give (see 2 Cor. 8-9; 1 Cor. 9:14), but we cannot require it of any individual, say, by threatening them with excommunication. After all, people should give “not reluctantly or under compulsion,” but cheerfully (2 Cor. 9:7). We cannot compel them.
Biblical observation 2: The New Testament does not establish a precise percentage for how much people should give, as the Old Testament does in various places. Instead, it offers these “how much” principles: (i) “in keeping with your income” (1 Cor. 16:2); (ii) “with rich generosity . . . beyond their ability . . . excel in this grace of giving” (2 Cor. 8:2,3,7). These two things stand in meaningful tension. On the one hand, we should remove the burden of false guilt and man-made law and let people make reasonable calculations about how much they are able to give while still taking care of their other God-assigned stewardships. On the other hand, we should generally encourage people to be generous and to trust God with their financial welfare.
Pastoral application 1: I don’t have the ability to determine if an individual is sinning or acting by faith in how much or how little he or she is giving. I don’t have X-Ray eyes that see into the heart, nor do I have heaven’s calculator that is able to assess all the variables of a person’s circumstances, income, debts, costs, opportunities, and so forth in order to prescribe for them the way of righteousness and wisdom in their offering-plate check.
Pastoral application 2: Certainly we should preach about giving to the congregation as a whole from the pulpit.
Pastoral application 3: I think it’s acceptable, even good, to occasionally ask members about their giving in the course of one-on-one discipleship. But I would not treat that question specially, and I would probably only do it in the context of asking a person about other areas of their life: “How do you feel like you’re doing spiritually? Times of prayer good? Battles against lust? Time with your kids? How’s giving and generosity going? Relationships at work?” In other words, in my pastoral care for members of the church, I should be interested in whether or not Jesus has been crowned as Lord in every area of a person’s life, including their bank account, but not in a way that’s distinct from any other area.
Pastoral application 4: I will ask such a question (as well as questions about other sensitive ares, e.g. lust) always gauging the amount of trust and built-up capital I have in the relationship. Generally speaking, I need to sense that the person is both teachable and trusts me before I enter into these more sensitive domains. That’s a general rule, not an absolute one.
Pastoral application 5: I don’t think elders should examine the financial records of who is giving, or how much they are giving, for two reasons: First, it will tempt the elders to treat the big givers specially. Second, it’s not pastorally useful. You might see that John Jones is giving what seems like a paltry amount relative to what you assume is his fancy law-firm income. Well, you don’t know all of his circumstances. He might have a good God-fearing reason for giving that amount. Do you really think the New Testament intends for elders to look at the records of every member, and then to ask every member to open their financial books for an elder audit any time something looks suspicious? Or to chase people down like insurance agency fraud investigators? I have a hard time imagining it. Such a pattern would probably sow suspicion, fear, and legalism in the congregation.
Here’s the bottom line: We preach generosity. We disciple carefully, always encouraging people to trust God with their money. But then we leave the details to them and how the Holy Spirit is working in their hearts, knowing that the New Testament treats how much a person gives as a matter of liberty.
Adapted from a post at 9Marks.org