A Practical Theology of Christian Giving

by Patrick, Bishop of Southwell

"We love, because He first loved us" is a well known verse from one of St John's letters. It states a basic principle of spiritual life. It is equally true to say "we give because he first gave to us". One of the problems with an affluent and materialistic society is that we begin to take for granted that which we have received through the generosity of God. Is that why the custom of pausing to give thanks for food before eating has become the exception rather than the rule?

In contrast during my travels and life abroad, I have invariably found that the poorest people are the most generous. On a recent trip to Northern Argentina, in a small Indian village of great poverty, the people insisted that I accept their gift of the equivalent of 15 (a fortune to them) to help pay towards the cost of my travel. They were reflecting the character of their gracious and abundantly generous God and Father.

The Giving God

Gloriously wasteful, O Lord, art Thou.
George Macdonald

Christians recognise the generosity of God in the gifts of his creation, his grace in his son Jesus Christ and the presence of his Spirit with us. Firstly, God in his providence creates and sustains us, meeting our material needs through both the created order, and the care of others for us. Secondly, God as crucified and risen Saviour transforms the desires of the heart of all who turn to him in faith and trust. Thirdly, God the Holy Spirit empowers us to respond in practical ways by using all that he has given to us.

Much of everyday life is determined by economics and personal income. As Christians, the use of our money is a profoundly important and practical demonstration of our faith and trust in God. And the way we use our money and resources is a significant sign of our concern for the coming of his kingdom, and the expression of his mercy, justice and love.

The Giving Christian

Where little has been forgiven, little love is shown.
Luke 7:47

Meanness can never reflect God.
Simon Tugwell

As those who know the gifts and extraordinary grace of God, we are accountable to Him for how we use the resources he has entrusted to us. Christians live with four key questions;

  1. If we believe that through the world in which we live, God both meets our needs and gives us all things to enjoy, we are accountable for how we use our resources. How do we use our money to show our gratitude to God?
  2. In the self-giving of Jesus Christ we experience the extraordinary grace of God to remould our innermost being and release our potential. Therefore we ask ourselves - how willing are we to be truly generous in practice?
  3. It is clear from the gospel that Jesus emphasises love of neighbour as care for those in need. How do we use our financial resources to help relieve their suffering and create equal opportunities so they benefit from a comparable standard of living?
  4. Jesus and some of his followers were dependent on the hospitality and generosity of others when they were engaged in ministry. Christians have to ask - how do we resource "the household of God" (Ephesians 2:29) today; its mission, essential maintenance, and full-time workers?

In short, it is clear that our giving will always be a mirror and measure of how much we love God and care for our neighbour (Mark 10:21). It will also reveal the level of our commitment to God's mission in the world through his church.

Spiritual Consequences

Bread for myself is a material problem. Bread for my neighbour is a spiritual problem.
Nicholas Berdyaev

Our giving affects our priorities and relationships.

  1. Our giving is a measure of how much God's love for us in Christ is mirrored in our love for him. St Paul said: "I am putting your love to the test. You know the generosity of our Lord Jesus Christ: he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that through his poverty you might become rich".
  2. The level of our giving is more than a test of our spiritual maturity. It is also an opportunity to show how much we love our neighbour. This is how the early church saw it (e.g. Acts 11:29, Romans 15:26ff and 2 Corinthians 8:4). It was moreover to be a generosity which had equality as its end (2 Corinthians 8:14) or, as we might put it, justice.
Practical Guidelines

We can, of course, acknowledge this without doing anything practical about it. So let me suggest a few guidelines.

  1. The Christian stewardship of money will be concerned with the growth of the Kingdom of God and the proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ. A church which is committed to justice will try unceasingly to redress the inequalities that leave some of the world-wide household of God poor and powerless, both in this country and overseas.
  2. Christian giving will be regular, consistent and proportionate to our income (1 Corinthians 16:2). Tithing, the giving of a tenth in the Old Testament, is a standard that many have found useful as a guide. However it does need to be recognised that it is no real test for the rich. Spontaneous and occasional giving is only adequate to meet the unexpected emergency or opportunity. It is not acceptable as the norm for the regular giving of the people of God.
  3. As with any household, the running costs of a congregation and its buildings, and the support of a Christian minister or worker, call for contributions from all of us who are members - that are ongoing, and are regularly adjusted according to our changing financial circumstances.

Christians who believe in the incarnation, that is that God became man in the person of Jesus Christ, are realists. If every Anglican in the diocese of Southwell were to give between a fifth and a tenth of their income to the local church on a regular basis, the life and work of the church would not only continue without financial embarrassment but flourish and expand in its impact. If that is what we know God wants to happen, then it is up to each of us to respond with warmth, joy and generosity, as we are able.

There are few things worse than a grudging and reluctant donor. In fact, St Paul reminds us - "God loves a cheerful giver" (2 Corinthians 9:7). Such an attitude springs inevitably from a deep awareness of God's overwhelming generosity to us.

Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift.

Patrick, Bishop of Southwell

St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 5th July 1997