There is a disturbing trend among American Christians of blaming the poor for their condition.
Margaret Poloma and John Green researched the attitudes of AG people toward the poor in 2010 and found the following: 10% of AG congregants believe that the poor and homeless are reaping what they have sowed; 18% of AG congregants feel they cannot truly love a person who does not show gratitude; 15% of AG congregants simply cannot understand how anyone can be homeless; and 19% of AG congregants feel the poor do not deserve help unless they try to help themselves.
There are several ways to foster a more generous attitude toward gifts for the poor, and might be an important dialogue for any team planting or functioning in a Fresh Expression Church.
A first way is to grasp the Old Testament’s teaching about God’s age-old answer for poverty. A second way is to acknowledge Christ’s commitment to respond to the poor and what that speaks to our responsibilities. A third way is to revisit the Early Church’s commitment to alleviate poverty. A fourth way is to study the multiple and interesting responses to poverty throughout church history.
God’s Timeless Plan
There are over 2,300 verses in Scripture that encourage us to respond to the poor. Many are directly connected to the tithing principle. Tithing into poverty has its beginnings in the Law of Moses in Deut 14:28, 29:
At the end of every third year, bring the entire tithe of that year’s harvest and store it in the nearest town. Give it to the Levites, who will receive no allotment of land among you, as well as to the foreigners living among you, the orphans, and the widows in your towns, so they can eat and be satisfied. Then the Lord your God will bless you in all your work.
There are three points in this command we need to consider if we are going to appropriately grasp the idea of tithing into poverty.
First, one-third of the tithe was to be given to the marginalized, and it is considered a tithe.
Second, the spiritual leaders were to be numbered among the poor and taken care of from the same funds that were gathered for the poor. This indicates that God wanted His servants to always be in close proximity to the poor.
Third, this tithe comes with a promise that a person’s work will be blessed; the other forms of tithe do not reveal such a generous promise. Twelve chapters later we find the command to tithe into poverty repeated again in Deut 26:12-13:
Every third year you must offer a special tithe of your crops. In this year of the special tithe you must give your tithes to the Levites, foreigners, orphans, and widows, so that they will have enough to eat in your towns. Then you must declare in the presence of the Lord your God, ‘I have taken the sacred gift from my house and have given it to the Levites, foreigners, orphans, and widows, just as you commanded me. I have not violated or forgotten any of your commands.
Another important point surfaces in this verse as the tithe into poverty is referred to as the special tithe. In other words, it is given a primary designation that makes it the special portion of the sacred tithe. If someone wanted to neglect the tithe, it would not be advisable to skip this part of it. The tithe into poverty was clearly the highest form of tithing in the Mosaic Law.
A Promise With Incentive
It is accurate to assume that tithing into poverty became a clear understanding in Judaism. Jews would know that the tithe into poverty was one of the 613 commands that underscored Judaism and would strive to keep it. It is understandable why it would show up in Solomon’s writings in Proverbs 19:16-17: “Keep the commandments and keep your life; despising them leads to death. If you help the poor, you are lending to the Lord—and he will repay you!”
This promise of repayment for lending to the poor is connected to a verse underscoring the commandments of the Law. What is even more interesting, however, is how significant of a promise is offered.
When we give our tithe to the poor we will be repaid. Other verses regarding tithing promises blessing and favor, but this one promises repayment from God himself. This larger promise parallels the increased reward found in the tithing into poverty institution verse in Deuteronomy.
Clearly stated, God’s age-old plan for the poor was the tithe into poverty, and He punctuated its importance by attaching the largest reward He has ever offered—direct repayment.
We again see the tithing into poverty concept in the writings of the prophets. With the Law being central to Israel’s worship and the tithe into poverty being included in the understanding of the whole tithe, the prophets were harsh when the people abandoned those directives. The best example is found in the oft-quoted words of the prophet Malachi in Mal 3:5-11:
At that time I will put you on trial. I am eager to witness against all sorcerers and adulterers and liars. I will speak against those who cheat employees of their wages, who oppress widows and orphans, or who deprive the foreigners living among you of justice, for these people do not fear me,” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies. “I am the Lord, and I do not change. That is why you descendants of Jacob are not already destroyed. Ever since the days of your ancestors, you have scorned my decrees and failed to obey them.
Now return to me, and I will return to you,” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies. “But you ask, ‘How can we return when we have never gone away?’ “Should people cheat God? Yet you have cheated me! “But you ask, ‘What do you mean? When did we ever cheat you?’ “You have cheated me of the tithes and offerings due to me. You are under a curse, for your whole nation has been cheating me.
Bring all the tithes into the storehouse so there will be enough food in my Temple. If you do,” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, “I will open the windows of heaven for you. I will pour out a blessing so great you won’t have enough room to take it in! Try it! Put me to the test! Your crops will be abundant, for I will guard them from insects and disease. Your grapes will not fall from the vine before they are ripe,” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies.
Here again the themes of responding to the poor and the tithe are bonded together in the prophet’s words. Also, the promise of extraordinary repayment is restated.
Gods tithing plan for the poor is actually a very effective worldwide solution, even in this day with our vast impoverished populations. World Vision estimates that the worst of the world’s poverty could be solved for a price tag of $65 billion per year.
If all American churchgoers tithed, beyond the 2% the average Christian is tithing presently, it would equal an increase of $168 billion.
This increase is three times more than what is needed to solve the worst of the world’s poverty.
It is remarkable to think that if just the American Church followed God’s age-old plan of tithing into poverty, the worst of world poverty could be eliminated not to mention what could be accomplished when added to the tithing of the rest of the Christians in the world. Beyond that, tithing into poverty is the most profound funding for churches and fresh expressions of church that feel sent to the lower-third of America’s population. Tithing into poverty is still a potent and effective answer to our world’s greatest poverty problems and the churches that live to lift the lost, the last, the least, and the left-behind.
Dr. Verlon and Melodee Fosner have led a multi-site Assemblies of God dinner church in Seattle, Washington since 1999 (www.CommunityDinners.com). They joined the FX team in 2016 and founded the Dinner Church Collective. In this decade when more churches in the U.S. are declining than thriving, and when eighty churches a week are closing, Verlon and Melodee sensed that a different way of doing church was needed for their 85-year old Seattle congregation. It soon became obvious that they were not the only ones in need of a different path. There is a lot to be gained when church leaders begin to see open doors in the American landscape that they had previously overlooked. Therein lies the journey for those who will forge a new future for the American Church.