Christians disagree whether the Old Testament’s commands to set aside ten percent of one’s wealth should be translated as a binding command on Christians to give ten percent to the Church. A slight majority of evangelical leaders surveyed by the National Association of Evangelicals think that tithing is not an explicit requirement for Christians, but almost all would affirm that we are to be good stewards of the resources—including, but not limited to, money—that God has entrusted to us.
Most Christians are at least familiar with the idea of the tithe, even though research suggests that only a small percentage of us actually give 10% or more of our income away. Most think of a tithe as giving a tenth of one’s income for the Church. That would seem to be a reasonable contemporary equivalent to God’s commands to the Israelites to support the Levites, whom God set apart to be responsible for particular religious duties. I think giving at least a tenth of our income to our local churches is a good spiritual discipline, both to support the vital mission of the church and as a check on our own sense of self-reliance and consumerism, to keep our stuff from owning us.
As I read the Old Testament, though, I note that the idea of the tithe was not meant exclusively for the Levites. Deuteronomy 24:18-19 says:
At the end of every three years, bring all the tithes of that year’s produce and store it in your towns, so that the Levites (who have no allotment or inheritance of their own) and the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns may come and eat and be satisfied, and so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.
This triennial tithe was to support the Levites—the religious professionals of the day—but also the foreigners, the fatherless, and the widows, that triad of vulnerable groups that we find referenced together repeatedly in the Old Testament (Ps. 146:9, Zech. 7:10, Ezek. 22:7, Mal. 3:5, Jer. 7:6, Deut. 24:21, to reference just a few). Immigrants, orphans, and widows, of course, are still uniquely vulnerable in many circumstances, but my sense is that many Christians do not think of giving to meet the needs of these groups as a priority. That’s particularly true of the immigrant: as American evangelicals have (thankfully) begun to rediscover the biblical call to care for orphans and widows over the past decade or so, the foreigner seems to have usually been left out of the discussion. That might be because, while we may not always give sacrificially to ensure that their needs are met, orphans and widows are at least categories of people who tend to elicit a sympathetic, compassionate response. Many people’s gut reaction to immigrants, however, is one of fear and loathing.
Perhaps it is time to reconsider how God would have us use our resources to care for those who are foreigners among us. There are many practical needs: additional funding can allow a church to offer a technically excellent English language class that also provides opportunities to build relationships and share the hope of Christ. With staffing expenses covered, churches or other ministries can provide after-school help to immigrant and second-generation immigrant kids, who may need extra help to learn a new language and, for the many that did not have access to quality education in their country of origin, to catch up academically to their classmates.
As a former legal counselor, I’m particularly passionate about seeing churches become trained and legally authorized to provide affordable, competent immigration legal services. World Relief provides regular training and technical support for churches interested in the process of becoming recognized by the federal Board of Immigration Appeals to provide legal services. The demand for immigration legal services is already high, and if—as seems increasingly likely—some sort of immigration reform were to pass through Congress in the coming months, there will be a tsunami of need for authorized, affordable help as once-undocumented immigrants apply for legal status. I’m very concerned that immigrants who qualify may not be able to access these benefits because of a lack of legal resources; I’m even more concerned that the Church will miss out on a God-given opportunity to extend Christ’s love in a very tangible way, welcoming people into the Church in the process. But providing legal services is not cheap: it would take a significant movement of Christians giving generously for the vulnerable members of our communities for whom God commands us to care, and trusting God to provide for their needs.
Last Friday was what has become known as Black Friday, a day when many Americans focus on shopping and consumption. Today is what has become known as Cyber Monday—a day when that consumerism goes online. There’s a movement afoot to make tomorrow Giving Tuesday, a day when Americans focus on giving back. For Christians, that should certainly include supporting our local churches as they pay staff salaries and operational expenses, but I believe it should also mean giving to care for the vulnerable, particularly the fatherless, the widows, and the immigrants—and, when possible, through the local church. There are many options to do so, but I’d commend to you World Relief, to support our mission of empowering local churches to serve the most vulnerable: you can give online at www.worldrelief.org/donate.
Matthew Soerens is the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009) and the US Church Training Specialist at World Relief. His blogs appear here on Mondays.
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