Avoiding Tarnished Teaching
By Jon C. Wiebe and Gary G. Hoag – January 2020
How does your church select from the many stewardship curriculums available today? Do you gravitate to what everyone else is using or the one that is the most “successful”? Or, do you have a biblical criteria for your selection?
In 1 Timothy 6:3, the “sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ” are set in contrast to the false teaching linked to money prevalent in Ephesus. In other words, bad teaching in relationship to riches was present in the larger community of faith, and Paul wanted Timothy to be sure to teach only that which was “sound” or consistent with the instructions of Jesus. Most teachers don’t intend to wrongly divide the word of truth. Most just teach what they were taught while others tend to go with what works.
How do we make sure the biblical stewardship instruction we offer is sound? By following a four-point checklist to rightly handle the word of truth when it comes to teaching about money.
1. Avoid sending people to slavery. Jesus never used the “tithe” in teaching his disciples, and neither should we. God owns all of the resources entrusted to us, not merely a percentage. The apostle Paul reminds the Galatians—and us—that if we teach from the Old Testament law, we actually send people to slavery. So, what should we do?
Let’s replace Old Testament “tithe” language with New Testament instructions that encourage grace-filled, Spirit-led participation in proportion to God’s provision.
In the Old Testament law, God’s people were to tithe a percentage. Interestingly, most people today misinterpret the tithe, which referred to a number much larger than 10 percent, as biblical scholar Craig Blomberg states in Heart, Soul and Money: “Those who still think tithes are mandatory normally do not insist on 23.33 percent—10 percent to go to the temple, 3.33 percent to the poor and 10 percent in celebration during festival time.”
In plain terms, we don’t take the Old Testament law and the New Testament gospel of grace and mash them together like peanut butter and jelly. We celebrate that Jesus fulfills the law for us and sets us free with a new commandment to love. His followers show this love through sacrificial giving, which is the only giving celebrated by Jesus with his disciples (Mark 12:41-44). Sadly, the tithe may be the most Galatian-like teaching in the church today and one of the greatest hindrances to grace-filled, Spirit-led generosity.
This is in keeping with Mennonite Brethren theology as we seek to read the Gospels through the lens of the Sermon on the Mount, the rest of the New Testament through the lens of the Gospels and the Old Testament through the lens of the New Testament.
To summarize this first point, here’s a rule of thumb to remember: Watch out for teaching that employs Old Testament law language and that focuses on percentages. Why? Our participation in the form of giving is proportionate in the New Testament. Be wary of law language, otherwise you too may send others to slavery.
2. Steer clear of prosperity gospel. Biblical scholars work to ensure that biblical texts are understood properly in their context so the applications that readers draw from them are accurate. If we read texts out of context, we will likely come to the wrong conclusions. When numerous Old Testament promises linked to God’s material provision are applied incorrectly to current contexts, the result is teaching known as prosperity gospel.
Prosperity gospel emerges when we misapply Old Testament texts and simultaneously ignore New Testament teaching. We get into trouble when we affix Old Testament covenant promises for ancient Israel to ourselves in our modern settings. While they may teach us much about God, in taking them out of context we are mixing up the message. Such teaching does not, in fact, reflect the gospel or sound words of Jesus Christ.
A flavor of prosperity gospel prevailed in Ephesus in the first century. Ephesus was the financial capital of the world, and the wealth of the nations was stored in the temple to Artemis. In that setting we could say it paid to be godly, as supporters of the goddess benefited from their pious service. Paul directs his letter to Timothy to this setting and helps him understand that there is great gain in godliness with contentment (6:6) because the purpose of God’s provision is not simply prosperity or “enjoyment” (6:17) but also generous sharing (6:18-19).
Here is a guideline to help you be sure not to misread the Scriptures: Be on guard for teaching that takes Old Testament covenant promises for Israel out of context and misapplies them to modern settings, while also understanding Old Testament wisdom literature not as prescriptive ways to manipulate God but as descriptive explanations to help us understand God’s instructions linked to his abundant provision.
3. Don’t just teach stewardship material because it works culturally. One of our biggest concerns regarding the state of stewardship instruction in the church today is that it focuses on the symptom rather than the root problem. Specifically, the aim is to set people free from being slaves to debt, but rarely is the sin problem addressed, namely, the love of money.
Research studies reveal that most stewardship instruction comes from boxed programs which based on further exploration appear to work culturally but are not sound when analyzed biblically. One prominent church financial program promotes the saying, “Live like no one else so that you can live like no one else” in encouraging Christians to build wealth here on earth. Really? How about a youth curriculum that asks, “Do you want to be a millionaire?” This clashes with the words of Jesus in Matthew 6:19-21.
Is Jesus trying to bankrupt us with his financial advice which makes no sense culturally for ancient or modern readers? The irony is that he is not trying to make sense in the economy of this world. In the Sermon on the Mount, we see Jesus inviting people to grasp life in the kingdom not linked to money but to God. In his kingdom, followers don’t worry about even the basic necessities but rather seek God first and go to him when they need something.
The makers of such church financial programs describe “building wealth” as good stewardship. While this advice may reflect good stewardship instruction, culturally speaking it conflicts with biblical teaching. In other words, people who live on less than they make and build wealth for themselves may be celebrated as good stewards in the modern world, but Jesus calls such people “fools” (Luke 12:13-21). Of course, some giving is encouraged in these boxed programs but not at the level Jesus instructs.
Should we use such curricula in our churches to help people with debt problems? Undoubtedly! People who have never received instructions on living on less than they make should learn basic budgeting as a facet of stewardship. However, if leaders do not address the “love of money” root problem, all efforts will have no lasting kingdom impact.
I (Gary) can testify to this point because it reflects my journey. I followed the cultural teachings to the letter and found myself a greedy lover of money who was ignoring the teachings of Jesus and stockpiling for myself. The culture told me that because I earned it,
it was mine, and I should keep it for myself
to secure my future. Regrettably, I believed these lies and my actions revealed this. I had to repent.
I (Jon) am a natural “follower of the law.” It is how I’m wired. As a young adult, I wanted to know how much I should give—and how much I got to keep. I had questions about tithing off of the net or the gross. It wasn’t until I connected generosity with my heart for worship that I was able to give freely and begin to break my love of money.
When cultural practices, even within the church, are inconsistent with New Testament teachings or cause us to ignore Jesus, we must repent and change directions. Why? In the words attributed to Augustine, “If we believe what we like in the gospels and reject what
we don’t like, it is not the gospel we believe but ourselves.” Many God-fearing Americans are playing the rich fool and their financial practices reveal their trust is ultimately in themselves.
So, what should we do? Don’t use boxed programs just because they work as they may be promoting cultural rather than biblical values. Instead, be sure your stewardship teaching addresses the root sin issue of the love of money and not just the symptom, slavery to debt. The best way to do this is to read what Jesus said, look at how the early church obeyed and follow the example of the first disciples.
4. Teach and model Jesus’ words in relationship to money to unleash generosity. Since the New Testament has much to say about money, the best advice for encouraging Christian generosity is to read Jesus’ instructions and do what he says. Statistics show that when pastors teach and model these truths, their congregations grow in the grace of giving.
From a big picture perspective, Jesus’ teachings proclaim that God is the source of everything we need, which is why people can enjoy his provision, share it with others in need and put it to work on mission. When his followers obey his instructions, they learn that God, not money, is what they need.
Christ’s followers in the world of the New Testament taught and lived this way. They depended on God for everything. They called for cheerful giving, never out of compulsion but to maintain a posture of freely giving and receiving. When the early church lived this way, it celebrated the grace and generosity of their Provider and brought glory to him. Hopefully, this four-point checklist will help ensure that we are raising disciples in this modern era who bring the same glory to him.
Gary G. Hoag serves as president and CEO of Global Trust Partners, the international entity launched by ECFA. GTP multiplies disciples of faithful administration and mobilizes peer accountability groups to increase gospel participation in every nation. He’s an ordained minister who trains pastors on stewardship and generosity, a biblical scholar who serves as a visiting professor at seven seminaries in four countries and an author who has written or contributed to more than 10 books. Hoag will be speaking at Gathering 2020, the USMB convention to be held this summer in the Kansas City area.
Jon C. Wiebe has served the U.S. Mennonite Brethren national stewardship ministry, MB Foundation, as president and CEO for over 21 years. MB Foundation provides assistance with charitable giving, fund management, ministry loans and champions biblical stewardship. He is a licensed minister who loves to help individuals and organizations honor God with their money.
This article originally appeared in Christian Leader January 2020