Editor’s Note: Read our other articles in Sow Bountifully: Biblical Principles for a Life of Christ-Centered Giving below!
Sow Bountifully – A New Series on Giving
Live all Your Life in Light of God’s Mercy
Remember Your Provider
Give of Your Firstfruits
Give Cheerfully

In this series we’ve learned that Scripture calls us to give to God a portion of the income that he has enables us to earn or receive from other sources. The Bible also calls us to care for those in financial need. Stewarding our financial resources well so that we can give to God and others is an expression of worship and compassion, and it serves as a means of curbing our natural tendency toward greed. Giving is a vital Christian discipline. 

But we will learn in this article that our giving must never be employed at the expense of wisdom. It is not enough to have feelings of affection for God and others or a mere desire to give to gospel causes. Paul prayed for the Philippians that their love would grow in “all knowledge and discernment” so that they would “approve what is excellent” (Phil 1:9). Our giving, therefore, must be guided by biblical wisdom and not only by our warm feelings of love or our desire to be generous with our wealth.

Why is discernment so important in the matter of generosity? Because we may give in ways that don’t truly help those whom we think we are helping, or we may give to ministries that are not worthy of our time and money. It may even be possible to give in ways that are not in accord with God’s will.

First, Give to Your Local Church
To whom does the New Testament have us direct our giving? Are we to just give promiscuously to whomever and whenever? It is true that we are called to be generous, and in some cases, lavishly so (2 Cor 9:6-9; e.g., Luke 6:30), but Scripture lays out an order of priority when it comes to our giving.

And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.

Gal 6:10; emphasis added

Our good works, which includes our giving, should be directed first at the church. Paul is not restricting our giving or our active ministry to others—he is helping us prioritize both. When it comes to giving and ministry to others, Christians must prioritize their local church.

Our good works, which includes our giving, should be directed first at the church.

But why does Paul instruct us to direct our money and ministry efforts first at the local church? Because the church is Christ’s bride and the center of redemptive activity (Eph 5:22-33). The church is the only institution that Christ himself promised to build, lead, and oversee (Matt 16:18). The church is composed of your spiritual siblings with whom you will spend eternity, and the church is the institution charged with carrying out the Great Commission (Matt 22:18-20).

But when I say “church,” I’m not merely referring to the universal church (Christians from all times and all places). We must rivet our attention on the local church because the local church is the place where the universal church finds its concrete expression. In other words, Jesus is building his universal church through local churches and nowhere else.

The centrality of the local church in God’s redemptive plan can be seen in the way the New Testament uses the word, ekklesia (“church”). This word is used most often throughout the New Testament to refer to local churches. Of the approximately 114 times it is used with reference to the church, roughly seventy times ekklesia is used with an unambiguous reference to a local church or group of churches. This New Testament word usage demonstrates that the local church is the centerpiece of Christ’s work in the world and should therefore take priority in the heart and life of the Christian.   

The local church is where we worship and hear the Word of God preached and taught (2 Tim 4:2). The local church is where we are discipled and where we disciple others (Titus 2:1-10). The local church is the primary place where we develop gospel-centered relationships and accountability (Heb 3:12-15; 10:19-25). The local church is the sending agency for local and global missions (Acts 13:3), the center of local evangelistic outreach (Col 4:5), and where poor Christians are cared for (Gal 2:10). The local church, therefore, should be the primary recipient of our giving.

Second, Give to Faithful, Christ-Centered, Gospel-Prioritizing Ministries
But the New Testament does not restrict us from giving to other gospel ministries. Your local church should take priority, but there are other vital ministries that are doing a good work in the world for the sake of Christ to which you can give to after you’ve given to your local church. Consider the kinds of Christian institutions you could support financially: 

  • Mission agencies or individual missionaries
  • Bible teaching ministries
  • Christian adoption agencies
  • Christian schools and colleges
  • Gospel-grounded poverty relief ministries
  • Pro-life ministries

These institutions are all non-profit organizations that depend upon donations to fund their ministry endeavors. Inasmuch as they are conducting their work with integrity and according to biblical principles, they are worthy of your support. See my article “In Service to the (Local) Church: A Theology of Parachurch Ministries” to help you think about what parachurch ministries you should support.

Do Not Give to Unbiblical Churches or Ministries
It should go without saying that we shouldn’t give to unbiblical ministries or churches, but I linger on this topic because I am concerned for two kinds of people who might be reading this article. The first group I am concerned about are those who have given or are presently giving to ministries that are not worthy of your money. For your sake and for the sake of those ensnared in such ministries, you must stop giving to those ministries immediately. To finance a compromised or pseudo-Christian ministry is to participate in their error. For this reason, we must cease and desist immediately if we are currently giving to questionable Christian organizations. If you are unsure about what ministries warrant an immediate withdrawal of your financial support, here are a few red flags to be aware of. 

The Church or Ministry has Compromised Doctrine
A church or ministry that has strayed from the historic Christian faith and yielded to the culture on important biblical-social issues is no longer worthy of your monetary assistance. If they are no longer preaching the gospel of Christ’s cross, substitutionary death, and bodily resurrection, or if they are twisting biblical doctrine for the sake of social acceptability, then they are no longer operating as a genuine Christian ministry. Despite many otherwise good qualities of a given institution, if they are proclaiming compromised doctrine or failing to proactively uphold truths that essential to the faith due to cultural pressure, you should not support them financially. To do so is to partake in their ministry which is leading others astray (Eph 5:7).

The Church or Ministry has Compromised or Otherwise Unqualified Leadership
A church or ministry that has compromised or otherwise unqualified leadership is not worthy of your money. You should only give to institutions that are led by people you can trust and that are qualified to lead a Christian institution and handle its resources in the best possible way. Paul warned Timothy of fake Christian leaders who made a mere show of religion but who were otherwise unconverted:

But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people.

2 Timothy 3:1-5

Here Paul instructs Timothy (and us) to avoid religious people characterized by ungodly and immoral conduct. The implication of Paul’s instruction is that we are expected to discern a professing Christian leader’s character well enough to recognize whether their profession is genuine or void of reality. In other words, you can make a judgment that someone is a lover of self without sinning. When conducted with impartiality and spiritual discernment, that kind of judgment is a righteous judgment (John 7:24). The way a leader carries himself, presents himself publicly, dresses, talks, teaches, treats his family and others, and conducts himself online all serve as evidence of whether the power of godliness actually resides in him. Before you give to a particular Christian institution, take note of their leadership. 

The Church or Ministry has an Inordinate Focus on Money
Some ministries’ public outreach revolves around constant fund-raising and perpetual talk about prosperity. While it is the case that Christian non-profits depend on donations, fund-raising should not be the sum of their public engagement. I would recommend not giving to Christian ministries that focus constantly on money and giving to their organization.

The Church or Ministry Makes Unbiblical Promises to Those Who Give
Making unbiblical promises about money to those who give to their ministry is the mainstay of the health, wealth, and prosperity teachers. Run far away from ministries that claim that God’s will for his people is to experience luxurious wealth and prosperity, or that God will give you what you want when you give financially to their ministry.    

The second group I have in mind are those who have been burned by professing Christian charlatans. You are presently leery of giving any of your money to a church or Christian organization because you’ve read the stories and watched the videos of ministers who are wealthy beyond all imagination, and who have used donations to purchase private jets, luxurious cars, massive mansions, and over-the-top wardrobes. You may even feel like it is inappropriate for a pastor to talk about giving because the very topic itself has been abused by professing Christian ministers to line their pockets. Let me say that I affirm with you the wickedness of those so-called Christian ministers who use their authority to unscrupulously bleed people of money for their own gain. They are false shepherds who feed only themselves (Ezek 34:10).

But just because there are some false Christian ministers who use the biblical topic of giving for their own advantage doesn’t mean that all Christian ministers who teach their people about giving are doing so to line their pockets. Nor do these abuses eliminate the joyful calling for Christians to give to their local church and worthy ministries.

Locate and fund ministries that have a long-standing reputation of integrity, honesty, transparency, and wise stewardship. 

Here’s some criteria for all of us as we consider how we should give. Look for ministries that have clear, Christ-centered, biblical goals. Consider ministries that are committed to the authority of Scripture. Focus on Christian institutions that are led by men of integrity whose public and online conduct and reputation is humble, modest, godly, and fixed on Jesus Christ and the Word of God. Identify ministries that demonstrate a love for truth and a love for people. Locate and fund ministries that have a long-standing reputation of integrity, honesty, transparency, and wise stewardship. 

Do Not Neglect other Responsibilities or give unto Financial Destitution
Finally, giving wisely means that you not neglect your other financial responsibilities by making giving a top priority in your life, nor is it spiritual to knowingly run yourself into fiscal insolvency by your giving. Yet, there are some preachers who give the impression—wittingly or unwittingly—that such reckless giving does please God, and they often build their case from Luke’s account of the poor widow or the parallel passage in Mark. I will focus on Luke 21:1-4 in this article.  

Jesus looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the offering box, and he saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. And he said, “Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”

This passage is a pillar text for many preachers when they teach on sacrificial giving. It’s likely that you have heard sermons on this passage at some stage in your Christian life. The takeaway point is usually that we should give like the poor widow who gave all she had to live on. “Give till it hurts,” the preacher might say. Well, there are biblical passages that teach us to give generously and sacrificially, but let me be clear: this isn’t one of them.

Understanding the context is vital. Just prior to the above passage, Jesus draws his disciples’ attention to the scribes—the religious leaders who were enmeshed in religious hypocrisy.

And in the hearing of all the people he said to his disciples, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love greetings in the marketplaces and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation”

Luke 20:45-47

The religious leaders displayed their wealth and social/religious position through how they dressed, and they enjoyed the recognition they received from the Jewish laypeople. But in the process of procuring their sizable wealth, they were guilty of “devour[ing] widows’ houses.” How did they devour widows’ houses? By creating a false religious system that forced poor people to give in a way that was grossly disproportionate to their income. There was no hands-on care for the poor widow in this story who, during this era in history, would have had little wealth or opportunity for financial stability because her husband was dead.

But her financial situation didn’t matter to the Pharisees. These so-called spiritual leaders wanted their money, so they squeezed every penny (literally) out of these poor widows until they were left in utter destitution. Requiring people to give a certain amount of money without consideration of their financial situation is some of the worst kind of spiritual abuse. In this case, Jesus is not commending the widow’s actions in Luke 21:4, he is condemning the false religious system in Israel that was forcing the poor to give in ways that ruined their lives. The widow is not an example of sacrificial giving. She is a victim of false religion. The call in this text, therefore, is not to give to the point of financial devastation, but to avoid false religious systems that bleed poor people of their daily sustenance.

Scripture calls us to work to provide for ourselves and, if we are able-bodied and have the capacity to earn a living, to be dependent upon no one (1 Thess 4:11-12). If we have a family, our priority is to make sure that they are provided for (1 Tim 5:3-10). But God does not require that you clean out your bank account and purposefully place yourself in financial ruin when you give to him. He calls you, as we’ve seen above and in previous articles, to give of our firstfruits, to give cheerfully, and to give wisely.  

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