It’s Better to Give Than to Receive

It’s Better to Give Than to Receive October 21, 2013

titheHave you ever heard a preacher say “It’s better to give than to receive” during a tithing sermon? Did you know that the verse he was quoting was actually calling for the exact opposite of what he was doing? The Apostle Paul credited Jesus with this saying even though it appears nowhere else in the Bible—it never shows up in the gospels. What’s even more curious is that Paul almost never quotes Jesus. This is one of only two places where he does that (the other is in Paul’s retelling of the Last Supper, where he repeats a couple of Jesus’ lines from during the meal). Paul references things from the gospels so sparsely that many have argued he may not have been too familiar with them (or else wasn’t particularly concerned with what was in them). I think it’s safe to say most preachers are equally unfamiliar with the context of this famous saying, and what it meant when Paul said it.

When Paul uttered those famous words “It’s better to give than to receive,” he was telling a group of preachers that they should follow his example by providing for their own livelihoods instead of depending financially on their congregations. Listen to what he advised this group of church leaders:

“I have not coveted anyone’s silver or gold or clothing. You yourselves know that these hands of mine have supplied my own needs and the needs of my companions. In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ ”

See, it had already become customary for some church leaders to solicit money for themselves from their churches, and Paul despised this practice (“I would rather die,” he once asserted). Some have suggested that this must have reminded him far too much of the sophists who mooched off of the wealthy class. Whatever the reason, he felt so strongly about this that during what he was certain would be his last trip toward Jerusalem he summoned the leaders of the church in Ephesus and made his final words to them about this issue. “Work for a living,” he essentially told them. “Don’t mooch off your congregations.” Because it’s better to give than to receive.

Now fast-forward to today, in which preachers mount the pulpit at least one season per year (usually around budget time) in order to remind the faithful of their obligation to give to the church budget. Yet another layer of irony comes from the fact that the tithe is not even a New Testament concept. Like the dietary laws or the ceremonial washings and furniture of the Tabernacle and Temple, the tithe was an institution which fit a certain time and place and should have disappeared with the ascension of Jesus. In the Old Testament, people gave a tenth of their grain and meat and other measures of wealth in order that the priestly class might have a living. But with the advent of the church and the “new covenant,” that special priestly class was supposed to fade away, but it didn’t. Somehow the idea of a special class of holy men (not so much women) survived and carried over into the church, and along with it came a continuation of the practice of tithing in order to fund their living.

It would be many years before specialized buildings and furniture and other such expenses would become a part of the Christian faith (most would argue that was a product of the conversion of Emperor Constantine), and in time those things would come to consume the majority of the expenditures of most churches. Today, the largest portion of the budgets of most houses of worship goes to paying for the salaries of the staff members and the expenses related to the ownership and upkeep of the church facilities. Very little of what a church takes in actually goes to help the demographic most frequently mentioned in Jesus’ teachings: the poor. In fact, the place in the New Testament which is most often used to justify the survival of the tithe was in reality a reference to a special collection for those experiencing a famine in Judea. It wasn’t a collection to pay the salaries of local church leaders; it was a unique situation in which Paul was encouraging the Gentile Christians outside of Judea to contribute to the material needs of the Jewish Christians in that region as a sign of solidarity with them. He advised them to be orderly about their fund-raising so that he wouldn’t have to talk about money when he came to visit them later on. It had nothing to do with a tithe or with paying the salaries of ministers.

TL;DR – There was no tithe in the New Testament, and the Apostle Paul quite adamantly encouraged preachers to get real jobs so that they wouldn’t be financially dependent on their congregations. That was what he meant when he told the elders from Ephesus that “It’s better to give than to receive.” So the next time a preacher tosses out that line from the pulpit, feel free to explain to him what he’s saying :)

"It's clear there was to be a curse on a woman who had been unfaithful. ..."

What Does the Bible Say About ..."
"This is irritatingly wrong. The Catholic Church has spoken out against abortion since the start. ..."

What Does the Bible Say About ..."
"You mean gantlet, not gauntlet."

What Does the Bible Say About ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!


TRENDING AT PATHEOS Nonreligious
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • David Austin

    Hi,

    I like your post, but I feel I should point out one slip in your reasoning.

    You say “Paul references things from the gospels so sparsely that many have argued he may not have been too familiar with them”. I should point out that the reason Paul does not quote from the gospels is because the gospels had not even been written yet. Paul was writing around 50 – 60 CE and Mark’s gospel (the earliest) was not written until probably 70CE. Stories about Jesus may have been circulating during Paul’s time, but they would have been from oral tradition, and not from gospels. It is confusing that the NT puts the gospels before the epistles whereas chronologically it should be the reverse.

    Just my AU$0.02 worth.

    Regards

    David Austin

    Perth, Western Australia

  • This is an excellent analysis—one worth sharing.

    Unfortunately, my experience with attempting to “explain to him what he’s saying” is consistently met with unbelievable resistance. The last time I responded to somebody preaching at me, I provided information much like the above, and I was met with the old 1 Corinthians 2:14. (“The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit.”)

    My 20+ years in Christianity—in which my discernment was never questioned—was irrelevant. The evidence didn’t matter. They’ll always reinterpret the Bible to fit their presuppositions, and no amount of facts or evidence can change this for them.

    And if you dare say anything else, as I did in the case above, they’ll interrupt and insist, “You have a presupposition.” Never mind the fact that I already completely changed my beliefs after several years of serious examination.

    It can be frustrating, which is why I’m glad there are people like you out there reminding me that I’m not alone.

  • This is an excellent analysis—one worth sharing.

    Unfortunately, my experience with attempting to “explain to him what he’s saying” is consistently met with unbelievable resistance. The last time I responded to somebody preaching at me, I provided information much like the above, and I was met with the old 1 Corinthians 2:14. (“The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit.”)

    My 20+ years in Christianity—in which my discernment was never questioned—was irrelevant. The evidence didn’t matter. They’ll always reinterpret the Bible to fit their presuppositions, and no amount of facts or evidence can change this for them.

    And if you dare say anything else, as I did in the case above, they’ll interrupt and insist, “You have a presupposition.” Never mind the fact that I already completely changed my beliefs after several years of serious examination.

    It can be frustrating, which is why I’m glad there are people like you out there reminding me that I’m not alone.

  • No way. Bible verses get misapplied? How in the world could that ever happen? ;)

  • No way. Bible verses get misapplied? How in the world could that ever happen? ;)

  • Yes, David, you are correct. The letters of Paul (whichever ones are authentic, anyway) were written prior to the writing of the gospels but as you point out, the oral tradition was already circulating. Any of the Christian groups with whom Paul came in contact would have passed along the Jesus stories and sayings they had been taught. It’s interesting, then, that Paul demonstrates so little contact with that material, isn’t it? I think Paul was such an “independent spirit” that he didn’t care to let himself be too influenced by the other groups. In fact, in some of the few places that Paul makes an explicit reference to a teaching of Jesus, he offers an alternative opinion (e.g. advice about marriage and about ministers deriving income from their ministry).

    It is my belief that much of the thematic similarity you find between the gospels and Paul’s letters (e.g. disdain for legalism and a portrait of the Pharisees which history now tells us is a caricature) can be explained by the weight of Paul’s influence on the surviving early Christian traditions. In other words, even the Jesus stories we ended up with were colored by Paulinian theology. Ironically we then find way more Paul in Jesus than we find Jesus in Paul.

  • Yes, David, you are correct. The letters of Paul (whichever ones are authentic, anyway) were written prior to the writing of the gospels but as you point out, the oral tradition was already circulating. Any of the Christian groups with whom Paul came in contact would have passed along the Jesus stories and sayings they had been taught. It’s interesting, then, that Paul demonstrates so little contact with that material, isn’t it? I think Paul was such an “independent spirit” that he didn’t care to let himself be too influenced by the other groups. In fact, in some of the few places that Paul makes an explicit reference to a teaching of Jesus, he offers an alternative opinion (e.g. advice about marriage and about ministers deriving income from their ministry).

    It is my belief that much of the thematic similarity you find between the gospels and Paul’s letters (e.g. disdain for legalism and a portrait of the Pharisees which history now tells us is a caricature) can be explained by the weight of Paul’s influence on the surviving early Christian traditions. In other words, even the Jesus stories we ended up with were colored by Paulinian theology. Ironically we then find way more Paul in Jesus than we find Jesus in Paul.

  • mikespeir

    Well, there is this:

    1Co 9:14 So also the Lord directed those who proclaim the gospel to get their living from the gospel. (NASB)

  • mikespeir

    Well, there is this:

    1Co 9:14 So also the Lord directed those who proclaim the gospel to get their living from the gospel. (NASB)

  • …and of you keep reading, in the next sentence he says “I’d rather die.”

    Paul, who was the source of this quote (Better to give…), advised church leaders under his tutelage to work for a living. He pleaded with them. He even made that plea his final words to the leaders of Ephesus. Paul wasn’t afraid to contradict Jesus in little ways like this.

    Just sayin’ that whenever this saying gets quoted, the context for the saying is completely forgotten.

  • …and of you keep reading, in the next sentence he says “I’d rather die.”

    Paul, who was the source of this quote (Better to give…), advised church leaders under his tutelage to work for a living. He pleaded with them. He even made that plea his final words to the leaders of Ephesus. Paul wasn’t afraid to contradict Jesus in little ways like this.

    Just sayin’ that whenever this saying gets quoted, the context for the saying is completely forgotten.

  • mikespeir

    Oh, sure. I used to teach on this using a line from Corinthians 12:31 as a basis text: “And I show you a still more excellent way.” You can go through and find a fairly consistent theme of Paul’s: “Here’s what you’re allowed, but I’m showing you a better way yet.” The place in chapter nine we’re referencing is one of those places. Still, it’s pretty clear that he’s saying that making a living from the Gospel is okay, if, perhaps, not the “more excellent way.”

  • mikespeir

    Oh, sure. I used to teach on this using a line from Corinthians 12:31 as a basis text: “And I show you a still more excellent way.” You can go through and find a fairly consistent theme of Paul’s: “Here’s what you’re allowed, but I’m showing you a better way yet.” The place in chapter nine we’re referencing is one of those places. Still, it’s pretty clear that he’s saying that making a living from the Gospel is okay, if, perhaps, not the “more excellent way.”

  • It doesn’t really take away from your point since you’re arguing within a Christian framework, but it would be more accurate to say, “The writer of Luke/Acts records that the Apostle Paul credited Jesus with this saying…” since it doesn’t come from the pen of Paul.

    This saying actually creates an interesting problem for advocates of Biblical inerrancy because the way it is recorded undermines the saying’s authenticity. According to a careful reading of that doctrine as spelled out in things like the Chicago Statement, Luke could be said to be merely inerrantly reporting what Paul said. Paul could have been mistakenly repeating hearsay and Luke could simply be accurately recording it. Thus, even people who believe in Biblical inerrancy can’t appeal to the Holy Spirit as a witness and claim with their usual certainty that this saying is authentic to Jesus or even divinely inspired.

  • It doesn’t really take away from your point since you’re arguing within a Christian framework, but it would be more accurate to say, “The writer of Luke/Acts records that the Apostle Paul credited Jesus with this saying…” since it doesn’t come from the pen of Paul.

    This saying actually creates an interesting problem for advocates of Biblical inerrancy because the way it is recorded undermines the saying’s authenticity. According to a careful reading of that doctrine as spelled out in things like the Chicago Statement, Luke could be said to be merely inerrantly reporting what Paul said. Paul could have been mistakenly repeating hearsay and Luke could simply be accurately recording it. Thus, even people who believe in Biblical inerrancy can’t appeal to the Holy Spirit as a witness and claim with their usual certainty that this saying is authentic to Jesus or even divinely inspired.

  • David Austin

    Hi,

    I think you are correct in your assessment of Paul. A lot of people say that “Christianity” should be more correctly named as “Paulinity” since he seemed to have “hijacked” the story of Jesus and re-written it to conform to his own view of what Christianity should be.

    Maybe, without Paul’s intervention, Christianity would have just remained an obscure Jewish sect, and one can only speculate what would have happened if Paul had never became a convert on the road to Damascus.

    Regards from Down Under.

    David Austin

  • BUT IN MY BIBLE THE LETTERS ARE IN RED!!

    LOL

  • BUT IN MY BIBLE THE LETTERS ARE IN RED!!

    LOL

  • You just reminded me of preacher saying #256:

    You know what’s better than a red letter edition? A READ letter edition.

    Hardy, har, har.

  • You just reminded me of preacher saying #256:

    You know what’s better than a red letter edition? A READ letter edition.

    Hardy, har, har.

  • Great post, I have also wondered why preachers do not preach to poorer members of their congregations to not give so much as it is beyond their means. Seems the loving spirit of Christianity is not so loving when it comes to making some extra cash.

  • Great post, I have also wondered why preachers do not preach to poorer members of their congregations to not give so much as it is beyond their means. Seems the loving spirit of Christianity is not so loving when it comes to making some extra cash.

  • You should give until it feels good, man. Remember the widow’s mite.

  • You should give until it feels good, man. Remember the widow’s mite.

  • Gotta be a church sign.

  • Gotta be a church sign.

  • Agreed. Christianity would have mostly died out with the destruction of much of Jerusalem in 70AD. Before Paul came along, the guys in Jerusalem (Peter and the boys) were still going to Temple, avoiding pork, and putting new converts under the knife. In other words, they saw their religion as a slight modification of Judaism. Would never have made it.

    Can you see modern evangelists going door to door, holding a pair of scissors behind their backs? LOL

  • Agreed. Christianity would have mostly died out with the destruction of much of Jerusalem in 70AD. Before Paul came along, the guys in Jerusalem (Peter and the boys) were still going to Temple, avoiding pork, and putting new converts under the knife. In other words, they saw their religion as a slight modification of Judaism. Would never have made it.

    Can you see modern evangelists going door to door, holding a pair of scissors behind their backs? LOL

  • Why are we debating the color of the unicorn?

  • Why are we debating the color of the unicorn?

  • MLB

    Went to Sunday School this past Sunday…trying to “keep up appearances” since my still pseudo atheism is pretty new and my wife isn’t quite on board with it. Unfortunately the topic was tithing. I kept going over in my head how I should respond but ultimately decided not to for a few reasons, one being it probably not being moral being a troll. Even at the peak of my believing these talks about money always set me back faith wise because it always concerns me when it becomes “about the money”. Plus, as I have been thinking lately, there is a huge double standard when people telling you to give significant time and money are getting paid for their time from your money.

    Anyway, love your blog and the video. We should meet up and go for a run sometime.

    Matt (Tuscaloosa, AL)

  • MLB

    Went to Sunday School this past Sunday…trying to “keep up appearances” since my still pseudo atheism is pretty new and my wife isn’t quite on board with it. Unfortunately the topic was tithing. I kept going over in my head how I should respond but ultimately decided not to for a few reasons, one being it probably not being moral being a troll. Even at the peak of my believing these talks about money always set me back faith wise because it always concerns me when it becomes “about the money”. Plus, as I have been thinking lately, there is a huge double standard when people telling you to give significant time and money are getting paid for their time from your money.

    Anyway, love your blog and the video. We should meet up and go for a run sometime.

    Matt (Tuscaloosa, AL)

  • Not sure what you mean by “pseudo” atheism, unless you meant to use another prefix that means newly-found or still-forming. But I feel ya. And Tuscaloosa’s not too far away. I’ll hit you up and maybe we can do lunch sometime.

  • Not sure what you mean by “pseudo” atheism, unless you meant to use another prefix that means newly-found or still-forming. But I feel ya. And Tuscaloosa’s not too far away. I’ll hit you up and maybe we can do lunch sometime.

  • MLB

    Probably wasn’t the right way to put it – uncommitted atheist is probably more accurate. Atheism is the only thing that really makes sense to me now, but I still have too much baggage to declare it at this point. :)

  • MLB

    Probably wasn’t the right way to put it – uncommitted atheist is probably more accurate. Atheism is the only thing that really makes sense to me now, but I still have too much baggage to declare it at this point. :)

  • Piobaireachd

    perhaps “proto-atheism” is the term you’re looking for.

  • Piobaireachd

    I think the Romans probably had a lot to do with the survival of the priest class. The Roman’s took their religious ceremonies rather seriously (the office of pope, of course, comes from the Roman position of Pontifex Maximum, which was established very shortly after the founding of Rome, supposedly by the second King of Rome, Numa Pompilius (but that’s mainly speculation as there’s no contemporary accounts in existence).

  • Piobaireachd

    I think the Romans probably had a lot to do with the survival of the priest class. The Roman’s took their religious ceremonies rather seriously (the office of pope, of course, comes from the Roman position of Pontifex Maximum, which was established very shortly after the founding of Rome, supposedly by the second King of Rome, Numa Pompilius (but that’s mainly speculation as there’s no contemporary accounts in existence).

  • It is your point of reference in out conduct most often changes our viewpoint. Sometimes good and sometimes this alteration is bad but it is our paradigm that exerts the most control how we feel.

  • It is your point of reference in out conduct most often changes our viewpoint. Sometimes good and sometimes this alteration is bad but it is our paradigm that exerts the most control how we feel.