How much should Christians give?

How much should Christians give?

by David Wohlever Sánchez


“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” James 1:27, NIV

When considering the issue of how much a Christian ought to give, I am always confronted by this question: How can it be that there are both rich Christians and extreme suffering in the world?

If we take seriously Jesus’ statement that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God,” among others, we must face the reality that extreme, self-glorifying riches are not compatible with the core of the Gospel.

In this blog, I will seek to defend the following: by reading the Gospels and other sections of the Bible, it seems that there is a strong initial case to be made that Christians have an obligation to give extravagantly, and therefore must have a very compelling reason when they do not. Doing so is not only the right thing to do, but also an act of faith, a tangible expression of the belief that God provides.

The sheep and the goats

One of the most challenging passages in the Bible, the parable of the sheep and the goats, presents an inconvenient yet essential reality. In this parable, what divided the sheep (i.e. the good) from the goats (i.e. the bad) was how they cared for others, i.e. their charitable actions:

“‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” Matthew 25: 34b-36

It is clear, then, that helping those in need is truly an act of worship, something done not only for the sake of those in need but also for God. And, since there are so many people all over the world in need of help, then it is probably the case that we ought to sacrificially give as much as we can–not just 10%–to help as many as we can.

This message of caring for those who need help is found throughout the Bible, from the Old Testament to the New. Jesus’ teachings are clear: one of the clear indicators of faith is self-sacrificial charity.

Biblical giving: how much?

If, then, Christians are called to give, at what point have we “given enough?”

The standard response from your typical Christian is 10%. This figure, however, is rooted in Old Testament teaching, and is likely not sufficient for our modern purposes. Turning to the teachings of the New Testament, it becomes clear that, if we are able, we are likely called to give much more.

After considering the immense suffering in the world, and what the Bible says about loving the poor through action, the question is not so much “what is enough?” but rather “how much can I give?”

The Bible and Marginal Utility

In Peter Singer’s famous essay “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” he argued that perhaps people ought to give to the point of marginal utility, “at which by giving more one would cause oneself and one’s dependents as much suffering as one would prevent.” This classic utilitarian claim is quite demanding – our question, then, is whether or not this argument is weighty for Christians.

Surprisingly, utility-driven reasoning makes an appearance in the Bible. In Luke 3:11, John the Baptist says, “anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” This reasoning is marginal utility in action – when a resource is more useful to another than it is to us, this suggests we may, at first glance, have an obligation to give up that resource.

To be sure, this does not necessarily imply that we ought to obsess over creating a world that guarantees equal utility amongst all people. Rather, this simply furthers our understanding of how we might prioritize giving, and how we can intellectually consider why we ought to give extravagantly.

Practical steps

To be sure, this obligation requires the ability to give; 1 Timothy 5:8 makes clear that we have a strong obligation to care for our families’ needs. However, it seems clear to me that in the developed world, we may tend to consider the idea of “needs” a bit too liberally.

In practice, Christian giving ethics likely compel us to give according to our abilities, which means well beyond 10% for many people. This likely means giving up many of the “luxuries” of life in wealthy countries. A daily $5 coffee is probably not justified. Eating out ought to be something of a rarity. If your house or apartment is well beyond your needs, then a change might be necessary.

This also means giving to effective organizations. As Alex noted in his post, “if there is an available charity that alleviates more suffering than another, then all other considerations being equal, a Christian has reason to donate their money to the charity that alleviates more suffering over the charity that alleviates less.”

To be sure, this is not a transformation that can be expected overnight. And, as effective altruists, we’re very interested in marginal improvements (e.g. moving from donating 0% to 5% is a good start). However, this very generous giving is likely our goal.

Closing thoughts

In this piece, I have defended the claim that Christians likely have an obligation to give self-sacrificially, and must have a strong reason when they do not. I purposely leave a little ambiguity in my claim because this is an ambiguous question, which requires a nuanced answer.

This is by no means a free pass to give frugally, but rather an admission that not all people are required to sell all that they have to give to the poor, as the “rich man” was required to by Jesus. If you aren’t called to give to this point of marginal utility, there must be a compelling reason, a specific calling not to. What this means is that Christians should understand that this call to give sacrificially and extravagantly is a likely possibility, one that should be taken seriously. Surely, Christians are not called to live in extreme wealth while so many barely have the resources to live at all.

7 Comments

  1. Alida 3 years ago

    Thanks for your post, David. I’ve written an academic paper on effective altruism and Christianity, and in my research have come across two books making similar arguments for claim that Christians are called to give extravagantly, which readers of this blog might be interested in. (The books are written for popular rather than academic audiences, and aimed at Evangelical Christians.)

    – Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger by Ron Sider (first published in the 1970s, with a revised version released in 2015; the 2015 version is significantly different from the original)
    – God and Money: How We Discovered True Riches at Harvard Business School by John Cortines and Gregory Baumer (2016)

    Cortines and Baumer explicitly frame their argument in terms of shifting from the “how much should I give?” to the “how much may I keep?” model, and they offer some practical strategies for how to make a money management plan with this goal in mind. You can find an excerpt here: http://www.godandmoney.net/.

    • Author
      David 3 years ago

      Hello Alida, thank you very much for your comment. Did you happen to upload your paper anywhere? If so, it sounds like a good resource and I’d be very interested to read it. Thanks for the other book recommendations – I’ve read most of Sider’s book, but hadn’t heard of the other.

    • Steven 9 months ago

      @Alida your suggestion of “God and Money” was just wanted I needed to read at my current stage in life!

  2. Alex Rattee 3 years ago

    Thanks for this David, I feel challenged to be more generous as a result of reading! Here are some thoughts that those who are skeptical of your argument might have. Would be interested to see how you would answer them.

    1. When you discuss the passage from Matt 25 and say ‘then it is probably the case that we ought to sacrificially give as much as we can–not just 10%–to help as many as we can.’ I wonder if others might suggest that what Jesus is hitting at here is that Christians should be willing to help the poor as an act of worship, although they do not actually have to put themselves out there every time they hear of someone suffering. Perhaps God cares about a virtuous heart rather than a maximizing moral record?

    2. On the discussion of giving away our other shirt and marginal utility. It isn’t totally obvious to me that this passage is a demonstration of that kind of reasoning. I think an alternative story is that there is an imperative to ‘only take what you need,’ such a rule would also get you giving away to those without shirts.

    3. The point about caring properly for our families but that most of us are too liberal with our view of caring is really important. I think it’d be good to have a blog post on this at some point.

    4. You make some space to say that going out for meals is occasionally permissible, but if it is occasionally permissible what decision rule is there for working out what other luxuries we should allow into our Christian life? Further to this is it just permissible to occasionally go out for a more expensive meal, whilst it would be even better if you didn’t, or actually is there a Godly requirement that we make space for such pleasures in our life even amongst global poverty? My gut is that it seems that we will want to leave some space for allowing occasional treats, partly because they are motivational but also because they remind us of the goodness of God, yet at the same time I find it difficult when I acknowledge that money spent on such treats could be saving lives.

    5. I really like your view that radical generosity should be the starting point for each of us, and then we should see whether there are mitigating reasons meaning that we should keep more for ourselves (e.g. particular calls on our lives etc.), this would be an amazing norm to see emerge in the Church!

  3. Dominic 3 years ago

    Such wonderful words. Thank you!

    So many people who acknowledge the need for nuance end up watering down the demands. You resist this watering down. In other words: you acknowledge that it is ambiguous how much exactly we ought to give but you refrain from the temptation to give up radical demands due to this ambiguity. This is great. I also love that you give specific examples of what this means (such as refraining from $5 coffees — this really makes it all much more real and concrete).

    Here are some additional comments:

    1. Just like Alex, I am also not sure whether the story with the two shirts supports giving to the point of equalizing marginal utility. Besides being supported by an appeal to needs (as Alex pointed out), it could also be supported by an appeal to equality (both have 1 shirt in the end). In any case, it would be nice to have more *precise* guidance on just how self-sacrificial we ought to be (whether based on equalizing marginal utility, needs, or equality). But it is very difficult to find such guidance.
    I found a surprisingly simple rule in CS Lewis: “I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. In other words, if our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, amusements, etc., is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little.” I particularly like the thought that probably we are always giving away too little and therefore should always give away more than we currently do. In some sense, the rule is just as ambiguous. However, for all intents and purposes, it seems to do the trick: As long as 99.9% of us give (and will continue to give) less than we ought to — in other words: as long as for 99.9% of us the ‘bottleneck’ is our own motivation rather than uncertainty about the true&precise demands of the bible — then Lewis’ rule gives very clear guidance in everyday life: “Always give more than you currently do”.

    2. The bible is full of passages that call us to share with those who live in poverty. Surprisingly, I think Matthew 25 is not the passage we should cite first to support this point. Why is that? There is considerable debate whether *in this specific passage*, Jesus has in mind all the poor or whether he specifically has in mind the poor among his followers. I think I first encountered the fact that there is debate about this in Craig Blomberg: http://wp.me/p5FX1O-6wV (but the view is also shared more widely: http://religionnews.com/?p=130683). I think the interpretation of Matthew 25 is not fully clear and the passage might, after all, refer to the poor more widely (why, otherwise, would the sheep and the goats be so surprised to have served Jesus if they would have specifically served his servants?).
    The point is simply: There are so many passages in the bible that call us to share with the poor with radical and passoniate words. Therefore, we could refrain from highlighting this *particular* passage since it is not the clearest of all the passages.

    3. You write: “The standard response from your typical Christian is 10%. This figure, however, is rooted in Old Testament teaching”
    One strange thing about this typical Christian reply is that giving 10% is at most *partially* rooted in Old Testament teaching. Judaism practiced something like *three* tithes, based on the Hebrew bible (some of it given to Levites, some of it consumed, some of it given to the poor — some of these tithes to be given every year, some of these tithes only to be given in some years).
    Should we tell Christians that the practice of giving 10% is at most partially rooted in Biblical (i.e. Old Testament) teaching? On the one hand, I don’t think so: For those who give less than 10%, the 10%-benchmark can be a great aspirational and symbolic goal. On the other hand, I do think so: For those who do give 10% (but who give no more and who only give it to their church), it could be helpful to know that there is no clear basis for this in the bible and that your blogpost actually provides guidance that seems closer to the heart of the bible than the 10%-rule.

    P.S.: I think all of the comments by Alex are great. Wouldn’t the first point merit a blogpost in itself, too? So many Christians see giving to the poor merely as something that is important for the relationship between themselves and God (rather than something that is additionally — and straightforwardly — important for the poor themselves). This biased emphasis as seeing poverty alleviation almost purely as worship also skews the guidance that they give for charitable donations.

  4. JD Bauman 2 years ago

    Wow, I’m ecstatic to see Christians discussing effective altruism! This makes my day. It’s encouraging to read about Christians who are intentional about living more like Jesus. Great article, I’ll definitely be reading more in the future!

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