he nature and extent of the charitable giving
properly required of a Christian is a complex question. Go-for-broke texts
like that just quoted above are great for lifting the vision and inspiring
heroism, but they are not much help when balancing the legitimate demands
upon our income of family, tradesmen, and good causes, to say nothing of
The issue has become more personal and poignant with the recent
increase in the number of actual beggars in the streets of towns and
cities, but it is raised more frequently by the huge number of
organizations begging on behalf of other people - flag days, street
collections, coffee mornings, unsolicited mail - the list is endless. And
that is without adding the calls for sacrificial giving to the Church
itself through stewardship, gift aid, standing orders, and all the rest.
Over the centuries moral theologians have developed a number of
bible-based principles, which have been applied in varying ways to the
circumstances of different Christians, but this was before the days of
income tax, social security, and occupational pension schemes.
The task for us is to judge how they apply in today�s social and
financial climate. To help with this, I will summarize them under four
1. Christians have a general obligation to help others, but this
does not mean any particular cause has a claim on us. The first part
of this rule encourages us both to budget a certain amount of our income
to be given away, and also to be open to spontaneous acts of generosity
when confronted by an unforeseen need.
The second part assures us that it is perfectly proper - within an
overall commitment to giving - to respond to a particular flag day or
appeal, "This is not a priority for me; my resources are limited; there
are other charities I would rather support; so I shall not contribute on
This last point is important. In practice, it is often easier to make a
small token contribution than to risk being thought mean or uncaring. But
my own view, in theory at least, is that we should be strong enough openly
to ignore certain requests. No individual charity has the right to make us
feel guilty because we choose to support some other cause.
2. Charity transcends justice, but pre-supposes it. This
principle is much simpler than it sounds. Justice refers here to money
that we give someone in return for something they have given us in the way
of goods or services. Charity refers to money we give simply out of love
or compassion or concern for another�s well-being.
So charity transcends justice, because it is more praiseworthy to give
without receiving anything in return than to pay for services rendered.
But charity presupposes justice, because we all have an obligation to pay
our bills before we start giving money away to good causes.
There is nothing Christian about telling the milkman, "I can�t pay you
this month because I gave my last twenty pounds to the Sudan appeal."
3. Acts of charity should take account of the circumstances of the
recipient. This rule applies most obviously in the case of individual
recipients. You don�t give five pounds to a tramp reeking of drink, but
you might buy him a meal or a bus ticket.
However, I think it may also be extended to the judgments we make about
corporate charities. "The circumstances of the recipient" can surely
include such things as the percentage of the money they receive that finds
its way to the good cause. Other things being equal, an organization that
takes half its income for administration is less worthy of support than
one that manages on twenty per cent.
4. Acts of charity should be done without thought of reward.
This principle is usually associated with the business of confidentiality.
The familiar injunction "not to let the right hand know what the left hand
is doing" was originally applied by Jesus to almsgiving, when he
castigated those who make a great show of their generosity in order "to
win praise from men".
But the concept of reward needs to be interpreted much more widely
than that. Just because something is counted as charitable for tax
purposes, it is not necessarily charitable in the Christian sense. If I
take out a subscription to the National Trust (a charity that maintains
historic buildings for the public to visit) in order to get something from
it as often as I like without further payment, that is not charity - it is
a cheap entrance fee. And if I contribute to cancer research because I am
scared of getting the disease and want a cure to be found, that is not
charity - it is insurance.
I do not say these payments are bad uses of money. It's just that they
are not almsgiving in any recognizable Christian sense.
Finally, a word about how this relates to our giving to the Church. We
tend to think of money put in the plate or transferred to the congregation
by a bank order as charitable giving, as money given to God.
But we need to remember that being in this congregation constitutes
membership of a society that incurs expenses, and the bulk of its income
goes on paying for goods and services - lighting, heating, clergy salaries
and expenses, and so forth. Only when all this is covered, and the Church
turns to outward giving, do our own contributions count as almsgiving.
The Bible makes a distinction between a tithe, which is a compulsory
contribution within a particular religious community, and a freewill
offering, which as its name suggests is a freely chosen optional extra. I
think we need to accept that most of our Church giving falls into the
former category. That is, it is part of the necessary cost of the
Our true almsgiving - our freewill offering - takes place for the most
part elsewhere, outside the Church.