God is clear about giving. He expects us to do it. He has done it (John 3:16) and as His followers He expects us to give as well. It is better to give that to receive (Acts 20:32). God tells us that we are to use our worldly wealth to store up true riches (Luke 16:9-11). We are to make eternal investments.
But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Matthew 6:20-21
Most Christians know that God expects them to give. The real question is how much? Any conversation about giving with followers of Christ, or people who have at least been around church, eventually ends up surrounding the topic of the tithe. There is a lot of confusion regarding the tithe in Christendom. In this post, I want to bring some clarity about the tithe.
I owe much of what I have learned regarding tithing to two people. First is Michael Thomas, the man who led me to Christ and taught me about giving. He lives a very generous life with his time, the gospel and his money. The second person I have never personally met, but has written some of the best material I have ever read on the topic of money. His name is Randy Alcorn. I highly recommend his book, Money, Possessions, and Eternity (there is a chapter on tithing in that book that I am indebted to in this blog).
What is the tithe?
There are a lot of questions regarding the tithe, maybe because there is so much bad teaching about it or maybe because we are selfish. Do I have to tithe? How much is a tithe? Does the New Testament talk about the tithe? Does it have to go to my church? First, let’s be clear that a tithe is not Christian code for giving. A tithe simply means a tenth. When someone says that they tithe that means they give 10% of their income to the Lord. Most Christians give between two and three percent of their income. This is not tithing.
We first see tithing in the Old Testament before the law, when Abraham is blessed by God and in response gives a tenth. He then tells the king of Sodom he won’t accept anything from him so he can’t claim to have made Abraham rich (Genesis 14:20). That is where the tithe began. As Alcorn points out in his book, tithing is not considered giving. He points out that the words used to describe the tithe in the Old Testament are words like”bringing,” “taking,” “presenting,” and even “paying” but not giving. You can pay a tithe, but giving is beyond the tithe. The Israelites were warned that anything less than 10% was robbing God.
“Will a man rob God? Yet you rob me. “But you ask, ‘How do we rob you?’ “In tithes and offerings. You are under a curse– the whole nation of you– because you are robbing me. Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the LORD Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it. Malachi 3:8-10
There was giving in the Old Testament, it was in addition to tithing and called Free Will Offerings. Old Testament giving was not simply done out of obligation. The Old Testament shows people giving with joy above the tithe. Some say that the New Testament does not mention the tithe. That is not true. Jesus in Luke 11 is rebuking the Pharisees when He says, “Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone.” (Luke 11:42)
The point of the verse is that the Pharisees tithe but don’t love God. Note: it is possible to tithe and not love God. Tithing is not the most important thing in the Christian life, but it is part of the Christian life. Bible scholar D.A. Carson in his article Is Tithing Biblical, commenting on Matthew 23:23 says, “But one might have expected Jesus to say, “You should have practiced the latter, and let the herbs take care of themselves”–or some thing equally dismissive. Instead, he says, “You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.” Jesus does talk about tithing in the New Testament, but the general tone concerning giving in the New Testament is not about tithing; it is about cheerful and joyful giving. That leaves many New Testament believers with questions about tithing. Here are a few that I have had to address as a pastor.
Do I have to tithe?
Rarely do I ever answer this question with a simple yes or no. It would be a disservice to the person asking. Law is always easier and grace is always messier. The question is flawed. The premise behind the question is, what is the least I “have” to give so God will not be upset with me? Let me be crystal clear. God loves you and it has nothing to do with your bank account. He gave His Son for you. In fact, He even describes that in financial terms.
“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.”
2 Corinthians 8:9
We should not be asking what is the minimum I have to give. As followers of Jesus Christ, we should look for ways to reorient our lives so that we can be more like the One we represent in giving even more generously.
What if I can’t afford to tithe?
Perhaps you have medical debt or other debt to pay off. Maybe you are barely getting by as it is. How can you give away 10% of your income? Surely God would not expect that, would He?
I challenge you to read Luke 12:13-34. Jesus teaches the crowds about being rich toward God and then shifts His attention to His disciples. In verse 33 He says, “Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.”
How many people would actually have to sell their possessions to give to the poor? Think about who Jesus is speaking to. Many of them would be day laborers. People who literally only have enough for that day. Did He expect them to give? In fact several of the New Testament examples of giving were people giving from their poverty (Luke 21:1-4; 2 Corinthians 8:2). The reality of Luke 12:33 is that the early church actually did sell possessions so that they could give (Acts 4:32-37). We can’t afford to not give. We have been given so much. I once heard someone ask, “If suddenly your income was reduced by 10% would you die?” If the answer is no, then you can afford to tithe.
Do I have to give to the church?
There are several answers to that question. Some will argue that the tithe should go to the local church because the church replaces the temple as God’s institution in the Old Testament. I understand that and it makes sense. Some argue that since one of the purposes of the tithe in the Old Testament was to pay the Levitical priests and 1 Corinthians 9:13-14 says that in the same way people who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel therefore people should give to their local church. I understand that.
It would be somewhat self-serving as a pastor to hold that view over other’s. The best answer, in my opinion, is that we are supposed to make eternal investments and where better to make an eternal investment than in the only organization in the world that we know is near and dear to God’s heart.
The local church is God’s plan A for reaching the world and there is no plan B. The local church is the hope of the world. Read the book of Acts. It is the local church, Christ’s bride that He died for (Ephesians 5:25). It is the only organization in the world that receives the promise that the gates of hell will not prevail against it. That is why my wife and I tithe to our local church and give above the tithe to the church. We give other places, but the majority of our giving goes to our local church, because it is God’s plan to reach the world and we know that where our treasure is our heart will follow. Heart follows money, not vice versa.
The short answer is that I do not believe there is any verse (and I am aware of the 1 Corinthians 9 and replacement arguments I mentioned above) that says you have to give your tithe to your local church. But why wouldn’t you tithe to your church? It is the primary place where you are fed spiritually. You claim to be part of that community of believers. It’s God’s plan for reaching the world. That is the truth about tithing.
The tithe was never meant to be a goal of your giving. It was a starting place. It is where God started before the law. Why don’t you consider starting there? Not because you have to, but because you want to store up treasure in heaven. Ask God to make you like the guy in Matthew 13:44 who was so pumped about what he was going to get it was his joy to give up what he already had.
Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 2 Corinthians 9:7