A Twitter poll on my page last week asked a simple question about tithing. After well over 1,000 votes (with 17 hours still left in the poll) the results were both encouraging and concerning. It seems that the modern church is still in a hot debate over tithing.
For your consideration, here is a snapshot (with link) to the results and comments:
For your edification, here is a biblical examination of tithing and the model for New Testament giving:
“Will a man rob God? Yet you are robbing Me! But you say, ‘How have we robbed You?’ In tithes and offerings. You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing Me, the whole nation of you! Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in My house, and test Me now in this,” says the Lord of hosts, “if I will not open for you the windows of heaven and pour out for you a blessing until it overflows” (Malachi 3:8-10).
The usual passage of choice for most tithe-pushing preachers is Malachi 3:8-10. The typical pre-sermon message you may hear on a Sunday morning before the offering is taken could last any number of minutes. We could probably recite it together having heard it so many times in churches of varying denominations – especially prosperity gospel churches.
It starts a little something like this:
Now I want to talk to you this morning before we take the tithes and offerings. Open up your Bible to Malachi chapter 3 and ask yourself, ‘Am I robbing God’? If you’re not tithing 10% to God, you are.”
Whether it lasts ten minutes or thirty minutes, what follows is an application of a passage from a book of the Bible in which God speaks through the prophet Malachi to the people of Israel about about their spiritual condition at that time. This is before the coming of the Messiah – Jesus. God is displeased with the people concerning their defiled sacrifices (1:7), their profaning of His name (1:12), their corrupted priests (2:9), and their open disobedience (3:8-15). This is excellent prophetic literature to preach in a church and there is so much to learn about Israel, God’s character, and the coming of Christ.
Unfortunately, it is primarily used to tell modern-day churches that they have to tithe 10% of their income or else they will be under a curse (Malachi 3:9), and that they have to bring those tithes into the “storehouse” (Malachi 3:10) – interpreting the “storehouse” to mean the church, or in some cases, the pastor’s bank account.
When it comes to “tithing,” so much is assumed because of ignorance, or bad Bible teaching. Some say that tithing is a command from the Old Testament that carries over to the New Testament. Others say it’s just a useful principle, while others insist on certain eras of church history being our model for tithing. Finally, there are those who simply believe they must tithe because it’s what they’ve always been told.
Let’s answer some important questions based on the Bible – not assumptions. This may alleviate a heavy burden you’ve been carrying concerning this subject.
What is a “Tithe”?
Tithing simply means “the tenth part” or “one-tenth.” We see the tithe instituted in the Bible in the Old Testament law, and in a few select cases before the law when some made vows or one time offerings (Genesis 14:20; Genesis 28:22). The tithe involved a percentage of one’s livestock, seed, or produce. When the Old Testament law for the tithe is studied, one discovers some foundational truths that cannot be overlooked:
- Total tithes would have conservatively been over 20% when multiple tithes are added up (Leviticus 27:30-32; Numbers 18:21, 24; Deuteronomy 14:22-27; 14:28-29).
- The Priesthood was not allowed by God to own land or inheritance so the tithe provided for their living and needs (Numbers 18:24).
- The tithes acted as a kind of taxation system that helped provide for the poor, annual festivals, and the operation of the governing priesthood system (Deuteronomy 14:22-29; Nehemiah 12:44).
- Tithing did not primarily involve money except for certain circumstances (Deuteronomy 14:25).
- Withholding the tithe was viewed as defiant disobedience in God’s eyes (Malachi 3:9).
- Tithes (produce and other) would have been kept in a literal storehouse for proper distribution (1 Chronicles 27:25-27).
- God views the storehouse and His house as distinctly separate (Malachi 3:10).
With that in mind, let’s draw biblical conclusions:
- Israel gave of its produce, seed, and livestock.
- The Priests were supported by tithes because they were not allowed to own things.
- Tithing far exceeded 10%.
- Tithing was law, much like a taxation system caring for national Israel.
- Storehouses were literal, not “spiritual” or references to the temple.
How is Old Testament Teaching Misapplied Today?
Firstly, anytime someone is misinterpreting the Bible we need to be careful not to jump to aggressive conclusions. No one is a heretic for getting certain things wrong, but error is serious and can mislead people – that is a stewardship issue of its own.
Secondly, we need to determine what people are teaching and why. Do they have certain theological positions that lend to merging the Old Testament into the New? Do they make a habit of basing their teachings merely on historical “principles” and extra-biblical research, rather than biblical texts and proper exegesis (the process of “excavating” a biblical text)? Or, are they twisting Scripture in an obvious fashion to suit their financial desires and abusive ministry patterns? All of these are important questions to ask upon seeing a misapplication of Scripture.
Here are some common ways the “tithe” is misapplied today. Some of these are more dangerous than others, but all are worth noting:
- The “storehouse” in Malachi 3:10 is taught to be God’s house – the church – or in many cases the pastor’s bank account.
- Insisting that a 10% tithe is law while leaving out all of the other laws on tithes and offering.
- Tithing is taught as a command for New Testament church goers and they are threatened with divine judgment if they do not give 10% gross on all their income.
- Tithing is accompanied by a special anointing that can unlock special blessings like job promotions, debt-freedom, or even salvation of loved ones.
- Avoiding Paul’s instruction on giving in favor of teaching Old Testament law.
- Concluding that because Jesus didn’t denounce tithing that we must still do it.
Did Jesus Talk About Tithing?
A select few New Testament passages bring up the tithe, but nowhere is the church commanded to tithe. Some will insist on tithing in the modern church based on the fact that Jesus didn’t denounce tithing in passages like Matthew 23:23, and Luke 11:42. However, what Jesus said in certain situations (such as scolding the Pharisees in Matt. 23:23) had more to do with calling these people hypocrites than mandating the tithe as command for the church. The Pharisees would keep one aspect of the law but turn around and break another for their own gain. They oppressed people with laws they couldn’t even keep themselves! One cannot take an honest interpretive leap into presuming the church must tithe based on that.
To use Jesus’ words as an argument for tithing is a slippery slope when proper context is understood.
Can Tithing Be Assumed for the Church?
Some may argue that the New Testament church would have already known about tithing because they were familiar with Jewish law and assumed it to be a rule of thumb. Or, that at the very least, it could be a principle they could apply as an essential practice to obey. Aside from numerous interpretive holes in this argument, one glaring oversight is that the church was not comprised of merely Jews, and obedience to the law was not the focus of the church – Christ was. Paul was assigned to the Gentiles and the early church was packed with Gentile converts. If tithing was something for the early church to carry on from Jewish law, then why wouldn’t tithing be taught in his letters to the Corinthians? Galatians? Colossians? Not only are commands or teaching about tithing completely absent from New Testament imperatives for the church, the concept of giving is taught explicitly without teaching on tithing. What Paul teaches about giving is a grace-filled, New-Covenant-focused, Gospel-centered rewrite altogether.
We are no longer under the law.
How Should We Be Giving Today?
If we base our teaching and giving on the proper context of what the New Testament actually teaches, we will find both clarity and freedom. Many churches are scared to loosen the noose of “tithing” from their people for fear that no one will give. In other words, they assume that instead of giving bountifully and generously as the Spirit leads, people will either decrease or even cease giving altogether. This is a pessimistic view; thinking quite low of Christians and their propensity to obey the Bible. It also neglects to remember that giving generously is still very much a part of the Christian life.
When properly instructed, doesn’t every true believer want to do what is right in God’s eyes? If we teach and obey the Bible properly, won’t giving increase as God blesses the church for His glorious work? Won’t the needs of the saints be met? Won’t the church thrive in joyfully unity? Wouldn’t the rich live as gospel patrons and the poor give sacrificially as equal partners in God’s eyes?
Think of it this way: giving 10% could be under-giving for a millionaire, and back-breaking for someone in poverty. But if both gave the way the New Testament instructs, the millionaire may give upwards of 80% and still have quite a surplus, while the impoverished and sacrificial giver may give 2-3% and be stepping out in faith. God sees the heart, and the sacrifice – not the amount. Some people may desire to use 10% as a baseline, or a group of leaders may commit to giving a certain amount together to support the church – great! But none of this is mandated “tithing,” it is simply a commitment.
The Holy Spirit’s words through Paul in 2 Corinthians 8 should be taken more seriously, as should the Macedonian example of giving. Instead of teaching law-driven tithes to church-age saints, why not just trust the God who wrote and preserved the Bible (Isaiah 40:8; 2 Timothy 3:16-17) to work powerfully through His truth rightly applied?
Based on two of the premier New Testament chapters on biblical giving that were written by Paul, here are ten ways we should be giving in the church today. Not tithing…giving:
- As a result of the grace of God (2 Corinthians 8:1).
- In tough times and in poverty (2 Corinthians 8:2a, 2c).
- Joyfully and cheerfully (2 Corinthians 8:2b; 9:7).
- Based on ability, not mandated percentages (2 Corinthians 8:3a).
- Sacrificially (2 Corinthians 8:3b).
- Voluntarily, not by way of manipulation or compulsion (2 Corinthians 8:3c; 9:7).
- With a sense of eager participation in Gospel work (2 Corinthians 8:4).
- Out of love for the Lord (2 Corinthians 8:5a).
- Generously as the Lord provides (2 Corinthians 9:6).
- Trusting God to replenish what is given so more can be given (2 Corinthians 9:10-11).
What a refreshing difference Paul’s words are from so many sermons that pull Old Testament verses out of context and apply them however a preacher fancies. Like the grace of God shattering the old bondage of the law and pouring out upon the church age, New Testament instructions on giving are liberal, generous, and Gospel-motivated! Not only is applying the requirement of a 10% tithe part of an inconsistent system of interpretation, it’s highly limiting when you think about how generous the church is encouraged to be. Giving isn’t an issue of the law, it’s an issue of the heart. The Macedonians were poor, but they gave like they were rich. They didn’t scour in obedience to the law, they rejoiced in the privilege of being a conduit of God’s grace. That is the perfect picture of how a Christian is to give in the New Covenant.
When properly understood in context and faithfully taught with conviction, the Scriptures give us all we need to be biblically minded – and biblically balanced – generous givers.