Although I wasn’t raised in the church, one of the very first lessons I heard as a new Christian was about tithing. It was a given: God expects us to give 10% of our income directly back to Him. This rule was so pervasive in the culture of the church I attended that no one saw any need to support it with Scripture.
Since that time I’ve fellowshipped with a wide assortment of congregations. I’ve learned that there is more than one approach to this issue of giving. While most believers agree that we are to give 10%, how we give and where we give are subject to interpretation.
For example, one church asked that part of our tithe go to fund the church infrastructure (salaries, utilities, etc.), and the rest be given directly to our choice of missionaries or parachurch ministries. The explanation was that the leadership wanted us to pray and ask God where to give, plus giving directly encouraged a closer relationship with each member and the missionaries they chose to support.
Other churches have quoted Malachi 3:10—“Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse…” —as a basis for teaching that the entire tithe should be given to the church. If we wanted to support missionaries and parachurch organizations, we could do that by giving additional offerings, above and beyond our “mandatory” 10%.
At the time we moved to Colorado, we were directly supporting a number of people and organizations as part of our tithe. When our new church explained that they expected to receive the entire tithe directly, we found ourselves in a bind. Since we were raising support ourselves and had no outside income, we just could not afford to give 10% to the church and a substantial amount more to the list of people counting on our support. It was time to discover exactly what the Bible says about tithing.
I was intrigued to discover that the concept predates the law of Moses. In Genesis 14, Abram gives a tithe to Melchizedek, a “priest of God Most High.” And in Genesis 28:22, Jacob vows to give God a tenth of all that God gives to him.
The first mention of a God-ordained tithe is Leviticus 27:30-31, where God decrees that He owns a tenth of everything that the land produces. In this case, it’s specifically grain, oil, flocks, and other agricultural items. (However, Chronicles refers to manufactured items given as part of a tithe.)
Deuteronomy 12 – 14goes into more detail. The Israelites were to set aside a tenth of all that the land produces, pack a ginormous picnic basket, and haul it all to “the place He will choose as a dwelling for his Name” to eat it there. If you lived too far away to physically transport wine and oil and grain and lambs, you were to convert it all to cash, travel to the specified location, and there buy “whatever you like: cattle, sheep, wine or other fermented drink, or anything you wish. Then you and your household shall eat there in the presence of the Lord your God and rejoice.” (Deuteronomy 14:24-26) Party time!
However, every three years, that food was to be collected in the towns were it was produced and given to the Levites, the foreigners, and the poor (Deuteronomy 14:28-29). Apparently, it was this every-three-years tithe that Malachi refers to, and this tithe is the basis for our contemporary practice of tithing.
What about tithing in the New Testament? Jesus derided the Pharisees who were proud of their tithes (see Matthew 23:23 and Luke 11:42) but he also confirmed their tithing as something they should be doing.
Paul and the other writers of the epistles don’t mention tithing as a practice of the early church. Rather, 1 Corinthians 16:1-4 describes how offerings of money “in keeping with your income,” were set aside on the first day of every week. These funds were sent to Jerusalem to help the suffering believers there. Paul adds in 2 Corinthians 9:7, “Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”
As with everything else, the legalism of the Jews was replaced by our freedom as Christians indwelt by the Holy Spirit. He has given us a spirit of generosity, and ideally we give out of love and concern for others. In fact, we know people who live on 10% and give 90%!
What do you think? If we are no longer under the law, why is it then that churches keep preaching the law of the tithe? Are dutiful Christians required by God to tithe to their local church? Is 10% a precise standard, a “suggested donation,” or just the beginning?