It started with a comment my wife shared with me, told to her by a mutual friend of ours; a comment that went something like this: “Jesus never taught tithing.”
Cue footage of atomic bomb exploding in my head.
Let me first say before I proceed, that I’m “old-school” when it comes to much of my theology and doctrine. And when I say “old school” I actually mean “biblical”. I believe (and have for most of my life) that if you’re a Christian then certain things should be true of you: you should be a committed part of a local body of believers, faithfully attending worship services (Heb. 10:25), and involved in the ministry (Gal. 5:13). You should love those around you freely, just like God loves you (Matt. 10:8). You should be actively involved in evangelism; that is, sharing the Good News of Christ when given opportunity by the Holy Spirit (Mark 16:15). And you should tithe–giving 10% of your income to your local church. I do this personally and have for years. Right off the “top” of any and all income I receive, 10% goes to the Lord as an acknowledgement of His provision and grace in my life. Not only that, but I have challenged other Christians to do the same. Not out of compulsion, guilt, or anything but gratitude. I’ve stood in front of large crowds, sharing my conviction that God desires us to be “cheerful givers” and that our tithe (literally meaning “tenth”) is something He desires–even expects.
Pretty simple, right?
I’ve begun to dive into a study on what the New Testament (including Jesus & the Pauline epistles) say about tithing, which was primarily an “old covenant/Law of Moses” instruction. And the more I read, the more convinced I become that tithing is more than a good idea, its a practice taught by Scripture.
First, let me share some of the verses that address the issue of tithing:
“A tithe of everything from the land, whether grain from the soil or fruit from the trees, belongs to the LORD; it is holy to the LORD.” –Lev. 27:30
This verse in Leviticus is a great “nutshell” of the other nearly 30 verses in the Old Testament that have to do with tithes. Another OT verse that is often used to support tithing is Malachi 8-10, especially verse 10:
“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 there will not be room enough to store it.”
I’ve heard this verse used countless times to teach the concept of tithing, and the jist of the teaching goes like this: “If you tithe on your income, God will bless you. If you don’t, He won’t.”
But here’s the rub: Malachi was speaking about food, not money. WARNING: Don’t stop reading here and think I’m going to conclude that Christians today are under no obligation to give money to their church. From my experience, many Christians have done just that, paying exorbitant mortgages and ridiculous car payments while their local church literally falls apart.
Now, to look at the New Testament and what Jesus and Paul specifically instruct about tithing. First of all, its true that Jesus does NOT articulately teach “You must tithe on your income.” You might be breathing a sigh of relief right now, but let me instead suggest that you hold your breath.
The most prominent passage where we see Jesus referring to giving money is found in what has become known as “The Widow’s Mite”. Take a look at these verses in Mark chapter 12:41-44:
“Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”
In this instance, Jesus seems to bypass the entire “tithe” principle and go straight for the jugular by showing that the woman who gave only a few cents gave much more than those who gave large amounts of money. We see here another example of the backwards, upside-down Kingdom and economy of God. An economy where less really is more. The reason why Jesus praises the giving of the widow and not the wealthy was because the widow was giving “all she had to live on” while the others simply gave from their “surplus”. So, while we might have an argument that Jesus doesn’t teach that we should give 10%, we should quickly realize that Jesus teaches the amount we give should be from an attitude of willingness to release all we have. Jesus seems to downplay the actual dollar amount and rather focuses on the attitude with which the widow gave.
And now, let’s see what Paul says about the issue of giving. First of all, there was a call to give regularly (1 Cor. 16:1-2). The practice of giving was ongoingly needed, so it was likewise ongoingly encouraged. The monetary gifts Paul was referring to here was to benefit those who were destitute in the famine-stricken Jerusalem. No matter the destination, the practice of giving to those in need was regularly upheld by Paul.
Next, the giving should come from an act of free will by the individual–not necessarily mandated or prescribed as to the amount. The Old Testament teaching of the tithe is replaced in the New Testament early church by the giving of money as an act of grace, generosity, and loving care for others.
Also, it should be pointed out that the giving of money is necessary to support those called to ministry; the pastors and leaders of the church. While I’m not trying to be self-serving (since as a pastor I definitely fall into this category), I do feel that the Bible is clear that regular, faithful, cheerful, and generous giving by Christians today is a practice upheld by Scripture; for the benefit of ministers and those in need in our community alike.
So, does Jesus teach tithing? Most certainly He taught tithing to those who were under the Law, just as He was (Matt. 23:23). But as for those who are under grace (Christians at and since the cross), we are “obligated” to give out of the overflowing abundance of grace that God has shown us on that cross. The question, “What shall I do for God?” can always correctly be addressed by asking “What has God done for me?” It is THIS principle, and not that of a dollar amount or percentage that ought to drive our giving today.
So, how and why do I personally still practice the tithe today? Why am I not living out my freedom to give 8% or 25% or 0%? It’s because I believe that the tithe is a fantastic guide for giving. It creates for me a discipline of giving and in that giving a mindfulness that none of what I could call mine is what I should call mine. All I have has come from God, belongs to God, and will ultimately return to God. And it is with that mindset that I give cheerfully.