Tithing: The Training Wheels of Giving
Grace, Law, and Tithing
I have mixed feelings on tithing. I detest legalism. I certainly don’t want to pour new wine into old wineskins, imposing superseded first covenant restrictions on Christians. However, the fact is that every New Testament example of giving goes beyond the tithe. This means that none falls short of it. The strongest arguments made against tithing today are “law versus grace.” But does being under grace mean we should stop doing all that was done under the law?
I’m a strong believer in the new covenant’s superiority over the old ( Romans 7; 2 Corinthians 3; Hebrews 8 ). On the other hand, I believe there’s ongoing value to certain aspects of the old covenant. The model of paying back to God the firstfruits (tithing) and giving freewill offerings beyond that is among those. Because we are never told that tithing has been superseded, and because Jesus directly affirmed it (Matthew 23:23 ) and prominent church fathers taught it as a requirement for Christian living, it seems to me the burden of proof falls on those who say tithing is no longer a minimum standard for God’s people. The question is not whether tithing is the whole of Christian giving or even at the center of it. Clearly it is not. Many people associate the command to tithe with the command to keep the Sabbath. New Testament Christians are not obligated to keep the Sabbath with all its legislated rules under the Mosaic covenant (Colossians 2:16 ). However, a weekly day of rest based on God’s pattern of creation was instituted before the Law (Genesis 2:2-3 ). It’s a principle never revoked in the New Testament. The special day of observance changed to Sunday, “the Lord’s day,” yet the principle of one special day set aside for worship remained intact.
Christ fulfilled the entire Old Testament, but he didn’t render it irrelevant.
Christ fulfilled the entire Old Testament, but he didn’t render it irrelevant. Old Testament legislation demonstrated how to love my neighbor. Although the specific regulations don’t all apply, the principles certainly do, and many of the guidelines are still as helpful as ever. Consider the command to build a roof with a parapet to protect people from falling off (Deuteronomy 22:8). When it comes to the Old Testament, we must be careful not to throw out the baby (ongoing principles intended for everyone) with the bathwater (detailed regulations intended only for ancient Israel).
We don’t offer sacrifices anymore, so why should we tithe? Because sacrifices are specifically rescinded in the New Testament. As the book of Hebrews demonstrates, Christ has rendered inoperative the whole sacrificial system. But where in the New Testament does it indicate that tithing is no longer valid? There is no such passage. With a single statement, God could have easily singled out tithing like he did sacrifices and the Sabbath. But he didn’t.
Some argue against tithing by saying, “The New Testament advocates voluntary offerings.” Yes, but as we’ve seen, so does the Old Testament. Voluntary giving is not a new concept. Having a minimum standard of giving has never been incompatible with giving above and beyond that standard. If both mandatory and voluntary giving coexisted under the old covenant, why not the new? It’s not a matter of either tithing or voluntary offering. The two have always been fully compatible.
The disciples gave all that they had because “much grace was upon them all” ( Acts 4:33). It was obvious from the beginning that being under grace didn’t mean that New Testament Christians would give less than their Old Testament brethren. On the contrary, it meant they would give more.
Being under grace does not mean living by lower standards than the law. Christ systematically addressed such issues as murder, adultery, and the taking of oaths and made it clear that his standards were much higher than those of the Pharisees (Matthew 5:17-48). He never lowered the bar. He always raised it. But he also empowers us by his grace to jump higher than the law demanded.
Since writing the original edition of this book in 1989, I’ve heard Christians argue—often angrily—that tithing is legalism. They claim tithing is bondage, and we have been liberated to “grace giving.” As we’ve seen, however, the Israelites’ triple tithes amounted to 23 percent of their income—in contrast to the average 2.5 percent giving of American Christians. This statistic suggests that the law was about ten times more effective than grace! Even using 10 percent as a measure, the Israelites were four times more responsive to the Law of Moses than the average American Christian is to the grace of Christ. (Reread that last sentence and ask yourself if something isn’t terribly wrong.)
When we as New Testament believers, living in a far more affluent society than ancient Israel, give only a fraction of that given by the poorest Old Testament believers, we surely must reevaluate our concept of “grace giving.” And when you consider that we have the indwelling Spirit of God and they didn’t, the contrast becomes even more glaring.
I believe there’s a timeless truth behind the concept of giving God the firstfruits. Whether or not the tithe is still the minimum measure of those firstfruits, I ask myself, does God expect his new covenant children to give less, the same, or more? I’ve found that, to many people, the term “grace giving” simply means “give whatever you feel like.” (And obviously most people just don’t feel like giving!) The assumption seems to be that God no longer expects his people to give substantially.
Many people do not give because they haven’t been taught to give. As the law was a tutor to lead us to Christ (Galatians 3:24 ), so the tithe can be a tutor that leads us to giving. If we can learn to give without tithing, fine. But the giving track record of American Christians clearly indicates we have not learned to give. In fact, we’ve learned not to give. Our giving declines as our prosperity increases. And perhaps worst of all, we continue to lose ground, because our children are giving even less than we are. Although grace giving is a wonderful sounding term, it has come to disguise an underlying attitude that is twisted and unbiblical. It has dishonored us, our children, our churches, and above all, our Lord.
Whatever the Church is teaching about giving today, either it’s not true to Scripture, the message isn’t getting through, or we’re being disobedient. The tithe is God’s historical method to get people on the path of giving. In that sense, it can serve as a gateway to the joy of true “grace giving” today, just as it gave rise to the spontaneous, joyous, freewill giving we see in various Old Testament passages. It’s unhealthy to view tithing as a place to stop with our giving, but it can still be a good place to start. Remember, even under the first covenant, tithing was never a maximum standard—it was merely a starting point.
Tithing isn’t the finish line of giving; it’s the starting blocks. But, clearly, most of us need help getting started!
Can tithing be legalistic? Of course. The holy habits of church attendance, prayer, and Bible reading can also degenerate into legalism—but that doesn’t make them illegitimate. Anyone who stops going to church, praying, or reading Scripture for fear of being legalistic is approaching the problem from the wrong angle!
Some fine Bible teachers preach against tithing. They themselves may be strong givers, but I don’t think they realize the effects of their words on those who have no concept of disciplined giving. I get mail from people who strenuously object—sometimes with name-calling—to the suggestion that tithing is a legitimate starting place for Christians. I listen to any Christian who says, “Tithing isn’t meant for us today”—provided he gives regularly himself and that his giving exceeds the tithe. But I’ve learned that often there’s a hidden agenda behind the protest.
The pro-grace or anti-legalism trump card rings hollow when it attempts to normalize wealthy Christians giving less than the poorest Israelite.
The pro-grace or anti-legalism trump card rings hollow when it attempts to normalize wealthy Christians giving less than the poorest Israelite. While appearing to take the theological high ground, they are effectively saying that God has lowered his standards of giving and that the power of New Testament grace is less than that of the law. Such a view is an insult to the saving and empowering work of Christ. With some exceptions, I have found that most who argue against tithing use their arguments to justify their own lack of generous giving. My response is to gently suggest to such people that their reasons may be less biblical and theological than personal—they simply don’t want to give that much.
We tend naturally to embrace arguments that serve our perceived self-interests. Our substandard giving suggests we have ulterior motives for adopting an anti-tithing theology. We should consider the converse of what Jesus said in Matthew 6:21: Where our treasure isn’t shows where our heart isn’t.
We must examine our hearts to discover whether when we say, “Tithing isn’t for today,” we are using grace as a license to clutch tighter to material wealth. The New Testament clearly demonstrates that Christians are called upon to be more sacrificial and generous, not less.
Some friends of ours, as young Christians, believed they were supposed to tithe. They did so faithfully, not legalistically, and God used tithing to remind them to put him first. Like the discipline of a regular quiet time, the discipline of tithing moved their thoughts toward God. However, when they started attending another church—a large Bible-teaching church—they heard from the pulpit “tithing is legalism” and “God has called us to grace giving.” Unfortunately, the pastor did not suggest any starting place or guidelines for grace giving. As a result of this teaching, our newly “liberated” friends reduced their giving. Within a few years, they were giving almost nothing. Meanwhile, they floundered in their walk with God and incurred more and more debt. Finally, in a different church, they were reintroduced to the concept of tithing—not as a legalistic ritual, but as a simple starting place for giving. When they committed themselves to tithing again, they sensed God’s blessing and experienced a peace they hadn’t known for years. They attribute their several years of spiritual wandering directly to this high-sounding but misleading concept of “grace giving.”
Jesus and Tithing
Jesus was raised in a devout Jewish home, meaning that his parents tithed and instructed him to tithe. The Old Testament, the only Bible Jesus knew, also taught him to tithe. During his ministry, although Jesus was carefully scrutinized by his enemies and accused of every possible offense, including breaking the Sabbath, never once did they accuse him of violating the law of tithing. The Talmud forbade a strict keeper of the law from sitting down to dine with anyone who did not tithe. Yet on several occasions, the Pharisees ate at the same table with Jesus. Obviously, Christ tithed.
Furthermore, Jesus specifically said that while they should have paid attention to more important things, the Pharisees were correct in being careful to tithe: “You should have practiced the latter [justice, mercy, and faithfulness] without neglecting the former [tithing]” (Matthew 23:23).
With his emphasis on sacrificial giving Jesus never once suggested that the “floor” set by the tithe is now invalid, but simply that the ceiling of Christian giving is far above it. When Jesus told the disciples to go the second mile, he assumed they had already gone the first.
The Early Church and Tithing
Because tithing and freewill offerings were so deeply embedded in the Jewish consciousness, the Jewish Christians who composed the early Church naturally gave their tithes and freewill offerings to the local assembly. Having been transformed by the grace of Jesus, their freewill offerings were no doubt greater than ever. But there is no suggestion that the early Church ever retreated from believing that the tithe was a mandatory minimum for giving.
That this was still the case within the first few hundred years of the Church is demonstrated in the words of the influential Church father Irenaeus: “The Jews were constrained to a regular payment of tithes; Christians, who have liberty, assign all their possessions to the Lord, bestowing freely not the lesser portions of their property, since they have the hope of greater things.”82 Note the key phrase, “not the lesser portions,” in reference to the Jews. This is a direct indication that the tithe was considered a minimum standard in the early Christian community.
A few hundred years later, Augustine indicated that tithing was still practiced: “Tithes are required as a matter of debt, and he who has been unwilling to give them has been guilty of robbery. Whosoever, therefore, desires to secure a reward for himself . . . let him render tithes, and out of the nine parts let him seek to give alms.”83 Note the clear distinction between the mandatory tithe and the voluntary offering of almsgiving. Alms were to be given—above and beyond the tithe.
Jerome said, “If anyone shall not do this [pay tithes] he is convicted of defrauding and supplanting God.”84 Like Augustine, Jerome believed and taught that it is possible for New Testament Christians to “rob God” by withholding the tithe, just as it was for Old Testament believers. For the first four hundred years, the Church often, if not normally, considered the practice of tithing a minimum standard for giving.
The Benefits of Tithing
In most states, there’s a mandatory seat-belt law. For many years wearing a seat belt wasn’t a legal requirement. But even when it wasn’t required, it was still a good idea. But suppose the seat-belt law was repealed. Would I stop wearing my seat belt? Would I tell my children or grandchildren, “Take off your seat belts. We’re not under the law, and we’re not going to be legalistic, so no more seat belts for us.” Of course not. A good idea is a good idea, whether or not it’s the law.
Even if you don’t agree with me on the biblical arguments, please don’t dismiss the practical arguments for tithing. For example, the concept of tithing is clear, consistent, and transferable—that is, it can easily be taught to others, including children. It increases the believer’s sense of commitment to God’s work. Tithing can also be a significant factor in spiritual growth. I just reread ten letters written to me by church families whose spiritual lives were revolutionized as they discovered how to give. Though a number of them now give more than the tithe, seven of the ten specifically mention that tithing was a spiritual breakthrough in their lives.
Over the years, I’ve interviewed many generous givers, some of whose stories I tell on our Web site (www.epm.org/givingstories). Though I never introduce the subject myself, a high percentage of these givers mention that they started with tithing. That was their introduction to the great adventure of giving. Though they’ve now gone far beyond it, they are quick to credit learning to tithe with their launch into giving. One Christian leader said, “As I reflect on my growth as a Christian across the years, the second most important gift of grace I have received has been the discipline of tithing. The first was the surrender of my will to Jesus Christ.” He went on to say of himself and his wife, “The Lord got our hearts when we began to tithe.”85
If Western Christians all practiced tithing, the task of world evangelism and feeding the hungry would be within reach.
If Western Christians all practiced tithing, the task of world evangelism and feeding the hungry would be within reach. Because many Christians, once they begin to tithe, also give freewill offerings beyond the tithe, the work of God could be multiplied in every corner of the world.
Many churches have demonstrated the spiritual power of tithing. The Southern Baptist denomination, which began in 1845, now has about 5,000 missionaries in 153 countries. Not only do the Southern Baptists emphasize missions, they also emphasize tithing as the means to underwrite missions, as well as to meet the needs of the local church. Church members understand that they are expected to tithe. Although I am not a Southern Baptist, I’m confident they would’ve had far less impact, both in their communities and in world evangelization, if they hadn’t emphasized tithing.
Tithing: Gross or Net?
Business owners must pay for materials, rent, employee wages, and many other expenses. These costs are not included in their personal gross income and therefore would not be subject to tithing. But our personal income isn’t merely what’s left after taxes and bills are paid. The value we receive for company-paid retirement, life insurance, health insurance, etc., is all part of God’s provision for us, isn’t it? Scripture refers to “a tithe of everything.”
Because taxes are withheld and insurance payments are made by their employers, many don’t consider those dollars as income. But suppose your employer also withheld money for your house payment, groceries, and children’s tuition. Would you consider those no longer part of your income and therefore not subject to tithing? If your employer paid all your bills, would that mean you wouldn’t give anything to the Lord?
Tithing naturally applies not only to the cash we hold in our hands, but also to the value of everything that is accrued, paid, or provided for our benefit. When we tithe, Nanci and I try to take into consideration all of God’s provisions, including those that are sometimes difficult to quantify, such as when someone graciously provides us a place to stay on vacation. Our freewill giving then starts beyond this amount. Although tithing itself is satisfying, for us the real fun begins when we move beyond it to freewill giving.
When asked “Should we tithe on the gross or the net?” it’s appropriate to ask, “What do we want to be blessed on, the gross or the net?”
Why Not Tithe?
There can be serious problems with tithing. People can treat it as an unwanted tax or bill, robbing themselves of joy. In some churches, tithing is like paying membership dues. You pay to belong to a club and you pay to belong to the church. Tithing can lead to pride that we’re part of a faithful remnant that really trusts God, in contrast to all those nontithing apostates.
One of the worst dangers of tithing is complacency. While arguing strongly for tithing, one writer adds this caution:
The tithe can become an idol to set upon a pedestal to admire. It is often a dangerously tempting resting place rather than a minimal starting place. Much of the Christian community thinks of tithing as a high and lofty perch that only a few fanatical radicals have reached after years of struggle, rather than seeing it at the bottom or beginning place.86
Someone told me, “I wish I’d win a million dollars in the lottery. Then I’d give $100,000 to the Lord, and I could do whatever I want with the rest!” But tithing isn’t something I do to clear my conscience so I can do whatever I want with the 90 percent—it also belongs to God! I must seek his direction and permission for whatever I do with the full amount. I may discover that God has different ideas than I do.
There are many common arguments against tithing, including the following:
“Tithing is legalism.”
Any legitimate practice can be done with a legalistic attitude. In such cases, the fault lies with the attitude of our heart, not with the practice itself. If anything hits too close to home or starts meddling in our life, we can dismiss it simply by calling it “legalistic.” Legalism can be a convenient label to cover our unwillingness to obey God.
Although most of the letters I received in response to the original edition of this book were positive, by far the majority of negative responses concerned tithing. Here’s one example (with the writer’s capitalization retained):
Dearest Teacher of the Gospel,
I read what you said about tithing and here are my comments: Adding to the Gospel of Christ comes from the devil . . . and you know it. All the Blessings I receive from our MIGHTY GOD are free. Received by Faith—not by paying 10 percent to SATAN, may GOD REBUKE HIM.
Stop perverting the gospel of Christ. If you want to imitate Abraham [who tithed], I will be glad to circumcise you myself. Just come on down. I will also expect you to imitate him in offering sacrifices, the altar, the ram, the blood. And do not forget your firstborn, you hypocrite.
I do love you and pray that the Demon would depart from your wicked teachings. REPENT FOR THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN IS NEAR!
After years of ministry, my instincts have been honed enough to surmise that the person who wrote this e-mail was upset. I’m just grateful for his assurance that he loves me. Think of what the letter might have said if he didn’t! Although this response is extreme, it’s only different in degree, not in kind, from many others. I’d like to think it’s just because people hate legalism, which I also despise. Unfortunately, I’ve concluded it’s also because many Christians are under the Holy Spirit’s conviction because of their failure to give.
“I must pay off my debts rather than tithe.”
Why am I in debt in the first place? Is God responsible for my unwise or greedy decisions that may have put me there? And even if I’ve come into debt legitimately, isn’t my first debt to God? Isn’t the tithe a debt to God since he says that it belongs to him and not to me? If we obey God and make good our financial debt to him, he’ll help us as we seek to pay off our debts to others. But I must not rob God to pay men.
“If I’m going to tithe eventually, I’ll need to move toward it slowly.”
I’m often asked, “If I haven’t been giving at all, won’t God understand if I move toward it gradually, starting at 3 percent or 5 percent?” What if I told you I’ve had this bad habit of robbing convenience stores, knocking off about a dozen a year. But then I say to you “This year I’m only going to rob a half-dozen!” Is that better? Well, yes. But what would you advise me to do? The solution to robbing God is not to start robbing him less, it’s to stop robbing him at all.
“I just can’t afford to tithe.”
Of course I can. If tithing is God’s will and he promises to provide for those who trust and obey him, won’t he allow me to get by on 90 percent rather than 100 percent? In fact, aren’t I a lot safer living on less inside God’s will than living on more outside it?
Here’s an interesting hypothesis: No one benefits from a tithe he or she holds on to. We can’t keep what belongs to God. If we don’t give it to him, either the devil gets it or it just disappears. Whether or not this is true, many Christians testify that they live just as easily on the 90 percent as the 100 percent. Many others have said that their financial problems really began when they withheld the tithe, not when they tithed. We have it backwards!
If tithing is God’s minimum expectation, can I afford not to tithe? Can I afford to rob God, or are there always consequences? Of course, there is one way to reduce my tithe, and that is to reduce my income. If my tithe seems to be a lot of money, I should praise God! It proves how abundantly he has provided. When people tell me, “I can’t afford to tithe,” I often ask, “If your income were reduced by 10 percent, would you die?” They always admit they wouldn’t. Somehow, they would manage to get by. That’s proof that they really can tithe. The truth is simply that they don’t want to. An atheist could get by if he gave away 10 percent of his income. Even if they don’t believe in God, people can afford to tithe. How much more should Christians be able to trust God and by faith step out in obedience and watch him provide?
Ironically, many people “can’t afford” to give precisely because they’re not giving ( Haggai 1:9-11 ; Malachi 3:9 ). If you think this principle is restricted to the Old Testament, consider Christ’s words: “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Luke 6:38).
If we pay our debt to God first, then we will incur his blessing to help us pay our debts to men. But when we rob God to pay men, we rob ourselves of God’s blessing and thereby dig a deeper hole. No wonder we don’t have enough. It’s a vicious cycle, and it takes obedient faith to break out of it.
I receive many e-mails from people who say they can’t tithe. I suggest that they are robbing themselves of blessing because they’re robbing God. When we steal from him, we cannot expect him to bless us financially.
I find that most people sincerely believe that if they made more money they would start tithing. Yet, as the statistics cited earlier show, the richer someone becomes the less likely it is he or she will tithe.
Others believe their poverty exempts them from tithing. Yet by global standards, most of these people are easily in the top 10 percent of the world’s wealthy. I’ve been with poor Africans who make less than $50 a year to care for their large families, and they wouldn’t think of giving less than a tithe.
What’s wrong with us?
God doesn’t tell us to do something without empowering us. The tithe is a proportion, and a small one at that. It’s not as if everyone is assigned a fixed amount, such as $5,000, to give each month. If our income is small, our tithe is proportionally small. In some cases, those who say they “can’t afford to tithe” live in very nice homes, regularly go out to eat, have a boat in the driveway, belong to a health club, and vacation at expensive resorts. We brought groceries to a man in our church to feed his family, only to find he had a $30,000 recreational vehicle sitting in his driveway.
When it comes to giving, we need a major reality check.
Profiles of Christians Who Rob God
The Situation: Bill and Donna are in their midthirties. Bill has steady work, but there’s always too much month left at the end of their money. Bill and Donna sincerely intend to put in the offering box whatever’s left at the end of the month. But between house payments, bills, and sticking a little into savings, there’s never anything left. They feel bad, but what can they do when they’re out of money?
The Problem: Bill and Donna don’t understand “firstfruits.” They should give to the Lord off the top, not out of what’s left—or not left. They don’t realize that the tithe belongs to God, and that there’s a word for taking money that doesn’t belong to them—stealing.
The Situation: Joan’s a twenty-two-year-old, just finishing college. Her thirty-hour-a-week job pays just over minimum wage. She earns $800 a month. Joan’s parents still provide room and board, but she has to take care of her tuition, books, and other expenses.
“I can’t afford to give,” says Joan. “I’m barely making it now. If I gave a tithe, it would be $80 a month, and I’d probably have to drop out of school. I’d like to give, but I just can’t.”
The Problem: Joan is not only robbing God, she’s robbing herself of the opportunity to grow in faith. Right now she doesn’t believe God’s promise in Malachi 3 (confirmed in Matthew 6:33 and Luke 6:38) that he’ll take care of her if she puts God first by giving him what’s his. If God is capable of helping her get by on $800 a month, isn’t he capable of helping her get by on $720 a month? Joan’s God doesn’t seem very big—he can’t even compensate for an $80 shortfall.
The Situation: Bob and Elaine are in their early fifties. Elaine says, “For years we frittered away our income on all kinds of luxuries. Now we’re twelve years from retirement and we don’t have anything saved. On top of that, we’ve still got two kids in college.”
“We’d like to give to the church,” Bob explains, “but Scripture says we’ve got to provide for our family first. After we get our kids through school and get a nest egg started, then we’ll start giving.”
The Problem: Bob and Elaine are keeping what belongs to God in order to compensate for their poor planning and lack of discipline. Their first debt is not to their children’s college education. Their first debt is to God. If it wasn’t tuition costs, it would be something else. Since they have no standard of giving, they’ll always find reasons not to give.
The Situation: Phil and Pam enjoy giving. With their little blue Santa’s helper (credit card) they just gave each other a DVD player and a large-screen television. The kids got a new computer to keep them busy while their parents enjoy the city’s finer restaurants. They’re tired of their three-year-old Chevy, so they just bought a new model.
“Next year I’ve got a big promotion coming,” says Phil. “Then we’ll start giving. Right now the budget’s tight. It’s not that we don’t ever give to God’s work,” Phil adds. “Why, when we were in Hawaii last month we attended a church service on the beach and I dropped $20 in the offering.”
The Problem: Phil and Pam are blind. They say there’s no money left to give—and they do their best to make sure of it! No matter what they say, their lifestyle proves that toys, trips, and cars are more important to them than God and others. They say they’ll give when they earn more, but they won’t. If Phil and Pam have been unfaithful with a little (more than a little), they’ll be unfaithful with a lot. Their expenditures will always rise to meet their income. Making more money will only make them guilty of robbing God more. Phil and Pam don’t understand that the tithe belongs to God, not them, and they should return to him the “firstfruits,” not “last fruits” or “no fruits.”
The Situation: Don and Sue believe that they aren’t under law but grace, and that tithing lends itself to a pharisaical “letter of the law” approach. They believe that God’s law is written in our hearts and we should give freely without compulsion. They are proud of their mature and liberating belief in “grace giving.”
The Problem: Last year Don and Sue’s “grace giving” amounted to $30 per month—about one-half of one percent of their income. While they laud grace and deplore the law, their actions suggest that grace is one-twentieth as effective as the law. If grace is as ineffective in motivating their sexual purity as it is their giving, they won’t be married much longer. (The problem isn’t grace, of course, but their belief that grace means God has lowered his standards and doesn’t care how we live.)
The Situation: Ralph was laid off three months ago and collects $1500 a month in unemployment. Others in the church give him an average of $500 per month to supplement his income. Ralph says “amen” to the financial sermons and wishes he were in a position to give too. Ralph assumes that even though God says the tithe belongs to him, it surely doesn’t apply to things like unemployment, social security, benefits, gifts, inheritances, or other “nonsalary” forms of income.
The Problem: Scripture makes no such distinction between sources of revenue. If it comes in, it’s income. God doesn’t tag monies “tithe exempt.” The source of material blessing is not the point. If I receive $500 to help get me through the month, the first $50 belongs to God. Why should it matter where it comes from? If it’s provision, it comes from the Provider.
The Situation: “There’s a lot more to stewardship than money,” says Gina. “We can’t all give—but we can teach Sunday school, clean the building, and open our homes to guests. I consider that to be my giving.”
The Problem: Gina rightly believes that stewardship involves more than money—but she wrongly believes that stewardship ever fails to include money. Her argument is just as faulty as saying, “I can’t give the church any of my time or my gifts and talents, so I’ll just give my money instead.” God expects all of these, not just some of them. We all can and should give, just as we all can and should pray. Gina is attempting to justify robbing God by “making up for it” with things she should be doing anyway.
The Situation: “I’m so far in debt that I can’t give a dime to the church,” says Tony. “What am I supposed to do, stop my car payments? What kind of testimony would that be? And it would be bad stewardship to sell my car—I’d have to take a $3,000 loss. God doesn’t want me to be stupid, does he?”
The Problem: Tony has already been stupid. In buying his new car, he put himself in a position to disobey God’s command to give. He violated Scripture by spending money he didn’t have. His greedy and foolish misuse of credit is what put him in this fix. Tony apparently believes that God, his church, and needy people should pay for his foolish choices. Why not take a $3,000 loss in order to get into a position to obey God? Is there any stewardship more terrible than robbing your Creator and Savior?
Tony is another person who acts as if the tithe is his, not God’s. Scripture doesn’t say “firstfruits” are to be given to those to whom they will be the best testimony, but to God. If Tony ends up having a bad testimony, it’s because of his foolish choices, which are only complicated by further disobedience. He needs to ask forgiveness and learn from the situation so he doesn’t do it again. But it makes no sense to rob God in order to have a “better testimony” to men.
The Situation: Joe is an outspoken Christian known as a man of faith. He stands up at church business meetings and says he wants the church to build, raise the pastors’ salaries, and expand into new ministries. Joe challenges the church to rise to the occasion and reads passages of Scripture about walking by faith. He inspires everyone. Everyone, that is, except God and the financial secretary, who know the truth: If everyone gave like Joe, the pastors would be laid off, the missionaries would have to leave the field, and the church would close its doors.
The Problem: Joe has great faith and vision when it comes to other people’s obedience. It’s his own obedience he has trouble with. He fails to ask himself, “If everyone gave like I do, where would this church be?” He’s quick to commit other people’s money but clings to his own. Joe is a hypocrite. He says one thing and does another. In doing so, he heaps up judgment for himself. He’ll be held accountable to God, not only for his lack of giving, but also for his hollow words.
The Situation: Paula believes in giving but thinks that Scripture says giving should be voluntary. After all, “God loves a cheerful giver.” However, Paula is not yet to the point that she really wants to give. “Given my financial obligations, right now I just can’t give cheerfully,” Paula says. “And if you can’t give cheerfully, you shouldn’t give at all.”
The Problem: Paula is right that God wants us to give cheerfully. But she is wrong in thinking that she should only give if she feels like it. The tithe belongs to God. It is not Paula’s to withhold, regardless of how she feels about it. Paula’s point about cheerfulness may be relevant to freewill offerings (those beyond the tithe), but not to the tithe itself, since it doesn’t belong to her in the first place. After becoming obedient, Paula will perhaps become more cheerful in her giving. But whether she does or not, she should still be obedient.
The Situation: Dan is a seminary student headed for the ministry. He and his wife, Karla, have sacrificed to attend seminary. Knowing that God commands them to give to his work, they believe that by giving their tithe to their own tuition they are investing in the ministry, even though they don’t give to their church.
The Problem: Dan and Karla are not God, and they are not the church. Giving to themselves is not giving to God or the church, no matter how the money is spent. The people of Israel brought tithes to the storehouse for the spiritually qualified leaders of Israel to distribute, just as the first Christians laid gifts at the apostles’ feet. The Israelites were not given the option of “tithing to themselves”—that is a contradiction in terms. It is not their tithe, it is God’s.
Should church leaders or others decide to help Dan and Karla financially, that’s up to them and God—not to Dan and Karla. They are robbing God, and it’s hard to imagine him blessing them as they steal their way through seminary.
This final profile centers not on the amount of giving, but where it goes:
The Situation: Jim is a successful Christian businessman who wants his dollars to count. “I strongly believe in tithing,” says Jim. “Part of my tithe goes to a missions organization, part to a student ministry, a radio broadcast, and a television ministry. I believe in giving where it matters. Too much of the church’s money goes to salaries and buildings and maintenance. I don’t want my money going to clean restrooms and mow lawns. I’m not that impressed with the church anyway. The services are too crowded, the building needs repairs, and we ought to be giving more money to missions. Why doesn’t this church get on the ball?”
The Problem: Jim fails to understand the centrality of the local church in God’s kingdom program. Jim is annoyed at the deterioration of the church facilities, yet he doesn’t want his money going to buildings. He would be appalled at dirty restrooms, yet he doesn’t want his money to clean them. He wants and expects his pastors to meet his needs, but he doesn’t want to pay their salaries. He wants the church to give to missions, but he doesn’t give to the church. The church will get on the ball when people like Jim get on the ball.
Beginning Where God Began
Without guideposts, where do you start giving? Why not start where God started Israel? Why not start with the tithe? I view tithing as a child’s first steps. His first steps aren’t his last, neither are they his best, but they’re a fine beginning. Tithing is the first toddler’s step of stewardship. It’s the training wheels on the bicycle of giving. It’s not a home run, but it gets you on base—which is a lot further than many Christians ever get.
For those who still believe the tithe has no bearing on Christians, let me suggest that you figure out your pretax income from every source—all of it, including the dollar value of the benefits you receive—then multiply by 10 percent. If you discover that you have been regularly giving beyond 10 percent, then you’re right—you don’t need the tithe, any more than you need training wheels on a bike. Just go right on doing what you’re doing and let God move you on in freewill giving. But if your giving adds up to 7 percent or 5 percent or 3 percent, it shows you really do need the tithe as training wheels to get you up on the bike of giving. If you fear legalism, fine, start at 11 percent or 12 percent. Choose your own percentage—but don’t go below a standard you believe was superseded by the superior grace of Christ.
Begin with the tithe. It shows you’re serious. As you continue to tithe, you’ll sense God’s approval. You’ll experience the freedom and joy of acknowledging his lordship of your money and possessions, and thereby your whole life.
“I can see it’s right to tithe, but I can’t start right now.” To procrastinate obedience is to disobey God. Trust him to help you begin this life-changing, eternity-impacting adventure of giving. Tithing isn’t the end of giving—but it can be a good beginning.
Randy Alcorn, Money, Possessions, and Eternity (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale, 2003).