Back in August I began a series of posts about money. How can we live generously in an age of consumerism? We explored
- consumerism – the dangers of life where shopping is a religion
- stewardship – we are God’s money managers – he is the owner
- generosity – the gospel has the power to set our hearts free to love to give
In this last post I want to respond to the question, “Should I tithe to my church?” This is really two questions (see how I snuck that second one in there?) so this post will be a little longer than usual. Let’s take these questions one at a time.
Should I Tithe?
First, “Should I tithe?” Asked another way, “Are Christians required to tithe?” This seems like a simple “yes” or “no” question, doesn’t it? And it is not difficult to find people providing straightforward yes and no answers. However, when we survey all that God has to say to us about tithing, from Genesis to Revelation, we find the answer to our question requires more than one word. Let’s think our way through this biblically.
The word “tithe” literally means “one-tenth” or 10%. The first tither in the Bible was Abraham who gave a tithe of his victory spoils to the mysterious priest-king Melchizedek (Genesis 14:18-20). Later God gave Israel various laws about tithing and offerings (Leviticus 27:30-33; Numbers 18:21-24) as he set up a sacrificial system that was sustained by the gifts of the people. The prophet Malachi warned Judah that they were robbing God for failing to tithe (Malachi 3:6-12).
When Jesus comes on the scene, he chides the scribes and Pharisees for being precise in tithing their spices while they were neglecting weightier matters like justice and mercy (Matthew 23:23). His remedy? Don’t stop tithing, but do focus on more important matters like justice and mercy. After this, in the rest of the New Testament, we find many exhortations to generosity and giving (1 Timothy 6:17-20), but no mention of tithing. Little is said about tithing in the documents we have from early church history, until the late fourth century when church fathers such as Jerome and Augustine advocated tithing.
What is God’s word to Christians about tithing? If, Jesus encouraged the practice but, then, after the resurrection, the New Testament is silent about tithing, how do we interpret that silence? Is tithing a law that carries over from the old covenant to the new, like loving God with all your heart, or is it one that is fulfilled in Christ, like the rules against eating pork? Reasonable arguments can be made on both sides, but in my opinion the call for Christians to tithe falls short of a command that must be obeyed. The clear teaching of the New Testament after Christ’s resurrection (e.g. under the New Covenant) is to give generously (2 Corinthians 8 – 9), inspired by Christ’s willingness to give himself for us (2 Corinthians 8:9). God’s promise is still to reward generous givers, since it is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35).
Though tithing is no longer a command to be obeyed, I believe it remains a wise practice to be continued. It is an excellent starting point in bringing our finances under the Lordship of Jesus. If God’s people under the old covenant could be expected to give ten percent of their income, in addition to various other offerings and gifts, why would we expect that we, having a better covenant with better promises, would be less generous? The question we want to ask isn’t, “What percentage do I have to give to satisfy the rule?” but “How much does God want me to give of what I’m managing for him?” and “How can I manage things so that next year I can give more than I did this year?”
If someone asked me, “Should I tithe?” my short answer would be, “You are under no obligation to give away 10% of your income, but I strongly encourage you to start by giving that much and to look for other opportunities to be generous and ready to give as well.” If you’re not sure about this, or not sure how to get started because your finances need help, come see one of the elders or check out the Personal Finance ministry on our website.
Should I tithe to my church?
The second part of the question relates to where we give our money. We’ve already seen that God gives no New Testament command to give a certain percentage of your money away, so again we are in the arena of wisdom, not commands. This question is really one of priorities. How does a Christian prioritize his or her giving? Church only? Church first? Fifty-fifty with other ministries?
I believe that your church should be your first priority when you give. In addition, with glad and generous hearts, we also want to pursue giving offerings to support other ministries and people. Allow me to offer three reasons to make church the first priority in giving.
First, your church is your home base for your life as a disciple of Jesus. Giving to your church parallels with the way the Old Testament system supported priests and the temple. Giving to your church isn’t like paying your bills; it is an expression of faith, conveying gratefulness for what is received and expressing support for our shared mission. Supporting the ministry of a church is a cooperative effort. We pool our money to promote the ministry of the gospel in our congregation, our city, and to the ends of the earth.
Second, if the church fails, there is no plan B for the world. John Piper writes, “If that institution [church] fails, all other ministries become ineffective…The local church is the seedbed for all other ministries. The church is the place where the participants of those ministries find their nourishment and the biblical expression of their corporate worship.”
Third, the church is the focus of God’s plan of redemption. Jesus died for the church, Jesus is the Chief Shepherd of the church, Jesus is returning for his church. God loves the church, and giving our tithes and offerings to the church is a way of embracing God’s passion for the church.
If someone asked me, “Mark, should I tithe to my church?” my short answer would be, “I think making your church your first priority in giving is a wise practice and I strongly encourage you to do that. I also strongly encourage you to excel in the grace of giving, seeking to give more and more both to your church and to other worthy people and organizations. By God’s grace, these have been the priorities of Lesley’s and my finances for our entire marriage.”
Generosity is a big topic, and an important one, isn’t it? It’s always helpful to have some good resources to stir us up and encourage us, so we’ll provide a “best of” resource list in next week’s Midweek Musings.
P.S. Got comments or questions about this post, or ideas for another one? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.