Tithing – and beyond

Although tithing is mentioned in many places in the Old Testament, the passage that is most often quoted by preachers is found in Malachi 3.10. There God says through his servant Malachi: “Bring the full amount of your tithes to the Temple, so that there will be plenty of food there. Put me to the test and you will see that I will open the windows of heaven and pour out on you in abundance all kinds of good things”

Malachi’s concern was not that the people of his day were not giving – but that they were not giving enough. So he says “Bring the full amount of your tithes”. Here is great material for the modern-day preacher: “Give not just 2% or 3%, nor even just 7% or 8% – give the whole 10% of your income to God”. Indeed, Malachi says that a failure to give the whole 10% was tantamount to “robbing” or “cheating” God. “I ask you, is it right for a person to cheat God? Of course not, you are cheating me. ‘How?’ you ask. In the matter of tithes and offerings.” (3.8) In other words, we rob or cheat God not by what we take, but by what we keep!

As a preacher I have often drawn attention to the fact that the tithe was the basic minimum as far as the Old Testament is concerned. This becomes clear where God through Malachi accuses his people of cheating him of their “tithes AND offerings” (3.8). In this context, the offering was not the same as a tithe. The offering was that which people gave over and above their general giving. Tithing is what God expects of us; offerings are gifts that go beyond the norm. Strictly speaking, we ‘pay’ our tithes and ‘give’ our offerings. In our church, we confuse things when we say that we will take up the offering – we would be more accurate if we followed the black churches who announce that ‘now the tithes and offerings will be taken up’. Indeed, I was once present in a black church where the tithers were invited to come up and give their tithes – and then the offering was taken up!

Clearly tithing is a biblical principle. But is it Christian? Ben Witherington III in Jesus And Money (London SPCK 2010) states: “We are under the new covenant inaugurated by Jesus, and it has many commandments, but tithing is not one of them. The basic rule of guidance about such things is that if the Old Testament commandment is reaffirmed in the New Testament for Christians, then we are still obligated to do it. If it is not, then we are not”. Similarly Stuart Murray in Beyond Tithing (Paternoster, Carlisle 2000) writes: “On what basis can we extract tithing as a bare percentage figure from the complex legal and fiscal system of ancient Israel? Can we with integrity rip out this one element and impose it unaltered in a very different social situation?”.

Witherington and Murray are right. Tithing is not a New Testament practice. But that does not let Christians off the hook. The truth is that Jesus was much more radical about the use of money than any Old Testament prophet! Jesus called his disciples to sacrificial giving. Witherington’s comments on the widow with two coins (Mark 12.41-44) are instructive:

Jesus does not caution that this woman is being irresponsibly generous. He in fact uses her as a model for his disciples, and what he expects of them is the same sort of lavish generosity and self-sacrifice she exhibits – and which his Father exhibits towards them. God indeed loves a generous giver, but it can be no accident that Jesus characterizes disciples in general as involving an enormous sacrifice, taking up one’s cross to follow Jesus and his example.

The apostle Paul doesn’t speak about tithing – but in the context of the great collection for the poor of Jerusalem, he speaks about proportionate giving. He says to the Corinthians: “Every Sunday each of you must put aside some money, in proportion to what he has earned” (1 Cor 16.2). At first sight that may seem similar to tithing, but Paul’s approach to giving is different. For Paul giving is all about ‘grace’ (the word appears ten times in 2 Cor 8 & 9). When Paul writes about giving, he doesn’t major on the duties and responsibilities of Christian giving, but rather he speaks about the ‘privilege’ (2 Cor 8.4) of giving to God’s work. +For him giving is an indication of our love for the Lord. So he writes: “I am trying to find out how real your own love is. You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ; rich as he was, he made himself poor for your sake, in order to make you rich by means of his poverty” (2 Cor 8.8,9). Paul would have been amazed to have discovered that some people deduced that giving out of love rather than giving out of duty would result in less than giving a tenth. Surely the reverse should be true. Indeed, the more we understand what God has done for us in Jesus, the more surely we want to give to God.

But what in practical terms does this all mean? I believe that a ‘tithe is a good guide – but it is only a guide. There is no place for legalism. Certainly Paul was no legalist: he believed in free-will giving: “You should each give… not with regret or out of sense of duty, for the Lord loves the one who gives cheerfully” (2 Cor 8.7). For some a tenth may be too much. But for others a tenth may be too little. Some years ago the American Mennonite Donald Kraybill wrote (The Upside Down Kingdom, Marshalls, London 1978:

The inadequacy of tithing as a rule for giving is obvious. A person earning $10,000 a year gives $1,000 and retains $9,000. The person earning $100,000 gives $10,000 and can live extravagantly on $90,000…. It’s not important that one family gives $,1000 and another gives %10,000. What is important is that one family struggles along to make ends meet with $9,000, while another family self-righteously spends $90,000 lavishly because, after all, ‘they have tithed’.

Presumably it was with this kind of thinking in mind that when Rick Warren of Saddleback became a millionaire, he decided to ‘reverse tithe’: i.e. to give 90% to God, and live on 10%! Tithing is a guide – for some it may be too much; for many others it may be too little!

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