One thing I do not miss, now that I am retired from leading a church, is having to speak about ‘giving’. Once a year I always ensured that I preached on ‘Christian stewardship’. I never felt entirely comfortable – not least because I was conscious that I was being paid by the very people to whom I was appealing to give more. Now, thank God, it is somebody else’s task.
However, the other Sunday morning at Breakfast with the Bible I found myself making a presentation on Malachi 3.8-12, which I entitled ‘God sets a challenge’. As the passage makes clear, Malachi’s concern was not that his contemporaries were not giving – rather they were giving, but not giving enough. “Bring the full tithe into the storehouse” (Mal 3.10). For Malachi a failure to give the whole ten percent was tantamount to “robbing” 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.” (Mal 3.8 GNB). We rob God by what we keep!
God through Malachi accused his people of cheating him of their “tithes AND offerings”.
The offering was not the same as a tithe. It was that which people gave over and above their general giving. In the Old Testament tithing was what God expected of his people; offerings were gifts that went beyond the norm. As has often been said, we ‘pay’ our tithes and ‘give’ our offerings.
This is the context in which God through Malachi set a challenge: “Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in my house, and thus put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts; see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing” (Mal 3.10). Jesus made a similar promise: “Give and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap, for the measure you give will be the measure you will get back” (Luke 6.38). On the same kind of lines the Apostle Paul wrote: “God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work” (2 Cor 9.7, 8)
But how relevant is that to us today? Some argue that tithing is purely an Old Testament practice, for which we find no command in the New Testament – and that is true. Nowhere does Jesus explicitly command tithing – nor does Paul. On the other hand, Paul believed in ‘proportionate’ giving: “Every Sunday each of you must put aside some money, in proportion to what he has earned” (1 Cor 16.2 GNB).
Others argue that tithing is a form of legalism, foreign to the spirit of the Gospel. It is significant that when Paul writes about giving to the Corinthians, he doesn’t major on ‘the duties and responsibilities’ of Christian giving – rather he speaks about the “grace” (2 Cor 8.4 NRSV) or “privilege” (GNB) of giving. For Paul giving was essentially an indication of our love for the Lord. “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 GNB). Paul, however, would have been amazed to have discovered that some people have deduced that giving out of love rather than giving out of duty would result in less than giving a tenth.
I accept that for people on the breadline a tithe may be too much – but for those Christians who are comfortable, a tithe may well be too little. This was certainly Rick Warren’s experience: when his book The Purpose-Driven Life of Willowcreek became a best-seller and caused him to become a millionaire, he decided to ‘reverse tithe’ by living on 10 percent of his income and give the remaining 90 percent to God.
I love the words of Winston Churchill: “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give”. As Jesus said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20.35) or in the GNB “There is more happiness in giving than in receiving”.