FAQ: Most churches I have been to teach rather emphatically that Christians should “tithe,” that is, give 10% of their income to their church. I have even heard some ministers say that if you don’t tithe, God will not bless you. Must you give a tenth (10%) to the church? What does the Bible say about financial giving?
“What does the Bible say?” is always the “bottom line” in life, but that vital question needs a qualifier: “To whom?” The Bible, the Word of God, most certainly does speak about financial giving, and a good case can be made that it is one of the five most basic activities for a Christian, the others being prayer, Bible reading and study, fellowship with other Christians, and telling others the Good News about Jesus Christ.
The question must be: “What does the Bible say to Christians about financial giving?” Why? Because what God says to Christians about financial giving is different than what He said to the Jews of the Old Testament about it. The sad news is that today very few Christians understand the difference, and, as a result, many are unnecessarily living under emotional and financial stress. For a more detailed exposition of this subject than we can set forth in this FAQ, I recommend our audio teaching Financial Stewardship: God’s Heart Concerning Money and Possessions as well as a book titled The Tithing Dilemma, by Ernest L. Martin.
And, as is so often the case in examining a biblical issue, that takes us to the subject of the administrations in Scripture. Unless we understand what parts of God’s Word are written to Jews, what parts are written to Gentiles, and what parts are written to Christians, we can neither understand nor apply its truths in our daily lives.
We are currently living in what the Bible calls the Administration of the Sacred Secret (Eph. 3:9), which began on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1ff) and will conclude with the Rapture of the Church (all living and dead Christians meeting the Lord in the air—1 Thess. 4:13-18). The primary curriculum for Christians (i.e., people born again of God’s incorruptible seed) is found in the Church Epistles: Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and 1 & 2 Thessalonians. It is there that we must look to find God’s specific directions for us today, and the issue of financial giving is given two chapters worth of ink in 2 Corinthians 8 & 9.
There are also some pertinent verses in other Epistles, and the message of Scripture to Christians is that because of the finished work of Jesus Christ, we do not live under the Mosaic Law, during which tithing was instituted and commanded as part of the Law. Therefore, tithing as a commandment of God has no relevance to believers today.
At this point, it is important to distinguish between tithing and giving. Although tithing per se is not relevant to Christians, giving most certainly is. As a member in particular of the Body of Christ, each Christian is to determine in his own heart how much he gives and where he allocates his resources among his brothers and sisters in Christ (2 Cor. 9:7). The Epistles metaphor by which material giving is strongly encouraged is that of sowing and reaping—the more you sow, the more you reap (2 Cor. 9:6). “Tithing” is never mentioned.
Under the Law, Jews were to give out of their produce, that is, what the Lord had provided for them. Just like the Word says, “We love God because He first loved us,” so we give because God has given to us. When we understand what God has done for us in Christ, and that the material blessings we have come from Him, and that He promises to bless us back for what we give, giving cheerfully is a joy.
Even in the Old Testament, believers understood that when they gave to God, they were opening a door, if you will, for Him to bless them in return. This is, of course, still true, but the idea has been distorted by some Christians who teach that one must give to God before God can bless him. Thus, too many Christians are giving in order to get. No, God always gives first.
Also, He does not specify just how He will bless us. If we sow, we will reap accordingly, but it may not be money for money, etc. Some Christians have become disillusioned about giving because when they gave money to their church, etc., they did not receive money back. They may have even failed to notice the blessing that God did give them. When we give in response to a blessing, and not so that we will get blessed, we can be cheerful and contented givers.
Making known the truth about this subject is critical, because the vast majority of Christians are told, and thus believes, that it is God’s will for them to “tithe,” which means to give one-tenth of what they earn. Many of the more “fundamental” Christian groups are adamant about this, and accompany this exhortation with a warning that failure to tithe will result in consequences of various kinds, usually having to do with a lack of prosperity.
In many groups, this has become little more than ecclesiastical extortion, with church leaders using the lever of people’s sincere desire to do what God says is right to squeeze money out of them. Such leaders proclaim that what God says is right is that you give at least ten percent of your income—to their organization. As a result of such pressure, financial giving has, for too many Christians, become a joyless, mechanical act of “bribing” God to avoid the consequences of not giving, and an attempt to earn His favor (something they already have!).
For many other Christians who once gave cheerfully, financial giving is no longer an act at all. They have stopped doing it altogether, either because they got sick and tired of the pressure being applied to them, or they really could not afford to tithe, or they saw the money they gave misused and feel that they were cheated when they did give.
Neither of these attitudes—giving joylessly or not giving at all—is biblically right, neither is the will of God, and both are therefore detrimental to a believer. That fits with John 8:32, where Jesus said that experientially knowing the truth, that is, practicing it, will make one free. Conversely, error regarding the Bible (the truth) will put people in bondage. And financial giving is a category in which countless Christian people are being subjected to the bondage of guilt and put through an emotional wringer they do not deserve.
If you feel that the above describes you, take heart, because you can be set free by the truth of God’s Word. Then you can also share with others the treasure you have found. In our economically driven world of today, having the right attitude about money and material things is a huge asset in life. Knowing and practicing what God’s Word says about financial giving will enable you to experience the joy of giving, and it will enable others in the Body of Christ to experience the joy of receiving and therefore having their needs met, so that together we can reach out with the Good News of God to a dying world.
A study of the Old Testament will show that tithing was instituted as part of the Mosaic Law to Israel. Some Christians point to Genesis 14 and/or 28 in a misguided attempt to prove that tithing was instituted prior to the Mosaic Law and is therefore relevant to Christians today. Their rationale is that because Abram gave ten percent of the spoils of war to Melchisedek, and because Jacob chose ten percent as the amount to give to God for watching over him on his journey, this is the prescribed amount God would have all people give. This is not sound biblical scholarship.
The Genesis 14 record takes place approximately 2000 years after Adam and Eve, and during all those years there is no biblical reference to tithing. Nor is there any record that Abram ever tithed as a result of some biblical law that told him to do so, and he certainly was “making money.” When he did give one tenth, it was not of the increase of his flocks and herds, which was the tithe prescribed by the Law, but rather of the spoils of war that he had gained by defeating the army from Mesopotamia.
In Genesis 28, Jacob told God that if He would keep him safe on his journey, keep him clothed and fed, and bring him home safely, he would give God a tenth of what he had. That was certainly not the Mosaic tithe, which was commanded whether or not those things happened. Both Jacob and Abram gave in response to a blessing.
Even in regard to Israel, for whom the tithe was specifically instituted, nothing was said about it until the beginning of the second year of their exodus. Prior to that, in Exodus 25, for the building of the Tabernacle, Moses instructed the Israelites to give “as their heart prompted them.”
You often hear proponents of the tithe say that surely Christians would do no less than what Jews did in the Old Testament, as if every Israelite gave ten percent of his income. A detailed study of the tithe is beyond the scope of this FAQ, but suffice it to say that the idea that each Israelite gave ten percent of his income (and therefore each Christian should do likewise) is far from the truth.
For example, an Israelite who had fewer than ten cattle born to him in a year did not have to tithe on them because the requirement stated that only the tenth animal that passed under the rod was to be tithed (Lev. 27:32). A farmer who had only eight cows born was therefore exempt from the tithe.
The tithe was basically on animal and agricultural products, and was paid in kind (i.e., the product itself). If one did not wish to pay his tithe in agricultural products, and decided to give money as a substitute, he was penalized and had to add a fifth part of its estimated value to the amount he paid (Lev. 27:31). Such a law was obviously not intended to encourage payment of the tithe in money.
The main purpose of the tithe was to support the Levitical priesthood. The Levites were responsible to minister to the people, and were prohibited from owning land, which obviously limited the ways in which they could earn income. God’s plan was that their support came from those to whom they ministered, much like the direction of Scripture for the Church today (1 Cor. 9:1 and following; Gal. 6:6 and following, etc.). The tithe also provided welfare for widows, orphans, etc.
One reason why there was no command to tithe until the Mosaic Law was that until then there was no Tabernacle (Tent of Meeting) and no Temple, no regular sacrifices commanded (the daily sacrifices alone commanded by the Law required more than 700 animals a year), and no class of Levitical priests to support. None of these would be relevant to a Christian today, even if they did exist.
Should a Christian today tithe? One is free to give 10% if he chooses, but we are not commanded to give any particular percentage or amount. Sad to say that many Christians, once misled and often emotionally coerced into tithing, stopped giving altogether when they learned the tithe is not required. 2 Corinthians 9:6 and 7 make it clear that the more generously we “sow” with the right attitude, the more abundantly we will reap.
For some believers who do not earn much, giving generously may not mean a large amount. For others, it may mean millions of dollars, and far more than 10%. Each Christian’s situation is different, and that is why God does not prescribe specific amounts that we should give, but allows us to make our own decisions. Remember, we are “fellow laborers” with Him, and He loves to work with us in determining how much and to whom we should give, and He loves to bless us with more so that we can give more. That kind of giving makes for an exciting element of the Christian life.
You may say, “Well, what about Malachi 3:6-10? That says people who do not tithe are ‘robbing God.’” Those verses have been used innumerable times to prod Christians into giving, but wait a moment—to whom is Malachi written? Well, in verse 9 of chapter 3 it says “the whole nation” is under a curse. What nation? The USA? No, the book of Malachi is specifically addressed to the nation of Israel, and more specifically to the priests (see 1:6,10-13; 2:1,7 and 8) who were badly mistreating God’s people. To use verses from Malachi as if they are talking to Christians is at best poor scholarship and at worst dishonest.
So what should Christians do about financial giving? 2 Corinthians 8 and 9 is the first place to go to find the answer to that question, and the heart of the message there is expressed in 9:7: “Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” If, for you, that’s ten percent, great.
Beyond that, Scripture directs us to give to those who are genuinely ministering to our spiritual needs. When we do, we are making a sound investment in (that is, sowing into) a work that is bearing good spiritual fruit. Although there is no way we can help everyone who asks us, we are also encouraged to give to those in need, and we can seek the Lord for wisdom in doing so.
For a Christian, giving from the heart is all about knowing that we have a great, big, wonderful God, and also understanding who we are in Christ. Speaking of the attitude of the believers in Macedonia about financial giving, Paul said: “This they did, not as we hoped, but even beyond that, first they gave their own selves to the Lord, and to us, by the will of God” (2 Cor. 8:5). As Christians, each of us has been “bought with a price.” We (let alone our material possessions) don’t even belong to ourselves. When you know that you belong to the Lord, and that everything that you have belongs to the Lord, and that he is responsible to keep his promises to care for you, then you can truly be a cheerful giver.