What Does The Bible Teach About Tithing In Our Day?
The New Testament ethic of giving is perhaps best summed up in a statement by St. Paul, who said, “Each person should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Co. 9:7). The freedom for Christians to financially support God’s mission in the world apart from pressure is not always well understood by churches. Either Christians are rigidly legalistic in their approach to financial stewardship, offering 10 percent of their money, no more and no less, or they are passive and apathetic, giving grudgingly and spasmodically, or they respond primarily when the psychological pressure is put upon them from some Christian fund-raiser, whether a pastor or some other leader. Unfortunately, none of these approaches does justice to the Bible’s teaching on financial stewardship. Many Christians regard the Old Testament tithing laws as obligatory upon the church, but when they do, such a conclusion is more likely to be in the form which is recorded in Leviticus 27:30-33 than in the form which is recorded in Deuteronomy 14:22-27.
So what does the Bible actually say about financial stewardship and giving? The earliest biblical account of giving to a religious person or cause is Abram’s voluntary tithe (= a tenth) of the spoils of war to Melchizedek the priest of Jerusalem (Ge. 14:17-20). Abram’s grandson, Jacob, also voluntarily promised to tithe of his wealth to God (Ge. 28:22), though no details are given. The Mosaic law regarding tithes regulated the Israelites’ giving in a three year cycle. The tithes of the first two years were to be gathered and taken to the central shrine for an annual celebration of God’s bountiful blessings (Dt. 12:5-19; 14:22-27). The third year’s tithes were donated for the support of the clergy who had no land inheritance and who, therefore, could not cultivate crops or keep herds as a source of income (Lv. 27:26-34; Dt. 14:28-29; Nu. 18:21, 24-32).
By the time of Jesus, tithing for many Jews had become a way to earn merit with God. The legalists boasted of the fact that they gave tithes of even the most insignificant things, like spices (Mt. 23:23), while at the same time they managed to manipulate their own laws to their advantage (Mt. 23:1-4). Jesus called for a higher ethic of personal stewardship. In the first place, giving which was ostentatious or legalistic did not impress God (Lk. 18:10 -4; Mt. 6:1-4). Gifts were to be evaluated, not so much by how large they were, but by how much the person had left over after the gift had been offered (Lk. 21:1-4). Jesus taught that giving to God must be done without the selfish motive of seeking a return (Mt. 5:42; 10:8; Lk. 14:12-14), and in some cases, Jesus called upon people to surrender the totality of their wealth (Lk. 12:33-34; Mt. 19:16-24).
Once one passes into the era of the early church, Old Testament obligatory tithing can no longer be found. One reason is that early Christian culture was more urban than agrarian, and a tithing system based upon farming was impractical in the great metropolitan cities of the Roman Empire. Furthermore, the early Christian leaders strongly maintained that Christians were free from the Mosaic legalism which had dominated the previous age (Ro. 10:4; Ga. 5:1). Yet even though the early Christians did not employ the Old Testament laws of obligatory tithing, they were conscientious about financial stewardship.
In the Jerusalem church, believers pooled their resources in order to share with each other (Ac. 4:32-37), though such action was voluntary and not forced (Ac. 5:1-4). Special concern was given to the disadvantaged, such as widows (Ac. 6:1; 11:27-30; Ja. 2:14-17), though criteria were developed to avoid dispensing support unwisely (1 Ti. 5:3, 9-10). Paul solicited funds from the churches in Macedonia, Achaia and Galatia for the impoverished Christians in Palestine (1 Co. 16:1-4; 2 Co. 8:1-4; Ro. 15:25-27). In the collection of these relief offerings, some very wise principles were employed to administrate the gifts of the generous Christians in Asia Minor and Greece, such as, allowing members of the assembly to oversee the collection and distribution of the money (1 Co. 16:2-4; 2 Co. 8:16-19). Offerings were voluntary, not obligatory, though generosity was certainly encouraged (2 Co. 8:1-8; 9:5-7). Paul called this kind of generosity the “grace of giving.” The motivation for such giving was a response to the selfless gift of Christ (2 Co. 8:9) and the desire for equality among God’s people (2 Co. 8:13-15). Any gifts which were made were to be evaluated according to the giver’s ability to give (2 Co. 8:12). Finally, the administration of the gift was conducted in a highly ethical and sensitive manner, for as Paul says, “We want to avoid any criticism of the way we administer this liberal gift. For we are taking pains to do what is right, not only in the eyes of the Lord but also in the eyes of men” (2 Co. 8:20-21).
In summary, then, modern Christians should take their ethic of giving from the early Christians and the teachings of Jesus. Being stingy is surely antithetic to the liberality and generosity taught by the Lord Jesus. Tithing may be encouraged as a voluntary spiritual discipline so long as it does not lapse into legalism. Indeed, in our own affluent society it seems inappropriate for us to give less than did ancient believers who were materially much less affluent than ourselves. Jesus said, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked” (Luke 12:48b).
Pastor Dan LewisSeptember 1, 2013