What About Tithing?
A Practical Concern
Sure. Some folks are so risk averse that they absolutely refuse to entertain a “different” idea. But we're finding that most people simply need time. Change is frightening. They just need to talk things through—process out loud. Through this processing, we're finding many who long for deep and simple expressions that focus on following Jesus in a familial context. They see how it works and respond, "I want that!"
But there's a practical concern we keep hearing over and over...
"How will people give their tithes and offerings if you don't have an every-Sunday service?"
The Short Answer
Ok. We'll bite. Actually we'll take three:
- Electronic Giving - It's so easy to send money these days. People can text a donation from their smartphone. They can set up recurring giving through a secure online portal. In a world where cash is seldom in-pocket, there are very practical and desirable alternatives to "passing the plate."
- Missional Motivation - When someone believes wholeheartedly in a cause, they'll give. Simple as that. Tell people what your mission is, why it's important, and where every dollar goes. If your mission is a good one that's clearly and consistently communicated across all channels, you really don't need a weekly megaphone moment for donations.
- Transactional Emphasis - The idea that "We need Sunday services so that people will give." just rubs us the wrong way to begin with. It implies that the "store front" needs to be opened so that people will go to the "cash registers." This is a terrible reason for consistent assembly! It puts pressure on ministers to become purveyors of spiritual goods and turns "church" into little more than a business.
The Full Picture
We say all the above so that practical concerns with steering the Church back toward a discipleship-first emphasis are alleviated as quickly as possible and that monetary motivations for gathering as a local body are challenged.
But none of this addresses the biggest misunderstanding revealed by the initial question—tithing itself.
It’s a touchy subject—a “sacred cow” of sorts—so…
Let’s toss caution to the wind and go there, shall we?
TITHING IN HISTORICAL CONTEXT
Although we see both Abraham and Jacob give a tithe to the Lord, it wasn't introduced as Law until Leviticus 27. (See "Tithing Dialogues" for more on pre-law tithing.) Here the Lord instructs Moses what the people are to do—a tenth of everything set apart, belonging to God. It’s clear that in Israel’s theocracy, tithing in the religious context was the same as taxation in a governmental context.
(Side Note: Taxation on yield of property wasn’t something new to Israel. In Genesis 47:26, Joseph established that a fifth of Egypt's produce belonged to Pharaoh—a 20% yield of property—much like modern income tax. For Israel, with Egypt in the rear view, a mandatory 10% must have seemed like quite a relieving rate drop!)
In Numbers 18, we see what the tithe was primarily used for. The Levites did not receive land like the other tribes of Israel, thus they didn't possess their own crops or livestock. They were set apart as priests and the tithe of the land was to sustain them in their dedicated work. Much later, in King Hezekiah's day, we see that "he commanded the people who lived in Jerusalem to give the portion due to the priests and the Levites, that they might give themselves to the Law of the Lord." Throughout the Old Testament, we clearly see that the tithe was the portion allotted for the one tribe set apart to serve the Lord.
It's also worth noting that the children of Israel gave much more than 10%. In fact, they gave upwards of 23% each year! They gave to support a special jubilee festival and took a third tithe every three years to take care of orphans, widows, and the poor. Then in Exodus 36, they were literally giving so far above-and-beyond toward the building of the Tabernacle that Moses had to ask them to stop! Talk about generosity!
CROSSING INTO NEW COVENANT
Let’s move into the New Testament, starting with the main character….
“Woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.”
The first thing we’ll notice is who this remark is directed toward—those priding themselves on/seeking justification through strict adherence to Law. Keep the context, “Who is this statement directed toward?” in mind.
The second thing we notice is Jesus’ statement, “These you ought to have done.” On first pass, this appears to be Jesus telling us that we should be tithing, right? Nope. This is Jesus addressing a very Jewish audience with a track-record of religious hypocrisy predating New Covenant. Keep the context, “When was this statement made?” in mind as well.
The final thing we need to see is the point of Jesus’ entire statement—that those who are touting themselves as living incarnations of covenant with God are actually missing the most important thing. They've neglected justice and love—the character of God. Keep the question, “How are we to incarnate covenant relationship?” in mind.
In short, Jesus is not giving a prescriptive statement for us today in regard to tithing.
THE "CENTRAL SYSTEM" MYTH
This is one of the primary pro-tithing arguments we’ve encountered….
In 1 Corinthians 16:2, Paul “clearly" instructs....
“On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come.”
"See! A centralized system for tithing!"
Hold on a second!
Verse 1 before that remark says that this is a collection for the saints. Then Verse 3 says that Paul will be carrying this gift to Jerusalem. This is clearly an offering being taken up to support the church in Jerusalem. Why? Because there was a great persecution of Christ followers happening there. (See Acts 7:57 and 12:2) Paul may even feel particularly attached to this cause since he used to be one of these persecutors!
Later, Paul writes the church in Corinth again, exhorting them to follow the example of the dirt-poor churches in Macedonia—giving to the point where it hurt because of their passion to help the persecuted church. (See 2 Corinthians 8:2-4)
Can you see? Paul was not advocating for a central system of gathering the tithe here. He was, very specifically, gathering resources to aid brothers and sisters who had great need. In fact, most cases for sacrificial giving in the New Testament are directed toward precisely the same thing. (See also James 2:15-17 and 1 John 4:20)
THOSE CURSED CROOKS!
Now, you may hear those good ol' Malachi paraphrases thrown around—"If you don't tithe, you're cursed because you're robbing God." Or the ever-so-popular "Bring the full tithe into the storehouse..." as justification for the tithe being brought to the local church. And both of these statements had historic validity in their own time. Withholding tithes, as one who had a land inheritance from the Lord from those who didn’t because they were set apart to serve the Lord in His Temple, would have literally been the worst kind of ungrateful thievery!
But there are at least two issues with prescribing the Malachi references today:
- We are the royal priesthood! That whole tithe as an inheritance for the Levites bit? Well...that's done—over with. We should be very wary of any parallelism between the Levites and our vocational ministers of today. There is no special "tribe" set apart to serve God while the rest of us provide for them to do so.
- We are the temple of the Holy Spirit! We often hear of the temple tax Jesus paid in Matthew 17 come up in support of tithing too. But this was before Christ’s completed work which built a new kind of temple. God’s presence will never again be found in man-made structures.
(For more on the "church equals temple" association issue, read THIS BLOG.)
SO IS TITHING STILL REQUIRED?
“Where does tithing fit within the New Covenant?”
Well, it doesn't. Sorry. (Not sorry.)
We realize that this seems like an inconvenient truth for the church budget. After all, an obligatory 10% of attendees' income sure would be nice! But we cannot preach New Covenant in one breath and advocate Old Covenant in the next just because it benefits our institutions.
We aren't under that Old Covenant anymore! Through Christ, we have been given a New Covenant—far better than the old one! And if we truly believe it is "better", then we can trust this includes financial provision as well.
"So why do we still hear so much about tithing in the church today?”
Well, I can think of two possibilities:
- There isn't a complete understanding of the New Covenant through Christ.
- We don't believe that love is compelling enough, so we hang on to Law.
Both the above reflect a drastic underestimation of God’s transformational work that ingrains something far superior to the letter of the Law on our hearts.
GIVING VS GREED
Let this one thing be clearly understood….
Giving is good! Generosity is Godly!
Proverbs 3:9-10 is just one of many passages that tell us God loves unleashing favor on those who are generous. Why? Because generosity is a reflection of God's own character!
"Ok. 'Imitating Jesus' is great! But what can giving look like on a practical level?"
Glad you asked! It’s actually pretty simple….
The New Testament advocates (a) supporting those who’ve dedicated their lives toward serving God’s people (1 Tim. 5:17-18, 1 Cor. 9:6-14) and (b) being generous toward those in need (1 Tim. 6:17-19). The stories of the early church make it very clear that they took these things to heart. (See Acts 2:43-47, 4:32-37, and 11:27-30)
So don't mistake the purpose of this post as justification of stinginess.
What we are saying is that…
Nowhere is tithing mentioned when exhortations to give generously are found in the New Testament.
Nowhere is yielding 10% of your gross income presented as a “must” under the New Covenant. (In fact, 10% gross is too little if you’re actually going to remain bound to Law.)
We wholeheartedly believe in being generous people—imitators of a generous God. But our giving is not based on the Law from which we’ve been released. (Rom. 6:14-15, Rom. 7:5-6, Gal. 3:15-4:7, 2 Cor. 3:4-18)
Our giving is a loving response to God’s work in our lives—grace!
THE CHURCH WE SEE
We want to see the family of God become a living/breathing demonstration of Christ’s New Covenant.
We see a church, compelled by love, not Law.
We see a church that understands its priesthood of all believers potential—a church released from the exclusive Levitical structures perpetuated by an Old Covenant tithing mentality.
Yes, “The Lord loves a cheerful giver…” This means:
- God loves it when we join in His work!
- God is generous toward those who are generous!
- God gets excited when we wholeheartedly give toward the things He cares about!
And when we lay down all we are and have for His mission on this earth, we incarnate the sacrificial nature of our Savior, who laid down every entitlement—taking the form of a servant.
So yes—by all means—give generously!
If it's still on your heart to gladly give 10% to your local church family, do it! Make it 20% to building schools in Haiti if it's on your heart to do so! And don't rule out the possibility that you may be led to give away something besides cold hard cash too!
But how about we leave that “tithing" obligation in the past?
What do you say?
Read Part 2 "The Tithing Blog: Why We Wrote It & Why We're Wrong" HERE. (Hint: It's not a retraction.)