Over the years, I’ve heard these words echoed throughout the pulpit, “The Lord tells us to bring our tithes to the storehouse!” But what is a tithe? The dictionary defines the word as “a tenth part of something paid as a voluntary contribution for the support of a religious establishment.” But does this idea of giving 10% of your income to the church exist in the Bible? Do we ever see New Testament Christians tithing? The answer to both of these questions is: No.
So where do we get this concept of tithing, and why do so many pastors preach that Christians should tithe? Let me explain. In the Old Testament, Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel (see Genesis 32:28), had 12 sons. These men became the founders of the twelve tribes of Israel. In Deuteronomy 18:1–2, we see that all the tribes were given land to inherit and could attain regular means of acquiring an income except the Levite tribe (those of the lineage of Jacob’s son Levi). The Levites’ inheritance was God Himself; they were the ones chosen to oversee the worship of the entire nation of Israel. The Levites were responsible for the tabernacle and its implements, as well as overseeing the sacrifices and offerings of the people.
In Numbers 18:21 it says “Behold, I have given the children of Levi all the tithes in Israel as an inheritance in return for the work which they perform, the work of the tabernacle of meeting.” In verse 24 it continues with, “For the tithes of the children of Israel, which they offer up as a heave offering to the Lord, I have given to the Levites as an inheritance; therefore I have said to them, ‘Among the children of Israel they shall have no inheritance.’”
In other words, the tithes from the other eleven tribes (which were food and not money) were basically the nation of Israel’s taxation system. The Levites were the government servants, and the other eleven tribes were the public and therefore paid for their service through a variety of national tithes.
Though we might assume that Old Testament Israel gave a total of 10 percent, it’s actually difficult to discern how much was given. We can’t debate the details in this short article, but some scholars think the Israelites gave 14 tithes over seven years, others believe they gave 12. Regardless, when we add the required tithes together, the amount certainly exceeded 10 percent. In fact, the number was probably somewhere around 20-30 percent per year.
First, to challenge a few modern church practices, tithing was about food and never about money. There is not one passage of Scripture telling any Jew or Christian to give 10% of their money to a religious institution. Second, while tithing is biblical it is not Christian. This was strictly a practice for the nation of Israel under the Old Covenant which has been fulfilled by Jesus Christ in the New Covenant. Furthermore, we do not see any instruction or example of a New Testament Christian tithing. Like temples, sacrifices, dietary laws, and priests-tithing has been nailed to the cross and no longer has an active role under the New Covenant.
So if tithing isn’t Christian, what do the New Testament Scriptures instruct us to do in regards to giving? The short answer is: be generous. As it pertains to money, that could mean 2% of your income or 100% of your income. You see, this is the big shift. Many Christians believe that if they just give their 10% then the other 90% is all theirs; they’ve checked their generosity box for the month and can now check out from the additional needs around them. However, the New Testament narrative goes much further than this. It calls us to actively seek out the poor (Matthew 19:21), to seek out the needs of our brothers and sisters (1 John 3:17), to share with those in the church who have lack, and to do all of it with a cheerful heart (2 Corinthians 9:6-7).
But this I say: He who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. So let each one give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity; for God loves a cheerful giver.
This passage leverages what is called the Law of the Harvest. Put differently, we reap what we sow. It’s leveraged in a variety of places in Scripture, for example, Proverbs tells us that if we walk with the wise we will be wise and if we walk with fools we will be fools (Proverbs 13:20). Galatians 6:8 says, “For he who sows to his flesh will of the flesh reap corruption, but he who sows to the Spirit will of the Spirit reap everlasting life.” This law continues on in a variety of manifestations including giving. Now, to keep the proper context of this 2 Corinthians passage in view, it is not saying to use giving as an investment strategy to earn earthly prosperity. No, it continues on in that passage to conclude that the giver of seed will continue to give more seed for the purpose of planting more seed not storing up the seed in human storehouses for material benefit (see verses 10-14).
It is clear that God talks a lot about money—and you don’t talk about what you don’t care about. Sixteen of the thirty-eight parables were concerned with how to handle money and possessions. In the Gospels, one out of ten verses (288 in all) deals directly with the subject of money. The Bible offers 500 verses on prayer, less than 500 verses on faith, but more than 2,000 verses on money and possessions. It’s undeniable, the management of money and generosity is a core component of the Christian faith and it’s clear:
Giving is the mark of a mature Christian while keeping is the mark of an immature Christian.
But if giving isn’t built on tithing, how should biblical Christians view giving? In my understanding of the New Testament, generosity falls into three unique categories. I have briefly reviewed them below:
1. Give To The Poor
There are a plethora of Scriptures featuring Jesus’s heart for the poor, so let’s first go back to God’s book of wisdom. Proverbs 19:17 states, “Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed.” If this Scripture is true, which I believe it is, then any giving to the poor is merely a loan to God—and God never fails to make good on His promises.
In Luke 12:33-34, Jesus says, “Sell your possessions and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” This Scripture along with many others (Matthew 5:42, Matthew 25:35-45, Matthew 6:1-4) are all pieces of a system of generosity that lead up to this incredible statement that our Lord makes in Luke 6:38 regarding giving:
“Give, and it will be given to you: good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over will be put into your bosom. For with the same measure that you use, it will be measured back to you.”
In theological circles, this is called the Law of Reciprocity. Jesus wraps up His entire heavenly economic system with this gigantic promise. Interestingly, many Christians ignore it. Instead, they go about calling themselves victims to unfortunate financial circumstances when in reality they are only meeting the financial rebound of their own choices. In other words, those of God’s children who are not generous are generally wanton and greedy. It reveals their very heart, they cannot let go of their treasure, they simply do not have enough faith to engage this passage.
Now, this scripture is not allegorical, it is a direct promise of our Lord and a confirmation that your generosity (to any of these three categories) will be paid back generously in some capacity. Is it claiming to be repaid strictly in money? No. However, the Lord does affirm, that in some way, whether relationships, opportunities, money, or sustenance you who give will be paid back in blessing from on High.
Do you seek out the poor? Do you make it a priority to give to those in need around the world? Let me spare you from the very real circumstances many are facing this moment while you read this article from the comfort of your bearable life. The Lord says what we do for the poor, we do for Him. Sponsor a child, support a Christian charity, give to the poor in your own city, after all, you are simply lending money to God.
2. Give to Needs of the Saints
Romans 12:10-13 says, “Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another; not lagging in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation, continuing steadfastly in prayer; distributing to the needs of the saints, given to hospitality.” This is one among many passages that command Christians to meet the needs of the saints. This is also a principle clearly upheld throughout the New Testament by the overwhelming number of “one-another commands” given to the Church to carry out with our Christian brothers and sisters.
Sadly, most churches have nurtured a culture that inhibits the closeness and connection required to hear about needs and facilitate an opportunity for those needs to be met. It is now common to have large congregations in churches full of people who are digging themselves further into debt. Now, I am not ignoring the need for biblical financial stewardship. However, I am pointing out that when churches are small, close, and relationally connected the needs of the local saints begin to surface.
I say this because the command discussed above in the Romans passage is the universal doctrine for the church that is intended to be played out locally. Not to say that international giving is wrong, but it should not replace the call to meet the needs of the local saints in your own life. The question you might consider asking yourself is: “Am I meeting the needs of those around me?” Better yet, “Am I close enough with people at my church that they would express their needs to me?”
Romans 12:11 tells us to “not lack in diligence” in fulfilling this passage, meaning this is something we should pursue in our communities. Like Christ, we are called to meet people’s needs. Generosity is one of humanity’s greatest forms of love. To receive what you didn’t earn in some way is a reflection of the Gospel. It is another form of continuing the grace that the Lord has bestowed on each of us.
3. Give to Shepherds in Your Life
I’m going to open with a passage from 1 Corinthians in which Paul discusses the rights he has as a spiritual shepherd in the lives of the Corinthians to collect payment for his spiritual labor. Now, for those Bible scholars who know this passage, Paul declines his liberty to exercise this right because he doesn’t want to give the skeptical Corinthian church any reason to believe his motives of sharing the Gospel had anything to do with a financial return. That said, Paul absolutely exercises this right with other churches in other New Testament letters. It is important to recognize that just because Paul has chosen to waive this right with the Corinthians, that does not mean that all pastors are to waive their rights to be paid for their spiritual labor.
1 Corinthians 9:5-12 states, “Do we have no right to take along a believing wife, as do also the other apostles, the brothers of the Lord, and Cephas? Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working? Whoever goes to war at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat of its fruit? Or who tends a flock and does not drink of the milk of the flock? Do I say these things as a mere man? Or does not the law say the same also? For it is written in the law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain.” Is it oxen God is concerned about? Or does He say it altogether for our sakes? For our sakes, no doubt, this is written, that he who plows should plow in hope, and he who threshes in hope should be partaker of his hope. If we have sown spiritual things for you, is it a great thing if we reap your material things? If others are partakers of this right over you, are we not even more?”
Let’s first discuss his comment about muzzling the ox and work backward.
What is a muzzle? In short, a muzzle is a device to prevent an animal from eating while it’s working. Paul makes the argument clearly when he says, “Is it oxen God is concerned about, or is it the benefit of the plowman?” The lesson Paul is teaching to the Corinthians is: Don’t allow the ox who is working in the spiritual fields of your life to stop working! And it’s not about the ox… it’s about you! He’s saying, DON’T MUZZLE YOUR OX!
Don’t stop the shepherd in your life from eating. Why? Because if you stop your ox from eating, he will quit working. If your ox quits working, you will no longer be fed.
Many ministers have been forced to limit or end their spiritual labors (their study time, their private meetings, their discipleship meetings, their phone calls, their emails, and their answering of spiritual questions) solely because they were unable to sustain the time required. In other words, they needed to go somewhere else or do something else which provided an income for their families and naturally prohibited their ministries—even Paul had to make tents for a season.
Paul continues on to defend a shepherd’s right to receive payment from those he ministers to. In verses 11-12 he says, “If we have sown spiritual things for you, is it a great thing if we reap your material things? If others are partakers of this right over you, are we not even more?”
How much would you pay for a doctor to heal an infection in your body? $125? Maybe more? Why do we hesitate to pay the pastor who heals the infections in your soul? Is the healing of your pornography addiction not more valuable than a throat infection? Is the saving of your marriage not more valuable than changing the oil in your car? Is having the wisdom and counsel on how to navigate big life decisions not more valuable than the man who installs your dishwasher?
All of these individuals exercise their right to collect money for the material solution they provide. Do shepherds not have the right to collect an income for the spiritual labor they provide?
Paul and Jesus affirm this idea in Luke 10:7 and 1 Timothy 5:18 when they say, “The laborer is worthy of his wages.” Galatians 6:6 brings additional support when it says, “Let him who is taught the word share in all good things with him who teaches.”
One of my favorites 18th-century theologians is Adam Clarke. This is his commentary on Galatians 6:6:
“Contribute to the support of the man who has dedicated himself to the work of the ministry, and who gives up his time and his life to preach the Gospel. It appears that some of the believers in Galatia were receiving the Christian ministry without contributing to its support. This is both ungrateful and base. We do not expect that a common schoolmaster will give up his time to teach our children the alphabet each week without being paid for it; and can we suppose that it is just for any person to sit under the preaching of God’s Word on a regular occurrence in order to grow wise unto salvation by it, and not contribute to the support of the spiritual teacher? It is unjust.”
Earlier in the passage to the Corinthians, Paul makes the remarks that “He who plows should partake of the harvest” and “He who threshes should enjoy the fruits of his labor.”
If you are sitting under the regular teaching of Christian doctrine please determine a way to allow the plowman or woman to enjoy the fruits of their harvest. That may be gratitude, honor, and surely financial if possible.
Ultimately, the biblical understanding of giving must begin with a Christian view of money. In other words, your money isn’t your money. It’s God’s money. You are simply a steward of that money. The question that you must answer is can God trust me with His money? Next, I want to directly confront the discussion of the sum or size of the donation. It is not about the size, it is about the heart. The Lord can distinguish the difference between a stingy and a generous spirit. Let’s look again at the passage in 2 Corinthians.
2 Corinthians 9:6-8 “But this I say: He who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. So let each one give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity; for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound toward you, that you, always having all sufficiency in all things, may have an abundance for every good work.
We are not to give out of compulsion or out of a stingy spirit. God loves a cheerful giver. Paul then concludes with a promise that God has the ability to make all grace abound to you. That is, do not worry about supporting the financial need of God’s Kingdom—the King himself can assure your needs are always met.
In closing, it’s not about tithing, it’s about giving. Giving, however, is difficult for the flesh. Money, like God, has the ability to give you what you wish. It is why it has become an idol for many. Tithing is also easy because it formulates the heart. There is no discernment in tithing—simply give 10% of your income to the church. It is not that easy when you embrace biblical generosity.
Lastly, if this message of generosity hurts, it’s likely because greed is occupying a place in your heart that God alone should hold. On the other hand, this message should not be convicting if you are already walking out generosity. If you are yielded to your money being His money and you are giving to the poor, to the needs of the saints, and to those who spiritual shepherd you, then this message should bring you joy. Examine yourself, seek the Lord, and show your love for God’s Kingdom through generosity.
What are your thoughts? Do you have anything to add to the discussion? Let me know about it in the comments below.