Tithing is a controversial topic. It is definitely one of those issues that can ruin a dinner conversation. Some people believe in tithing and hold that it is the key to financial prosperity. Others say that it is only the key to the financial prosperity of the preacher who is promoting it. Are these the only perspectives on tithing?
Both views of tithing are promoted in the church today. One view is held by those are attached to the so-called “prosperity gospel.” Those who claim to see through the greed and corruption of the pastors who preach the prosperity gospel hold another view. These folks have usually abandoned the church and see it as nothing more than a moneymaking machine. What about those of us who have not abandoned the church but at the same time don’t see God as a cosmic Santa Claus or vending machine. What if there was a third way?
1. We are obligated to tithe
The first view that summarizes the prosperity preachers basically says that as believers we are obligated to tithe. The law says to tithe and therefore in order to be blessed by God, we tithe. They espouse that just like ancient Israel, those who are in the church will receive material blessings as we give our material wealth into the hands of the church.
The usual sermon text for this idea is Malachi 3:8-10 where it says:
Will a man rob God? Yet ye have robbed me. But ye say, Wherein have we robbed thee? In tithes and offerings. Ye are cursed with a curse: for ye have robbed me, even this whole nation. Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in mine house, and prove me now herewith, saith the LORD of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it.
Here Malachi references the obligation the Israelites had under the Mosaic law to bring tithes, or a tenth of their produce and livestock, to the temple (Numbers 18:21–32, Deuteronomy 14:22–28).
The assumption that those who promote this view of tithing hold is that the church is the new Israel and that all the promises that were given to Israel still hold true for those of us who are under the new covenant.
And if they are challenged on this, they could also bring up the fact that even Abraham tithed. In Genesis 14:17-21 it says that after Abraham fought a battle to bring back his nephew Lot, he offered a tenth of the spoil to Melchizedek the priest of Salem. If Abraham paid tithes to Melchizidek before the Old Testament law was handed down to Israel then tithing is more than just a requirement of the written law.
They would also point to the fact that even Jesus told people to keep tithing (Matthew 23:23). So if it was good enough for Jesus then it should be good enough for us. I mean, the seal of the Son of God is enough, right?
So you have all of these Scriptures backing up tithing. How can someone say that you don’t have to tithe?
2. We are no longer obligated to tithe
Those who hold to the view that we are not obligated to tithe cite a scriptural concept that’s interwoven through the Bible. There is an old covenant that God made with the people of Israel and a new covenant that God has made with His people now that Jesus has died and been resurrected.
The logic is that since we are no longer under the old covenant God made with Israel, those old covenant stipulations no longer apply to us. They point to the fact that tithing is a part of the ceremonial and civil laws of Israel and those types of laws are no longer binding on believers under the new covenant.
Jesus mentioned tithing directly only once (Matthew 23:23) and in that instance the main point he was making was not to be like the Pharisees. In context, the passage isn’t about giving; it’s about hypocrisy. So Jesus was just talking to people who would have tithed given their cultural context and obligation to the law.
Another negative instance of Jesus mentioning tithing is in the parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee. Here Jesus makes the point that even though the Pharisee tithed that is not what made him righteous. His heart attitude was more important than the amount of money he gave. While this does not clearly denounce tithing it does show that Jesus cared more about people’s internal attitude than about whether they externally gave ten percent of their income.
Those who hold to the view that we are under grace say that we are just commanded to give and to give cheerfully (1 Corinthians 9:7). There is no obligation for a tenth of our income.
They claim that the people who do advocate for tithing are only trying to line their pockets so they can keep their money making machine, i.e. the church, going.
So which one is it? Are we supposed to tithe? Are we not supposed to tithe? Let’s take a look at a third way of tithing.
3. We are privileged to tithe
Instead of looking at tithing as an obligation we keep or on the other hand as an obligation that no longer applies to us, what if we looked at tithing as a privilege? In fact, what if tithing is just the first step in our journey of giving?
When we look at tithing as an obligation, it may seem like a lot, but in fact when we consider what the greatest commandment is, a tithe is nothing. The law says a tenth. Jesus says our all (Matthew 22:36–37, Deuteronomy 6:5). In Matthew 22:36–37 Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:5, from a central passage in Jewish theology. In this verse, the Israelites are commanded to love the Lord with all their mind, soul, and strength. The word “strength” is the physical aspect of human functioning and by extension any resources or possessions gained from it. This would include our wealth.
From the point of view of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross, being under grace makes tithing a privilege. It is a way of showing our total commitment. In fact it is only the beginning step in excelling in the grace of giving (2 Corinthians 8:7).
If we are commanded to offer our whole lives as living sacrifices, then that would include our wallets and bank accounts as well.
Tithing was required for those under the law. It was more like a tax. Tithing supported the priestly class and the poor (Deuteronomy 14:28-29). It was mandatory. Now we are to give cheerfully as an acknowledgment of the debt we can never repay. Tithing is just a first step toward excelling in giving.
When it comes to giving to God, a tenth is nothing. Jesus left heaven and glory to give His life for us. He owns everything we have anyway. Tithing is just a sign of that.
The early church father Irenaeus in his book Against Heresies contrasts the system of tithing under the law with the generous disposition required in the New Covenant by saying: “And for this reason they (the Jews) had indeed the tithes of their goods consecrated to Him, but those who have received liberty set aside all their possessions for the Lord’s purposes, bestowing joyfully and freely not the less valuable portions of their property, since they have the hope of better things [hereafter]; as that poor widow acted who cast all her living into the treasury of God.”
I love how Rick Warren and his wife Kay have practiced a reverse tithe. To put it simply, they give away 90% of their income and live off 10%. This may be extreme, but it sure puts the baby step of giving a tenth of your income in perspective. If all we have is His, then a tenth is a good starting point on the road to giving more.