Should Christians Tithe?
To tithe or not to tithe? That is the question…or at least a good question.
And how we answer leads to other questions:
Gross or net?
What if in debt?
Should we give 10% of everything, including Christmas presents, birthday gifts, and tax refunds?
Do we have to give to a local church or can we just give to whomever we choose?
If you cannot give with joy, should you just not give at all?
Unfortunately, a simple answer won’t suffice. Let's begin by looking at the Old Testament context for the tithe and then move into what, if anything, the New Testament adds to our understanding of God's expectations for His people.
Tithing in the Old Testament
The word “tithe” is derived from the word “tenth,” and Israel’s forefathers practiced a tradition of giving a tenth or 10% (Gen. 14:20, 28:22) even before it was instituted at Sinai (Lev. 27:30-32; Num. 18:21-28; Deut. 12:5-19, 14:22-29, 26:1-19).
Though the tithe principle of a tenth originated in Israel’s history prior to the Mosaic Covenant, it was merely described rather than prescribed. The tithe as a command was not given until Sinai, but even then it wasn't as simple as 10%.
Old Testament giving was diverse. Israel was to give sacrifices, freewill offerings, give a redemption gift for their firstborn of children and animals and pay various taxes, among other things. The 10% tithe on harvest and flock was simply one aspect of the diverse gifts required under the Mosaic Covenant, and some estimate that as much as 25% of income was required when considering the various festivals and offerings under the Mosaic Law.
Though I don’t remember many sermons from my childhood, I vividly remember Malachi 3:8-10. Failure to tithe 10% of your income was equal to thievery, I was told.
But is this the case today? Is 10% still required and expected? Or has the revelation of the gospel clarified how we are to think about giving?
Tithing in the New Testament
Beyond a mention of tithing in a parable (Luke 18:12) and a description of Abraham’s gift to Melchizedek (Heb. 7:3-10), tithing is only mentioned in two parallel passages of the Gospels (Matt. 23:23; Luke 11:42) where the Pharisees are criticized for keeping a detailed account of their tithing of small things like spices while neglecting the much larger concerns of justice and the love of God. The New Testament never commands the tithe, but the gospel accounts assume it.
What are we to make of this virtual silence in the New Testament?
As with each and every element of the Old Testament, we must read through gospel-informed lenses. We don’t live in ancient Israel and thus must not apply the prescriptions of the Old Covenant as if not living in light of the New. After all, we shouldn’t put new wine in old wineskins. The life, death, and resurrection of Christ has fundamentally transformed how believers are to relate to the Mosaic Law.
In light of the work of Christ, believers are no longer under the provisions of the Mosaic Law. This truth is massively essential if we are to understand the new covenant and God's desires and expectations for us this side of the cross. Consider the following passages among many others:
Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. (Romans 7:4)
For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. (Romans 10:4)
Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. (Galatians 3:23-26)
In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away. (Hebrews 8:13)
The implications of this truth are profound. Food which was previously forbidden is now allowed (Mark 7:19, 1 Timothy 4:1-4, Acts 10:9-15). Circumcision which was previously commanded is no longer obligatory (1 Corinthians 7:18-19; Galatians 5:2-6, 6:15). Even the Sabbath is no longer mandatory (Colossians 2:16-17; Romans 14:5-6). If the gospel changes how we are to think of eating and drinking and resting, then surely it should change how we think about giving.
If we are no longer under the Mosaic Law, then we are no longer under the law of a tithe. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't give. We may not be under the law of Moses, but we are still under the law of Christ who commands us to love God and neighbor with everything (including our bank accounts and credit cards). Jesus changes everything by exposing motivation and intent.
I can almost hear Christ whispering, “You have heard it said, ‘give your tithe of 10%,’ but I say to you…” (see Matthew 5:17-48).
So, if we are no longer to simply look to Mosaic commands for instruction on giving, how then should we think of it?
How Do We Give?
We begin with this profound recognition: God gives. No truth is more readily apparent in Scripture than the generosity, grace, and gifts of God. He delights in giving.
As those being conformed to the image of Christ, we should equally delight in giving. And it isn’t just giving in general that is expected; rather, it is selfless and sacrificial giving that overflows from a heart responding to the generosity of the gospel.
As those who have been given much, we of all people should seek to be marked by this grace. In light of this, there are various attributes that should characterize our giving and we should thus pursue passionately. Here are a few designated markers of how gospel people should give:
1. Give generously.
For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints… (2 Corinthians 8:3–4)
Those desiring a challenging, convicting, and encouraging theology of giving should start by reading and rereading 2 Corinthians 8-9. If you want to grasp giving, read those chapters and read them again and then yet again until you feel the weight of them. Not just the “God loves the cheerful giver” section, but the whole thing. The Macedonians gave generously, “beyond their means,” and begged earnestly for “the favor” of doing so. Like them, we have been commanded to "excel in this act of grace" (2 Corinthians 8:7). This is radical giving, not just throwing some pocket change in the plate as it passes by.
2. Give cheerfully.
Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. (2 Corinthians 9:7)
There is a reward for giving, but it is dependent upon a heart free from a lust for the temporal rewards of this earth (Matthew 6:1-4). Gospel giving is cheerful and voluntary because it trusts that every deposit into the kingdom will earn eternal interest.
If you can’t give cheerfully, give anyway (don’t compound your internal sin with external sin as well), but as you do, confess your struggle, seek counsel on the disconnect between your heart and the gospel, pray for joy, and walk in repentance.
3. Give sacrificially.
By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? (1 John 3:16–17)
This is probably the most underappreciated and underapplied principle for Christian giving today. It inherently inconveniences us, and the flesh is quick to offer excuses and justification, but the gospel calls us to deep and radical sacrifice.
In 1 John 3:16-17, the apostle exhorts the Church to care for brothers in need as an overflow and implication of gospel love, the type of love that lays down one’s life for another. David refused to give a gift that would cost him nothing (2 Samuel Sam. 24:24), but aren’t we in danger of doing just that many times? Do we actually give to the point that we feel it? Does the call to take up our cross (Matt 16:24-26) not also carry the charge to lay down our checkbooks?
4. Give spontaneously.
And let our people learn to devote themselves to good works, so as to help cases of urgent need, and not be unfruitful. (Titus 3:14)
A heart freed by the gospel does not wait for opportunities to give. It intentionally seeks them out. Gospel giving looks for chances to bless others and listens to the needs of those near and far.
Gospel generosity gives to those who beg (Matt. 5:42), risking that the gift might not be used properly (which is not to say that it is not righteous and wise to occasionally refuse to give in a particular circumstance). Those walking in the light of the gospel engage in good deeds and meet pressing needs anytime and anywhere they arise.
5. Give regularly.
Now concerning the collection for the saints: as I directed the churches of Galatia, so you also are to do. 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. (1 Corinthians 16:1–2)
Though we should give as need arises, we should also be consistent and disciplined in giving. Giving is linked with prayer and fasting (Matt. 6:1-18), and both should contain some element of discipline and regularity.
In 1 Corinthians 16:2, the apostle Paul commends a disciplined and orderly form of giving in addition to whatever spontaneous offerings and gifts we might be compelled to give. While this is not necessarily an explicit prescription, it does seem a wise pattern and principle to emulate.
6. Give secretly.
Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:2–4)
I don’t think that Jesus necessarily intends for us to sign Christmas cards as “John Doe,” but there is a general theme of secret giving for the sake of eternal reward. The flesh craves the praise of man, and thus we need to beware the hypocrisy and tendency to give in an effort to purchase the acclaim, attention, and affection of others (Matt. 6:2-4).
7. Give thankfully.
He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God. For the ministry of this service is not only supplying the needs of the saints but is also overflowing in many thanksgivings to God. (2 Corinthians 9:10–12)
Grace is the basis for gratitude. As those who have received grace, we should gratefully extend it to others. We should be thankful not only for what we have, but also for the grace and faith and love that would compel us to give.
Giving should not be like reluctantly writing a check to pay another water bill. It should be an earnest and eager exercise to invest in the kingdom of God by mirroring His generosity and grace. Christians growing in grace should be growing in giving marked by generosity, cheerfulness, sacrifice, spontaneity, regularity, secrecy, and gratitude. Where our giving is lacking in any of these attributes, we have opportunity to learn and grow and experience far greater joy and freedom.
To Whom Do Believers Give?
Having considered how we should give, we should contemplate to whom we should give. Do Christians merely give to whatever needs are before them in the moment? Do they just give to their immediate family or the charity of their choice?
Considering the full counsel of Scripture, we might see a vast array of opportunities for us to give. We have biblical opportunities and obligations to give to the local church, other believers, our biological family, our neighbors, and so forth. This doesn't mean that we give equally to each group, but it does suggest that there be willingness and passion for the grace of giving in various contexts.
That said, I think the weight of biblical wisdom suggests prioritizing giving to support the ministry of a local church. Not only is that the background of Old Testament expectation, but there are also New Testament patterns and prescriptions that suggest the priority of the local church. So, although the law of the tithe is no longer mandatory for believers, giving a regular, set amount to your local church is a healthy and helpful principle.
In a healthy church, there are various needs that many members may not even recognize. There are salaries for those who preach and teach. After all, God commands the church members to support those who explicitly labor for the sake of the kingdom (1 Tim. 5:17-18; 1 Cor. 9:3-12). But there are also mortgages, electricity and water bills, building maintenance, benevolence funds, ministry budgets, missionary endeavors, and other such needs. Churches have a responsibility to be accountable and open in their stewardship of the funds that they receive and members have a responsibility to contribute to the mission of the church by giving generously to her diverse needs.
Furthermore, church leaders often have a greater picture of the community’s needs and can thus distribute offerings according to where a need is most pressing. Within the New Testament, we see the early church selling their possessions and laying the proceeds at the feet of the apostles (Acts 4:32-37), trusting them to discern how to best steward the gifts. In the same way, you should entrust a major portion of your giving to your local church. If you can’t trust your pastors with your giving, you probably shouldn’t trust them with your growth in Christ.
Given the tremendous needs of a covenant community and the profound significance of the local church in God's kingdom, I would recommend giving the bulk of your regular giving to your local church and then looking for opportunities to give beyond that as needs arise and as you are able to sacrifice to meet those needs.
In addition to giving to a local church, there are missionaries and ministries in need of funding. There are also countless family, friends, neighbors, enemies, widows, orphans, and the impoverished and oppressed. Some of these you might support individually, but others you might support corporately by simply giving over and above your normal giving to your church if she has a budget for such. Such needs require attentive hearts because it is hard to be generous and compassionate without being observant and aware of the needs around us.
For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs. (1 Timothy 6:10)
Money is not merely neutral. It has a power and influence and trajectory and its gravitational pull is difficult to escape. Giving is thus a means by which we exercise our spiritual muscles that we might flee from the temptation to assimilate into a culture of desiring more and more and better and bigger. By giving, we thus cultivate contentment even as we tangibly express our gratitude for the grace we have received. Therefore, giving begins in a heart that is content or at least seeking contentment in Christ alone.
Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5)
Studies by the SBC suggest that the average churchgoer today gives about 3.4% which is 21% less than the typical churchgoer gave during the Great Depression. Furthermore, less than 5% of regular attendees today give at least 10%. These are fascinating and somewhat disturbing statistics that point to a general misunderstanding of grace. It also suggests that the primary reason that people do not give is not one of the circumstances of life, but rather the choices of the heart.
As we are no longer under the Mosaic Law, 10% is not a binding universal command. Some people because of the circumstances of life can perhaps only give 3.4% or 5% or even 1% and they shouldn't be ashamed if they are unable to give as much as they want. But there is a world of difference between not being able to give as much as you want and not wanting to give as much as you can (2 Corinthians 8:12).
Informed by gospel lenses, we should not think of giving as a mere responsibility, but an opportunity. In light of this reality, 10% should not be the goal. After all, some people because of the circumstances of life should be giving far more than 10%. But all of us should continue to think through how we can afford to give more and more and even more and pray earnestly for the grace to give even beyond our current means (2 Corinthians 8:3).
The gospel compels us to give, confronting our fleshly tendencies toward greed, control, comfort, and convenience and offering us joy, freedom, and greater reward. Giving is thus a beautiful picture of responsibility and opportunity mingled together for the glory of God and the good of His people.
Therefore, what if the next raise or bonus provided an opportunity to further advance the gospel rather than buy a bigger house? What if where we ate and traveled and what we wore and drove were all filtered through kingdom lenses? What if we sought to give not 10% but 25% or 50% or more?
By the way, these questions are not rhetorical or hypothetical and the scenarios aren't impossible or insane. Though they may not represent the circumstances of every Christian, they certainly should be the cry of every Christian's heart.
So forget the tithe. Are you giving generously, cheerfully, sacrificially, spontaneously, regularly, secretly, and thankfully? If not, why not?
The Treasure Principle by Randy Alcorn