Chapter 12 - So what about tithing?

"Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver."

(2 Cor 9:7)

We talked in the last chapter about generosity, sacrificial financial giving, being the key to breaking the hold of materialism in our lives. But that raises the question of where do I start? Is putting £5 into the offering basket every week enough, or do I need to follow the example of the rich young ruler, sell everything I have and give it to the poor. As in the rest of life God has given us the Bible as our guide for living, so in this chapter we’re going to look at what the Bible has to say about giving, and in particular the Biblical principle of tithing.

Tithing in the Old Testament

The earliest reference to tithing is in Genesis 14:18-20 (before the giving of the law to Moses) where we read:

Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High, and he blessed Abram, saying, "Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth, And blessed be God Most High, who delivered your enemies into your hand."

Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything.  

Abram gives to Melchizedek a tenth (a tithe) of everything he has. In Hebrews 7 we read that Melchizedek was a representation of Jesus, and that Abram is in effect giving a tenth of everything back to God.

The idea of tithing is the developed in Leviticus 27:30-32:

 “‘A tithe of everything from the land, whether grain from the soil or fruit from the trees, belongs to the LORD; it is holy to the LORD. Whoever would redeem any of their tithe must add a fifth of the value to it. Every tithe of the herd and flock—every tenth animal that passes under the shepherd’s rod—will be holy to the LORD.

Other passages develop how the tithes were to be used (Num 18:21-24; Deut 12:5-17; Deut 14:22-23). Some have argued that there were actually three different tithes which were to be paid. 10% to the Levites (Num 18:21), 10% for use in the feasts and the temple (Deut 12:17-18), and a further 10% every three years which went to the poor and outsiders (Deut 14:28-19), making a total tithe of 23%. However, scholars disagree on whether this was ever actually practiced. What is clear is that, as with the rest of the requirements of the law, the people struggled to ever live up to the requirements of tithing. The prophets rebuked the people for their failure to tithe (Mal 3:8-10), and when the nation repented under the leadership of Hezekiah one of the first results was an enthusiastic return to tithing:

As soon as the order went out, the Israelites generously gave the firstfruits of their grain, new wine, olive oil and honey and all that the fields produced. They brought a great amount, a tithe of everything. (2 Chron 31:5)

Tithing in the New Testament

Let’s take a look at the two times Jesus is recorded speaking on the subject of tithing.

In Matt 23:23 (and repeated in Luke 11:42) we hear Jesus rebuking the Pharisees:

 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.

 The Pharisees were so focused on keep all of the law that they even tithed the herbs they grew in their gardens, yet they’ve missed the more important issues to God - justice, mercy and faithfulness. Notice that Jesus doesn’t say they shouldn’t tithe, but that as well as tithing they should have done all the other stuff. This of course isn’t a direct indication that Christians should tithe, as Jesus is speaking here to Jews trying to get to God by obeying the law, but does show that Jesus saw tithing as a requirement of the law.

This is then taken further in the parable of tax collector in Luke 18:9-14:

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

   “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

   “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

The Pharisee is full of himself, using ‘I’ four times in his prayer, and thinking that his tithing has earnt him God’s approval. This is such a deceptive trap for us to fall into as we go on in our relationship with God, to begin to believe that it is our good works rather than Jesus death in our place which makes us acceptable to God. To slip into law rather than grace.

And like so many in coconut communities the Pharisee looks down on the tax collector, who rather than bragging about how great he is is willing to humble himself before God.

The rest of the New Testament writers have nothing to say directly about tithing, other than the we’ve already referred to in Hebrews 7, which tells us much about Jesus but little about tithing!

Grace and Tithing

So how are we to understand the Old Testament principle of tithing, which Jesus reinforced, in a New Testament era.

We start by affirming that in Jesus we live under grace, not under law. This is so key for us to grasp. Under the law tithing was one of the things they had to do to earn God’s approval and meet the requirements of the law. Under grace Jesus has done everything that could ever need to be done to earn us God’s approval and He has fully met the requirements of the law. Let’s be clear -  If you never tithe in your life God won’t love you any less, and if you give away everything you have God won’t love you any more.

We need also to remember that in grace Jesus didn’t came to abolish the law, but to fulfill the law, and give us the heart surgery which gives us the power to live beyond the law (Matt 5:17-20). Thus in the sermon on the mount we see Jesus taking the commandments of the law, and showing us that grace always takes us beyond the law.

Erwin MacManus, who leads Mosaic Church in Los Angeles, puts it very clearly as he records this conversation with somebody thinking of joining Mosaic:

"I was sitting on the hearth of the fireplace with an individual who was considering becoming a part of Mosaic. He turned to me and asked me if Mosaic was a law church or a grace church. It was pretty obvious to me that he was setting a trap, so I thought that I would go ahead and jump in. I said "Well, of course, we're a grace church." "I thought so," he replied. "I was concerned you that you were one of those law churches that told people they had to tithe."  

"Oh no," I said. "We're a grace church. The law says, 'Do not murder.' Grace says you don't even have to have hatred in your heart; you can love your enemy. The law says, 'Do not commit adultery,' but grace says you don't even have to have lust in your heart for another woman. The law says, 'Give 10 percent,' but grace always takes us beyond the law. You can give 20, 30, or 40 percent. We would never stop you from living by grace."

We are a grace church too! That means that in an era of grace, tithing isn’t abolished but becomes merely a starting point, a baseline to begin our lives from.

The ESV Study Bible puts it like this “Rather than stipulating a fixed amount the New Testament places an emphasis on generous, abundant, cheerful giving....So while Christians are not obligated to give a fixed amount, it is hard to imagine that God expects people of the new covenant to gave any less than the 10% tithe in the old covenant.”

The idea of tithing in an era of grace has a number of major implications.

First of all it means that tithing should no longer be a requirement but a joy. We no longer give because we are instructed to, but we give in response to a God who has already given us everything. God lavished his grace on us, and our giving is just a small response to what God has already given to us. Paul expresses the heart with which we should give when he says

Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. (2 Cor 9:7)

This is something between you and God. Nobody is going to demand that you give in order to be part of the Kerith community. You need to decide what you are going to give, and then give it cheerfully.

Secondly in an era of grace tithing becomes not a goal to attain but a starting line to begin from. It's not that we spend our whole lives trying to build up to giving 10%, perhaps increasing by another percentage point every few years hoping that before we die we will reach the magic 10%, but instead we start with 10% and then see where God will take us from there. For Catrina and I we set aside a regular amount we give to the church, which is more than 10% of our combined income, but on top of that we regularly give to a number of charities and causes, as well as setting aside money every month to give to people in need within our church community.

This brings us on to the third point, which is that for most of us tithing is a faith issue. Very few of us will ever have enough money that we can “afford” to tithe, that we can give away 10% without that being a major chunk of our disposable income. The Bible tells us that “without faith it is impossible to please God” (Heb 11:6), and for most of us the decision to tithe will come down to a faith issue. Do I trust God enough that if I tithe He will make sure I don’t get into debt and will instead flourish. Interestingly the only time God tells us to test Him is over the issue of tithing:

Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house.Test me in this,” says the LORD Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it. (Mal 3:10)

I first took that adventure of faith when I was at university. I had just got my first grant cheque for £600 and then heard my first ever sermon on tithing. My initial though was “I can’t afford to do this”. But then began to ask the question “If instead my grant cheque was £666, so that after I’d tithed it I’d then be left with £600, would I then think I could afford it”. The answer was no, and I realised there and then the question was not one of affordability, but of faith. I wrote out a cheque to my local church for £60 and have been tithing ever since.

Other Implications of Grace

Grace has other implications on our giving.

First of all it means that we don’t tithe in order to earn God’s approval, or as some sort of cosmic insurance policy against things going wrong in our lives. I know people who have tithed and even double tithed for many years and then got cancer, and others who have never as far as I know given a penny and seem to sail through life moving from one apparent blessing to another. Instead we give freely, joyfully, even hilariously, in response to all that God has done for us.

Grace also means that if there are seasons where we can’t tithe, then we don’t get into huge condemnation or fear about it. Let me give a couple of examples.

If you get into big debt and work with our CAP debt counselling service, then the budget CAP will negotiate with the people you owe money to won’t allow you to tithe. They’ll understandably want their money back as quickly as possible and simply won’t agree to you giving away 10% to anybody.  Proverbs 22:7 tells us that “the borrower is slave to the lender”, and part of the slavery you’ve got yourself into is that for a season you won’t be able to tithe.

I know other people in our community who have become Christians, but have a partner who still hasn’t come to faith. In that situation tithing can become a barrier to the partner becoming a Christian, as they feel that all the church is interested in is getting peoples money.  If your partner objects to you tithing then it may be that you decide that in order to love them and attempt to win them you decide not to tithe. I

Net or Gross?

People sometimes ask me whether they should tithe on their gross income, or their net income. Even the question is confusing as ‘net’ means different things to different people. For some it’s after tax and National Insurance, some also take off pension contributions, mortgage payments, even food bills, utility bills and council tax.

If I’m honest in my experience this question is motivated either out of a desire to work out “how little can I give”, or a life lived under fear of the law and that if I ‘miss’ a portion of my tithe God is going to punish me.  Personally I’ve always, as a starting point, tithed out of my gross income because God has always blessed me on a ‘gross’ basis, not on a ‘net’ basis. But in a grace era we must remember that it’s not about how much we give, but about the heart we give it with (see Mark 12:41-44).

Also the Bible teaches the principle of us giving out of our firstfruits. In Ex 23:19 God says

Bring the best of the firstfruits of your soil to the house of the LORD your God.

If you want to know an organisation who understand the concept of firstfruits take a look at the Inland Revenue! Your tax is calculated on the basis of everything you earn. You’re not going to get far with them if you try to persuade them that the money for your mortgage or rent shouldn’t be included in your tax calculation. They take from the firstfruits, and I believe we should give to God from our firstfruits too.

What should I give to?

In the Old Testament tithing was God’s plan for funding the priests and the work of the temple, and providing for the poor. Malachi talks about bringing the tithe in to the storehouse, the place of God’s provision. I believe that we should apply the same principles to the church, that regular giving by the body of believers is God’s plan for funding the local church, for paying the salaries of those who work for the chuch and providing for the poor both inside and outside the church community. Here is one of the many things Paul wrote to the church in Corinth regarding giving:

Don’t you know that those who serve in the temple get their food from the temple, and that those who serve at the altar share in what is offered on the altar? In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel. (1 Cor 9:13-14)

Final Thoughts

I want to finish with some words which I think should characterise our giving:

Willing and cheerful - “Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver." (2 Cor 9:7)

Regular - “On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money...” (1 Cor 16:2)

Proportionate to your income - “,,,set aside a sum of money in keeping with your income...” (1 Cor 16:2)

Generous - “In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability.” (2 Cor 8:2-3)

Sacrificial - “They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.” (Mark 12:44)