Sunday, February 07, 2010

Are Christians Required to Tithe?

It's a common question: "Are Christians required to tithe?" Let's be good students of the Word and think through this together. (By the way, this might make a really nice lesson for your students.)

The simple answer is that you will not find a clear command to tithe in the New Testament. You also won't find an explicit command to not tithe or not give generously. The New Testament tells us that the reality of our "new creation in Christ" life is a much higher standard of giving than legalistic tithing.

Let's walk through the Scriptures on this.

Many people will point to Matthews 23:23 as evidence that Christians should tithe. (There is a parallel passage in Luke 11:42.) I think this interpretation is missing the primary point.
In the whole chapter of Matthew 23, Jesus speaks harshly to the Pharisees about their religious practices. In verse 23, He does not condemn their systematic tithing (even of kitchen herbs) but challenges them to go beyond the letter of the law and live as a reflection of God's grace to them:
23"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices-mint, dill and cummin. 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. (Matthew 23:23)

Let's review New Testament passages which lead me to believe a higher standard of giving is normative for Christians.
Jesus commanded giving to God. It's not an option, if I read this correctly:

Then he said to them, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's." (Matthew 22:21)

Jesus commended the widow who gave far beyond a tithe:

1As he looked up, Jesus saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. 2He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. 3"I tell you the truth," he said, "this poor widow has put in more than all the others. 4All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on." (Luke 21:1-4)

After Pentecost the new believers were incredibly generous with giving and helping. It does not appear they limited themselves to a tithe:

42They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. 44All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. 46Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47)

Paul commends the extreme giving of Macedonian churches and urges the Corinthians to "excel in the grace of giving:"

1And now, brothers, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. 2Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. 3For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, 4they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the saints. 5And they did not do as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then to us in keeping with God's will. 6So we urged Titus, since he had earlier made a beginning, to bring also to completion this act of grace on your part. 7But just as you excel in everything-in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in your love for us-see that you also excel in this grace of giving. (2 Corinthians 8:1-7)

Paul's instruction to the Galatians and Corinthians is to give regularly in proportion to the income God has provided (without mentioning a specific figure):

1Now about the collection for God's people: Do what I told the Galatian churches to do. 2On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made. (1 Cor 16:1-2)

I suggest to you that Christians are not given a command about a specific percentage offering (a legalistic standard) because we're called to give from the heart (evidence of God's grace).

Consider this part of Paul's letter to the Corinthians:
6Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. 7Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 8And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. 9As it is written:
"He has scattered abroad his gifts to the poor; his righteousness endures forever." 10Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness. 11You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God.
12This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of God's people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God. 13Because of the service by which you have proved yourselves, men will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone else. (2 Corinthians 9:6-13)

Another issue which is important to review: are we cursed if we do not tithe? Failure to keep the Mosaic law led to cursing, so if we don't tithe are we cursed by God? (Or at least not blessed as He describes in Deut 14:29 and Malachi 3:10-12?)

The answer is No. The work of Christ at the cross delivers Christians from the curse of the Mosaic Law, because the law has been fulfilled in Christ.

When people ask the question "Are Christians required to tithe?" my question is the attitude of the heart that provokes that question. I fear they are really asking "What's the minimum I can do and still be ok with God?" Legalism is deadly, but attractive because it's manageable within our own strength and tangible.

From the passages above I believe the New Testament give us a picture of extremely generous giving as the normal reflection of God's amazing love and power in our transformed hearts. Let's work to shift our attitude from "I have to tithe" to "I get to give generously and joyfully!"

In terms of directing our giving (e.g., how much should go to my local church?), there is no direct statement of command in the New Testament.

Let's think about some principles we can glean from the whole of Scripture:
  1. Everything we have is God's, not just X%. (See Psalm 24:1)
  2. We will be held accountable for how we steward what has been entrusted to us (Luke 16:12; 19:11-27)
  3. We should support church leaders and those who minister to us (see Galatians 6:6 and 1 Tim 5:17-19)
  4. We should help the poor, including widows and orphans (many passages)
  5. We should support missions outreach (many passages)

Let's also consider the structure of the Mosaic Law tithes, which included:
  • The tithe to support the Levites (see Lev 27:30,32; Num 18:24)
  • The festival tithe (see Deut 12:11-12)
  • The welfare tithe (see Deut 14:28-29) [This model provided for the whole community without any further government functions in an agrarian culture.]

The Old Testament tithe command is therefore not a comprehensive 10% (as most people think), but much more generous.

If we follow that pattern, then, giving to the local church for ministry support would be comparable to the tithe to support the Levites. Giving to support special events would be comparable to the festival tithe. And giving beyond that to support those in need would correspond with the welfare tithe.

Therefore many Christians have looked at 10% of income going to their local church as a good starting point, and then giving to special events/needs and to support the poor above and beyond that. I think this is a reasonable approach, but will not make it an expectation or mark of a "true" believer.

I cannot support the statement "Christians should give 10% of their income to their local church" specifically from Scripture. What I can support from Scripture is that Christians should give very generously to others, in accordance with the love of God in their hearts. Instead of a legal obligation to tithe we are offered the opportunity to give cheerfully and joyfully from the heart.

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