I was once quizzed by a man whose adult daughter had become a Christian and applied for church membership. He himself was not a church-goer and had many questions. One was, ‘What will she have to pay?’. I assured him there would be no charge! ‘But the church must need money,’ he told me. I explained that attenders gave voluntarily. ‘So what will she have to give?’ I told him it was entirely up to her. He kept pressing me for an appropriate amount. ‘What do other people give?’ he wanted to know. I replied, ‘Many Christians believe around 10% of their income would be appropriate’. There was a long silence. My answer had come as a bit of a shock — he’d apparently been thinking that around £50 a year would be adequate!
To tithe, or not to tithe?
But is 10% an appropriate amount? When we look at the Bible, particularly in the Old Testament, we often find God’s people gave a tithe. (By definition a tithe means 10%.) Tithes were given to the Levites (Num. 18) who had responsibility for looking after the tabernacle. They in turn would tithe their tithe to the priests – a special group of Levites who had responsibility for leading, teaching, and officiating at ceremonies. Tithes ensured God’s work would be done, and the whole community benefited.
But tithes weren’t the only way that the Israelites gave. The poor were cared for, particularly family-members (e.g. Lev. 25:35, Deut. 15:7-11). Many offerings were brought to the tabernacle or temple, entirely separate from the tithe. There was also generous giving at special occasions like the building of the tabernacle (Ex. 35:4-29, 36:3-7).
Most people today view tithes in the Old Testament as obligatory, because God didn’t suggest the Israelites tithed, He commanded it. Yet it doesn’t appear to be a civil obligation. No civil punishment was ever specified, and whilst prophets spoke up when people didn’t tithe, tithing was never legally enforced. In that sense, tithing (even in the Old Testament) should never be considered as a ‘tax’. It was a necessary, but voluntary contribution. When the tithe was forgotten, the Levites and priests were forced into ‘secular’ work (Neh. 13:10), depriving the people of their ministry, to the spiritual and material harm of everyone (see Mal. 3:8-10).
The Bible doesn’t tell us directly why 10% was the figure chosen for the Levites, but the most likely answer is that 10% was what they needed. If eleven tribes give 10% to the twelfth then all tribes have roughly the same. (If the Levites ended up with a little more that was probably because they incurred some expenses in carrying out their work.)
So what lessons should we learn from the Old Testament? First, tithes were used primarily to ensure that God’s work could be done, and that those who served God shared equally in material blessings. Second, tithes were not the only way God’s people gave. Third, whilst tithes were necessary, they were not obligatory. They were gifts, not taxes.
Out with the old?
This is all very well, but we have no Levites or priests, and no tabernacle or temple. We live in the New Covenant, and not the Old. How then should we view tithing today?
There are several broad principles that will help us. The first is that the New Covenant is better than the Old (Heb. 7:22, 8:6). Believers in the New Covenant are greater than Old Covenant believers (Matt. 11:11), and will do greater things than even Jesus did (John 14:12). It is inconceivable that New Covenant believers will give less generously than Old Covenant believers. The second principle is that New Covenant believers are freer than those in the Old Covenant. We have died to the law and are released from it (Rom. 7:4-6). This means it is unthinkable that we would be less free than Old Testament believers.
When we look at the Bible’s teaching concerning giving, it fits precisely with these broader theological principles. First, the New Testament model is not a tenth, but the Macedonians who give ‘beyond their means’, in a ‘wealth of generosity’ that belied their ‘extreme poverty’ (2 Cor. 8:1-15, cf. Luke 21:1-4). Jesus was also critical of the Pharisees (Luke 11:42, cf. 18:12) who very carefully tithed tiny amounts of herbs, but neglected more important duties. Doing our best to ensure that we manage the ‘minimum’ is to completely miss the point. Second, Jesus suggests that ‘sons of the king’ (a description which applies principally to Him, but through Him to all His spiritual family) have no obligation to pay the temple tax (Matt. 17:24-27).
Principles for today
We’re now in a position where we can summarise the principles from the whole of the Bible and apply it to ourselves.
- Christians are under no obligation to give a tithe (10%) of their income. Instead our giving should be sacrificial, and proportional to our means.
- Church leaders may teach that giving is necessary, and should be regular (1 Cor. 16:1-2), but they should not enforce giving, nor monitor individuals’ giving.
- Christians’ regular giving to the church does not release them from a duty of care for the poor, nor from additional giving where there is particular need, either inside or outside the church.
- Those employed by the church should receive a fair wage (the Levites’ income was roughly comparable with those who were giving). Christians should give enough to their local church to ensure they can enjoy the benefits of the church’s ministry. 10% ensured this three millennia ago. The information below may help you think this through today.
Only heretical American televangelists promise that if you give them $100, God will ‘repay’ you with all you need to pay off your debts and buy a speedboat. It’s a terrible distortion of a glorious biblical truth, ‘He… 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…’ (2 Cor. 9:10-11). Giving generously contributes to a righteous character and is a wonderful investment. Generosity’s reward is sanctification, not a speedboat.
But for some, giving generously is not easy. Some Christians even argue that they should not give generously because if they did they’d be breaking the principle that God loves a cheerful giver. What nonsense! The only way to learn the joy of giving is to give.
There will be others who would love to give generously, but they do not control their family budget and the person who does is not a Christian. We should obviously not steal from our spouse, nor act deceptively. But we can give from the part of the budget we do control. And perhaps a non-Christian spouse may be more willing to be generous than we think, particularly when approached prayerfully.
Still others will feel unable to give substantially because their own income is low. Even so, the principles remain. The example of the widow at the temple, and the Macedonians is that we should give out of our poverty. The amount may be less than the rich, but our heart’s desire ought not to be less. This also means that the relatively well-off need to give more, to ease the burden on the poor.
If we don’t give generously, the whole Christian community suffers. How many churches are weak because some members will not give adequately to support the advancement of gospel work? But if we do give, everyone gains. The hungry are fed, the gospel prospers, the giver is enriched, the church is blessed and God is glorified! Lord, teach us to give generously and joyfully.
Postscript: What does my church need from me?
I can’t tell you what your church needs from you, because the Bible says ‘each one must give as he has decided in his heart’ (2 Cor. 9:7). These questions will help you know roughly what your church needs, but only you can decide what to give.
- Look at your church expenses budget. If necessary add anything the leaders feel would benefit the work, or require to ensure the pastor’s family’s income is no less than the average family.* Let’s imagine a church with a current income of £50,000, but which would really benefit from another £10,000 so it could afford to employ a part-time assistant.
- Divide the total by the number of households where a church member controls the family budget. Perhaps there are 50 members representing 30 families but in several of these families the head of household does not attend, leaving 20 families to be considered. We then divide the £60,000 needed by the church by 20 families, giving £3,000 per family.
- What is that figure as a percentage of the average family’s income? In the UK, you can look up the average household income for your area at www.neighbourhood.statistics.gov.uk – it may be higher than you think! Where I live it is £27,000, the average for Wales is £28,000. So £3,000 would be 10.7% of £28,000.
- Take that percentage and use it on your own family’s income to calculate a ball-park figure to help you pray through what to give. Remember that God doesn’t want us to calculate our ‘tithe’ to the exact penny to ensure we give only the amount that is ‘required’!
* This is not a hint to my own church who are already generous towards me!
This post was first written for the Evangelical Magazine.