Question: I and my husband have become increasingly uncomfortable with the many sermons on tithing we’ve been recently hearing at our church. Our pastor insists we tithe 10% to the church regardless of what else we give to other ministries. It seems like it has been reduced to a formula: Give ten percent and be blessed out of your socks. Could you share your views on tithing with us?
Answer: In the Old Testament, a tithe was that part of the Israelite tax that went to support the Temple and the Levites who were in charge of it. To refuse to pay this tax was to “rob God” (Mal. 3). As with most other stipulations in the Old Testament, God associated blessings with fulfilling this law, and curses with disobeying it.
Now, there’s absolutely nothing in the Bible that suggests that non-Jews are required to continue to pay this “temple tax” in the New Testament – especially since the Temple and Levitical priesthood came to an end in 70 AD. When the New Testament talks about giving (e.g. 2 Cor. 8-10), it mentions giving “generously,” “outrageously,” “not under compulsion,” “joyfully” and “as God leads you.” But the New Testament never mentions a rule about a percentage one is required to give. In fact, such a law violates the spirit of the New Testament’s teaching on giving. (It’s true Jesus mentions the tithe in Matthew 23, but he’s talking to Pharisees [Jews] before the Temple fell. They were still under the Old Covenant law, and thus were supposed to pay their Temple tax).
For these reasons, I don’t believe there is any justification for pulling out Old Testament verses to get people to give 10% of their income to their church. There’s 613 laws that were required of Hebrews under the Old Covenant: why, one might wonder, do pastors hit on this one as the one that should be carried over? One could just as easily argue that we should continue to preach against wearing wool and cotton together, since this too was an Old Testament law!
Having said this, one could argue that the 10% pattern in the Old Testament could serve as a sort of minimal “benchmark” for disciples today. That is, if we find that we are spending more than 90% of our income on ourselves, it may be evidence that our priorities aren’t right. Studies show that the average American Evangelical gives 2 to 3% of their income to their church or to charities. Given that our standard of living is four times higher than the global average, it’s hard to argue that we’re being “generous” and “outrageous” and “following God’s leading” in the way we’re stewarding our resources.
So, there seems to be a problem with the priorities of many American Christians. But re-invoking an Old Testament law to coerce people to give a percentage of their income to a church is not the solution. The solution is rather for Christians to get a vision of the beautiful Kingdom they are called to advance that is more compelling to them than the American dream. We are not called to be a people that are shamed by a rule, but a people who are captivated by a vision.