Is a Christian required in the New Testament era to tithe – to give 10% of his or her income to the Lord’s work? Do the Old Testament commandments on tithing apply to New Testament Christians?
Blogging is a fascinating thing. Topics seem to run in cycles. A few years ago there were few topics more controversial and common among Baptist bloggers than tithing, but I can’t remember the last post I’ve seen on the subject. I guess we have been more focused on how churches are giving to the convention than how people are giving to their churches. We’ve hashed and rehashed soteriological issues ad infinitum. But the New Testament standard of giving has not been at the top of the hot topic list.
But, as a pastor, it is always at the top of my list. Sioux City does not exactly have a thriving economy and it has been several years since my church had to wonder what to do with the extra money we had left over after all our bills were paid. Every Sunday, just before I go home for lunch, I sneak a peak at our offering report to see if we get to keep the ship sailing another week. God has been good and has provided faithfully for us, but money is always a concern. Would that it were not so, but considerations of money and giving are never far from the front of my mind in this ministry.
So, I’d like to weigh in on this topic:
What is the New Testament standard for giving?
The predominant message of our churches has been pretty consistent. Figure out what you make, move the decimal one place to the left and write a check. And if you really love Jesus, you add some offerings to that tithe. NT giving, they say, involves paying the tithe which is demanded by God’s Word and then giving offerings above the tithe.
Of course, many have argued that tithing is an OT standard and that it no longer applies today. We are no longer required in this age of grace to give a set amount as the poor folks under the law were required to do, they say. It is seldom stated, but my experience leads me to conclude that often this is a means of justification for those who give far less than a tithe.
But does the Bible support either of these views? Is the traditional view of tithing as a NT mandate correct? Or does the Bible give justification to those who give much less than a tithe? What does the Bible actually say?
1) The concept of tithing in the OT was quite a bit more complicated than the way we sometimes present it.
Andreas Kostenberger and David Croteau have an excellent study of the historical and theological aspects of tithing, called, “Will a Man Rob God?” I will let the reader evaluate their perspectives, but the tithing system in the OT era was anything but simple. Before we attempt to bring tithing into the NT era and make it the standard for us today, we ought to make sure we really understand all that was involved before and under the Mosaic Law.
2) None of the NT instructions on giving mention tithing.
There are a handful of NT mentions of tithing, either in the gospels or in Hebrews. They all reference the OT system in one way or another, primarily in a negative sense – the empty religious works of the Pharisees. In Hebrews, tithes are presented as part of that inadequate Levitical system which Jesus superseded.
On the other hand, the major passages about giving have absolutely no mention of tithing as a standard.
In Acts 2 and 4, great generosity is mentioned in the NT church, but none of it is ever accompanied by giving.
In Philippians 4:10-20, Paul discusses the generous giving of the Philippians (Macedonians) demonstrated toward his ministry.
In 2 Corinthians 8 and 9, Paul speaks of these same Macedonians in the NT’s most extensive teaching on giving. Is it not odd that Paul, in this extensive and systematic instruction on giving never once mentioned tithing (giving 10%) as a mandate? Paul never mentioned tithing. Peter never mentioned it. John didn’t either. Doesn’t this seem strange?
3) There is a pattern of New Testament giving that does not involve tithing.
Those who promote tithing as a NT mandate have pointed out that there is no verse that negates tithing. But I think that there is such instruction. Tithing may not be mentioned, but there is a NT standard that is consistent in the NT. We need to examine that standard.
The New Testament Standard of Giving (2 Corinthians 8-9)
1) Giving is a voluntary act.
2 Corinthians 9:7 blows the concept of tithing as the mandatory NT standard out of the water.
Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.
What does a person give? What he decides in his heart to give. He is under no compulsion to give a fixed amount or percentage. Giving is a voluntary act of love and thanksgiving. When Peter confronted Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5, he made it clear that they were free to give whatever percentage of the money they decided. Their problem was not that they did not give some predetermined amount, but that they lied about it. What they gave was up to them, according to Peter.
But that does not mean that Christians can give tiny amounts of their income and expect that God will be pleased by their stinginess.
2) NT giving is generous.
Those who would say, “I don’t have to give a tithe” as an excuse for giving little or nothing have absolutely no understanding of the NT standard. In 2 Corinthians 9:7, and many other verses, this is made clear.
The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.
Whatever the NT standard is, it is not stingy. It is not miserly. Americans, with all our prosperity, give around 2.5@ of our income to charitable causes. That is ridiculous. The absence of strict tithing does not justify that kind of ungodly stinginess.
3) NT giving is evidence of commitment to Christ and passion for his Kingdom.
Your giving demonstrates the level of your commitment to and your passion for Christ. Does that statement bother you? Read 2 Corinthians 8 – it becomes pretty clear. Look at verse 5.
“…they gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us.”
Their giving was an outflow of their commitment to Christ. Once you have given yourself to Christ, giving of your money and possessions to others becomes natural.
After urging the Corinthians to excel in the grace of giving, in verse 7, Paul said this in verse 8.
I say this not as a command, but to prove by the earnestness of others that your love also is genuine.
Paul seemed to believe that giving was a way of demonstrating that love was genuine and faith was earnest.
4) The essence of NT giving is sacrifice.
Let’s be honest. In America, many people a portion of what is left over after they have paid all their bills and done everything they wanted to do. We give God the leftovers.
NT giving is marked primarily by one concept. Sacrifice. That is the very nature of Christianity and our giving should be a reflection of our faith. Jesus gave himself for us on the Cross. We give ourselves to Christ, dying to self and sin and then living to Christ. Our giving, to be truly NT, must reflect that sacrifice.
Staying in 2 Corinthians 8, look at verses 2-4.
“…for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. 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.”
Look at the formula for NT giving. Severe affliction+joy+extreme poverty=a wealth of generosity. The people of Macedonia gave according to their means. Honestly, who among us wouldn’t be thrilled if our people just gave as much as they could afford to give. But the Macedonians (and the members of the Jerusalem church just after Pentecost) took it a step further. They gave beyond their means, beyond their ability.
In fact, they begged for the privilege of giving what they couldn’t afford to give.
The New Testament Standard of Giving
In the New Testament era, disciples who had died to self and were completely committed to the cause of Christ, gave cheerfully and voluntarily first of themselves and then of their earthly means. They gave more than they could afford to give because the Kingdom of God matter more to them than anything temporal.
If you suggested tithing to a NT giver, they would look at you with wide eyes and ask,
“After all Christ has done for me, why would I give so little?”