Should I tithe?

Good question, but not quite the right question, says Steve Pierce of Christian Stewardship

Tithing is a complex issue. Many Christians believe this Old Testament practice cannot be binding on them and the New Testment is almost silent about it. We may assume that Jesus tithes as a Jew but nowhere is tithing taught, not even in Paul’s detailed teaching about giving (2 Corinthians 8-9). Furthermore, as the biblical standard of giving, it asks more of the poor than the wealthy because tithing on low incomes impacts lifestyle and choice more severely than for those on higher salaries.

On the other hand, there is a rich witness to tithing in Old Testament Scripture and its practice has blessed thousands of Christians - including those on low incomes who testify to God’s provision and faithfulness in response to sacrificial giving. To reject tithing is to lose clear guidance on how much to give, guidance which secular studies identify as distinctive of faith-based charitable giving.

Talk of generous giving is deeply biblical, but I am no wiser as to what is generous and such ambiguity is fatal to translating intention into reality. We could give as the heart leads, but consumerism competes with faith for my heart’s attention and most of us believe we need a 20% salary increase to afford things we really need.
For many of us tithing is off the radar not because the principle is unclear but because of lifestyle choices, and lack of teaching and awareness in the church.

Personal situations can be complex. One husband was so angry when he found out what his wife was giving to her church that he put the same on the dogs each week. Some Christians, male and female, have no independent income and a partner who is at best ambivalent to faith, at worst hostile. These are difficult waters and navigation is not helped by arguing whether tithing is right or wrong.

Instead I want to explore a few principles behind tithing to enrich our understanding of biblically-based giving. Should I tithe? is an important question, but not the first one. The starting point is not what I should do but what God has done.

Jane’s story

Jane’s young life had not been easy. Home had been an angry place, starved of any real love and affection. As a young adult she tried to find love and stability, but on a low income the margin for error is very small and for Jane, with children, debts and no partner, problems mounted.

Somehow Jane found herself on the fringe of a church, but her spiritual birth was slow and painful, and Jane needed a spiritual midwife. An older woman in the church walked Jane’s journey with her, helping practically, laughing, crying and talking with her until Jane found new life in Christ.

Now Jane is standing at the perfume counter of a department store. Her friend is leaving the area and Jane is looking for a gift. The assistant, realising Jane cannot afford much, gently draws attention to a cheaper range. Appreciating the gesture Jane says, “Thank you, but you don’t understand. Today I have to buy something that I cannot afford”.

Not every day, but today extravagance was required. There was no calculation of ‘enough’, this was a gift in gratitude for love shown to her, a gift generous, extravagant and maybe foolish - for nothing less would suffice. 

John’s Gospel (12:1-8) tells us about a woman who anointed Jesus with a jar of expensive perfume. Like Jane’s gift, this reckless and extravagant act of preparing Jesus for his death was born of love, gratitude, forgiveness and hope. The broken jar from which perfume is released is a symbol of the love, joy and freedom released in each broken life brought to Christ.

Does God call us to give foolishly and irresponsibly? No. Does God call us to extravagance? Sometimes. Does God invite us to bring all that we are before him, giving as we have received and to be caught up in his gracious giving? Always.  Our giving should reflect our experience of Christ, the material blessings entrusted to me by Christ. The question in giving is: “How much of me is really in this gift?” Can the principles behind tithing help us answer this question?

Proportional giving

One woman said to me, “We do tithe in this church; we give about 10% of what we should give!” Giving levels are often determined either by what is left in our discretionary pot when all the important expenditure has been met or by fixed amount thinking, often shaped by financial need in the local church. Tithing challenges us to reconnect giving, income and lifestyle by offering a proportion or percentage of income. The decision to give a proportion of income is often the formative step on the journey to generosity.

Percentage giving won’t happen if it comes from spare change while rushing to church. Giving should be a priority item in the household budget and to be effective requires some form of planned giving. Envelopes or standing orders are the most common method, but there is much to be said for a dedicated charitable account such as the Stewardship Sovereign account or a similar product from the Charities Aid Foundation.

Meaningful giving

The tithe is there to remind the people of Israel that they inhabited a land that was not their property but the gift of God. Now tithing asks 10% of income and that is a significant ask to make of anyone. But giving has to be significant to be meaningful. Try this simple test. If one week or month your giving was returned to you, would it make a meaningful difference in your situation? If not it is not doing what giving is meant to do.

For those on desperately low incomes, in difficult domestic situations or struggling with debt, giving may be less than 10% but still meaningful, acknowledging in hard currency the claim and the gift of God in their lives. When giving is meaningful, the journey to tithing has begun. For others on good or excellent salaries, giving a full 10% may not be meaningful, perhaps even marginal to their lifestyle choices.

Godly living

Tithing itself is complex in Scripture. Tithes provided for the Levites (Numbers 18:21), the poor (Deuteronomy 14:28-29) and a community celebration (Deuteronomy 14:22-27), and some believe the tithe was actually 23%! Tithing is also just one of a number of laws providing for justice and freedom from debt and poverty in Israel: the cancellation of debt and release of slaves (Deuteronomy 15) and the Jubilee (Leviticus 25), when land was returned to the original owners so that the poverty cycle was broken. These laws guided Israel to live with godly integrity in a land entrusted to them as a gift.

My wealth and possessions are the ‘land’ God has entrusted to me and tithing challenges us not just to the 10% we give, but to godly integrity in the 90% God entrusts to me. Money offers freedom, opportunity and choice, but does not guarantee the quality of the choices I make. If giving is marginal and secondary to lifestyle choices, perhaps the balance is wrong. Tithing is an invitation to trust in God’s provision, to live in the ‘land’ he has given us with gratitude, concern for the poor and for justice and, our final point, to know the rich blessing of God.

The promise of blessing

Tithing brings with it the promise of blessing as many will testify, but care is needed here. Tithing is not the inside track to wealth and the goal of financial discipleship is contentment (Philippians 4:11).

In Genesis 28, Jacob sees his vision of the ladder between earth and heaven and receives the promise that God will be with him. He then vowed that if God’s promise proved true, then he would begin to tithe!

For those who struggle around giving, for whom tithing seems a burden or obligation, an impossible demand in difficult circumstances this is an encouragement. The promise of God is with you; it does not depend on tithing first. Let God prove his faithfulness as you trust him with all things (for he has given all things to you) and grow in the grace of giving