Is “Tithing” Still Relevant?
Giving to churches nationwide is in decline and has been in decline for several decades. While charitable giving in the United States is at all-time highs, most charitable giving has moved away from churches and toward other non-profit work.
As this reduction in available charitable funds impacts the work of churches, church leaders often consider ways to increase giving to meet the needs of the church. One of the ways we observe church leaders attempting to address giving shortfalls is through increased teaching about and expectation of church participants practicing, the discipline of “tithing”.
It is our perspective that teaching about tithing is important and central to the tenets of Christian Faith. However, it is also our perspective that teaching about and encouraging tithing directly to support the funding of a church is dicey at best and manipulative at worst. So, for the balance of this article, we want to examine tithing, whether it remains a relevant practice and how churches may incorporate its teaching in a way that supports fruitful faith and sustainable funding for a church.
We want to caution you, this is a long read. Also, if you believe your church’s current relationship to tithing is healthy and meeting your needs we’d recommend you stop reading here…..
For all others, our conclusion, stop saying that tithing and giving to your church are the same thing….they are not.
First, what is Tithing? Put simply, it is the act of appropriating a tenth of your income. There are several passages of scripture that speak about tithing as this was a central practice of Jewish peoples.
Why ten? Etymologists believe that the root word that Jewish peoples used to construct the “tithe’ is a word representing our 10 fingers. Jewish rabbis describe this as having a connection to the work of our hands.
More explicitly, the tithe is an act of recognition of the connection between God’s blessing, sovereignty, and involvement in the work of our hands. Always given from the “first fruits” or early returns of our work, this is a beautiful idea that calls each person to consider how they think about and relate to the work of their hands. While it can be easy to consider our work results as those we solely produce through our own intellect, strength and cunning, those who participate in the notion of a “tithe” always remain grounded in the reality that while they do affect results, they do not do that alone. A tithe is a way of supporting a posture of humility and gratitude.
3 passages in the New Testament reinforce our perspective of tithing and how it is applicable to the Christian, and even….. funding of a church.
- Matthew 23:23 & Luke 11:42
- 2 Corinthians 9:7
- Hebrews 7
Matthew 23:23 & Luke 11:42
In this passage, Jesus chastises the religious leaders because they have made the practice of the tithe an external act performed that completely missed the point that all spiritual disciplines are intended to result in….changed lives. This can happen with teaching and encouraging tithing. It can be taught in a way that is an external expression without leading to inward change and a wholly different posture toward our resources. Also, note in this passage that the tithe was of spices. Some tithes in the old testament were of crops, wines, and other resources. The practice does not always mean cash. It is a relationship to how we think about our resources.
A couple of observations. Jesus doesn’t tell people to not tithe, but he appears more interested in the results of the discipline than the discipline itself. Given between the two, He’d rather have mercy, justice, and compassion than tithing.
Also, while Jesus speaks to the religious leaders about their tithe, He does not speak to which tithe it is. That’s right, a careful study of the scriptures shows there are several “tithes” given throughout the year. A quick total is around 23.3% of resources annually. Most likely, this tithe Jesus is speaking about is referenced in Numbers 18 in respect to how the Levites (religious leaders) were to tithe of the gifts given to them by the Jewish people.
2 Corinthians 9:7
In this passage, Paul is encouraging the Corinthian Christians to support their brothers and sisters under persecution in Jerusalem. It’s a cause Paul often writes about. Note in this passage that Paul makes the need clear and then encourages Christians to give as each has decided without reluctance and without compulsion. They are to give because it is a joy, not a burden. These Christians would’ve been acquainted with the Jewish practice of tithing and would have understood the desired outcome, it’s about the posture of your heart. Only someone who believes that their resources are connected with God’s blessing and provision would give joyfully.
This passage is interesting as it likens Jesus to an Old Testament character, Melchizedek. Abraham encounters Melchizedek after a battle and gives him a tithe of the spoils of war. What is interesting here is that Abraham gave to him and there was nothing requiring him to do so. This “tithe” that Abraham gave predates the establishment of guidelines around giving laid out in the law and practice of the Jewish people. Maybe he gave because he was in awe that the battle was victorious, or in honor of peace after conflict. Maybe he gave because he thought Melchizedek would put it to good use. He was the “king of righteousness” and “king of peace” after all. In any event, as this character and the practice is referenced before and after “Old Testament Law” it’s hard to make a case for the exclusion of the practice altogether.
So, after looking at these passages, some conclusions, and takeaways:
- Encouraging people to tithe as a spiritual discipline to align with recognition of God’s partnership and provision in the work of their hands is awesome. Encouraging someone to tithe so you can make payroll and cover expenses as a church….not awesome. There is zero textual evidence of tithing as an act to support and fund an institution in a “post-temple” context.
- Making financial needs clear and asking for participants in your church to give as they determine in their hearts is awesome and we encourage you to do so. Describing tithing as an act of maturity and a reflection on how close someone is to God, not awesome and can border manipulation.
- Encouraging tithing and giving toward a tangible need is awesome as tithing is a discipline focused on the posture of the one who is sharing resources. Teaching about and encouraging tithing to directly and only benefit the funding of your church….not awesome. So, if you have a portion of your weekend services dedicated to receive “tithes and offerings” consider being careful that you do not describe these times expressed solely in giving to the church, but as a time of the worship service to remind all of the benefits of a “tithing” posture whether expressed in giving to the church or another need that is known.
- Teaching about tithing as a posture for how someone regards all the resources given to them is awesome. Talking about tithing and encouraging people to give 10% of their income is not awesome. Also, so is limiting someone to only think about 10%. Some will joyfully and cheerfully give way more and if the need of the church is presented clearly and succinctly, it should surely be included as a need worthy of giving to.
So, while tithing and giving to a church are related and one often benefits from the practice of another, they are not the same thing. We believe (and see evidence to support) that churches who are doing this well, are both meeting their financial needs, as well as, encouraging and supporting a fruitful practice of a cherished and ancient discipline.
ps. This article is a sample of the types of insights and ideas Churches experience and work through in our IGNITE giving framework. Counter the “Church Giving Epidemic,” focus more on missional impact and less on raising church operating funds today by getting started with IGNITE!