This post was inspired by Mad2write’s post on the same topic this summer. As usual I admired the honesty in it, and hope the author doesn’t mind me penning the thoughts it prompted.
Tithing is the practice carried out in some churches of returning ten percent of your income in a form of systematic giving. The question is, where did it come from? Why do it? What does it mean, and is it obligatory?
Let’s consider what the Bible has to say on the issue. God gave instructions to the Israelites to return a tenth of whatever He blessed them with, such as their crops or livestock (e.g. Leviticus 27:30, 32; Deuteronomy 14:22). This tithe couldn’t just be offered in a nominal sense and then used as the person saw fit , but was to be brought to the temple (Deuteronomy 12:5-8, 11, 12, 17), and administered in an ordered way, with people responsible for its collection, safe-keeping and use (2 Chronicles 31:12). Part of its purpose was to maintain the temple and its service, including the priests and Levites. These didn’t work for their own upkeep like the rest of the nation, but were set apart to minister for everyone else’s spiritual well-being in the sanctuary service. Part of the idea of tithing was, therefore – through the willing contributions of those benefitting from their work – to ensure they weren’t left wanting. However, even they were to acknowledge that God had provided for them by giving a tenth of the tithe given to them! (Numbers 18:24, 26, 28.)
On a side note, although the first instruction to tithe is given to Israel, the first account of tithing taking place is found back in Genesis 14:20, when Abram encountered Melchizedek, ‘the priest of the most high God’. So tithing existed before it was commanded of the Israelites, rather than being related exclusively to their dispensation. The points identified with it are all points that extend to, and are still relevant in today’s continued practice, namely:
- it’s a specific portion, i.e. a tenth
- it should be administered in an ordered way, through specific channels linked to the centralised organisation – in modern times not brought to a literal temple, but through organised church management
- its purpose is to maintain the work and the workers of the church
- other offerings are as individuals feel moved; this is separate, and is required: it ‘is the LORD’s’ and ‘is holy’ to him (see Lev 27:30, 32).
I’ve heard several illustrations that try to make that last point clear. Some say God’s blessings to us are like a person giving you a glass of water for your thirst, with tithing being like returning their glass. What’s important to me is that God says that part is rightfully his. Just like tax is rightfully the government’s, or a processing fee can be reasonably expected by someone administering a financial transaction on my behalf. Or in another sense, imagine I have a friend who asks me for financial help. I mention I’ll be coming to see them soon and needed to take some cash out, anyway. I offer to transfer them what they’ve asked for, and add on the amount I need so they can take it all out and give me my portion back. I wouldn’t expect it to be hard for them to part with the little I’d identified as still mine. Even if they were still short after my gift, I’d hope they wouldn’t begrudge giving me back the percentage I’d earmarked for my own needs.
The difference is, however, we trust God to provide for all our needs, without us ever being left short. So what do we do when we don’t seem to have enough to begin with? I believe the above still applies; if the tenth is God’s, it’s God’s, and I can’t add it to mine to bulk it up any more than I could pinch a few bob from my next door neighbour to make my own finances more viable. One of the most quoted passages on tithing makes it clear how he feels about it: ‘Will a man rob God? Yet ye have robbed me. But ye say, Wherein have we robbed thee? In tithes and offerings. Ye are cursed with a curse: for ye have robbed me, even this whole nation.’ (Malachi 3:8,9)
There’s more to it, however. God says he can, and will, provide for all our needs, if we trust him. The passage just quoted is more than a harsh, demanding rebuke. Yes, it’s God’s complaint that his people are happy to let his temple deteriorate, withholding what’s his; but it comes with an invitation and a promise: ‘Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in mine house, and prove me now herewith, saith the LORD of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it’ (verse 10). The following verses go on to describe a wonderful picture of how much God will provide if we will try him on this.
So there’s the element of the tithe rightfully being God’s. There’s his promise to bless and provide for those who give it back to him. But his purpose is still deeper than that. If he wants me to have £90 and has his own plans for £10, why not just give me my portion and be done with it? Why give me the £100 and make me give his part back? Because God’s not really fussed about the money; what’s £10 to the being who made the universe? What he actually wants is my heart. He wants me to trust him like an innocent child implicitly trusts a loving parent. To be as cheerfully willing to give him 10% back as he rejoiced to give me the 100% in the first place. In full faith that if my 90% really isn’t enough he can and will add to it, or somehow make it stretch.
Of course, I have to have opted into a relationship with him for this to apply to me…but if I have, then this is one of the conditions he specifies. A condition that shows I trust him. A condition that demonstrates I’m grateful to him, by which I acknowledge and rejoice in his goodness. A condition that reveals where my priorities, or my sense of security lies. A reminder that I didn’t get any of this on my own, so that I don’t forget him or take his blessings for granted.
This isn’t the be all and end all of our faith. In Matthew 23:23 and Luke 11:42 Jesus condemned the religious leaders for making sure they tithed everything down to their herbs and spices, but dispensing with the ‘more important’ things: law, judgment, mercy and faith. Jesus is saying that justice, love, putting God first, doing things that are true, right and fair, are more important to him than making sure we’ve paid our tithe. But crucially, he ISN’T saying tithe is negotiable, either; he finishes by saying ‘these (the more important matters) ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other (the faithful tithing) undone‘.
For me tithing doesn’t boil down to abiding by some rules. It’s not something I put up with because it’s one of the requirements of the denomination I decided to join. Yes, I agreed to support the church with my tithes in my baptismal vows. However, I consider it a privilege to be a part of the system God set up for his church to function. He could have done it without me, but this way when he gives me more, I can be part of that increased giving as well. It’s how he designed his community to function; everyone receiving from him, while learning to have the same generous heart as him, with the church’s work and the less fortunate being provided for in the mix (Deuteronomy 14:23; 26:12). It’s a beautiful system.
Perhaps more importantly, it’s a reflection of my true attitude to him. Am I really grateful for the blessings he keeps heaping on me? Do I really believe they came from him? Do I really believe he can and will come through when things are tough? It’s something Jesus has asked of me, and while he completely and fully understands where I’m at, who I am, where I struggle, he expects me to understand and acknowledge who HE is, too. Which I can do by respecting the few things he asks of me after saving and blessing me. The things I’m convicted of but find hard to do will lead me further away from him if I don’t conquer them. Accepting him means accepting all of the requirements he clearly enjoins, one by one, with his help, as he makes them clear to me.
Tithing is, of course, a personal thing, in the sense that I can’t tithe what isn’t mine. If, for example, I’m married to someone who doesn’t share my conviction, I can’t tithe what’s theirs, and I don’t believe God requires me to. I do think he asks me to take the leap of faith of committing what’s mine into his hands, though. To taste and see that he will do amazingly abundantly above anything I could have asked or imagined to provide for my needs. (Which will be a blessing and a testimony to my spouse, as well.)
I’ve seen it over and over again, in my life and the lives of those around me: God has a million and more ways to see us through when we step out in faith with our tithes. I encourage you to take the challenge. When the call comes, we’re the ones being tested; but when we respond to it, God is. And he’s more than capable of rising to the test.
O taste and see that the LORD is good: blessed is the man that trusts in him.
There you shall bring…your tithes…your freewill offerings… There also you and your households shall eat before the LORD your God, and rejoice in all your undertakings in which the LORD your God has blessed you.
Fear thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness.
(Psalms 34:8; Deuteronomy 12:6, 7; Isaiah 41:10)