Is tithing (i.e. giving 10% of one’s income) biblically mandated for the Christian? Do texts like Malachi 3.10 prescribe the tithe as an ongoing requirement of God’s people in all places at all times? Parts 1 and 2 suggest the larger context of Malachi does not enforce a Christian tithe but prepares us for a curse-reversing Savior.
Before offering specific principles about Christian giving we should consider the purpose of tithes and offerings in Israel’s old covenant economy.
“Tithes and offerings” refer to the various means by which God provided for Israel’s temple ministry and their ministry to the poor and destitute. In the Mosaic economy, God had given 11 tribes of Israel land as a means of making a living and providing an inheritance. One tribe, the Levites, received no land of their own. They were dedicated to the service of the tabernacle/temple rather than farming/commerce. They lived among the 11 tribes and were full-time worship leaders and teachers of the Law.
God prescribed that each year a tenth (tithe) of one’s income/produce be given to the Levites. The Levites themselves then tithed on that tithe, giving a tenth to the particular priests who served the tabernacle/temple (Lev 27; Num 18).
Every three years, the tithes would provide for the Levites along with the stranger, orphan and widow (Dt 14.28-29). Israel would throw a big party for all the needy to eat and be satisfied, and go home with provision. Seems like Jesus did that on a couple of occasions!
On top of the tithe there were offerings given throughout the year for various reasons (feasts, celebrations, atonement, compensating judges, etc.). Tithes and offerings, therefore, meant the totality of God’s prescribed offerings to the administration of the nation’s covenant worship and theocracy. In modern parlance, Israel’s tithes and offerings served as what we might consider charitable contributions and income taxes. They are what sustained the nation’s economy and funded those benefits enjoyed by the common weal.
Now that Christ has established his Church as the Christian nation, tithes and offerings as a legal requirement have no place any longer. The Church is not a theocracy in the way Israel was. Rather it is comprised of sojourning strangers who have no earthly home. In anything, Christians are the new covenant Levites – the royal priesthood – who live in and among the nations to be a blessing to them (1 Pt 2.9-10).
We cannot help but marvel at the revolutionary work of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Jewish Christians sold their land for the benefit of serving the needy among them (Acts 4.32-37). For two thousand years every Jew considered their land the inheritance of God promised to Abraham (Gen 12.7). But with the coming of the Holy Spirit they no longer thought their land worth keeping. They understood Jesus went away to prepare a place for them (Jn 14.3) in a heavenly country (Heb 11.9-10, 14-16).
So what governs Christian giving in the new covenant? The simple answer is Christ’s gospel of love. Whether it be about our money or time or words or emotions, Christians do not ask how much is required to do. They ask what is most loving to do. In that light, I offer the following nine considerations.
1. Christian giving begins with who God is to us in Jesus Christ. God began every disputation in Malachi with some aspect of his character: who he was as the Gracious God of Jacob. It is now God’s grace to in Christ that serves as the baseline for Christian giving. We don’t begin with our budget or bills or our church’s needs. We begin with God and who he is.
God isn’t chincy with his grace (Eph 1.8); therefore, neither are his people chincy in their worship and support of the spread of the gospel to the nations.
“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich” (2 Cor 8.9).
Jesus—the richest human in all the universe—became the poorest so that the poorest (you and me) can share in his riches. It was the gospel of grace (not any requirement to “tithe”) that Paul launched into his instruction on giving in 2 Cor 8-9 (cf. 8.1). For those filled with the Spirit of Christ, their view of grace (not the law) dictates their generosity. Christian people simply are not stingy people because the Spirit of Christ in them is not stingy.
2. Generous support of gospel ministry is expected of all Christians. Christian giving is not optional. It is patently not the case that, while tithing was part of Old Testament law, the New Testament teaches we can give if we want to. The gospel has not freed us from the necessity to give. It has freed us from the necessity of having to be told to do so. There might not be law dictating an amount, but Spirit of Christ compels us toward radical generosity. Jesus gave and those filled with him give. We do not walk by the Law but by the Spirit.
It is clear that biblical stewardship—supporting the kingdom work of the local church—is not optional for any believer. It’s not for those who can afford it but for all those saved by God in Christ.
3. Biblical generosity is about freedom, not bondage. Just because we’re required do something doesn’t make it a burden.
God intends to free us from a life of constant worry, and one way of doing that is requiring a loose grip on our money. Giving us a gospel-centered approach to giving is God’s grace to free us from worry and fear (see Mt 6.19-21).
Jesus and Paul do not put an extra burden on us by requiring we give to God’s kingdom. They relieve us of the burden that greed inevitably causes. In effect Jesus says, “I give you a simple way to break out of greed’s prison.” Greed enslaves, but giving liberates. Greed worries, but gospel-driven stewardship finds comfort in God. Greed never has enough or is constantly fearful of losing what it has, but gospel-centered giving always has enough.
4. Christian generosity guards us from idolatry. It’s not the only connection in Israel, but it’s an important one. Israel’s disobedience in money matters always coincided with their idolatry. It was certainly true in Malachi’s day.
Jesus said in Mt 6.2, “When you give to the poor…”. Paul instructed the Corinthian church in 1 Cor 16.2: “On the first day of every week each one of you is to put aside and save, as he may prosper, so that no collections be made when I come.” (This also teaches that the largest part of our giving is goes to the local church as part of local church worship.) In 2 Cor 9.7, Paul wrote “each one must do (i.e. give) just as he purposed…”
When our doctor prescribes an antibiotic to cure us of an infection we do not call him legalist. We thank him for providing a remedy. When Jesus commands our generosity we thank him for healing our idolatrous greed.
“So I thought it necessary to urge the brethren that they would go on ahead to you and arrange beforehand your previously promised bountiful gift, so that the same would be ready as a bountiful gift and not affected by covetousness” (2 Cor 9.5).
Paul knew the longer we hold on to money the more we invite coveteousness into our hearts. Like Frodo and the tempestuous ring, the longer we hold on to money the harder it is to get rid of it. Therefore, the sooner we detach ourselves from our money by giving, the less we will be tempted to covetous idolatry.
How many Christians and churches have big ideas about ministry if they only had the funds. But when they get them suddenly they find it hard to turn it loose. Infighting and power plays mount because money has a way of owning us.
Generosity is a way loosening our grip on this world.
5 . Supporting gospel ministry is a means to end—exaltation and worship of God. God didn’t demand the tithe because he needed the money. We don’t repay God for anything he’s done for us. God demanded it in order to show the nations his power and glory. He wanted to display his majesty through the obedience and generosity of his people. He wanted to demonstrate that he is sufficient and his ways able to care for his people.
Christian generosity is not about paying the church’s bills or the pastors’ salaries. As long as we define stewardship as careful bill-paying then we will rarely enjoy God’s abounding grace.
Gospel giving is about investing in the worship of God (Phil 4.18). It’s about seeing the hearts and minds of unbelievers opened to the glory of Christ. It’s about hearing those who had given up on anyone’s help proclaiming the majesty of God. It’s about bringing God’s gift of Christ in tangible ways. Generosity meets needs on the way to evoking worship and thanksgiving to God. And often that takes far less money than we often think.
Cheerful giving (2 Cor 9.7) was a means to this end:
“God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that always having all sufficiency in everything, you may have an abundance for every good deed” (v8).
“For the ministry of this service is not only fully supplying the needs of the saints, but is also overflowing through many thanksgivings to God. Because of the proof given by this ministry, they will glorify God for your obedience to your confession of the gospel of Christ and for the liberality of your contribution to them and to all, while they also, by prayer on your behalf, yearn for you because of the surpassing grace of God in you. Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift! (2 Cor 9.12-15)
We know we’re gospel-givers not because we keep the lights on or food on the pastor’s table, but when praise and thanksgiving resound from the saints of God.
6. Biblical generosity is contagious. We read in 2 Cor 9.2 that the zeal of the Corinthians in their giving stirred up the Macedonian churches. When Jesus gets a hold of our money it will have a ripple affect within the church and among churches. Perhaps churches would have greater influence if they stopped competing in an arms race of buildings and ball fields and instead sought to give as much as possible away. In the early church, most of the money that came in the door went out the door. The church was not holding company but a clearing house of God’s mercy.
7. Gospel generosity is greatly rewarded. God was quite clear in Mal 3.9-11. As long as Israel robbed God then God would frustrate them. If they would believe God and obey then God would overflow his blessings.
Many of us fear becoming health-and-wealth or prosperity gospel folks that we react to the other extreme. But listen to Jesus. Jesus rewarded those who invested all they had to please their master with more (Mt 25.29). The one who fearfully buried his talent lost the one he had! Now, the one with 11 talents will go seek 11 talents “worth” of worship.
Cheerful giving is not giving with a warm/fuzzy feeling in your heart (unbelievers do that). Cheerful giving is done out of contentment in God. Cheerful giving is about enjoying God more. Surrendering earthly riches and the feeling that comes along with them for the heavenly reward.
How else are we to read these promises of God? God will entrust more to those who faithfully invest in the worship of God. The question is not, “How much can I comfortably give?” but “How can I enjoy more of God’s power and provision?” In light of this promise, we cannot afford not to give!
“Give, and it will be given to you. They will pour into your lap a good measure—pressed down, shaken together, and running over. For by your standard of measure it will be measured to you in return” (Lk 6.38).
“Now this I say, he who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully” (2 Cor 9.6).
What does your heart purpose—wanting to know God sparingly or bountifully? “Make sure your character is free from the love of money, being content with what you have; for He himself has said, “I WILL NEVER DESERT YOU, NOR WILL I EVER FORSAKE YOU.” (Heb 13.5).
8. Gospel giving creates biblical community. In the Mosaic economy, stewardship was largely about 10%, once a year, to the Levites In the new covenant era, it’s about everything, anytime, to everyone.
We don’t find the early church discussing tithes and percentages, but sharing everything with everyone all the time (Acts 2.44-45; 4.32). When the Spirit filled God’s people, all restrictions and hesitations were removed from the heart. Of all the questions they did ask about old covenant worship (circumcision, idol foods, etc.), they didn’t have to ask, “Well, do we tithe now to support this new thing called church?” The Spirit blew that question out of the water. They’d experienced the power of Jesus to change their heart and they couldn’t help but live that out. And that meant sharing all their stuff, all the time, everywhere they could.
9. Gospel giving takes discipline. Just as with worship, marriage and justice, God demanded renewed discipline of tithing in the post-exilic community. Biblical stewardship takes that same kind of discipline (1 Cor 16.2; 2 Cor 9.2, 4, 5).
Many folks don’t think about giving to kingdom work until a sermon like this or a special plea. Then we root around in our pockets/purses (something Paul warned against happening). But, it takes discipline to give biblically. It takes discipline to arrange our lives in a God-centered way.
We pray (2 Cor 9.7). How is God leading you to invest in the worship of Jesus?
We plan (1 Cor 16.2; 2 Cor 9.2, 4, 5). It’s much easier to give biblically when we’ve resolved not to get used to a certain amount of money. Will there be times of spontaneous giving? Absolutely, but the biblical norm is the regular, disciplined giving of God’s people to the local church ministry. And the local church ministry was largely support of proclamation and meeting needs.
We prioritize. Living gospel-centered means regularly (re)arranging our lives so that everything we do is driven by the glory of God (1 Cor 10.31). It’s never the case that we cannot afford to give (because God will give to those who faithfully trust him), but often that we don’t want to afford it.
So, how much should the Christian regularly give? The starting place is considering what the Christian has already been given. He is one who reflects deeply on God’s gift of Christ and Christ’s gift of eternal life. She is filled with the Spirit of Christ and therefore instinctively a giver. The gospel-saturated Christian will stop obsessing over percentages and baselines. He will find himself giving far more than he ever thought only to receive eternally more than he ever deserved.