What is a tithe?
Literally, “tithe” means a tenth and refers to the practice of returning to God 10% of our gross income. Scripture teaches that the tithe belongs to God (Leviticus 27:30). That is why when we fail to tithe, we are actually robbing God of that which rightfully belongs to Him (Malachi 3:8-9).
What is stewardship?
Stewardship refers to the fact that God made us managers, not owners. Everything we have belongs to God. “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it” (Psalm 24:1). When God created humans, He placed them in a position of managing the earth, not owning it (Genesis 2:15). Understanding this is foundational to the practice of tithing because once we appreciate that God owns everything, it flows that we would return to God a portion of what He has given us.
Grounded in the concept of stewardship, tithing is a primary way by which we, as Christ-followers, can recognize and demonstrate that God has primacy in our lives. When we tithe, we are returning to God that which is already His.
Tithing, though, also has very practical implications which God described in Deuteronomy 14:22-29. These are:
- To honor and revere God;
- To provide for others; and
- To receive God’s blessing.
To “honor and revere God” means that when we tithe, we demonstrate that God is first in our lives, that He is supreme. We demonstrate that as stewards of all that God has given us, we are trusting Him, not money, and that we are confident in His provision (Matthew 6:19-34).
Tithing also is the God-appointed manner in which His ministry on earth is funded. For the Israelites, tithes primarily supported the priests who did God’s work since they had no other income (Deuteronomy 14:27-29). Jesus directed His disciples to receive support from those to whom they ministered (Matthew 10:9-10) and He Himself was supported by several women “from their own means” (Luke 8:1-3). The Apostle Paul affirmed Jesus’ teaching outright (1 Cor. 9:14), was himself supported by the Macedonians (2 Corinthians 11:9) and took up offerings to provide for those in need in Jerusalem (1 Corinthians 16:1-4; 2 Corinthians 9:5-15; Acts 24:17). For a modern-day Christ-follower, tithing supports all that the church does, whether purchasing curriculum for children’s ministry, rescuing women from the sex trade, or planting a church in a new community to reach more people who are lost and hurting. Tithing funds everything God has called the church to do, and importantly, tithing plays a large role in determining the church’s ability to fulfill the specific vision God has for it.
Finally, God promises blessings when we tithe (Malachi 3:10; Proverbs 3:10). While such blessings may come in various forms, such as financial blessings, protection, favorable health, and the like, there is no limit to what this may mean. Indeed, being “blessed” quite simply means having supernatural power working for us. While God doesn’t “need” our money, we most certainly need His blessing.
Isn’t tithing just a part of the Old Testament Law that we are no longer bound to follow?
This is a common misconception. While tithing is certainly a part of the Old Testament law, it both pre-dates the law itself, and is again affirmed by Jesus in the New Testament. Some 430 years before God gave the Israelites the law through Moses, Abraham, having returned from defeating a conglomerate of kings, was recorded as having given a tenth of the plunder to the priest Melchizedek (Genesis 14:17-20). A few years later, and still centuries before the law was given, Jacob is recorded as promising to tithe to God from “all that [He] has given [him] (Genesis 28:20-22).
Thus, when the law was given and a system of tithing was instituted (see Deuteronomy 14:22-29), this was not a new practice. Nor was tithing abolished when Jesus fulfilled the law. Indeed, Jesus affirmed the practice when He chastised the hypocritical Pharisees who were tithing but failed to exercise justice, mercy and faithfulness. Jesus told them they “should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former” (Matthew 23:23). In other passages of scripture, Jesus presupposed tithing as the means of funding His ministry on earth (See Matthew 10:9-10 and Luke 8:1-3). The Apostle Paul had this same method of supporting kingdom work in mind as well stating that “the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:14), acknowledging that he himself was supported by others (2 Corinthians 11:9) and by arranging a collection from the Corinthian church to take to those in Jerusalem in need (2 Corinthians 9).
While some may still persist in a belief that because we are under “grace”, we no longer need to tithe, it is important to remember that grace always has a higher standard than the law (Matthew 5:17-20). Indeed, each time Jesus referenced a law that had been set forth in the Old Testament, He then set forth a higher standard, essentially raising the spiritual bar. For example, while the Law commanded not to murder (Exodus 20:13; Deuteronomy 5:17), Jesus taught that it is wrong to even be angry with a person (Matthew 5:22). Though the Law prohibited adultery (Exodus 20:14; Deuteronomy 5:18), Jesus taught it is wrong to even look at a woman lustfully (Matthew 5:28). And when provided the opportunity to comment on the amount people were putting into the temple treasury, it is noteworthy that Jesus held in esteem the widow who gave 100% of what she had to live on (Luke 21:1-4).
Far from being an irrelevant Old-Testament teaching, tithing not only transcends the law, but in a world where we live under grace, the tithe – 10 percent — is simply a starting point for our giving.
What does it mean to give to God first? What are “firstfruits”?
Scripture teaches that when we return to God a tenth of our income, that we do so first, before we use our income for other purposes. Various scriptures refer to bringing God “firstfruits” or the “firstborn” (See Exodus 23:19; Deuteronomy 14:23; Proverbs 3:9). This is in keeping with the understanding that when we tithe, we put God first and trust in His provision. Of course, it takes faith to give to God first, before we know if we will have “enough” money. Perhaps that is why God says to “test Him in this” (Malachi 3:10). Just as the Israelites would give the firstborn lamb before they even knew whether the ewe would produce more animals, giving God our “firstfruits” means we return to God the first of our income, not whatever is left after all the bills are paid. By doing so, we then actively trust Him to meet our needs.
Why is money such a touchy topic?
Money is a primary means by which Satan can draw our attention away from God. It is likely for this reason that Jesus chose to teach on money in 16 out of his 38 parables. In one such teaching, Jesus unequivocally stated that we “cannot serve both God and money” (Matthew 6:24b). He made it clear that “where [our] treasure is, there [our] heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). The apostle Paul, in writing to his young protégé Timothy, advised that the “love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Timothy 6:10a). This is not because money is inherently bad; it, in fact, is neutral. However, it is a tool that is used frequently to turn our focus away from God. It is difficult, if not impossible, to depend on God when we are trusting in money to provide for our needs. When we have a biblical and godly understanding of money and wealth, we can use the resources God has entrusted to us for His plans and purposes.
Should I tithe off my net or gross income? Do I include my housing benefit in calculating my tithe? What if my business didn’t generate a profit? What if I receive an inheritance or sell my house, do I still tithe off of that?
Questions like these all speak to how to calculate our tithe and they often arise because we live in a world where issues related to taxation govern how we handle our income. Indeed, most people do not even see all of the income they have earned as certain amounts are automatically paid to the government as tax. Because this is reality for most individuals, it is commonplace to raise tax-related questions when discussing income and tithing.
Key, though, to answering these questions – and others like them – is remembering that we should not treat God as if He is the IRS. That means how we handle our money for income tax purposes is NOT how we handle our income when it comes to returning our tithe to God. Accordingly, the simplest answer to all these questions is this: we should not deduct anything from our income or exclude any resources therefrom before we calculate our tithe.
To be sure, Scripture never directs us to tithe off of less than “everything” we receive. Deuteronomy 14:22 commands returning to God a tenth of “all your fields produce”. That is “all”, not “whatever is left after deducting costs of seed and paying laborers or deducting taxes”. Leviticus 27:30 refers to a tithe of “everything from the land”. Proverbs 3:9 refers to the firstfruits “of all your increase.” Jacob tithed a tenth of “all” that God gave him (Genesis 28:22). Abraham gave Melchizedek a tenth of “everything” (Genesis 14:20). The prophet Malachi spoke of bringing the “whole tithe” to God (Malachi 3:10). Scripture overwhelmingly supports the concept of tithing based on our entire income.
Therefore, although our taxes may be paid automatically before we even receive our paycheck, that amount should not be deducted before calculating our tithe. Though we may operate a business, it is irrelevant whether that business is “making a profit” as the costs we incur in generating business income should not be deducted before calculating our tithe. Though we may receive part of our income as a home to live in, we should not exclude that benefit from our income before calculating our tithe. Though a portion of our income may be automatically directed into an investment, that amount should not be deducted before calculating our tithe. Though we may receive monies from sources outside our regular income (stock benefits, an inheritance, proceeds from selling a home, distribution from a trust, monetary gifts), those should not be excluded from our tithe calculations.
Again, when we understand that everything we have belongs to God, we more easily grasp that returning a tithe to Him should rightfully reflect “everything” we receive.
What is the difference between tithes and offerings?
By definition, a tithe is 10% of our gross income returned to God and offerings are amounts we give in excess of that. A great example of a biblical offering is described by the Apostle Paul when he was collecting an offering from the Corinthian church to be taken to Jerusalem to support those in need there (1 Corinthians 16:1-4; 2 Corinthians 8:1-15; 9:5-15). This would be akin to a modern-day church taking up a special offering for benevolence, to provide for the poor or individuals with particular needs. While tithing refers to a set percentage of our income, offerings have no numeric limit. Paul only advises that they be given with generosity and cheerfulness.
I support lots of ministries I’m interested in. Why am I still supposed to tithe to my local church?
Some Christ-followers believe they can direct their tithe to a ministry of their own choosing instead of supporting the church they attend. This, however, is not a biblical view. Exodus 23:19 says to bring the firstfruits “into the house of the Lord your God.” Malachi 3:10 directs bringing the whole tithe “into the storehouse”. Again, this goes back to one of the threefold purposes of tithing, namely, to support God’s work on the earth. Malachi was speaking to a situation where the priests actually had to go out and work in the fields themselves as the Israelites were failing to tithe and provide for them as God had directed (Nehemiah 13:10-12). The tithe was supposed to be brought directly to “God’s house” to support the priests, among others. What this means in a modern-day context is that we are to tithe where we are fed spiritually, supporting the work of our local church. To the extent we wish to support other ministries, that is another purpose for offerings that we give over and above our tithes.
I volunteer at church and help with children’s ministry several hours every week. Am I still supposed to tithe money in addition to my time?
As an initial matter, it is important to remember that the “tithe” is defined as returning to God 10% of one’s gross income; not 10% of one’s time. Thus, it is not accurate to refer to serving in ministry as “tithing of our time.”
In a broader sense, though, giving of our finances is simply one component of stewardship. God has made us managers of “everything” He has given us, and that includes our time, talent and our treasures (Psalm 24:1; Psalm 31:14; Ephesians 5:15-16; Ephesians 4:11-16; 1 Corinthians 6:19-20; Matthew 25:14-30). There simply is no biblical authority for the position that giving in one of these areas suffices as giving in all these areas. Our entire lives belong to God and His desire is that we will serve Him with everything we have.
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