What does it mean to give financially to one’s local church? Is it merely the equivalent of a gift offered in support of a charitable organization? Churches are, and should be, charitable organizations, but are they not more than that? Malachi 3:8 tells us that the worshiper is stealing from God if he does not give “tithes and offerings.” Certainly, we cannot say the same regarding just any non-profit. We are not “robbing God” by failing to contribute to American Red Cross, Samaritan’s Purse or Kiva. Contributing to charitable organizations is certainly a commendable act of love, but the church is distinct from these organizations. As the embassy of God’s Kingdom on earth, the church uniquely demands tithes and offerings. This manner of difference is analogous to the distinction between voluntary giving and mandatory taxes. To use biblical language, the Christian’s tithe is to be considered holy, because it is for God and commanded by God.
The tithe, in its Old Testament manifestation, was intimately connected to the holy, promised land. This connection continues to explain the holiness of tithing: “Every tithe of the land, whether of the seed of the land or of the fruit of the trees, is the Lord’s; it is holy to the Lord” (Lev. 27:30). It was because the tithe was taken from the promised land, not simply due to the agricultural context, that Israel tithed on their agricultural goods rather than on their monetary income. “You shall tithe all the yield of your seed that comes from the field year by year” (Deut. 14:22). Israel was then commanded to use this fruit of the promised land in religious feasting (23). The people literally feasted on God’s fulfilled promises in the Old Testament tithe. Therefore, the holiness of the tithe was derived, not only from the nature of God as the authoritative Lord of creation but also, from its intimate connection to God’s redemptive promises, typified in the promised land.
Does the connection between the promised land and the tithe denote that new covenant Christians are no longer required to keep the tithe? It is true to say that the tithe, as part of the ceremonial law, is fulfilled (Matt. 5:17) and abrogated in Christ (Heb. 8:1-3,6, 13). Jesus is, after all, the fulfillment of the promised land (Heb. 11:8-10) and first fruits of the new creation (1 Cor. 15:23; Col. 1:15, 18). However, we must remember that Abraham, a nomad with no land, paid a tithe to Melchizedek as an act of Yahweh worship, and this was long before the ceremonial laws were given (Gen. 14:20). This mysterious event in Genesis and the discussion of Abraham’s tithe in the Book of Hebrews (Heb. 7:4-10) are evidence of the abiding appropriateness of giving tithes and offerings to the Lord. Thus, while the New Testament may not explicitly command tithing, the principle of joyfully giving to the Lord in the worshiping assembly of God’s people remains intact. Just consider the following passages: Matt. 6:2-4; Mk. 12:41-44; 23:23; Lk. 21:1-4; Acts 2:42, 44; 4:34-37; 5:4; 6:1-7; 1 Cor. 16:1-4; 2 Cor. 9:7-8; 1 Tim. 5:17-18. Several of these passages will be discussed or referenced below.
The tithe of Deuteronomy was deeply charitable. In fact, if a man was unable to bring his tithe to the worshipping community, he could give it to the poor or to the levites (14:24-27). Jesus assumed that his disciples would be giving alms, or gifts to the poor (Matt. 6:2-4). Christ discussed alms during his teachings on prayer. For this reason, Hughes Oliphant Old asserts that Jesus viewed almsgiving as “an auxiliary discipline to prayer.” Old's position is supported historically by the fact that jews tended to give their alms during their time in prayerful worship in the temple or the synagogue (Mk. 12:41-44). Additionally, Paul spoke of compensating the preachers and teachers for their labor (1 Tim. 5:17-18). This concern mirrors the Old Testament’s interest in preserving the welfare of the levites. Paul also mentioned special contributions for needy Christians (1 Cor. 16:1-4; 2 Cor. 9:7-8). Gifts given within the context of new covenant church-life are reminiscent of the intent and practice of old covenant giving.
In Acts 2:42 the life of the new covenant church is described like this: “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship [κοινωνία, “contribution” or “sharing”], to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” This passage is best understood as a description of the general life of the church that would have culminated in formal acts of worship. In these worship services the church would have participated in preaching and teaching, contributing to the church body (tithes, offerings, alms for the poor), administering the sacraments, and praying. To fail to contribute to the church through one’s resources was a failure to fully participate in the life and worship of the church community.
We are still left with one practical question: how much should the new covenant worshipper contribute to their local church? It is difficult to say decisively that the ten percent figure of the Old Testament tithe remains binding on the Christian. However, believers should be careful in their consideration of this traditional percentage, for several reasons. First, consider that the percentage of the tithe may still be binding today, though it is an area of contention among biblical scholars and theologians. We do not want to be guilty of robbing the Lord our God. Second, why would we assume that the amount would vary due to the advent of Jesus? After all, we still await the eternal city which is yet to come in Jesus' triumphant return (Rev. 21:9-27). Lastly, as mentioned above, Abraham tithed (ten percent) to Melchizadek (Gen. 14:20; Heb. 7:4-10). Are we really so bold as to contribute less as we approach Christ in worship, under the blessedness of the new covenant era?
Practical Points of Application:
- In their contributions, Christians should be reminded of the sufficient offering of Christ’s blood to deliver and redeem sinners, of the guarantee of an eternal dwelling place with the Lord that the Holy Spirit affords believers (Eph. 1:14), and of the Lordship of God over all his creatures.
- Tithes, offerings, and alms are a means by which the Christian joyfully participates in the life, ministry, and worship of the church (Mal. 3; Matt. 6:2-4; Acts 2:42).
- Because giving should be a joy, it is the church officers’ responsibility to handle the offerings in a timely manner, in order to prevent giving from being a frustration.
- Likewise, the giver should graciously understand checks may take a while to process through the banking system.
- The Christian has a responsibility to both prayerfully determine the amount of one’s contribution and to carefully deliver it to God in corporate worship (Deut. 14:24; Acts 5:4).
- The leadership of a church has the responsibility to encourage their members to regularly contribute tithes, offerings, and alms as part of godly worship (1 Cor. 16:1-4; 2 Cor. 9:7-8).
- The fruit of tithes, offerings and alms should not be hoarded. Rather, the church ought to use its shared resources in faithful, Christian ministry, including but not exclusively for the pastor’s salary.
- The entire church has a responsibility to wisely utilize the church’s funds for the glory of God, the good of the church, and as a blessing to the nations.
- With the oversight of the elders, the deacons are ordained, in part, for the wise handling of the church’s shared resources (Acts 6:1-7; 1 Tim. 3:8).