Some congregants have asked of late about giving… trying to understand tithes and offerings, what if any difference between the two, how much they should give, and other questions. Thanks to church history and some great resources, there ARE helpful answers that establish both a challenge and standard.
Giving in God’s Economy: a biblical and historical look at tithes and offerings
There is an oft-assumed idea that Christians ought to “tithe” 10%. If so, why? And if not, what IS the expectation? Helpful websites elucidate that Christians are not bound by the Mosaic law to “tithe” as the Israelites were. Technically, everything a Christian gives is an offering, not a tithe insofar as a law-based obligation.
Now before you breathe a sight of relief and start lowering that percentage, however, bear in mind: under the law given to Moses there were three tithes: a regular tithe (10%) given to support the priests and the work of the temple; a “festival tithe” for required feasts (cf. Deut. 12:17–19); and a “charity tithe,” given every third year to the Levite, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow (Deut. 14:28–29). When you crunch all the numbers, the Israelites were actually required to give 23.3 percent of their income, not simply 10 percent!
Tithe, quite literally, means “a tenth”. So grammatically speaking, if our offerings reach at least 10%, we are indeed “tithing”… we’re giving a tenth of what we’ve earned. So… is there any reason to regard this as a standard? Or have Christians just misappropriated something from Mosaic law?
Well, the first explicit references to tithing appear in Genesis 14, where Abraham tithes to Melchizedek, and in Genesis 28, where Jacob promises to give God “a full tenth” (10%). However, even prior to these Cain and Abel had an established tradition of offering “firstfruits” to God in Genesis 4. What is important to note here is that, while Christians are not under the law of Moses (the Mosaic law) these Genesis verses are before the “law of Moses” was given. So we see that the “tenth” pattern is established prior to the Mosaic law, not as law but as standard and pattern, with the implication being since the beginning. Based on this pattern replete throughout scripture, it seems fair to keep this in mind as we read 1 Corinthians 16:2, where Paul says of the church “On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made.”
While it’s true the New Testament does not dictate a certain percentage for giving, it does say for each to give “in keeping with his income”. What does Paul mean by this? It’s “convenient” for us to interpret it as vague and variable… but if we see a 10% pattern before the Mosaic law, and then its base level maintained within that law, then when Paul suggests our giving be in keeping with our income it’s safe to assume he’s leaning on a percentage portion that’s culturally understood. He doesn’t say “in keeping with what each feels like”. Giving a tenth, or “firstfruits” is a percentage that always is “in keeping with one’s income”. It varies consistently with what one has earned and honors a time honored “firstfruits” expression of God’s people.
Also in the Old Testament, God accuses his people of “robbing” him by failing to tithe (Malachi 3:8). And in almost unprecedented fashion, God challenges his people to test him. Giving is always a test of faith. It’s big enough to hurt, and it forces us to trust God to provide. But it’s not big enough to distress God’s people who are living within their means and leveraging their resources for his glory.
As we shift into the New Testament, like it or not, and whether it sounds manipulative or not, God promises blessings to those who give generously (2 Cor. 9:6) and conversely for those who don’t. God instructed Old Testament believers to give a tithe, or a tenth, because this 10% represented the first, or most important portion of all they had. So… while Christians we aren’t under the law and don’t “tithe” what honors the spirit of God’s work throughout human history when it comes to being “generous”?
The question is: what is generous to our God? Is there a standard?
Quite frankly, we’re talking about a God who has unabashedly expected 10% at a base level from his chosen people for centuries, and then He coupled that with additional offerings for Israel that totaled almost a quarter of their gross income! For us to automatically take our “freedom” as reason to reduce that standard seems out of line with other examples of the grace He’s given. As an example: since we’re not bound by the Mosaic Law do we feel it’s okay to commit adultery? Of course not! In fact, Jesus raises the standard and says lusting in our heart is adultery. The Christian is called in grace to strive to embody a higher standard than the law, not less. So… if I’m free from the law-based requirement of 10-23%… is that freedom to lower the standard, or freedom to raise the standard?
While it’s true we aren’t bound to a percentage, any honest and earnest Christian can see a godly framework for generosity as established by our God, with a baseline since the beginning and a strong encouragement to do more. Just because there is no requirement doesn’t mean there is no standard. This is why it’s been the standard answer in Christendom for generations. Lastly, is generosity ever truly reflected by doing the bare minimum? Or less than the standard? Does it say something about our hearts? To put it another way, why am I asking “do I have to give 10%” instead of “can I be like Abraham” or “can I emulate the generosity of Jacob?” A courageous Christian should dare to self-reflect and examine themselves, and a good church community should (as scripture instructs) speak in ways that stir up one another to good works, including our giving.
However, here’s the reality:
- Sadly, statistics show Christians today are only giving about 2.5%. By contrast, during the depths of The Great Depression (repeat: The Great Depression!) they gave 3.3%. Ouch.
- Also, it isn’t an issue of those with less income fearing to give a generous portion: of Christian families making less than $20k per year, 8% of them gave at least 10% in tithes/offerings. For families making a minimum of $75k or more, the figure drops to just 1%. In other words, those who have more statistically give less.
- In recent years and studies, 17% of American families have reduced the amount that they give to their local church in some way. 7% have dropped regular giving by 20% or more.
These statistics might have a discouraging effect, but rather than getting mired in “the sad state of the church” we can take them as a clarion call to self-reflection and godly emulation that starts setting a new trend as individuals and churches, and gives us great cause for cheerful hearts and minds before our Lord.
“There are five significant barriers to more generous giving” – George Barna.
- Some people lack the motivation to give away their hard-earned money because the church has failed to provide a compelling vision for how the money will make a difference.
- The second group withhold money from the church because they do not see a sufficient return on their investment.
- The third segment is comprised of people who do not realize the church needs their money to be effective. Their church has done an inadequate job of asking for money, so people remain oblivious to the church’s expectations and potential.
- The fourth group is composed of those who are ignorant of what the Bible teaches about our responsibility to apply God’s resources in ways that affect lives.
- The fifth and final category contains those who are just selfish. They figure they worked hard for their money and it’s theirs to use as they please. Their priorities revolve around their personal needs and desires.
Barna goes on to describe common issues and needed conversations that may need to be had:
- The absence of a compelling vision to motivate generosity is a leadership issue.
- The perception that donations do not produce significant outcomes is usually an efficiency or productivity issue, or need for better communications.
- Churches that struggle because they do not ask strategically have a process issue.
- When the problem is people’s ignorance of scriptural principles regarding stewardship, there is a theological or educational issue.
- And cases where people focus on themselves rather than other people reflect a heart issue.
Naturally, change starts with a church’s leaders prayerfully examining their own households first, seeing if there is room to give more generously, setting a God-honoring, generous and regular amount for their household, and setting a faithful example. Then, as need arises, they can be above reproach as they seek to exhort a church body to do the same. As Refuge Church has grown in unity, leadership, discipline, theology, liturgy and more, growth in giving is another needed focus, with the hope that a church body becomes a mindful, generous congregation that are good stewards of all God’s gifts. After all… “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” – James 1:17
Sola Deo Gloria!