James E. Carter, in his book on Christian stewardship, tells the story of how a Baptist church in a small town was completely transformed when most of its members began to tithe (pay a tenth of their income) to the church. What on earth compelled those church members to do such a thing? That answer is a big part of the story.
It all began when the church’s longtime treasurer resigned from the position. Since the church was located in a community that was heavily into wheat production, the town’s most important business was the local grain elevator, the facility where the wheat farmers brought their grain to sell. The facility’s manager, who was in charge of determining each load of grain’s weight, quality, and worth, was a highly respected member of the church and seemed like the perfect candidate to become the new treasurer. But when he was asked to take the job he said, “I’ll only do it if two conditions are met.” First, he would only give one treasurer’s report at the end of the year rather than provide one each month. Second, he wouldn’t be asked any questions about the church’s finances until the end of the year.
Since most of the church members did business with the man and could attest to his honesty, the church agreed to his conditions and elected him as their new treasurer. A full year then passed, and it was now finally time for the man to give his annual report. According to the report, the church’s indebtedness of $228,000 had been paid off completely, the pastor’s salary had been increased by 8%, the giving to missionary work had been increased by 200%, there were no outstanding bills, and the church had $11,252 in its bank account.
The congregation was absolutely stunned, and one of them quickly asked the man the obvious question: “Where did all the money come from?” The treasurer knew the question was coming and had his answer at the ready. He said, “Most of you bring your grain to my elevator. Throughout this past year, without telling you, I simply withheld 10% of what I owed you for your grain and gave that money to the church in your name.” Then he really drove home his point by adding, “You didn’t even miss it! Do you see what we could do for the Lord if we were all willing to give at least a tithe to God?”
For most of human history, paying a tithe (a tenth) has been an acceptable form of giving to the Lord. In the days of the book of Genesis, both Abraham (Genesis 14:18-20; Hebrews 7:1-2) and Jacob (Genesis 28:10-22) voluntarily paid one-time tithes to the Lord. (At least we assume that Jacob made good on his vow to do so.) Centuries later, when God gave His law to the people of Israel, that law required the Israelites to pay tithes of their livestock, their harvests, their oil, their wine, and their possessions. These tithes were to be paid twice each year, each tithe being brought to the tabernacle (the temple when it was built to replace the tabernacle). Additionally, at the end of every third year, each Israelite was required to bring a third tithe to a designated place in his hometown. This third-year tithe went to support the widows, orphans, Levites, and strangers in each town.
Moving on into the New Testament age, Jesus fulfilled the entirety of the Old Testament law perfectly and in so doing made Himself an eligible candidate to die for the sins of the world (Matthew 5:17-18). Consequently, in the aftermath of His death and subsequent resurrection, there is now no longer a mandate for anyone to keep the law. This is why Paul consistently taught that Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law (Galatians 3:10-14; 4:4-5; Romans 6:14; 10:4; Philippians 3:8-9), and it also explains why Paul didn’t command Christians to tithe. You see, systematically required tithing was a part of the Old Testament law from which Christians have been set free.
Rather than promote straight-up 10% tithing, Paul placed each Christian on the honor system by teaching that each of us should give in accordance with the level of prosperity at which God currently has us (1 Corinthians 16:1-2; 2 Corinthians 9:6-15). This requires each Christian to spend time in prayer, seeking God’s will about not only how much to give to support the Lord’s work but how and where to give it. In this way, figuring out a right amount to give back to the Lord becomes a matter of true discipleship.
It should be understood, though, that Paul encouraged Christians to give not only cheerfully but also abundantly (2 Corinthians 9:6-7). He compared giving to sowing seed and said, “He who sows sparingly will reap sparingly, but he who sows bountifully will reap bountifully” (2 Corinthians 9:6). He also said that Christians who are enjoying a time of plenty should help those who are going through a rough stretch financially (2 Corinthians 8:13-15), and that anyone who preaches the gospel should be supported financially by fellow Christians (1 Corinthians 9:1-14; Philippians 4:15-20). All of this is a far cry from the Old Testament law’s highly ritualized commandments concerning bringing tithes to certain places at prescribed times.
So, am I against the idea of tithing? No, I’m not. To the contrary, I’ve been a pastor long enough to know that faithful tithers are the financial backbone of most churches. Furthermore, I would say to any Christian who doesn’t have a clue about where to start in regards to giving to the Lord’s work, “Paying a tithe out of your take-home pay is a great way to begin.” As my opening illustration shows, if every church member merely paid a tithe each week or each month, every church’s financial problems would be solved.
I do, however, try to explain to Christians that there are deeper waters of giving than tithing. There is giving as God has prospered you and sowing bountifully. These waters require more prayer, more discernment, and in many cases more submission to God, and oftentimes the giving that comes up from them is not so much about how much you have but how much you have left. Again, I’m not against tithing. Giving 10% is certainly a lot better than most professing Christians give. But don’t ever think that tithing is the end-all-be-all form of New Testament giving. The truth is, the ride of giving that God wants to take each Christian on can never be neatly packaged into a box of 10%, and once you get on that ride with Him, you just never know how much He might want you to give or where He might want you to give it.