How Much Should Christians Give: a Tithe?

This is the second in a series of posts considering if it is possible to quantify how much Christians should give.

When I was a new convert, my church gave me a simple, straightforward answer to the question of how much I should give.  Unlike the IRS, God’s demands were clear:  10% to my local church.  Furthermore, if I was faithful to pay this Divine Flat Tax, abundant blessings, financial and otherwise, were sure to come my way.

My experience is not unique.  Tithing to one’s place of worship “because the Bible says so” is the cornerstone of many pastors’ teaching on financial stewardship.  While I deeply appreciate leaders who are willing to tackle the challenging issue of money, I no longer believe the discussion ends with the tithe.  To see why, let’s begin with an “executive summary” of the biblical teaching about tithing.  Most scholars agree that in the Old Testament not just one but three tithes were required:

  • The first tithe was intended to support the Levites, who led Israel in worship.  The tribe of Levi did not receive any land on which to farm, so they were dependent on these levies of fruits, veggies, and livestock for their livelihood.
  • The second tithe paid for a massive annual party at which everyone celebrated God’s goodness by eating and drinking heavily.  Amen to that.
  • The third tithe, given only every third year, funded a nationwide feeding program for immigrants, orphans, widows, and Levites.

This added up to 23.3% of each family’s annual income!  But that’s not all.  In addition to tithes, farmers were supposed to leave for the poor any grain their harvesters dropped and everything on the edges of their fields.  Loans were to be offered interest free.  And every seven years, slaves were set free and all debts cancelled.  Every fifty years, all land reverted back to poor families who had lost it.  Finally, everyone paid a small additional temple tax.  These clearly quantifiable ethical standards assured that ministers got paid, people recognized God as their provider, and the poor had a social safety net.

How should followers of Jesus today apply all this?  If we wanted to faithfully follow the Old Testament’s instructions for giving, we’d need to figure out how all these taxes, tithes, and laws should be applied in a non-theocratic society with no centralized temple, animal sacrifices, or hereditary priestly class making up approximately 1/12 of the population.  Certainly we can learn from God’s concern that everyone do their part and that the poor be cared for, but the resulting standard will certainly not be as simple as 10% in the offering plate!  In fact, since most of us attend congregations with other rich people like us, tithing to our local church actually exacerbates inequalities within the global Christian family-the wealthy’s tithes fund megachurch buildings, comfortable seating, professional sound systems and gymnasiums, while poor churches worship under a tree with unpaid pastors.

But even aside from these complications, the Old Testament is often not binding on us in a straightforward way.  Sometimes Jesus specifically overturns aspects of the Law, such as animal sacrifice, food prohibitions or purity laws.  Aren’t you glad that cotton/polyester blend t-shirts are no longer an abomination to the Lord?  Other times Jesus radicalizes teaching from the Torah, as in his commands to avoid not just murder and adultery, but hateful speech and lust too.  I think Jesus’ attitude towards giving fits into this category.  The New Testament directly speaks about tithing only once: Jesus affirms it for the Pharisees but calls them to a deeper commitment to justice and mercy.  And the rest of Jesus’s and Paul’s teaching on giving is even more radical than the tithe.  According to Randy Alcorn,

Every New Testament example of giving goes beyond the tithe. This means none falls short of it.

So in the end, I think the Old Testament offers us a model society in which giving is central and obligatory, but no nice round numbers to definitely quantify our level of “just giving.”  Perhaps we should view the tithe as a sort of “minimum standard” which God’s grace enables us to joyfully exceed, but I’ll wait to say more until my next post on the New Testament.

What do you think?  How do you use the Old Testament as a guide to your giving, and why?

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