Many churches base their whole income generation model on the expectation that its members give 10% of their income. But Andy Hickford argues that if we tithe, we may well lose out!

Please hear my confession. I love Jesus with all my heart soul mind and strength, and, as it happens, I have recently decreased my giving to my local church. Please don’t get the idea that I am disgruntled – I am not. I am in fact its minister!

It’s just that short of auctioning off one of the children on eBay (now there’s an idea) I don’t seem to be able to balance the needs of providing for my family and continuing to give at the same level that I have been giving.

For some of my fellow Christian leaders this thought process is nothing short of worldly and faithless – the spiritual equivalent of putting the cart before the horse. For them tithing (giving 10% of your income to God and his work as a first priority in the budget) is the key to every Christian’s successful financial management. After all the Bible says:“Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, … and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it.”(Malachi 3v10).

Various streams of the church around the world teach the giving of 10% of one’s income is a direct commandment from God. This is often, but not always, linked to the ‘word of faith’ theology, which asserts that good health and material prosperity are the rights of every believer, and that monetary giving of at least 10% ‘activates’ these blessings. Some of the proponents of this teaching are Creflo A. Dollar, who says: “Tithing is a key to unlocking God’s blessings on your life. You should tithe to your church congregation, then you’ll see God blessing you” And Kenneth Copeland: “Tithing activates the blessing of God in your finances.”

So, are they right? Are my worldly concerns eclipsing my spiritual priorities? Has my heavenly financial advisor been usurped by the man from the Pru? Can I really have integrity as a local church minister, and yet be reducing my level of giving? Is tithing the biblical secret which, when practiced, will keep my family in untold blessing? (not to mention keeping my kids off of eBay)

Tithing - the evidence

Tithing certainly does appear as a direct commandment to the Israelites in the Old Testament. The verses outlining its regulation can be found in Leviticus 27:30-34; Numbers 18:19-28; Deuteronomy 12:1-19; Deuteronomy 14:22-29; and Deuteronomy 26:12-13. It was without a doubt an important law that the Israelites were expected to follow.

There are some immediate and obvious problems though, if we are to take these verses to teach tithing as a command for God’s people today. Tithing was never universal in the Old Testament; only agricultural workers were expected to pay a tithe on the produce of the land – crafts or trades workers appear to have been exempt. Also, it was illegal to bring a tithe of anything not grown on Israelite soil. The poor did not pay it, but instead were given to from the tithe, and no tithe was required every seventh (Sabbath) year.

If we claim that tithing still applies today on the grounds of the Old Testament law, then surely we must apply the regulations regarding the tithe consistently. I am not aware of any tithing church where the members are exempt from giving every seventh year, or where non-agricultural workers are asked not to give!

The problem of consistency does not stop there, either. What about all the other Old Testament commands? As one writer once put it: “I have one neighbour who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly states that he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to do it myself? He also blasphemes and curses a lot. Is it really necessary that we go to the trouble of getting the whole town together to stone him? (Leviticus 24:10-16)?”

Then of course there’s Jesus! When it comes to Jesus and the law, it can be a bit confusing. Matthew 5:17 says that Jesus came to fulfil the law. Romans 3:31 says that he upholds the law. In Romans 7:6 it says that Jesus released us from the law and in Ephesians 2 Paul writes that Jesus abolished the law! So, just what is the relationship between Jesus and the Old Testament’s laws?! Basically, Jesus replaces the Old Testament law. In him it is all fulfilled and upheld, because he completes it. We are released from its regulation and condemnation- that’s what meant by ‘He abolished the law.’ However, its wisdom and history is fulfilled in Christ.

Tithing in the New Testament

Tithing is mentioned only four times in the New Testament - Luke 18:9-14; Hebrews 7:1-19; Matthew 23:23 and Luke 11:42. What is striking about these passages is that none of them are commands for Christians to tithe.

In Matthew 23:23 and its parallel in Luke 11:42 Jesus is essentially saying to the Pharisees: “You strained a gnat and swallowed a camel.” They had obeyed the minutia of the law by tithing even their salad dressings! But they’d neglected the bigger picture of loving God, and loving others with justice and mercy. In Luke 18 tithing is mentioned in a parable, again as an example of one of the things the self-righteous Pharisee pointed to as an example of his righteousness. The justified man in the story is the tax collector who simply says “God have mercy on me a sinner!” Hebrews chapter 7 talks of Abraham tithing to the king of Salem, called Melchizedek. The point of the passage is nothing about tithing at all, but about how great Jesus is, and includes: “The former regulation is set aside because it was weak and useless (for the law made nothing perfect), and a better hope is introduced, by which we draw near to God… Jesus has become the guarantee of a better covenant.” (Hebrews 7:18, 1922)

Other arguments for tithing

Some have tried to shore up the tithing case by saying that it is a requirement for the Christian today because it’s been a universal principle, existing even before the law. Indeed it did – the giving of 10% was well known in the Ancient Near East. However, the only references in the Bible with regards to this are Genesis 14:17-20, and Genesis 28:20-22.

In the first, Abraham tithed to a human ruler; in the second Jacob said to God that he would tithe. On neither of these two occasions does God command a tithe – they were choices made by the men themselves: Abraham’s in response to a contemporary custom of giving 10% of the spoils of war; Jacob’s quite possibly another manifestation of his manipulative character. We simply cannot infer that God commands us to do something from verses where there is no command from God stated!

Having nowhere else to run, the last stand of the tithing argument is in church history. The argument goes that tithing was law in some parts of the church for a significant period. In Britain for example, tithing to the church was compulsory between the 10th and the middle of the 19th centuries, and in some European countries it is still a legal requirement. Once again though, the argument is weak. It wasn’t until 567 AD that the church first attempted to institute a system of mandatory tithe. The early church simply did not teach a doctrine of tithing.

So there it is. Tithing is not biblical as far as I can see. I believe that tithing as a legalistic doctrine can only emerge from poor theology. It isn’t helpful, doesn’t lead to good discipleship (as legalism never makes for maturity) and is not right before God

Health warning!

However, in writing these words I confess to being worried. I think this article should come with its own health warning. Words intended to bring freedom for some, I fear, may only bring further captivity to the majority. You see, most Christians I know don’t need freedom from tithing – or even freedom from the guilt of not tithing -they need freedom from consumerism. Like the Pharisees before us, it’s so easy to ‘strain the gnat’ of doing our tithing exegesis, only then to swallow the whole cultural camel of ‘Bigger, Better, Newer Faster’ – of more. The early church father Cyprian was right ‘on the money’ for today, when he said of his generation “Their property held them in chains, chains which shackled their courage and choked their faith, hampered their judgement and throttled their souls.”

Money is the clear and present danger, par excellence, for all Christians in the west. An absorbing materialism and stupefying consumerism which diverts our energies, twists our morality, distorts our understanding and renders impotent our faith. We dare not ‘move on’ from tithing, without ‘moving into’ a more truly holistic and biblical approach to money. Anything less is to run headlong in to a greater slavery.

The bible says so much about money that it would be impossible to deal with it in an article of this length. Instead, I will limit myself to highlighting what remains important from the teaching associated with tithing. We must not throw out the proverbial baby with the bath water! We will not properly move on from tithing without taking with us all that’s important from its teaching.

God’s right to what we have

A wise priest once said to me “The only thing you have that is truly your own is your sin. Everything else is a gift from God.” In God’s economy, all we own is leasehold. The house, the family – it’s all His. Leasehold. We talk of joint accounts, but have we ever really opened one with God? On everything? We can’t move on from 10% without realising that we have to do more than pay lip service to 100%. It’s all his.

God’s work- a first priority

“Seek first God’s kingdom.” Tithing was good in that it emphasised first things first. The whole advertising industry is finely tuned to make me want more. I will never have everything ticked on my shopping list before I have spare cash to give to God’s work. The greatest illusion of all is that next year I will have more disposable income. Giving to God goes in now as a budgeted item or it doesn’t go in at all – not ever.

God’s world – our priority

We must recognise that we are amongst the wealthiest people on the planet today. People who own their own home are in the top 5% of the world’s elite, while half of the globe lives on less than two dollars a day. We need to heed the words of Isaiah 58v10, and ‘spend ourselves on behalf of the hungry’. I think it’s imperative that Christians give to charitable organisations OTHER than their local church, that by doing so we may be truly selfless in our giving, expressing our concern for God’s world.

The local church

Bill Hybels is quoted as saying that the only hope for the world is the local church. When we stop and think about it, he’s right, but we don’t give like that. I sense a certain mood amongst some younger Christians today. The talk in the postmodern church is to follow Jesus, but without the baggage of the church institution. The reality as far as I can see it is trying to follow Jesus, without the disciplines necessary for community. This ‘Jesus lite’ budget discipleship is fatally flawed. The church IS His body! You can’t give to Jesus and not to his church. Our giving must reflect this.

Giving in an organised way

I wonder how many churches’ visions exceed their means? Ours certainly does. I sometimes feel indignant when middle class Christians have middle class expectations of their local congregation, blind to the fact that their middle class time commitments and lifestyle choices rob the church of the very resources required for the church to deliver on such expectations! Without your time, and your money, leaders like me can’t provide the church we all want. We all have to take responsibility – regular, tax-efficient giving should be every responsible Christian’s practice – a spiritual discipline.

Confession revisited

So am I comfortable with reducing my giving? – by no means! I keep saying to myself that my goal is not to earn more but to give more. But faced with the complexities of financial choices in today’s vastly needy world, simplistic legalism does not work for me. I try to navigate my choices with John Stott’s great summary of the Christian’s attitude to money – ‘generosity simplicity and contentment’ as my mantra. I try to keep Petersons lovely translation of Mathew 6 foremost in my mind ‘ What I am trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so occupied with getting, so you can respond to Gods giving.’ But if I’m honest, whilst helpful these things don’t solve my dilemmas.

Perhaps that’s the way it should be. Perhaps that’s what the bible means by Jesus being the fulfilment of the law. Maybe these decisions are not supposed to be made from some rule book, but in conversation with the law giver himself - a life-long journey of changing seasons and themes. If so, we are called to a perpetual unsettledness about money and possessions. The purpose? To constantly be brought back to the heart of our faith – a relationship with Jesus.

Andy Hickford is pastor of Maybridge Community Church in Worthing.