To Tithe Or Not To Tithe
November 11, 1990
There are certain problems a pastor faces whenever he talks about the subject of giving. Chief among those problems is the problem of boredom. People feel like they already know what he is going to say before he says it.
Perhaps you’ve heard the story of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, that great charismatic leader, who grew weary from having to be in so many receiving lines at the White House. He felt that many times people weren’t paying attention to the things that he was saying to them as they would pass by and shake his hand. So one day at a reception he decided to try an experiment. As each person filed by, he reached out to shake hands and as he did so he murmured, “I murdered my grandmother today.” Several hundred people went through the line and as he would say, “I murdered my grandmother today,” they would say, “Congratulations. We’re so proud of you. You’re doing a wonderful job. God bless you.” He finally got to the end of the line and here came the ambassador from Bolivia. When President Roosevelt said, “I murdered my grandmother this morning,” the ambassador leaned over and whispered in his ear, “I’m sure she had it coming.”
Well, I have no doubt that most of us are like most of those other guests. We think we know what’s going to be said and so we don’t pay much attention because we’re pretty sure we’ve heard it all before.
I hope you won’t tune me out, because before I’m through I do have a few startling and unusual things to say to you.
Why Talk About Tithing?
During this series we are taking a look at what God has to say about the way we spend our money. This morning we’re taking the subject “To Tithe or Not to Tithe”. That is the subject of great and perennial interest to Christians. It is a subject that preachers preach about, teachers teach about, and it one that is much discussed by Bible students. As we begin, I would like to suggest three reasons why this is an important subject.
1. It is important to talk about because there is so much confusion over this issue.
You listen to one Bible teacher and he says one thing. You listen to another Bible teacher and he says something else. You go to one church and the pastor says one thing. You go to another church and the pastor says something else. It’s the same way with the commentators. One commentator says one thing and another commentator says something else. In fact, all the way along the spectrum there is confusion. We find people who would say that the tithe is binding upon Christians today and that all Christians without exception are to tithe all the time. On the other extreme there are those people who say that tithing belongs under the law and has no relevance whatsoever for Christians today. And you will find people all along the spectrum in between those two positions. So it’s import-ant for us to know about this because there’s so much confusion.
2. It is important for us to know about this because of the financial condition of the churches of America.
Recently the Gallup organization released a poll showing that in 1987, the last year for which statistics are available, American church members of all denominations gave on the average two percent of their income to all charitable activities. That two percent includes the Community Chest, the Boy Scouts, the Red Cross, the United Way and it also includes all the churches and synagogues of America. Add to that the fact that in the last several years, Chris-tian financial speakers like Larry Burkett and Ron Blue have told us that the average evangelical Christian in Amer-ica is giving somewhere between two and three per cent of his income to the Lord’s work.
Before I preached this sermon I talked to Vern Hendrikson who is the receiving treasurer here at Calvary. He’s the one who notes down the checks that come in and he’s the one who writes down the different categories so you can get credit for your giving at the end of the year. I asked Vern what his estimate is of the average giving of the average family here at Calvary. He said, “Pastor, my best guess after looking at the whole situation is that the average fam-ily at Calvary is giving between two and three per cent of their income to the work of the Lord here at this church.”
Between two and three percent. That is to say, we fit exactly with the evangelical average which is really not that much above the national average. Now I realize that some people are giving far more than a tithe here at Calvary and I also realize that many people give a tithe but they don’t give all of it to Calvary. They give part of it to var-ious Christian organizations. We recognize that fact, but even taken that into account we still believe that across the board the average per family giving to Calvary is only between two and three per cent.
3. It is also important because of the doctrinal issues involved.
This the paramount issue that I want to talk about. The real question is this: since we know that tithing is an Old Testament teaching, what relevance does it have to New Testament Christians? Since we know it comes from the Old Testament, how do we apply tithing in the New Testament era? Or to put it another way, since tithing was given to the nation Israel, what relevance does it have to those of us who are not Jews living in ancient Palestine?
Obviously there is an even bigger question lurking behind these smaller ones. Tithing belongs to the age of law and this is the age of grace. How do you relate those two concepts? Is there a place for tithing in the age of grace? That’s the key question I want to ask and answer in this message.
Don’t Take My Word For It
As you read through this message, I am going to study it carefully. I want you to look in your Bibles and see for yourself if what I am going to talk about is true. This issue is so important that you do not have to take my word for it just because I am your pastor. You don’t have to believe it just because I write it down in this sermon. You have the freedom to come to your own conclusion. After all, it’s your money I’m talking about. If tithing is a biblical concept Christians should follow, then you need to be able to see it for yourself and not just believe it because your pastor tells you to believe it.
A Tithe = One-Tenth
Let’s begin with a definition of tithing. It will help you to know that the word tithe is a Hebrew word. The word tithe comes from the Hebrew word which means one-tenth. Literally, a tithe is one-tenth of anything. In the Old Testament a tithe was more than just giving one-tenth of your money to God. If you had ten cows, you gave one out of the ten to God. That one cow that you gave was your tithe. If you had ten pounds of grain, the one pound that you gave to God was your tithe before God. So the definition of a tithe is that it is one-tenth of anything. That’s what the word itself means. To tithe your income is to give one-tenth of your income to God.
A Man Called Melchizedek
With that definition, let’s go to the Old Testament. I’m going to survey the Old Testament teaching on tithing. We will look at four passages briefly. There are dozens of places in the Old Testament where tithing is mentioned. I am going to bring to your attention the four that I consider the most important.
1. GENESIS 14
This is the story of Abraham coming back from war. He had gone to war against Kedorlaomer and the kings who were allied with him. It had been a bloody, bruising, vicious battle. In the end Abraham had triumphed and now he is coming back home with the spoils of war—the slaves he had captured, the soldiers he had taken into captivity, the food stuffs he had gathered, the grain, the wine, the oil, with the cattle and sheep. With all the spoils of war Abra-ham was making his way back home as a victorious general. On his way back home he runs into a most unusual character, a man by the name of Melchizedek. We pick up the story in verse 18:
Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was a priest of God Most High, and He blessed Abram, saying, “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth. And blessed be God Most High who delivered your enemies into your hand.”
If you know biblical theology, you know that Melchizedek appears in the Old Testament in two places—Geneseis 14 and Psalm 110. He shows up again in the Epistle to the Hebrews. It is clear in the Epistle to the Hebrews that Melchizedek in the Old Testament is a type or pattern of Jesus Christ in the New Testament.
Now who was this Melchizedek? We don’t know for sure. He just shows up on the stage of history and interrupts Abraham as he is coming back from war. He introduces himself as a priest of God Most High, he blesses Abraham and then he blesses God. It’s most instructive to note Abraham’s response at this point—”Then Abram gave him a tenth(or a tithe—it’s the same word)of everything.” (20) That meant a tenth of the slaves, a tenth of the soldiers, a tenth of the food stuffs, a tenth of the garments, a tenth of the gold, a tenth of the silver, and a tenth of everything else he had taken from the enemy in his great victory.
Why did Abraham do that? Well, he did it as an act of submission to the God whom Melchizedek represented. Who told Abraham to do that? We don’t know the answer to that question because this is the first time tithing shows up in the Bible. This is not a commanded act. This is a voluntary act of tithing in which Abraham gives a tenth of his plunder to Melchizedek because he understands that Melchizedek represents God and it was God who gave him the victory.
In essence, Abraham was saying, “By giving you this I am implicitly admitting that I did not win the victory by myself. Victory comes from the Lord alone.” By giving a tithe of the spoils to Melchizedek, Abraham implicitly recognized the truth of verse 20, “Blessed be the God Most High who delivered your enemies into you hand.” In my mind it is significant that the first time we see tithing it is not tied up with the Mosaic Law. The first time we see it, it is a voluntary action. It is a sign of personal submission to God in gratitude for all his blessings.
2. Leviticus 27
Genesis 14 was four hundred years before the law. Now we skip 400 years and we’re into the Mosaic Law. Leviti-cus 27:30-34 reads this way:
A tithe of everything from the land, whether grain from the soil or fruit from the trees, belongs to the Lord. It is holy to the Lord. If a man redeems any of his tithe, he must add a fifth of the value to it. The entire tithe of the herd and the flock – every tenth animal that passes under the shepherd’s rod—will be holy to the Lord. He must not pick out the good from the bad or make any substitution. If he does make a substitution, both the animal and its substi-tute become holy and cannot be redeemed. These are the commands the Lord gave to Moses on Mount Sinai for the Israelites.
Note two things about this passage of scripture. First, this is very clearly a part of the Old Testament Law. What happened in Genesis 14 happened before the Law, but Leviticus 27 is the Law. This is a commandment given by God to the nation of Israel as part of Mosaic Law.
Second, the tithe in the Old Testament was to encompass all a man’s material possessions. It didn’t include just his money. It included his livestock, his cows, his sheep, his wine, his oil, his grain, and his fruit. A tithe was to be given back to God from everything. It also says that the Jews were to give one out of every ten cattle. It says there are to be no substitutes. They were not to give God the scrawny cows and keep the best for themselves.
The way they did it in those days was to hold out the shepherd’s rod and count as the cattle came through one by one. One…two…three…four…five…six…seven…eight…nine…ten. The tenth one belongs to God. Then they would count out ten more cattle and the tenth one went to God. If number 10 happened to be scrawny, fine. But if number ten happened to be the best bull in the lot, then God got the best bull in the lot. You couldn’t substitute.
The key point is that God is very clear about what he wants. The Jews were to give him a tenth of everything.
3. Deuteronomy 14
Now we’re a few years down the road. Forty years have passed and the children of Israel stand on the banks of the Jordan River. Moses is about to die. Before he dies, he gives one final message to the people of God. This is what he says in Deuteronomy 14:22-23:
Be sure you set aside a tenth of all that your fields produce each year. Eat the tithe of your grain, new wine and oil, and the firstborn of your herds and flocks in the presence of the Lord your God at the place he will choose as a dwelling for his Name, so that you may learn to revere the Lord your God always.
That last phrase reveals the purpose of the Old Testament tithe—”that you may learn to revere the Lord your God always.” The Living Bible puts it this way—”So that you may learn always to put God first in your life.” Note that very carefully. That’s the purpose of a tithe. It was not a legalistic regulation. It was more than the Old Testament income tax. God had a special purpose in asking for the tenth. It was to teach his people to put him first.
You put God first in your giving so that he will be first in every area of life. Many Christians have never learned this basic simple secret of giving. They don’t put God first in their giving. When they get their paycheck, they pay everything else first. Out come the taxes. Then they pay the mortgage. They pay the rent. Then they pay for the groceries. Then they pay the school bill and then they pay their credit card bills. Then they buy some more food. Then they buy some clothes and they put away some money for vacation. And, finally, if there’s anything left, they give some to God.
Many Christians have never learned that God not only watches what you give; he watches when you give it. Not only does the amount of your giving tell something about your priorities; the order in which you do your giving also tells something about your priorities. When you get your paycheck, what check do you write first? The answer is always the same: You write the most important one first. By that act you are making a statement about what is first and foremost in importance in your life. The purpose of tithing is to teach God’s people to put him first in everything.
4. Malachi 3
Now we move to the very end of the Old Testament. We’re a thousand years down the road now. We started back in Genesis and then went to Leviticus and Deuteronomy and now we’ve jumped across 1000 years of Jewish history. Listen as God speaks to his disobedient people in Malachi 3:8-12:
Will a man rob God? Yet you rob me. But you ask, “How do we rob you?” In tithes and offerings. You are under a curse—the whole nation of you—because you are robbing me. Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this, says the Lord Almighty, and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have enough room for it. I will prevent pest from devouring your crops, and the vines in your fields will not cast their fruit, says the Lord Almighty. Then all the nations will call you blessed, for yours will be a delightful land, says the Lord Almighty.
There are three things to notice in this passage. First, there is a warning to the people of God. You are robbing God. “I told you to give me a tithe and you are robbing me and because you are consuming it all upon yourselves, you are being cursed.” Think of that. God is saying to his own people, “I have cursed you because you have not put me first.”
Second, there is a challenge issued to the doubters. God says, “Put me to the test. If you don’t believe me, just put me to the test. Try me out. Dare to obey what I am saying and see if I won’t open up the floodgates of heaven and bless your socks off. I am going to bless you beyond your wildest dreams. I will do things that you never even thought about just because you dared to obey me.”
Three, there is purpose revealed for giving the tithe. “Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse that there may be food in my house.” That’s a secondary purpose of the tithe in the Old Testament—That God’s house might be fully supplied. This an amazing passage of scripture. Here is God Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, saying to his people, “You are robbing me in order to get more, but because you are robbing me you end up with less. If you would dare to give me what really belongs to me I would bless you beyond all comprehension.”
Putting It All Together
Let me sum up from these four passages with what I see as the three great purposes of the tithe in the Old Testa-ment. First, in relation to God the tithe was meant to glorify God and recognize him as the Lord Almighty and as the source of all human blessing. That’s in the story of Abraham. Second, in relation to God’s people the purpose of the tithe is to teach us to put God first in our lives. Third, in relation to the nation of Israel, the purpose of the tithe is to insure that God’s work may be fully supplied.
Don’t you see how beautiful this is? In relationship to God the tithe demonstrates that he is the source of all human blessing. In relationship to us the tithe teaches us to put God first in our lives. In relationship to God’s work the tithe insures that God’s work is fully supplied.
Giving In The Age Of Grace
That’s the Old Testament. But the real question comes when we move from the Old Testament into the New Testa-ment because we know that the tithe was an Old Testament teaching. What does the New Testament teaching concerning Christian giving? Let’s quickly survey two key passages.
1. I Corinthians 16
I Corinthians 16:1-2 contains the most concise teaching on this subject:
Now about the collection for God’s people: Do what I told the Galatian churches to do. On the first day of every week, each one of you should lay 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.
This is very clear New Testament teaching. First, giving is to be regular—”on the first day of every week”. Second, giving is to be personal—”each one of you”. Third, giving is to be proportional—”set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income.” Christian giving is to be regular, personal and proportional.
What is proportional giving? It means the more that God blesses you, the more you are to give. That’s New Testa-ment grace giving. The more you’re blessed, the more you give. If you have little blessing—financially or materially—then you are only able to give a small proportion. But the more you are blessed, the bigger the portion you’re able to give.
Ten percent is not the issue in the New Testament. Some Christians who are greatly blessed ought to give 15 per-cent. Others ought to give 20 percent. Some who are enormously blessed ought to give 25 percent or 30 percent and some people who live up in the six or seven figures ought to be giving 50 percent or 60 percent or 70 percent because the greater the blessing from God, the greater the proportion they should be giving. That’s New Testament teaching.
Grace Always Exceeds The Law
Which standard is higher? A flat ten percent in the Old Testament or proportional giving in the New Testament? Proportional giving is higher because if you are greatly blessed, you will soon be giving far beyond ten percent. As a matter of fact, if you are in six or seven figures, the tithe is just like pocket change. As Fred Smith said, for some rich Christians in America, tithing is an excuse not to give generously.
The standard of giving is higher in the New Testament because grace always goes beyond the law. But that still doesn’t answer the theological question, does it? It still doesn’t tell us whether there is a place for tithing in the age of grace.
If grace giving exceeds tithing, does that mean tithing is irrelevant for the Christian? I think the answer to that question is no.
Gene Getz On Tithing
Let me quote from a wonderful book just published in the last two months by Dr. Gene Getz called A Biblical Theology of Material Possessions. This is what Dr. Getz has to say about tithing:
God’s plan for Israel in the Old Testament serves as a foundational model regarding the way Christians should view and use their material possessions today…To be “God-fearing Jews” simply meant that these people were committed to doing everything they could to keep the Old Testament Laws. We can certainly assume that most of them, before they became Christians, practiced the Old Testament regulations regarding tithing…
When these Jews became Christians, they would have naturally transferred their economic loyalty from Judaism to Christianity. It is no wonder that we see such generous people among these Christians in Jerusalem. They were in the habit of giving regularly and systematically. It was a part of their religious training and commitment. Furthermore, when they understood the grace of God, it appears that they not only calculated tenths, but on occasion they generously gave their total profits from the sale of certain properties.
Though the tithe system is never mentioned in the New Testament, it certainly influenced these Jewish Christians. In turn, church history reveals that these Old Testament giving patterns influenced the Gentile community as pagans also became Christians. Though the tithe laws were never perpetuated in Christianity as they were in the Old Testament, they have served as a model to Christians for regular and systematic giving. We cannot ignore this model when we evaluate Paul’s instruction to the Corinthians: “On the first day of every week each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income.” (I Cor. 16:1) Today’s Christians should consider this Old Testament model when determining their own giving patterns. (pp. 111-113)
I would summarize it this way. In the Old Testament we have a command. In the New Testament the command becomes a model. In the Old Testament we had a flat ten percent; in the New Testament we have unlimited propor-tional giving. What was a percentage now becomes a proportion.
2. II Corinthians 9
What about the blessing that’s promised in the Old Testament? Malachi 3 said, “Put me to the test and see if I will not open up the windows of heaven”. Is there any blessing promised to generous givers in the New Testament? Consider these words of the Apostle Paul in II Corinthians 9:6-7:
Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves the cheerful giver.
That’s fairly clear, isn’t it? You sow little, you reap a little. You sow a lot, you reap a lot. He’s talking about giving. Notice what he adds in verse 8:
And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.
There are four “Alls” in that verse—All grace…All things…All times…All that you need.
But that’s not all. Drop down and read verses 10-11:
Now he who supplies the seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteous-ness. You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous in every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God.
That sounds to me like what Malachi 3 was saying. I think that we have the same basic promise in the New Testa-ment as we do in the Old. God promises to abundantly bless Christians who practice generous giving. Please note. The blessings are not always material. Sometimes Christians who give very generously undergo great suffering. Giving is no guarantee that your life will suddenly become a bed of roses. But don’t let that fact mislead you. Any-time you dare to give generously to God you will never regret it. You will never regret it because God will be no man’s debtor. He will pay you back, pressed down, good measure and running over. How he does it is his business. But these verses in II Corinthians 9 tell us that he will do it.
Four Simple Conclusions
Here is my summary of the New Testament teaching concerning tithing in the age of grace. What was a command is now a model. What was a percentage is now a proportion. What was a promise is still a promise. Those who “put God to the test” in the area of giving will never be disappointed.
Beyond that summary, I offer the following general conclusions.
1. There are two extremes we need to avoid when we think about tithing.
In the words of Larry Burkett, the first extreme is the danger of “Giving a strict 10% and viewing the remaining 90% as ours.” The other extreme is “Using the lack of a standard (the tithe) as an excuse to give almost nothing while we selfishly hoard the rest.” (How to Manage Your Money, 9/15/90, p. 3) Let’s avoid those two extremes of either being legalistic about the tithe or saying, “Since there is no standard, I can throw in whatever I want and it doesn’t make any difference.”
2. There is no contradiction between the Old Testament and the New Testament so long as we do not apply the teaching of the tithe legalistically and make it a burden around people’s necks.
God never meant it to be a burden, he meant tithing to be a way that God’s blessing could flow to you.
3. The tithe remains the best and most accurate and most effective guide and standard for Christian giving.
When all things are taken into consideration, I believe the tithe remains the best and most accurate standard and model and guide for Christian giving and I urge you to practice it in your own personal life.
Larry Burkett again. “As best as I can tell, God never asked less than ten percent from anyone. But if that bothers someone, I can see no reason why they couldn’t give twice as much if they desired.” (How to Manage Your Money, 9/15/90, p. 3) I agree with that.
J. C. O’Hair On Tithing
One final thing. What about the theological issue of Law versus Grace? Let me quote from a noted dispensational theologian who also happened to be the second pastor of this church, Dr. J. C. O’Hair:
As to how much any New Testament saint should give, no specific amount is laid down. And to say “tithe”might tend to make a legalist out of the Christian, which is contrary to the will of God. But surely no consecrated Christian will give any less than Israel was required to give under the law. (The Christian Life, p. 78)
I agree with that. Surely no consecrated Christian will want to give less under grace than the Jews gave under law.
So I conclude by saying I think the tithe is the most accurate guide for Christian giving. It is the beginning point for Christian giving. But I do not want anyone here to feel under a burden. The tithe is meant to be a blessing, not a straitjacket. If you hear what I’m saying and you feel under pressure, it would be better for you to give one percent with joy than 10 percent under duress. Give the one percent and let God speak to your heart. You are free in Jesus Christ to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit.
My Personal Testimony
I can only add my personal testimony at this point and say that 16 years ago, when we got married, Marlene and I decided to tithe. Back then we just making a few hundred dollars a month. It was very little. Things were tight and I was in seminary. Marlene was working to help put me through school. Over the years we’ve had some difficult times financially and physically and every other way. But we have tithed all the way through every part of our mar-riage and I’m so glad we have. If I could get that money back, if you could roll it here in a wheelbarrow and say, “Pastor Ray, here is all the money you’ve given over the years,” I’d say, “Take it away. That’s not my money. I gave that to God years ago.”
After I preached this sermon in the first service, Dr. and Mrs. Hemwall came up to speak to me. Mrs. Hemwall shook my hand and said, “I’m so glad we learned about tithing before we got married.” Then Dr. Hemwall said, “Pastor, I learned what you were preaching about 60 years ago. Billy McCarroll used to preach that same message 60 years ago. I am so glad I learned it back then. I’ve been tithing ever since and God has always taken care of us.”
I rest my case.
A Place To Begin
Two words of application and I am done. First, I want you to do some homework. You do not have to believe what I have said in this sermon just because I said it. You don’t have to follow my teaching just because I’m your pastor. After all, it’s your money I’m talking about. That’s way too important to take my word for it.
I want you to read the Bible and ask God, “Is this your will for me?” You need to come to your own conclusions on this crucial issue.
Second, I want to invite you to take “the 90 Day Tithing Challenge.” Here’s how it works. For the next 90 days, you commit to giving at least one-tenth of your income to the Lord. At the end of 90 days, you can either continue tithing or you can stop. It’s as simple as that. You’ll never know whether tithing works for you until you try it.
Why not practice tithing for 90 days and see if God will not bless you the way he said he would. I’m not promising you more money or a new car or anything like that. I can’t guarantee you’ll get a raise or that all your bills will be paid. But I do believe that God will bless you beyond your expectations if you dare to take a step of faith in the area of giving.
If at the end of the 90 days you don’t like it, you feel pressure, you’re going broke, you don’t think it works and you think God hasn’t keep his word to you, then just stop tithing. Just go back to whatever giving pattern you are fol-lowing right now.
I am that sure that God will keep his word to you. But first things first. Take your Bible and check me out. Make sure I’ve told the truth in this sermon. Once you are sure about that, why not take the 90 Day Tithing Challenge? You have nothing to lose, and if God’s word is true, you have everything to gain. Put God to the test and see what happens when you make him the Lord of your pocketbook.