Giving back to God out of our increase is a subject that has been confounded in the Western Church, whether because of financial idolatry or individualism or some other cultural distortion. The word “tithe” in the authoritative sense is outmoded, since it refers to the Old Testament practice of setting aside a tenth of the harvest for God’s work. However, the word has come to mean gifts to the Church for the purpose of supporting its operation, and the Old Testament guidelines are still observed by many people and churches.
The entire subject of giving to the Church is something of a gray area in Scripture, but most people would agree that it is a noble act of obedience and a test of faith—a fundamental part of the mature Christian character. There can be little doubt that generosity is necessary for the church and society. Few people would question the social and spiritual benefits of philanthropy, both for the receiver and the giver. Still, the question begs: Does God command us to give? And if He does, are we required to give 10 percent of our gross income, as some churches teach? Such is the obfuscation we encounter in the modern Church. It seems as though many Christian leaders, either explicitly or by implication, go beyond scriptural guidelines by teaching that we are obligated to tithe in the traditional sense.
In His strongest statement about tithing, Jesus says to the Pharisees, “You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter without neglecting the former” (Matt. 23:23). The statement isn’t exactly clear, especially since Jesus may have been commenting on their duty under Mosaic Law. Writers of the New Testament stop short of commanding us to tithe. Paul instructs the Corinthians, “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” (1 Cor. 16:2). This is not a straightforward command. Paul is responding to the Corinthians’ earlier inquiry about how to handle the collection for God’s people, so the instruction can be understood as a directive to those who have already decided to give an offering, not necessarily to all Christians. Furthermore, Paul makes no statement about what is proper with regard to the percentage of income that should be given. In another passage, Paul extols the practice of giving, praises the Macedonians for extravagant generosity and promises blessings for those who follow suit. After strongly encouraging the Corinthians to give, however, Paul clarifies, “I am not commanding you, but I want to test the sincerity of your love” (2 Cor. 8:8).
Surely if God had intended for us to infer that giving is a categorical duty, the Bible would be clearer on the issue. Perhaps God wanted to leave room for spontaneous acts of love. Nevertheless, Christian leaders describe it as an obligation so often that it is usually accepted as fact. No doubt this occurs for a variety of reasons: failure to carefully scrutinize God’s Word; fear that, in the absence of a strict command, people’s base natures may leave churches without necessary operating funds; a desire to “help” Christian laypeople do the right thing by applying extra pressure; or simple, good old-fashioned greed.
I have witnessed every imaginable extreme in the matter of the administration of collections. The worst offenders are the television preachers who promise great financial windfalls to those who abandon all practical considerations and send huge checks to them. Not so offensive (but a bit cloying just the same) is the increasingly popular practice of reading pointed Scriptures and testimonies to the congregation, strategically presented just before the pastor sends out hordes of ushers with the velvet bags. I once visited a church that had incorporated a special liturgy into its services. As they read the short paragraph about tithing that was displayed on the overhead monitors, the congregation joined in a collective utterance declaring their promise of obedience in the matter of giving.
The ubiquitous approach to collections is to simply announce the offering and pass collection plates around the pews while the organist plays. Intentional or otherwise, this method of collection makes each individual’s private decision a matter of casual public observation (though the amount of the gift isn’t always disclosed). This last approach seems to have the strength of scriptural precedent (1 Cor. 16:2) and, deliberately or otherwise, imposes a powerful social pressure to give. The practice of passing collection plates doesn’t offend me, but when I watch it happening, I am often reminded of an old Beetle Bailey cartoon in which the chaplain is thanking Sargeant Snorkel for volunteering to take the collection plate around during the chapel service. Then the chaplain adds, “But next time, please don’t tell them to ‘fork it over.’”
On the far end of the spectrum, out of the scores of churches I have visited over the years, I have encountered only one church that possessed the sensitivity to leave the individual to his own conscience. It was Parkside Church of Anchorage, Alaska. The people of Parkside did not read tithing Scriptures or pass plates. Instead, at the back of the sanctuary, there were two wooden boxes on poles with slots in them, one on each side of the sanctuary. On the front of each box was displayed the Scripture: “God loves a cheerful giver.” That was it. When I saw those boxes, my heart swelled in admiration of their gentleness and faith.
Misconceptions abound on the subject of tithing, and we have produced them for reasons that are often honorable. There is temptation enough for a leader to give his flock a little extra-biblical nudge when issues of general morality are discussed. But with tithing, the behavior of the congregation has far-reaching ramifications. At stake are not only each church member’s personal morality, but corporate character in the broader Christian community, the health of benevolence and missions program funds, the survival of the individual church and the pastor’s own salary. The good in each of these scenarios seems to stand in opposition to the “good” most individuals desire for themselves, in spite of their better aspirations. It’s not surprising, then, that Christian leaders would take a hard line on tithing, and the position is somewhat justifiable. However, many leaders specifically state that Christians are required to give the tenth that was mandated under Mosaic Law, and some even insist that the tenth is to be extracted from the firstfruits, meaning that we are to tithe on our gross, not our net, incomes. Both the specific percentage and the concept of firstfruits are strictly Old Testament mandates; neither guideline is mentioned in the New Testament. In fact, the word tithe (derived from the Hebrew word maser, meaning “a tenth,” or “setting aside a tenth”) isn’t used in the New Testament. Instead, NT writers use the words giving, gifts, offerings and generosity.
Ironically, by trying to sharpen the scriptural impetus to give, we have probably succeeded in weakening it. It’s not going to take long for the assiduous Bible-reading layman to discover that someone has taken liberty with the Scriptures. If we distort Scripture in the direction of strictness, we’re still destabilizing its integrity, which gives unspoken assent to distortion in the permissive direction as well. Moreover, this popular peremptory interpretation effectively razes the proactive spirit in which NT writers extolled the benefits of giving. The Law is beautiful when it comes to us in the light of God’s rewards. When the Law functions as a set of manacles, most of us just want out.
I suspect that God intended for us to have some freedom of choice in our decisions about giving. When giving (or the amount of the gift) is optional, the child of God is in the position of loving without duress. There is a simple sincerity in a gift that is given without coercion. Such gifts are more likely to spring from pure motives. The fruit of cheerful, faith-driven generosity is intimacy with God.
Many of us have heard testimonies about people who gave in reckless trust and saw God come through for them. But how many of us have done it? It’s much more sensible to say, “God understands my material needs. He doesn’t expect me to flirt with starvation in order to be generous.” However, there is plenty of room between what God requires of us and what He desires for us. Jesus had solemn praise for the woman in Luke 21 who “gave all she had to live on.” The Scripture says nothing about the result of her gift. Was she a fool? Did she go hungry that week? Or was a deposit made to her heavenly account that day, along with supernatural provision for her temporal need? Jesus answers that question when He tells us, “Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life” (Luke 18:29). Why are we so afraid to take God at His word?
When I was 20 years old and attending a conservative Assembly of God church, I took strictly to heart my pastor’s unequivocal message about tithing. I faithfully paid 10 percent on every check I earned at the Wendy’s restaurant in downtown Anchorage where I worked. One payday, I received my check and used my lunch break to run to the bank and cash it. After I returned, I bolted a burger and had just enough time left to use the restroom before returning to work.
An hour later, I realized that I was missing my wallet. I retraced my steps and realized with dismay that I must have lost it in the bathroom stall. I raced to the restroom to retrieve it, but I was certain it was long gone. An hour is more than enough time for a wallet to disappear from a public restroom on derelict-rich Fourth Avenue (Anchorage’s version of “Skid Row”). This was before the days when businesses locked their restrooms.
I got to the restroom stall and spotted my wallet sitting on top of the toilet paper dispenser. This was not necessarily good news. No doubt the wallet had fallen out of my back pocket while I was in the stall; hence, someone else had handled it since I had dropped it. Most gentle citizens would turn a lost wallet into security rather than leaving it there, so the likelihood was that whoever had picked it up had made a withdrawal from it. I snatched it up and immediately looked inside to see if the money was gone. Lo and behold, half of my pay was left in the wallet. Some person had discovered the wallet and—bizarre as it was—had tempered the urge to steal with what was apparently a measure of compassion for the poor sap (me) who had lost it. At least, that’s the only explanation I can think of. This strange blend of larceny and altruism was somehow beautiful in spite of the fact I was out the money.
The loss of pay was not insignificant. I worked six days a week, splattered with grease, often racing around like a lunatic, and I did it all for $4.25 per hour. My net pay for the previous two weeks amounted to about $250. Now I was down to $125, with a small rent to pay ($150 or $200 per month) in addition to whatever else came up. And I had a commitment to tithe, but this curious situation had produced a dilemma for me: was I still obligated to tithe on the full amount of my pay, or was it okay for me to tithe on what had been left by the hesitant thief? I don’t remember my reasoning, but I recall feeling a strong inspiration to tithe as though the theft had never occurred. Rather than feeling some heavy sense of obligation, I considered this with an attendant sense of cheerful confidence that I stood to gain something marvelous and transcendent in the bargain. So I gave the amount I had originally planned on giving. I did it without hesitation or regret, and something fairly outlandish happened: I felt absolutely no extra financial pressure over the next two weeks. I remember remarking to one of my fellow ushers at the church: “It’s just like the whole thing never happened.”
I wish I could testify that this event propelled me into a life divorced from materialism and idolatry, but it hasn’t. Self-reliance and the desire for material prosperity win out in my actions more often than I care to admit. But God isn’t finished with me yet, and for all my missteps, His voice has prevailed in spectacular ways over the years. As I recall these things, I reflect on the truth that God desires to get his children onto confident footing where they can walk with Him in trust and obedience, expecting rewards—not as payment, but as a way of experiencing God’s generous nature.