Can We Preach the Tithe?
Dean Shriver more from this author »
Tithing—I believe every Christian should do it. But can I preach that? Like you, I’m committed to preaching only what the Bible clearly teaches. Unfortunately, I’ve always found the Bible’s teaching about a believer’s responsibility to tithe to be fuzzy around the edges. Off the top before taxes? Off the bottom after taxes? All to the church (ours in particular!)? Off of income or off of possessions? Of course, the problem isn’t with Scripture. The problem is me.
When it comes to giving, my own preferences, opinions, and training make it hard for me to approach relevant texts with a clear and teachable mind. On the one hand, I know that the tithe is “law” and that, in Christ, we’re no longer under the Law. Still, it’s hard for me to fathom how anyone can honestly taste the sweetness of God’s grace only to turn around and “Scrooge” God by giving Him less than 10%. The very idea makes me want to raise my voice, pound my pulpit, and thump my Bible! Which is exactly why I’m not yet ready to preach that sermon on tithing. But I’m getting closer.
On a recent jog, I began to think again about the issue of tithing. It occurred to me that there’s more than one way to tithe. In fact, three distinct forms of tithing are practiced in the Bible. Only one is legitimate for the believer.
The form of tithing most often addressed in Scripture is “tithing as covenant.” This practice of tithing was specific to Israel as the covenant people of God. It was part of the Mosaic Law (Leviticus 27:30-33; Numbers 18:21-32; Deuteronomy 14:22-29). Under the Covenant, God promised to materially bless Israel for obedience and, conversely, to judge them (strip them of their prosperity) for disobedience (Deuteronomy 28 and Malachi 3:8-12).
This model for tithing has no direct relevance to us as New Testament believers. In Christ, we live under a new covenant. Our lives are not governed by the written code but by the indwelling Holy Spirit who writes His “law” on our hearts (Galatians 5:18; Hebrews 8:7-13).
The Bible also describes a second kind of tithing that is both condemnable and, I fear, far too common—“tithing as legalism.” In Jesus’ day, it was the religious leaders who practiced this perversion of Israel’s covenant tithe. Christ’s condemnation of legalistic tithing was absolute:
“Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!” (Matthew 23:23-24)
In His relationship with Israel, God intended the tithe to be an avenue to blessing. The religious manipulators of Jesus’ day turned the blessing into burden. Instead of expressing faithfulness to God—and oneness of heart with God for ministry and the poor—the tithe became little more than a means to satisfy “religious obligations.” Such satisfaction leads to pride (Luke 18:9-12) and, in the end, restricts giving. After all, once our “obligation” is satisfied, what more could God want? It’s no wonder Jesus so strongly denounces legalistic tithing.
Yet, how easily the sin of the Pharisees can become our sin, too! Effective ministry requires money—money that comes from God’s people. Believers need to give—for both their own sake and the sake of the Kingdom. Since they need to give, we need to preach about giving. When we do, however, we must be careful not to turn blessing into burden. We must refuse to preach “tithing as legalism.” So what’s the alternative?
Tithing as worship!
In Scripture, “tithing as worship” was practiced prior to both the establishment of “tithing as covenant” and the perversion of “tithing as legalism.” The principle of “tithing as worship” is “pre-Law.” It’s established in Genesis 14:17-24 where Abram gives a tenth of his plunder to Melchizedek, King of Salem. Melchizedek, in turn, blesses Abram. Hebrews 7:1-10 defines the significance of these acts, declaring that it is the superior who blesses the inferior, and the inferior who pays tithes to the superior.
“Tithing as worship,” then, is first an act by which we acknowledge that God is both our superior (the Sovereign Lord) and the source of all blessing.
But “tithing as worship” does more than acknowledge God. It expresses our personal allegiance to Him. We see this in Genesis 28:10-22. Here, God reveals Himself to Jacob in a dream. In response, the patriarch vows, “the Lord shall be my God…and of all that you give me I will give a full tenth to you.” For Jacob, the “tithe as worship” became a natural expression of his decision to follow the God of His Fathers. In the same way, the “tithe as worship” becomes an almost instinctive way for us to express our allegiance to the God of our Salvation.
A third, and critical, element of “tithing as worship” is thanksgiving. “Tithing as worship” expresses overflowing gratitude toward God. It breaks free from guilt as the motivation for giving. Its ultimate focus is the condition of one’s heart—not the percentage of one’s income.
On the topic of percentages, I find the words of John H. Walton and Andrew E. Hill to be practical. They write,
“How are we to show our gratitude to God other than by giving back a portion? If 10 percent was considered an acceptable portion by God as an expression of gratitude then, why should we view it any differently today? We might consider 10 percent as a benchmark just as we consider 15 percent a benchmark for tipping. The extent of the customer’s gratitude and appreciation is demonstrated in the size of the tip. It would be considered the ultimate rudeness or the consummate insult to leave no tip at all. So it is to God if we return no portion to Him. In addition, there are occasions when the situation calls for a contribution exceeding the benchmark.” (Old Testament Today; Zondervan: 2004, 270-271)
Again, it must be said—ultimately, “tithing as worship” isn’t about percentage of income. It’s about the overflow of one’s heart. Second Corinthians 8:5 is clear. When we first give ourselves to the Lord, any act of giving pleases Him—whether above or below the “benchmark.” “For if the readiness is there, it is acceptable according to what a person has, not according to what he does not have.” (2 Corinthians 8:12)
How, then, can we preach the tithe? First, we recognize that “tithing as covenant” has no direct relevance to New Testament believers. Second, we acknowledge that “tithing as legalism” is just plain sin—both for those who practice it and those who preach it. Only the principle of “tithing as worship” remains. That’s the tithing we can preach! “Tithing as worship” is our opportunity to acknowledge that God is God. He is ruler over our lives. He is the source of every blessing we enjoy. More than that, “tithing as worship” expresses our allegiance to God in a very personal and concrete way. And finally, “tithing as worship” manifests a heart overflowing with thanksgiving toward God.
With this in mind, perhaps we should be less concerned with whether people tithe and more concerned with why they tithe. Ultimately, tithing isn’t about percentage of income or money in the plate. It’s about worship!
Tithing as worship—I think that will preach!