The Trouble with Tithing

trouble with tithingAs Christians we’re called upon in scripture to be generous both to our churches and to those in need. That giving is often codified into the tithe, generally interpreted to mean 10% of your income. There are many open questions in regard to tithing, including should you tithe based on gross or net income or whether or not the contribution should extend to include an equal portion of unearned income, such as capital gains.

We can spend as much time as we like debating the finer points of tithing, but perhaps the bigger question is the tithe itselfâ”are we truly required to tithe and what troubles might be involved if that’s how we believe we need to handle our giving? Troubles? What kind of troubles?

Misinterpretations, first and foremost. That we’re to be generous in our giving is beyond questionâ”the issue is whether or not that giving takes the form of a legal requirement with very specific guidelines, as the tithe is thought to represent. From that we can and often do open the door to even greater misinterpretations that take us still farther from God’s intended purpose for our giving.

What are some of the tithing misinterpretations and what troubles may they bring?


Tithing is NOT a requirement for salvation

Notice that the issue of tithing doesn’t appear in the Ten Commandments, nor does Jesus make mention of it in the Sermon on the Mount. In fact, in the New Testament, where lessons on money and giving abound, there is no command to tithe. Where tithe❠appears, it’s usually incidental to another teaching. For example, in Luke 18:10-14, Jesus seems to be taking us in quite a different direction:

Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: â˜God, I thank you that I am not like other peopleâ”robbers, evildoers, adulterersâ”or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, â˜God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.â

Clearly Jesus is telling us here that tithingâ”among other ritual actsâ”is not the key to salvation. The implication in the parable is that the tax collector didn’t titheâ”he didn’t do anything except throw himself on God’s mercyâ”and yet he went home justified before God.


We should never measure our standing before God by our giving

In prosperous cultures, there’s often a tendency to belief that money is the highest good, that we can gain access to what ever we need simply by writing a check for the proper❠amount. To a large degree that may be how things work in the world, but clearly the Kingdom of God works on different rules. From an eternal perspective it could be dangerous to assume that we’re walking with God mainly on the strength of a faithfully given tithe.

In Matthew 9:13, Jesus tells the Pharisees:

But go and learn what this means: â˜I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.â

Tithing is a form of sacrifice (giving something we value to God), but Jesus is making it clear that at a minimum, mercy is more important. This doesn’t mean that giving has no place in the life of the believerâ”it is stressed elsewhereâ”but it does mean that we have to be careful not to elevate it just because it holds a special place in the human realm.


10% may not be the right amount for everyone to give

It’s generally believed that tithing is the giving of 10% of ones income to the Church and to other Kingdom activities. But is this percentage set in Eternal concrete? For many poor and even working class people, giving 10% of their income may be an unsustainable burden. Conversely, for many of the wealthy, giving 10% would hardly qualify as sacrificial.

We have an example of this in Mark 12:41-44:

Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, â˜Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everythingâ”all she had to live on.’ â

There’s an imbalance here that Jesus highlights as a message to his disciples and to us.


The corollary: Tithing is not some sort of God Taxâ

If we come to believe that the giving of a titheâ”of 10% of our incomeâ”is a Christian obligation, then we have effectively created a tax. Now in the Old Testament, that’s exactly what the tithe was, a tax to support the clergy and even other societal functions. However that was a time when mankind was under law, not grace, and acts of obedience and obligation were part of what defined the people of God. Is that still true post-Calvary?

The problem with elevating the tithe to a tax is that no one likes to pay taxes! If we see the tithe as a requirement, then we’re unlikely to be cheerful givers❠(2 Corinthians 9:7). Is this how the God who looks at the heart (1 Samuel 16:7) wants us to give?


We will not become prosperous because we tithe

There too many hints that prosperity can be had as a result of tithing. The danger here is that we might be tempted to tithe primarily for the purpose of personal gainâ”and we know that can’t be right. The scriptural basis for the prosperity interpretation comes from Malachi 3:10:

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 there will not be room enough to store it.â

Now if we take that verse as a standalone declaration from God, the connection between tithing and prosperity is possible, but that’s not exactly what’s happeningâ”in fact that isn’t remotely what’s happening.

There are two obvious facts missing from the popular interpretation of Malachi 3:10. The first is that the verse itself is part of a chapter that deals not with the individual, but with the entire nation of Israel. As we know from the Old Testament, God is constantly trying to draw a renegade Israel back to Himself. He points out their sins and shortcomings (in this case a lack of generosity) and offers promises if they’ll repent and come back to Him. I believe that is the central teaching of Malachi 3, not any sort of promises or guarantees of personal prosperity if only we tithe according to Old Testament law.

The other point of contention is the promise, and what is it that God promises? Blessing. There’s no mention of riches! Blessings can be all kinds of things, including health, long life, large families and even favorable weather! In fact, in the very next verse, God defines some of those blessings as keeping away pests and vines that will not drop their fruit until it’s ripe.❠Now we can interpret that to mean prosperity in an agricultural society and perhaps it is, but nowhere are riches of any sort even implied.


We should never judge others by how much they give

If we consider tithing to be a command from on high, we can easily find ourselves sitting in the judgment seat, feeling superior to others who are less generous than we are. Conversely, if we aren’t able to give as much as others, we might be judged by them or even feel inferior to them.

In a twisted way, this is a process of elevating money to a higher position than it deservesâ”which itself is a form of idolatry. We have a commandâ”many of them throughout scriptureâ”to give and be generous, but when we assign a percentage benchmark we’re also creating a fixed standard by which to judge ourselves and others.


Giving can also be in the form of time and effort

Giving can be done in ways that don’t involve the transfer of money. In fact in biblical times people often had no money at all! We can give of our time and talents, and that can be even more sacrificial than writing a monthly check to the church. In Matthew 9:37 Jesus tells his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.❠Jesus wasn’t calling for moneyâ”he was calling for workers!

That’s time and talent, and anyone can give those. There is no hierarchy establishing money as the preferred way to give, and by giving directly of our time and talent we can come that much closer to fulfilling a true command that is beyond interpretation:

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.ââ”Matthew 28:19-20, The Great Commissionâ

What do you think about tithing 10% of your income? Was it an Old Testament law that no longer applies? Does it still apply today? What are your thoughtsâ”I could be all wrong about this!