A few years ago Suzanne Staline of the Wall Street Journal wrote an article called, “The Backlash Against Tithing.”[i] She noted for the Journal’s readers what Christian pastors have presumed for quite some time: giving to the church is on the decline. As these pastors seek to reverse the trend and encourage tithing to the local church, many members object. Some oppose their dollars being spent on “coffee bars and widescreen TVs.” Some take issue with the implication (or outright teaching of some) that giving convinces God to bless them materially—the so-called prosperity gospel. Still others simply aren’t convinced that tithing is biblical.
A question I’m regularly asked about giving is slightly different: “Does all our tithe have to go to our church or can I give part of it to a Christian ministry?” I love the heart behind the question. Those who ask it want to be good stewards of their wealth, they care about the local church, and they have a serious desire to bless outside ministries. Those are all great things.
Let me give my answer to this question and then share how I got there: There is a Christian responsibility to give generously to the local church and a Christian freedom to give generously outside the local church. To flesh out this answer, I need to say a word about the tithe and a word about the local church.
A Word about the Tithe
We know from several parts of the Old Testament that the tithe was a central component of Israelite worship. In Malachi 3:8-10 God’s people are scolded for withholding their “tithes and contributions.” When you add up all the giving commandments Israelite’s faced, it comes to about 25% of their yearly income. The first tithe (or tenth) went to the Levites. This priestly tribe was not given land so they depended upon the people to provide for them (Lev 27; Num 18; Neh 10). In addition, every Israelite contributed a second tithe to the yearly religious festivals (Deut 14). Another tithe was given to the needy and it was exacted every three years (Deut 14). Thus, about a quarter of their income, each year, was to be brought to the Temple for the support of the priests, the festivals and the poor.
In Malachi’s day, God rebuked Israel for its stinginess. They failed to trust God to meet their needs while they faithfully obeyed his command to give. Sadly, we can understand their failure to trust the Lord, especially in financial matters. It’s easy to forget the fact that we don’t need stuff, we need God. Psalm 20:7, “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God.” We shouldn’t be surprised to discover that sending 25% of their income away was a real act of faith for these Israelites.
When we get to the New Testament, we don’t find similar commands to tithe. In Christianity there is no Temple to support. Though we are to provide for those who teach us the Word of God (1 Tim 5:17-18) as well as for the widows (1 Tim 5:3) and poor in the body (James 2:14-17), no amount is given.
Instead, what we find in the New Testament are gospel-motivated, grace-saturated exhortations to willing, sacrificial giving:
Early believers gave sacrificially because of grace and out of joy
We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own free will, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints. (2 Cor 8:1-4)
Jesus encourages his disciples to give as evidence of faith
“Fear not, little flock, for it is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Luke 12:32-34)
Giving is to be done cheerfully with a sense of personal conviction
The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully must also reap bountifully. Each one must give as he has made up his mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. (2 Cor 9:6-8)
Anything short of sacrificial giving earns the rebuke of the Savior
Jesus looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the offering box, and he saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. “Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.” (Luke 21:1-4)
It is clear from all of these passages that the call to financial giving in the Christian’s life is not finally a call to tithe—once, twice or three times. It is a call to give materially because the Lord has given so much spiritually. Faithful and sacrificial giving to God is evidence of genuine love for God. For some budgets, a tithe may be a lavish offering. For others, a tithe is a pittance and makes a mockery of God’s grace.
A Word about the Local Church
As Christians, we are no longer called to support the construction and maintenance of the Jerusalem Temple. We are called, instead, to support the work of Jesus. The work of Jesus is the building of his church. When you give financially to a gospel-centered church you are making an investment that will bring a glorious return. Wall Street can chew up any company, but not even hell can destroy the church.
Christians are called to financially support the ministry of the local church. We see in 1 Timothy 5:18 the responsibility of congregations to financially support elders whose main duty is preaching and teaching. We know from 1 Corinthians 16 that local churches in the first century took up weekly offerings. Again, there is no command to tithe in the New Testament, simply a call to faithfully and sacrificially support the work of Jesus, the building of the church.
Ultimately, it is God alone who builds the church. And by “build” I don’t mean buildings! The work of Jesus is the gathering and going of the saints. As saints we are commanded to gather (Heb 10:25). And we gather to sit under the preached Word so that we can be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in order to walk in holiness (Col 1:9-10). But we don’t just fund the gathering of the saints. We fund their going as well. We give so that Christians have the resources they need to go and take the gospel to their neighborhoods and the nations. This is the command of Jesus and it is the central work of the church:
The mission of the church is the discipleship of the nations
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt 28:19-20)
The mission of the church will not fail
“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matt. 16:18)
The apostles knew their responsibility was to take the gospel global
“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)
Early churches shared in the responsibility of global evangelization
For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything. (1 Thess 1:8)
There is no room in the New Testament for a dismissive view of the local church. The church is God’s plan for global evangelism. A healthy church requires intentional gathering and going. Our funds (which are ultimately God’s funds) should be given for the promotion of these two goals in the context of the local church.
Where does that leave us?
As Christians we really do have a responsibility to fund the ministry of a local church. The level of giving is ultimately up to the conscience of each Christian. For most of us, in an industrialized economy, a tithe is a good place to start. But we should be part of a church where we would be pleased for 90 percent of our income (should the Lord so bless us!) to be given to the gathering and going of that particular group of saints.
Finally, as Christians we really do have the freedom to fund ministries outside the local church, too. Praise God if you can directly support gospel-centered Christian work in addition to your financing of a local church.
Aaron Menikoff (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is Senior Pastor of Mt. Vernon Baptist Church in Atlanta, GA. He blogs at "Free to Serve" and is the author of Politics and Piety (Pickwick).
[i]Suzanne Staline, “The Backlash Against Tithing: As Churches Push Donations, Congregations Balk; ‘That’s Not the Way God Works,” The Wall Street Journal, (23 Nov 20117). Found at http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB119576921737201375.