The Christian Privilege And Duty Of Tithing

About a year ago, I was in London serving as the assistant pastor of the New Life B-P Church. One day, on my way back to the church, I notice a large crowd milling around in the compound of a church building not too far away from us. Curious, I look for a banner to see what the occasion was, and quickly discovered that it was a food and fun fair organised by the church for fund raising purposes. Not too long after that I received a letter from the London films commission to ask if we would like to earn some extra income by renting out our church sanctuary for location filming. And, around the same time, I received a call from a lady asking if we would be interested to rent out one of our halls for yoga classes.

These are just some of the many seemingly innocent ways in which a church in London (or elsewhere) may raise funds in order to support her programmes. Church fund raising committees often spend much time to decide what is the best approach as well as to plan the events. Some of these approaches can indeed be very lucrative, not to mention giving every member in the church opportunities to ‘serve’.

Nevertheless, as believers desiring to please God, the question we must ask is not whether it is lucrative, or whether it provides the members of the church with a sense of belonging and contribution; but whether there is a biblical basis for them. Particularly, we must firstly ask whether there is a basis for the Lord’s work to be supported by funds from unbelievers; and secondly, we must ask whether the Scripture gives us any guideline or instruction on how funds for the church must be raised.

When we turn to the Scriptures, we will notice that every time the Scripture refers to anything close to church building work, the funds or materials would be raised from the people of God, i.e. the members of the church. For example, when the tabernacle was about to be built, the Lord instructed Moses "Speak unto the children of Israel, that they bring me an offering: of every man that giveth it willingly with his heart ye shall take my offering" (Ex 25:2). When Ezra was preparing to rebuilt the temple, we again read that it was the Jews who contributed the materials (Ezr 1:5-6; 2: 68-69). In fact, when they came to the actual work of rebuilding, the Samaritans and non-Jews were not allowed to participate though they requested to be of help (Ezr 4:2-3). The statement by Zerubbabel to this effect is instructive: "Ye have nothing to do with us to build an house unto our God; but we ourselves together will build unto the LORD God of Israel" (Ezr 4:3).

The Lord’s instruction in Exodus 25 and Zerubbabel’s prohibition in Ezra 4 gives us the two major principle of fund raising in the Church: Firstly, the funds must come from willing hearts constrained to give to the cause and to give without any props or enticement. The people are to give it as an offering to the Lord, out of love for the Lord. The Lord did not instruct Moses to give the people any incentive nor did He propose a carnival for fund-raising. Anything collected for any reason other than devotion to God would be tainted with impure motives and hence unsuitable for the work of the Lord. This principle is reiterated by the Apostle Paul when he tells us that anyone who gives to the Lord’s work must do so "not grudgingly, or of necessity: for God loveth a cheerful giver" (2 Cor 9:7). Secondly, it is clear that the support should come from the people of God, not unbelievers. How could unbelievers give out of love for the Lord? Thus again, Paul insists: "Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship [partnership] hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?" (2 Cor 6:14). This passage, we must remember, is not primarily about marriage, but about partnership in the work of the Lord.

With these two principles in mind, may I propose that the Scripture sanctions, nay commands, that the work of the Lord must be primarily supported by tithes and free will offerings from God’s people. I sayprimarily, not because I believe it is permissible to have a concert to raise additional funds, but because I do not think we need to be fastidious if it happens that some of the funds come from unbelievers who give when the offering bag is passed because they feel uncomfortable to be the odd ones out. Similarly, a church must not engage in profit making business to support the work, but if the church owns a building which incidentally appreciates in price after a number of years, and the church sells it to buy another, I do not think it is improper.

Now, an offering refers either to the act of giving, or to what is given unto the Lord, whether spontaneously or planned. A tithe simply means a tenth, and so, customarily tithing refers to the systematic giving of atenth of one’s substance or income unto the Lord.

While hardly anyone would dispute that Christians must offer unto the Lord of their substance; tithing, on the other hand, is frequently viewed not only as draconian and contrary to the principle of uncompelled giving; but as a Jewish practice that is completely abrogated in the Gospel dispensation.

The first objection is easily answered when we consider that every commandment of God is to be obey out of love for the Lord: "If ye love me, keep my commandments" (Jn 14:15). To the second objection, we must insist that the practice of tithing was not instituted by Moses, and so it is not abrogated completely with the ceremonial system. It existed even before Moses, and was practised either according to the dictates of the light of nature (cf. Rom 2:14) or as an ordinance of God, instituted at creation, and passed down verbally. We read the first clear reference of tithing in Gen 14:20 where Abraham gave "tithes of all" to Melchizedek, king of Salem. The writer of Hebrews, referring to this incident, suggests that Melchizedek was a type of Christ, and argues that because Abraham paid tithes to him, even before Levi was born (and so Abraham tithed on behalf of Levi and his descendants), that the Melchizedic Priesthood is of a higher order than that of the Levitical or Aaronic Priesthood (Heb 7:1-10). This comparison suggests to us that though tithing was enforced by law under the Mosaic system, it was practised as an ordinance even before that. This gives rise to two implications: firstly, tithing is an ordinance not solely for the Jewish people (Abraham practised it, "being yet uncircumcised" – Rom 4:12); and secondly, though the Mosaic regulations pertaining to tithes (e.g. Lev 27:30ff; Num 18:26, 28; Deut 12:6-11; 14:22-29) have passed away as shadows and types together with the Levitical Priesthood, the principle of tithing remains.

What is this principle of tithing? It is really the principle of stewardship. It is the principle that all we have belongs to God who has placed them under our stewardship; and therefore, we are always to return a portion of our substance to Him as part of our privilege of worship and service. David understood this principle clearly when he prayed on behalf of his people: "But who am I, and what is my people, that we should be able to offer so willingly after this sort? for all things come of Thee, and of Thine own have we given Thee" (1Chr 29:14). When we understand this principle we will understand why the Lord commended the widow who gave her two mites, rather than the rich men who were probably paying their tithes to the letter. "This poor widow hath cast in more than they all" says our Lord, for "of her penury" (extreme poverty), she "hath cast in all the living that she had" (Lk 21:3-4). The poor widow obviously understood that all she had belonged to the Lord. Thus she reverently returned all to Him, though she could have kept a mite for herself, if she wanted to obey the law strictly. The rich men, on the other hand, probably had the attitude that they were fulfilling their duty of giving a tenth of what they had to the Lord. So then, instead of complaining that tithing is legalism, the principle of tithing teaches us that we should rather consider retaining only what is necessary for our own subsistence and returning the rest to the Lord.

But what about the 10% recommended in the Old Testament? May I suggest that that is a minimal recommended proportion necessarily imposed for the enforcement of the civil laws pertaining tithing under the old economy. Anyone who failed to return a tenth, was considered to have robbed God (Mal 3:9-10). Even so, we must realise that the Israelites did not just give 10%. In fact, they actually gave two tithes. The first tithe was given to the Levites who dwelt with them and taught them the law (Num 18:24; cf. Deut 14:27); the second tithe was brought to the temple or tabernacle (Deut 14:22-26). In addition to that, any sin offering and free-will offerings were taken from what remained after the two tithes.

So then, we should not be asking, "is 10% still applicable?" or "should I give 10% of my net or gross income?" Yes, some may consider 10% to be a reasonable minimum guideline, but we must be careful not to approach tithing with a legal mindset that we have done our duty once we have given a tenth of our income—be it gross or net. Rather, as the Lord has prospered us (1Cor 16:2), we ought to purpose in our hearts to give, and to give bountifully, cheerfully and not grudgingly: "for God loveth a cheerful giver" (2Cor 9:6-7). How are we to give? Paul suggests that we are to give by setting aside a sum each week, presumably to be collected together when the congregation is assembled each Lord’s Day (1 Cor 16:2). This means that it would not do for us to set up an inter-bank giro to transfer funds to the church account, and then conveniently forget about it thereafter. Let us, rather, give personally and prayerfully when the offering is collected each Lord’s Day. And what a tremendous privilege it is to give, for Paul reminds us that when we do so, we participate in the work of the Gospel (1Cor 9:14, 23; 2Cor 9:8).

Beloved, are you faithfully exercising the stewardship of the riches that God has apportioned to you? Are you returning to the Lord purposefully, systematically and worshipfully? Forget not your duty of stewardship (see 1Tim 6:17-19). The Lord promised: "Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in mine house, and prove me now herewith, saith the LORD of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it" (Mal 3:10). Are you poor? Neglect not your privilege of stewardship. Never mind, that your two mites be too insignificant, the Lord does not look at the smallness of your mites, but the largeness of your heart. May the Lord grant us that we may learn to return to Him in grateful response to Him for His love toward us and or redeeming us from sin and misery both now and forevermore. Amen.