Must the Christian give ten percent (or more) of their income in these bad economic times? If so, where does the Bible teach this? If not, why do so many believers and church leaders today maintain one must give at least ten percent? Just how much should a Christian give to a church or ministry? More importantly, what exactly does the Bible teach about our relationship to material wealth and worldly possessions? This post is intended to provoke our thinking on these issues and, where necessary, offer corrections guided by Scripture. The scope is general in nature and is not intended to offer a full theology on stewardship.
In this first offering, I will focus primarily upon some evidence from the Old Testament. Part 2 (posted tomorrow) will turn our attention on some important New Testament teachings.
First of all, it’s significant to note that the Bible has far more to say about our relationship to material wealth than about our use of it (1 Tim. 6:10). One can have no money and still love it excessively, with the result that it holds first place in life (Matt. 6:24). Nevertheless, there is a connection between how we use our possessions and how closely we hold them in our heart. Jesus says it best, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:21, all quotations are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise specified). Deuteronomy 8:11-18 teaches us that our material wealth can become such a focus that we end up ignoring God or even displacing him for the things of this world (see also, Job 31:24-28). This is a sober reminder that wealth can cause us to forget that God is behind all that we own.
The old Preacher of Ecclesiastes insists that all we have is a gift from God (2:24-26; 5:18-20). To consider possessions as exclusively ours rather than a gift of God is equivalent to stealing from God, according to Malachi 3:8-10. We must rightly view our wealth as coming from God and not confuse the Giver with the gifts, since everything belongs to God (Haggai 2:8). An inherent problem arises not with having possessions but in our failure to view them as having limited worth and value (1 Tim. 6:10). Conversely, feeling a sense of pride for not having wealth and possessions is equally problematic. Poverty can harden one’s heart rather than incline us toward trusting in God. In addition, poverty could generate envy of the affluent (Ps 73:3). Hence, worldly denial is just as much a concern as worldly indulgence and neither is biblically approved (Prov. 30:8-9).
Since our relationship to wealth is paramount, what is the believer’s responsibility with wealth? Deuteronomy 15:7-8 states that when others around us are in need and we’re able to meet that need, we have a responsibility to do so. In fact, the poor will always be with us, which calls for a “consistent open hand” (Kaiser, Toward Old Testament Ethics, p. 212). Amos strongly condemns the rich for taking advantage of rather than taking care of the needy (Amos 2:6; 5:11; 6:4-6). Likewise, Paul tells Timothy to instruct the rich to be generous in sharing (1 Tim. 6:17-19).
Giving in the Old Testament
What does the Old Testament teach about giving? The first offering in the Old Testament was Cain and Abel’s sacrifice, which was a freewill offering. Scripture does not indicate God commanded them to do this (Gen. 4:3). In Gen. 8 Noah freely and spontaneously responded to God’s provision in causing the flood waters to recede with an offering of thanksgiving (Gen. 8:20). Again, Scripture does not intimate God commanded Noah.
Those who insist Christians must give ten percent often say that Abraham and Jacob vowed to give a tenth in response to God’s activity (Gen. 14:20; 28:22). However, both acts of giving were done prior to the institution of the Mosaic Law. Therefore, it’s highly likely that both acts were voluntary rather than obligatory. A tenth was a common number that symbolized the whole (“10” being a common unit representing completion). Giving a tenth was viewed as giving one’s all. Israel was not the first nation to practice tithing and it was a common practice in pagan religions of Abraham’s day. Egypt, Syria, Babylon, and Assyria were known to have “tithed” a portion of their produce, property, or currency (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, p. 861). Perhaps this is why Abraham was quick to show appreciation to God for granting him a recent victory in war before the presence of Melchizedek, a priest of the God Most High (Gen. 14:20). This offering by Abraham was done voluntarily and there is no hint that he was commanded by God.
Since Moses and the giving of the Law, tithing became a required amount until the time of Jesus. Leviticus 27:30 specifies one tenth of all proceeds (animals and produce) shall go to support the temple and its assistants, the Levites (see Numbers 18 for details). Israel’s theocratic law was administered by the Levitical priesthood whose responsibilities were a full-time job where their financial support was provided through the “tithe.”
Deuteronomy 12 (vv. 10-11, 17-18) mentions an additional tithe. This ten percent was required to inspire corporate worship and devotion to God at a set location (Jerusalem). Whereas the first tithe supported the local government and religious leaders, this tithe supported community sharing in worship during a national feast (Deut. 12:18-19).
Another offering was required, according to Deuteronomy 14:28, to stabilize the economy by taking care of the less fortunate (14:29) – an Old Testament welfare program. Occurring every 3 years, this amount was equal to approximately 3 percent annually, which brings the total tithe to about 23 percent. The three obligatory tithes (priests and government, national feast, and welfare) were not optional tithes for the Israelites but mandatory.
Leviticus 19:9-10 indicates that another offering was intended to provide for the poor in the land by insisting that Israel not glean to the edge of their fields. Every seventh year Israel had to give the land a rest, essentially forfeiting an entire year’s profits, and canceling all debts from their debtors. So, the Jew gave upwards of 25-30 percent annually!
Finally, there are the freewill, voluntary offerings in the Old Testament (Exodus 35:29; Leviticus 22:18; Deuteronomy 16:10). These were meant to encourage faith by trusting God to supply the remaining needs for the year. Freewill offerings were to be the “firstfruits” of harvest. When the first crops arrived, an unspecified portion was sacrificed to God before the entire crop was harvested. By doing so, the Israelite was trusting God to meet his/her needs with the remainder. When we honor God with the first of what we have, he amply supplies our needs (Prov. 3:9-10).
The Old Testament teaches that tithing was really a kind of “communalism” (borrowing from personal communique with Craig Blomberg; see also Acts 4-5), taxing the masses for the greater good. Giving, on the other hand, is what the freewill offering is really about. When the heart is set on giving willingly, God is pleased with it, even when it relates to the building of a sanctuary (Exodus 25:1-8; 35:4-10; 1 Chronicles 29:1-10).
The Old Testament indicates that tithing was similar to taxation, whereas freewill giving is an unspecified amount and focuses on the heart of the giver. What does this mean for the New Testament Christian? Is the believer required to give? If so, can a specified amount be found in the New Testament? To whom or what should the believer offer their portion?
These questions are addressed in Part 2.
I’m indebted to the following works for most of these insights.
Craig L. Blomberg, Neither Poverty Nor Riches: A Biblical Theology of Possessions
Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Toward Old Testament Ethics