Why I changed my mind on tithing

I changed my mind yesterday about something, something I had long held to, taught, and encouraged others in. Fear not, I’m not jumping off the wagon on a lot of things. There are some things I’m firmly entrenched in that you’d be hard pressed to change me on: the exclusivity of Christ, marriage permanence, complementarian gender roles, loyalty to my wife and son, my allegiance to the University of Louisville, Baptist convictions, and my disdain for sour cream, ranch dressing, and tomatoes. Beyond that, I can be fairly flexible, and have changed my mind on a number of things! Here’s a little context:

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When I first became a Christian I noticed that the offering plate would pass by and people would, or in many cases would not, put money in. I asked my friend who’d led me to Christ what all that meant, and he explained that the offering was how the church stayed functional, how we supported missionaries, and provided for many ministries within the church and community. Sounds good, how much does it cost? He explained the Bible talking about a tithe, or the need to give to God 10% of your income. So I began the process of regularly (though not every time, I was good at justifying disobedience still!) giving from my slightly-above-minimum-wage jobs.

Later on, as I became more a committed student of the Word, I noticed something missing from the Pauline letters to the new churches: any teaching on a tithe. I had read and heard that because of this, the logic followed that the New Testament church is no longer under the binding of the tithe, but under a new ethic of giving. A professor I had described it as “cheerful, sacrificial, and regular giving.” Paul even seemed to encourage this in 2 Corinthians 9:7 where he says “each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”  Not that grace was to become license for a Scrooge mindset, but that grace should free the Christian to joyful giving that was both generous and free. 

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So that became what I taught others, but I still used the idea of the tithe as a helpful barometer for giving for a couple reasons. 1) It’s easy math (just shave the last figure), 2) It is a biblical principle, 3) The New Testament ethic of giving ought to be at least as generous as the Old Testament, 4) Christians should be marked by their generous and sacrificial giving. Ultimately, the amount given was between the believer’s conscience and the Holy Spirit, but that God was satisfied with the Christian as long as they were following the ethic of cheerful, sacrificial, and regular giving. 

Fast forward to this past weekend. Our pastor preached on tithing, looking at Malachi 3 as the basis for his sermon. He even specifically mentioned those who would hold to a view that the New Testament precludes tithing for the Church. I must admit, I clenched up ready to come up with some points to make to push back. He and I have the kind of relationship where we’re free to disagree with one another, and have good conversations about those kinds of things. I love it. I miss sometimes the give-and-take that comes from those kinds of discussions.

Particularly to answer the objection, Matt pointed out two examples from the Old Testament that predate the Law. One of the central points to my objection to the tithe had been that it was a standard of the Law (cf. Lev 27:30, Num 18:26, Deut 14:22, etc.), and that because Christians were free from the binding of the Law to a new law, the law of conscience & grace, the cultic prescriptions for the tithe (among other things, like atonement sacrifices and other thing), were no longer necessary. He pointed out Genesis 14 where Abram gives Melchizedek a tithe of his wealth as a free offering out of gratitude for the work of God, and Genesis 28 where Jacob gives a tenth to the Lord because of God’s work in his life. Both of these instances predate the giving of the Law and describe the practice of tithing as an act of worship for believers.

Also, Jesus’ teaching on money never contradicted the tithe, but instead the attitude behind it. He chastised the Pharisees for tithing their spices but neglecting the central issues of grace, faith, and compassion (cf. Matt 23:23 & Luke 11:42). The issue for Jesus was not in the careful keeping of the accounting, but the arrogance involved in the giving. For Jesus, the practice of tithing was expected, and He was faithful to bring to the Temple what was necessary (Gal 4:4) as prescribed by the Law. If it was something He sought to undo, we should expect something in the canon about that. Instead, we see Jesus’ ethic of giving still reflecting the tithe, but looking also to the heart of the giver. 

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To be honest, in the pew it caused quite a bit of dissonance. I’m not one to be easily swayed, but in that moment I recognized one of my pillars coming down in a crash of inconsistency. I have long held that church leaders (pastors, deacons, Sunday school teachers, etc.) should be expected to be regular givers, and if not they ought to be disqualified from leadership because of their faithlessness to God’s leadership. I had used the tithe as a benchmark for that. I had taught it as a “sound principle” but I was unwilling to be completely consistent and say that tithing was normative for all Christians. And it was at that moment I realized I was going to have to undergo a paradigm shift.

This morning, here is a quick run-down of my new thoughts on the issue of tithing as it applies to New Testament Christians:

  1. Tithing is the beginning point for Christians to give towards ministry. This is not a “good enough” position, instead it ought to become the priority for Christians to increase their giving as God provides and molds the heart to greater Christlikeness.
  2. A Christian’s giving reflects their priorities in life. One who seeks to be faithful to be generous towards ministry re-aligns their budget in order to free up money to be given.
  3. As God leads, Christians should seek ways to be more generous with their money beyond their regular giving. These avenues for giving should be trustworthy groups who have a track record of responsible stewardship, and are actively committed to the Gospel.
  4. Tithing is a regular spiritual discipline, not something to be done when you reach a career or other benchmark. Teaching teenagers to tithe off their babysitting or burger-flipping money now leads to adults who are faithful to give.
  5. The condition of the heart is just as important as the amount, giving provides a regular check-up for the Christian to diagnose their heart. When the plate is passed, it provides an opportunity to discern where the heart is: focused on God or focused on the check.
  6. Cheerful giving is not an excuse to be cheap. If anything, Christians should have more of a desire to give their money away because the missions/ministries they support are seeking to make disciples of all nations (Matt 28:20, Psalm 67)

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HT: Matt Ellis

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