This post is the third in a series of posts that started with The Talent Potential, where we asked how should Christians evaluate their management of all that God has entrusted to them. After all, Proverbs (14:15) tells us that “the shrewd person discerns his steps”.
In the last post (The Tithing Hypothesis (Part 1)) we wrestled with the question:
Does the tithe (10%) of the Mosaic Law have any applicability to the NT church?
If by applicable we mean, a mandated amount that must be given by a disciple then the answer is no. The amount of our giving is not based on a “command” (2 Cor 8:7-8).
But, that does not mean that the tithe has no applicability to the NT church. As we study the Scriptures we find that, the tithe (giving 10%) is the guiding principle by which disciples of Christ should measure their giving.
At this point you might be ready to accuse me of being legalistic.
Legalism is only rightly applied when one is adding requirements to possessing eternal life beyond the condition of faith in Christ that God as sovereign has set. I am not advocating that our giving, no matter the amount, is a work that saves (1 Cor 13:3). And although failing to tithe under the Law was a sin (Neh 13:10-14; Mal 3:8-10), it is unlikely that it should be considered so under the New Covenant since it is no longer a command but something to be done voluntarily, eagerly, cheerfully, and generously (2 Cor 8:3, 11; 9:6-11).
Remember, the question we started with was how should a disciple evaluate their giving. The goal is to be able to assess whether one is living in such a way that they will hear “well done” from our Savior. And as we study the Scriptures we find that 10% is a reasonable benchmark.
Giving 10% is the guiding principle by which disciples of Christ should measure their giving
In order to understand why, we have to recognize that there is a giving principle that exists under the Mosaic Law and the New Covenant. Our giving should be based on what we are given (1 Cor 16:2; 2 Cor 8:12).
So the disciples, each in accordance with his financial ability, decided to send relief to the brothers living in Judea. (Acts 11:29)
This principle can be added to two other timeless principles that were covered in the last post:
- Our giving is one of many fruits or evidences of a mature disciple walking as their Master walked.
- The purposes of financial giving that existed under the Mosaic Law still exist under the New Covenant.
The question we must answer is what does it mean to give “in accordance with our financial ability” under the New Covenant (Acts 11:29; 2 Cor 8:3)?
The first thing we need to understand is that the tithe (giving of 10%) is a principle that did not just exist under the Mosaic Law. Prior to the giving of the Law, Abraham tithed to Melchizedek (Gen 14:17-20) out of the spoils of war. According to the account Abraham gave voluntarily and eagerly and without being asked or commanded. It was to give glory to God who is “possessor of heaven and earth” and whom he acknowledges helped him achieve the victory (14:20,22-23). In giving to the Priest of God Most High, Abram was also acknowledging one who was greater than he was (Heb 7:4-10). Exactly who Melchizedek, the king and priest, was is a challenging study, but he is clearly considered a forerunner of the Messiah (Psalm 110:4; Heb 5:8-10; 7:1-3).
There are numerous questions that arise. Why did Abraham give 10% of the spoils and not more or less? Was he just following the customs of the Ancient Near East? What did Melchizedek do with the offering? Did Abraham ever tithe from his other income? It is difficult to answer many of these questions with anything more than speculation. The main point is that the tithe existed before the Law and was given in connection to giving God glory and thanks.
This number appears again when Jacob, after his dream, promises to tithe to God (Gen 28:18-22). Was Jacob, who had just been told that the blessings of the Abrahamic Covenant would continue to flow through him and his lineage and that he would return to the land, giving God thanks (28:13-15)? Was this a worshipful response to the fear inducing encounter (28:16-17)? Or was Jacob just trying to bargain with God to “entice” Him to keep the promises He had just made? Similar questions popup with this account. Why this amount? Was this a pattern set by Abraham? Did Jacob ever fulfill this vow? And to whom would he give his offering too if he did? However, one wrestles with this text, the main point is that Jacob offered a tithe prior to the giving of the Law.
As we have seen, the giving of 10% was a guiding principle before the Law and a command under the Law. But since we are no longer under the Law what more can be said. Is this percentage what is meant when we are asked to give “in accordance with our financial ability”?
In explaining the Law in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:17-20), Jesus tells us that He did not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it. Yet we also know that the Law is obsolete and non-binding under the New Covenant (Heb 8:13). As we look at the rest of the sermon, Jesus is teaching us that the law of love is what matters (James 2:8). The greatest commands, which form the basis for everything else in the Law, are to love God and to love others (Matt 22:36-40).
We see this as Jesus tackles the provisions in the Law for murder, adultery, divorce, oaths, and dealing with our enemies. In each case Jesus turns the focus away from an external keeping of commands to the heart. Don’t hate. Don’t lust. Love those who will not love you back. One can’t help but be convicted reading through these passages.
When Jesus again deals with divorce (Matt 19:1-12), he is challenged by some Pharisees. They contend that the Law allows divorce under looser conditions than Jesus was. This is likely a response to Jesus’ sermon (5:31-32) which had limited the conditions. During the debate, Jesus tells them:
Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because of your hard hearts, but from the beginning it was not this way.
Jesus is saying, look, you don’t know how to love your spouse so the provisions for divorce were broad but now, there is a New Covenant and they are going to be limited. While Jesus is talking about divorce here, it is reasonable to apply this principle more broadly. The provisions under the Law were given because we have hard hearts. It is this principle that Jesus was unpacking during the Sermon on the Mount.
If we were to apply this to giving then we might say: Moses told you to give 10% because of your hard hearts, knowing that you would give less and ignore the priests/ministers and the poor. Something that actually happened even with the Law (Mal 3:8-10).
Since Jesus took the provisions of the Law and expanded them in other areas, it seems reasonable to conclude that this applies to giving as well. We are no longer under compulsion, but should give voluntarily, eagerly, and generously seeking to do good to others.
If the proportion of 10% was given because God knew we would not know how to give, it seems clear that this is a good baseline upon which we should evaluate our own giving.
The principle of giving 10% is a wise guiding principle for all disciples. If we are not currently giving near this level than we should assess why not. What changes should be considered to make that kind of giving possible. Our true goal should be to become generous disciples seeking to surpass even this guideline (2 Cor 8:3).
Using the tithe as a guideline does have “dangers”. Those who could give more can easily lapse into a mindset that they have done enough after giving 10%. Others can wrongly assume they are spiritually mature based on their giving when they in actuality are not. Giving can always be done with all of the wrong motives. The Pharisees tithed but were guilty of these things (Matt 23:23; Matt 6:1-4).
I will close this series with this. Whenever we are thinking about our giving we are wise to keep Paul’s words in the forefront of our thinking (1 Cor 13:3):
If I give away everything I own, … in order to boast, but do not have love, I receive no benefit.
If you disagree with the principle of giving 10% then I would like to hear from you. What would consider a good guide for a disciple of Christ to use?
all Scripture quoted from the NET Bible