How Much Should Christians Give: a Tithe?

This is the second in a series of posts considering if it is possible to quantify how much Christians should give.

When I was a new convert, my church gave me a simple, straightforward answer to the question of how much I should give.  Unlike the IRS, God’s demands were clear:  10% to my local church.  Furthermore, if I was faithful to pay this Divine Flat Tax, abundant blessings, financial and otherwise, were sure to come my way.

My experience is not unique.  Tithing to one’s place of worship “because the Bible says so” is the cornerstone of many pastors’ teaching on financial stewardship.  While I deeply appreciate leaders who are willing to tackle the challenging issue of money, I no longer believe the discussion ends with the tithe.  To see why, let’s begin with an “executive summary” of the biblical teaching about tithing.  Most scholars agree that in the Old Testament not just one but three tithes were required:

  • The first tithe was intended to support the Levites, who led Israel in worship.  The tribe of Levi did not receive any land on which to farm, so they were dependent on these levies of fruits, veggies, and livestock for their livelihood.
  • The second tithe paid for a massive annual party at which everyone celebrated God’s goodness by eating and drinking heavily.  Amen to that.
  • The third tithe, given only every third year, funded a nationwide feeding program for immigrants, orphans, widows, and Levites.

This added up to 23.3% of each family’s annual income!  But that’s not all.  In addition to tithes, farmers were supposed to leave for the poor any grain their harvesters dropped and everything on the edges of their fields.  Loans were to be offered interest free.  And every seven years, slaves were set free and all debts cancelled.  Every fifty years, all land reverted back to poor families who had lost it.  Finally, everyone paid a small additional temple tax.  These clearly quantifiable ethical standards assured that ministers got paid, people recognized God as their provider, and the poor had a social safety net.

How should followers of Jesus today apply all this?  If we wanted to faithfully follow the Old Testament’s instructions for giving, we’d need to figure out how all these taxes, tithes, and laws should be applied in a non-theocratic society with no centralized temple, animal sacrifices, or hereditary priestly class making up approximately 1/12 of the population.  Certainly we can learn from God’s concern that everyone do their part and that the poor be cared for, but the resulting standard will certainly not be as simple as 10% in the offering plate!  In fact, since most of us attend congregations with other rich people like us, tithing to our local church actually exacerbates inequalities within the global Christian family-the wealthy’s tithes fund megachurch buildings, comfortable seating, professional sound systems and gymnasiums, while poor churches worship under a tree with unpaid pastors.

But even aside from these complications, the Old Testament is often not binding on us in a straightforward way.  Sometimes Jesus specifically overturns aspects of the Law, such as animal sacrifice, food prohibitions or purity laws.  Aren’t you glad that cotton/polyester blend t-shirts are no longer an abomination to the Lord?  Other times Jesus radicalizes teaching from the Torah, as in his commands to avoid not just murder and adultery, but hateful speech and lust too.  I think Jesus’ attitude towards giving fits into this category.  The New Testament directly speaks about tithing only once: Jesus affirms it for the Pharisees but calls them to a deeper commitment to justice and mercy.  And the rest of Jesus’s and Paul’s teaching on giving is even more radical than the tithe.  According to Randy Alcorn,

Every New Testament example of giving goes beyond the tithe. This means none falls short of it.

So in the end, I think the Old Testament offers us a model society in which giving is central and obligatory, but no nice round numbers to definitely quantify our level of “just giving.”  Perhaps we should view the tithe as a sort of “minimum standard” which God’s grace enables us to joyfully exceed, but I’ll wait to say more until my next post on the New Testament.

What do you think?  How do you use the Old Testament as a guide to your giving, and why?

5 thoughts on “How Much Should Christians Give: a Tithe?

  1. I’ve always liked the OT picture of leaving some of what was harvested for the poor. This idea, as well as some of the other OT passages you reference, seems to call us to help those “among us”. I’ve always found it an interesting dilemma about where to give. Because of our ability to know so much about the world’s poor, who isn’t “among us” anymore? So to give locally or globally, and in what proportion, has been a lingering question for me.

    • @ Morgan S.: I think you make a great point in noting that in today’s age of information technology and global connectedness, the notion of “among us” has drastically expanded, with few–if any–limits.

      In response to your question about whether to give locally or globally, one guideline I personally use is that of poverty as a holistic, rather than solely financial, measure. In particular, I believe that social capital–while technically not financial in nature–can make a big difference to quality of life. In other words, having even a semblance of a network of neighbors, family and friends who may have specialized skills, education or–at the minimum–just personal acquaintance with you (and therefore the motivation to give to you) is hugely beneficial. A broader variation of this premise is highlighted in Paul Collier’s “The Bottom Billion,” in which he points out that being “landlocked with bad neighbors” is likely to be detrimental to your country’s welfare.

      Furthermore, I take into consideration psychological evidence that as a general rule, we are drawn to people who are like us, which can play out in the giving world, such that people in the West who have been affected by cancer are more likely to care about cancer, whereas the case for micronutrients is a fairly new and less popular “cause” because few Westerners have relatives who are truly malnourished.

      So, given that 1) social capital is critically beneficial and 2) in general, we may be predisposed to give to people who are like us or like people we know, I in my own giving try to give to those who have very little social capital in terms of neighbors/family/clout, often to causes that until recently haven’t been as “sexy” in the Western world, per se. For me, this has resulted largely in giving globally vs. locally, e.g. to Edna Adan’s Maternity Hospital in Somaliland (http://www.ednahospital.org/), which is pretty much the only hospital in this un-recognized region that does substantive work on, say, obstetric fistulas.

      • Morgan, I agree with Ada: I really like the way you describe globalization as bringing nearly all the poor “among us.”

        The parable of the Good Samaritan is a parallel: If we seriously ask the question “Who is my neighbor?” in the 21st century, we will find that we have many needy neighbors indeed.

        But as you mention, our situation becomes more complicated–which “neighbors” should I help, and how many of them? In answer to this question, I try to think of some finite number of people in need–say 10,000–that God is calling me to impact with my giving. I can’t “end poverty,” but I CAN play a part in ending poverty for those 10,000 people if I give wisely and faithfully for the rest of my life. It’s those 10,000 people (really God only knows the exact number) that keeps me motivated to keep giving even when it cramps my style a bit.

        As for where those 10,000 are located, I fully agree with Ada–the extreme kind of poverty that can be ameliorated with money is overwhelmingly located outside the US. (See this post and this article for more.) This is not to underestimate the historic oppression, sense of social shame, and violent environments that people who are poor in the US experience, but they are the beneficiaries of vastly more material goods, from welfare programs to clean water, than more than half the world living on less than $2 a day has access to. So for me, as a person who lives in a lower-income, immigrant neighborhood, my mantra is “act locally, give globally.”

  2. Gary,

    Does the OT give much guidance about our duties to give to those outside our society? (In particular: what were Israel’s obligations to give financially to other nations?) I’m stumped, but that’s because, to my shame, I don’t spend enough time with the OT.

    • Ang,

      Great question. Off the top of my head, the evidence was mixed. On one hand, Israel was supposed to be a blessing to the nations, a means by which the shalom (peace) of God would reach the whole world. The Hebrews were called a “kingdom of priests” (Ex 19:3) and the since Abraham’s call they were blessed “to be a blessing.” (Gen 12:1-3)

      Nevertheless, many of the Mosaic laws in the Torah pointedly did not extend the same level of social justice to “outsiders.” For example, foreigners could be permanently enslaved, as Israelites could not, and they could be charged interest on loans (which was the source of the Jews becoming the moneylenders of medieval Europe.) I can’t think of any specific instructions to give outside their borders.

      However, when it came to foreigners/immigrants within the Promised Land itself, both the Torah and the prophets heavily stressed Israel’s responsibility to care especially for them. Wolterstorff calls the poor, widows, orphans, and immigrants the “quartet of the vulnerable,” a grouping singled out for concern scores of times in the OT.

      But in short, I don’t think the OT gives much guidance about our duties to give to those outside our society. Someone please correct me if I’m missing something.

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