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Should Christians Tithe?

Ask any waiter in Manhattan, and they’ll tell you – when they see a table full of European tourists, they get nervous. Why? Because in many European countries there is no custom of tipping the table-server when you go out to eat. (In those countries, waiters receive a fair wage in their hourly pay.) Foreign tourists visiting New York have probably been told that they are expected to tip here. They may even know that the tip comprises an essential part of the restaurant staff’s pay. They probably have every intention of being generous. The problem is that no one has defined for them what generosity means in an American context. They may come from a place where leaving a couple of dollars on the table is above and beyond the call of duty. Here, however, basic generosity for restaurant patrons begins at 15%.

New Christians often encounter the same problem when it comes to giving to the work of the Lord. They know that Jesus calls his followers to be generous. But what does generous mean? A couple of bucks in the offering plate? A folded twenty dollar bill? How much does the Lord want us to give?

In answering these questions it is helpful to understand the Old Testament concept of tithing. The tithe was the percentage of one’s income (paid either in currency or in farm produce) that an ancient Israelite was expected to give to the work of the Lord – to provide for the priests and the Levites, to maintain the ministry of the temple, and to relieve the suffering of the poor. The basic tithe was 10% of one’s income. (However the level of generosity demanded by the Lord may actually have been quite higher than that.)

There is debate among Christians as to whether a formal system of tithing is still expected of God’s people today. Those who say that tithing is not required point to the fact that tithes and offerings in the Mosaic covenant were part of the Old Testament theocratic, sacrificial system – a system that no longer exists under the New Covenant (Heb. 10:1-18). Those who maintain that Christians should tithe point out that the practice of giving God 10% existed prior to the giving of the Mosaic Law (Gen. 14:20; Gen. 28:22) and should, therefore, not be limited to life in the Old Covenant.

Either way, most serious Christians would agree that believers today should be giving at least 10% of their income to the Lord’s work. Why? Because we know that Jesus frequently called his listeners to be financially generous (Matt. 6:19-21; Mark 10:21; 12:17; Luke 6:38; 11:41; 12:15, 33). We also know that, in 1st Century Israel, the people to whom Jesus was speaking were people who knew they were at least expected to tithe. So when they heard Jesus calling them to be generous, they would have understood him to be calling for more than merely 10%. In fact, the Pharisees, who were methodical tithers, were offended by Jesus’ teaching on finances (Luke 16:14). They understood that even their faithful donations of one tenth of their income did not compare to the radical generosity he was seeking.

The passage in the fourth sermon in the Malachi series (Mal. 3:6-12) reminds us how difficult it can be, even for God’s people to be generous with their giving. When times are hard it takes faith to give. In this passage, the Lord reminds us that, when he calls us to give, his intention is not to take from us; his intention is to give. He promises abundant blessing to those who are faithful with their giving. His blessing includes a promise to provide for us financially. (See Matt. 6:33; 10:42; Mark 10:29-30; Luke 6:38; 2 Cor. 9:6; Gal. 6:9; Phil. 4:19.) But his blessing to generous givers is even better than that. He promises blessings that are spiritual and eternal.