Is Tithing A Christian Obligation?
If talking about personal finances is taboo, demanding an exact percentage of a person’s income is most definitely not a way to win friends. Tithing refers to the biblical practice of giving ten percent of your income to the Lord. The term income can be used more broadly to refer to the fruit of your labor, whether it comes in the form of money or corn from the fields you tend.
Does God expect the followers of Jesus Christ to give ten percent of their income to their local church? Faithful Christians disagree on this issue.
- Inside the PCA, you can read perspectives from pastors like William Barcley, Ligon Duncan, and Kevin DeYoung.
- Outside the PCA, you can find viewpoints by Christian teachers such as John Piper, Thomas Schreiner, and John MacArthur.
- You can even read insights from previous generations like Charles Spurgeon, John Owen, and the early church fathers.
Though this article is not in any way intended to be exhaustive or academic, it provides an overview of the case for and against the tithe as a continuing Christian obligation with some pastoral advice added as well.
The Case for Tithing as a Continuing Christian Obligation
The best biblical case for tithing is the precedent of the Old Testament practice of tithing as a standard practice among the people of God. The tithe pre-existed the ceremonial law as evidenced by Abram’s tithe to Melchizedek. It was later specifically commanded in the ceremonial law (see Leviticus 27 and Numbers 18). There is a shared agreement among Christian scholars that the people of God gave a tenth to the Lord.
The purpose of tithing in the Old Testament was to worship God and to support the work of worship, specifically the maintenance of the temple and the priests who tended to it. We deduce from “good and necessary consequence” (WCF 1.6) the continued application of the tithe among the people of God, both as an act of worship and a means of supporting those who tend to matters of Christian worship (1 Timothy 5:17, 18).
We have two recorded references to tithing by Jesus in the gospels. The first is when he condemns the Pharisees for neglecting the weightier matters of the law while tithing precisely (Matt. 23:23, Lk. 11:42). He doesn’t condemn their tithing or suggest they abandon the practice. In fact, he speaks of it in a way that assumes it to be an ongoing practice. We see the same thing in the second instance (Lk. 18:12) when Jesus describes the Pharisee boasting about his practice of fasting and tithing. Few, if any, would argue that Jesus is trying to denigrate these practices.
Though the practice of tithing was connected to the Mosaic law, there is a good argument to be made that it fits as one of the aspects that “general equity thereof may require” (WCF 19.4). In this case, the church as the people of God under a new and better covenant are obliged to continue the practice of setting aside the Lord’s tithe and offering it to him as part of their corporate worship.
The Case against Tithing as a Continuing Christian Obligation
As sound as the previous argument may appear on first glance, some problems with it may arise upon further examination of Scripture.
First, the only percentage of giving Jesus ever explicitly commended was one hundred! When Jesus observes the widow contributing two small coins, he notes she “put in all she had to live on” (Lk. 21:1-4). It is assumed that when people argue against tithing they are doing so because they don’t want to part with their money. May it never be!
Jesus makes it clear that his disciples are expected to give sacrificially. The widow gives without respect to her account balance. Her gift represents the measure of her devotion: complete. If anything, Christians should desire to give of their resources sacrificially for the advance of the Kingdom and to reveal the presence of Christ through them. Giving when we have “extra” money is not Christian generosity. Rather, we give first to the Lord and then arrange the rest of our budget accordingly.
Second, the clearest command around giving in the New Testament comes from the apostle Paul when he commands each Christian to give “as he has decided in his heart” (2 Cor. 9:7). Paul goes on to warn about giving under a sense of compulsion. It would seem that this section would have been an obvious place for Paul to reiterate the tithe if indeed it was meant to be a continuing Christian obligation. The New Testament does not provide a straightforward example or instruction for tithing.
Third, the Westminster Standards are silent on the practice of tithing. It doesn’t seem to have been obvious or at least unanimous among its authors that the practice of tithing was a morally binding practice throughout all space and time. The practice of tithing is referenced in the PCA’s Directory of Worship where Christians are encouraged to give “at least a tithe of our income and other offerings to the work of the Lord through the Church of Jesus Christ” (BCO 54-1). Though churches should counsel members to take this encouragement into serious consideration, it does not carry constitutional authority.
How should pastors preach and counsel Christians when it comes to their generosity? Here are three things a pastor might want to consider:
- God loves a cheerful giver. We should urge people to give regularly, sacrificially, and joyfully, and to properly value money and temporal possessions. Even if tithing is not a continuing obligation, the Lord’s commendation remains to give like the widow, trusting in God more than our account balances. God promises blessing to those who give but it is not ex opere operato. Giving is intended to be an out working of our salvation, a faith-full activity, acknowledging and depending on God through joyful sacrifice.
- Our own confession reminds us that “all things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all” (WCF 1.7). Tithing is not as plain as other doctrines, no matter which side you take. Whatever interpretation we put before God’s people, we ought do so with humility, and acknowledge disagreements throughout church history on this issue.
- Yes, ten percent is certainly a helpful and healthful biblical benchmark for giving. If we recommend that people give ten percent, we should note it is just that: a recommendation. We must leave room for liberty of conscience and the ongoing work of the Spirit in the believer’s life to direct their steps as they decide how to give, and glorify God for that work.
God works and wills as he pleases. It should humble us that he would use our meager gifts to advance the Kingdom of Christ, whatever percentage they may be.
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