Is Tithing in the Bible? Q&A with Bobby Harrington
Is tithing in the Bible? What does the Bible teach about tithing? In this Q&A article, pastor, author, and Renew.org point leader Bobby Harrington explores what tithing is, why Christians give, and why it’s important to support the local church.
Q: What is tithing?
Tithing means “a tenth part” (Gen. 14; Heb. 7:2-4). We tithe when we give 10% of our income back to God.
Q: What are “first fruits,” and how does it connect to tithing?
First fruits are the “first part.” First fruits applied to the firstborn animal, the first part of the grain, the first part of the oil, the first part of the wine, etc. “First” meant that these offerings weren’t half-hearted leftovers. They were the best part, which is also why God commanded that offerings from the people come in from animals without defect (Lev. 3:6; 5:15).
Giving first fruits to God was a test of faith; but it was a test with a wonderful promise. Proverbs 3:9-10 states it succinctly: “Honor the Lord with your wealth, with the first fruits of all your crops; then your barns will be filled to overflowing, and your vats will brim over with new wine.”
“Honor the Lord with your wealth, with the first fruits of all your crops.”
In the Bible, after God’s people gave him the first 10%, they then lived on the 90% that was left. In a like manner, people who tithe the first fruits today are those who give to God the first 10% of their income and then develop their lifestyle and budget around what is left. They do this because they trust God to take care of their future finances.
I have known many young Christians also to adopt the wise principle of saving an additional 10%. They follow the 10% + 10% + 80% formula: they give the first 10% of their income to God, they put the second 10% into savings, and then they use the remaining 80% for living expenses (home, car, food, clothes, etc.). They give to God first and develop their standard of living around what is left. I believe that this is a wise and God-honoring practice.
Q: Why is it important to support the local church?
First, the Word of God teaches that disciples of Jesus are obligated to support those who minister the Word of God to them and guide them (1 Cor. 9:13-14; Gal. 6:6; 1 Tim. 5:17-18). God’s church and God’s ministers need financial support, or the church cannot function. Those who are blessed by the church are commanded to support the church.
The local church is the hope of the world—because it is God’s plan “A” as the community for redemption and disciple making. Churches need more for things like ministerial staff, a meeting place, supplies, and money to help members in need, especially when financial difficulties strike (taking care of these matters privately so that people are not publicly humiliated). We can add outreach activities of the local church too: church planting, soup kitchens, missionaries, and the like.
God’s kingdom work requires that God’s people provide the needed financial resources.
At the same time, the leaders of the church need to give a transparent account for all the money entrusted to them (see Paul’s description of the steps he and his team take to be accountable for the money entrusted to them in 2 Corinthians 8 and 9). At the local church I serve, we provide a general budget for all to see. Beyond the general budget, our members have access, upon request, to all spending records, including the salaries of each minister and expenditures in specific ministries. The executive minister and the elders regularly review the church’s financial matters.
Q: Isn’t tithing just an Old Testament law?
Yes, it is true to say that Jesus and the New Testament focus on deeper principles than the tithe. It is also true to say that Jesus and the New Testament do not command the tithe, but it is more accurate to say that they go beyond the concept of tithing.
Let me state that again: the New Testament’s focus goes deeper than just tithing.
With a legalistic and misinformed view of the Old Testament, many people have thought that God required only “a tenth” of their money. Jesus implied that “a tenth” is good but that a transformed heart was even more important (Matt. 23:23). Rather than looking for what could become a legalistic “tenth,” the apostle Paul urged people to remember the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ: “that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor.”
“Though [Jesus] was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor.”
So, the early Christians evaluated their giving in light of Christ’s sacrifice, not by following a technical formula (2 Cor. 8:9). It’s worth asking whether we can say with them that, like Christ, we sacrificially give so that others can be blessed?
It’s too easy to focus just on the 10% without realizing that God owns everything that we might call ours (1 Chron. 29). A better perspective is to realize that, in all we possess, God is the owner and we are his financial managers (Matt. 25:14ff). We must be good managers of all that God has entrusted to us, for it is truly God’s, not our own. This is why, for example, wealthy people are given the special commandment to “be generous and willing to share” (1 Tim. 6:18).
Q: Should we conclude that, because tithing isn’t commanded in the New Testament, therefore it’s abolished in the New Testament?
This conclusion would be going too far. Tithing was a universal principle that Abraham (Gen. 14:20) and Jacob (Gen. 28:22) followed about four hundred years before the Old Testament law of Moses was given. It is more accurate to say that the New Testament focuses on deeper, more heart-level principles, without at all negating the need to give generously in support of local ministry. And when the New Testament mentions tithing, it’s in a positive light (Matt. 23:23 and Heb. 7:5-9).
In the end, however, it is important to note that God loves a “cheerful giver,” and that each should give “what he or she has decided to give,” not reluctantly or under compulsion (2 Cor. 9:7).
It is best to look at tithing as a good precedent and example for God’s people, but not a law. God wants us to give freely, as an expression of our trust and faith in him and our concern for the church and ministries that represent God’s kingdom.
But we want to state it plainly: the New Testament teaches us to go deeper than a mere tithe and to model our giving after the voluntary sacrifice of Christ, not a statistical formula.
Q: Why do many churches recommend tithing?
Some churches emphasize tithing because of an improper binding of Old Testament practices, basically making it a law when it actually is not. But others strongly recommend it because there is strong biblical precedent for it that transcends the Old Testament (again Abraham gave 10% before the Old Testament law was written). I commend tithings as a helpful standard that helps us to feel that we are truly giving back to God.
For most people, tithing is a wonderful practice because it gives people a concrete, doable, and sacrificial standard.
Tithing gives people a concrete, doable, and sacrificial standard.
It is concrete.
When it comes to expressing faith and financially supporting the church, the tithe is a very concrete benchmark. Through it, we can identify with Abraham, Jacob, the Israelites, and devout Christians throughout history. Tithers are joyful because we too are following this objective standard as a baseline and it is grounded in the example of godly people.
It is doable.
The tithe is also a standard that God has honored throughout history (even for Christians who had a lot less money than we do today). Most people, after making adjustments, can build good lifestyles after tithing. By the tithe, people have been able to give sacrificially and joyfully, and then freely enjoy and utilize money for themselves and their families, as God intends.
It is sacrificial.
The tithe helps us by calling for a significant sacrifice for most people. Throughout the centuries people have found joy in tithing, knowing that by it God is pleased and Christ has been imitated.
Throughout the centuries people have found joy in tithing.
In the book The Treasure Principle, Randy Alcorn provides a good summary on the sacrifice of tithing.
When people tell me they can’t afford to tithe, I ask them, “If your income was reduced by 10 percent, would you die?” They say, “No.” And I say, “Then you’ve admitted that you can afford to tithe. It’s just that you don’t want to.” I’m not saying that it is easy to give. I’m saying—and there are thousands who will agree—that it’s much easier to live on 90 percent…inside the will of God than it is to live on 100 percent outside it.
By the tithe, we can follow a biblical principle and join other Christians as we go without many of the things that our non-Christian neighbors enjoy for the sake of Christ.
By the tithe, we pick up our cross, sacrifice for Christ, and make tough decisions because of our faith. By choosing the standard of the tithe, many Christians have found joy and received many blessings! (Luke 6:38). That is why we commend the tithe at our local church.
Q: Do we stop at the tithe?
Please note this: we must be careful not to limit God or the grace of giving to 10%. It can be helpful to look at the tithe as a minimum standard; many Christians believe that since Christ has revealed an even greater grace, they want to respond with an even greater standard of giving.
I know of Christians who, wanting to show their faith and gratitude, give 20% (or more) back to God. Rick Warren is a popular preacher who wrote the book The Purpose Driven Life, which became very successful. Rick and I have spent time together and I learned it from Rick himself that, with the money Rick made for his books, he has paid back the church (which he started) everything that he has ever made from the church. And, beyond that, he has given away 90% of all proceeds of the books, while living on 10%.
I know of one successful Christian who ended up giving 95% of his income back to God. As a young man, he sacrificially gave back to God; then, in turn, God gave even more back to him. He helped many people in Christ’s name before his life ended. He made true John Bunyan’s couplet about giving: “There was a man, some called him mad; the more he gave, the more he had.”
Q: What if I can’t afford to give?
Even if we have made poor financial decisions in the past that now bind us with debt, we can all give something. Jesus commended a poor widow who gave just a few pennies, but it amounted to a great sacrifice in God’s eyes (Mark 12:42-44).
Scripture teaches us to give in such a way that we can rely on God’s blessings in return. 2 Corinthians 9:6-11 tells us that when we give, God promises to bless us and take care of us, so that we can continue to give:
Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously….Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness. You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God.
“Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously.”
God teaches us to test him with our giving (Mal. 3:8-12).
We give to bless others and support our local church, but also as an act of faith, trusting that God will take care of our future financial needs and bless us. Financial giving is a test that helps us depend on God, not our savings or investments. When we give, we do so in faith, trusting that God will provide. In light of God’s provision, I would go so far as to suggest that, if we are in financial difficulty, we cannot afford not to give.
Again, do we want to trust a financial plan or God? If we trust God to help us with our finances, the first thing to do is to give to him and rely on his promises. The second thing to do is to get financial help and guidance from wise and godly counselors. Many in our church have benefited from Dave Ramsey’s resources and other Christian financial materials. There are helpful organizations such as Ramsey’s that are happy to help anyone who would like financial counseling and coaching.
Q: Where should my giving go?
Again, the Bible indicates that we have a responsibility to support the local church. We want to provide for those who teach us the Word, those who minister to us, and for the ministries of our local church (Gal. 6:6; 1 Tim. 5:17-18). In 1 Corinthians 9:13-14, the apostle Paul teaches that the principle of financial support for the temple/priesthood in the Old Testament now applies to the ministry of the church. Passages such as 1 Corinthians 9:13-14 and 1 Timothy 5:17-18 indicate that ministers and the ministry of the church (which would include buildings and supplies) should receive the first part of our giving.
Christians must also take care of each other in the local church and beyond, especially the poor in the church (Matt. 25:35-40; Acts 4:32-37; Acts 6:1-6; 1 Tim. 5:9). By practicing these principles, our spiritual family in the church experiences the first and primary benefit of our giving.
Christians must also take care of each other in the local church and beyond, especially the poor in the church.
These principles have also motivated many Christian institutions outside the local church (para-church organizations) such as Renew.org and Discipleship.org to ask for donations from people only after they have given their tithes and offerings to the local church. Many Christians believe this also applies to Christian schools and universities.
My wife and I practice these principles.
We join those who reason that the tithe (10%) should go to the local church and gifts and offerings (anything beyond 10%) are to go to other ministries, personal ministries or Christian schools, although this guideline is not explicitly taught in the Bible. It is a personal posture that helps give us balance.
All we can say for certain from the Bible is that our first priority in giving should be the local church, especially those who teach us the Word (1 Cor. 9:7-14; Gal. 6:6; 1 Tim. 5:17-18) and that we also must take care of the poor within our spiritual family (James 2:14-26; Acts 4:32-37).
Q: What if I cannot give cheerfully?
If we cannot give to the greatest mission in the world—disciple making in and through the local church—with a cheerful heart, something is not right. We should prayerfully ask God to help us. We must find out what is wrong.
Do we really believe God’s promise to take care of us when we give (Luke 12:15-34)? Has the love of possessions, status, and pleasure gained an improper place in our hearts (Matt. 6:19-34)? Do we really believe in Jesus and want to be like him (1 Cor. 8-9)? Often the problem is our heart, not our lack of money.
Often the problem is our heart, not our lack of money.
Our goal should be to develop a right heart, not to withhold the financial resources that God has entrusted to us for his purposes (Matt. 25:14-30).
It is also possible that a Christian ministry for whatever reason has violated the trust of givers, and in such cases, it’s worthwhile to investigate. Ask the hard questions of the elders and leaders of your church. They have an obligation to be transparent about money. Make sure there is accountability.
Q: In summary, what are the most important principles for giving?
There are many important principles when it comes to Christians and their money: trusting God enough to give, supporting God’s kingdom work, supporting those who lead and care for us in spiritual matters, rejecting the materialism of the world, etc.
Yet the most important principle is the cross!
What I mean is this: after all that God has done for us in Christ, we want to willingly and joyfully sacrifice and give back to Jesus.
The best motivation is the desire to follow Jesus and sacrifice for others as he did, especially when we think about money. Can we come to know the joy of participating in the sacrifices of Christ and fixing our eyes on heaven with our money?
Martin Luther summarized giving and the entire Christian life well when he said, “The cross puts everything to the test!”
Can we say that we have discovered the joy of making the decision to deny ourselves, pick up the cross, and sacrificially give so that our finances support the cause for which Jesus gave his life? This question helps put everything into proper perspective.
Our financial giving is one key indicator of the status of our faith and heart.
Jesus told us that our financial giving is one key indicator of the status of our faith and heart. In Matthew 6: 21 he said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
This truth compels us to ask ourselves an uncomfortable question: What is it that I treasure more: the accumulation of wealth or Jesus and his mission?