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FIRST-PERSON: Questions (& answers) about tithing

DURHAM, N.C. (BP)–Over the years I have gotten (and had myself) questions about whether or not the tithe (giving the first 10 percent of our income back to God as prescribed by the law) was biblical. Let me give you brief answers to some of those questions that demonstrate how I have learned to approach them.

1. Isn’t tithing Old Testament law? Aren’t we free of that?

Yes and no.

A. Tithing is a part of the law, and Jesus has definitely fulfilled it all in our place so that we are free from its bondage. However, the purposes of the law were (generally speaking) 3-fold:

— to show us what God was like.

— to reveal how far short we fall of God’s character.

— to show us how to thrive in the creation God has placed us in.

None of those 3 purposes faded with the death of Jesus. If anything, Jesus’ coming intensified them. We saw more of what God was like, what holiness was like, and what a man acting in perfect harmony with creation was like. As it relates to the tithe, the law reveals the unchanging character of God and how He expects us to view the money HE has provided for us. A minimum of 10 percent that He has given to us, whether we are rich or poor, is to go back into His work. This is how He set up the world order. This is why the “tithe” principle (the first 10 percent of income going into God’s work) is taught pre-law (Abraham), law (Moses), post-exile (Malachi), and even affirmed under Jesus (Matthew 23:23). God’s purposes for creation haven’t changed. We are no longer under the theocratic nation state of Israel, but how God has set up His economy for His people has not changed.

God doesn’t lay the financial weight of the entire world on any of our shoulders, but He has given His people a plan whereby they do their part. The law was given to help people live in the shalom of God. That’s what gives the law (principles like taking a Sabbath and the tithe) an enduring effect. Thus, the idea that 10 percent of all that God gives to you is given for you to give back to Him remains, I believe, as a good guide to our giving.

Now, let me be clear — Jesus left us under NO PART of the law, not the tithe or anything else. But the law, in that it reflects God’s character and His ordering of creation, is still good, and still functions as a guide to how we are to live under God in this world. Men and women of God throughout the Bible, including Abraham and Jesus, seemed to recognize that.

B. If anything, the Gospel raises the level of our response to God’s laws. True obedience, Jesus says, goes much deeper than the behavior standards the law required. For example, the law said “don’t murder,” yet Jesus said the Gospel demanded we love our brother always and not hate him, not even our enemies. The law said “don’t commit adultery,” yet Jesus said that the Gospel demanded people not even “look on another woman with lust in our heart.” So, if the law says “give 10 percent,” what kind of generosity does the Gospel call for? Would it not be greater generosity than 10 percent, just as the other commands were also intensified in Christ? In other words, if the people who saw God’s generosity in the Exodus responded with giving 10 percent, how much more should people who have seen the cross? This is why you see the early church giving far beyond 10 percent. So overwhelmed by the generosity of Christ, they wanted to pour out their possessions for those in need (2 Corinthians 8:9).

For Gospel-touched people, tithing should never be the ceiling of their giving, but it should be the floor.

Tithing, in and of itself, is not an iron-clad rule for Christians as it was for Israelites under the law. That said, “giving our firstfruits to God” most definitely is a biblical principle, true of God’s people in all places and at all times. And 10 percent is a great place to start with that.

2. Should I give the tithe “pre-tax” or “post-tax”?

In the Old Testament, God called the tithe a “firstfruit” (cf. 1 Corinthians 16:2). This meant their giving to God came first before anything else. That teaches pretty clearly that our giving to God comes before Uncle Sam takes his share. God gets the firstfruits, not the second ones.

3. When during the month should I give?

The principle of “firstfruits” also shows you, in my opinion, that the tithe check should be written first, and not at the end of the month when you see how much left over you have. If you do the latter, you will inevitably never have enough to give God 10 percent. You’re giving Him your scraps. But if you do the former, you will inevitably adjust your lifestyle around what you have left. And, God also will find a way to multiply His blessings to you. I’ve seen that happen in my own life multiple times. It’s pretty exciting.

4. Should we give to the church, or other things?

In the Old Testament system, the tithe went to the work of God’s institution, the temple. Caring for the poor beyond what the temple did, or funding an itinerant rabbi, etc, all came out beyond the tithe. I believe the implication is that tithing should go to God’s new institution, the local church. Hopefully you have a church that you feel good about how they spend their money (not all on buildings, entitlement perks for members and pastors, etc.) and you see them working in the streets and unreached parts of the world. Give some grace here, of course … it’s always easy to play armchair quarterback and talk about how you’d do it differently. I’d say if you trust your pastor, however, you honor God by giving to the institution He ordained. Then, give like a Gospel-touched fool beyond that to all the things God has put in your heart.

5. How does this work out for your family, J.D.?

When my wife Veronica and I first got married, we had to stretch ourselves unbelievably thin to tithe. As God has increased our income over the years, we have yearly increased the percentage of what we give. We now give way above the tithe to our church, and then beyond that to ministries blessing the poor, carrying the Gospel to the world, and some to our church’s expansion project, Believe. We love it. Veronica recently said, “This is so fun … giving.” It really is more blessed to give than to receive. God really has multiplied what we have given to him and given it back to us “in every way” — financially, in joy, in perspective, etc. (2 Corinthians 8-9). We love it.
J.D. Greear is lead pastor at the Summit Church in Durham, N.C. This column first appeared on his blog, JDGreear.com.

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  • J. D. Greear