Designating One’s Tithe
Q: Does my tithe always have to go to my church? We’re in fine financial shape while another church in our city ministers to the poor. I’d like to give one year’s tithe to them. My husband tithes from his money to our church. I tithe from my personal account.
A: When God commanded tithing, the tithe was given directly to His Church and thus, through it, to Him. Numbers 18:24 tells us that “the people of Israel” made this contribution “to the Lord” who told Israel, “I have given [the tithe] to the Levites for an inheritance.”
Thus, it served two purposes. On a pragmatic basis, it fed, clothed, and housed the Levites, the tribe that had no land inheritance but served the Lord while receiving support from the other tribes. The tithe also had underlying spiritual value, teaching Israel that the Lord would provide more than they needed so they would learn to always trust in Him to provide.
If you look at Old Testament evidence only, you would be presenting your tithe to the ministers of God and they, in turn, would devote “a tithe of the tithe (Numbers 18:26)” to the Lord. However, we don’t have Levites, tabernacle or temple, animal sacrifices, and the like. We don’t have one central location of worship or one united church. What do we do now?
We turn to the New Testament! We read about Jesus pronouncing “woe” upon hypocritical “scribes and Pharisees” who followed tithing regulations while neglecting “the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. (Matthew 23:23)” Luke 18 introduces Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee who said, “I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get. (v. 12)” Instead of honoring a man who so slavishly kept the Law, Jesus commended a “tax collector” who “beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ (v. 13)” Neither account encourages tithing.
The only other mention of tithing in the entire New Testament comes in Hebrews 7. The tithe referenced here didn’t come from Israelite worship but from the life of Israel’s (Jacob’s) grandfather Abram, who “gave a tenth of the spoils (v. 4)” to Melchizedek, king of Salem after the king blessed him (cf. Genesis 14:18-20).
When we read through Acts and the epistles, we find no mention of tithing anywhere in the Christian Church. Why? Because the tithe was commanded only to Israel, under the Mosaic covenant.
We Christians are free to give however we want. If people want to give a tenth, they can — however, they don’t have to. The Lord wants our riches freely given in response to His free lover for us: “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. (2 Corinthians 9:7)”
Meeting your question directly, you have a degree of freedom to give as you see fit. Help the needy? Paul commended the believers in “Macedonia and Achaia” for their “contribution for the poor among the saints at Jerusalem. (Romans 15:26)” Sustain existing ministry? The Epistles commend (and command) offerings given to support the ministers of the Gospel (e.g., 1 Corinthians 9:14; 1 Timothy 5:17-18; Galatians 6:6-7).
Using Scripture as a guide, think about a “both-and” rather than an “either-or” response. Your gifts to your own congregation support the proclamation of the Gospel there while gifts to the other flock bring both the Word and physical blessings to those in need. Instead of wondering how much you should give to each, consider how much you’re able to give.
Generally speaking, I think that we often use a faulty model for our offerings and alms. How often are we encouraged to “give until it hurts”? Would it not be more Scripturally accurate and God-pleasing to “give until it feels good”?
Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.
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Walter Snyder is a Lutheran pastor, conference speaker, author of the book What Do Lutherans Believe, and writer of numerous published devotions, prayers, and sermons.
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Newspaper column #585:1