Why the Tithing Message Is Short-Sighted

I believe in tithing, sort of. Now, let me explain. There is a good bit of debate as to many aspects of tithing. First of all, not all pastors believe the Old Testament law of tithing – donating 10% of personal income – still applies today to modern believers. Next, studies have shown that many lay people do not believe as strongly about tithing as a pastor does. As a matter of fact, most people do not understand tithing is a math formula of 10%, rather they just a charitable donation of any size to any nonprofit organization. Finally, it is not uncommon for people to believe that serving generously and donating to nonprofit causes outside of the local church can be equally exchanged for the measure of tithing. 

These are just a few of the conversations I have had over the years around tithing. There are many more. For instance, it is not uncommon for pastors to check on staff giving records to see if their team members are tithing. If giving is less than 10% the hammer of the law is enacted. Then, there are many times tithing is held high from the pulpit, taught in stewardship training classes, but church leaders do not designate 10% of the church’s income to invest in outside causes. I know the Bible doesn’t speak to this issue, but it has always puzzled me where the rule starts and stops in terms of precedent.

Now, I want to get to the specific instance at hand. This is a conversation I have had more times than I can count. A pastor will say something like, “If everyone just tithed we would never have any money problems.” So we break out the tithing message every year empowered by a forceful tone of obedience. I believe this approach is largely ineffective. I would even say it is damaging to a healthy generous culture. Here is why.

  1. Most people live with some sort of financial pressure over their lives. Money, work, and bills are real weights regardless of how old we are or how much we earn. I also think that most people desire to be more generous as human beings, but just can’t seem to make it happen. So what I am describing is a congregation that is weighed down heavily as they walk through the door with an intuitive understanding that positive growth is desired. We need encouraging, supportive help. We are defeated before the tithing message ever starts which leads to compounding guilt and failure. The message often doesn’t help us it actually can hurt.
  2. Then you have the people who are serial tithers. They have been tithing for years, even decades. It has become somewhat of a bill being paid every week or month. The expressions of joy, faith, and love have long faded. We “pay tithes” (Please don’t use this phrase by the way.) and move on with little to no expectation of what might be next. This person is actually ignoring the tithing message because they already do it and have been doing it. They got it. Job done. Move on please.

In both scenarios described, the message of tithing is virtually being ignored. The non-tither is already defeated, while the tither knows it already. While the Bible may be less clear than most like to think related to whether the tithing law is still applicable today, it is resolutely clear on these two items. Giving is for everyone and true biblical giving goes way beyond the tithe. Here are a few examples.

  • Zaccheus gave half of his possessions to the poor and he had not been a believer for very long. He skipped right past the tithing message. (Luke 19:8)
  • The poor widow gave everything she had. Her amount was small, but the percentage wasn’t. She too blew away the tithing rule. (Mark 12:44)
  • The believers surrendered all they owned far beyond a cash gift. No tithing message required, just a response to how God was moving. (Acts 4:332)
  • Jesus asked the rich young ruler to give all he owned, but he didn’t. (Mark 10:21-22)
  • The Israelites were moved to bring free will offerings day after day until the leaders compelled them to stop. (Exodus 36:1-7)

So is tithing the real desire of God for us as believers? I kind of think He wants us to raise the standard. Giving is primarily about listening to God’s leadership and responding immediately with great faith. He wants us to give so much more than an obligatory tithe. He doesn’t want us to be known as tithers, but passionate givers who overwhelm church leadership with all we release.

If I was still pastoring today, here is how I would lead with the tithing message.

  1. Create a culture where everyone knows they can be 100% obedient to God today related to generosity, receiving all of God’s favor and blessing. The line isn’t primarily the tithe, but responding to God’s voice. There are plenty of areas in a young Christian’s life where church leadership commonly offers grace. We encourage, sow seeds, and wait for growth. I would extend the same grace to all the non-givers and the under-givers. Giving growth is for everyone and it is 100% possible today. Get off the bench and in the game.
  2. Help people acknowledge where they are in their giving journey. We need to get unstuck. Do not let either inadequacy or overconfidence paralyze you. Move out into the open and make this year a year of growth. Declare that each day you will grow in generosity starting a never ending journey of faith and impact.
  3. Clearly discern next steps for everyone. For some, it may be to just give something. Simply make your first gift and try to repeat it at the first of every month. For others it may mean stepping into a tithing lifestyle over the course of the year. However, for others it may mean they need to start moving beyond a rule to obey into a grace relationship to release all they have seeing what God does.
  4. Raise the supreme value of listening to God and creating margin to respond. God’s voice will speak to us everyday on how to live more and more generously. He will ask us to do so much more than a tithe and far more than any pastor would ever venture to personally request. If we do not have space in our mind, heart, or wallet His attempts will be stifled. Everyone needs more margin to release more generosity. So pastor, tithing is not the goal, listening to God is. Preach, teach, and train this message 52 weeks a year. (It is a lot more fun than preaching annually on tithing while being disappointed with the long term result.)

I understand the sentiment when pastors make the statement “if everyone just tithed we would have no money problems.” Unfortunately, it typically leads to no forward movement by either the disciple or church leaders. No one gets helped. This is why I think the tithing message is so limiting. I want to live more like Zaccheus, the widow, and Barnabas who gave his property to the church. This lifestyle requires so much more of me than tithing. Tithing is small in my opinion. Giving generously is radically crazy! Let’s raise the bar and unleash giving today.