A question from the inbox: “Pastor John, when it comes to giving 10% of my income to a church — my tithe — can I split the money and give, say, 5% to my church and 5% to a non-profit Christian ministry?” What would you say about splitting the tithe?
My guess is that some of our listeners, as soon as they hear that question would ask: Do I even share the assumption that Christians have to tithe? So let me start there.
No, the tithe, ten percent of your income, is not a “have to” in the New Testament. The New Testament puts the life of the Christian on a new footing that is different from the Old Testament law. Paul said in Romans 7:6, “Now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not the old way of the written code.”
“A middle-class American who is only tithing ten percent is probably robbing God.”
So, for example, when Paul gives instructions about how we should give, he never instructs us to lay aside a tithe. He says things like, “Put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper” (1 Corinthians 16:2). And then he says in 2 Corinthians 8:3 that we should give according to our means “as I can testify, and they gave beyond their means, of their own accord.” And in 2 Corinthians 9:6–7 he describes the giving that God delights in. “Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”
So the point is not that we be governed by percentages. They are not mandated. Rather, we should be governed by lavish sacrificial generosity that overflows freely and joyfully. So I have often said to my people over the years that a middle-class American who is only tithing ten percent is probably robbing God. In other words, we have become so accustomed to our western prosperity and its ways of life that we think five or ten percent is generous.
I hope it is clear when I say that tithing is not a “have to,” not a New Testament rule. I am saying something like this: Suppose a football coach does not say to his high school team, “Everybody must get up at 5:00 every morning and run three miles so as to be fit for the maximum effectiveness of this team.” But instead the coach says, “I want you to love this sport with all your heart and I want you to give it all you have got this season. I want you to pursue maximum excellence and serve this team to make it as great as it can be.”
Now which of those two ways of talking to the team sets the higher standard? The second way doesn’t have any rules attached to it. The first one does. Up at five every day. Three miles. It sounds pretty rigorous. But I think the second word from the coach is the higher standard. He touches the heart of the team members. And if any of them uses the absence of rules to justify half-hearted allegiance to the team, he is simply not following the heart of his coach. And so it is with giving in the church.
“It is a good rule of thumb to tithe to your local church and then give over and above elsewhere.”
Now having said all of that, the stage should be set to answer the question. When we give of our resources to support the cause of the gospel, does God require that a certain percentage go to the local church? And, of course, now in view of all that we have seen, the answer is no. The question is not decided by rules and percentages. The largeness of your heart, the biblical centrality of the local church, and the wonderful value of other ministries decide the question. So, yes, I do think the local church has a unique and special place in God’s plan and, therefore, a special claim on the giving of its people. Other kinds of ministries are wonderful and I want them all to flourish. I am involved in some. But the one institution in the world that is clearly rooted in the New Testament and in the gospel is the local church. If that institution fails, all other ministries become ineffective. Indeed, if the church fails, all other ministries become unbiblical. The local church is the seedbed for all other ministries. The church is the place where the participants in those ministries find their nourishment and the biblical expression of their corporate worship.
So I think it is a good rule of thumb. Hear those words. I think it is a good rule of thumb to start your giving by tithing to the local church and then giving over and above elsewhere. But that is not a rule or a mandate. I can’t say, “Thus saith the Lord.” It is not a requirement. It simply may be a helpful guideline. And, of course, I know there are wealthy people who can’t begin to tithe to their local church because their tithe would be bigger than the church’s budget. And so there are obviously exceptions like that. But I prefer to put all the emphasis on: Let’s be lavish in our generosity. Let’s be sacrificial in our giving. Let’s be loyal to our local church. And let’s be farseeing in our support for many ministries. I think God will handle the percentages.
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