Traditionally, paying tithes refers to the practice of giving 10% of one’s income in support of a local church’s life and ministry. Certainly, disciples should regularly contribute finances to that which advances and accentuates the passions and priorities of God’s kingdom on earth, the most tangible and concentrated expression of which is found in a local church. However, any desire to insist upon precise percentages for all disciples at all times and in all places should be reconsidered. The appropriate paradigm for giving must be clarified for those who follow Christ under the New Covenant.
In what follows, I am assuming the “friend” in question is a disciple of Jesus.
First, lead with grace.
We should lead with grace when discussing matters of obedience with other disciples. In 2 Corinthians 8, the Apostle Paul appeals to grace in order to encourage the church at Corinth to give generously towards struggling Christians in Jerusalem. He affirms the example set by other churches in the region and attributes their giving to the grace of God. “We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own free will . . . I say this not as a command, but to prove by the earnestness of others that your love also be genuine” (2 Cor. 8:1-3, 8). He wants the Corinthians to see the generous effects grace is having on other churches. Likewise, their experience of God’s grace should generate genuine love in them for others–a love that manifests itself in the practice of financial generosity. Grace generates Christian obedience in all matters, including how we steward our finances in support kingdom concerns.
Second, exalt the gospel.
We should exalt the gospel when discussing matters of the heart with other disciples. Money is a matter of the heart (Mt. 6:21). After encouraging the Corinthians to give generously by appealing to grace, Paul explicitly exalted the gospel. “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9). Of course, Paul is not referring to material wealth but to spiritual wealth. The spiritual wealth endowed by the gospel liberates us from soul-strangling enslavement to material wealth (Lk. 12:13-21). Such spiritual wealth enables us to give our material wealth towards kingdom concerns even if all we have is two copper coins (Lk. 21:1-4). In light of the gospel, we trust that it is “more blessed to give than to receive” and that “God is able to make all grace abound to [us], so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, [we] may abound in every good work” (Acts 10:35; 2 Cor. 9:8).
Third, trust the sufficiency of the gospel.
As we lead others to participate in what God is doing in and through our respected churches, we must place our trust in the sufficiency of the gospel. I find it interesting that Paul did not require the Corinthians to give a particular percentage of their wealth to the need in Jerusalem. Nor did he apply a type of “flat tax” to all churches from which he sought help. In fact, he seems to avoid the transcendent precision that some denominational and network leaders insist upon today (2 Cor. 9:5). Instead, he trusted the inherent power of the gospel to produce autonomous expressions of heart-warming generosity.
When we do not trust the sufficiency of the gospel, we resort to leveraging the law to pry open pocketbooks. Perhaps this is why some leaders insist on precise, universally applied percentages for giving in a local church. Perhaps this is why the tithe is sometimes heralded not simply as a helpful guideline but as a binding imperative. Nevertheless, the inherent power of the gospel is capable of generating rhythmic expressions of compassionate generosity. In fact, only the gospel is capable of engaging a disciple’s heart in the discipline of giving, which should be our goal when discipling others.
Often when the topic of tithing comes up Malachi 3:8 is quoted without qualification. “Will man rob God? Yet you are robbing me. But you say, ‘How have we robbed you?’ In your tithes and contributions.” There, God indicts Israel’s lack of generosity and obedience to what was required of them under the paradigm of the law. A significant qualification is required at this point. We do disciples a disservice by simply cutting and pasting this verse–as well as the tithe paradigm–in binding, universal application to the church today. Although Jesus refers to the practice of tithing without demeaning or outright dismissing it (Lk. 11:42; Mt. 23:23), nowhere is tithing commanded in the New Testament.
The credibility of our biblical fidelity may be called into question any time we demand that a Christian or a church practice a particular form of obedience required of Israel under the Old Covenant but not explicitly commanded of the Church under the New Covenant. By employing such a shaky hermeneutic, we become unjustifiably selective in our expectations for obedience and powerlessly pragmatic as we instruct others on giving to the local church. We may succeed at getting people to give money but fail where it matters most–that is, stirring affections for Christ and His cause. Coins clanging in an offering plate are not a sure indication of grace-generated transformation. “If I give away all I have . . . but have not love, I gain nothing” (1 Cor. 13:3).
Fourth, recognize that grace cuts deeper than the law.
Leading with grace, exalting the gospel, and trusting its sufficiency in matters of obedience requires faith. Doing so risks meeting the absurd objection, “Since I am under grace, then I do not have to give money to anyone.” Paul met this type of objection in his ministry (Rm. 6:1). Nonetheless, exercising generosity for the Christian is not about what one has to do but about what one gets to do. In fact, grace affects change in the deepest places of our lives, synchronizing our desires with our duties which produces delights. When discussing matters of obedience with other disciples, I always have them memorize and meditate upon Titus 2:11-12, which says, “For the grace of God has appeared bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in the present age.”
Timothy Keller shares the story of a woman who preferred salvation by good works to salvation by grace. She reasoned, “If I was saved by my good works then there would be a limit to what God could ask of me or put me through. I would be like a taxpayer with ‘rights’—I would have done my duty and now I would deserve a certain quality of life. But if I am a sinner saved by grace—then there’s nothing he cannot ask of me.” She is right. Grace removes all limits to what God may ask of us. He has redemptive access to every area of our lives, including our bank accounts. Grace cuts deeper than the law ever could.
Still, in addition to Old Testament tithes, ancient Israelites were also expected to give first-fruit offerings and freewill offerings (Lev. 27:30; Num. 18:21-24; Dt. 14:22-23, 28-29; Lev. 19:23-25; Ex. 23:16; Num. 15:20-21; 1 Chron. 29:1-22; Ex. 36:3). An average Israelite would then give approximately 23% of annual income to support leadership, to provide for their community, and to care for the poor and needy. In the New Testament, disciples give money for the same reasons (Acts 2:44-45; 1 Cor. 9:8-18; 2 Cor. 8:3-4).
If an ancient Israelite gave 23% of their annual income under the Old Covenant, how much more should grace compel us to give under the New Covenant? Israel viewed the tithe as the floor of their giving, but we often treat the tithe as though it should be our ceiling. Predictably, not many disciples actually reach that ceiling. Studies show that many disciples only given an average of 2.5% of their total income to their local churches.
An obvious question to ask, then, is why would Israel willingly give four times more under the law than many disciples currently give under the grace of the gospel? Could it be because we as leaders and disciple-makers are not expounding a functional gospel? Are we wielding the sword of the law that can only cut skin deep when wielding the gospel of God’s grace alone is capable of piercing hearts and producing regular expressions of generous giving? Peppering people with imperatives is easy but, ultimately, futile. Shepherding people with the gospel of God’s grace may be more challenging and risky but remains the only appropriate path forward for those who follow Christ under the New Covenant.
Fifth, extend grace to the disillusioned disciple.
Many people are skeptical about giving money to a local church. Some churches have not been good stewards of God’s provision by spending money unnecessarily or hoarding money faithlessly. At times churches have even raised money for one purpose only to use the money for another. Generous disciples have become jaded in the process. Moreover, our televisions are not lacking voices of distorted gospels declaring the divine blessing of material prosperity to the muddled masses. Sadly, this adds to the disillusionment some disciples experience regarding the relationship between money and church.
Although a disciple is not justified in withholding generosity due to the sin and distortion of others, their hesitancy to give may be understandable, requiring grace and patience from us. Meanwhile, we quietly persevere in giving generously to our local churches in support of kingdom concerns. We pray for leaders and congregations to make faithful decisions that will bear much gospel fruit as we do so.