Tithing and giving to those in need
A Scenario: A Christian needs to pay his Tithe of probably £500, and he stumbles on a fellow who is dying. The same amount will probably be the life line that will save him. Should he go ahead and pay the Tithe to God, or rather spend it on the dying fellow?
In the Old Testament, God commanded the Israelites to set aside a tenth of all they had for a celebration feast in order to remember God’s goodness to them (Deuteronomy 14:22-29) It also served the purpose of providing for the Levites (the priestly tribe), who had no land of their own (Deut 14:27). Another important purpose of tithing that we see here in this passage was to provide for the poor.
At the end of every three years, bring all the tithes of that year’s produce and store it in your towns, so that the Levites (who have no allotment or inheritance of their own) and the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns may come and eat and be satisfied, and so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. Deut 14:28-29 (NIV)
This practice of tithing continued into Jesus’ day, but the New Testament does not talk much about tithing. Jesus mentions that the Pharisees practice tithing, but he is strong in his criticism of their religious attitude towards it.
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. Matthew 23:23
The Pharisees were practicing tithing in minute detail, even down to the smallest garden herbs, but Jesus condemns their ‘religious’ behaviour because they have neglected their other responsibilities - to love God and their neighbour. (Matthew 22:37-40 and Luke 11:42) They are not to stop tithing, but to get it in the right perspective. They shouldn’t be so concerned with it that they ignore their other responsibilities, Jesus harshly condemns this attitude.
Tithing, therefore, has three main purposes.
- To remember God’s goodness in providing all our needs and to remind us of our reliance on him. (Deuteronomy 14:23)
- To provide for those who are set aside for ministry roles (Deuteronomy 14:27, 1 Corinthians 9:13-14)
- To provide for those who cannot provide for themselves (Deuteronomy 14:29, Romans 15:26, James 1:27)
Offerings and Giving
The other Old Testament teaching that may be helpful to us here is that of ‘offerings’. Of particular, interest to us is the ‘fellowship offering’ (Leviticus 7:11-21). This was not part of the tithe, but rather a gift given out of free will in response to God’s goodness to the individual. The tithe was the minimum obligation, but the teaching on the fellowship offering encourages the people of Israel to be generous in giving. God has given them so much; in fact, all they had came from Him. Giving generously is the natural, joyful response to his goodness and in doing so we reflect the character of a God who gives extravagantly (John 3:16). The New Testament encourages just this sort of giving:
Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 2 Corinthians 9:6-7 (NIV)
Here we see that God wants us to be generous with 100% of our money, not just the 10% tithe. As Christians, we are to look for opportunities to give to each other, but note that this is to be done freely, not because of pressure from one party or another.
This is helpful to us when thinking through the scenario proposed above.
First, let us establish some principles.
- God has been good in providing for our needs. All we have is a gift from Him and ultimately belongs to Him.
- It is right that we support others who have been set aside to minister the word of God to you and to others across the world.
- It is right to give money to those who are in need.
- Tithing is a good thing to do.
- On top of that, we should look for chances to give our money away in support of others.
- It is wrong to do so reluctantly or under compulsion. Giving is a free choice and should be done gladly.
So how does this all work out?
- The scenario assumes that giving the money to God is different to giving it to someone in need. As we have seen, this does not have to be the case. Caring for practical needs has always been part of the purpose of tithing.
- We might say that the tithe should be given ‘to God’ and by this, we mean given to the church ministry. However, it could be argued that as we have a responsibility to love our neighbour, giving it to the person in need is also giving it ‘to God’, as we would honour God by doing so.
- There are other ways of thinking about money. We could give more than a tenth of our money. The Bible clearly commends those who are generous with their money. (2 Corinthians 9:7)
Ultimately, because these choices are between good things, which please God, we need to ask ourselves - What is the Holy Spirit guiding us to do? We should not give out of compulsion, or guilt, but rather as a grateful response for the things that God has given us. We do not need to be wrapped up by anxiety over such a decision but rather we can trust God that he will guide us in our decision.
It would also be wise to consult church leaders to ask their advice on this issue.